In the world of American indie moviemaking, there is no minimalist pleasure quite like a Kelly Reichardt movie. In October, The Stanford Daily sat down with Reichardt — the director of “Old Joy,” “Meek’s Cutoff,” “Wendy and Lucy” and “Night Moves” — to discuss her latest work, “Certain Women,” starring Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Lily Gladstone. Reichardt chats on film festival culture, Chantal Akerman, actors, Montana and some of her favorite recent movies. She goes into minute and meticulous detail about her process of walking around on set — a tendency that her great films inherit.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): There’s something very off-putting about film festivals, because you’re consuming so much and you’re given very little time to digest, stew, mull over things.
Kelly Reichardt (KR): What about the bloggers who write about them the second they’re happening?
TSD: Right. I wonder if you’ve run into the same problem, from the perspective of being a filmmaker.
KR: From the perspective of being a filmmaker, you’re just really grateful for festivals. A lot of movies won’t even be seen if they’re not seen in festivals. It’s changed over the years, because now festivals are becoming obsessed with inviting movie stars and things like that. Some festivals don’t want to show films unless you have all your stars there. It’s really expensive to put on a festival. And I do think most festivals are in it for showing films that won’t get a mainstream release. It’s just a complicated question. Personally, festivals have only helped me.
As harsh as people like to be on Sundance, for instance, Sundance has only helped hugely. I have little money to travel, and the only way I’ve seen any of the world is festivals inviting me places. I would be fibbing if I could be down on festivals.
TSD: The film’s acting is astonishing, particularly Lily Gladstone as the rancher. I cried at the climactic long take of her driving away. How did you first encounter her?
KR: Lily was in a movie called “Winter in the Blood,” based on a James Welch novel. And she loves James Welch, and I love James Welch. She heard about us, I heard about her. She sent us a tape and we loved it. She had really good instinct, doing the scene without any direction.
TSD: What are her strengths as an actor on set?
KR: She’s the least self-conscious person I’ve met. And that holds true, even when the camera is a foot away from her face. She has zero pretension, to the point that I actually worry about her at some points. “You’re too laid out! Too raw! Be careful.” She’s so unguarded, but it’s an amazing thing for an actor to have.
TSD: What’s your approach to acting and directing actors?
KR: I don’t know that I have some system. Everyone’s different, and you come and have a relationship with them, deal with them. I don’t try to fit my actors into some deep imprint. Though you have imagined it in your head, on set you’re getting something new that you haven’t seen before, and you’re trying to see if it’s working, even though it’s not what you imagined. And so you’re mourning and letting go at the same time. It might be the most amazing gift. Actors, it’s all kind of happening — you don’t know how people will respond until the scene is played out. Together, you try to move to a completely new place that’s not what the actor imagined, nor what you yourself as the director imagined; it’s just what the life of the film — on that day, that weather, that situation, that dynamic between the three people.
TSD: Your films always feature active landscapes, active settings. You never use the backgrounds of Florida or Oregon as pretty window dressing; they actively comment on the characters and shape/sculpt/inform them. I was wondering what your process was for shooting Montana, any major challenges.
KR: Cold! Cold, cold, cold. Very cold. Write that down. [laughs] The weather is hard, for so many exteriors. And I know my crew is dying for the day I reveal a script that says, “She walked along the beach in the summertime.” Though of course, the heat was the issue in Florida. You go to a place, and you live there for a while, and you try to catch the rhythms of a place. That’s the most fun part of it: entering some world before the whole crew moves in.
When I made “Night Moves,” this film about these environmental activists on a ranch, everything on that farm was about reusing everything, having as minimal a footprint as possible. And then a year later, I’m in Montana, driving this SUV, staying in a cookie-cutter house, where you press the button, and the garage door pops up, and you drive your car in, and you enter through the side door, and this is my grocery story, and this is my cashier that I’m going to see every couple days, and this is where I do my laundry — feeling the way people live. It’s interesting, it’s fun, it reveals another layer to things, which you otherwise wouldn’t know if you never plopped yourself down somewhere and got into a routine, to know it intimately.
TSD: Aha. So, one of my best friends is from Montana —
KR: Ooh! Where from?
TSD: Somewhere … oh, what’s it called … Oh! Kalispell!
KR: That’s where Michelle’s from!
TSD: Oh really! Michelle Williams!
KR: Yes! Have you been there?
TSD: I wanted to. Was planning to go this summer break, didn’t pan out, but I’m excited to visit Montana in general, particularly because of this film. It’s interesting, the way you shoot it — the way your [director of photography] Christopher Blauvelt shoots it — it’s like this calm sea of brown.
KR: Well, you know, it was going to be a white movie, but it became a brown one instead. Our color scheme was built on the paintings of Milton Avery, who uses lots of browns, beiges, pinks and greens. So I had envisioned the clothes and places to be mixed with a lot of white, making an ultimately white film. And I was looking for a beige ranch. But then the snow didn’t come. Then the ground was brown. But Maile Meloy, who wrote the stories, said that brown is the color she thinks of when she thinks of Montana.
TSD: You teach undergraduates on how to make films at Bard College. Could you talk on some of the assumptions students make while going in to your classes?
KR: Well, the reason that I teach at Bard is because it’s a largely avant-garde program. I generally don’t let people take a narrative class with me until they’ve taken something with Peggy Ahwesh — an experimental feminist filmmaker — or a landscape class with Peter Hutton, who just passed away this summer. But Peter’s philosophy and approach to filmmaking, and to time and the littlest details of life — to have a student spend a semester with Peter, by the time they come to study narrative with me, they have a completely different outlook on film than they would have had. They don’t just wander into a narrative class with nothing. I’ve taught those kind of classes, it’s insanely hard. At Bard, they’ve gone through an initiation process of a different way of experiencing the moving image. I’ve taught at NYU, for which I was just a bad fit. You get indoctrinated with Scorsese, and — nothing wrong with that, but it’s different.
Some of my students come in studying other things. Photography, or feminist studies. And I rarely come across someone trying to make a calling-card narrative. It’s just not the same scene there. And so, which is why I’m lucky to teach there.
Anything we can squeeze in about Peter Hutton. He’s such an important filmmaker, and so beloved and missed.
TSD: On that note of Hutton, are there any filmmakers of recent whom you admire that you wish more people knew of?
KR: Well, by now, I hope people would know the films of Peggy Ahwesh. I actually stole the title of “Certain Women” from one of her films. She’s a super intuitive filmmaker with a good sense of humor.
But it’s hard. I haven’t watched films as much as I used to, because I’ve recently been in this constant state of production. I enjoy Lukas Moodysson, he did “We are the Best!” But I’m so late to everything; I don’t have my finger on the pulse of the world of new cinema. As everyone did, I really enjoyed “Tangerine”; that was exciting to see.
But I’m hoping that people remember Peter Hutton; his wonderful personality almost overshades what an important filmmaker he is.
[laughs] I need more time! I should have a little list like it. I use different films in my classes, obviously, but I sometimes wreck them for myself because I watch them so many times.
The difference between Kelly Reichardt and nearly all her contemporaries is the difference between someone who sees and someone who knows. The Knowers look at a tree, or a stage, or a desert, or a baseball bat, and they translate exactly that onto the screen. They think in a hermetically-sealed, square-angled world of arguments, positions, packing every square-inch of movie-frame with lots of Meaning and Significance and Important Art and, more than not, unconvincing Ambiguity that looks profound from a distance, but hardens into contrivance and stiffness when the viewer goes deeper. The Knowers try way too hard to mindblow the viewer, to introduce them to spectacles-of-the-mind that climax into “Aha! Eureka” revelations (a puzzle’s been solved, an institution’s been shown up), or to remind them that, hey, what’s happening on screen is exactly happens in life, ain’t that somethin’, ain’t that what cinema’s all about. A mimesis of an abstract/philosophized life-into-reality, and interesting in its own right, sure, but the Knowers never really reckon with the strangeness of an object.
Kelly Reichardt, by contrast, is a seer. She respects the weirdness of the most microcosmic details — an untucked Laura Dern shirt, train whistles that ring like cathedral bells in the sound background, a quail call deep in a forest, the way Kristen Stewart dabs her mouth without opening the napkin-fork paper band. Reichardt burrows deep beneath a thing’s surface to uncover its disharmony, its radical weirdness. For this, Kelly Reichardt is one of our most kino-eyed, undeclamatory artists. We hail the appearance of her latest works as we hailed the comedies of Sturges or the talking romances of Rohmer.
Contact Carlos Valladares at cvall96 ‘at’ stanford.edu.
Ed. — An earlier version of this article misspelled author James Welch’s name as “Walsh.”