Kelly Reichardt might be the most important independent American filmmaker working right now. Over six features, she has built a body of work that stands in sharp contrast to the prefab stories and festival-friendly satisfactions of much of what passes for independent cinema today. Reichardt’s movies are immersive, even gripping, and they often reflect (albeit sometimes obliquely) the social and political issues of their day: Her 2008 masterpiece, Wendy and Lucy, about a young, broke drifter on the margins of society attempting to make her way to a new life in Alaska, opened right in the heart of the financial crisis; her 2010 western, Meek’s Cutoff, about a group of settlers adrift in the desert, was read by some as an allegory of the Iraq War. 2013’s Night Moves took on the subject of ecoterrorism, but in the most understated yet humane way.
Reichardt’s films (which were just recently featured in a MoMA retrospective) are difficult to describe. To give any real sense of them, you have to explain how they sound, and how they move, and the little moments, glances, and gestures between characters that sometimes say more than any plot synopsis ever could. Last year’s Certain Women, which played the Sundance and New York Film Festivals and is now being released on home video by the Criterion Collection, is no different. Based on short stories by Maile Meloy, it tells the loosely connected tales of three Montana women — a lawyer, a wife, and a rancher — at what might be key turning points in their lives. But sometimes the significance of a moment isn’t revealed until after the fact; so often, we’re just watching these women be. Through her graceful but straightforward direction, Reichardt manages to convey the everyday nature of the events depicted, while also hinting at the mystery beneath them. On the occasion of the Criterion release of Certain Women, I spoke to her about how exactly she captures what she does.
In the past, you’ve taken individual short stories and turned them into features. With Certain Women, you took three short stories by Maile Meloy and created a semi-episodic film. What made you decide to do that?
Like everything, it’s just a process. I tried a few things that didn’t really work out, and then I came upon Maile’s stories and really liked them. But they were another thing I was sort of fooling around with; I knew that this might not work. Is there a reason that putting these together would somehow make it more than just expanding one story? Each collection seems like its own world. I started working off her two collections, and I tried different combinations of stories. This went on for like a year. Finally somehow there was a point when it started making sense to me and seemed like something worth pursuing. Part of it was settling on that middle story with Michelle Williams and James LeGros, which was not the most obvious story in her collection. But really for me, it made the whole thing work. And then I started finding some themes to be able to work from, and also changing the Rancher in the third story into a woman. It’s a long process, where you are in the weeds for a long time but then eventually things start to make sense.
You also do some interesting things, structurally. I feel like the conventional thing — to the extent that anything in this movie would ever be conventional — would have been to lead up to the Laura Dern episode, with the hostage standoff. But I love the fact that that episode comes at the beginning.
It did sort of have to start with that. But action-wise, it’s true. I would say that the emotional climax happens in the third story, and that makes the three stories come together.
The film is filled with wonderful little details, like Kristen Stewart dabbing her face at the diner with the napkin still rolled up with the fork and knife. Do you search for moments like that, or are they the result of happy accidents?
You leave room for spontaneous things to happen. That particular thing was Kristen. That was purely her. The actors obviously bring a lot to each scene. One thing about shooting on location is the weather: The scene in the parking lot with Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone, the wind was so incredible that day — Kristen could hardly keep her skirt from flying up. And things like that end up playing a big part in choices that the actors make, and the mood of something. How loud people end up speaking because of the weather. Or dealing with animals that are not trained and are going to be doing their own thing, so you’re just responding to them. Or you’re driving, actually driving a car, and you have to be thinking about traffic. All these things keep actors in the moment, but also keep anything from being too especially planned out. That night at the diner, particularly, there was a big storm outside that you can sort of see through the window, and that ends up adding something to the feeling of the night. But that was Kristen doing that. She figured her character was in too much of a hurry to unwrap her spoon and fork [laughs].
Speaking of location, all your films have a tremendous sense of atmosphere and place. I’m curious how you go about achieving that. You shot some of your previous films in and around Portland, Oregon, where you’ve spent a lot of time, but do you feel like you need to really get to know a location before you shoot there? You work with very small budgets, so I don’t think it’s a case where you’re hanging out on set for months before you get to shoot.
Well, we were there months before we shot. It’s not like I can always have a crew or actors there, but I can personally be there beforehand. Generally speaking, I do spend a lot of time in the locations, and finding the locations. That’s the biggest, longest thing. You need to know a place before you’re making a film there. But it’s true that you’re not there with everything you need for that long; the actual shooting and time with actors is always pretty fast. But the crew people are anxious to begin and will just start working on these sorts of things way early because they want to. That’s nice.
On this film, some of the smaller locations were changing and falling out as we shot, which made things really difficult. But the big location, the ranch…once I found the ranch, that became the center of the universe and we built everything onto that. And I was able to spend time there. I didn’t know anything about ranching when I started, which is part of the fun thing, isn’t it? So, I started working with the rancher first, and eventually brought [cinematographer] Chris Blauvelt with me. Eventually, the horses were getting used to us, and then the assistant director started coming and doing the routine with us, and then the art department starts working there. We were just, like, moving our way into people’s lives and working at the ranch.
Lily Gladstone’s character as the Rancher in that final episode feels like such a breath of fresh air in this world, where everyone is so constricted. In her own low-key way, she’s very bold, straightforward, and romantic and honest. But then she meets with heartbreak as a result of it. Do you think at the end that she’s disappeared into the brown-gray background of this world like everyone else, or…
Well, I can’t impose an ending on it. That’s for each viewer to suss out on their own. But she does realize the steady beauty of a chore, I’ll say that.
You often cast nonprofessionals in your films alongside more seasoned actors like Laura Dern or Jared Harris. Do you have a particular style of directing actors, or do you modify it based on who you’re working with?
It depends on who you’re working with. I try to just find my way around. This is a certain scale of film: It’s on locations, it’s often in the winter, and the weather’s kind of harsh. So, they’re coming into our world to a degree. Within that, I try to figure out how people want to work, and I try to facilitate whatever it is they require. There’s no magic pill for anything. Everything’s a process, and it always feels like a new start and new terrain with each film, and you’re just always sort of finding your way. Not that experience doesn’t help; certainly it does. Working with Michelle [Williams] is obviously easy because we see each other, we know each other. But then with other actors, you’re trying to suss out what it is they require, and you hope that they require something similar. And there’s usually not a lot of lead-up, so you’re just starting to get to know people when they start acting for you. Sometimes it starts with costume design, where people start getting fitted for their clothes. And maybe you start to know people when you’re sending them research or whatever. But mostly, you’re kind of thrown into the fire together. And you’re figuring it all out while you’re working.
Certain Women feels like a spiritual sequel to your western Meek’s Cutoff, in which you have a group of women wandering these vast stretches of land that once belonged to another people. Now here we are in the modern day, and an entire civilization has been built on top of that land. But we see the little remnants of what was here before, with the Indian ritual at the mall, the story about native sandstone, even Lily Gladstone’s character, who is Native American. The two films resonated in that way for me.
Well, that’s because they’re both about the West. I mean, it’s hard to write about the West and not be thinking about Native Americans on some level. I think that’s just the nature of any sort of western — however you want to define the western.
Sound seems like a critical part of your movies, but also an underrated part.
They all sort of start with sound. The soundscapes begin with scouting and really listening to what’s happening in the spaces. With Wendy and Lucy, that film came from a John Raymond short story called “Train Choir,” which had train sounds built into it, so that was sort of in my head as I started. The concept of that film was to just use the trains as score: In the spaces where you’d use music, you would use the sounds of this kind of commerce. And then in Meek’s Cutoff it was really about how to build quiet, which is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Building quiet is actually a lot harder than building a wall of sound. And it’s certainly harder to mix. We were in a place that was so quiet, and we had to get tracks of snakes and flies and just anything we could build sound with. We also had to get across the monotony and the repetitive nature of every day. And then animals brought a world of sound, and wind always brings a lot of sound.
Certain Women, we filmed in Livingston, Montana — it’s called “The Windiest Place in America.” It’s a crazy windy place, and everywhere you go — every alleyway or truck stop — the wind is making a hugely different sound. It was really hard to get clean. Wind is already hard to record, but at the truck stop, the wind going underneath the trucks has this really singsongy sound, and that was the starting idea of how to build a kind of distant ambience. And then there was the question of how to get across distance through sound for the Rancher character. Also, there’s a huge depot there, so there were going to be sounds of trains on the soundtrack whether I wanted them or not, so I needed to start planning for that ahead of the time. But then there are also these highway sounds. A lot of times, while you’re scouting, you start making notes of what you’re hearing, and then from that you start to build what the soundscape is going to be.
It wasn’t until I read Ella Taylor’s lovely essay in this Criterion booklet that I realized that in the very final scenes of the film, when we revisit each of these women, they’re all feeding someone or something.
Oh. Is that true? [Pause] Oh yeah, that is true. Good eye, Ella! I hadn’t really thought of that. I just got the box today. And I’ve only seen the cover, and I haven’t opened the package yet.