The films of Kelly Reichardt are like no others in American cinema, combining a disregard for conventional plotting or pacing — a style that, at times, will recall Antonioni at his most abstract — with an emphasis on location and atmosphere that captures a sense of the nation (particularly Oregon) more fully than any of her contemporaries. While that great northwestern state is still the place of choice for her new film, Night Moves, what she’s done, now, is craft a thriller — one molded through those specific sensibilities of herself and frequent collaborator, Jon Raymond, but nevertheless something with more immediate momentum than typically expected. (To say nothing of her prior picture, the masterful Meek’s Cutoff, being an incredibly tense experience.)
Sitting down with her to talk about the project, her preferred location of choice was raised as means of starting a conversation which gets into the technical mind of an exacting formalist. For this, Reichardt’s thoughts on her little-discussed debut, and a relay of what it means to teach, read on below.
The Film Stage: Does Oregon still have any freshness to it? Are you looking for things to make it breathe?
Kelly Reichardt: It’s funny: I’m looking at a script outside of Oregon now. [Laughs] But, you know, it’s just… God, I want to stop talking about Oregon, just because it used to be — especially Portland — an affordable place to go to and where you could get away, and now it’s just so overrun and expensive. But, anyway, it’s just a really diverse state, you know? It has a high desert; it has an old grove forest; it has an ocean. This time, we were down in the Applegate Valley, which is this really unique area in southern Oregon, so every outing there has felt so… like, diverse enough to be really interesting, but contained enough where I can sort of scout and dive deep.
Because I can get really spread out. I mean, for all these films I, you know, Wendy and Lucy I scouted a Walgreens in 39 states before settling on that one, and the same with Old Joy. I’ll go all over the place. For this film, we sort of started with that farm, which was owned by friends of Jon Raymond’s. So it was nice to sort of be able to circle out from there and start with something that was kind of locked-down, so I wasn’t starting in four different states of desert, the way I was with Meek’s. But, of course, the damn scouting was… I had three different scouts on this movie that I worked with, and one of them was this guy, Roger Ferris, who just did the dams, and we went to over twenty dams.
So, yeah, but I don’t really feel like I’m retracing my steps so much in Oregon, but I wish I had some kind of… [Laughs] I wish I could look at a map with a red line of every street I’ve been on in Oregon and see what it could look like. Boy, that’s a long-winded answer — sorry.
No, it actually leads into a question that was on my mind for much of the film. There’s this moment where we see the farm for the first time, and at that first sight it just feels very lived-in — which proves true of every location throughout. Does that always come from the place itself, or is that a result of…
Production design? Well, it’s a combination. I mean, scouting is probably the longest part of the process for me. Even when we’re still writing, I’m scouting, and things get worked into the script. The farm was a working farm, and Jesse went and lived there for a while, working with the farmers. And that was different than other locations, where part of what happens is, even if you’re not going to shoot at a particular place, you get to see what a million offices or trailers or whatever look like, and you can take information from them to build the one you want.
We obviously have limited resources, so a lot of production design does come from scouting, but a working farm is different than anywhere else we’ve shot before, because I thought it was such an advantage to have the farm so early. So, a year before we were shooting, I had already blocked out all my shots on the farm; then, when I went back out to Oregon, it had never occurred to me about rotating crops. The farm was completely different, and laid out entirely different, and I couldn’t use any of my storyboards that I had done the first time I stayed there.
And, then, that happened while we were shooting — we were just constantly trying to stay ahead of the farmer who, you know, wants to cut everything down and pick his vegetables. Farmers get up very early in the morning — even earlier than filmmakers — so we had to really get sort of “in” with his workers on the farm and make exchanges: like, if we can shoot here for another hour, we’ll help you pick these cabbages, and if you guys would just be… you know there are some real farm workers, people that live and work on the farm, in our shots because they actually have work to do. We’re just sort of mixing our actors in among whatever work they had to do at the time. It was just something that, because it’s a working farm and lived-in, it gave it a certain life, but it was also just really having to be flexible with the shooting each day we were there.
I’d really like to get into the writing of this film. One thing that really fascinated me was how small details cohere and small moments can be made into entire scenes. You see Eisenberg’s character go into a library to use a computer for the purpose of accessing a news story — a small thing made into an entire scene of great tension. I was hoping you could talk about where the seed of that comes from and how it grows, if that’s not too vague.
No. Well, that seed is a very… [Laughs] I mean, that seed comes from the scene of Teresa Wright going to the library in Shadow of a Doubt, largely. The whole idea was taking this sort of very “contemporary lifestyles” and “issues of the moment,” putting it in this framework of a thriller or a kind of genre from another period. And, so, a genre that usually has hard and fast lines, and trying to make a film with a lot of ambiguities in that sort of framework. But, it’s funny: the library scene just happened to be one scene where, you know, the getting of information is very much a tipping of the hat to the genre, because there’s always the scene where, you know, you go and get the newspaper and you find out what’s going on.
So to have a character have to go and get information in this day and age was just such a… it’s a hard thing to match with the genre, because everybody has all the information all the time. Josh had to be a person who, and it’s true: on that farm, the Internet is so crappy that you actually don’t have all the information all the time. The idea of having to go to the library to look it up, and to have to wait for it to come up, and to just not be able to have information exactly when you want it just seemed like a place to have that when he finds out what he’s finding out, for that to be a moment that really resonates and has some weight to it, I guess. Like, the plan has not gone as expected, and something’s been lost. So, that’s really a turning point in the film, I think, the new information that he gets at the library. So, yeah, it has to be kind of expanded upon a bit, if that’s what you’re… that’s plotted out in the script.
Another detail is the insert shot of his muddy boots. Is that right in the screenplay or do you think of it as a small moment of suspense, right as you’re preparing to shoot?
No, that was in the script. That also seemed… you know, the wet shoes, that’s a, you know, kind of… I don’t know, it’s a very sort of Anthony Mann moment, in my mind — the wet shoes. [Laughs] The wet hiking boots, in this case. So, no, it’s good that it was in the script, because small things like that, when you’re rushing around on a small film and you have fire engines and extras and you’re holding up a street, it’s hard to get stuff like that in the way we’re moving. If I don’t have it, if it’s not in the script, it’s at least in my notes or in my storyboards. But that was in the script, at some point. I mean, you have to make the most of the space you’re at when you’re at there, because, you know, I can sit there with [cinematographer] Chris Blauvelt in the viewfinder — but, the reality is, I’m not going to have that truck. Or, like I always say about Meek’s, I’d just be in that desert forever with the viewfinder, but it’s not until the day that we’re shooting when I actually have a bowl in a wagon in my frame to know what’s really going to happen.
We have to move so fast, so the idea is, as much as can be thought of before, the better it is. And, of course, to be able to have the eyes to see whatever is happening in the moment on the night that you’re shooting that you didn’t foresee — in Oregon, that would likely be rain — to be able to make the most of whatever that is that is a surprise to you. Details like that have to… you know, I’d rather come up with those things when the thinking is clear, and not in the… I mean, no matter how much you plan, at the speed we shoot there’s always a feeling of chaos because we just don’t have the resources to pull off the stuff we’re trying to pull off. Whether we can’t really shut down a street or whatever it is, it’s always just such a stretch.
While there’s still some time, I was hoping to ask if you’d recently revisited or, at least, given another glance to your feature debut, River of Grass?
No. I can’t look at any of them.
No. I showed it recently, but I didn’t look at it — I can’t look at that movie. [Laughs] Why do you ask?
I watched it for the first time about a year ago and liked it, but it felt very different from your other work. I was just kind of curious if you had seen it recently. I find your inability to look at old work interesting.
Yeah, I mean that was just so hard. Gosh. I mean, that’s like saying, “Would you like to go back to high school?” as far as I’m concerned. [Laughs] It was… I don’t know. Yeah, that was the hardest thing I ever… well, I don’t know — Meek’s was really hard, but in a different way. But River of Grass was crazy hard, because I knew the sort of shots I wanted, but I didn’t know my film lenses well enough. Like, I had done a lot of photography up to that point, but I didn’t know to say what lens I wanted from the camera bag, and it was just so much to learn on that shoot, to get to what I wanted, and… I don’t know. I just… yeah, I can’t look at that. [Laughs]
I mean, I don’t want to look at any of them, because I cut the movies. Larry Fessenden cut that film, and one thing I will say that was great about that film was that I had this summer where we cut that movie on 3/4 inch video and matched it back to film by eye — we didn’t have any time code. But that was the summer, really, to start thinking about sound design and cutting with Larry; that was the best part of it. That was a great part of it. But, yeah, that’s all shot right where I grew up, in Dade County, Florida.
So there is that much.
There are places, I should say, in River of Grass, though, that are no longer there, which might be one thing that would be interesting about that film.
As one who lives pretty close to Bard, I was hoping you could talk a bit about your time there — what teaching has taught you as a filmmaker, and what that experience has highlighted for you.
Well, I kind of focus the classes on what I want to concentrate on. It’ll always sort of be exciting to see what people did the first time they had the camera in their hand. Especially at Bard, where we have students… you know, everyone has to shoot on a Bolex for a semester, and you have these kids who have grown up with everything coming so fast. You put something mechanical in their hands, and they’re like, “What? You only have three minutes? You have to consider each shot? You can’t just, like, shoot your head off and then decide later what you’re going to keep?” So it’s fun to slow people down, and, yeah, when you’re looking at stuff with people — even stuff you’ve seen a million times before — you look at it with people whoa re looking at it for the first time, and you can just keep discovering things in the filmmaking.
Teaching is something I feel like would take a lifetime to really get really, really good at, and I feel like I teach with people who I think are really good teachers. I think there are really interesting filmmakers in that department; I’m sort of as much narrative as they can handle. It’s nice there, the particular combination of landscape and avant-garde filmmaking without the main focus being narrative, and that just makes for an interesting way to start. Because kids are so programmed from narrative from the moment they arrive in school, and it’s good to watch at least some of that be sort of thought about, if nothing else — and they can help me with the new technologies that I can’t keep up with.
Night Moves will enter limited release on Friday, May 30.