Guest of Honor

Kelly Reichardt’s Labor of Love

The "Certain Women" director examines how a performance can change the tone of a scene from the page to the screen, why she's drawn to the picturesque Northwest, and more.

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(Photo Credit: ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo Credit: ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images)

Director Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist indie films like “Meek’s Cutoff” have won loads of critical acclaim and a devout following. Most are shot in the Northwest, and focus on characters on the fringes of society.

Her new movie “Certain Women” is no exception. It features an all-star cast including Laura Dern, and it’s based on short stories written by Maile Meloy. The movie examines the lives of very different people in modern-day Montana, and what happens when they collide.

When Brendan met with her, he started things off by asking Reichert how she plays her characters off one another.

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Kelly Reichardt: There’s all different kinds of inequality going on in each scene. The opening story, with Jared Harris and Laura Dern, you know Jared Harris is a white man in his 50s that is just figuring out for the first time that things aren’t going his way, and that the system might not be fair, and might not work in his favor. And he just is so blown away by this, and he takes it really personally. And he’s really angry about it.

And he’s a foot away from Laura Dern, who’s playing a lawyer named Laura, who, if you’re a woman working in that field, I’m sure you’ve figured out a long time ago that certain things don’t always work in your favor. Including that she’s having trouble sort of explaining things to her male client, who can’t really hear what she’s saying.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Laura Dern is magnificent in that role of this kind-hearted, but put-upon lawyer. She is one of the certain women, in this movie. The other are Michelle Williams, a regular in your films. In this she plays this calculating gentrifier, and Lily Gladstone plays a lonely ranch hand.

Your movies are slower paced and more atmospheric than most films that a lot of these actors are working on. How do you bring them on board to your way of doing things?

Kelly Reichardt: It’s kind of different, every person’s so different and has such a different way of working, and we don’t have a lot of rehearsal time. So a lot of times you just don’t know what the dynamic is gonna be between two people until it’s happening.

And you’ve kind of lived with this idea in your head of what everything’ll sound like, and then the actors are playing off each other, and the scene takes on a whole new life that is going to inevitably be different than whatever was preconceived.

Kelly Reichardt on the set of "Certain Women." (Photo Credit: Jojo Whilden. Courtesy of IFC Films)
Kelly Reichardt on the set of “Certain Women.” (Photo Credit: Jojo Whilden. Courtesy of IFC Films)

Brendan Francis Newnam: Is there a moment that made it to film that surprised you while it was going on, while you were shooting it?

Kelly Reichardt: Oh there were lots of surprises. Well, well one scene that comes to mind is the scene in Albert’s house in the Michelle Williams section of the film. She is this woman coming with this agenda to buy some sandstone off an elderly neighbor.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Played by Rene Auberjonois. In his yard, he has a pile of old stones from an old school and she wants them in this big home she’s building. And she just pours on the charm. She’s a little bit manipulative it feels like, and then he is just, plays this really vulnerable, almost like he has a little bit of dementia.

Kelly Reichardt: We filmed Michell first, and Michelle just kinda went for it. And then when we got to Rene… his performance was so heartfelt and he was so exposed that it really put a different light on Michelle’s performance. It made it even harsher.

Brendan Francis Newnam: It heightened.

Kelly Reichardt: Yeah, and she really was like, “Yeah, you gotta let me do it over.” I was like, “No, that’s gonna be perfect!”

Brendan Francis Newnam: The scene is delicate, it’s, it’s pretty raw. You also hear James Le Gros there, playing Michelle Williams’ husband.

Kelly Reichardt: [Laughs.] Yeah, it’s a harsh scene.

Michelle Williams as Gina Lewis in "Certain Women." (Photo Credit: Nicole Rivelli. Courtesy of IFC Films)
Michelle Williams as Gina Lewis in “Certain Women.” (Photo Credit: Nicole Rivelli. Courtesy of IFC Films)

Brendan Francis Newnam: You’re laughing when you say that. I mean it seems like the movie is it really about that, sort of intersection of two different people coming together and just watching the discomfort that comes from that.

Kelly Reichardt: True. I mean I got to live a little bit in the shoes of that character because my colleague Peggy Ahwesh — the filmmaker Peggy Ahwesh — had made a film called, “Certain Women.”  And I really wanted the title. And I really wanted her to be really happy, that I was stealing her title [laughs].

And I found myself trying to frame it in such a way of like, “Won’t this be great for you Peggy? If I use this same title for my film that you’ve used for your film?” And I was like [to myself], “Oh I am the character.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: Interesting. Not a lot of people make movies like this, these days. Where do you find your artistic confidence?

Kelly Reichardt: [Laughs.] I just like to have a project to work on. Like if I don’t have a project, it all kind of becomes like emails, and get this, you know, do this chore, and…

Brendan Francis Newnam: You’d rather film chores than do chores.

Kelly Reichardt: Oh I like to film a chore. I like certain chores. There’s certain… I like to wash dishes, I like to… My favorite thing about going to film festivals is getting into the hotel and ironing my clothes, which I never iron my clothes at home. I really like that a lot.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, but you could make more mainstream movies, and still get to iron at festivals, but you don’t. All your films are part of your singular vision, which focuses on outsiders. It’s rich in atmosphere, and lingering shots at smaller things maybe, that don’t service the plot. All your films are shot in the Northwest, for example. Why is that?

Lily Gladstone as Jamie in "Certain Women." (Photo Credit: Jojo Whilden. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release)
Lily Gladstone as Jamie in “Certain Women.” (Photo Credit: Jojo Whilden. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release)

Kelly Reichardt: I’m a one-trick pony.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Not at all! But you do live in New York, so what, what is the appeal of the kind of Northwest of our country.

Kelly Reichardt: Takes me out of New York. It was a new landscape for a time and it’s nice to go sort of off the grid to make a film where everybody’s away from home, and away from the hassles of everyday life. It’s very selfish, you get everyone’s full attention because there’s nothing else going on in these places.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You have their undivided attention.

Kelly Reichardt: Yeah. They have nothing else to do besides work on your movie all the time.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Wow, you’re such a taskmaster! But I guess you are a director.

Kelly Reichardt: Yeah.