Home Politics Kelly Reichardt talks about Certain Women and why she’ll never work with oxen again

Kelly Reichardt talks about Certain Women and why she’ll never work with oxen again

28 min read
  The indie director’s seventh feature once again heads for the American West.</p> <p><a href="http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0716980/" rel="noreferrer" target="_blank">Kelly Reichardt</a> is one of the finest independent American filmmakers working today, and her latest film, <em><a href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4468634/?ref_=nm_flmg_dr_1" rel="noreferrer" target="_blank">Certain Women</a></em>, is a testament to how respected she is among actors: <a href="http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0829576/?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm" rel="noreferrer" target="_blank">Kristen Stewart</a>, <a href="http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000368/?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm" rel="noreferrer" target="_blank">Laura Dern</a>, and frequent collaborator <a href="http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0931329/?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm" rel="noreferrer" target="_blank">Michelle Williams</a> (who has starred in two more of Reichardt’s films, <a href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1518812/" rel="noreferrer" target="_blank"><em>Meek’s Cutoff</em></a> and <a href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1152850/" rel="noreferrer" target="_blank"><em>Wendy and Lucy</em></a>) play three women in the triptych-style film, based on short stories by <a href="https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&amp;ion=1&amp;espv=2&amp;ie=UTF-8#q=maile%20meloy%20amazon" rel="noreferrer" target="_blank">Maile Meloy</a>. The film premiered at <a href="http://www.sundance.org/festivals/sundance-film-festival" rel="noreferrer" target="_blank">Sundance</a> to critical acclaim and made the festival circuit in 2016 before releasing in theaters on October 14. </p> <p>Reichardt’s films are usually quietly observed stories about people reaching the end of their ropes while on journeys, typically in the American West. <em>Certain Women</em> continues in this vein, with each character trying to make her way in small-town Montana. Their lives intersect — the film shares some commonalities with <a href="http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000265/" rel="noreferrer" target="_blank">Robert Altman</a>’s <em><a href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108122/" rel="noreferrer" target="_blank">Short Cuts</a></em>— but not in the ways you’d expect.</p> <p>Reichardt is <a href="http://www.bard.edu/academics/faculty/profile/?id=58" rel="noreferrer" target="_blank">on the faculty at Bard College</a>, and after class one day, we chatted on the phone about her love of short stories, her obsession with road movies, and why she’ll never, ever work with oxen again.</p> <p>The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.</p> <h3>Alissa Wilkinson</h3> <p>You frequently adapt short stories for your movies, from <em>Old Joy</em> and <em>Wendy and Lucy</em> to your newest film. What attracts you to short stories? </p> <h3>Kelly Reichardt</h3> <p>The ones I've adapted are really novellas, so there's a little more meat on the bone there. The Maile Meloy stories were by far the shortest I had ever worked with. It was very hard. But she was really generous in letting me try different stories so I could get them to work together. It was a really long process. </p> <p>Her stories are short, but there's so much there. The characters are pretty full, and she really sets a scene in her writing. She really ties characters in with their environment. A lot of chores are involved, and a lot of moving from point A to point B — all things right up my alley. So I was just finding the way they could balance each other and work and sort of play off each other. That was a bit of a search, but if you write from a novel, you're cutting out so much. </p> <h3>Alissa Wilkinson</h3> <p>Does working from a sparer short story give you more space to work with, then? </p> <h3>Kelly Reichardt</h3> <p>Oh, I could have made a whole two-hour film just with chores at the ranch! It gives time to elaborate things that maybe just wouldn't even <em>be</em> in another film. You can take the time for the detective to have his Life Saver, and unwrap his Life Saver, while he's waiting for Laura's character to drive up. There’s just time to elaborate on the small pieces of life and work and those sorts of things.</p>   <figure>         <img alt="Laura Dern in Certain Women" src="http://epeak.in/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/certainwomen3-2.jpg" />       <figcaption>Laura Dern in <em>Certain Women.</em> </figcaption>   </figure> <h3>Alissa Wilkinson</h3> <p>Are you thinking about what’s happening when everyone is silent? Or are you letting the actors think it through for themselves? How do you deal with those open spaces? </p> <h3>Kelly Reichardt </h3> <p>That to me is the main part, the main thing. Sometimes we do the scenes without the dialogue first, to see what we need: how it can work, how much dialogue we actually need. I'm always cutting lines. I really like Jon Raymond's dialogue. [Several of Reichardt’s films, including <em>Old Joy</em> and <em>Wendy and Lucy</em>, are based on stories by Raymond and scripted by him.] </p> <p>And I really like Maile Meloy's dialogue. (I've written some dialogue that's not as good as either of them.) But even if a line is great on the page, it doesn't necessarily mean it's adding something to a scene by being there. Everything is really revealed <em>between</em> the dialogue. </p>   <figure>         <img alt="Michelle Williams in Certain Women" src="http://epeak.in/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/certainwomen4-2.jpg" />       <figcaption>Michelle Williams in <em>Certain Women.</em> </figcaption>   </figure> <p>Some of that has to do with the frame, or how people move through a frame. Some of it gets found in the scene with the actors, definitely. Some of it happens because there is a task to carry out, and it gets revealed in how the task gets carried out, or what the weather is doing, or what the animals are doing. Michelle [Williams] used to say to me, during <em>Meek’s Cutoff</em>, &quot;Oh, you only tell us that the take was great because the animals got it right.&quot; In a sense, she was right: If the animals got it right, it meant she wasn't really performing — she was walking the oxen. (It's very hard to work with oxen!)</p> <h3>Alissa Wilkinson </h3> <p>You left the oxen out of this movie, I noticed.</p> <h3>Kelly Reichardt </h3> <p>Yeah, I'm going to leave them out of all further movies, as a matter of fact. I’ve had my day with the oxen. </p> <h3>Alissa Wilkinson</h3> <p>Were they ornery, or were they just…</p> <h3>Kelly Reichardt</h3> <p>They're wild bulls! They don't move backward. You can't just move them backward like a horse so you can do something again. They don't go backward. It can be avoided at all costs. </p> <h3>Alissa Wilkinson</h3> <p>One thing I noticed that does happen in silent spaces is all this radio. It factors largely in your movie <em>Old Joy.</em> But I noticed it again in <em>Certain Women</em>. What’s your attraction to background radio?</p> <h3>Kelly Reichardt</h3> <p>That DJ on that radio show is my friend Joe Puleo. He has a radio show in Benton Harbor, Michigan, that I listen to, and I love Joe's voice. In <em>Certain Women</em>, the idea was to sort of get across that the character was out of range, off the grid. And it’s another level of community: strangers calling in and connecting over the airwaves. A voice on the radio that becomes like a friend, that tells you not to go out in the snow. The community over the radio, which I suppose happens less these days but it still exists. </p>   <figure>         <img alt="Kristen Stewart in Certain Women" src="http://epeak.in/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/certainwomen1-2.jpg" />       <figcaption>Kristen Stewart in <em>Certain Women.</em> </figcaption>   </figure> <h3>Alissa Wilkinson</h3> <p>Do you feel like it exists more in the types of places you tend to feature, out on the plains or in the West? They're kind of on the margins of places you normally in a movie would see.</p> <h3>Kelly Reichardt </h3> <p>I mean, I do like taking the crew and getting away from everything. Everyone is sort of on this adventure together, and no one is going home and dealing with their regular lives and bills and stuff. It is to the credit of [producers] Neil Kopp and Anish Savjani that these films could even happen, because it really does take some producing and creativity to figure out how to put films together that are outside the comfort zone of filmmaking. </p> <p>But it's hard to get anything to <em>work</em>, because we're off the grid ourselves. And that's also where the stories happen to exist. One of the attractions in the beginning is just thinking about the landscape and where it would be. That's the thing that draws you in. And it’s the thing that makes everyone curse later, like, <em>W</em><em>hat the fuck, this is so much harder than it needs to be.</em></p> <h3>Alissa Wilkinson</h3> <p>It feels like your characters are often living on the fringes of normal society as well. </p> <h3>Kelly Reichardt</h3> <p>The rancher [played by <a href="http://www.imdb.com/name/nm4291409/" rel="noreferrer" target="_blank">Lily Gladstone</a>] in <em>Certain Women</em> is off on her own on the winter ranch. The other women are obviously more city-bound — as in small, tiny city. Then there's Michelle Williams’s character and her husband, who are more like the California couple doing a sort of <a href="http://www.glamping.com/what-is-glamping/" rel="noreferrer" target="_blank">glamping</a>, trying get out of the city with all of their luxuries for a weekend away, to build their second house outside the city.</p> <h3>Alissa Wilkinson</h3> <p>When you think about all those characters, and particularly in this newest film, is there something that connects them for you? Meloy’s short stories didn’t exist in the same universe, but you connected them loosely in the film.</p> <h3>Kelly Reichardt</h3> <p>I wasn't really trying to connect them too strongly. It was just more like working women — not even just women, just people in this area — 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 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.</p>   <figure>         <img alt="Lily Gladstone in Certain Women" src="http://epeak.in/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/certainwomencover-2.jpg" />       <figcaption>Lily Gladstone in <em>Certain Women.</em> </figcaption>   </figure> <h3>Alissa Wilkinson</h3> <p>Even starting with your first film, <em>River of Grass</em>, it’s clear that you’re always making road movies. In <em>Certain Women</em>, there's a lot of people in cars. But is there some element of journey that you felt in this film, too?</p> <h3>Kelly Reichardt</h3> <p>Yes, they all end up being the same thing. They don't necessarily start out that way. They all end up just being about getting in your car and going from point A to point B, or in some cases walking from point A to point B. They're, like, about the bigger journey, but it's really about the small “getting to,” which is just sort of more what my own filmmaking has revealed to myself over the years. It does seem to be where the action <em>is</em>, as opposed to where you get to where the action <em>should</em> be. </p> <p>It's funny how your work reflects back on you. I spend a lot of time moving between the East Coast and the West Coast myself, just in a car, and back and forth. Everything is apparently a road movie, as it turns out. It's a nation of cars. Everything does seem to turn out that way. I wasn't trying to make a road movie statement; it’s just that everything ends up being that. </p> <p>I used to think everything was a Western, but now I really think everything is a road movie.

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