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Certain Women - An Interview with Kelly Reichardt
Image Credit: Kelly Reichardt, image by Godlis
Certain Women - An Interview with Kelly Reichardt
Image Credit: Park Circus and Sony Pictures

Certain Women - An Interview with Kelly Reichardt

5 March 2017 Nick Chen

Kelly Reichardt, in person, is more talkative than her wonderful, quiet films. As demonstrated by her past features – including Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff – the indie legend has mastered the art of saying plenty with minimal dialogue. Even Jesse Eisenberg in Night Moves mostly keeps his mouth shut. That same bittersweet poetry is present in her new movie, Certain Women, which won the top prize at London Film Festival and has a UK release this Friday.

In Certain Women, adapted by Reichardt from three Maile Meloy short stories, the certain women are played by Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone and Kristen Stewart. Set in Montana, the three intersecting chapters deal with miscommunication, casual sexism, and the loneliness of long-distance commuting. But none of it’s spelled out explicitly – it’s just the terrain these characters learned to conquer.
 
Once again, it’s the poignant silences – often in depressing car journeys – that are the most devastating. Though that might not be the best description. “It’s not silence!” Reichardt laughs. “There are lots of sounds in the world besides people talking. Trains, winds, the radio, different kinds of winter birds. Closed spaces sound really different than open spaces.” She considers these details in the film to be musical, almost like a score. “Dialogue’s just one of the many possibilities.”
 
To pull off these often wordless sequences, the starry cast assembled by Reichardt reveal their backstories and everyday struggles through small, significant gestures. A celebratory burger, perhaps, or an impromptu road trip into the night. Reichardt is, you suspect, an actor’s director, someone A-listers are more than happy to take a pay cut for. Certain Women, for instance, is her third collaboration with Williams, while Dern, Stewart and Gladstone have deservedly received major acclaim for their roles.
 
“I didn’t need them for that long,” Reichardt explains. “But they did have to make a big effort to come out to a freezing place in the middle of nowhere. Everyone was game, which was really nice. All beautiful actors to work with.” The discovery, though, was Gladstone. “The hardest thing was finding who the Native American actress was going to be, because she wasn’t someone I could easily pool from. So finding Lily Gladstone was a gift from the film gods.”
 
As for the structure, Certain Women divides its trio of stories into separate sections, one after the other, building a momentum that slowly creeps up on the viewer. “They were never there at the same time. It was almost like making three different films and getting into these different worlds. We got the financing for the movie a little bit faster than I anticipated. People had to move quickly and jump in.”

Certan Women. Image courtesy of Park Circus and Sony Pictures.
 
In the first part, Laura (Dern) is a lawyer stuck in a rut with her mistrusting client Fuller (Jared Harris). The middle segment sees Gina (Williams) negotiating with an elderly, possibly senile man for his precious sandstone. (“The Michelle story is a bit of a hinge,” Reichardt notes.) Closing out the trio, the final story boasts one of the finest cinematic depictions of unrequited love in recent memory: a two-hander with an unnamed rancher (Gladstone) who takes night classes taught by a lawyer, Beth (Stewart).
 
So, why this order? “It’s the emotional trajectory. You can’t start on the ranch – let’s put it that way. You have to start in the enclosed and work out to the wild.” Her inspiration, surprisingly, was Nicholas Ray’s 1951 black-and-white noir On Dangerous Ground. “That starts in the city all blocked in, while the detectives are really uptight. He gets sent to Siberia, and it opens up to this big, white mass of snowy covered plains, just as he opens up emotionally.” Certain Women, fittingly, is shot in 16mm, with the grain capturing the minute details of the character’s lonely surroundings. “The emotional weight of the movement comes with a really big landscape.”
 
The film, like Meloy’s original stories, is set in Montana. But it wasn’t that simple. Initially passing on Montana (“I couldn’t get a handle on it”), she took a few scouting expeditions and briefly considered Idaho. “There are so many lawyer offices in Boise, it just seemed perfect. But Idaho isn’t very filmmaker-friendly.”


Certan Women. Image courtesy of Park Circus and Sony Pictures.
 
Then an offer of a grant in Montana made the decision for her. In fact, the more time she spent there, the more she fell in love with the area. “You have to move in and get into the day-to-day routines to know a place, to know how you’re gonna show a new landscape. You have to do your laundry there for a long time and go to the post office and go grocery shopping and drive around, drive around, drive around.”
 
The driving comment is intriguing, for the most memorable journey in Certain Women is not in a vehicle. “When I found the horse ranch in Montana,” she adds, “I knew that I would be happy there and could build from it.” In a pinnacle moment, Gladstone’s anonymous rancher, pining for Stewart’s law tutor, offers her crush a horseback ride to a nearby diner. It’s a sweet, indirectly romantic gesture – the affection is obvious, without crossing boundaries. It’s also where Reichardt happily shifts gears. “In real life, that teacher would never get on the back of a horse. There are some leaps one has to make.”
 

For someone who once took a 12-year hiatus from filmmaking, Reichardt is directing quite regularly now, and her upcoming BFI retrospective reflects her knack for creating small, independent dramas that are each distinctly “a Kelly Reichardt movie”. It takes time, though. “I like the long ride in a project. I like getting into something that’s going to take up years of my life.” She doesn’t sound in a rush. “I have a teaching job, so I can film what I want – for now.”
 
Certain Women is in cinemas from 3 March. Find out more here. See cinema listings here.

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