American auteur Kelly Reichardt is one of the finest filmmakers at work today. With minor-key masterpieces in her arsenal including the likes of Wendy and Lucy (2008), Meek’s Cutoff (2010), and Night Moves (2013), the Flordian is back with the quietly stunning Certain Women – a contemplative, introspective, and unquestionably human drama – which is easily among the finest films of the year thus far.
To celebrate the UK release of the film, which stars Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, Lily Gladstone, and Jared Harris, our man Thomas Harris sat down with Reichardt for an exclusive interview. Together they discuss this meditative portrait of female independence, the joy of watching Gladstone feed horses, and the experience of working once more with Academy Award-nominee Williams…
What, if there was any, was the over-arching message you wanted to communicate through the four women’s stories?
There was not an over arching message I must say, there really wasn’t, and I must say, it was all ambiguity. When you’re making a film, you’re trying so hard not to hammer anything home, or at least I am and I’d hate to do that for you now. Most obviously are the locations, that’s the most surface one; the sounds of the trains connect them. It’s very windy where they are.
Was it the locations first? I know the film is based on Maile Meloy’s short stories…
Yes, from two short story collections by Maile Meloy. The middle story – I really loved the characters in her stories and she’s from Montana and the stories are all based there and her characters are all tied into their environment. And I knew we were going to do the rancher story but I wanted to build off that. I knew I wanted to do the first story and it was really a search for a reason to tie them together and it was really the middle story that brought it together and brought it to a whole.
Were you ever tempted to pick a singular story and expand?
I could have made, and I shot enough film, to make a feature of Lily feeding the horses but people seem to get tired of horse feeding after a while, I really could make that film, but every time we were showing a rough cut, people were like “less horses, less horses.” There’s a point where the beauty of the place overwhelms the roughness of the chores so it cancels it out, so you have to hold back. It’s a balance between not letting the majesty of Montana taking over the fact that it’s brutal, it’s cold and taking care of 20 horses alone in that weather can be isolating and back-breaking. There wasn’t really a story to expand to that length, and there were different things I wanted to do with each one and I liked to see if I could make it work as a whole, as an idea of the west, playing with contemporary times with little threads of old western-not exactly genre-but ideas to come through. I understand that the last story is the “heartwarming one,” but the emotion is in the rancher story. I wanted the women to work off each other.
How does it differ working from adaptations?
Before, my last four movies I was working with Jonathan Raymond (who wrote Reichardt’s two previous works: Meek’s Cutoff and Night Moves), and each one of those experiences were different and most of those stories started, apart from Meek’s Cutoff which was a script first by Jon, I was working off his short stories. Because we are so close and such good friends, it involved a lot of coffees and just hanging out. This was a much more isolating process because I was doing it on my own. There was no one to go hammer out the problems with. Though whatever friends did help me out with drafts, it was more isolated.
People often discuss Jim Jarmusch and Robert Altman as inspiration for your films. When you first started directing, who were you most inspired by?
Well I grew up in Miami, which was a complete cultural void and I didn’t see movies until I left and went to Boston. Altman, I love Altman but I don’t really love Short Cuts, and to have René (Auberjonois, M*A*S*H) in the movie, he was a huge kick to me. Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise came out when I first arrived in Boston and I was watching films and at that time, for a lot of people was really license to make a movie, and that was the effect film had on people. But as far from combining stories together, those aren’t the connections I’d go to for this. There aren’t a lot of good connections of a triptych working. I remember writing that to Patrick DeWitt (writer) and he wrote back “yeah they’re a really horrible idea.” I just kept working on it.
You did everything yourself on this project: writer, director, editor… Was there anyone you located for advice?
I’m in a community of filmmakers. Larry Fessenden and Todd Haynes have both been executive producers on quite a few of my films and they’ll watch a cut and make notes and as I will for them, but they won’t for each other. Also the director Phil Morrison will look at a cut, he won’t read a script, but he’ll look at a cut and he made Junebug. So there are places to go. And I had some screenings. It’s funny, I had for some reason, I don’t know why I did this, I have some painter friends back in Oregon where I edit and some other video artists, just a people I think are smart writers, people, friends, different types of artists, who all kind of know what each other are going for. It’s lovely.
The line where Dern says, “It would be lovely to think if I were a man…”; is there any of that in the industry?
I knew I shouldn’t have put that in, it’s too on the nose. Sure. Of course. It’s the reason I kept that line is because she says “It would be so restful if I was a man.” And I just liked the expression of that.
How do you make a film around silence? Certain Women is so much about what is left unsaid…
I take up arms by the word silence. There’s a lot of sound design going on. It’s not dialogue and it’s not score. Some of the things convey distance, the sound of the train, the town Linvingstone where there’s a big train depot there so you will have trains in your soundtrack, so that’s built in early on. Using trains like you used score, it also helps showing distance between the rancher and as does the radio showing she’s out of range and it’s also an incredibly windy place so the wind makes really racially different sounds if you’re in a barn or an alleyway. There’s no silence. But dialogue is just one tool in the tool kit of possibilities of sound. The frame, how you move someone, or a cut, even just some kind of extended moment.
The solo over the end credits is quite lovely…
That’s Smokey Hormel who wrote it especially for the film who’s a fantastic guitar player who’s probably on a load of records you have from Johnny Cash to Beck. He composed that for the movie.
And finally, tell us about working with Michelle Williams again…
What can I say about Michelle that I haven’t said about Michelle before? Well it’s just a pleasure working with her. We shot that part with her after the ranch and there was a little bit of let up so it wasn’t freezing, it was actually quite mild so that part of the film we were so happy to be inside. Michelle and I, because we’ve been working for so long, it’s just easy to work with her because we’ve got a shortcut, we don’t have to dance around, you don’t have to feel the way, you can just cut to he chase.
Certain Women opens in select UK cinemas on 3rd March. Click here for full cinema listings. Watch our special Kristen Stewart – A Celebration reel below…