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Complexity in the Ordinary: An Interview with Kelly Reichardt on Certain Women

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By Amir Ganjavie.

The latest film from Kelly Reichardt, Certain Women, centers on topics that define and characterize her cinema. Based on short stories from Maile Meloy’s collection Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, the film presents a story of four strong, independent women coping with the difficulties of living in an especially capitalist and patriarchal contemporary American society. Although including more stars than Reichardt’s past works, Certain Women still has a level of simplicity typical of her observational cinema; there is a degree of quietude and understandability that makes the movie very approachable and enjoyable. As in her other works, politics is very prominent. Reichardt seems to be interested in political cinema told from a personal perspective: for her, the personal is political. I had a chance to sit down and talk with her after the Toronto International Film Festival screening.

What was your source of inspiration for the three segments of Certain Women?

It came from the stories of Maile Meloy, a writer who grew up in Montana. I very much like her writing and she was generous enough to let me play around with different stories and see what I could make work together. The last film that I made (Night Moves, 2014) was about getting into the head of the protagonist, a young male radical, so I thought that now I want to take on a different kind of life. That led me to these lawyers and I liked that they were sort of struggling in their fields a little bit and pounding away to kind of make progress despite limitations that they faced, such as the challenges for women doing that kind of work.

It seems to me that you chose the title of this project, Certain Women, because you didn’t want, for example, to talk about specific women. You think this problem could arise for anyone; the problems are personal but at the same time can be universal for everybody.

Yes, these women are all really different and imperfect and complex, as are the men in their lives, so it’s hard to sum up.

What I like most about this movie and the rest of your work is its simplicity. Your films are always very simple but at the same time they always convey a very strong message, about lives and the relationships that humans have with their surroundings.

certain-02You know, I don’t have so much like a big agenda or something. It’s just that each project I get into, I try to decide if that’s relatable to me and if I think there is something of value in it. I might be able to explore voices different from those in the mainstream. I guess the idea of independent cinema for me originally was that it was about voices that weren’t necessarily the winners of the world, but it’s changed somewhat. It seems sometimes that independent cinema is more like a technical term referring to where financing comes from.

I realized that you are interested in genre cinema but you always change or redefine genres according to the simplicity that I’m talking about. There are no big heroes in your movies: they tell the stories of simple and ordinary people.

It’s weird because we think about ordinary as we know them but people’s lives are complicated and people are complicated and even the relationship between neighbors in an apartment building can have complexity to it after many years. So I guess one theme that interests me is this question of our relationship with each other as strangers: do we have something that we should be doing for each other? Should we care about each other or should we just be looking out for ourselves? Even if you have these ideas that we are all connected, does that come into play at all in our day-to-day lives or is it just that our own sort of survival modes separate us from each other?

What I like about your movie is that when you discuss questions of aspects like femininity and masculinity and how these ideas are shaped, you always try to contextualize and say that a given issue or situation is due to environmental factors, like the capitalist society that we live in. You never, for example, say that men are naturally bad or that women are naturally good. You always try to put the whole issue of gender within the context of class and society. Is the question of class important for your work?

That seems to be a big divide for everything, right? You sort of stay in the lane you are born into, even in this land of opportunity called America, so there are all of these films that take place in the American West that present the American Dream as though it’s open to everyone; all that you have to do is pull yourself up by the bootstraps. Is that theory really true when one person’s bootstraps are different from another person’s bootstraps? Is it true when there’s a kind of systematic blocking that makes it difficult for people to get ahead? Those are the things that interest me, as well as keeping the story of the environment. Nature and the land around all of us is a pretty important part of the overall story for anybody moving forward.

Do you like working with a well-known star? Do you think it is important for the message of the film?

certain-04I love my actors and I feel very honored that they take the time to be in my films because it’s great to work with people who really are good at their craft. Of course, the smallest films need the power of a name to make a million-dollar movie; that’s how you get financing for a film if you are not independently wealthy. It would be disingenuous to say that I want to work with big name actors and not acknowledge that they are the reasons that films get made. Their star power opens the door for someone like Lily Gladstone to have a role and then you kind of sneak someone in. Lily is really the star of this film in a lot of ways. Of course, it’s also great to work with people like the whole cast and crew, people who are really good at what they do. I find acting to be such a mysterious process and we do it under tough circumstances with these actors who could be in films that offer them a much more comfortable existence and more financial reward. Nonetheless, they come out and are really almost an extension of the crew. The cast and crew don’t really have a separation in these films; we’re all working together. Something kind of beautiful happens when those lines get crossed and I think there’s something that the actors like about not spending hours and hours separated in hair and makeup. It’s more about trying to talk Michelle into not showering for my films and not washing her hair.

So you want your actors to not behave or act in a way that’s defined as proper by the patriarchal system or the way that the capitalist system defines a woman? Or do you want to redefine the question of beauty in contemporary society when you say that you ask your actors not to wash?

certain-03Yes, I mean it’s hard because these are attractive people but you try to dirty it down as much as possible. It’s a hard question. I mean, you could try but it will be difficult. It’s just so they fit into the roles and don’t seem too beautiful for the people they’re playing. Not that there aren’t beautiful people in the world.

I want to ask you about the question of finance. What method do you use as an independent filmmaker? Is it primarily through crowdfunding?

I have worked with these two producers, Neil Kopp and Anish Savjani, on five movies and they have been very good at looking at what we have and being the ones who have really put these films together. My last film was the first one that Sony was involved in, which meant that even though it had a very small budget it was the first time that instead of a single private investor we had a bunch of private investors and we tried to work together.

I don’t even understand all of the financing, to be honest.

Fascinated by the issue of alternative and utopian space in cinema and architecture, Amir Ganjavie has published widely about cinema, architecture and cultural studies. He co-edited a special volume on alternative Iranian cinema for Film International and edited Humanism of the Other, an essay collection on the Dardenne brothers (in Persian). His most recent contribution is an article on the meaning of space and utopia in cinema by analysing the films of Tsai Ming-Liang.

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