“I know how some people might think that when a film is made for such little money, it’s a less desirable project,” Michelle Williams said recently in an interview with indieWIRE, “But I find it more liberating. There’s less pressure.” Over the past decade Williams has built her career around such films, from Tom McCarthy‘s “The Station Agent” to Charlie Kaufman‘s upcoming “Synecdoche, New York.” But she admits the “smallest” film she’s ever made is Kelly Reichardt‘s “Wendy & Lucy, currently gathering significant acclaim on the festival circuit and stirring awards season buzz. “It was the most bare bones,” she said.
At a press conference for “Wendy” at the New York Film Festival, director Reichardt spoke to Williams’ suggestion. “It was a very scaled down way of making films where there is not a lot of separation between the cast and the crew,” Reichardt said. “[Michelle] could’t wear any makeup and wasn’t aloud to wash her hair for twenty days. And she was down with all of it. You do a scene with her and [afterwards] ask her to grab a light, and she’ll do it. She was very game for everything.”
Shot over twenty days last August on a reported budget of $300,000, the film is the story of Wendy, played by Williams, and her dog, Lucy (played by Reichardt’s own dog, also named Lucy). Wendy has run away from the Midwest, Lucy in tow, in search of a job and quite likely some sense of liberation from whatever plagued her previous existence. En route to Alaska, Wendy’s car breaks down in a small Oregon town, and after a serious round of bad luck, she finds herself anxiously searching for her lost dog.
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Williams got involved with the project almost immediately after finishing her work on “Synecdoche.” “It was a combination of a lot of things,” she said of her attraction to the project. “I’d seen ‘Old Joy‘ and I was a big fan of both the film and the performances. I wanted to try something like that. Kelly and I had mutual friends. And they said to me ‘Go with her. You guys are gonna catch on like a house on fire.'”
And they did. In a recent telephone conversation, Williams said her relationship with Reichardt was unique when compared to any other experience she’d had with a filmmaker. “There was a bit of preparation,” she said. “But mostly, I just fell deep into Kelly’s style… Being in that environment she created helped really bring out that character.”
Environments like Reichardt’s are being challenged. Their finished products are having more and more difficulty finding audiences and distribution. After screenings in Cannes, Toronto, and at NYFF, “Wendy” is being released domestically as the first narrative feature distributed by Adam Yauch‘s Oscilloscope Laboratories. Its December 10th release date places it in midst of a heavy string of awards-seeking specialty films, many with studio-funded marketing budgets. But Williams admits she hasn’t always been invested in what happens to a film beyond her involvement in its production.
“I’ve never really been interested in the business side of film,” she said. “I’m more attached to the character so I’ve always just wanted to immerse myself in the roles. So I don’t always notice these things. But I do know that things have become more dire. And I know working with less money changes things: You can’t do certain shots, you’re under certain time constraints.”
Williams’ admirable separation of herself from a film’s economy might be tested with “Wendy,” in which she has begun to tentatively take the lead to support the movie, “It was different with this film,” she said. “Because it was much more of a collaboration [with Reichardt]. And because it was really my first lead role. I have a lot more invested in it.”
She said that her and Reichardt “really just made it for themselves,” but that stance has been tested as the film met festival after festival with glowing reception, most recently at the New York Film Festival. “The response has really been amazing,” Williams said. “Kelly and I really didn’t expect it. I mean, seeing it screen at the Zeigfeld with this big audience. It was really gratifying.”
Williams’ involvement certainly can’t hurt come the film’s December release. Despite mostly avoiding films with significant mainstream appeal, Williams has had trouble stepping out of the spotlight (primarily due to tragic offscreen events). But, when asked if she considers her fame an opportunity to get her work to larger audiences, she hesitated. “I never really think of that way,” she said. “I don’t really consider myself a ‘celebrity’ in that I have some sort of special power or influence.”
She even modestly suggested that the film could have worked just as well with another actress, a remarkably doubtful idea. Though she spoke very little dialogue in the movie (despite being in nearly every shot), Williams pulled together a nuanced and disciplined performance likely to be considered her best yet, and potentially a dark horse in this year’s awards race. Nominated for an Academy Award for “Brokeback Mountain,” Williams’ reflection of her past awards experience remains unsettled. “I still don’t really know what to make of it,” she said.
Williams joked that she is not “Wendy”‘s true awards contender. “It was actually Lucy that won the award at Cannes,” she said. “The Palm Dog Award. She wears this little award on her collar.” So will Lucy become the Academy’s first canine nominee? “That’d be amazing,” she laughed.
Jokes aside, “Wendy” is surely something the 28-year old should be proud of. It’s been over ten years since her breakthrough on the television series “Dawson’s Creek,” and Williams’ maturation as an actress is clear. “I think I’ve come a long way,” she said. “I’ve been working since I was a teenager. And if I can be proud of anything in my career, it’s that I’ve become better as an actor. And that certainly can be attributed to the filmmakers I’ve worked with.”
In the past two years alone, Williams has worked with Reichardt, Kaufman, Todd Haynes, Lukas Moodysson (on the upcoming “Mammoth,” an experience Williams called “incredible”), and Martin Scorcese (the just wrapped “Shutter Island“).
Currently taking an indefinite break after the seemingly impossible amount of work she’s done recently, Williams is unsure about what kind of projects (or which directors) she’ll pursue upon her return. “I feel like I’ve become out of touch,” she sighed. “It’s been awhile since I went to see a film. I think I just crossed this line where I became more focused on being a mother. I asked somebody recently what ‘High School Musical 3’ was. And she said, ‘Don’t ask that, you sound old!'”
I think the word Williams’ friend was looking for was “wise.”