PRINT October 2008


ONLINE ONLY: Interview with Kelly Reichardt

The New York–based filmmaker Kelly Reichardt is the director of Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008), which was screened at this year’s Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, and New York film festivals. Wendy and Lucy opens at Film Forum in New York on December 10.

My collaborative process with Jon Raymond is a really good one. After reading his novel The Half-Life [2004], I was inspired to make a feature-length work, something that I hadn’t done for a long time. We worked together to create Old Joy, which was based on a story he had written to accompany an amazing series of Justine Kurland photographs. After that project was finished, we almost immediately set out on another collaboration. With Wendy and Lucy, we devised the storyline together, and then he went off to write it as a full-fledged short story. Jon’s interested in writing about landscapes, narratives of the road, friendships—themes that are close to my own interests.

One nice aspect of the process is that there were no expectations placed on either film. We’ve made these films on minuscule budgets, so I’ve been free to make them in my own way. With Old Joy, we didn’t even know if it would end up at feature length. You know, we just did it for its own sake. Both films were shot with a small crew of volunteers in and around Portland, Oregon. For Wendy and Lucy, I drove around the country for six months, scouting, checking out various parking lots and gas stations. It was somewhat funny, then, that we decided to shoot much of it outside a Walgreens two blocks from Jon’s home in Portland.

At this point, I have figured out that I work best in a small, manageable environment. I want to get at small stories; they’re what Jon writes and what I’m drawn to. It happens also to work for me financially. With Wendy and Lucy, though, which we shot in twenty days, the budget felt stretched—mostly because money equals time and I wanted to shoot more. On the drive home to New York, I came up with a list of shots I wished I had captured, and in editing the film it became quickly apparent that the notes I made at the motel on the first night of my drive home were exactly what I had to go back to Oregon to get. I worked with a cinematographer based there named Greg Schmidt, and he went out with Michelle Williams and me and a crew of two or three, and we got the trains and some of the more intimate moments that I wasn’t able to get during the main production.

I think of the film as being shot in “ugly America”—it’s a beige film, full of flat, anonymous walls that were difficult to deal with. The Wendy character, since she is traveling cross-country alone for the first time, might find these generic places a kind of substitute for home—or maybe a comfort in some way. Michelle really loved the way she was so invisible as Wendy, how she slipped into this landscape; I don’t remember anybody recognizing her during shooting. We didn’t have the manpower to close off streets, and so it was important to slip into the environment relatively unnoticed. Whatever is happening in the background—daily life in the town—ends up in the film. The challenge was to integrate all of this stuff and keep Michelle at the center of it. I wanted to focus on her without singling her out as being anyone special.

I’m at the point now where I can’t untangle what has inspired me, but certainly for this film I was revisiting the Italian Neorealists, some of the New German Cinema, and the British Angry Young Man films from the 1960s—films that are rooted in issues of class and whose heroes are confronted with difficult situations that often seem beyond their control. Like Kurt in Old Joy, Wendy realizes there is nothing for her where she is and sets out to map an alternative plan. There was a time when this kind of character would seem heroic, but nowadays there doesn’t seem to be too much support in America for any kind of truly alternative lifestyle. It’s all about the middle class and their houses and God and families.

As told to Brian Sholis