By Peter Knegt | Indiewire December 10, 2008 at 6:05AM
"You could say we had limited means," Wendy and Lucy" director Kelly Reichardt laughs when asked about her film's production restraints. "The production is a lot like Wendy's situation, where it's just super precarious and if anything fucks up, we're pretty screwed. One mishap could bring the whole house down." Wendy's situation, as displayed with remarkable poignancy in Reichardt's film, is undoubtably even more dire. Traveling across country with her dog, Lucy, and a few hundred dollars to her name, Wendy (played by Michelle Williams) is desperately hoping to find some kind of economic stability in Alaska. Her quest is derailed when she runs into some considerable adversity in a small Oregon town, most notably by losing Lucy. The film is now on its own financial quest, opening tonight at New York's Film Forum as Oscilloscope Laboratories' first narrative release.
Reichardt sat down with indieWIRE to discuss "Wendy," including the remarkable - and somewhat coincidental - timeliness the film has with regard to the country's current situation. "My friends say that I'm really the anti-social realist," she laughed. "Which is almost true. I mean, I don't really have an agenda for what anyone takes away from [the film]."
Reichardt and writing partner Jon Raymond conceived the story well before the American economy reached its current calamity, as a reaction to Hurricane Katrina. "We decided we were going to make a film about the economic situation in America," she said. "Just the divide between the rich and poor... It came together post-Katrina. A lot of the vicitims down there being condemned for letting their life become sort of precarious. So we just started with this idea - wondering what it takes to improve your situation and is this idea that in American anybody can improve their lot in life true?"
Reichardt and Raymond decided that they were going to have a character "with some ambition to better herself and enough spirit that we could play on the mythology of going West." "[We wanted to know] would that really be enough," Reichardt said. "Could she really improve herself by just having that spirit? If you don't have a decent education, a trust fund, a social net, social skills... any kind of financial net? Is all you really need is a sort of the gumption to do it? So that was sort of the seed of the idea."
Raymond, who worked with Reichardt on her previous film, 2006's "Old Joy," took the outline that came of those discussions and wrote the short story "Train Choir," from which "Wendy" is based.
"We're very back and forth," Reichardt said of their relationship. "I adapted [the story] into a script and then he worked on the script here and there... I mean, we're editing each other's work constantly... But the main thing is that Jon is the person dealing with the blank page, which is the hardest thing. He develops everyone's voices, and writes the story in a very interior, really specific point of view. So the script's really about how to physicalize all the internal stuff that he's written about."
Reichardt hopes their working relationship continues well into the future. "We don't really like each other, it's weird," Reichardt joked. "I'm kidding. He's awesome... We're working on something else. I consider him a complete partner."
That partnership, and Reichardt's own process, found surprising strength in the midst of "Wendy"'s "limited means." "It's a small crew and we're shooting on location so you just try and make the limits work for you aesthetically," she said. "That's all you can do. Which it does, I think. I mean, we're small enough that we can go shoot in these public places and nobody really notices us... I mean, it's a struggle certainly, but the reward is that it's a really private process. Jon and I... we don't have anyone giving us script notes. I'm just editing in my apartment for as long as I want. The process can continue and it's just done when I'm like 'okay, it's done.' There are very few hands in the pot and I'd say that it is the payoff."
One of the potentially adverse affects of this scenario, though, is that there's not a lot of rehearsal time. This poses a particular challenge to the film's lead actress, who is nearly every shot. "Michelle and I talked a lot before we started shooting but she was really doing films back to back at the time," Reichardt explained. "I think she'd been off the Charlie Kaufman film for like 48 hours when she came to our set. So I had ideas about the character and we have the overall concept... but I just really wanted it to be an emotionally buttoned down performance. So, I was living in Portland at the time and we mailed things back and forth to each other - just ideas, books, movies, pictures... I'd give her images that might help her. Pictures of women in Alaska [she says the word with mild Palin-esque impersonation, then laughs] working on this long line. But then a lot of it is being made up as we go, you know."
This process led Reichardt down a path of acceptance in letting go of the character as she imagined it, and letting Williams take control. "Michelle's finding [Wendy], and as a director you live with this idea in your head that's not based on any reality," Reichardt said. "Eventually the words are coming out of someone's mouth and no matter what you've imagined, it's different. It's just different. And you have to adjust to that. So it's really collaborative because we're on this scary ride and sort of figuring it out as we go... We're both figuring it out. I mean, if you can totally imagine it, it's almost like there's no point in making it. The part that's really exciting is the not being able to picture it."
Reichardt is nothing short of glowing when she speaks of Williams. "Michelle's a master of her craft," she said. "She really is. I've worked with a lot of non-actors and there's really a lot of stuff that's great about that. But working with someone that has such control over what she's doing is really just amazing."
A different kind of collaboration - the one Reichardt has had with Oscilloscope since they acquired the film this past July - is discussed with somewhat similar affection. "I think they saw the movie at Cannes," Reichardt said. "I mean, I teach for a living and since school was over I was going off to Portland for the summer and I was just going to have my first vacation of maybe my adult life. And somehow I was thinking 'Oh, I'll just take the summer off and then come back in the fall and try and find distribution.' But of course, all of the distribution stuff happened while I was driving across country with my shitty cell phone in areas you can't get any [service]. So, I talked to Oscilloscope - I think I was in Colorado somewhere because I remember I just pulled off the side of the road to try and find some reception. I sat in this parking lot, ironically, since the whole film takes place in parking lots and you know, it sounded like they just had a lot of energy and they seemed like they were really interested in focusing on theatrical. And that was really appealing to me."
"Wendy" is the first narrative feature the company is distributing - after releasing docs like "Dear Zachary" and "Flow: For Love of Water" earlier this year - and Reichardt notes there's a bit of pressure. "It's make or break," she said. "You do sort of feel like they're pregnant with the movie."
Reichardt is hesitant to discuss the details of her next project, a "Western from a female point of view" that she is writing with Raymond, but admits the less "limited" scale of that type of project has her a bit worried. "It's a tricky thing to try and stay small," she explained. "Because it's just very, very hard to make films under the five hundred million dollar mark. And we're making films way under the five hundred thousand dollar mark. And you know, now we're trying to make a period piece and we probably need to go into that danger zone of like a million, million and half, which is like a real dead zone where financing's concerned. I mean, I don't know. Are any films going to get financed right now? It's really hard to say. So, who knows... It would be nice to be able to work with this. My producers are the same producers from 'Old Joy' and we're just a really good team right now. And it would be nice to make another movie."
Reichardt also seems just as happy to spend time at her "day job," teaching in the film program at Bard College. "It's a really good place up there," she said. "I can go and really sort of work out ideas while I'm teaching and keep deconstructing narrative and thinking about narrative in new ways. Because you're talking about it with people that are thinking about it for the first time. And I teach with these really incredible filmmakers... And you know, everybody goes [in a whiny tone] 'Oh, you have your day job up there,' but for me its like all this process is very inward and self-involved, and it's nice to be able to go up there and get pulled out of yourself and get turned on to other things and out of this little world and into that little world. So I hope to be a part of that community for a while."
One community Reichardt doesn't seem as warm toward is the film industry. It took ten years between her first two features (1993's "River of Grass" and "Old Joy"), and Reichardt's initial experiences led her to avoid making films in "any sort of 'in the industry' way." "I don't consider myself to be working in 'this industry,'" she said. "I didn't find the industry that inviting. So to me it's just been trying to figure out how to make films outside of it. Do it yourself. By any means necessary. And, you know, it's nice. It's been a really good ride - both ['Old Joy' and 'Wendy & Lucy']. And you just don't know... Do it until you can't do it. I'm always prepared that I'll go back to making smaller films at any given time. In between my [first] two features I was making these sorts of films but on Super 8. And when the well dries up, that's where I'll go back."