People may not know the name Kelly Reichardt (or any other female director not named Coppola), but she's simply one of the best American filmmakers working today. Her resume is full of hits, no misses: River of Grass, Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek's Cutoff, and Night Moves. The problem is, only critics and film buffs have seen them. Reichardt is far from the mainstream, where she seems most comfortable. But her latest work, Certain Women, may force her hand. She might have to talk about it at the Academy Awards next year.
Certain Women is that good. It's that authentic, present and specific. The movie is split into three sections, each a different story about a different woman living in small town Montana. Without a distracting style or even music, Reichardt allows the actors to work. Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, and Kristen Stewart play the three main characters and each give natural performances that are thematically similar.
We were eager to speak with Reichardt about her new film and hear about her talent for place, her humble style, and how it was working with such a talented cast of women.
Zimbio: Thank you so much for speaking with me. I enjoyed Certain Women a lot. You always have such a honed sense of time and place in your movies.
Kelly Reichardt: Thanks.
...And also the performances you were able to get from these talentless, no-name actresses...
And any movie with a corgi... you got me.
(Laughs) There you go. You're all set then. That corgi came with the ranch.
Oh did it? Cool, a package deal.
I wanted to start off by asking you about the script. This was the first non-Jonathan Raymond story you've done in a while...
Yeah, so I just wondered if it was daunting adapting Maile Meloy's characters?
It was daunting, actually. Yeah, I guess working with Jon just because we're very close there's a constant back and forth to it, and this was just me alone in a room. But Maile was super generous in letting me decide which stories...I swapped out a story at a point and she just kind of rolled with it. It was just sort of that thing of letting things be bad for awhile while you make your way through and land on something that works.
Gotcha. Did you film in Montana?
Yeah in Livingston and areas around Livingston, an area called Clyde Park.
So the story dictated the location?
Yeah it did. It pretty much did. I was scouting around Boise for awhile and it was the stories that kept me going back to Montana. And Montana gave us a grant that made it pretty appealing to work there (laughs). So that helped.
Oh, that's great. So, the title of the movie I read as a generality, but the film is more specific. Did you mean for the title to be ironic?
The title I stole from one of my colleagues, Peggy Ahwesh at Bard. She has a film from the '90s that's the same title. I didn't mean it ironically, but, like you said, more in a general sense.
Like all your films, this one doesn't use a lot of music except for the beginning and the end. You use a lot of natural background sounds. Is your style an answer to the sensory bombardment of, you know, superhero movies and mainstream stuff?
I don't know if it's an answer to any of it. I'm not sure anyone's in question of it. But it's an option to all of that I guess. It's just more what works for me. I like using the sound of a location. Livingston is a super windy place so the wind was making all kinds of different sounds according to where you were. Sometimes musical almost. And then it's surrounded by a train depot so it's nice to work with the trains and have the sounds of the town and all. So that's been the approach I've taken for a couple of films. Trying to use those sounds in place of a score. And then there is some of a score from Jeff Grace.
Could you talk about that scene when Lily Gladstone drives off the road. Why use music right then?
Allowing myself a little movie moment right then (laughs). We kept putting it in and taking it out. I just felt like, let's give over to a moment of emotion. I just kind went with it. It could've worked without it I think also, it was just different with it.
It is a powerful moment, the image of the car gliding by itself.
I know, it was actually, in the script and in my original design, it's gliding across the ice. In my image of the all white film, I hoped there would be so much snow, but there was, like, their least amount of snowfall in years... It just became this other thing which worked out nicely.
How about working with this ensemble, I guess it's not really an ensemble, but it's probably your most high profile cast, along with Night Moves. Did you find working with three separate stories challenging as far as directing the actors?
Well just that you're working on these individual stories and you want it work as a whole. You're just trying to get a handle on the tone that Laura's story will have and how that'll play on the rancher's story, so in that way it was challenging. And also, we were always at the beginning part of a movie, you know? You're always like, here we are back at wardrobe picking costumes with new actors coming in. You're constantly at the beginning point of something. That was challenging. How many people do you have to have for an ensemble?
(Laughs) Yeah I don't really know...
(Laughs) I guess it was a kind of an ensemble. I had Michelle in the middle and I had worked with her and (James) Le Gros before so that was a bit of a reprieve before going into the next section which had more logistical complexities to it. But yeah, I've been a fan of Rene Auberjonois for forever. He's fantastic. And Jared Harris, so that was great. And of course I've been a fan of Laura Dern's for a long time. With Kristen I did worry a little bit about her being too large for the role but she was able to really let it be her story. I just kept being impressed with her. But yeah, it just kept changing. There was nothing to ever settle into.
Last time we spoke, we talked about subverting audience expectations and how that led to suspense in that film. And you do the same thing here, you subvert expectations, so I was wondering what you were going for.
Well, I'm trying to think of where you mean.
With the hostage situation and with Lily and Kristen also.
Oh, I see. I don't know, with Night Moves it was easy to see what the expectation would be. In this I never really knew where this fit in so I guess I didn't have it in mind so much. It seemed very much its own.
It was more about just telling the stories?
Yeah, and I think figuring out the tone of the film was the most difficult thing.
I see. So, to finish up I wondered if you had seen anything recently that impressed you?
Yeah or whenever, I know you've been busy. Maybe on TV?
Oh, I enjoyed The Detectorists.
Really? The British show?
Yeah, I love that. Mackenzie Crook's show. That's really good.
I liked that.
That makes perfect sense actually (laughs).
(Laughs) I'm late catching up on things.
I find most filmmakers are, just by virtue of being busy all the time.
Oh good. Yeah, like I just caught on to the (Lukas) Moodyson films, which I really enjoyed,Together and We Are the Best.
Oh nice, yeah the three little girls in We Are the Best are great.
Yeah! It's just a great little film. I loved it.
Well, I wish I had a better answer (laughs).
No, Detectorists made my day. Everyone should see that. Thanks so much and good luck this Awards Season.
Thanks so much.