Kelly Reichardt: ‘Moonlight was a shelter from the storm of a really mean year’

Starring Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams and Laura Dern, Certain Women marks the return of one of America’s finest filmmakers. In the afterglow of the Oscars, we spoke to Kelly Reichardt about Moonlight, Montana and movies in the age of Trump.

Samuel Wigley

Kelly Reichardt filming Certain Women (2016)

Kelly Reichardt filming Certain Women (2016)

The hubbub of the Academy Awards feels worlds away from the defiantly quiet dramas of Kelly Reichardt, but, when I meet up with Reichardt, the news is filled with the surprise best picture win for Barry Jenkins’ Miami-set coming-of-age drama Moonlight. It feels like a moment of glory for a kind of regional, independent filmmaking not so very far from her own. As a child of Miami herself, albeit one long since relocated to the Pacific Northwest, was she rooting for it?

“I was! There are so few things that you get to be proud of if you come from Florida. Probably a lot of people felt this, but I thought it was a shelter from the storm of a really mean year. [2016] was so brutal and harsh, and with Moonlight suddenly you felt you were in a world with some kindness. Not sentimentality, but just kindness – in the intention of the movie.

“Plus it shows a part of Miami that never gets filmed. I’m thinking someday, with River of Grass (1994), my first film, we can have a double feature down there somewhere.”

Certain Women (2016)

Certain Women (2016)

Like Moonlight, Reichardt’s latest, Certain Women, is a film of three parts; in this case a trio of short stories derived from the 2009 collection Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It by the Montana-born writer Maile Meloy (whose younger brother Colin fronts the Portland, Oregon indie band The Decemberists).

In the first, Laura Dern plays a small-town lawyer dealing with a disgruntled client who takes drastic action when he realises he’s bungled his workplace injury claim. The second features Reichardt regular Michelle Williams as one half of a married couple camping out on the plot where they are building a home, who make an awkward trip to an elderly neighbour (René Auberjonois) to enquire if they can use the sandstone from a pile on his land. Then, in the climactic story, mixed Blackfeet and Nez Perce actor Lily Gladstone plays a young ranch hand who gatecrashes a night-school class one evening and develops a crush on the teacher (Kristen Stewart).

These three tales – all set and filmed in and around the remote town of Livingston, Montana – are so delicately interlinked that you might almost miss the connecting threads. Reichardt eschews the clever-cleverness of many triptych films in favour of something much simpler and less grandstanding. “There’s a lot of examples of the triptych that I don’t love,” she says. “I’m not going to say [which] – maybe by some filmmakers whose films I like to be more open and flowing; when it felt too constrained or there was too much narrative for their style.”

Despite a hostage situation in the opening story (which, like 2014’s environmental activist drama Night Moves, brings Reichardt close to the dynamics of a thriller), nobody could accuse Certain Women of being overstuffed with narrative or incident. Yet each of these minimal portraits of Montana women lands with a cumulative force, which is softly amplified by the filmmaker’s usual restraint and precision. The effect is such that by the time we reach the climactic tale of loneliness and infatuation, the film’s gentle pulse has begun to feel very like a throbbing heartbeat.

Shot by her regular cinematographer, Christopher Blauvelt, on grainy 16mm that seems to have absorbed something of the crisp north-western night, Certain Women was edited by Reichardt herself, a task she’s assumed on each of her films since Old Joy (2006). “I originally started doing it because I couldn’t afford an editor,” she explains. “I never had any money after we’d shot.”

“At this point, I’d feel sorry for the editor that I’d hire. The idea of someone handing me the first assembly, without me going through it and having that privacy you have when you first come off a film…” This part, she says, is like the initial writing process: a chance to seclude herself with coffee and her own thoughts. “You have all this work going on with a lot of people, and then you’re back by yourself again, and you have time to plough through your footage and get to know it. It’s a hard thing to give up.”

Certain Women (2016)

Each of Reichardt’s great run of features since her early debut has been set and filmed in Oregon, so shooting in Montana represents an expansion of sorts (“I drive through it constantly as I go back and forth between New York and Oregon a couple of times a year. But when you start scouting around, you dig in in a much further-off-the-highway kind of way”). Yet reports are that for her next production, an adaptation of Patrick DeWitt’s novel Undermajordomo Minor, she may shoot outside of the US.

Certain Women (2016)

This should prove a fascinating change for a director whose pictures are so embedded in American lives and landscape. Variety magazine has called her “the quietest of great American filmmakers”, yet there’s a background hum of politics audible throughout her work, and before we part I ask her if the ascent of Trump and the resurgence of the far-right in the US is likely to see her turning up the volume in her work.

“Trump is not having anything to do with how I make films,” she responds, aghast at the idea. “He’s not going to have that influence.”

She continues: “I don’t want to make films exactly for the moment I’m living in. It’s nice if they’re relative to the moment you live in. I just don’t want to be a super-reactionary, though it’s hard not to be reactionary to this moment. It’s hard to know what art should do right now. Maybe it’s the end of irony, because where can you go from here?”

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