'Film is a Gateway to Understanding People': Kelly Reichardt on the Immersive Filmmaking of 'Certain Women'
Michelle Williams, Laura Dern, and Kristen Stewart anchor Reichardt's new film, which revels in negative space.
In Kelly Reichardt's films, people are simply guests in vast landscapes, both physical and metaphysical. As characters mull about their ordinary routines, the quiet beauty of the natural world subsumes them and, in turn, reveals them to themselves. Every scene deals in the dark matter of humanity: the unspoken words between lovers and friends and strangers, the longing, the regret. In a Reichardt movie, three minutes can pass between dialogue or so-called action; what you witness instead is what lies just beneath.
Reichardt's latest film, Certain Women, adapted from short stories by Maile Meloy, is a slice-of-life character study in three parts, anchored by a common place: Livingston, Montana. In the first story, a lawyer (Laura Dern) attempts to pacify a disgruntled client who has lost a personal injury claim as the situation escalates to unpredictable proportions. Next, a transient law student (Kristen Stewart) attracts an admirer, a local ranch hand (Lily Gladstone); their relationship remains inchoate, much to the ranch hand's chagrin. Finally, an isolated wife from out of town (Michelle Williams) decides—in an act that veers uncomfortably close to appropriation—to build her new house with only materials native to the area. She asks an elderly neighbor if she can buy some sandstone ruins off his property, only to neglect to see that his entire personal history and identity seems to hinge on the surrender of this material.
Each of the women is strong and untethered in her own way. "It would be so lovely to think that if I were a man, I could explain the law and people would say, 'Okay,'" says Dern's character after her client fails to internalize her words until he hears them from a man.
Like Winesburg, Ohio and other great literary works about small-town life, watching Certain Women can feel like a welcome lesson in the act of observing. No gesture is too small; every interaction (or lack thereof) is imbued with significance, which Reichardt communicates through her actors' subtle performances. Christopher Blauvelt's grainy 16mm cinematography is visual poetry which manages to the capture details and the cosmic expanse of the landscape at once.
No Film School sat down with the veritable indie film legend at TIFF 2016 to discuss her immersive approach, shooting on 16mm, how writing is like gossip, why it's important to embrace happy accidents, and more.
"It's not about sitting around and waiting for the big idea. It's about picking up your camera every day and training your eye to see."
NFS: What's most important to you when you set out to make a movie?
Kelly Reichardt: The main thing is to find material that's relatable and fits into my own way of working. There are certain things I read that I love, but I don't think I necessarily should make. It's important [to find] a good fit for what you can do and what you want to do, and if you can find a way to put your own voice in it. It takes several years at least to make a film, so it has to be something that's going to keep being interesting for a long time. If it's something you can picture too quickly how it could be done, it's a little less interesting. You should make a film that feels a little scary. You want it to be a challenge.
NFS: What was it about this particular collection of short stories that compelled you?
Reichardt: I really liked Maile Meloy's voice right away. I really liked all her stories and thought they were all so visual, so I wasn't even sure which ones to [adapt]. It was like a process of finding three or two that would work together, so it was this sort of trial and error thing—what themes emerge? Do putting these two stories together add anything, or is there a reason to?
I wanted to check out a new landscape that wasn't Oregon, and this seemed like a chance to hunker down in Montana and see what that was all about.
"I'm very interested in people. I'm very much a digger of people."
NFS: Did you spend time getting to know the cultural flavor of Montana? The way people behave?
Reichardt: I stay for a couple nights in Montana a few times a year, but yeah. Scouting is a lot of meeting people and seeing how they live, what their jobs are, and what they do. Once I found our now-friend Len's ranch—the ranch we shot on—everything sort of sprouted from there. That led us to Livingston, which has a really rich history. It's where Peckinpah lived, and Warren Oates lived there, and Richard Brattigan lived there, and Tom McGuane. There's a nice literary film history there, meaning that it's a ranch town where you can still get a really good cup of coffee.
You live in a place for a few months before you start shooting, and you start having your routines. That's one of the fun things about filmmaking: you settle down into a world that isn't your own. I went from making an environmentalist-themed film to driving a big SUV in Montana and listening to what's on the radio there. It's just trying to put on different shoes for a minute.
NFS: That is evident in your films, because it does feel like we're living with each character, especially in this one. There are long scenes in which we are immersed in the person's routine and the landscape at the same time. How do you achieve this total immersion?
Reichardt: It goes through different processes. First, if you know where you're going to shoot, and you have the lay of the land and the structures around where you're shooting, that's ideal. First I figure out a shooting strategy for the whole thing, like what is the visual voice going to be for the movie and how am I going to approach that? How's the camera going to move? What's the frame going to be like? What are the lenses we're going to use?
On this film, first I wanted to shoot on 16mm film. But because the cast was coming in and leaving—every week there would be a new team of actors—if we shot film, the actors would be gone [by the time we got footage back], so it left us with the feeling that no mistakes can happen.
"At the last minute, we went back to our plan to shoot on 16mm. We just decided, screw it, let's just go for it and see what happens."
We did a test shoot. I spent all my test budget shooting digitally on the Alexa, and it was really snowy on the ranch when we did the test shoot with Chris Blauvelt, the cinematographer I work with. The snow had no detail to it. You got those really hard edges. At the last minute, we went back to our plan to shoot on 16mm. We just decided, screw it, let's just go for it and see what happens. My producers were really game. Everyone wanted to shoot film.
Reichardt: It's also just figuring out basic stuff like whose story you're telling and whose point of view it's going to be seen from, and if that changes, and when it might change, when to be in it and when to step back and look at it.
For Certain Women, [we knew we would be] shooting with all these animals that may or may not do what you want them to do. I make a pretty strong plan, and Chris and I come up with a basic set of rules, and then in the moment when the gate opens and the horses do exactly not what you anticipate them doing... that's where Chris is such a good operator. He has in his mind what the ideal is, and what our plan was, and then he tries to incorporate that into it.
"It's about having the best plan you can have and being open to embracing what happens."
Also, it's the same thing with sound: having a plan, but being really open to hearing what's happening in the places and getting those recordings—even if you're going to change them later—to at least have things to play with in the editing room. In the case of Livingston, you're surrounded by trains, and it's one of the windiest places in the country. The wind makes different noises where you are, and sometimes the wind is really musical. In some places, it would just get trapped. We shot in one gas station where there was this crazy sound that was going on all the time—the wind—and it was beautiful, and it's worked into the movie.
It's about having the best plan you can have, and then knowing that when you get there it will be either the weather or the animals or whatever elements that you're not expecting, and you have to be open to embracing what happens.
NFS: If you were giving advice to up-and-coming filmmakers, what is one of the most important things to remember when making a film?
Reichardt: I like the process of working with other people. I have a pretty average life, and then occasionally I have these adventures. For me, it's getting away from mail, all these things catch up with you, the day-to-day drip, drip, drip of life things. You can take yourself out of that for a minute. They're going to all be waiting for you when you get home, but it's nice to escape it.
"Everyone is in such a hurry to shoot, but the research is really the great part of making a movie."
A dear friend and colleague of mine, Peter Hutton, who just passed away this summer—a very beautiful filmmaker—talked a lot about process. It's not about sitting around and waiting for the big idea. It's about picking up your camera every day and training your eye to see, and to look at light, and to think about sound. It's the day-to-day work so that when you do have something you want to do, you're not just putting a camera in your hand and chasing it around. You have an idea. You've been looking.
NFS: You have intentionality. To that end, has being a filmmaker changed the way that you look at and interact with people?
Reichardt: Sure. I'm very interested in people. I'm very much a digger of people. As John Raymond said, when people ask what the writing process is like, he always says writing is like a different form of gossip. In a way, it's true, because you're not in a digging "for dirt" kind of way, but [you're finding out] what we build up around ourselves, and what we respond from, and what's automatic. You're asking questions, like: can you get better as you get older?
"I'm very interested in stepping into worlds that aren't my own."
Everyone is in such a hurry to shoot, but the research is really the great part of making a movie. It leads you to discovering a painter that you love that leads you to a whole school of art that you hadn't quite looked deeply into or is a new discovery for you, or you discover some music that you didn't know about, or history that you didn't know about, or a place.
NFS: Where do you think you fit into the zeitgeist of storytelling?
Reichardt: It's a time where people are very into telling their own stories. I'm very interested in stepping into worlds that aren't my own, and working with writers that I relate to is a good way to do that. I'm from Florida and I've lived in New York for 26 years, so discovering Oregon happened because I was working with John Raymond.
I don't think it's good to not have art in your life. I think it's an important remove to look at what's happening in your world and culture. Film is a gateway to understanding people you wouldn't run into every day—finding a road to discovery.