in conversation with Kelly Reichardt
How does extraordinary sensibility manifest itself through the moving image on screen? American director Kelly Reichardt talks to four by three magazine about her latest film Certain Women, the journey of life and how to answer the question of how to live.
From the printing press to the internet, innovations have changed our lives and the course of humanity. Yet inventions from photography to the moving image, different artistic periods and individual artists from Pablo Picasso to Marcel Duchamp have shaped and shifted not only the history of art through their inventive styles, methods and ideas, but also how we perceive the world around us and how we relate to it. The development of the seventh art shouldn’t be reduced to new technological means, but recognised for its ability to register the fleeting, sometimes the depth more than the breath, the weight of the minuscule and the formlessness of the grand, the hidden texture of reality, which makes us who we are.
Kelly Reichardt is a critically acclaimed American director and screenwriter. Her previous films include Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek's Cutoff and Night Moves. Her latest film Certain Women, starring Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone and Kristen Stewart, gives glimpses into the lives of four women and three independent stories set in Montana. The film won Best Film at the 60th BFI London Film Festival and was voted by Sight & Sound #4 in its Best Films of 2016 Annual Poll. Reichardt’s signature style is characterised by quiet, slow and nature-centred storytelling that focuses on the mysterious in the quotidian. Her observational camera lingers on marginalized characters who are in search of a better life. In this process Reichardt brings to light ephemeral and tender moments of usually unnoticed yet telling gestures, looks, the hidden and unsaid, foregrounding our relationships to others and ourselves.
We caught up with Reichardt at the BFI and talked about her latest film Certain Women, journeys, destinations and art.
Your latest film Certain Women is based on two different collections of Maile Meloy’s short stories. What was it about these stories in particular that appealed to you and why did you put them together?
Kelly Reichardt: They came to feel as though they belong together after some time editing the footage and trying out different things. The film starts off with this long shot of the train approaching, which tips you off thinking that it will be a Western of some sorts. But then it is set in the present, facing the problems of current jobs and contemporary settings. I came to think that the stories could work together when I finally got the middle story with Michelle Williams. To me that story is what makes the whole film work, even though I feel that the emotional part of the film lies within the rancher story.
It’s so hard to sum up the long process of making a film, but I thought there were traces of an old Western I could put in and that the way the stories worked with and against each other could give it more ambiguity and more clarity at the same time - if that makes any sense.
The train is actually a very mesmerizing opening, giving a sense that the viewer is only ever a witness to a fleeting passage of time in the lives of these women
KR: That’s true. You kind of just drop in on them and catch them in this moment in their lives, move along with them, while other parallel lives are taking place. Somehow a lot of my movies turn out to be about journeys, even if a character is seemingly settling down, such as with Michelle William’s character. But you really have no idea about what came before and what will come after that which you see. It’s just a glimpse of a life.
If we stick with the Road Movie’s metaphor of a journey from A to B and maybe contrary to the ethos of your films, I am wondering what your own destination is or where you see yourself heading?
KR: I am always wondering how to life or how you are supposed to live. How to live? How to make a life and a living? I feel I sometimes dodge that question by making a film instead. But then I come out of a film thinking ‘Oh yes, life! What am I supposed to do again? Where should I live, what should I do? How do I do it?’ Maybe that much I have in common with my films or characters as I never know where I should live or what I should do, always feeling somewhat torn.
But really, I have lived in New York for 30 years. I just spent a lot of time in other places, especially out West. Yet I don’t feel like I am a New Yorker, but I suppose I am. I didn’t feel like a Floridian when I lived in Florida and I don’t do now. But I also don’t feel like an Ordonian, even though I spent a lot of time there. Some people know exactly where they are from and feel some sense of belonging. But my characters are no more connected to the places where they find themselves than I do.
Yet you do seem to be particularly drawn to these vast and beautiful landscapes, which seem to be endless …
KR: My first film was actually set in Florida, but when I met and started to collaborate with John Raynon, who is from Oregon and writes about it in his stories, it became natural to film there. So it wasn’t a big decision to specifically go there instead of somewhere else. I was actually scouting for locations all over the country. But then I ended up making the films in the places he wrote about.
I really like going off to places to make a film and couldn’t even imagine to make a film in New York! I enjoy taking the crew with me off the grid, but that’s actually for selfish reasons. It’s better to be away doing something without having to go back home to your life every night, your mail and all that stuff. Sometimes we are in places where there is no signal, so no one can do anything other than working on the movie. No one is just watching or hanging around. Plus, I work with very small crews, so there aren’t enough people for others to just hang out on set.
This reminds me of something you once said in another interview, explaining that: ‘My students seem so unafraid and so un-angry. It makes them very nice people. It doesn’t make for great art.’ What is it that makes for great art?
KR: Let’s hope these times bring out some good art, because what the fuck else do we have going?
I actually don’t have an answer to this question. It’s a hard question for other minds to ponder. But I’ve just been to the David Hockney retrospective at the Tate Britain and was seriously wondering how he could have been so inventive and continuous to be. The multiple screen installations he has been doing attest to an incredibly inventive mind! I do admire people with an inventive mind a lot, as I am more of a nuts and bolts kind of person. But some people are truly inventive. I think Todd Haynes is a very inventive filmmaker, which I extremely admire.
Even though you often work from literary source material, your characters don’t talk that much, while your films are often characterised by long stretches of silence. Is there something inherent in language which you mistrust?
KR: I am very interested in cinema as a visual language, but am also interested in sound design. I am fascinated by what the frame or the cut can say, how bodies move through a scene, different gestures and sounds. For lack of a better expression, the language of cinema is infinitely interesting to me.