Her films often centre on the ill-defined milieus of life at the edges of society, populated by nomads, activists, down-and-outs and everybody else in between. Now Kelly Reichardt is back with the highest-grossing film of her career, Certain Women, with a line-up that is anything but down and out. Starring Michelle Williams, Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Lily Gladstone and James Le Gros, it traces the loosely interconnected lives of three women as they navigate the relentless landscape of rural Montana.
The result is sharply perceptive and honest, with an unwavering eye fixed on the finer dynamics of human relationships and their shaping by the natural and domestic environment. Reichardt is often described as a minimalist but in the sheer attention to detail, Certain Women dazzles.
It's Reichardt’s third time working with Williams, in what is shaping up to be one of the most enduring and exciting relationships in modern cinema. Yet to see so many other Hollywood actors piling in shows a real mainstream tipping point in Reichardt’s career. Still, she says, there’s a lot to be done before women have an equal footing in an industry plagued by accusations of misogyny and sexism (ahem, Casey Affleck). Here she tells Refinery29 more.
Certain Women is based on a collection of short stories by Maile Meloy. Had you been a long-term fan of her work? No I wasn’t. I can’t actually remember how I first came across her. I think there was something in The New Yorker, which led me to the book of shorts [Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It]. I hadn’t read her novels at that point but the stories were already starting to stick in my head and I was beginning to fool around with them, just to see if I could make something of it. Then I eventually wrote her and asked her if I could have my way with her – her stories, I mean – and thankfully, she allowed it. So that’s how that happened.
What makes a compelling character or story, do you think? I think a good character is someone who unfolds slowly, who I might feel differently about at different points. I like when people’s surroundings are part of who they are as well. But what you look for in terms of making a film often differs from what you would just sit down, read and enjoy. There are lots of things I like to read that I don’t think I should make into a movie. I’m interested in the small life politics in Meloy’s stories. Sometimes you don’t even know you’re getting to them but they’re there.
Of all your films, Certain Women seems to be the most challenging in terms of having to juggle so many characters and stories. I would say so, yes [laughs]. It was challenging! But if you completely know something’s going to work you almost don’t need to make it. If you have enough fear about it, it will keep you interested and keep you striving to find the answers. And in filmmaking, you have to stay interested in something for quite a long time!
It’s an amazing cast. How does it feel to be working with such big-name stars? Well, I can’t say why everyone was game. It was so nice that they were because it was a real pleasure, and a real learning experience, working with each one of them. I think they wanted to be in roles that they could make something of, that they could really chomp on. They’re all such different actors. It was really fun watching them work with each other in every one of the stories – that was one of the highlights of it. It was a big commitment because we had to go to the far reaches of Montana in the middle of winter, where there are no direct flights. Laura’s a mum, Michelle’s a mum and James Le Gros is a dad. So it was a big commitment from them.
It’s your third time working with Michelle Williams. Why are you still so drawn to her as an actress? There’s no one-pattern thing, really. It’s hard to explain it succinctly. Michelle comes to set open to whatever the day’s going to bring, including the weather. She’s a really intuitive actor and very responsive to whatever’s going on. I mean she is always totally prepared, but she’s never tied down to one agenda or an unshakeable idea about a role. She’s like me, in that sense. She likes to find it while it’s happening. That, I think, comes across in her performances and sets her apart.
Michelle comes to set open to whatever the day’s going to bring, including the weather
It’s been six years since you last collaborated on Meek’s Cutoff. How has working with her changed over the years? I think she’s getting more confident in her choices. This time around I didn’t notice any second-guessing of what she was doing. I don’t know if it was just the role, or life experience, or whatever. She’s always been brave enough to take on a role that’s not always easily likeable. Some actors don’t want to do that but Michelle will dive in wholeheartedly, which is very cool. Also, when you’ve worked with someone a few times it’s nice to just have a sort of understanding – a shortcut language – which makes the whole process easier. Seeing her arrive I felt relieved, like ‘Ah, Michelle’s here, ok.’
Your films deal with people in difficult situations – often without much by way of money or opportunity. Do you worry about portraying that authentically? Well, the characters in Certain Women are a lot more middle-class than some of my previous characters. I wouldn’t say that my characters are impoverished but my films definitely address the fact that there are different ways to live. And not everyone can get with the system that’s been set up. Aside from the fact that the system works better for some people than it does for others, some people were just not involved in designing it and aren’t interested in participating.
I see no romance in poverty. I don’t feel romantic about having a shit-ton of wealth either, though I imagine it makes things a lot easier. Not that I really know what it’s like to live at either extreme. But I definitely don’t take a romantic view of working without a net, or without the mental capacity to get through your life. The whole poverty-is-beauty thing really isn’t my bag.
Have you seen I, Daniel Blake? No. I’m a huge Ken Loach fan, though! I’ve been meaning to watch it but not had the chance. Maybe I can catch a screening of it while I’m in the UK.
With a predominantly female cast, would you describe Certain Women as a feminist film, and do you identify as a feminist? I’m a feminist, sure. The film doesn’t have an agenda, it’s just a character film. But I wouldn’t call it a feminist film because it irks me to think about the ‘woman filmmaker’ thing, because if that’s the case, then who are just the 'filmmakers'?
How are conditions for women in filmmaking? You know what, it’s not good. There’s still a very small percentage of women getting films made. I teach film (at Bard College in New York) and there are way more women in my class than there used to be – but that might say more about where I teach – it’s very supportive and a great place for a young woman to find her voice. I have no idea what the ratio is like at NYU anymore, but it used to be abysmal.
Is the main issue being frozen out of funding, or a more pervasive culture of misogyny? Everything. Sexism’s a really hard thing to talk about. I would never compare racial discrimination and sexism – people of colour have had it harder than anyone in this business. But I think that racial discrimination is at least a little easier to identify; whereas sexism is just everywhere. It’s completely ingrained and talking about it in any way feeds into awful stereotypes about women bitching and whining. And so there you are: locked in a corner!
How do you reconcile that with your own, personal and growing success? Things have gotten easier for me and I’ve had a good decade of being able to work. I’m really grateful, but I don’t want to make it seem like I don’t think there’s a problem, just because I’ve gotten through, just because I got to make work. There is a problem, a huge problem, and I hope that the internet and the wider availability of digital recording equipment allows us to cut through some of that and creates room for more voices.
Certain Women is released in the UK on 3rd March