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Interview with Kelly Reichardt, Director of ‘Certain Women’

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Michelle Williams in Kelly Reichardt’s ‘Certain Women’

It’s easy to miss the forest for the trees in the work of Kelly Reichardt, the renowned indie director promoting her sixth feature, Certain Women. Her films have no shortage of things to say, but she first asks viewers to simply observe. The unhurried narratives absorb viewers in moments, environments and ultimately in characters. Conveying information seems like a byproduct of Reichardt’s filmmaking approach, not an express function. So how to discuss a film so experiential and ambient?

In our brief phone chat, her last in a five hour long stretch for press day, Reichardt and I discussed the political dimensions of her work that might lurk beneath the surface of her characters but undoubtedly inform their actions, along with how she contextualizes her work in both contemporary and classical cinema.

I had written a bit of a political question, but then I had seen that you had emailed someone to take political talk out of an interview. Just out of personal curiosity, is there a reason why you don’t want to talk about that?

Talk about what, specifically?

I guess, politics in regards to your work?

Oh, just that I don’t think I’m good at it, really. I don’t think of them as political films — I wish I knew what the particular question I said that to was.

I think of them as character films and hope they play that way. Then, you know, the other things sort of come through or not.

I don’t think of your films as polemical by any means, but certainly the undertones are there. I watched Old Joy for the first time this week, and all the talk radio stuff made for such an interesting commentary bubbling underneath the characters.

You say they aren’t political films, but I certainly feel like some of the themes and elements underneath your mid-2000s films are more prevalent in Certain Women. I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but was that a conscious decision to have them more front and center?

Are you saying the politics or the women? The politics of it?

Either or? I’m sorry, I realize that probably doesn’t help.

It’s ok, it’s my fault to be honest. My brain is dying — come on, I can do this! I’ve been on the phone all morning, and I’m trying to approach it fresh. [in a pep talk voice] Come on, I can do this, not just be a machine!

In Night Moves, the actual characters were political, so that was different. Certainly John Raymond and I, who I did four films with, are politically minded people. Sometimes we talk in the bigger scope of things, but hopefully it all falls away and you’re just working on a character film. With this film, I didn’t really have anyone to have that back and forth with, and I really think Maile [Meloy, the author of the short stories from which Certain Women is adapted] thinks of them as character films.

And then I start visiting Montana and spending time in Montana. One of the first things you come to realize is that there’s this Native art reference everywhere – in the mall, every piece of fashion is echoing back to it. Every hotel room, there’s the Indian feasts, the man on the horse. Or in the park center, restaurants, anywhere you go, there are no brown faces to be seen. You just don’t see Native Americans, and it’s weird to be surrounded in this culture that’s a commodity at this point. Where are the people?

At one point, I asked the waiter about going up to Great Falls, and he used the back of his hand to say, “There’s a lot of Native Americans up there.” This is Montana! They’re all over your wall! So, anyway, that seed enters my mind, and I go back to the script trying to work that throughline into the stories.

There’s that, and then there’s the small politics of everyday life that resonate in the time we’re in — Fuller [Jared Harris’ fruitlessly litigious character] being a man at this point in his life. “This isn’t fair, this isn’t working out my way,” he’s complaining to a woman [Laura Dern’s Laura Wells] who’s working in law. What a privilege to get that far in life and not realize that the system’s not going to work for you. You’re quite, “Boo hoo!” On the other hand, he does have some real issues to be bummed out about, and they’re legitimate and she’s not really responding them.

It’s the everyday struggles that are in our lives, and I think questions about our community and how we know each other, don’t know each, have any obligation to each other – all those things, I don’t want the landscape to run away. I don’t want some political umbrella or idea. I just want it to be in with the characters, and if it comes through, it comes through. The questions are in Maile’s stories from the beginning.

I’m not old enough to have watched all your films as they’ve come out

[chuckles] Now, listen.

Oh my gosh, I just realized how that came out! I’m 23, so that’s why I clarified.

Uh huh.

As the years have gone by, and I’ve watched your films, I do feel like the deliberateness and patience seems to be cutting against the grain even more. Are you feeling like there’s a resistance to making your quiet, everyday focused films in a time where there are so many demands on our attention?

Yeah, well that’s true for every small film – the blockbuster and the largesse of everything, the non-ending awards season that makes it an impossible pool to swim in. This year, there’s just so many films. I haven’t seen these films, but to me, looking at the New York Film Festival, there are a lot of films I’d be really interested in seeing. Some smaller-story films, even that’s a crowded sea.

There’s just so many films, and the cranking up the stakes for these films — spending all this money for endless publicity and awards circuit — makes it a really hard sea to swim in and get any traction. You’d have to spend [inaudible] times my budget just to cut through.

So, I was looking for a syllabus of yours, since I saw you teach at Bard. But what I wound up finding was one of those crummy teacher ratings sites…

Oh, no! Don’t even tell me! You already called me old, now you’re going to read some terrible review.

I’m not going to read a terrible review! Just that everyone pointed out one of your hallmarks — that you point out clichés. So, I’m just wondering what clichés bug you the most in student work? Because so much of your work is cutting against those.

Well, I used to have a list. You can’t go to a grave site with flowers, you can’t – I don’t know, I used to have a list that I can’t think of right now.

But I play with clichés all the time, but if you’re going to do it, you have to know it’s a cliché. That’s the key. It’s a new, brave world that’s always changing, and the film students’ references so far are getting – I’m teaching a class right now, and I was like, “Joan Crawford! Bette Davis!” And the world moves on.

Clichés – they can be used, but it’s good to know what you’re doing and know what you’re referencing.

Follow Marshall Shaffer on Twitter (@media_marshall).

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