Poor Expectations

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:14

    Director Kelly Reichardt’s 2006 breakthrough Old Joy is the kind of deceptively simple, meditative film where nothing appears to happen, yet so much does. Two friends, the free-spirited Kurt (Will Oldham) and the more reserved Mark (Daniel London), head out for a weekend in the woods to hike, smoke some weed, bask in a hot spring and hopefully reconnect with each other. At first blush, almost nothing of major consequence occurs. But in this lyrical, melancholy portrait of modern male friendship, what the two men grapple with along the way—regret, competition, heartache and alienation—is as profound and moving as everyday life.

    Reichardt’s latest, Wendy and Lucy, opens Dec. 10 for a two-week run at Film Forum and follows in a similarly subtle and contemplative vein. But in comparison, the new film is almost action-packed. There’s criminal activity, conflicts with authority, and the desperate search for a missing dog. Michelle Williams plays Wendy Carroll, a lost soul driving to Alaska seeking work and a fresh start in life. Traveling with her dog Lucy, Wendy’s resilience is tested when her car breaks down in Oregon and her dwindling finances force her to make a series of difficult—and heart wrenching—decisions.

    A relentlessly independent director working far outside the confines of the studio system, Reichardt has fashioned a film that illuminates the ways in which people treat one another, from compassion to indifference, during tough times. She spoke us about her new film.

    New York Press: How did you and your writing partner, Jon Raymond, come up with the story idea for this project? I heard that the writing of the film was inspired in part by government indifference in the wake of Hurricane Katrina?

    Kelly Reichardt:  Well, we were thinking about the increasing gap between the rich and the poor. Particularly post-Katrina, it seemed like the language from the Bush administration went beyond not giving a shit about the poor and into a real disdain. I think we had just listened to Colin Powell talk about [how] people [should] pull themselves up by their bootstraps. And we were just pondering: Really, that’s all it takes? All you need is a desire to make your life better? And you can do it without the benefit of an education, social skills, family support, or a financial safety net?

    Their implication is that if you’re poor in America, it’s because you’re lazy—that opportunity is just laying around for all of us, waiting to be snatched up. So we started with that concept, and [we] came up with a storyline about the mythology of going west to make your life better. We wanted to play with those American themes and the mythology of the road movie.

    “Wendy and Lucy” was shot on a tiny budget with a barebones crew. Was there something apt about the way its restricted finances and shoestring operation echoed Wendy’s own tenuous situation? In what ways did that help in making the film?

    On the shoot, we very much had the feeling that if anything went wrong, there’s no safety net for us, either. You have a really limited amount of time. And it’s all just super-fragile and really precarious, as is Wendy’s predicament. Plus, in keeping the apparatus so small and the crew so small, you can really fade into a location, and you can actually use the space in a different way than if you were a big crew.

    You can let the foreground be the foreground and the background be the background—just set Michelle into it, and let her interact with what’s happening. Or by us using the crappy available light in the jail or in the grocery store. So I think [the intimate nature of the shooting process] does play into things that turn up on the screen.

    You were just talking about the widening gap between rich and poor in this country. Were you hoping to make a film that was, in some ways, a socio-political critique? Or did you want to avoid wading into those waters?

    I don’t have an interest in making a political film, per se. Jon and I do have those conversations in the beginning. Everyone in the film is living in a different kind of precarious situation. I look at the faces of the homeless kids riding the train and the way that they’re living, and it really does recall Depression-era imagery. But as things progress, I’m just trying to make a personal story and a character story.

    I never talked to Michelle about any of those political [topics]. We were just always talking about Wendy. Obviously, when you pick your locations, those things all come into mind—you’re conveying something by the choice of where to film. But with both “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy,” I was hoping all that stuff is subtext and that the films offer enough space for people to bring their own experiences, so that someone could leave with a different point of view than the person sitting next to them. But ultimately, aren’t all films poltical, really?

    I really love the way you see the different characters in the film respond to Wendy. I’m thinking of the kid who works in the grocery store and the police officers, who sort of represent the impersonal bureaucracy and indifference of modern life. They show little or no compassion towards her. Then there’s the security guard, who at first acts as this agent of the corporate bureaucracy when he tells her she can’t leave her car in the parking lot, but evinces a heartfelt and growing sympathy for her as the film progresses. What did you want to examine about the ways in which people treat each other during difficult times?

    You know, when I was scouting for locations, I was driving through Texas, and this woman in front of me blew out her tire. I pulled over to check on her. She was this Mexican woman in her mid-40s, wearing only her socks, no shoes. And I was like, “Do you have Triple A?” “No.” “Do you have a spare tire?” “No, that was my spare tire?” She said, “Before I bought this coke, I only had $20.”

    So I spent the day with this woman, trying to get her flat tire figured out. And we were in the middle of nowhere. Really, it just gave me so much information about the movie, in retrospect, because I was definitely in [the security guard] Wally’s position. It was like: How deep do I want to get into this? What is my responsibility? And can I buy my way out of it? [laughs a little] When I was driving the next day, I realized that’s what this film is about: What is our responsibility to each other? And are we connected? Or is it just each man for himself—on his or her own?

    That’s a pretty sobering idea to be pondering in such a fraught time, when so many people feel they’re dangling over a financial abyss.

    Well, the other thing about that experience that ended up impacting the film was just the way that she handled herself. Like she must leave her house knowing that shit is going to go wrong. She’s in a shitty car. It’s got shitty tires. Her cell phone was turned off because she went over her minutes. She doesn’t have a credit card because it’s maxed out. And she doesn’t have any safety net.

    But I was just so impressed by how she clearly did not get overwhelmed by the big picture, but dealt with the whole thing like a “To Do” list. And she basically said to me, “You can hang in for this for as long as you want to.” She knew that she would get as far with me as she would get with me. And that would be it. She was so matter-of-fact. It just answered so much for me about the Wendy character. So Michelle and I agreed that this was how we’d approach her. You would just deal with what’s right in front of you. You’d be emotionally buttoned-up, because it would just be too overwhelming otherwise. How would you even wake up every day?

    During the 11 years between your first feature “River of Grass” in 1994 and “Old Joy,” you had been developing a larger project, which never came to fruition. Then you shot a short film called “Ode” in 1999, and you realized that you had the power to make a film outside the studio system, on your own terms. Can you talk about what you learned from that experience?

    It taught me that I don’t have the personality to work in the Hollywood system. I don’t perform well within the industry. I don’t know how to make it work for me. And I found that it didn’t give anything back. Then I made “Ode,” this 50-minute, Super 8 narrative with my friend Susan Stover. She produced and recorded sound, I shot it, we had two actors, and it was all exteriors, shot in North Carolina. That was the big epiphany.

    I was like, this is super-challenging and rewarding. So how can I set my life up so that I can have control and I can make films on my terms? I needed to figure out a way to create a life where I could make work. Todd Haynes had been pushing me to try teaching for a long time. So I did that, and I made small work until I made “Old Joy.” But I didn’t know “Old Joy” was going to be a feature.

    I really got people to agree to go into the woods with me for two weeks and make an art project. We didn’t know what it was going to be. That’s a very freeing way to work because there are no expectations.