Kelly Reichardt has made a name for herself in a way that would be the envy of any filmmaker or aspiring artist: through hard work and the steadfast ambition to make her films her way. After her feature debut River of Grass turned heads at Sundance back in 1994, she became dissatisfied with the industry system and she soon slipped away.
Following a 12-year break, Reichardt reemerged with the quiet character study Old Joy in 2006, to critical acclaim. As her output has increased, she has tackled increasingly relevant character studies. From the recession-era Wendy and Lucy (2008) to the westward-bound period piece Meek’s Cutoff (2010) to the eco-terrorism thriller Night Moves (2013), Reichardt surrounds her characters in timely subject matter and makes them navigate struggles they may not be wholly equipped to handle.
Now, with the October 28 release of her latest effort Certain Women, based on Maile Meloy’s 2009 short story collection Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, Reichardt returns to her favorite hot spot — the Pacific Northwest and Mountain West — for a triptych adaptation that stars Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, and newcomer Lily Gladstone as women maneuvering their way through life’s daily struggles in rural Montana.
With her assured work, Reichardt continues to solidify herself as a distinct voice in film and a leader in what defines American independent cinema today. By phone, we spoke about her career and the new movie.
You didn’t work with [writer and frequent collaborator] Jon Raymond this time around. What was it that drew you to Maile Meloy’s stories?
The stories have strong characters that are really ingrained in their environment, and it was a new landscape to discover. Also a lot of chores, a lot of possibilities for animals [laughs]…just things I like filming. After a while I began thinking they could work, not necessarily as a greater whole, but the way a short story collection can work. That putting some of them together might work in its own way.
Did you hope when you chose these three stories that with the final product you might find something that you weren’t expecting? Were you thinking, “I’m going to put these together and see what comes up from the blending of the three stories as a whole?”
Yes, exactly. And there were other stories I tried. I spent a year traveling to Montana to try and get the three stories to work out, to see which three stories would work with each other. It felt a bit like an experiment, to see what they would bring out in each other.
You mentioned stories focused on characters, and that’s what a lot of your films are focused on. But a lot of your films are also focused on contemporary subject matter, stuff that’s relevant today — whether it’s the recession-era Wendy and Lucy or the struggle with patriarchal leadership in Meek’s Cutoff. Are you approaching the stories you’re adapting from the idea that the subject matter is relevant today, and that your characters are struggling to find a way through it?
Maile’s stories are a little bit timeless. You know, she’s in a great spot because she doesn’t have to deal with the whole other subject of connecting because of technology, which is such an albatross in a lot of ways. But I was trying to make them contemporary and of the moment and so that is a goal, but then at a point you kind of let go of that. It’s a fine line between making things contemporary and showing what’s relatable to today’s struggle and how they harken back, maybe, to things we’ve struggled with forever. But I don’t want to make political films. I want to make character films; I don’t want to make a message. Those are really thoughts you try and let go of. Maybe they find their way into the film and maybe they don’t, but I kind of try and let go of them and not hold on to them with any kind of pointed agenda.
It seems like most, if not all of your films, have the trappings of genre films — whether it’s road movies, paranoia thrillers, or especially, Westerns. Do you approach your films with genre and its framework in mind?
Night Moves was kind of the only one that Jon Raymond and I really did approach with genre in mind. I mean, everything’s a road movie and everything’s a Western in the end, and you just can’t help it [laughs]. But Night Moves was the only one we were kind of self-consciously thinking about the structure. In making my first film River of Grass, I was more consciously thinking of road movie tropes and whether or not it was commenting on that. When you’re making a period piece in 1845 [Meek’s Cutoff], you kind of can’t get around it there either.
Did you find the Montana shoot [for Certain Women] to be more or less difficult than the others?
Meek’s Cutoff was the hardest of hard, but I would say this was second. The weather was brutal — just the temperatures — and we were always shooting outside. I do like winter skies and skies when it’s raining, but it makes for a rough shoot. My crew was definitely ready for the Hawaii script to show up.
As your filmography has grown you’ve carved out a space in American independent cinema with a distinct voice and aesthetic that in a world of filmmaking, at least with Hollywood, seems to relish the safety of sequels and extended universes. Do you find it tough to remain an independent voice in filmmaking today?
I’m just living with how life comes to me. I teach, and I like to have a project to work on. I think it’s really difficult for anyone trying to make personal films in this loud time, and we are not really a culture of subtleties. So I think — and maybe this is just semantics — for me the idea of independent film was always about telling stories of people living on the margins or sort of the have-nots, and more and more independent films have become this of where you got your money from, which is not as interesting to me.
I don’t know when the independent vs. Hollywood [framing began]. You know, I actually got this money from Sony — and granted it’s still a $2,000,000 film, so it’s a small movie, but it’s by far the largest budget we’ve ever had. It’s expensive to produce movies and there’s just the whole awards thing which is kind of endless and makes it so expensive to try to compete and get theater space or get a notice in the newspaper that your movie is playing. It’s just that between that and the blockbusters, it’s hard because who can compete with that noise? It’s hard for all personal cinema in this day and age.
Do you find that a middle ground is disappearing — you know, mid-budget films? Maybe you don’t worry about that.
I mean, I worry, but just so many years ago, I did not find the industry a welcoming place, and I really just tried to hunker down and find my own little plot that I could work. Maybe that would be working on Super 8, and maybe 16mm sometimes. It’s been more about just finding a way to work and to keep projects going. I just stopped looking. I don’t have a bird’s-eye view on what it all looks like and what it’s all doing. I just try and figure out, like, “Oh I can teach this semester and afford to live and then go make a film if I do this.” [laughs]
You’re six features into your career and your direction seems to be more assured with every film you make. You’re getting top-level talent for your films. Has there been a sign or a moment when you felt like you made it as a filmmaker?
Just this Saturday [October 22nd], where I teach at Bard, we had a memorial for our beloved colleague Peter Hutton, who I think is a very important American filmmaker. His films are all shot on 16mm, they’re silent. He’s been making films since the ’60s, landscapes and seascapes. In this theater up in Bard, it was packed — like, kids packing the aisles, millennials, and we stopped there and for 90 minutes watched silent films together in a perfectly quiet theater.
I don’t know [about] the idea of “arriving,” but I just felt really lucky that I found my way to have had ten years with this filmmaker that meant so much to me and to have found my way into being in a community, a school, where we could all just feel so close and you can love your colleagues so much — and be in an atmosphere where talking about film and different ways of looking at film would involve young people in their fast, fast-paced world having an appreciation for Peter Hutton’s work. I just felt like, what a great place to be. I was lucky that my world somehow brought me to be a part of it. I don’t know if “arrived” is the right word, but I felt like I was in the right place.
– Interview by Cole Bauer
Photo courtesy Oscilloscope Pictures