Kelly Reichardt’s filmography has most commonly been discussed in relation to her deliberate pacing and her films’ recurring sense of intimate loneliness. Whether it’s the unforgiving desert trail of Meek’s Cutoff or the imposing industrial decay of Wendy and Lucy, the settings in her films are overwhelming, looming over the characters as a dual source of anxiety and peace.
It’s not inaccurate to call her films “languid” or “restrained,” because her sensibility is patiently observational and heavily process-based. But those descriptions overlook one of Reichardt’s major talents: her natural faculty with characters, particularly women.
Reichardt’s films have long revolved around women, but it’s rarely felt more explicitly at the forefront than this year’s Certain Women, a star-studded three-story anthology about a series of women (Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone) who quietly confront the cosmic and artificial forces that have defined their place in the world.
Adapted from Maile Meloy’s short-story collection, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, Certain Women is definitively a Reichardt film in its lingering silences and spiritual calm, but it’s also an expansion of her style as both a writer and director. Working with regular cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, it’s shot in a way where the frame is filled with negative space, but the film is far too slippery to focus on isolation. Reichardt’s ear for dialogue has sharpened as well, as the film moves from wry humor to a melancholy contentment and back again without ever disrupting the mood.
With Certain Women now in theaters, Movie Mezzanine talked to Reichardt about adapting to shooting in Montana, the growing pains of writing a script alone, and the influence of Nicholas Ray.
Movie Mezzanine: This is the first film since your debut, River of Grass, where you didn’t work with Jon Raymond on the script. What was it like adapting a new writer’s work?
Kelly Reichardt: Yeah, I didn’t have Jon to go have coffee with several times a week and talk to every day to hash it all out. So I did worry quite a bit about it, actually. [I]t was a little bit of a lonelier process. And yeah, I had to find my way more on my own than previously.
Was it creatively energizing in a way as well?
I guess when it started to finally work, it felt good, but the process, it was less fun [laughs] than it is doing it with Jon. But it was a challenge, for sure. I just didn’t have the constant sounding board, and I didn’t have anyone to pass drafts back and forth with. But I found my way. I mean, I just like having something to work on every day, so I have a project to wake up to then I feel pretty good.
By that same token, this is the first film that you’ve made that has a structure that’s more comparable with something like an anthology than a linear feature film. What was that experience like?
I guess those experiences are all kind of wrapped up together. Shooting-wise, it was really different because you’re not just working with one set of actors that you have a month to evolve with. Everybody’s in and out really quickly, and then you’re getting yourself up for a whole new movie. I mean, the crew remains the same, but everything else is changing. It was a different experience in that way, but it was also the chance to get to work with so many wonderful actors. Everyone worked so differently, so there was just a lot to gain from that, but also nobody’s really getting worn down because everyone’s so fresh. Everyone’s coming in, and they’re just there for their amount of time, so the actors are really not quite as beat-down as the crew.
I’ve read about some previous filming experiences, and it sounds like it was a trial to make films like Meek’s Cutoff or Wendy and Lucy given the weather and shooting conditions.
Yes, this was also a trial in that sense. I mean, making films on location where there are not a lot of interiors in the winter on a small budget is a trying thing, for certain. [O]ur first week of shooting, it didn’t get up to zero degrees. It’s really hard on a film loader and people that can’t wear full gloves. We’d leave set every day when Christopher Blauvelt and Chris Carroll, the assistant director, and I would work out on the ranch for prepping. And every day, we’d just go and buy more clothes and layer and layer and layer. And it was just, like, at a point where the real ranchers [were] just laughing at us. And there’s just a point where there aren’t enough clothes [laughs], and what you need is just more meat on your bones. But as always, the crew I work with,…[t]hey’re up for the challenge of it, and like all things, things are really challenging in that way. They bond people together, I think. Everything that is hard is very much a part of what’s amazing and what’s great about it.
Your previous films have primarily been set in Oregon, but Certain Women was shot in Montana. Did shooting in a new location change your approach in terms of shot choices or the visual rhythms you were trying to achieve?
Even in Oregon, each place is so unique. The landscapes have all been so different. You’re just in the story you’re in, and the movie you’re making, and trying to find your way. All the landscapes just feel their own. You live in all these places, and so the stories have led to a different kind of living in each place. Like, we went from Night Moves, where we’re living on a farm where everybody is being so conscious about the size of their footprint, and living in all these ways where everything you touch is somehow reusable. And then I went to Montana, and you’re driving a SUV because that’s what people drive out there, and listening to country songs, and going to this grocery store. Is there a recycling place [laughs]? You just start living in the shoes of these different worlds, and that’s interesting and a great part of it. And that I think seeps into the film.
So it’s more just the day-to-day of living in a place like Montana while you’re shooting that you really start to feel those differences?
Right, it’s the nuance of a place. So that you aren’t portraying it as a tourist where it’s scenic as opposed to the ups and downs of the terrain that you’re living in.
Even though they knew you were a tourist by the number of the layers of clothing you were wearing?
That’s true. Yeah, anybody with a close eye could tell [laughs].
One thing I really love about your films is the way they make me think about closure and the ways we try to ascribe agendas to filmmaking. And I think you’ve said in previous interviews that “you’re suspicious of absolutes” in storytelling. Certain Women still has a narrative delicacy, but it also has an arguably more concrete conclusion than some of your previous films. Was this something that you were actively aware of, or wrestled with?
I think the conclusion is just that you’re just back into the routine of life. And everybody’s just sort of keeping on. Maybe the first story has more of a conclusion, I guess.
I guess I’m referring specifically to something like the wrap-around?
Yeah, sure, maybe. All right, but in the wrap-around, there’s still an openness. …Let’s not say there’s a wrap-around. Don’t give away the big ending [laughs].
A number of your past films have characters who are traveling through places—like Wendy on her way to Alaska, or the settlers in Meek’s Cutoff traveling west, trying to find something they could call “home.” That’s a very reductive way to describe it, but I mention that because in the three stories of Certain Women, these characters all have a concrete home. Did that feel different at all in how you were writing this film?
Really, I don’t think about the…there’s not, like, a theme i’m trying to carry through in every film I make. I don’t really think of them in relationship to each other, certainly not when I’m making them. In the first story [of Certain Women], someone’s likely going to lose their home, and in the middle story, they’re building a second home, but I guess it’s just what your idea of home is. The family structure isn’t that settled, and in the third story, [Lily Gladstone’s character is] just a ranch hand living at someone else’s place for the winter. The Kristen Stewart character is a person who’s traveling to her world for a job. So I think there’s still a lot of unsettledness, but there doesn’t have to be. It’s not like a mission or anything.
Your films have all offered visions of America. Are there any present filmmakers who you naturally gravitate to the ways that they view America? The side note to this question is, I’m very curious whether you’ve seen something like American Honey.
I’m not up to date on films that are being released right now. I just haven’t because I’ve been working on this film. A film that I had a little bit in mind when I was making this film was: I really love the way Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground starts in this city, where you have all these vertical lines and everything is closed in and sort of brick. And the second half of the film…you’re on these snowscape wide-open spaces as the character gets more open and more vulnerable. I love the way that almost feels like two films. I kept imagining the first half of the film in the Laura [Dern] story being more enclosed, even with the soundscape in the city; and then you get to the wide open, snow-covered pastures. But the snow didn’t come, really, so you get to the wide-open brown pastures of our ranch [laughs]. But you know, there goes that. That was a cityscape/frost landscape that I was thinking of when I made this film, and looking a lot at Stephen Shores’ parking lot stills and a lot of Milton Avery’s landscapes were some of the first influences for a color palette that I was working with.