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The Owl and the Cow: A Conversation with Kelly Reichardt

Ahead of the release of her new film "Showing Up," the American director talks about her origins, career, friendships, and collaborators.
Laura Staab, Christopher Small
Showing Up
Showing Up (2022).
Sometimes, nothing happens: nothing happens but waiting, saving and making do in the meantime. How do we make stories from these passages of time? Kelly Reichardt not only directs such stories but has also lived them—because sometimes, as a woman filmmaker, as many as twelve years pass by between making a first feature and making a second one (sometimes, of course, one doesn't even have that second chance). Between River of Grass (1994) and Old Joy (2006), Reichardt tried to make experimental films and turned to teaching. Since Old Joy, she has managed to make six features, most of which are shot in the Pacific Northwest and most of which focus, fittingly, on the day-to-day efforts of ordinary people—to fix their car, to find their dog or to find water, to make a living.
Perhaps passages of time like that between River of Grass and Old Joy make a gatherer of the woman filmmaker. Speaking to critics and journalists one morning during the Locarno Film Festival, where she received the Pardo d’Onore Manor award, Reichardt resisted commenting on sexism in film—mentioning an essay by Ursula K. Le Guin instead. In “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” (1986), Le Guin exhorts writers to tell stories not of hunters but of gatherers, taking containers rather than weapons as models for storytelling. Of these two kinds of primordial tools, Le Guin is interested more in a bag for storing seeds or a bottle for storing water than in a club or a spear for killing an animal or a foe. Le Guin is bored of dramatic stories that get going with weapons: stories with containers at the center might be a challenge to write, but might be all the better for it.
If we must think in twos, Reichardt suggested, then we might think of the hunter and the gatherer rather than of man and woman. Or we might think—as Reichardt later did—of the owl and the cow. Ultimately, she said, it is because her stories are not weapon-stories but bag-stories that she struggles to get her films made. “Is there a place for these in the American landscape of storytelling?” she asked.
At the festival—ahead of the release of her new film, Showing Up (2022)—we spoke with Reichardt about art schools, her experimental and short films as well as her feature films, her long-time friendship with Todd Haynes, working with collaborators Christopher Blauvelt and Jonathan Raymond, and working with animals and actors. For much of the conversation, she made stories from stretches of waiting, saving and making do.

NOTEBOOK: How did you start out as a filmmaker? 
KELLY REICHARDT: I went to an art school in Massachusetts, which seems quite strange, but it was before Google: back then, you just knew you wanted to get out of the city you were in, you got a ride to another city and you looked around at what was there. I ended up at an art school where there wasn’t a film program, but there were a handful of Super 8 cameras and some Bolexes. It was a very loose sort of situation. Every six months, we would have a review board and show what we had done that semester. Mostly, it was a painting school. I remember one person did the interior of their campervan, and got credit for it. I wasn’t learning film form or anything like that.
NOTEBOOK: Now you teach at an art school.
REICHARDT: Yes, I teach at a liberal arts school. Bard College, like a lot of these institutions, adopts the idea of Black Mountain College: if art is at the center of the program, then it will lead to critical thinking, which will lead to more democracy. Bard is sort of a dinosaur school: we still spend a semester on Bolexes. Up until Peter Hutton died, we would spend a semester cutting on a Steenbeck. Peter, as well as Peggy Ahwesh and Jackie Goss, taught me a lot about teaching, because I didn’t spend a lot of time in school. I learned new ways to look at film from these people too. None of them are narrative heads at all, so it was great to be able to show narrative cuts to them, not having that kind of brain and offering different thoughts on things.
NOTEBOOK: Which films do you use in your teaching?
REICHARDT: I use Todd Haynes’ Safe and Far from Heaven a lot. Safe has amazing sound design. I watched Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life here last night; it would be lovely to teach with Sirk’s films, but they are so emotionally remote. I think the students would have a hard time with them.
NOTEBOOK: Could you speak about your relationship with Todd Haynes?
REICHARDT: One thing that has helped me with filmmaking a lot is being in constant conversation about cinema with someone like Todd—reading each other’s scripts, watching each other’s films. One note Todd is always giving me when he comes into the editing room is to break up the rhythm. Just a moment ago, I rewatched the opening of Night Moves and I almost had to run out; the rhythm is so steady. I can hear Todd saying, “Break it up! Break it up!” It has taken me a while to learn that.
Todd’s Poison was the second or third film I worked as an assistant on; I worked in props. I was a fan of Todd’s Superstar, which was actually made at Bard. We were all really involved in Poison. We all thought it was an important film; it was the height of the AIDS crisis. For the first time, I was on a set where the art department was talking with the camera department, the camera department was talking with the costume department, and so on. It was a very inspirational time for me. 
After that, I worked on some other small films and I thought that I could do it too. I managed to pull off River of Grass, going back home to Miami to shoot. And then… I don’t know how far you want me to go: it comes to a grinding halt there. I went with the film to Sundance. At that time, there were sixteen films in competition: two by women, and fourteen by men who all went on to have lovely careers. I spent the next decade trying to get another film made. I returned to Super 8.
NOTEBOOK: You turned to making experimental films.
REICHARDT: I was never an experimental filmmaker. I made some, but they are really forced. It just didn’t come naturally to me. I wanted to be an experimental filmmaker, because that is how women could make films. I thought that if I couldn’t make feature films, then I could teach and make experimental films—that’s what you do, right? I didn’t want to stop making films, so I kept working. I admired experimental films and I tried. It was good practice, but I just don’t have that brain. Every time I start a new project, I think, this time, it will have a new shape—and then I find myself in the editing room and a story emerges.
Old Joy (2006).
NOTEBOOK: As a consequence of visiting Todd in Portland, you met a lot of the people with whom you would go on to work—is that right?
REICHARDT: We don’t have to give Todd credit for everything; the river runs both ways. [Laughs.] Todd moved to Portland and I would visit him. One time, I met Jonathan Raymond. I had his novel while I was driving cross-country, going out to Kansas to see the places from In Cold Blood (this was before all those In Cold Blood movies were made). I finished Jon’s book the morning I got to Kansas and I wrote to him from the hotel room, asking if he had short stories. I thought I could do another short. I had been saving my money, so I could buy enough 16mm for shooting. If I shot everything outside, then I wouldn’t need lights. Jon sent me a short story that was all outside, which was called Old Joy.
Jon wrote about this particular set of hot springs out in Portland, but I didn’t know any crew people out there at all. I didn’t know how I would get it together. I scouted, scouted, scouted. I scouted all over the States for hot springs. I ended up back in the original spot in Portland. 
I talked the documentary filmmaker Peter Sillen into shooting it for me. He said that he would give me two weeks, that he would come out, but that I better find a producer. I called Neil Kopp, who had never made a feature before. I told him that Peter Sillen was shooting. Peter had made a Fugazi documentary, which Jem Cohen shot, and Neil was a fan of Fugazi—this is how you get stuff when you’re a young woman, through Fugazi. We were about to hang up and Neil asked me a question: “What are you doing on the film?” I said, “Well, I wrote the script and I’m directing it.” And there was complete silence—I could hear him Googling me—but he had already said yes, and so he was in the stew. Will Oldham was giving me tips on hot springs. Eventually, we talked about him being in the film and he said he would give me two weeks. Everybody said they would give me two weeks.
I assumed I was making a short. I had given up on feature filmmaking. Somehow it ended up being feature length: it became that in the editing room, that was the length it wanted to be and so that was the road it took. And it ended up going to Sundance, reopening a door to squeeze through. 
NOTEBOOK: After Old Joy, you made Wendy and Lucy with Michelle Williams.
REICHARDT: Todd does come back here. [Laughs.] He had worked with Michelle on I’m Not There. Wendy and Lucy was a small film with a small budget. We were still kind of winging it. We were an eleven person crew—a little bit bigger than Old Joy, but we had no places for anyone. When we weren’t working, we were sitting on the sidewalk—no trailers. When I was writing I was thinking of Sadie Benning. I kept thinking that if Sadie could act then she would be great. Then I sent Sadie the script the week her dog died…and Wendy and Lucy is kind of a sad dog film. Todd kept telling me to send the script to Michelle. She had seen Old Joy and she said she wanted a part like the Will Oldham part, so that was lucky for me. Certainly, she was directed by her people not to come, not to get involved, not to waste time. Somehow she did it; she came of her own accord. 
NOTEBOOK: In addition to Michelle Williams, who has been acting since she was a teenager, you have worked with Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, who have been stars from a very young age. All of three of these women are playing people on the margins in your films. I’m wondering whether you have to make a conscious effort to undo celebrity when working with these sorts of actors? 
REICHARDT: It’s a trick because I’m making films about these people that are, as you say, on the margins. I’m picturing someone I know in life—and then Michelle Williams comes along. Ultimately, I don’t have any money, and the way you get financed in the States is to have a recognizable name. I do always wonder how it is going to work—they’re all so good-looking. Sometimes it is nice to shoot with non-professionals, but you have to understand what someone with technical training can give you. If you can work with someone who has that kind of skill, then it really makes your job a lot easier. I still find acting very mysterious.
Michelle, Kristen, and Dakota are completely different from one another. Michelle wants to know not only what the character did in the time before the film but also what their great-great-grandfather did, and on, and on. Kristen came to set not knowing any lines, probably not knowing how fast we were going to shoot. With Kristen, I didn’t understand what she was doing until I was in the editing room, where I realized all these gifts she was giving me, like opening a door where a cut goes. With Dakota, you go to her, you say three words, and she doesn’t need you to talk anymore. Everyone is different. Around the third-to-last day, I finally get what an actor is doing. 
Wendy and Lucy (2008).
NOTEBOOK: Having worked with Michelle on a few films now, is there less of that?
REICHARDT: Yes, much less.
NOTEBOOK: As much as there might be some tension between these celebrities and the characters, with Michelle you seem to harness her star qualities well—her musicality, for instance, when we have her humming muzak throughout Wendy and Lucy and her speaking in sing-song along with the birds at a point in Certain Women.
REICHARDT: Michelle was in a miniseries, Fosse/Verdon, about Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. She plays Verdon, who was a dancer and a singer. This was right before we shot Showing Up and I thought, I haven’t been brave enough with what I asked Michelle to do. I believed she was a dancer, down to her fingers, and she plays a complicated character. She’s never one of those actors who just wants to take the role of someone good. She’s interested in how someone is fucked up. I realized I could be braver. 
Jon and I tend to write introverted characters and… Okay, for instance, when I was watching Night Moves, I was looking at the first shots of Jesse Eisenberg. With the combination of what I’m doing and what he’s doing, I give his whole thing away in the first ten seconds. As you can never shoot in order, it has taken a lot of time for me to learn what to reveal so as not to give it all away. Poor Jesse, I have all of these close-ups of him at the beginning of the film—that should happen way, way later.
In Night Moves, I always knew what Dakota and Jesse were doing. Peter Sarsgaard was changing all the time. I wasn’t sure how his character was going to come together. There was no comfort with him. Then, in the editing room, it was like I had a grab bag of things to build from—to make and to shape. For assurance, I think I reined Dakota and Jesse in too tight. If you shoot for fifty days—which will never happen for me—you have a lot of time to try stuff out, you have a lot of money, you have a lot of film to shoot. I meet actors the day before I start shooting and there is no rehearsal; we’re finding the character as we’re shooting. Speaking for myself, I think it has made me overly restrictive. 
In my older age, maybe I can loosen up a bit. I am always asking for less. I let Michelle try giving me more this time, then working towards something smaller, rather than starting with the tightest thing from the very beginning. It was interesting, freeing. I like her performance in the new film very much. And it was a result of seeing that miniseries and asking myself why I have such a stranglehold on her. 
NOTEBOOK: While working on Showing Up, you were commissioned by the Pompidou to respond to the prompt “Où en êtes-vous ?” (“What stage are you at?”). I haven’t had a chance to see the result, Bronx, New York, November 2019  / Cal State Long Beach, CA, January 2020. Am I right in saying that these are two 16mm shorts and in each one you film a sculptor in a documentary mode?
REICHARDT: Jon and I were working on the script for Showing Up and were kind of stuck. I had won some money and I had bought some film. I wanted just to watch, to observe people making work. I approached Michelle Segret—I didn’t know her very well—and I went to her studio in the Bronx with Christopher Blauvelt for a couple of days. Jo’s art in Showing Up is Michelle’s art. I knew we were writing about a ceramicist, and a friend, Jessica Hutchinson, was working with ceramics at the time—though her art in Showing Up is the glass art—so I filmed her in California with these incredible kilns.
Working again with 16mm was fun. When I’m shooting a film, Chris operates the camera (he is such an excellent operator). Here, the stakes were so low. It was nice for me to be able to move the camera around. It was freeing, like being back in art school. Making a film about hands-on making and then doing that sort of hands-on making… I don’t know, I liked being able to fuck around more than I have in a while.
NOTEBOOK: In an interview from 2017, you said that it was hard to know what art should do with the end of irony. Where do you stand on that now? 
REICHARDT: I mean, the States seems so on the brink of civil war; it doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say that at this point. Things keep heating up and heating up. I have a feeling my side isn’t going to do very well: the other side has so many weapons. I don’t think these are problems that art can address. While a part of my better self is a lifetime of looking at art, I don’t think it changes things.
Owl (2019).
NOTEBOOK: In your earlier films, you did address politics—if very subtly. I’m thinking of the talk show playing on the car radio in Old Joy, with commentators discussing the state of the nation.
REICHARDT: Yeah, that is so direct. I don’t know if that was a mistake. Obviously, I’m a politically minded person, but I don’t want to make political films.
NOTEBOOK: I would say that you do make political films, in as much as giving the spectator space to think is political. Along these lines, I like your short film Owl: we simply sit and watch an owl for four minutes or so before it takes flight.
REICHARDT: That was a cheat! That owl was a show owl. He was giant. Have you ever seen an owl up close? His claws were like my fist. All day, we were seeing baby falcons and a mother falcon in the area. Then the owl went up a tree and it was supposed to come right down—to eat a mouse, truth be told. So we were all in position, it was the last shot of the day, the owl was going to come down. Poor Chris holding the camera… the owl was completely freaked out by the falcons. He stayed up the tree for maybe nine minutes. This is what it is to work with animals. When it comes to working with animals, there is a politics. I’m an animal lover, which makes me question working with animals. It’s one thing to put my own dog in a film, but I don’t know how great the life is for trained animals. It’s not like they’re tortured but they’re not exactly free.
Anyway, I owed Film Forum a film for the theater’s lobby. I didn’t have time to make it, so I took a long shot of the owl. I thought it would be cool over a door in the lobby of Film Forum—an owl, sitting there. And now it goes around as a short… a freebie! 
When in doubt, shoot birds. When there is a second camera assistant around, I always tell them to go shoot birds. When in doubt, cut to the bird. In First Cow, Cookie is a down-to-earth character and he’s down on a stool milking the cow. King Lou has a bigger idea of what he wants—he isn’t just making cookies, he wants to build something—and he’s up in a tree. So King Lou is like the owl and Cookie is like the cow, both with their different perspectives on things.


InterviewsLocarnoLocarno 2022Kelly Reichardt
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