The dearth of popular female filmmakers makes us all the more grateful for Kelly Reichardt, a director who has made some of the most daring and beautiful films of the past decade and has since become an increasingly dominant force in independent cinema. She makes deceptively simple films–composed of quiet, minimalist surfaces pulsating with increasingly irrepressible uncertainty and loneliness. Mesmerizing and often cryptic, they offer the immersive experience of getting lost alongside wandering protagonists.
Much of the action of her latest film “Night Moves” takes place on Jesse Eisenberg’s restless face, driven by moral imperative yet plagued with self-doubt. His escalating paranoia is painted with the details of Reichardt’s singular sensitivity to minute movements and sound. Subtly powerful, the film continues Reichardt’s brilliant exploration of the tension between social isolation and interdependence and the self-corroding navigation of human landscapes.
Reichardt sat down with Indiewire to discuss preparing for and filming “Night Moves,” collaborating with actors, and the both struggles and productive possibilities of working on “living” sets. She also expressed the importance of having final cut and how, despite its potential fallbacks, editing her own films has made her a better director. “Night Moves” opens today, May 30, in select theaters.
Your films often rely on the actors’ ability to tacitly evoke emotion and thought. Have you ever faced a challenge working with the actors to achieve the desired effect?
In this film, there wasn’t really a challenge. What often happens is that the circumstances that we’re making the film in somehow reflect the circumstances the characters are in. There is so much physical activity that they have to pay attention to, it kind of really does end up serving its own end. Like, Michelle will always talk about working with the animals and in “Old Joy,” Daniel [London] has to respond to the dog. In this case, Jesse [Eisenberg] is driving the truck all the time, even when we’re not on camera, pulling this boat in this old truck; or Peter [Sarsgaard] is riding the boat. If Dakota [Fanning] doesn’t stop the boat from going into the dam wall, the boat will smash into the dam.
Part of it is just that there is so much physical activity. I think Jesse was taken aback by how much actual, physical activity there was. Like building the bomb and loading the sandbags into the boat. He was like, “Why do I have to load 150 pounds into this boat?” To get you there. I think that’s kind of how it has worked out. There is so much to do for them.
“Meek’s” was a struggle, but more because the script was misleading because the people who had the most dialogue weren’t the people who were most on camera. That was jarring at first, and I probably could have been more forthcoming about that before we were in the middle of the dessert. There was struggle because of that. If you thought it was your big scene, and your big scene happened with your back to the camera, in a wide shot, and the close up was of someone who didn’t have any lines! But that’s the only kind of struggle.
Usually, we shoot in really remote places where the weather is really harsh and the luxuries are non-existent, so living through the film is always so close to what’s happening onscreen. It puts everyone in this very similar mental space.
How do you prepare for that?
Every actor is so different. Everybody has such a different way of coming at things. Dakota is so incredibly private and not interested in talking about the part. Jesse came and lived on the farm, worked on the farm, and rehearsed. I would do script changes after rehearsing with him, and he would want to change the way some scenes were done. Some things we tried and didn’t work, and some things we tried–that were his ideas–and they did work and made the script better. I’m open to what everybody needs and wants; my job is to serve whatever they’re looking for in what the time allows. And with Peter it was like, “Nice to meet you, do you know how to drive a boat?”
How do you personally prepare?
It is very physically demanding. I prepare by firstly working on the script for a long time. Scouting is a big part of the preparation and goes on for a really long time. The more time I can spend in a space, the better. I have a storyboard artist in Oregon who I work with him, and he sometimes will go to locations. He’s an artist and kind enough to do our storyboards. He’s a painter, not a storyboard artist. His name is Mike Brophy. He knows the landscape really well.
He, Neil [Kopp] and I will go out and do what we call “scamping” — scouting and camping. Then I go out with scouts. And eventually, I’m working with Chris [Blauvelt], the DP, and taking him to the places. And I’m constantly working with the production designer and costume designer. So, I’m wading into it for so long. The work that is far from production I actually really enjoy, and production is… hard, really, really hard.
My crew at this point, we’ve made quite a few films togethers. I have this group of PAs– some of them have PhDs and one is a writer. They don’t work on films, but they just come every few years and work on these films. For themselves, for the experience, because they want to dive in and go to some place. And it’s really fortunate for me. You get into synch with one another. That’s when it’s really great. Like that time of the day when the sun is setting, and you’re like “Ah, there’s no more time,” and everyone is at their fucking best. And it goes well. But then there’s a lot of rain and cold and all that in-between. They’re physically challenging.
Have you thought of using non-professional actors?
I did, early on. But not now. I have a lot of respect for the art of acting. There are some non-actors in some of the roles, and that can add a great texture to the movie. But, when an actor can adjust something they’re doing, and the roles are physical, and you have the technical skills to do your lines and do something physical and not make noise while you’re doing that physical thing. And be dramatic and be aware of where the camera is. Actors can make your film better.
Did you consider Michelle Williams?
She wasn’t really the right age. Dena had to be right out of college. As young and youthful in the face as she is, she didn’t fit.
The ending is ambiguous. Is there a specific reason why you withhold a final resolution?
I think of all these films enter someone’s life for a moment, one or two weeks, and you don’t really get their backstories. You just enter their lives and you’re in it with them for this certain amount of the ride, and then you go your separate ways. Nothing really ends. Everything is ongoing, unless it’s death.
All these films are more questions. “Wendy and Lucy” became the question of what our debt is to each other, as strangers; what do we owe each other? In “Old Joy,” in those Bush years, is there room for individualism–to be anyway you want to be? In this film, I think the question is a variety of options are laid on the table from different characters on different ways to live, all trying to be some kind of pull against the destruction of the planet, basically. If this more radical approach is the wrong approach, what is the right one? What should they have done? Are any of the things that any of those people are doing enough? This films feels like an ending to me. For my films, this is so much more of an ending. It all feels like it’s in motion.
You also have ambiguous shots–such as in”Old Joy,” with the close-up on the hand falling into the bath water. Are these images scripted or ever improvised on set?
We move really fast. Certainly things are found on set, but I travel with a lot of notebooks and a lot of notes and a lot of visual instructions for myself. I try not to leave things to chance, especially details. I don’t find that I have the time to find more details when I’m shooting. Sometimes something occurs, like a bird in a tree, and I’ve been looking for a bird and that would be great. It is more likely that something will be forgotten than found. Because all the spaces are living spaces of unpredictable weather and animals, you have to stay open to what the space will bring. Hopefully, it does bring something. But I try to put a lot in the script. Things that are more visual might just be in my notebooks. My producers keep getting me iPads and putting everything on the IPad and telling me that all I need is to carry this. But I need my books to move stuff around. I shlep around my books on set.
Why do you edit your own films? Have you ever been advised to make them more mainstream in pacing?
The less money you take, the more freedom you have. I’ve never made a film where I don’t have final cut. And I can’t imagine doing that. That just seems like it would be turmoil. I edit because that’s where you learn how to direct, really. All the answers of what you should have done are in the editing. I miss out on being able to be in a conversation with someone, and I can see where that can be a really valuable thing–to have someone with more of a distance to be having a dialogue with. You write alone, and scouting is really lonely. Then you do this really intense thing with a lot of people. Afterwards, I usually feel like I want to hide away with my film again and go through the process of making sure that every possible thing has been tried. I’m a big believer in letting your film be bad for a while, and not trying to get to a good cut too quickly. I just want to be involved and I want that process, because it makes me think of what lens I should have used or what I should have done. It’s such a learning experience that I hate to miss out on it. I teach, and when you make films, you get further and further from the equipment. I have to stay in touch with something, because I teach.
What is the biggest obstacle you’ve faced as a female director?
I’m finally at the point where age has trumped being a woman. I’m the oldest person on the set, which finally made being a woman easier. That is too big a question.