Our film of the month for March 2017 is Certain Women, the hugely anticipated sixth feature by US writer-director Kelly Reichardt. Starring Laura Dern, Michelle Williams (pictured above), Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone, it’s a portrait of women living subtly interlocking lives in rural Montana, striving to forge their own paths amid the wide-open plains of the American Northwest. Kelly spoke to BEV’s own Mia Bays in this exclusive interview conducted for HOME Manchester and the Film Audience Network, with thanks to Park Circus…
Can you talk a bit about how you came to the stories of Maile Meloy and what attracted you to their situations and characters?
I can’t remember where I first read the stories, or even which one I read first. I think in The New Yorker, and then I found her short story collections after that. All the characters are so good… I don’t know how far in I was into them before I thought about making a film, though. She has a beautiful way of writing, and a really relaxed way of getting at things, with such an ease. And she had story after story, and the characters were just people you wanted to stay with longer and they were all built into the environment they were from, and that’s kinda up my alley. So, I got hooked in pretty quickly and then spent a long time trying to make these stories work together, and sort of switching stories out and all. She was very generous and let me sort of have my way with her fine work.
Did you work with her directly?
I didn’t really know her. I have made the last four movies with the writer Jon Raymond. He and I were very good friends, so we worked really closely together and hung out a lot and I was into that, but this was a much more lonely journey. But it was good for me. I showed Maile a draft at one point. It was quite a shitty draft and I was so used to working with Jon, so I would show him something crap to see if there was anything good in it. But I really didn’t know Maile. I showed her one crap draft… I think I went to bed after that call for, like, many hours and I was thinking, oh my God! Because we really didn’t know each other and I was a stranger, taking her stories, making a mess of them, and so I stopped showing her stuff after a while! She was probably relieved.
I’m a producer so I know the intricate delicacies to adaptation, etc. and knowing when to share.
I swapped up the middle story. She bravely hung in and let me have my way with things. I’m sure it must have made her shudder quite a bit.
And in the adaptation process, is there a point when you kinda really leave the book, the work, behind? Can you talk a bit about that?
Yeah. But only after I have stolen all the good bits – well, not stolen, but you take all the best bits right?
All the juice…
Yeah. Working, adapting something is so far away from creating something from nothing, so you’re really getting all the benefits of someone else’s writing skills and talent and then having your way with it, reworking things and adding or, you know, changing the gender of someone’s husband or a child etc, all of which is different to creating, I think, from nothing. So, yes, there is a time to leave stories behind, where I just did it…
I know that Jared Harris read the stories. Other actors may have, also, I know you can go back and find a lot as most of her writing is internal, while in a script you’re sort of physicalising everything and walking away from the assigned internal responses.
You mentioned swapping genders – you did that for Lily Gladstone’s character, I believe? You swapped the gender from the original story? Can you elaborate on that decision?
Yeah. I can’t remember where exactly when that happened but it made the whole film work better. In Maile’s story too, it’s a boy with polio, and her story is set in a different time. I was trying to make the whole thing more contemporary, and I thought that the lonely old rancher was something that was done, as far as cinema is concerned. In fact, the ranch where we ended up shooting was a woman’s ranch. She ran it herself, so that was by happenstance, because I wanted a beige barn, and we stopped at this place and we met this rancher woman. She was so generous to us and Lily went to work for her for a few weeks to get in there. We all encroached on her world because we had to learn about what it is to be a rancher, what’s involved. She had that dog and we all became tight, for a while, which was one of the beautiful things that happened.
Can you elaborate on why you made her a woman? The power of the interaction with Kristen Stewart’s character and the romantic gesture with the horse – it just frames it in a very powerful, different way.
Yes, it leaves room for different interpretations of it, I guess. From my point of view, and I don’t know if this was true from Lily’s point of view, but the teacher was someone you might have a crush on her or might have a crush on her life and you might kind of wish that you had more access to the things she has access to, or more ease, or some kind of doorway to something that the rancher didn’t have a doorway to. There’s more ambiguity to it, I think. I don’t even think that the rancher knows exactly what it is.
I thought the scene where with Lily, particularly, there’s something so painterly about your work. There’s such an Edward Hopper-esque moment, the moment where Lily is walking past the wall into the neon street, slowly; she’s walking away from us. It reminded me very much of Edward Hopper.
Yeah, yeah. Very Hopper-y, right! Just by luck because we didn’t light that and it was just like that in life – it looked like a Hopper painting.
It had just started to snow and it was just the end of the night and we were packing up, and it suddenly, the street, became a Hopper painting and Lily walked out into it and we had that, um, it was an old man that’s walking in front of her… That guy actually started the film programme back in the ’60s at Montana University, so that was just a weird one all round… But that was another magic moment, which often happens. We were shooting on film, so it has this texture, like a blooming effect. At first we were like, “What’s up with the lenses?” And then you start looking closer, it’s really soft to our eye… Because of the atmosphere? Climate? No one could really explain it to us, but that Hopper-esque moment just appeared and all we did was run into it and get it.
Well, it looks so artfully constructed.
I should just say that we built the set and Chris lit it [laughs].
The Hopper-esque quality and the comparison I felt, in relation to your work, to artists like Alice Neel and Dorothea Lange, in a different era… I just wondered if the spotlight on unseen American lives that you give, that they also offered – I just wondered if you could expand on that?
Well, I talked a bit about Alice Neel, just in that – her paintings, her women, some of their postures, of the women in her paintings – that was one of the things our production designer, Tony Gasparro, leaned on. She was definitely a reference for us. I didn’t want any ‘grapes of wrathness’; it would be more likely for me to cut off. It wasn’t so much in play in this film. But certainly Alice Neel, yeah.
And how much do you think you’re saying about American lives, now, consciously or unconsciously?
We made this film a couple of years ago and the four characters seemed contemporary to me then, but now Jared Harris’ character [chuckles] he seems to really ‘represent’… It’s too spot on, almost. It’s too synonymous, too uncomfortable, the way the man feels he’s losing all his control [chuckles].
Yes. Exactly. You can’t obviously reduce the film to just one thing but, one of the things that I took away was a sense of people looking in some way to connect, either with others or themselves and that’s something that continually draws me to your work. Can you talk what that means to you, that sense of connection? Or lack of?
When you’re really making a film, you dive down into the specifics of your characters, like all the exterior thought going on. But, I think all the films have a little bit to do with… and I think one of the things in Jon Raymond’s writing, especially, seems like you’re always thinking about community, whether that’s an outside community or a community of family, or questions of community and who strangers are to each other. Basically, what our obligation is to each other, and are we connected and are we responsible for each other? Or are we all just… Is it really just for each of us to look after ourselves and take care of our own? If you try to whittle down the quarrelling sides in America, it would come down to that question, I think. Are we arms open or arms closed, I guess? Then you get down to the minutiae of it.
In Montana, no one talked about their politics, ever, all the time I was there. It seems like a private matter. I went into a lot of homes where Fox 5 was playing, yes, but those were all people that were really generous to us, and that we seemed to have something in common with. Even if it was just for a movie, for the moment, it brought us together. We wouldn’t have met under other circumstances, and so we wouldn’t know their idea of what city people are like and what our idea of a Montana rancher would be. It’s so different. I mean, if you live in New York City there are moments with people from every place in the world. All the time you ride the subway, you leave your door, your whole day is filled with interactions with people from all over the place. And sometimes it’s hard in the neighbourhood, it really is hard to connect, but it’s also enriching. That’s why you live in New York. But to see that idea of what things that you consider enriching to your lives, being things that to other people, they would want to avoid at any risk is so puzzling [laughs]. But there it is.
There was a great keynote speech by Jill Soloway, at the Toronto Film Festival in 2016, about the female gaze and appropriating the female gaze. We talk a lot about the male gaze. Does that mean anything to you? Can you talk about the female gaze or is it wearisome?
It’s not even that it’s wearisome.
Do you believe in it?
Yeah, believe, yeah. But I feel outside my realm of expertise in talking about it. I would just say that I’m keenly aware of how women are represented within a frame and in an image. We were all talking earlier about the posters for the film. With the American poster I helped, I worked on it, yet when it came out, it had a blown-out softness all around all the women, this ethereal effect. And I said, “What happened?” Yesterday I saw the UK poster, which I hadn’t seen yet, and all the women’s heads were floating in clouds and I thought: you would never do that if you had a bunch of men in a Western out in Montana. You would never… At what point would you say, let’s put their heads in the clouds, you know? So even when everyone has the best intentions it seems so hard to get out of the quicksand of our perceived ideas, and the visual language taught to us, about how to think about, and represent women.
When I was making Meek’s Cutoff, I realised when we were out in the desert with this character The Indian, [played by] the actor Rod Rondeaux, that I would frame something up, then Rod would walk into the image and it would become a cliché, the second he was in the frame. Why is that? How did that happen? I didn’t want to be a part of that, yet here I am, creating this frame that has all these echoes in it, of Cowboy & Indian movies I saw when I was six years old. Even if you just had a high shot to the desert, looking down, you suddenly think it’s a menacing Indian point of view. And it’s like the language is real and not depiction. It’s central for race, for gender. It’s really deep in the psyche.
I don’t know if that exactly addresses your question, but just thinking about when you frame things, I think about what the frame is saying, and even if you don’t intend it, sometimes, you look and go: “Arrgh, how did we do that?”
I have a Chantal Akerman book with me now that I’ll just mention [Chantal Akerman: Moving Through Time and Space]. I had the book on me when I was shooting. It’s just stills from some of her movies. I really had not shot many interiors as I always questioned if I could I afford to do it? We never had the light so I just became very accustomed to shooting outside and as time’s gone on, like shooting Night Moves, I can handle this huge coming up on the dam scene. I know how to shoot that but when I’ve got a kitchen scene on Thursday and I have four walls and suddenly I think, “What the fuck do you do with four walls?” So, in this film, one of the things I wanted to conquer was how to shoot inside. When I was leaving New York I put this Chantal book in my bag, so that if I should get stuck in a space I could find a way… I did get stuck, in the bedroom scene, in the opening. Because even if you know you are going to put a woman in bed or whatever, I had to find how I could somehow use this space in a way that would sort of break it up, I guess, and find these different spaces for both characters at once. Keeping her in her own frame almost.
So Chantal guarded you?
Chantal is a good guide. I keep being guided by Chantal…
She’s passed the mantle to you, now.
No, I can’t take that mantle. But it’s a good mantle.
Sorry, didn’t mean to put that weigh on you!
Yes [laughs]. Thank you so much. Very nice to meet you.
Nice to meet you. Good luck with the film. It’s beautiful.