Director Kelly Reichardt first gained widespread notice with her 2006 film Old Joy, a paean to post–9/11 political and personal miasma played out in the campfire conversations and road-trip recollections of two longtime friends in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. Together they drive into the wilderness, get lost, find the hot spring they’ve been looking for, and return to Portland. What this threadbare narrative really underscores is the unspoken impossibility of their reconnection. Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt’s latest, debuts on December 10 at Film Forum in New York. Centered around the escalating hardships of Wendy (played by Michelle Williams; Lucy is her dog) whose car breaks down in a rural Oregon town en route to a well-paying summer job, the film shows how seemingly minor setbacks can lead to devastation. Reichardt’s other films include her 1994 debut River of Grass and several short films: Ode, Then a Year, and Travis. Currently a visiting assistant professor at Bard College, she lives in New York City. Revered auteur Gus Van Sant met with Reichardt this July in Portland to discuss the joys and hardships of filming on the cheap, local hot springs, and Wendy and Lucy.
Gus Van Sant So, your last two films have been in Oregon.
Kelly Reichardt My last three films. Before Old Joy there was a short called Then A Year. Mostly I’m shooting in Oregon because I’m working from Jon Raymond’s stories and they’re set here. Wendy and Lucy is not supposed to be Portland per se, but small-town Oregon. Old Joy was written specifically about the Bagby Hot Springs.
GVS I’ve never been there. I’ve always heard about it. I’ve been to hot springs in the Northwest but they’re not necessarily built. They’re natural hot springs.
KR I went to a built one last week in Fields, Oregon. It sits at the foot of the playa out in the middle of the desert.
GVS There’s something about the springs that have an enzyme, or something in them that can be bad for you.
KR I never heard that, but on Old Joy we had a ranger with us who told us about all the things he’d found in the tubs—including a dead body—which actually wasn’t the worst of it. He said the temperatures are just hot enough to keep all the bacteria alive.
GVS Those rangers see a lot.
KR All kinds of things, I’m sure.
GVS They have to be responsible for busting meth labs and such.
KR With Wendy and Lucy, I was thinking of not shooting in Portland again. I scouted all over. I went to like 20 states. Then I was sitting in this Safeway parking lot in the middle of February in Butte, Montana, thinking, What the hell am I doing? What are we going to spend bringing a Portland crew out to Butte to shoot in a parking lot that looks so much like the one in Portland that Jon wrote about? So Jon ended up getting his way. We shot at the Walgreen’s right down the street from his house.
GVS In the same place he was thinking of?
KR Yeah. Jon ends up getting his way every time with the locations. Like right now we’re working on this Western; the story takes place out near Fields—there’s nothing out there. At first glance it seems super impractical to shoot there. But I’m sure somehow that’s where we’ll end up. It’s cool though; scouting other places and driving around the country helps me figure out the movie, so even if I end up back in Portland it’s a worthwhile process.
GVS It’s really low budget here. You can do things you’d never be able to almost anywhere else. Thirty years ago there were film co-ops and everyone always had narrative filmmaking in mind but in reality they all did industrials and stuff like that. But there was always this structure of things you need to make a film. It’s a great place to come, and people get really excited.
KR If you can work around the rain it’s awesome. There’s not all that over-the-top macho man stuff going on with the crew guys the way there is in New York.
GVS What’s Jon going to be generating for you in the future?
KR He’s writing a Western called Meek’s Cutoff.
GVS I read Jon’s novel The Half-Life. It’s amazing. I had met Jon when he introduced Todd Haynes and I as speakers at a literary convention and I knew that he was Todd’s assistant on Far From Heaven. I bought The Half-Life at Powell’s, and I was like, Oh, Jesus Christ! This is a real novel.
KR It’s my dream to someday make it into a film but it can’t exactly be done in any small way.
GVS Let’s see, the Jon Raymond characteristics that I’ve noticed in The Half-Life, Old Joy, and Wendy and Lucy have something that I always am possessed with when I’m making a story, which is decay. The decay of the people in the swamp and the decay of the two girls’ parents in The Half-Life. And then the hospital they go into when they’re on acid is completely decayed. Okay, and in Old Joy, the decay of their friendship. And the decay is strongest in Wendy and Lucy. Falling into this abyss of hopelessness. I watched it in the morning in LA. Something was happening that was similar in my life; I was in the same situation as Wendy. I went outside, and all the other garbage cans had been picked up already but mine was still full. I was like, Well maybe I should leave it here. Obviously I had missed the pickup. I was out on the street, I had just finished watching the movie, and I was caught in the same situation that Wendy finds again and again. The world wasn’t helping me; it was sort of indifferent. And kind of mean, too. It was probably a result of just watching the movie. It brought about a part of myself that exists at all times, which is, Oh, is it going to happen like that? Where you get a parking ticket and that leads to lifetime imprisonment if you make the wrong move. And that comments on our society, how society is able or not to take care of its people. Wendy and Lucy for me was about our materialistic society. If you don’t have a few bucks, you’re going to have to live in the woods, because Wendy sort of is in the woods.
KR The seeds of Wendy and Lucy happened shortly after Hurricane Katrina, after hearing talk about people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, and hearing the presumption that people’s lives were so precarious due to some laziness on their part. Jon and I were musing on the idea of having no net—let’s say your bootstraps floated away—how do you get out of your situation totally on your own without help from the government? We were watching a lot of Italian neorealism and thinking the themes of those films seem to ring true for life in America in the Bush years. There’s a certain kind of help that society will give and a certain help it won’t give. So we imagined Wendy as a renter; no insurance, just making ends meet, and a fire occurs due to no fault of her own and she loses her place to live. We don’t know her backstory in the film but we imagined Wendy was in that kind of predicament.
GVS I guess that’s unique about this story as compared to your other films. This one has a sense of downward spiral to the point where it’s devastating.
KR Oddly, some people see the film’s ending as having hope. I didn’t see that much hope. There’s also not a lot of hope at the end of Old Joy, though some people see hope there, too. These haven’t been optimistic times. This was pre-hope; before all the hope came in.
GVS I’m usually not that concerned with literal hope. Although I have had really hopeful endings, to the point where it’s, like, ridiculous. I don’t know about your own history, but it seems to follow the presence of hope. Like, when times are good, you’re going to be making a certain kind of film. And when times are not good, you’re going to be making another kind of film. Without any sort of plan. It’s just your reaction to your environment.
KR During the “good years” I couldn’t get a film made to save my life. There were 12 years between my first film River of Grass and Old Joy. I made smaller films, like Ode. But even that has a downer ending.
GVS I’m into downers. As a storyteller, I feel that it’s a valid point of view.
KR This summer I’ve been watching all the Kitchen Sink films from the ’60s. The heroes of those films are all stuck in lower economic classes and resentful of their lack of options. Your films have some of that.
GVS Lack of options?
KR People who are aware that people are living another way but they can’t get to it—whatever the restraints are; it might not be class.
GVS Right. I think in my sense, it’s the audience that’s aware. Probably more than the characters. It depends on which film. In certain films that can be the theme. Or there’s indication that maybe the characters are aware but you’re not sure. I’m usually not committing to that.
KR I guess your characters aren’t so interested in being part of the majority or whatever the idea of the American dream is.
GVS In Wendy and Lucy there was a feeling that I don’t think I’ve ever actually had, and it did relate to certain situations, especially with Italian neorealist films, now that you mention that you actually were watching them.
KR In those films there’s the theme of certain people not being of any use to society—maybe they’re too old or poor so they’re a blight—they’re like stray dogs.
GVS After watching Wendy and Lucy, it was just palpable. It was so omnipresent. I was part of the film, but the film had stopped. I was actually now in my own version of it, just dealing with my life. It had infused me with its own story. I was still living it, which is a great achievement, and really hard to do. It’s a delicate thing to get somebody into a feeling that they can’t actually get rid of right away.
KR I was feeling that way the whole time we were making the film. I felt like I had a clamp on my head for about a year. Location has so much to do with that. Just the constant sounds of traffic, of getting away from nature in every way. Of getting locked in. I mean, I live in New York City, but that’s really different from the vibe you get from the sprawl just outside a city. It’s a soulless, in-between place. And then the financial restraints that we had making the film pretty much mirrors what Wendy’s going through. It wasn’t a super uplifting experience.
GVS Well, that’s probably the only way to make it successfully.
KR There’s a Fassbinder film that I was thinking of all the time we were making Wendy and Lucy and I don’t remember the name of it. I think he made it for TV. It’s the story of a guy who pretends he goes to work every day but he’s really lost his job, and he doesn’t tell his wife. Instead of going to a job he goes out and spends money every day. You’re just with him as he’s getting deeper and deeper in debt. He keeps buying stuff to impress his wife so you know when the bottom falls out, his marriage will be going with it. As the film goes on, you take on his debt like it’s your own. I was trying to get at something like that with Wendy.
GVS Your film really successfully makes you aware of her limitations and how those play against her in a catastrophic way. I felt really, really close to her situation.
KR What’d you do with the garbage, by the way?
GVS I took it in.
KR You didn’t roll it in front of the neighbors’ house?
GVS No, because that wouldn’t have done anything. There’s a bit of Kafka in Wendy’s situation and in this garbage can situation. Mine was also very visual, in that their garbage cans had been emptied and it looked like I had obviously put mine out after the garbage truck went by. Even though I put it out the day before. Somehow I was late. Or the guy skipped me, which is possible. So I could just defy logic and say, I’m going to leave it there for an extra day. But then I thought, This is silly. I’ve missed it.
KR It’s funny when those things happen, and because of whatever state of mind you’re in, you take it personally.
GVS Yeah, you’re trapped. It happens every now and then. And that’s what happens to Wendy—she’s put on the outside. And then a second thing can happen, and then a third, and then a fourth. And by the time the fourth thing is happening, you’re really worried. Certain people are used to it. It’s just their existence.
KR I was scouting for Wendy and Lucy in Tucson on Highway Ten in the middle of nowhere and this van blew a tire right in front of me and went into the ditch. So I pulled over. It was this Mexican woman, she was mid-40s, maybe my age. She had no shoes on, just socks. I asked if she had AAA or a spare tire. No. Well, do you have a cellphone? Yeah, but they just turned it off. She said, “Before I bought this Pepsi, I had $20.” That’s where she was at. So I gave her a ride to the next exit which was about half an hour away and we borrowed a jack from a trucker and circled back around. So now I’m like an hour out of my day and trying to figure out how deep I’m going to get into this. But she was so unpanicked by her situation. She was going to visit her husband and she was very accustomed, clearly, to shit going down like this and having to scramble. She was on her knees on the side of the road getting this tire off when a cop stopped. The cop never made an effort to help her but he kept telling me to be careful. What she was doing was way more dangerous but he stood there and watched her and kept telling me to be safe and get out of the way. She just took the whole thing in stride, which really made an impression on me.
GVS So the cop wanted you to be safe because he identified you as someone he’s not used to talking down to.
KR Yeah, I think so. I’m driving a Subaru. I’m white, and he basically told me I should go on my way. He was doing nothing to assist her, and it was like, 110 degrees and her car was in a ditch on the side of Highway Ten. This woman was not going to get community help. Whereas if she had been a middle-class white woman she would have—if not from the cop, then from the guys at the gas station. I mean, Michelle Williams would get help; let’s face it. And I’m asking myself how much I’m going to give her and how deep into it I’m going to get. That’s the question the mechanic and the security guard face in Wendy and Lucy: how much should each person give to the next person? What’s our responsibility to each other?
GVS The food chain.
KR Yes, the food chain. Jon’s friend Betsy saw Wendy and Lucy and said it just proves that everything comes down to the hippies versus the fuzz. (laughter) I think she’s right about that.
GVS So what was happening during the years between River of Grass and Old Joy?
KR I had a feature in development that never happened. I got really disillusioned by feature filmmaking. Eventually I started teaching. I realized I really liked it. It gave me structure and a means of support and a way to keep thinking about film. Teaching is great because so much of filmmaking is indulgent and teaching totally pulls you out of yourself. I also went back to Super 8, and that was kind of cool and energizing. The smaller-gauge work was freeing because there wasn’t any expectation put on me. Nobody’s money was at risk.
GVS The cheaper it is, the less guilt you have toward whoever’s giving you the money. I feel that, too. If I’m making a really inexpensive film, I don’t have to worry about whatever they might project on me. Because it’s already a good deal, so I can artistically be free.
KR Also, there’s something great about having privacy when you’re making a film; it’s good when there aren’t any extra hands in the pie and no one is imposing false deadlines on you. Now you can just edit in your apartment and take your time because that part of the process doesn’t cost anything. It’s not until after it’s cut and you want to do the post that you have to raise the bigger money for the film. But Todd [Haynes] thinks it’s a flawed way of thinking. He doesn’t think I’m necessarily making it easier for myself by doing everything so small; that, in fact, it’s harder because I could be working with people with more experience and Neil Kopp, my producer—and yours for Paranoid Park—and I wouldn’t have to do so much of it ourselves. In Todd’s scenario, I wouldn’t be carrying the print, which weighs more than I do, to California just to save on FedEx. So that’s an ongoing discussion.
GVS My last four films before this new one Milk were low budget compared to what I could get. Because a movie company would just buy into it. I didn’t need to have scripts. If it’s low enough, sometimes you can actually start working, like, tomorrow. What Todd is saying is also true, because with the low-budget films I’ve made—Mala Noche being an example—I have the same group of people around me. Whether or not they’re given to me or they’re my friends, I assign them the same roles. So, one guy was trying to help me finance something, the other guy was just a perspective investor, and they became like my best friends. And they became my producers, even though they had nothing to do with the movie. They said things that producers would say. Like they’d see the rough cut of the movie and say, “Well, it’s a movie, I guess.” Things that were really not encouraging; things that were critical. Things that were backbiting, insulting. So they might as well have been film executives who were crass and mean.
KR I see what you mean. Also it’d be nice to pay people.
GVS So you need more?
KR Maybe. Not too much more. I fear that horrible scenario where money people are picking the cast. One thing about working on such a tiny scale is that no one gets involved unless they’re into it for all the right reasons. I got lucky having Michelle Williams on a movie this size. Michelle will do her scene and then pick up an apple box and carry it wherever it needs to go. Daniel London and Will Oldham were like that on Old Joy. There is very little room between the cast and the crew. There is some intimacy that comes about in those situations that can be nice. On the other hand, I can never really move the camera.
GVS I used to have the crew not build a dolly track because I thought it was too much work but I realized that actually the crew wants to move the camera.
KR It’s the time it takes to lay tracks and the costs of the tracks themselves.
GVS It’s like, work equals expense.
KR Anything that takes time equals expense. But by the same token, with a less experienced crew you can have someone spend three hours setting up a single light.
GVS That’s what Todd’s talking about. But having done a $20,000 film and having done a $40 million film—
KR What was Mala Noche?
GVS It cost $20,000.
KR How could Mala Noche only be $20,000?
GVS It was. It was done the same way you did Old Joy or Wendy and Lucy. I only had three actors, a sound person, and a director of photography. And each person got $700. I bought a camera, a tape recorder, and I edited rewinds. And you know, you still get all the problems.
KR They’re just different.
GVS My actor, it was up to him to get from Beaverton into town because we couldn’t cut and go get him, and so one day he just didn’t show up because he took acid with his girlfriend or something like that. And you can’t just not show up. The other actors were really angry because they came to be in the movie and we couldn’t shoot the scene. He was 16 and like, Hey dude, whatever. I didn’t yell at him—you know, I’m relying on his generosity.
KR I’ve been really lucky. I’ve experienced incredibly dedicated cast and crew here in Portland—super reliable people with generosity to spare. Another good thing is if you can keep the whole machine small enough you get a certain physical freedom where you can shoot without everyone being so aware of the camera.
GVS In the case of Mala Noche, there were people just standing on the street and I would say, Will you be in this scene for like, ten minutes? And they’ll join the scene and you get these perfect people who are the characters. I was shooting on 6th Street in Old Town, the same location where the story was, and people who were standing on the street were actually people that would be in the scenes. And I got these transit guys, they’d just be in line at the grocery and it was perfect. Now you just can’t do that. With the Screen Actors Guild and everything, it’s even harder. So in that sense, you’re right. That does free up a lot of bullshit. Like the guys in front of the fire in Wendy and Lucy—they’re very authentic.
KR They are authentic train-hopping gutter punks. That was one of the hardest nights of shooting. They were demanding drugs and alcohol, and some of them were really young and pissed that we weren’t getting them drunk. A lot is gained by them being authentic, I loved shooting them through the firelight; I mean, their faces are amazing, but the process wasn’t easier for them being who they were.
GVS It’s a toss-up.
KR It is, but I’ve become completely sold on the art of acting over the years. It’s great to be able to do nuanced things with an actor like Michelle who is really a master of her craft. I always thought it would be easier shooting with non-actors. If you love what they’re doing when they’re doing it, then it’s the greatest, but if you want to change anything—
GVS —There’s no control.
KR In your films, you get people at an age before they necessarily come to the idea that they want to act, and you get something special out of that.
GVS You mean like with John Robinson in Elephant?
KR And Gabe Nevins from Paranoid Park.
GVS That’s just casting. I think you can do it when they’re under 20. Not when they’re 30. I was under the impression doing Elephant that you should cast the real people in the roles. So if you’re casting a plumber, you should cast a real plumber. If you’re casting a racecar driver, it should be a real racecar driver. It was a theory. I tried to do it on Last Days with rock and rollers. It was just way, way different for me. There’s something about being under a certain age, like 20; they have a lot of free time. They aren’t citizens yet, so they’re not allowed to do anything unless it’s—
KR —But when I watch teenagers in life, I think they’re the most self-conscious people in the world. But somehow in your films…
GVS Well, you just find the ones who aren’t.
KR Gabe has such great body language in Paranoid Park.
GVS He was just the one who had that. It’s much harder to do when you’re casting street kids. What I needed for Last Days was the 25-to-30-year-old rocker, a real rocker. Which certainly exists, but you find a real person and they’re just not interested in doing a movie at all. We tended to use our friends because they were like the characters in the story.
KR It’s kind of impossible to have a blanket theory about casting. The man we cast for the security guard in Wendy and Lucy is an actor named Walter Dalton. In one of the first articles after Cannes someone wrote that he was once a folk singer and that keeps getting repeated. I think they might have been confusing him with Will Oldham, who is also in the film. But Walter used to be a TV writer. He wrote for Laverne and Shirley and Barney Miller. He has a particular thing going that I liked right away when he came in and read. He’s a super cool lefty in life and his personality just comes through to the point that we forgot the character’s name because the character became Wally. Also our location scout Roger Faires is in there. He’s a natural. Did you spot Roger?
GVS Yeah, I noticed. But it took me a while. Eventually I was like, Wait, that’s Roger!
KR What’s been the nicest ride for you, as a moviemaking experience?
GVS It’s always exactly the same; you never know what you’re getting.
—Gus Van Sant is a Portland-based author, musician, photographer, and film director. He has directed films such as Last Days and Elephant, winner of the Palme d’Or and Best Director of the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, and studio productions including My Own Private Idaho and Good Will Hunting. His most recent film is Paranoid Park, and he is completing his next film, Milk.