But as much as the limitations of the shoot may have contributed a sense of realism to the finished product, “it doesn’t need to be quite as hard,” Reichardt says. “I don’t want to make another film as stretched as we were.”

The title Meek’s Cutoff becomes almost literal in its last scene, when the arrogant guide’s power is apparently curtailed, the dominance of the American cowboy upended. The moment offers such a bold punctuation to the film’s foundational ideas that it’s surprising to hear that it came together at the last minute, when the production ran out of money. “I would like it so that, if the sun's going to set, you're not going home without the ending of your movie," Reichardt says. "[But that's] basically what happened to us: The sun went down, everyone was leaving the next day, and we couldn't afford the animals another day. So a new ending had to be constructed. Michelle, Rod, and I went back with a five-person crew and shot it.”

The compromises necessitated by financial constraints have been a theme in both Reichardt's films and her own career trajectory. She recalls the frustrations that followed her breakout at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, where River of Grass premiered alongside Kevin Smith's Clerks and David O. Russell's Spanking the Monkey—films that turned those two directors into hot commodities. But Reichardt says “the door wasn’t open” to her in the same way. More than a decade passed between River of Grass and Old Joy (2006), during which time she taught and made experimental shorts. She still makes her living teaching at Bard College.

“It feels like the kind of thing I’m doing—shooting film, projecting in theaters—is a sinking ship, for sure," the maverick filmmaker says. But she finds some consolation when she returns to the idea of duress as a leveler: "However it’s going to change, maybe the bright side of that is that it’ll be an equalizer. It’ll bring in more voices, more variety.”

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