When Old Joy was released in 2006 and many people in the independent film community had never heard of Kelly Reichardt before (she hadn’t made a feature in 12 years), there were two common reactions to the film. One was that it was a fantastically subtle political film, one of the best works of the year. The other was to praise it moderately, to refer to it as a nice, yet minor, work. One friend who works in the industry told me he thought it would have been better if it were a short film. I heard such sentiments often.
With the release of Wendy and Lucy, Ms. Reichardt’s latest, there can no longer be any doubt or debate on at least one matter: regardless of the reaction one has to her work, no one can say Reichardt is a minor filmmaker. Wendy and Lucy is positioning her as one of the most important political filmmakers in America today. It’s a testament to her artistry and intelligence that her films are not didactic manifestos of any kind; rather, they are films that, superficially, seem to have little to do with national politics. Wendy and Lucy is a bit more openly political than Old Joy (which the less perceptive could have felt was simply a road movie about a friendship), but on the narrative level it is still a compelling story of a woman’s search for her dog that could function (albeit not as well) without any political undertones.
It seems as if Reichardt’s brilliance is in understanding that in order to make a compelling political statement in cinema today, one must not get too close to the flame, but the flame must illuminate everything anyway. Her balancing act here epitomizes one of the eternal artistic dilemmas – how to communicate without becoming didactic. I sat down with Ms. Reichardt to discuss this, and more.
- ZACHARY WIGON: You’re particularly gifted at taking the political tenor of the times and translating it into something character-driven, narrative, emotional. How do you go about doing that, in Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy?
- KELLY REICHARDT: A lot of that has to do with Jon Raymond’s writing. There are all these conversations that we have in the beginning about the political, and then we turn to the personal, and hope that the political comes through the personal. I would never have had a conversation like that with Michelle Williams – we would only talk about character. But then you’re setting up a shot, and you think about what you’re letting enter into the frame. We’re like a guard for each other – if I put something too much into the forefront, Jon will raise a flag, and it works vice versa as well. I read his novel The Half-Life, and I was driving cross-country while I was reading it, and all of a sudden it just dawns on you, this is a novel about everything. That’s how his writing is, it kind of sneaks up on you. And the task is to translate that, visualize that, in the films. But his writing is a good example for me to watch in terms of seeing flags go up. Sometimes you wonder – is anyone going to know what this is about? Is this about anything beyond these two guys? You can have those ideas about setting it – both films are set in the moments that they’re made, but then once you start working, I have to focus on it being a character story.
- WIGON: So the thematic groundwork is done in the very beginning, and then by the time you’re working through the third or fourth draft of the script, you’ve moved past that.
- REICHARDT: Yeah. But I always know where I’m going to place Michelle. I know I’m going to put her on this street, and, oh look, there’s that guy, he looks interesting, go walk over there. I know that I’m opening the door to something else, the way we’re filming. You can allow for the foreground and the background to be whatever’s happening in life, and in choosing that, as you make those choices of where to point the camera, you’re letting stuff in. But the last thing I’d want to do is clobber someone over the head.
- WIGON: The process of turning the political into the personal is so interesting. I thought it was fantastic how, in Old Joy, the two characters seemed to represent different factions of the left today. Will Oldham is the faction that has its heart in the right place, is idealistic, but lacks the pragmatism to actually get anything done; and Daniel London’s character represents the more moderate side, practical, able to get things done, but he’s kind of forgotten the idealism, why he’s there to begin with.
- REICHARDT: I wasn’t even really thinking of it like that, so that’s interesting.
- WIGON: Do you see that?
- REICHARDT: Yeah, totally. It does focus on the infighting within the Democratic party – that’s why we had Air America, which is just a bunch of squabbling Democrats who are so ineffective, and they’re just squabbling and petty. But I thought of the woods, and them getting lost, as the loss of liberalism. At that time, it was a question of alternative lifestyles – where does someone like Kurt, or someone like Wendy, fit in, amongst “real Americans?” If they’re not real Americans, who are they? Are they of any value to anyone? I think they both ponder the American dream. What is the American dream, you know?
- WIGON: It was interesting how one of the elements present in Old Joy, but very conspicuously missing in Wendy and Lucy, was the lyricism – those long sequences of the lush landscapes and the Yo La Tengo soundtrack – Wendy and Lucy is not at the same level of lushness. It’s a harsher film.
- REICHARDT: It’s further into the Bush administration. One was written before the re-election of Bush, one was written after. We came up with Wendy and Lucy post-Katrina. The whole idea of – there were people who were leaving New Orleans and being called immigrants. “The immigrants have moved to” – wherever. It’s just the disdain for poverty, and that assumption that opportunity is lying at our feet, all we have to do is bend over and pick it up. If you’re not getting your slice of the pie, it’s just because you’re obviously too lazy. The interesting thing about Katrina is, the tools to make it – to get to a better place in life – it was just so literal, with a lack of transportation to get out. So we thought, if you had someone with the wherewithal to look around them and say, hey, there’s no opportunity here, and they had the gumption to head out, heading west – is that really all you need? Really? Okay – lack of education, lack of social skills, lack of a financial net – can you get a toehold into the next rung on the ladder? Not even to get to the middle class – can you get anywhere? And that was what we started out with. And then Italian Neorealism came in. This is all really relevant right now in America.
- WIGON: The disdain for poverty is an interesting way to look at your films. I think two of the most touching moments in Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy are where you have selfless giving. Old Joy ends with a homeless person giving money to another homeless person. And then, Wendy and Lucy has the scene where the security guard gives Wendy seven dollars. It was amazing, because in the movie theater, someone snickered at the close-up, when you see that it’s seven dollars.
- REICHARDT: But you know, that’s what happens, some people are just that out of touch. When you live off in your gated community, then it becomes like, the people on the bottom rungs have to look after each other. These are people who are not equipped to give that much. With Kurt – it’s funny, because the way I wrote it in the script with the homeless guy was, it was kind of like the scene with the guy in the park in Wendy and Lucy. Wendy probably thinks she’s closer to the security guard, and then, there’s a really beautiful thing in Jon Raymond’s story where the car shows up, with the woman, and there’s a kid in it, and she realizes that they’re not on the same plane. There’s this little feeling of betrayal. Really, Wendy is probably closer to the guy she runs into in the park. It’s all these levels of precarious living. With Old Joy, I always thought of the homeless guy being a foreshadowing of where Kurt could end up. And we found this guy who had the same under-jacket that Will was wearing, and the same color coat. But he himself – he was a basketball player and had two kids and a family and a life, he lived in Vegas, and he had a drinking problem. He had a family and a house and a life at one point, and he had just gotten lost. You probably get to a certain point where you feel like you have some security, but lo and behold, look what’s happening to a lot of Americans right now –you realize that that is a completely false security.