Friday, December 08, 2023

The Auteurs #72: Kelly Reichardt


One of the key filmmakers to be part of a new wave of American neo-realism in the 21st Century, Kelly Reichardt is a unique individual who doesn’t play into the conventions of Hollywood. Rather making minimalist-based films that center around real people who are either part of the working class or on the fringes of society. Often refusing to have her films defined by genre or to play to its rules, Reichardt would also explore ideas of feminism as it relate to women and their environment but also allow men to express their own voices in a world that expects so much from them. While her films may not appeal to a wide audience, she has become a filmmaker who has managed to let the audience find her and come out of her films seeing the world differently from what Hollywood would expect.

Born on March 3, 1964 in Miami, Florida, Kelly Reichardt was the daughter of two people who both served the local law enforcement in the state as she grew up in the city where she was fascinated by the world of photography at a young age. Despite also enduring the separation of her parents around that time, Reichardt’s fascination with photography also lead her to discover the world of film. Attending the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University in Boston where she received her MFA, Reichardt’s interest in film increased as she sought to make something of her own while also taking a job as a teacher for many liberal art schools. Yet, the late 1980s and early 1990s saw an opportunity for Reichardt to develop ideas for what would become her first feature film.

River of Grass
Inspired by her own experiences in South Florida, Reichardt and producer Jesse Hartman worked on a treatment for a story about a housewife/mother who meets a man in a bar who had found a handgun where they accidentally shoot the gun believing they had killed someone. The couple would go on the road to escape the law yet they would endure this air of realism as it relates to uncertainty and lack of funds as Reichardt who understood the idea of wanting to leave a certain place but not have the money to do so is something she would explore with later films. With a small budget and a small crew that include cinematographer Jim Denault and be shot on location parts of South Florida including Miami and Ft. Lauderdale.

Reichardt would get a cast of mostly unknowns and lesser-known actors such as Michael Buscemi, Greg Schroeder, Santo Fazio, Dick Russell, and Lisa Bowman while horror film icon Larry Fessenden would play the lead role of Lee and Bowman as the female lead Cozy. Fessenden, who is also a filmmaker, would help Reichardt with a lot of the film’s post-production work where he edited and did sound design for the film as it would give Reichardt an idea of what to do where she would later take on editing duties herself in future films. Given the limited resources she is given, Reichardt would shoot on actual locations to give the film that air of realism while getting help from her parents to help with law enforcement as they would appear in the film in small cameos. Reichardt would also play into the idea of these two people who both live unhappy lives and their attempts to escape South Florida. Yet, they’re unaware that the handgun that Lee found actually belonged to her father while they also don’t know about the man they supposedly shot as it adds to panic and confusion along with the little money they had to get out of South Florida including a fee for the toll.

The film made its premiere at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival in January of that year where it was well-received as it was followed a month later at a screening at the Berlin International Film Festival where it also received a rousing reception. The film took a year to get a distributor where it finally shown publicly in New York City in August 1995 at the Public Theater that was followed by its limited release later that October. The film would garner three nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards for Best First Feature, Best Debut Performance for Lisa Bowman, and the Someone to Watch Award to Reichardt yet all of the critical acclaim and positive response from film festivals wouldn’t give her money to make another film which was common for women filmmakers in those times.

Ode/Then, a Year/Travis

Like many independent filmmakers who were unable to get funding for projects, Reichardt spent the rest of the 1990s trying to get projects going and like many other women filmmakers before her, who didn’t work within the Hollywood system, found her efforts to get funding stalled. The lack of money to get any feature film projects going forced Reichardt to do things herself by creating a trilogy of short films as the first was an adaptation of Herman Raucher’s novel Ode to Billie Joe that was based on Bobbie Gentry’s hit song from 1967. Shot on Super 8mm film, Reichardt’s 52-minute short would feature score music by indie musician Will Oldham and a cover of a Sun-Raa song by Yo La Tengo. The short starred Heather Gottlieb and Kevin Poole as a young couple who try to be together despite the fact that the former is a pastor’s daughter and the latter is a troubled runaway. Featuring narration by Terry Bison, the film explores that air of realism of why this couple couldn’t be together as it relate to their respective environments including identities and social politics as Reichardt would receive support from many in the independent film community including Todd Haynes and Ira Sachs to get the short made and released through film festivals in 1999.

Two years later during the early days of the George W. Bush administration, Reichardt would make a short entitled Then, a Year as it is largely a collage of images shot in Portland, Oregon that includes narration by many people from TV crime shows including love letters written by Mary Kay Letourneau who was infamous as a school teacher who got impregnated by her teenage student. The 13-minute short would have Reichardt not just emphasize on images serving as collages to play into this sense of uncertainty in the early 2000s. It also showcases a world that seems peaceful yet the many voiceover narrations show a world that is anything but peaceful. Reichardt would have the film be shown in various film festivals as she would get the support of many in the independent film community despite the lack of funds she would receive.

Three years later, Reichardt made another short that would have similarities in her previous short as it’s based on collages where it would play into loss and the chaos surrounding the War of Iraq. The 12-minute short would essentially display blurry images that would loop throughout the film with ambient guitar accompaniment by Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan where a woman speaks about her son going into war as it would repeat throughout yet it would play into the sense of loss, fear, and anger the woman would endure as the short would be well-received with the independent film community.

Old Joy
Having moved from Florida to Portland, Oregon in the early 2000s, in which the city was a haven for various filmmakers in the independent film scene that wanted little to do with Hollywood, Reichardt would meet writer Jonathan Raymond, whose stories set in various parts of Oregon where he lived, as the two would begin a fruitful collaboration that either had Reichardt adapt some of Raymond’s work or with the two working together on a project. Taking one of Raymond’s short story about two friends who go on a weekend camping trip to the Cascade mountain range and stay at the Bagby Hot Springs. The project would be an exploration of the emergence of adulthood with these two men both enduring major changes in their lives as the trip would be a final moment for the two as they’re both about to embark the next phase in their lives.

Reichardt and Raymond would work together on creating a script for the film as it would explore two men living in two different lifestyles as it would also explore the harsh reality and economic turmoil in America under the George W. Bush administration. Playing the lead roles in the film is indie musician Will Oldham and actor Daniel London in their respective roles as Kurt and Mark with the former living as a hippie and the latter is a man with a job and a home and a child to emerge. The film would also star Reichardt’s dog Lucy as she would join the two on the trip as the film would be made on a small budget $30,000 with Reichardt serving as her own editor and having a small crew including cinematographer Peter Sillen shooting the film. The film would be shot on location at the Cascade mountain range and at the Bagby Hot Springs as it be told in a style that is low-key and simple which would be a style that Reichardt would perfect in the years to come.

Helping Reichardt with the post production is the indie-rock band Yo La Tengo as they would provide some score music for the film while sound designer Daniel Perlin would help gather radio clips from Air America Radio that plays into the growing alienation for Kurt and Mark over the next phase in their lives. The film made its premiere in January of 2006 at the Sundance Film Festival where it was well-received by critics and audiences. The film would become a hit at various film festivals including the Rotterdam International Film Festival as it helped exposed Reichardt to a worldwide audience. Though the film only gained a small and limited theatrical release, it would be well-received by critics where it shared the Douglas Edwards Experimental/Independent Film/Video Award prize with So Yong Kim’s In Between Days from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and a producer’s award to Neil Kopp at the Independent Spirit Awards.

Wendy and Lucy
Through her friendship with Jonathan Raymond, Reichardt chose to adapt another story that Raymond had as it relates to a young woman traveling to Alaska with her dog only to lose the dog because of an accidental shoplifting incident. The story played into many of Reichardt’s interest in some of the economic disparity people are going through during the George W. Bush presidency as well as the recent 2007-2008 financial crisis. Yet, Reichardt wanted to play into those that don’t fit in towards social standings that are beneficial as well as what happens to those with very little money and control of their situations. The film would once again be set in Portland and areas nearby as it would be this place where the film’s protagonist Wendy would be stranded by due to the fact that her car is out of gas and doesn’t have much money. Reichardt would work with an entirely new crew with the exception of Will Oldham and producer Larry Fessenden who would both make small cameos in the film while Reichardt’s dog Lucy would play the titular role of the dog.

For the role of Wendy, Michelle Williams took on the part as it would mark a major departure for the actress who gained fame in the late 1990s and early 2000s in the teen TV drama Dawson’s Creek though would follow her time in the show doing different kind of films in studio features to working in offbeat indie films for such filmmakers as Wim Wenders, Thomas McCarthy, Todd Haynes, Charlie Kaufman, and Ang Lee in the last of which was in the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain where she received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Williams took part in the $300,000 budgeted film just two days after completing work in Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, New York as she cut her hair and dyed it brunette to play the role of Wendy. Williams also took the role as a way to cope with her own personal issues as she and then-boyfriend in Australian actor Heath Ledger were going through a separation as she found comfort in Reichardt’s approach as well as playing a character that had to fend for herself.

The film made its premiere at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival that May as it played at the Un Certain Regard section where it was well-received with the dog Lucy winning the festival’s Palm Dog award. Following a run of appearances at various film festivals, the film was given a limited release in early December of 2008 as the film managed to gross $1.4 million overall against its $300,000 budget while garnering rave reviews and a slew of awards from various critics at the year-end polls towards both Reichardt and Williams including being voted as the best film of the year by the American Film Institute.

Meek's Cutoff
The success of Wendy and Lucy not only allowed Reichardt some newfound clout but also the chance to work with a bigger budget as she and Jonathan Raymond decided to create a project based on the Oregon Trail as it relates to a real-life incident in 1845. Raymond would write the project as it would mark a major departure for Reichardt as it would be her first period film as well as with a budget of $2 million which would be the biggest production of her career to date. Fortunately, the experience of working with Michelle Williams proved to be fruitful as Williams chose to take part in the project as a key factor for the film’s budget. While Reichardt would retain the service of sound designer Leslie Shatz who worked on Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt would gain a new collaborator in Christopher Blauvet as her cinematographer who had been a camera operator in several prominent indie films including Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg and Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are.

With an ensemble cast that would include Bruce Greenwood as the infamous guide Stephen Meek as well as Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Will Patton, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson, Rod Rondeaux, and British actress Shirley Henderson. The film would be shot on location in barren areas of Oregon similar to where its trail was based on as Reichardt and Blauvet wanted to maintain a realistic look to the film. Even as Reichardt would shoot the film in the 1:37:1 Academy ratio which was a format made for Westerns before the 1950s and the emergence of widescreen. Reichardt use the format to create a sense of claustrophobia as the settlers ponder whether Meek knows where he’s going with Williams’ character often challenging him as well as intervening in wanting to kill a Native. The film also played into elements of slow-core cinema that is a style adopted by European filmmakers that allowed long shots to commence as it would to the air of uncertainty the characters would endure.

The film premiered in September of 2010 at the Venice Film Festival in competition for the Golden Lion where it was well-received as well as win the SIGNIS Award at the festival. The film would be followed by a limited theatrical release through Oscilloscope Laboratories in April of 2011 in the U.S. as the film grossed $1.2 million. Despite its lackluster box office performance, the film would get rave reviews in the U.S. and Europe as it would continue Reichardt’s reputation as a top filmmaker despite her commercial limitations.

Night Moves
Having tackled a genre film with Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt decided to once again go into another genre film in the form of a suspense-drama but with her own take as it plays into real people in real-life situations where things can go wrong. With Jonathan Raymond co-writing the screenplay with Reichardt, the project would revolve around two radical environmentalists who team up with a former marine in blowing up a dam where the aftermath of the event lead to a lot of issues. Reichardt would gather many of her collaborators including David Doernberg who did the production design for Meek’s Cutoff but died in March of 2012 during pre-production as Reichardt would dedicate the film to him. The film would be shot in Southern Oregon with the dam shot at the Galesville Reservoir at the Klamath Mountains along with other nearby locations that would give the film a minimalist feel with a limited budget. While Paul Dano and Rooney Mara were in consideration to play the lead roles, Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning were eventually cast as the environmentalists along with Peter Sarsgaard as a former marine who works with them with the ensemble that would include Alia Shawkat, Katharine Waterston, James LeGros, Kai Lennox, and Logan Miller.

Before shooting was to begin in the fall of 2012, the project was nearly halted by a lawsuit from the Edward R. Pressman Film company over plagiarism as it relates to a planned adaptation of Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang that was to be helmed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. Though the stories shared similar ideas, the lawsuit was eventually dismissed in early 2013 months after Reichardt and her crew shot the film during the fall of 2012 in a thirty-day shoot. Reichardt would maintain her minimalist approach as well as showcase how a group of people would plan a bombing but also with an aftermath that is troubling as it relates to guilt and paranoia. Even as Reichardt and Raymond would play with the structure with its first half being about planning the act of destroying the dam and its second half being its aftermath.

The film made its premiere on August 31, 2013 at the Venice Film Festival in competition for the Golden Lion where it was well-received despite not winning any awards. The film would also be well received at various film festivals in the following weeks including winning the Grand Prix prize at the Deauville American Film Festival in France as it would be followed by its U.S. release in late May of 2014 through Cinedigm where it got rave reviews despite its limited screening. Still, the film grossed more than $850,000 worldwide despite not being a commercial hit as Reichardt would still be a darling of the critics but not someone with any true commercial appeal.

Certain Women
Following two films that explored different genres despite not being commercially successful, Reichardt decided to change things a bit as she had spent much of her film work in Oregon as she wanted a change of scenery. Reading the short stories of Maile Meloy that all play into the struggles of women living in Montana, Reichardt was fascinated by these stories as she decided to take a trio of them and turn it into an anthology film all based on Meloy’s stories with Reichardt writing the script herself allowing Jonathan Raymond to take a break. With cinematographer Christopher Blauvet, sound designer Kent Sparling, and music composer Jeff Grace returning to work with Reichardt as they had become regular collaborators along with Larry Fessenden serving as an executive producer. It would be filmmaker Todd Haynes that would help Reichardt provide the funding she needed as the film would be given a $2 million budget with Michelle Williams also playing a key role in the funding as she would co-star in the film along with Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, and newcomer Lily Gladstone in lead roles.

With a cast that would include James LeGros, Jared Harris, John Getz, and Rene Auberjonois, the film would be set in Livingston, Montana instead of Helena where Meloy based her stories at. The three stories would play into women in Livingston with Laura Dern as an attorney dealing with a disabled client who has become desperate for money by holding a security guard hostage as it would be the first story. The second story has Michelle Williams as a woman who is trying to have her dream home built as she is dealing with issues including her teenage daughter. The third story stars Gladstone and Stewart with the former as a lonely ranch hand who attends night school where she befriends a young teacher played by the latter. It all plays into these women eager to connect or to take control of something in a world that is often isolated from conventional society with Livingston being this key location that Reichardt would use to play into a world that these women live in even though they don’t interact with one another.

The film made its premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in January of that year to great acclaim followed by festival appearances including winning the top prize at that year’s London Film Festival as the film would get a limited U.S. release that October through IFC Films where it grossed over a million dollars in the U.S. making it Reichardt’s highest grossing U.S. film to date as its worldwide tally would be at $1.5 million. Despite not covering its $2 million budget, the film would receive a lot of praise from critics as the film would be released in France a year later where Cahier du Cinema would name it the third best film of 2017. The film would also garner numerous critics’ prizes including a New York Film Critics prize for Best Supporting Actress to Michelle Williams for her performance for the film as well as for Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea while Lily Gladstone would also get many notices as it would begin her ascent to stardom.

First Cow
Following the release of Certain Women, Reichardt had revealed to the press that her next project was to be an adaptation of Patrick deWitt’s novel Undermajordomo Minor as she would collaborate with deWitt for the script as it would be the first film that Reichardt would shoot outside of the U.S. Yet, the project would go into development hell as Reichardt decided to put the project on hold to reunite with Jonathan Raymond in adapting his novel First Cow about a loner who befriends a Chinese immigrant in the Oregon territory in the early 19th Century as they discover a cow from a rich landowner as they use the cow to make some money. The project would be Reichardt’s second period piece film as it would also shift its focus on two men who are trying to live simple lives as Reichardt and Raymond would write the script together with cinematographer Christopher Blauvet, production designer Anthony Gasparro, and sound designer Leslie Shatz returning to be part of the project with famed producer Scott Rudin serving as a producer for the film.

With a budget over $2 million as it would then be Reichardt’s most expensive project to date, the film would star John Magaro and Orion Lee in the lead roles with a supporting cast that would include British actor Toby Jones as the landowner as well as indie rock musician Stephen Malkamus, Ewen Bremner, Gary Farmer, Scott Shepherd, Lily Gladstone in a small role, and Rene Auberjonois in one of his final film performances as a trader. Alia Shawkat would also make an appearance in the film’s opening scene set in the 21st Century as a woman who finds a shallow grave as it would lead into the main story. Production began in November 2018 as it was shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio to give the film a presentation that is unconventional but adds to this story of two outsiders who don’t fit in with this emerging territory at a time when it was starting to get civilized with those in power wanting to control things because of a cow that allows these two men to take its milk and make things that would get them rich.

The film premiered in late August of 2019 at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado to a great reception that was followed by a showing at the New York Film Festival less than a month later as the film would get U.S. distribution to A24 for its theatrical release in the spring of 2020. After a well-received screening at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival in competition for the Golden Bear, the film’s limited U.S. release started off until it was pulled a week into its showing due to the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down all film theaters though the film would get screened through various streaming platforms in July of that year. Despite its relatively short theatrical run, the film did manage to gross $1.4 million worldwide with many felt it would’ve been Reichardt’s first commercial hit. Still, the film would garner numerous rave reviews and end up in many year-end lists as one of 2020’s best films with its biggest prizes in being named Best Film of 2020 by the New York Film Critics Circle as well as being named the best film of 2021 for its French release by Cahier du Cinema.

Owl/Bronx, New York November 2019/Cal State Long Beach, CA January 2020

During post-production for First Cow, Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvet collaborated on a 4-minute short film in which they captured the activity of an owl late one night though it was meant for an owl to sense something but it missed its cue leading to a happy accident occurring for this four-minute short. The short was one of a trio of shorts made in late 2019 and early 2020 as the second short was made during a visit to the Bronx in New York City as part of a series of projects for a French YouTube channel in Centre Pompidou. The first of the two shorts would revolve around an art gallery instillation at the Bronx by Michelle Segre as it is a largely silent documentary short that has Reichardt and her crew that includes Christopher Blauvet shoot Segre as she makes her art with so much attention to detail in her loft studio in the Bronx.

Reichardt’s second short for Centre Pompidou focuses on two sculptors in Jessica Jackson Hutchins and Alexander Demetriou at their studio at Cal State on Long Beach, California. While it shares the same aesthetics as Reichardt’s previous short, it does feature a bit of dialogue in the film as Reichardt showcases the meticulous detail the two put into their sculptures. Despite their different styles, both Hutchins and Demetriou do showcase unique visions into what they want to present as the short also show them what they’re capable of despite not fitting in with mainstream art.

Showing Up
Inspired by her collaboration with Centre Pompidou as well as returning to a project she had been developing for a decade in a project about the Canadian artist Emily Carr. Reichardt decided to create a film about the art world as well as the struggle for an artist to create art despite not making a lot of money. Teaming with Jonathan Raymond in writing a screenplay that would explore a woman set to open her own art exhibition as she deals with her family, friends, competing artists including her landlord, and tending to an ailing pigeon. Gathering many of her collaborators in cinematographer Christopher Blauvet, production designer Anthony Gasparro, costume designer April Napier, music composter Ethan Rose, and visual effects supervisor Chris Connolly as well as putting other regulars in John Magaro, Larry Fessenden, and James LeGros in small roles. The film would also mark Reichardt’s fourth collaboration with Michelle Williams who would play the lead role of artist Lizzy as the film would take place in Portland, Oregon with the Oregon College of Arts and Craft being a key location in the film.

The ensemble cast would also include Maryann Plunkett, Hong Chau, Judd Hirsch, Amanda Plummer, and Andre Benjamin aka Andre 3000 of the Atlanta-based hip-hop duo Outkast who would collaborate with Rose on the film’s music score by playing flute. Shooting began in Portland in June of 2021 just as the COVID-19 pandemic was coming a close with actors and crew allowing to work regularly with some precautions as the shooting took over a month. Artist Cynthia Lahti would be the artist that would create the sculptures that Williams’ character would create as Williams also studied with Lahti and others to understand the amount of craftsmanship artists go through in their work. Hong Chau would also do the same as the art work her created was inspired by Michelle Segre and others where Reichardt was able to capture the spirit of the Portland art scene that was starting to get back on track following the pandemic. Even as Reichardt also managed to help out the art scene and the Oregon College of Arts and Craft in showcasing many of its local artists who had been stifled by the pandemic.

The film made its premiere in May of 2022 at the Cannes Film Festival where it played in competition for the Palme d’Or as it was well-received despite not winning any awards as the film would be picked up by A24 for a limited theatrical release in April of 2023 in the U.S. to great acclaim and a worldwide box office tally of $1.2 million. The film would also receive some accolades including appearing in the year-end top 10 list from Cahier du Cinema as well as being named as one of year’s best independent films from the National Board of Review and gaining the Robert Altman Award for its ensemble cast from the Independent Spirit Awards.

While she may not have the commercial appeal as other women filmmakers as well as the clout that other filmmakers can get to make their own films. Kelly Reichardt does however have an integrity in doing things her way and sticking to her guns. Even if her films has a limited appeal on a commercial level yet remains beloved by film buffs as she’s made eight feature films so far that are all unique in its depiction of showing a realism that some of her contemporaries wouldn’t go into. It is why her films are lauded as there is always interest in what she will do next no matter how long fans might have to wait which is common with most independent filmmakers including women. Yet, when it comes to Kelly Reichardt and her films. They’re always worth waiting for.

© thevoid99 2023


Brittani Burnham said...

Kelly is a filmmaker that I really want to like but I don't often connect with her films. Night Moves remains my favorite of her work, but nothing else has really come close to it for me personally.

ruth said...

I've only seen Certain Women which I thought was ok, so I have a big blindspot on Kelly Reichardt. I do want to see Showing Up though.

thevoid99 said...

@Brittani-Night Moves is her most accessible work to date as it is her flirting with a genre yet a lot of it minimalist that doesn't have much plot but it's often rewarding.

@ruth-Wendy & Lucy I think is the best place to start while Showing Up is worth seeking out as it features another great winning performance from Michelle Williams.