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Q&A: Kelly Reichardt, Director of Old Joy



Friday, September 22, 2006

By Michael Joshua Rowin

Kelly Reichardt first received attention for her 1994 debut, River of Grass, a New Wave-ish crime film filled with black humor and Floridian absurdity. Since then she has worked in a variety of styles and formats: the coming-of-age tragedy Ode, a Super-8 adaptation of a Herman Raucher novel; a short experimental work, Then a Year, in which a montage of serene images is undermined by the ominous threats of true-crime television shows and a spoken interpretation of the love letters of Mary Kay Letourneau; and Travis, inspired by an NPR show about the mother of a fallen Iraq War soldier. Old Joy , which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to great acclaim, represents Reichardt’s astonishing forward momentum. Written in collaboration with Jonathan Raymond (whose short story forms the basis of the film), the film spends a couple of days with 30-something friends Mark and Kurt, the former a married man with a child on the way, and the latter a man who’s still couch-surfing. The two camp out in an Oregon forest where they explore their besieged friendship, challenge one another’s insecurities and try to regain the natural camaraderie of their shared past. It’s not only one of the best films of the year, but perhaps the only American film of the year to superbly demonstrate the true aesthetic heritage of the term independent.

Stop Smiling: What did you discover in Jonathan Raymond’s original short story “Old Joy” that made you want to adapt it into a film?

Kelly Reichardt: I had read Jon’s novel The Half-Life, and I knew him through Todd Haynes. The Half-Life had this really beautiful friendship in it — it had a couple of friendships in it. They were really different. But just the way he had it going about the lucidness of all the levels of friendship drew me to it. So I called Jon and asked if he had any short stories. I was trying to think about what I could actually afford to make, and I was talking about short stories that happen mostly outside, trying to think about something I could do in a slightly bigger way than Ode. But not too much — just available light and a minimal amount of characters. So he sent me that story and I really liked it. I worked on the script for the next year. I didn’t know exactly where to shoot the film, because I really didn’t know enough people in Portland to get a crew together. I was driving down South, looking for swimming holes and hot springs. That’s how I originally started talking to Will, just because I know he checks out those places. I came back to New York after this little road trip, driving around the country — location scouting — and Justine and Jon were doing a reading/slideshow. That was the first time I saw Justine’s pictures — they were so beautiful. And when Jon was doing the reading that night I thought, What if I cast Will? So I started picturing Will as one of the characters.

SS: Jonathan later collaborated with photographer Justine Kurland and made the story into a book, also called Old Joy. Did Justine’s pictures inform the look of the film?

KR: When I first got the story from Jon, I had no idea it was part of another project. She has a very different style, but I love that book and her photographs so much. I was more informed by a color copy of one of the first pictures in the book, which is actually the forest around Bagby, where we ended up shooting. I had that up on my bulletin board for a long time in the search for all the other places. I had trouble finding one as dynamic as that photo. Pete Sillen, the DP, and I eventually went out to Oregon for a test shoot, out in Bagby. That photo was the real influence.

SS: How did you shoot in the forests of the Pacific Northwest so that the appropriate atmosphere would surround Kurt and Mark for their story?

When I was driving around the country, even when I wasn’t in that particular spot [Bagby], there’d be a lot of walking in the woods, location scouting, just me and my dog. I would get out of my car and just go walk in these forests that at a certain point lead to a spring or a swimming hole. I live in New York City, and when I get out in the forest my first fear was “I’ll be raped” or “There’ll be a bear.” There’s this inherent fear that comes when you’re alone, or nature brings that on. There’s that element in nature, and also our script was very short — 49 pages — so I always knew it was going to expand. When I first wrote it, two friends said, “You have to see the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul.” I also went back to watch [Satyajit Ray’s] Apu trilogy and Renoir, when Renoir deals with nature. Ode deals with it, too — it’s almost a literary sense of romance that comes with nature, including the fear. The way we were shooting, we had a six-person crew. The plan was always to keep the size of the crew minimal and the whole apparatus really small so that when we were in this big space the script could expand. That would allow for points where Mark and Kurt were smaller, less featured in the woods, like when they’re starting to talk more and reveal more about themselves.

SS: You mean the campfire scene, where the wilderness seems to invite that intense moment between the two?

KR: Absolutely. That’s when they’ve gotten lost, and all of that leads to that moment.

SS: So they’re lost both geographically and in their friendship.

KR: And Kurt talks about finding your way and getting on top of things, this gibberish at the fireside, having to get on top of it and know where you are.

SS: You’ve stated that the story “captured all the feeling of loss and alienation” resulting from the country’s entry into war, and you’ve called Kurt and Mark’s relationship “a great metaphor for the self-satisfied ineffectualness of the Left.”

KR: I should quit talking about that stuff, because I don’t even think people would see that in the film, and maybe it’s not even necessary. But at the time it was so depressing — as opposed to now. [Laughs] I know I’m not capable of making an out-and-out political film, but I did think there were elements in the film of what I was experiencing — ineffectualness — and I saw in the characters’ relationship a metaphor: two lost liberals trying to find their way. But I concentrated on the friendship — the other stuff were ideas for myself, ideas that make you feel like you’re doing something relevant. I’m not sure anyone will really pick up on that stuff. As much as I thought about a film like Shampoo, I know Old Joy is not Shampoo.

[Kurt and Mark] are at a stage of life when people are going off in different directions. Mark’s idea of himself as being more open than he actually is — there were probably past times when Kurt would go through that explanation at the fire and instead of making fun Mark would join in. I thought of the film as a western in that way, with a new kind of competitiveness, a competitiveness that challenges each other’s openness. Which comes to a head at the tubs.

In making a film or even choosing a story like this, I’m really going out of my way to not point anybody in one specific direction. I don’t really want to really sum up the scenes for anybody. I’m hoping there’s enough space in it that you could walk out of it and feel differently than the person sitting next to you.

SS: Now I’m going to ask a question where I ask you to explain something from the film specifically... Beyond metaphor, what’s the nature of Kurt and Mark’s relationship?

KR: They have a past, obviously. And they have some kind of hurt in their past that they are circling around. I think I can relate to those guys — I definitely sit in my apartment and listen to too much Air America. It’s so easy to feel very righteous, and so upset with things that you exhaust yourself. You feel like you’ve done something without doing anything at all but walk around your house going, “Right on!” Ultimately Mark is this guy who, with his wife and later with Kurt, doesn’t give that much of himself. When I wrote River of Grass, I lived in New York for five years without an apartment, just couch-hopping with a duffle bag. I’m sure my friends felt about me the way Mark feels about Kurt [Laughs]. My freedom at the expense of everyone I know, basically. You’re living a certain way in your twenties that may be romantic, but when you get to your mid-thirties and you have that same lifestyle it becomes slightly questionable and taxing to people’s lives that you move in and out of. I don’t necessarily think that Mark was the first person that Kurt called that day. So I think I relate to the lesser prospects of those characters. [Laughs]

SS: And Will Oldham was interested in both characters. Perhaps they’re types that are universally familiar, with people thinking they have both sides within them.

KR: Yes. And with Will, I think people would more expect Will to play the Kurt character, but I was for a long time interested, and he was too, in him playing the Mark character. Will’s a really intense listener. He has this stillness to him that when you’re talking to him you start really thinking about what you’re saying more than you might with someone else. So much of the Mark role is listening. But when I met Daniel [London] he had so many Mark qualities. I really liked what he did physically with Mark. Will ended up in the Kurt role. For a while he was trying to turn me on to people he knew who were “truly Kurt.” People living in their van, no phone, and two months later they’d call — “Hey, I’m a friend of Will’s.” Okay, that won’t work for a movie. [Laughs]

Originally in the script I wrote that Mark’s dog gets run over by Kurt. I didn’t know how we were going to pull that off. When we were talking about which role he would play, Will said he didn’t want to run the dog over. Oddly enough, it’s funny in the movie how much the dog follows Will around. It was ridiculous, like they knew each other from another life or something.

Of course, so much focus has been on Will, but poor Daniel London, I think his performance is very good.

SS: As a director what challenges are there in working with an experienced actor like Daniel London and a relatively less experienced one like Will Oldham?

KR: What was easier about Will is that I knew him. We had talked a lot about both characters and the script for a long time before I made the movie. So just having that access and knowing Will made that easier. I didn’t really know Daniel. It’s just easier to work with people you know. But Daniel is fortunately an open guy, and I got to know him easily. The challenges were similar with both of them. What was different about directing them from my other experiences . . . My way of talking about how to get an actor where they want to be is to start talking about where the character would be. Like when we were at the [hot springs] and they were naked in the tub, and it’s raining, and there’re naked hippies waiting to get into the tubs. Once we were shooting, they both wanted to work up that interior information themselves and wanted to know exactly what I wanted: “Is this where you want my hand to be?” That was different for me, but I understood it. We were using a small Eton camera that holds 200-foot rolls, so you can only shoot five minutes at a time. We had this short script that allows us to say, “Okay, we want to expand these scenes: here’s the space, we have this much space to work in.” I really wanted them to add what they wanted, and they did. Just to feel the space and to feel like they could take the time to get to what was in the script. At the same time, they also became very aware of “But you only have five minutes to do it in. Slow down, but hurry up.”

They didn’t know each other and met each other only a night before we started shooting. Everybody was basically like, “I can give you two weeks, Kelly,” and I didn’t want to use that for rehearsal time. We rehearsed as we went along. We didn’t have a day of working together before we started shooting. So we shot the diner scene first because that was the scene with the most tension in it. It would be the most awkward — Mark and Kurt just had that weird night together. When it was cloudy we would shoot in Portland, and when the sun came out we’d drive to the country so we would have this continuity of weather. So we spent so much time in the car together and just sitting out the daily thunderstorms of Portland with Pete, the two actors, and myself. They all got to know each other so quickly. There was an intimacy just in the way the film was made — a sped-up intimacy. Ode was just me and one other person and two actors, a really special experience. This was a six-person crew, two actors and a dog. I don’t mean to be corny about it, but that atmosphere added to quickly getting to the two characters having some history together. There are no walkie-talkies or craft-service tables, just a camera and backpack.

For me, keeping the apparatus small is how I work best. I would never want a crew of 13 again, as on River of Grass. I don’t want a crew of 10. I just want to make a film where there are no walkie-talkies or Blackberrys. I just want to go off with a group of friends. I’m better at making films that are private environments. It’s less excess, which means I won’t have a dolly shot, but that’s okay.

SS: You mentioned before that much of Daniel London’s role as Mark is listening. How did you switch between modes, from Will, who gets the two main monologues, and Daniel, who reacts to them?

KR: The whole film we were constantly going, “Is anybody going to get this? This was a moment — is anybody going to recognize that that was a moment?” With Daniel, I was sometimes feeling that maybe Mark was too harsh, and he felt strongly that Mark had to be closed-off. We were constantly pushing, like “Is it happening too fast? Is that something that should be revealed about Mark?” But in the editing room I really felt that Daniel’s instincts were right on, that Mark had that edginess to him. I think it was good that he did have that hard line to the point where Daniel pushed it. A lot of what Daniel’s doing is just with his body, like the way he hunches over when he walks across a log. Will is very comfortable in his body, but Daniel is very careful. That scene where Mark is wrapping up the sleeping bag, the scene of packing up the camp, to me sums up both of their personalities completely. And not a word is spoken. That’s the most crystallizing scene in many ways.

SS: How did you arrive at the scene at the hot springs?

KR: That was a very hard scene. The story that Kurt tells in Jon’s story never felt right to me for the film. Jon and I racked our heads forever, thinking, “What is that story?” Then Will became involved in coming up with something. When we started filming I still didn’t know what was going to happen — there are different tensions going on in that scene, several undertones. One day when we were rehearsing, Will just told this story about something that happened to him on his bike when he was riding through Portland and I thought, “Oh my god, that’s the story.” We started putting in other elements to the story and filling it out, but it was never written on paper. It was just something that was cooking in Will’s head and that I would talk to him about.

The day we shot it, it started pouring as soon as we got up there, and there were people who wanted to get into those tubs. It was by far our most challenging day, just to hit the note of tension right. And I did different cuts of the scene. That’s where Todd Haynes’s help came in. He was in New York once to see a cut and he said, “The tub scene is not there, you’re missing it.” He kept pushing me back to it until it came out like it is.

SS: What changes did you make to his suggestion?

KR: I really don’t want to define that scene, but to answer your question, it’s a matter of how much tension . . . Kurt is trying to get Mark’s defenses down. It sort of peaks there. There’s a lot of different ways you can go about it: tension, no tension, a million degrees in between. Part of the challenge is not to point in any one direction. So I don’t want to say, “It’s this.”

SS: To go back to the political feelings . . .

KR: “Old Joy” can stand for everything. The death of liberalism in America. Who could have guessed that the Christian Right would win the day? My first political memory is being pulled out of a pool at a friend’s house to watch Nixon resign, so it’s not like I grew up in the years of some American Dream or something. But at least living through Watergate, there was the idea that the wrong get punished and somehow things work back around. Not to paint this rosy picture, but I honestly couldn’t imagine that in my lifetime the Christian Right would gain so much hold over the entire world, and that things would escalate so quickly. When you first realized that AIDS was the real thing, that it would be around and that your friends would be dying off, there was this feeling of “Whoa, we’re going to have to live with this now? Sex has this whole baggage to it now?” The time before AIDS and the time after AIDS are just completely different playing fields. I think people my age have the feeling now that any kind of idealism, that any kind of justice would prevail, has been shot to hell. That’s the old joy of it. These guys not being able to be effectual — Mark is probably a guy who grew up with the idea of world peace, but at the end of the day he can’t even really forgive Kurt for whatever it is that he holds against him, or open himself up to a close friend. Old joy has a feeling of my generation at a total loss.

SS: Why the insertions of left-wing radio in Mark’s car?

KR: It’s more of a character-building thing for Mark. I did want to set the exact period of time when Bush was reelected, not just a loss, but another old joy: both elections were stolen, the loss of democracy. I’m not really trying to make any political point with the Air America segments — it’s just liberals fighting amongst themselves.

SS: Old Joy is your second film adapted from a work of fiction. How do you approach transforming source material into a screenplay?

KR: It’s not like starting from scratch, you have a lot to go on. What you’re getting from the story is a structure and a line to follow. With Ode it was a matter of taking things out and updating the story, which is a period piece, to the present day and modernizing it a bit. Which was interesting, because I made the film in 1998 and that story has a lot to do with the Christian Right’s hold over the South. There are things in that story that I thought, Wow, it’s still like this today. When I was making it, I think Matthew Shepard was killed. Jon’s story was more of a collaborative thing. Jon’s just so specific in the detailed nature of his prose. So you have this story where so much atmosphere is already set up for you. He’s great at creating these relationships that go through “unsaid moments.”

SS: Old Joy also marks your first narrative film since Ode. What was it like working in that vein after two shorter, more experimental films?

KR: Narrative is easier for me. I’m much more of a narrative brain. It takes so much effort for me to throw narrative away — it always comes sneaking back in. River of Grass was my first 16mm film — up to then I just made Super 8 films about myself, not narrative ones. All of a sudden I made this feature with a crew of 13 people — it was the hardest thing I ever did, by far. The editor of River of Grass, Larry Fessenden, who also stars in the movie, I sat with him in the editing room throughout that whole process and really learned about editing. With the next films I made, Ode and the short, both of which I was shooting and editing, there was time to learn a lot about filmmaking where there wasn’t so much at risk. Old Joy is a low-budget film, but it’s still relatively expensive. I’ve also been teaching film for seven years. I felt much more equipped to have a handle on things through learning them when you’re not spending all of somebody’s money. I knew this time that I’d eventually be back — you start out writing on your own, writing with Jon, you get to this group effort, and then you get it back to yourself again in the editing room, where you can be more methodical than you can be when you’re shooting. Figuring out the editing on Old Joy will help my next script.

SS: It seems to me that your films contain a leisurely, meditative pace while also compressing narrative and character information into a few very important shots and lines of dialogue.

KR: All of the tension or drama in my films happens in minute moments — a comment or a glance. You can easily miss them. [Laughs] It’s not the huge event, it’s these little things that mount. In Bresson's work, the tension comes from the act of someone carving a shiv in a prison. It’s through that act of repetition and carving and time lapsing that you can bring other information into it. My stories are really small, which is why I keep the filmmaking small — focusing on the particular, because it’s not going to appeal to everybody.


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