Kelly Reichardt is a director working on the fringes of a system which mostly chooses to ignore her. She works on films in her summer holidays, ploughing the lonely furrow of making cinema that allows us to think, hope and dream. The overriding sense of Reichardt’s characters is one of stillness in action and reaction; a motion controlled by escape of their past and futures. Possibilities are offered even as they are destroyed; which she turns inward to attack her protagonist’s sense of self and hopeful transgression.
Her gelastic debut feature, River of Grass (1994), forces us to look judgmentally at a couple so desperate to feature in their own road movie that they run before the inevitable crime to come. Old Joy (2006), is about two competing narratives in which intertwining and antagonistic avenues of masculinity equipoise: the rebel-without-a-cause and the midlife crisis. Wendy and Lucy (2008), a primary echo of Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, focuses on America between the fault lines of economic disaster and love, which journeys within and without misery and all too real ill-judged experience.
Meek’s Cutoff (2010) is a story which has the mythical shape of a Fordian western steered through the contours of the repetitive rigours of Samuel Beckett. The pioneering protagonists are lost in the forbidding, desert landscape of the Oregon Trail circa 1845, but their real journeys – ethical and spiritual both – take place largely within their private existence.
Reichardt’s latest film, Night Moves, is a reactive throbbing elective insight to the failings of individual acts of political terrorism. The film follows three environmental activists who seek to blow up a damn in the Pacific Northwest and the fallout from the success of this doomed action.
Can you tell me a little about the influences on Night Moves?
When you’re writing and making a film there are years in there. You read many things, some that are topical, some that are inspirational and some that turn out not to be meaningful. The research into Night Moves was so fun. There were so many different ways to go. Being able to dive into films I hadn’t watching in a while was great, films like Robert Bresson’s The Devil, Probably (1977) and Fassbinder’s film with his mother (Germany in Autumn, 1978). Generally all those great European films that deal with radicalism as well as old news articles that looked at the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground and Patty Hearst who was always in the news when I was growing up, alongside the Angela Davis trial. Revisiting all that as an adult and trying to find out the patterns that happens to radical groups and their intentions and how they end up in a world of isolation, paranoia and violence; and how these things unravel. Then integrating those ideas with the environmental movement in the North West of America those last few years.
How difficult was Night Moves to get made?
Getting my films made is difficult and that has a lot to do with the sort of stories I’m interesting in telling. Small scale stories that focus less in the winners in life, those ideas do not attract financing. The 90s were very much a male decade and it was all about working out how I could get the power in my own hands and not be at the mercy of an industry that I didn’t fit into in anyway and still make narrative work. I went back and made a 15 minute Super 8 film with two actors and a two person crew and after that I eventually made Old Joy but that took years to save the money to make and was a two week shoot with a six person crew, two actors and a dog. I then realised I would only be make these smaller films that would only be shown to my friends but at least I had figured out how I could work. By happenstance though Old Joy happened to have more of a life than I expected and led me to be able to make another film. It always seems temporary and could come to end at any point.
A lot of adjectives used to describe your work are intended as perjoratives such as “nuanced”, which I would see as a positive. Is this frustrating?
It was very sad recently that Ken Loach said that after all these years of filmmaking he has realised that films have very little influence on the culture ultimately and then he added that when you consider the state of filmmaking that is a positive thing. It’s a real chicken and egg thing, I went to a talk the other night in Portland from a man who runs a record store there called Mississippi Records and it was pretty fascinating. His thesis was that the culture always follows music and at times like the Civil Rights movement where there has been positive change it has happened concurrent when these voices in music have been able to break through into the popular culture, even if by accident. There was a writer and critic for The New York Times who wrote an article about “having to eat his cultural vegetables” and he wondered if there was anything in it for him. My films were included in what he referred to as cultural vegetables. So if someone who writes for one of the most influential papers in the world says he doesn’t find value in something like Tarkovsky and these ‘slow’ movies don’t add up to anything, that is worrying. On the flipside though if you look at a film like Wadja, you have to ask how did that manage to cut through? There are films that surprise you and breakthrough, they must somehow be able to feed people what they need. Idiosyncratic work is very expensive and time consuming to distribute and so if distributors can’t find a way to market your work it feels for them like too much work or too expensive to be worthwhile.
Night Moves is in cinemas from August 29