Certain Women screenwriter-director Kelly Reichardt knows what she wants in her movies
When she’a not at Bard College in upstate New York, where she’s an artist in residence, writer-director Kelly Reichardt makes movies. Specifically, she has spent the past two decades making movies about lonely outsiders in rural America. Movies about people simply trying to survive. So her rugged Western, Meek’s Cutoff, and the contemporary drama Night Moves, about young radicals, aren’t light fare. But they’ve earned her a devoted critical following and steady festival laudits — including the Best Film award at this year’s London Film Festival, for her latest: Certain Women, which opens Friday in Kansas City.
Certain Women, adapted from fiction by Maile Meloy (whose brother, Colin Meloy, leads noted band the Decemberists), tells three interlocking stories involving women who all live in a small Montana town. The film stars Laura Dern, Reichardt regular Michelle Williams and Kristen Stewart. Reichardt spoke with The Pitch by phone earlier this month.
The Pitch: How did you decide on the film’s sort of modular structure?
Kelly Reichardt: It was really trial and error. I was trying things and different stories and seeing how they would work together. It found its shape, really, over a long period of time. It was just writing a lot of really bad versions of the script until I found one that was working, until I found something that clicked. Stripping it down and building it back up.
To me the question would be, “Is there something to be gained from putting the three stories together?” And I don’t mean in a plot way. Do they somehow add up to something larger than their individual selves? I think that they might. I can leave that for others to decide, but from my point of view, I thought that they did.
Your movies are often about people who don’t make it through difficult situations. In Meek’s Cutoff and Certain Women, you show us characters who have had rough experiences and who remain scarred by them. For example, in this movie, Jared Harris’ character makes a series of regrettable decisions.
Yes, he’s going to have regrets. They’re all pretty flawed, these characters, some in larger ways. He does have a head injury, to his defense [laughs]. He is, in a way that speaks to our time, a white man who’s in his 50s, and his mind is being blown that things aren’t working out his way, and he is completely surprised that the system isn’t necessarily going to work for him. “It’s just not fair.” He just can’t believe it. Anybody else already knows that by that age — and knows much sooner in life — especially probably the female lawyer [played by Dern] that’s trying to slip away from him. I think that things he has control of have slipped away, and he doesn’t have any control anymore.
One thing that seemed unique in your film is that you see American Indians doing traditional dancing at indoor malls. You don’t see much of that in Kansas City.
No. We had them come over from Pendleton. That was the first thing that struck me when I started spending time in Montana. I did try to work that into the script. The echoes of the native art are everywhere. There’s a more sanitized version of native art in restaurants and hotels and centers of town, but very few brown faces, actually. It’s very white in Montana. In that mall, half the windows are going to have fashions with some kind of reference to nativewear, but it’s all just a commodity. That was one of the first threads I thought I could work into the screenplay.
Even though you grew up in Miami, your movies, especially Wendy and Lucy and Certain Women, have a feel for small towns and the extreme things that people in them will sometimes do because they’re lonely.
Maile Meloy is from Montana, and I think she loves Montana. I was really drawn to these stories [of hers]. I should say that she’s really good at getting across these sort of interconnections and isolation that comes from a place like that. When you kind of hunker down in a place and get to know it, you kind of get a feel for yourself what is incredibly beautiful about it. And sometime the same things that can make you feel kind of awestruck can make you feel kind of lonely or isolated or detached or all those things, just kind of how the landscape or the cityscape kind of works into our psyche at some point.
You shot Meek’s Cutoff in the desert and were on the West Coast for Wendy and Lucy and Night Moves. Montana was pretty different?
It was very cold [laughs]. It was freezing. That’s my main memory of it. You’d get under the covers with all your clothes on, you’d have four hours of sleep, and you’d never really get warm. I never could get warm. But that may say something about me. But I also got more attached to Montana than I thought I would. I didn’t get attached to being in production all the time. Before production started, I was like, “Wow!” I think the whole crew ended up feeling a really big attachment to the place and the people we met there.
I’d never been able to think of myself as being able to live anywhere inland, and that was the first time I ever had that kind of experience, after living in Florida and New York and Oregon. With the small-town-ness, we got used to living out in Burns, Oregon, where you first you can’t believe your lack of options. At some point it becomes so quieting not to have all the options of the world at your fingertips. There’s two sides to that coin. Likewise, Livingston [in Montana] is much more of a metropolitan small town than Burns, Oregon. You can get a really good cup of coffee in Livingston.