Northwest passage: Kelly Reichardt on "Meek's Cutoff"

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Courtesy San Francisco Film Society

Over the past decade, Kelly Reichardt has consistently created an alternative cinema that is in opposition to modern Hollywood blockbusters. Her films, which emphasize minimalist and highly visual storytelling, transcend even the industry’s edgiest darlings (think Darren Aronofsky and Quentin Tarantino). Her films Ode (1999), Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008), and now Meek's Cutoff (2010) cannot be categorized in the decade’s overhated mumblecore movement of Andrew Bujalski or the Duplass Brothers. Neither are they part of the world of extreme experimental artists, a la James Benning or Sharon Lockhart.

Somehow Reichardt has found a cinematic middle ground, balancing quiet and poetic allegories with accessible and emotional journeys — an achievement that present and future audiences will be hypnotized by for generations to come. After interviewing her for Wendy and Lucy, I spoke with her after Meek's Cutoff played the 2011 Sundance Film Festival; it recently had its local debut at the San Francisco International Festival, and opens theatrically Fri/6.

San Francisco Bay Guardian: I recently saw your earliest films at the Pacific Film Archive retrospective and your adaptation of the Robby Benson-starring Ode to Billy Joe (1976), Ode (1999), was amazing! You shot the whole thing on Super 8, right? Do you like your earlier films?

Kelly Reichardt: Ode is very near and dear to my heart. It set me on my own way of making films. I don’t think I’m naturally a non-narrative person. And definitely not as much as I revere those kind of filmmakers like my colleagues: Peggy Ahwesh, Peter Hutton. I love seeing how their films unfold and really make the viewer be interactive in deciding what they’re about and what they mean to them. That’s what I’d like to do as a filmmaker. But I can see myself learning in all of my films, which is painful. A couple of students walked out of that screening of my earliest short films and I wanted to run out after them and say, “I totally understand!”

SFBG: You and [screenwriter] Jon Raymond seem to be consciously aware of just that! I know I have told you this before but I find your films so inspired. Your films are like the kind of classes I always wanted to have in college. You’re never telling me what to think, yet you are very precisely leading me towards something extremely imminent. And along the way, I get to experience my own journey with these characters and situations. Do you run into problems getting your films made and released because of this structure?

KR: That part of it, the endings, is [an element] coming from the world of non-narrative filmmaking. It doesn’t hand things over to the audience. It’s like a series of questions unfolding which is like a dream, which is something I want to bring into a more narrative form. It opens up the traditional genre a little which you already know how its’ suppose to go. Meek's Cutoff and Wendy and Lucy were both released through Oscilloscope, while Old Joy was distributed by Kino. These are all small independent distributors and the things that they are looking for are not for everyone.

The hard part with filmmaking is getting the money to make the film. Everybody has a camera now. You can shoot a video. But if you’re not into naturalism and you’re trying to make things that are more extravagant, that vision is going to be much harder to just do on your own. If I were a student right now, my biggest fear would be how to rise up out of such a huge sea of voices. When I submitted my first feature, River of Grass, to Sundance in 1994, they had 600 entries that year which seemed overwhelming and huge. Six hundred and they were only gonna pick 16. And what was it this year? Didn’t they have something like 6,000 entries?

Getting your film out ... worry about that later. Get your film made first. Plus there’s always the fear of even having something to say at the age of 20! Before you’ve lived on your own and been connected to the big black hole of employment, and public transportation and all those things. That could be good “big” fear to have as a young filmmaker.

SFBG: In your Q&A after the screening of Meek's Cutoff at the Egyptian Theatre [in Park City, Utah], I was very excited about your bringing up forgotten and unavailable older films like Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men (1952).

KR: Me too! I was trying to make that point and I became so distracted by the woman sitting behind you filming. It’s just such a weird thing to look out and see 15 people videotaping you and you realize that no experience can ever just be with the people in the room again. Everything has to be some bigger purpose and I completely quit thinking about the film and the interaction. I think it’s a bizarre that people feel completely free about videotaping you and posting it on the Internet without asking me.

SFBG: Not only is it exciting that your films feel influenced by older cinema but you do it in a way that’s very much like Peter Bogdanovich, where it feels as if you truly understand the film’s themes and goals and you’re not just making a mixtape of your favorite scenes. Wendy and Lucy feels like a Vittorio De Sica neo-realist film, while Meek's Cutoff feels like an existential William Wellman Western by way of Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922). I mean, you even used the old Hollywood aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on Meek's Cutoff! And it doesn’t come off kitschy; in fact, it feels even futuristic.

KR: It’s funny that you mention the aspect ratio. If anything is kitschy, and when you read back about the period, widescreen was what was kitschy. It was a gimmick! It’s what 3D or IMAX is to us today. What did Fritz Lang say, “Widescreens are for funerals and snakes.”

It’s funny now that this memory of widescreen is so embraced but it’s such a diminished landscape in a way. That question is always being asked to me in some tone of like, “When you accidentally picked the wrong aspect ratio did you have to just keep going with it?” (laughs) Though I knew going into it that it would limit the amount of theatres we can play Meek's at. Sadly, very few theaters have the capabilities. 

SFBG: I’ve been watching a lot of Westerns this year and your horizons in every single shot of Meek's Cutoff are truly spectacular. Your multi-layered colors! Your floating cowboys! The lined-up pioneers! I could just go on. All of it is so particular. How did you design this film? Did you do it on the landscape or storyboard it first?

KR: I storyboard but I can’t draw. (laughs) I have many different notebooks. Color is an early thing. But everything comes first from relentless scouting.  Scouting, scouting, scouting, scouting. I get familiar with the light and the colors of the day. The places you’re gonna be shooting in at certain times of the day. These locations were really remote and very hard to get to. And we ended up spending such a huge amount of time in that desert.

SFBG: Did you have to sleep out on the plains?

KR: We stayed in this town, Burns, Oregon. It’s a good two-street town and we’d drive off-road for two hours into the desert each day. This is where the actual wagon train got lost. There was nothing out there. We were actually finding pieces of wagon from the 1840s! So it would eat up a huge amount of our shooting day, which is already short because when you’re shooting in the mountains, the sun is gonna go behind them. So that’s four hours already out of your day.

My shooting schedule was so restricted that other producers would have said “You are sinking your ship by shooting out on these locations.” Fortunately my producers backed me and off we went, for better or worse. So you have to be on top of it when you’re there, knowing that there will be unexpected things to occur especially when you are dealing with oxen and mules and donkeys. All of that is to be embraced.

I also have to have a plan because we move so quickly. My DP [Chris Blauvelt] and I are talking, talking, talking. I have some books that are references, that I’ll steal frames from. Some that are location photos, people standing in the locations, some from old films. And some are just really crappy drawings I’ve done because I cannot draw, which I consider a huge handicap as a filmmaker. People always ask “Are you improvising?” We don’t have time for improv! Of course because of the weather, and the terrain, and rattlesnakes and the animals there’s certainly a certain amount of adjustment because when I storyboarded this, it wasn’t snowing. But you can’t go out there without a plan. The camera for me is the storyteller.

SFBG: Now you edit your own movies. Is that because you are a tyrant and you have to have it your own way or have you tried working with others? And by “tyrant,” I mean it in the nicest way possible.

KR: (laughs) You go through different stages: I have my writing partner [Jon Raymond] and that’s one stage and then it becomes very public and you’re working with a bunch of people when filming. Then editing is where you get your film back and it’s when I get to find my film. It’s a great moment when I’m in the editing room an I can say, “Oh yeah, that’s what Jon was originally talking about!” or “I felt that in Jon’s short story!”

But when you’re in production, there’s just so much going on! And editing is where you learn where you fucked up and should have put the camera. It’s the big payoff for me and I don’t want to hand it over to anyone else. It’s the interesting part of filmmaking. It’s where you can manipulate space and completely change the dynamic of a conversation or situation just by adding or taking away time. It’s not fun to edit with me, so I stopped using editors (laughs).

Meek's Cutoff opens Fri/6 in Bay Area theaters.

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University and programs the film series Midnites for Maniacs.