The sorority of female directors in the film business is a shamefully small group. Established filmmakers like Sofia Coppola, Lynne Ramsay, and Kathryn Bigelow are some of the best in the business but there's another tier of directors just as talented who aren't as well known. Kelly Reichardt is one of these artists. She makes movies she cares about with people she knows and doesn't buy into the Hollywood machine. It's kept her out of the spotlight, but the simple fact is she's much too talented for things to stay that way.
We were lucky enough to speak with Reichardt about her latest film, Night Moves, a character study brimming with tension that follows three environmental activists who prepare and then execute a plan to blow up a hydroelectric dam in Oregon. The stars are the film's three actors: Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard, but Reichardt's fingerprints are all over the place. Deliberately paced to maximum suspense, Night Moves quietly steams ahead as the dam falls and the aftermath swallows all three eco-terrorists whole. We asked Reichardt about her methods for building suspense and for constructing the film in general.
Zimbio: What's your secret for creating suspense?
Kelly Reichardt: Secret? Well, there must be a secret. I guess to some degree when you're playing with a genre you can not exactly deliver, in the moment, what an audience—whether they know it or not—is waiting for. Sometimes not fulfilling that promise can be a little jarring and set things on a path that doesn't feel too comfortable. That can raise some tension. I think a lot of the work gets done because people get used to so much happening that the quiet and stillness can bring a lot of tension to a contemporary audience. Some of it's trial and error in the editing room and figuring out those things that Hitchcock and Truffaut talk about in their book like when does the audience have information the protagonist doesn't and when do they have information at the same time? All those sorts of things... But there are different ways it could work for sure.
There's a scene with a car up on a hill at the reservoir. Just for kicks I should've shot that scene in a way where it could be really, every small turn could be belabored and the guy's changing his tire and it could be, "Okay, let me wear this Coen Brothers hat for a minute, have some fun, and just be able to .. the lug nut rolls away and it's just out of reach and tick, tick, tick."
I shot it and cut it and it was really fun. That's a certain kind of tension. But I knew that it all felt kind of illegal to me and I couldn't really justify leaving my three characters. I had to stay in their point of view and ride it out in a more distant way. So in a case like that you only have the information they have and you don't get those little nuggets that are, in a way, they kind of entertain and make it a little more fun. But instead you have to be with them and ride it out so the tension is coming from the sound of the water slopping against the side of the canoe or the paddle hitting the side of the canoe, or just, the information you don't have instead of the close-up of what you have, it's what you can't see clearly that causes the tension.
Would you say, specifically on Night Moves, the suspense comes more from what's happening on set, like what you were just talking about, or more from what you do in the editing room?
Well, there's a plan and a shooting plan and we have to move so quickly that I like to go places with a clear design of what we have in mind. Knowing full well that we'll be moving so fast and shooting on location and with the weather in Oregon there are so many things that we can't predict happening. So I like to go with a plan and work it out as much as (cinematographer) Chris Blauvelt and I can ahead of time. And then, suddenly, actors are driving the boat or whatever it is (laughs). And Chris Blauvelt and his team, I mean, he's such an amazingly talented D.P. but he's also a really amazing camera operator. And there's just a more glib thing that happens at the moment we're shooting. So you sort of have your design and in the editing room you set that aside and deal with the movie you actually made.
I like to figure things out when I'm by myself, or it's calmer and I can really think. I don't like people to stand around and look at me and be like, "What?!" But then, staying open to whatever the gifts are of the moment and hopefully being able to embrace them and hopefully it all makes things better. I think there is thing thing that happens in these films where the way we're making the film without any stretching ourselves beyond our means and working without any net that mirrors what's happening in the story and I think that tension in the production, or the way we're all "in it together" and everyone's contributing a lot. The crew is the crew that's making the movie and the actors are an extension of that. They're not in a separate world they way they might be in another movie, we're all hands on deck and it's like if they fuck up their mission, it's a really bad deal but it seems that way for us too. We only have so many chances at this and if we fuck it up, we've blown it. So I think I try to tell myself, and everyone else, what we don't have is working in our favor (laughs).
I also wanted to ask you about your process. When you're writing with Mr. Raymond are you thinking about shots while you're writing or is that something that happens later?
That happens later. Jon always does the first draft which is, I think, the hardest thing in the world. We come up with ideas and concepts together but he's the one that finds the atmosphere and, a lot of that will obviously come from scouting, and scouting and scouting, but just the vibe of it all. It's sort of like the script is a spirit guide for the mission and he finds the voices and the textures of it, and then we start working together and I'll dig in. But the films are certainly better for having, these last four films I've made, the writing of Jon Raymond as a kind of foundation.
Jon always says our research is just gossip (laughs) which is probably true. I mean, you start to think about the people you know and who do you know that would do this? You steal little qualities from different people in trying to figure out these characters. And then a lot of it, during the writing at some point, Neil Kopp and I, he's one of my producers, will start scouting and then I'll start going out with scouts, or I might do a lot of driving around on my own. Scouting just always brings information back to us and maybe not just about location. There's so much you end up running into along the way.
There was a point where Jon Raymond, Neil Kopp, and I went into a fertilizer store and Jon casually tried to buy 500 pounds of ammonium nitrate just to see what it would be like. Yeah things got really tense really fast and we realized we had to stop what we were doing because we were blowing our chances for ever getting monument locations where someone would let us shoot because people were writing down our tag numbers and taking our pictures and we were getting on people's shit lists quickly. But it really informed that scene, it had to be readdressed. We ralized it wouldn't happen easily, there woulf have to be some real persuasion going on in order that people, post-Timothy McVeigh, are not just loading up ammonium nitrate for anyone who just comes in and asks for it.
One place I was scouting, I was just looking at this guy's house and he was like, "Oh what's this movie about?" and just in a shortcut language, it's not usually a term I would use but, I said, "It's a terrorist film." And he says, "I love eco-terrorism! I blow shit up all the time!" And he works for developers, goes out and clears the land, and I was just there to look at the guy's property but he ended up showing me how to build a bomb. You just never know what scouting will bring.
I thought when Dakota Fanning buys the fertilizer that that was really the most suspenseful scene in the film, even more than the actual dam scene. It just felt real and felt scary and you worry for her
Wow, that's cool. I was always afraid of that scene because you have to buy that she can pull this off, but when I saw Dakota and James Le Gos doing the scene I finally felt like, "Okay, this is gonna work. This will work." He's amazing and I love Dakota with him. He's just one of my all-time favorite actors.
He is great in everything. Thank you so much for taking the time.
Thank you for thinking about the movie.