Kelly Reichardt: Small Scale, Big Picture

April 12, 2017
With a retrospective of her work (including her new film, Certain Women) set to screen at ACMI, we salute the low key genius of American filmmaker, Kelly Reichardt.

Stillness. Silence. Slow. Three words that seem to define the films of Kelly Reichardt. Think of her 2010 movie, the pioneer western, Meek’s Cutoff, and that scene where Michelle Williams’ traveller loads, aims, and then fires a gun. An act that takes over a minute. “That’s how long it takes to load a gun,” Reichardt told FilmInk at The Venice Film Festival in 2013. “I could’ve just texted ten of my friends in New York in that time.” Maybe it’s not how the West was won – according to the likes of Sam Peckinpah, John Ford, or Sergio Leone – but there’s an authenticity to this measured approach. “It’s my sensibility,” shrugs the fifty-year-old writer/director. “On the very rare occasion that I will go see a current American film, I’m so worn out by the trailers…I feel assaulted! I can’t even stay for the movie! I’m done! It doesn’t suit my sensibility. For whatever reason, we all have our own pace. I do think that there’s something lost – we have such an aversion to stillness and quiet. In America, we have an aversion to listening. It’s part of our problem. Looking beyond the sound-bite!”

Still, it would be wrong to assume that Reichardt is not immune to the pleasures of big budget filmmaking. In Meek’s Cutoff, the film features a stunt – when a wagon runs out of control – made all the more powerful because the film is not peppered with relentless action. “The adrenaline of breaking something and filming it, and having it break properly and catching it on film…” she marvels. “It’s not the nuance of dealing with actors. You’re breaking something, and the sound was incredible! I didn’t know that I would even care – but it was such a high! That’s why people make action films! I had a new understanding of why people do it.”

Kelly Reichardt and Kristen Stewart on the set of Certain Women.

Reichardt may talk like a natural New Yorker, but she originated from Miami, Florida “which is completely a cultural void!” she laughs. Her father made his living as a crime scene detective, which – bizarrely – stimulated an early interest in the camera in his daughter. “He took photos that were wide shots that involved the space and what happened in the space, so that was probably my first introduction to photography,” she muses. “I remember when I figured out that you could shoot something closer, and that there were longer lenses – it was an epiphany!” But did he ever show her the grisly results of his work? “Oh, yeah…I saw many things! He wasn’t thinking!”

Escaping Miami as quickly as possible, Reichardt headed up to Boston, where she attended The School Of The Museum Of Fine Arts, which had a small eight-person film department, cranking out Super 8 and 16mm art projects. But it was in the city’s repertory cinemas that she really cultivated her love for movies. “When I got to Boston, there was a cinema there that played a new double feature every day,” Reichardt offers. “In Florida, I hadn’t been exposed to a lot, but when I was in school, you could hit a double feature every day. I got into seeing everything that I could see. I saw [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder, Hitchcock, and Satyajit Ray. Maybe Fassbinder’s were the first films that I saw where I realised that someone was making personal films that were also political.”

Lisa Bowman in River Of Grass

Reichardt made her first feature in 1994 with River Of Grass, the story of Cozy (Lisa Bowman), a married woman who takes off with a drifter (cult actor, producer, and director, Larry Fessenden) after they become involved in a scuffle and believe that they’ve committed murder. “That was my first attempt at a narrative,” Reichardt says. “For that film, I took some movies – Five Easy Pieces, I remember, being one of them – and I would write down what every scene was on a note-card and then lay it out and try to figure out what was going on, and if there was a pattern. But I didn’t really know about three-act structures or anything like that. I did that to a bunch of films, and then started to figure out a bit of a rhythm of what happened where, and I just tried to follow that. I never read a screenwriting book – I’m a terrible student!”

While the film arrived at a time when US indie cinema was in vogue, River Of Grass never got the attention that a first-time filmmaker needs to boost their career. It left Reichardt in the movie wilderness. “I spent most of my thirties after my first film feeling very locked out,” she says. “Not that I had any good ideas about what I wanted…I tried to get a film made for a long time after my first feature, almost a decade, and I couldn’t.” In 1999, she ended up making Ode, a fifty-minute Super 8 short based on a Herman Raucher novel. “It was one of the best experiences that I ever had,” Reichardt recalls. “I could control it myself. I could just hold the camera, and a sound machine, and make a movie.”

Heather Gottlieb and Kevin Poole in Ode.

Ode played at the Venice Film Festival, and it proved to be a defining moment for Reichardt, one that would resonate with her evermore. “We were on the outside of everything,” she recalls. “I can remember sitting somewhere on the Lido and watching all the parties on the boat and just being on the shore with my friend, and having this epiphany of the industry being over there and being very happy to be on the shore with my friend and being at a distance from it.”

While there followed another short, Then A Year, in 2001, Reichardt wouldn’t make her second feature until 2006, some twelve years after River of Grass. Thankfully, Old Joy caught some attention. The story of two old friends (Daniel London, Will Oldham) who head up to Oregon’s Cascade Mountains, visiting a hot spring in the woods and then spending a night camping, it was shot on 16mm with a crew of six on a budget of just US$30,000. It was Reichardt’s first time writing with John Raymond, who has been her screenwriting partner on every movie since.

Kelly Reichardt on set.

The two met through Todd Haynes, the esteemed director behind Far From Heaven and Velvet Goldmine. Reichardt had met Haynes after working in the art department on his landmark 1990 film, Poison, after she’d graduated from her college in Boston and moved to New York. Years later, after Haynes moved out to Oregon, Reichardt began visiting him there – and was soon introduced to Raymond. “He writes about the environment – not as a theme, but places and people that are very wrapped into the places where they live, so that appeals to me. His stories have a lot of ambiguity to them, which appeals to me. They’re hard to sum up. They always seem too simple, almost like they’re about nothing, and then I find myself thinking about them and going, ‘Oh, that’s really about everything.’”

It proved to be a crucial partnership for Reichardt, who has set all her movies in Oregon since. Their next collaboration was 2008’s Wendy And Lucy, a marginally bigger production budgeted at $120,000. The tale of one woman and her dog, it saw Reichardt work with her first genuine star, Michelle Williams, who had just worked with Haynes on his Bob Dylan movie, I’m Not There. “Michelle and I had quite a few mutual friends,” says Reichardt, who thankfully didn’t struggle to get the script to the actress. “If it was not Michelle, I would probably have gone with a non-actor, and that was a scary thing. Usually I’m up for that, but this film was so carried by one person.”

Will Oldham and Daniel London in Old Joy.

It turned out that Williams had seen Old Joy, and was left impressed. “She said, ‘I want a part like that.’ She wanted something where she could have real space. It’s very much a collaboration between us. Michelle wanted to sink her teeth into something. She had to agree to no hair or make-up; she didn’t wash her hair for the whole shoot. She spent a night in a car…that was her own doing. Her only stipulation in making the movie was that she was allowed to jump the train at the end; that was her only demand. The way that we were working, there’s really no separation between cast and crew. It’s very bare-bones, and it’s a small crew. She became fast friends with everyone.”

Arriving at a time when the global economic recession began to bite, the film followed Wendy and her canine companion (played by Reichardt’s real dog, Lucy) as they head up to Alaska, where Wendy is about to take on a potentially lucrative summer job at a fishing cannery. But when her car breaks down and she has no money to buy Lucy food, her financially precarious situation becomes all too apparent. Making a series of bad decisions – shoplifting, for one – in just a few short hours, Wendy’s life unravels. “Her predicament is that she just doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room,” Reichardt says. “She doesn’t have a net.”

Michelle Williams in Wendy And Lucy.

Comparing it to what happened to the poorest members of society left devastated by Hurricane Katrina, Reichardt adds that “this question of pulling yourself up by your boot straps, that’s really what John Raymond and I started with. Let’s say that you were willing – how do you pull yourself up, if you’re under-educated, you don’t have a social network, you don’t have social skills, and you don’t have a financial net? Can you improve your lot? Now you’ve been trying to get to the middle class, just to improve your situation – could you do it? That was the beginning seed of the idea.”

Influenced by Italian neo-realism – films like Bicycle Thieves – Reichardt’s movie shows Wendy experiencing the kindness of others, from Will Patton’s mechanic to Wally Dalton’s ageing security guard, who oversees a near-empty parking lot. “The whole movie overall is just posing the question of, ‘How much do we owe each other, and what is our responsibility to each other?’” says Reichardt. “Some people show no responsibility to each other, and some people feel connected.”

Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan and Michelle Williams in Meek’s Cutoff.

Reichardt followed Wendy And Lucy with Meek’s Cutoff, a considerable hike in scale. “This was a big step, to have nine actors,” reflects Reichardt. Set against the backdrop of The Oregon Trail, it reunited Reichardt with Michelle Williams, who was thrilled at the idea. “The day that Kelly came over to my house and handed me this script was in my top five happiest moments of all time,” Williams says. “It made me feel not spent. It made me feel not used up somehow. She knows me so well as an actor because of making Wendy And Lucy – and she still wasn’t done with me.”

In Meek’s Cutoff, Williams plays Emily Tetherow, one of several who journey across the inhospitable environment guided by one Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who eventually leads them into trouble. Much of the film, though, is leisurely paced, as Reichardt perfectly captures the monotony and tedium of such a journey. “In the women’s journal, it becomes: ‘Built tent, took down tent, built fire, cooked beans, put out fire’ – a list of chores. And it just gets so scaled down to labour, and that’s the impression of what it was. That’s what the journey of discovering the West was. It wasn’t like this big gun battle. It was a bunch of chores. Really hard chores.”

Michelle Williams and Kelly Reichardt on the set of Meek’s Cutoff.

Reichardt might be small in stature, but she’s clearly a tyro on set – and she knows it. “[Meek’s Cutoff actor] Neal Huff just reminded me – when they were lowering the wagons, all the actors’ hands were completely bleeding. Apparently, I said to him, ‘The immigrants’ hands bled too – buck up!’ Some asshole-ish thing! There was no pampering. I have an assistant camerawoman who is really tough. She came up to me at one point and said, ‘I’m never not in pain’, and went back to her work. When we started shooting, it was 110 degrees, and then two weeks into it, it was snowing every day. There was no time to adjust, and nowhere to hide from it. You’re out there all day long. I’m sure that I pushed people…I’m fortunate that nobody bailed on me.”

So what kept the cast there? “People were swept away with the beauty of the place,” Reichardt replies. “For some people, it was so fucking hard, and other people had real withdrawal when they left – from the quiet. Some people were so into being in these places. It was different for everybody. If the sunset wasn’t enough to make up for the fact that you have no luxury and you’re filthy-dirty before you get to set and you’re only going to be shot for ten minutes…then you’re screwed. But all these actors, in some ways, got into it, and came out and said, ‘That was a hellish ride. Look where we are.’”

Kelly Reichardt on set.

If Reichardt sounds persuasive in her argument, it might just be because she also teaches film. “It’s how I live, and it pays my rent,” she explains, offering a harsh lesson in the realities of independent filmmaking. “Teaching, when teaching’s good, is really, really good. I’ve taught in places that I didn’t enjoy. But I’ve taught at other places that really excite me.” After a spell working at NYU, Reichardt has been at Bard College for the past seven years. “It’s a very small film school – mostly an avant-garde program, with a handful of filmmakers that are my colleagues. Like Peter Hutton, the landscape filmmaker, and Peggy Ahwesh, a more avant-garde feminist filmmaker. I truly like the people that I’m teaching with.”

By comparison, Reichardt’s work must seem almost mainstream. “I’m using sound and narrative, so my films are like the sell-out of the programme! I’m the most commercial that they get!” But the classes are small, perfect for a filmmaker like Reichardt. “You can focus a class on whatever you’re interested in, and spend a semester deconstructing films with people that are seeing films for the first time, and thinking about films for the first time. It just keeps you in the conversation about visual storytelling and sound design…those kids are lucky. I get to the movie theatre much less. I used to go four or five nights a week. That doesn’t happen now.”

Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard in Night Moves.

Reichardt first screened her 2013 film, Night Moves, to the students at Bard on the summer grad programme. “I just went up there when I finished cutting and showed it to a small class of grad students.” It immediately sparked up a debate. “One person used the term ‘terrorism’, which offended someone else, and it became twenty people talking in the room about the definition of what terrorism is, which I loved. They didn’t even ask me a question, which was awesome! And it wasn’t about filmmaking – they were really in the film.”

The story of three eco-terrorists – Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Dena (Dakota Fanning), and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) –  who plot to blow up a hydroelectric dam, it’s an ultra-methodical piece that studies the impact of such an act on the psyche. It was John Raymond who came up with the idea for Night Moves. “He had actually written a love story that took place on this farm – where someone, who had committed an eco-activist event, was hiding out,” Reichardt explains. “But it was a very still story and not something that I really wanted to film. But I liked the idea of the place and the concept. And we decided to turn it more into a caper film, somewhat inspired by [Jules Dassin’s classic heist movie] Rififi, where you go into the minutia of the action. So we took this theme and contextualised it in this thriller genre.”

Jesse Eisenberg in Night Moves.

Reichardt had been teaching Rififi in a sound class – making her “poor students” recreate all the sounds of the elaborate and dialogue-free break-in that provides the film’s masterful centerpiece. It’s why she wanted to follow suit – showing the laborious and sometimes dangerous efforts that it requires to undertake such a task. “I like showing people doing things,” Reichardt says. “And people at their jobs, doing stuff. So the idea of showing someone building something or showing someone planting something, those were all appealing ideas. As soon as people are dressed up in their dark clothes, crawling around at night, you’re in a genre movie!”

Actor, Peter Sarsgaard, calls it “one of the best scripts that I’ve read in years” – so much so, he was attached to it for a long time while Reichardt’s producers sought out financing. “A lot of actors want to work with Kelly Reichardt,” he says. “But then you get offered whatever, your Batman movie, and your agents want you to do that instead of Kelly’s film, so Kelly Reichardt gets shafted a lot, even though actors want to work with her. We went through a lot of turbulence in terms of getting it made.” So is it true – is she getting “shafted” by agents? “That’s getting easier as time goes on,” Reichardt sighs.

Kelly Reichardt on the set of Certain Women.

It’s all par for the course for Reichardt, who has always kept things deliberately small scale. “I like the small thing,” she says. “It means that there are no hands in the pie. Nobody comes to your set and looks at what you’re doing. Nobody comes to your editing room. It [might be a] really shitty, loud editing room! But if you have the shitty editing room and you get final cut, that’s pretty good. That’s the only way for us to make films that are as hands-off as we’re making them, and to deal with the minimum amount of bullshit that the industry offers you. Keep them really small.”

And despite boasting a high profile cast – Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams and Laura Dern – Reichardt’s latest effort, Certain Women, is another study in creative and production minimalism. Quiet but incisive, the film is a stirring look at three women – a lawyer (Dern) battling office sexism; a mother (Williams) trying to build her dream home; and a lonely ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) who develops a relationship with a young lawyer (Stewart) – striving to forge their own paths in the American Northwest. “I wasn’t really trying to connect them too strongly,” Reichardt tells Vox. “It was just more like working women – not even just women, just people in the Northwest – which allows for questions about relationships with strangers, different ways people live in community, or the family nucleus, versus solitude, whether that solitude is just being alone in a bar or alone in your bedroom, and the complicated relationships that you can have with a stranger. Or the missed opportunities for a connection with a stranger. It’s just kind of about people who brush up against each other.”

The retrospective programme, Certain Women: Kelly Reichardt’s America, will run from April 21 to May 2 at ACMI in Melbourne, with an exclusive limited season of Certain Women, and return seasons of Meek’s Cutoff, Wendy And Lucy, and Old Joy, all to be screened on 35mm. For all screening and session details, head to ACMI.

Leave a Comment