Kelly Reichardt has slowly been building a reputation in American independent cinema as one of the most rigorous and profound working filmmakers in a rapidly receding artistic landscape. Her first film, River of Grass (1994), starring her producer and horror director Larry Fessenden, is a crafty and incisive feminist subversion of the “Lovers on the Run” subgenre. While Grass went fairly unnoticed in the indie glut of the mid-90s, Reichardt’s second film Old Joy (2006), an exploration of masculine anxiety, was a critical hit landing on many year-end “best of” lists. Since then, Reichardt has been working consistently, often collaborating with writer Jonathan Raymond and operating completely free of the studio system. Her films tend to be minimal in dialogue and action, yet these quiet moments contain volumes about what it means to live in the margins of America. Her new film, First Cow, is another collaboration with Raymond from his novel The Half Life and will be released in March, 2020 by A24. When she isn’t directing, Reichardt teaches film at Bard College in New York.
COUNTERPUNCH: As early as your first film, River of Grass, there seems to be a number of references to other films. Stray Dogs with the lost gun, and Badlands with the female narration and lovers on the run plot.
KELLY REICHARDT: The lost gun, it should be said, actually came from my own world. My dad was a crime scene detective and my mom was an undercover agent and they had a lot of detective friends so some of it was coming from their stories. But when I left Miami, which was like a cultural desert in the 70s and I moved to Boston, I started going to the Brattle Theatre obsessively. It was like my mind was being blown if you can imagine not having grown up with anything besides Pink Panther movies. With River of Grass, the influences are so on the surface. I would say there’s not a clear voice of my own that’s bigger than the influences. It’s a young person’s attempt. But it was shot on locations I had grown up around.
CP: There is such a difference in style between River of Grass and Old Joy.
KR: Well, I was a decade older. During that time I had committed to obsessively watch films, read about films but also at that point I kept shooting. I made a 50 minute super 8 film and I just started shooting and practicing doing things that nobody is paying attention to. I’d been trying to get another feature made and for better or worse, that never happened.
And I think part of Old Joy for me was finding a writer or a piece of writing that made sense to my sensibility. I think it helped my filmmaking greatly to be able to work from pieces of writing that has more depth than me starting with a blank page. Coming from people who wake up and write everyday.
CP: Is that why you usually work from other’s material?
KR: Yeah. I think it made my filmmaking better. It’s enough of a challenge to figure out how to turn things into shootable pieces and make all the internal stuff into something you can get across, hopefully not just with dialogue but in other ways.
CP: Do you feel like you are drawn to writers who work in the same minimalist style as you or do you like when there’s a little more internal monologue that you can then strip away?
KR: It’s been a mixture of both. Certainly working with Patrick DeWitt, he’s a much more dense writer than Jonathan Raymond or Maile Meloy’s stories. I like working with Patrick and John who are both here in Portland and it’s nice to work with people you like and you want to spend time hashing things out with and will also let you ultimately go off and have your way with something and not be precious about the dialogue and are good sounding boards because they’re smart people. Starting with Larry (Fessenden) a lot of my filmmaking choices have been around people I want to spend time with and creating a world that is interesting to me. It’s hard to separate the projects from life. I mean, I live a few blocks away from Jon Raymond…I guess it goes back to hanging out.
CP: Your first film took place in the Everglades while your subsequent films take place in the Pacific Northwest predominantly. How do feel the environment you shoot in has affected your style?
KR: I think that’s what gets revealed to you in terms of who you are and what you’re drawn to. To some degree I’m tied to the budgets I can raise. And that starts to very much affect you…originally I always shot outside because I couldn’t afford any lights. But now as the stories get bigger it’s actually more expensive to shoot outside because we’re trying to do moonlight all the time and there’s so many night scenes. I love Bresson, I love Melville. I am attracted to the woods and the economical way they’re shooting.
CP: So you found a way to make the practicality of it…
KR: Yeah, it’s built into the aesthetic of things and what the stories can be.
CP: You mentioned Bresson, a very spiritual filmmaker. Do you feel there’s something in your films that taps into that?
KR: Yeah, hopefully. It’s something I’m not sure I can articulate but I think there’s an existential element, certainly to Jon Raymond’s writing and hopefully Wendy and Lucy isn’t really about a lost dog…and it is, you know?
CP: Are there certain non-narrative filmmakers that inspired you?
KR: Yeah. Bard opened up a big world, you know with Peggy Ahwesh, Jackie Goss, and Peter Hutton who was the one who brought me to Bard. He does these beautiful landscapes, I mean hard, beauty is not really the correct word, landscape films that are silent that will just be a series of really minimal, well-chosen shots that can give you an idea like, “Oh I thought I was looking at these two rivers,” or “I thought I was looking at the life of a barge,” But I realize, “Oh that film’s about the entireness of industrial existence and who wins and who loses without a word ever being spoken. Peter passed away and that was a huge, huge loss as far as a sounding board. I could never guess what Peter would say about a cut that I would show him.
CP: Are the scenes in your films how you see real-life conversations going on or are you developing something?
KR: No, I don’t know if real life has anything to do with it. I find it, cutting I mean, it still blows my mind when I’m editing and you see the different ways a scene could go and what you could get across just based on the amount of space you leave between things. Or how silence, and I don’t mean true silence, but I mean like not having dialogue can build so much tension. I’m interested in being able to get to emotional things through those sort of devices as opposed to someone telling you how they feel I guess, It’s just a wonder that a whole other language works and how certain formulas just prove out to be true. We all know this internal narrative language whether you want to resist it or not. And knowing the audience is well versed in that, you can use that to your advantage.
CP: How do you work with the actors? Are you going into backstories or…
KR: It depends. Everyone really wants something different. Some actors are like, “Tell me exactly what you want. Where should my hand go?” And other actors are like,” Don’t give me the internal, that’s my business. I’ll figure it out.” Michelle (Williams) will make a backstory for her character that I’ll help her with. But it gets so that I can’t even keep up with it and I’m like, “Okay, whatever. Whatever works for you.” It’s like any kind of social thing. You know Michelle and I work together a lot so it’s super easy. She’s like, “Oh, you hated that?” and I’m like, “Well, yeah.” Some actors are very sensitive, some actors are hilarious and easy. Some are assholes and don’t make eye contact and that’s a nightmare. Fortunately I’ve dealt with very little bad attitude on set but I’ve fucking dealt with it. Everyone’s such individual. You never know how you’re going to feel on set about performance and what’s going on. It might be totally different what you end up experiencing in the editing.
CP: There’s stuff that doesn’t work, that you thought would?
KR: It can go either way. You know? “Oh, that dick gave a really good performance. I see what he was doing now.” (laughs). It can go in any direction. Shooting is such a stressful, like, you don’t have enough time, you don’t have enough money. You might find comfort in something you recognize in a performance. Like, “Oh yes, I know what this is.” And discomfort in something you aren’t able to recognize as what you were imagining or what you were thinking or seems different than it did yesterday. Then you get in the editing room and find there’s a lot of options in that and the other thing you’ve come to know too well.
CP: It seems like you are building up a bit of a Kelly Reichardt Company, working with the same actors. Is that one of the reasons behind it, the practicality that you have this relationship and there is that trust?
KR: Yeah. I mean, I’m also working with new people all the time. It’s easier to work with people you have a good thing with, obviously, but it’s also sometimes once you edit a person a ton of times, you have to step away because you become overly familiar and it’s hard to have a blankslate of someone. But there are actors I always just want to work with. Obviously it’s been a huge help to me that Michelle is just always game. That’s kind of awesome. All those women I work with are just so awesome. Then there’s just people too, like James LeGross is one of the great chameleon actors of our time. You don’t have to think about how he would fit into a role. He could be whatever you offer him.
CP: What’s your experience in getting those performances? Specifically in Meek’s Cutoff. How you’re directing them and what they want.
KR: it was a situation where you read a script and it’s called Meek’s Cutoff and the men have most of the dialogue and there’s absolutely an expectation that the person that’s talking has the camera on them and a lot of times in Meek’s it’s the people that don’t have the lines that have the cameras on them and who get the close ups. And that was, possibly for better or worse, not laid out maybe frankly on my part before going into it. I guess I didn’t know it would be such a big deal and it was a really big deal for people. Some people rolled with it. But I did have the absolute feeling that had I been a dude, it would have been like, “Oh, he’s doing something. Oh interesting.” And being a woman you say, “She doesn’t know where to put the camera. She didn’t even get my close-up.” Like, you don’t get the benefit of anything. Actors are really vulnerable. They’re like laying themselves out for you, and you can serve them or not serve them. And in moments of true vulnerability it can get hard. It’s all hard. You’re making something. I mean, it can get hard with your best friend when you’re writing something and you’re in your comfortable house working. It certainly gets hard with the person you’re just meeting and you’re in the fucking freezing and they’re like, “What the hell am I doing out here at my age in the godforsaken desert and the camera’s not even pointed on me?”
CP: I want to talk a little about your preparation for a film. There seems to be a lot of thought put into the shots themselves and compositions. But then there also seems to be more freewheeling shots caught on the fly.
KR: No. No there’s not.
KR (Laughs) I don’t think so. We’re pretty tight. You plan as much as you can and then you’re going to be in this world. It’s not like you don’t ever think of a shot along the way. That’s completely untrue. But our days are so tight.
CP: And you’re storyboarding too?
KR: Sometimes. If I’m going to shoot a damn, I’m going to storyboard it. I have a shot list for what I want to do usually. It’s different in every setup. I’ve heard Herzog in his Masterclass clip, he goes, “Storyboards are for cowards!” and I’m like, “Yeah, whatever you say.” And again, I’m sure Herzog goes on set and everyone’s like, “What is he going to do?” But you know that is not something that is afforded to, not to keep harping on the woman thing, but there is no way I’m walking on a set and trying to figure out what I’m doing while my crew sits around and watches me. That is my worst nightmare.
CP: Do you have the feeling that you have to be 200% rather than 100%?
K: Yeah, totally, but some of it has to do with the speed at which we have to work. But, yeah, I just don’t think you can be a 5 foot tall woman and be on set and not know exactly what you’re doing and be like, “Hey, let’s figure this out in some groovy way.” That’s just somebody else’s world.