Kelly Reichardt is one of the most original and exciting directors at work today. Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2009) and Meek’s Cutoff (2011) won widespread critical praise for their uniquely naturalistic character studies and brooding intensity. Her latest, Night Moves, starring Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard, is Reichardt’s most accessible film to date; its story, about environmentalist extremists who plot to blow up a dam, takes the shape of a conspiracy thriller, though it’s still marked by Reichardt’s deliberate pacing and sideways approach to dialogue and narrative. Though Reichardt hails from from Florida and is a resident of New York, where she teaches at Bard College, all of these films were produced and are set in Oregon – all in collaboration with Oregonian novelist and screenwriter Jonathan Raymond. The famous natural beauty of the state has added rich atmosphere to Reichardt’s filmmaking, becoming almost a recurring character in itself. I’m originally from Oregon myself, so this personal connection to her work became the starting point of our conversation.
Are you at home in New York today?
No, I’m in Oregon at the moment. I’m here for the summer.
You go there every year, right?
Well, I got introduced to it through Todd Haynes, who was my good friend who lived in New York, and left New York to come out here, and I just sort of started coming out to visit him. And then I met Jon Raymond [Reichardt’s regular story collaborator] through him, and we made Old Joy out here… And now, my producer’s here, my other producer’s moving here, we’re all kind of… I wish I had some kind of thing that could trace every road I’ve been on in the years I’ve been scouting Oregon. But it’s nice to make films in a place that you don’t actually live but that you know. So, I teach in upstate New York, and when I’m not teaching I’m in Oregon.
Have you been tempted to relocate permanently?
I don’t have any money. Unlike everyone else out here… My job is in New York. I like my teaching job, I need it, it’s my job. [laughs]. I don’t know what I would do… I don’t know, everyone out in Portland, people seem to own a house or two and no one seems to have a job, I just don’t understand where the money comes from. Everyone seems so young and so flush.
Oregon has been a big inspiration for you cinematically. You’ve made this incredible suite of films there – all of your features starting with Old Joy have been set there. Have you considered moving on and making a film somewhere else?
Yeah, I did, and I was getting ready to. In all these films I always consider making them other places. I scouted many deserts before we settled in Meek’s, and I scouted hot tubs all over the country before broke down and shot it where Jon had written the story [Old Joy] for, and Wendy and Lucy too. I went to like 39 states scouting Walgreens parking lots before I cried defeat and shot it in the parking lot across the street from where Jon lives. So, you know, I always consider other places, and then… these days in the States you have to go where there’s some incentive to shoot, some tax incentive. So that knocks out a bunch of places right there. And then, you know, where’s your crew?… The landscape, fortunately, is super diverse here, so you can make a film in the desert and then make a film in an old-growth forest. I should expand, I know. [laughs]
You have a very organic process when it comes to developing your stories; you’ve said that you tend to find a location and then write the screenplay. For Night Moves, it was visiting an organic farm that started the process. How did it go from that visit to developing this noir-like thriller?
Well, it’s so hard to remember the exact order that everything came about, but I think I was in a sound class. I was making my students recreate the safe scene in Rififi, and I just thought of the detail. I just thought that moving that sort of idea into what we were doing… you actually show the sort of play by play of what it takes to pull off act. So, I’d put it up to filming process more than… you know, I like the sort of small mechanics more than the spectacular moments. And so it seemed kind of like a natural fit. And also, I just liked the idea of taking this sort of organic setting and putting in this really structured kind of framework.
So process dicates a lot of what you do. Is that the reason your films are so famously open-ended?
Well, I mean it’s funny. I wouldn’t say it’s [the reason], it’s just how it goes. This film has more of an ending than most. [laughs]. They all ultimately seem like road movies to me, it always feels like we’re picking up with characters that are already under way with something, and we spend a short time with them. And then you the viewer go on your way, and they go on with their lives.
Since you were working with thriller elements in Night Moves, were you tempted to have less of an open ending? Did the momentum of story feel like it was carrying you to some sort of resolution?
Well, a resolution sometimes feels like the end of the conversation to me, and to me, it’s like the film is like the beginning of the conversation. Because it’s certainly not pushing any kind of answer to anything. I don’t have an answer to anything. In a dream world, the question in this film would be, if all these things are the wrong approach, or not enough – whether that’s the small farm or the extreme activism – what the fuck should anybody be doing, you know? At this point what should anybody be doing? And I guess I don’t know what the finality of that would be. I guess the nature of a question seems like it has to be open.
So the open ending respects the difficulty of the topic.
Yeah, it seems like as soon as you sew things up, then it’s just much easier for it to feel – you know, it sort of gives this kind of comfort and finality, so that you can sort of, you know, smack your hands together and knock the dust off them and be like, well that’s done, and there’s that. And I’d rather leave a nagging something in your head where you have to contemplate what happens next… And genre offers you a lot of opportunities to just scratch everybody’s itch. And everybody, whether they know it or not, sort of knows what comes at what point. And I feel like doing that too completely is just bad art. [laughs]
Night Moves isn’t a political film as such – but has it had a political response from audiences? It’s such a thorny topic, especially in the Pacific Northwest.
In Europe, certainly, all the Q&As had the one young 20-year-old girl who used to be a fan of mine, but will never be able to watch another film of mine because of the depiction – you know, everyone knows environmentalists never hurt anybody. That same young woman seemed to appear at every screening, even though she was really different every time. And that was always a little heartbreaking, just to watch someone in their 20s want absoluteness.
Your films have such a documentary quality – have you ever considered turning to making documentaries?
No, and I never think my films have that. It’s funny, people do say that, but – I’m very precise. It’s funny, because I’m such a planner, and I spend so much time at my locations, and I work with this storyboard artist that I’m very close to. But, you know, it is true, we have so little to work with, and the weather is such that when it comes down to it, it will only stretch so far… the chaos ensues no matter what, you know. [laughs] And it brings this life to it – the planning and the reality always collide when you’re trying to hold onto the framing you imagined, and trying to stay open to whatever’s really happening. But I have no idea how to [make a documentary]… The process is not documentary-like at all.
So the verité comes from a lot of planning that doesn’t show up on the screen.
I think it has a lot to do with spending so much time scouting and just finding the right places.
Thanks so much for your time.
No, thank you!
Jim Poe is a writer, DJ, editor and radio host based in Sydney. He has served for years as publications and content manager at Sydney Film Festival, contributes to the Guardian, Junkee and inthemix and co-hosts the DHA Weekly on Bondi Beach Radio. He tweets from @fivegrand1