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Kelly Reichardt on Shooting Certain Women on 16mm, the Ugliness of the Day, and Making the Space Tell the Story

Michelle Williams in Certain Women (Photo by Nicole Rivelli/Courtesy of IFC Films)

In the more than two decades since her stunning debut film River of Grass premiered at Sundance in 1994, Kelly Reichardt has managed to carve out a unique niche for herself in the independent film world. Her distinctive and uncompromising body of work includes Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, Night Moves, and her latest, Certain Women, which premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Written and directed by Reichardt and based on the short stories of Maile Meloy, Certain Women stars Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, James Le Gros, Jared Harris, Lily Gladstone and René Auberjonois.

Shot by frequent collaborator, DP Christopher Blauvelt, on 16mm, Certain Women tells three separate stories of three very different “certain women” (Dern, Williams, and Gladstone) against the backdrop of rural Montana. Though the three segments of the film are only peripherally connected, they share the same pensive tone and convey a palpable sense of loneliness.

Filmmaker recently chatted with Reichardt about why she opted to shoot on 16mm, collaborating with Blauvelt and more. The film hits theaters, courtesy of IFC Films, on October 14.

Filmmaker: How and why did you decide to shoot on 16mm for this film? What were the challenges and benefits to it?

Reichardt: Originally, I wanted to shoot on film, but I was worried that with the turnaround [time] of getting dailies back into Montana, one section of the film would be done before I would have dailies back, and I wouldn’t be able to afford to bring the actors back. So it was decided that, practically, we had to shoot digitally. We went out to our ranch, my DP Chris Blauvelt and I, and we did a test shoot on a very snowy day.

Looking at the footage, the snow just looked like a solid block of white. It was so absolute and hard-lined and with a lack of detail. I spent all my test shoot resources on that test shoot, and then at the last second, I said “We’ve got to go film.” So we switched back to film, and then we didn’t get to test our lenses. The big challenge was that we didn’t get to test shoot. I sort of used my test shoot nugget on HD. That’s what the test shoot should be for, but we went in a different direction. But the payoff with film is it’s just not as hard and flat and there’s more grain and more texture.

It was way negative degrees when we were shooting, so some of the challenges were: it does take a long time to get your footage back. We had some problems with some lenses, and it took us a long time to figure out what that problem was in Montana. Loading a camera when it’s six degrees out makes a grown man cry. But, nevertheless, I don’t know how an HD camera would have handled that kind of weather either. In those kinds of temps, they shut down. The cold would have brought some issues regardless. But the problems were resolved, and [they] called for some nighttime reshoots with Lily [Gladstone]. She was in Missoula, so we just kept sending her home and telling her to come back, sending her home, telling her to come back. Then finally she just stayed.

Filmmaker: You’ve worked with Christopher Blauvelt as your DP before on Night Moves and Meek’s Cutoff. How do you like to collaborate with him? At this point, do you have a shorthand way of communicating?

Reichardt: I like to collaborate with him very much! Basically, the shorthand comes from a lot of prep time and really getting down the look and the vocabulary of what the film is going to be beforehand. I had lots of research books, storyboards and location footage, and a lot of reference shots. Chris gets into all of this stuff and then comes to spend time with me early on, before we start shooting, at the ranch, with our production designer and scout. So we have our shooting strategy down for the rest of the film, which is a little more manageable.

But the ranch had all these horses that you can’t exactly coordinate. Chris had in his mind what the goal of the shot was, and what the shooting strategy of the film would be, but at the same time, he had to be spontaneous and respond to what was happening in the moment when the horses were let out to eat or whatever. He is such a good operator and so he had to cross that thing of “what I’m hoping to have happen and what is actually happening.” He sort of bridges those [two] things. Definitely, it’s the closest DP relationship I’ve ever had. He’s so invested in getting you what you want. He does not have a separate agenda for himself. That’s a really hard thing to find, I’ve found. (Laughs). Ideas that I will plant in his head early on that I myself will forget about that, he’ll find an option for and will be like, “Is this what you’re talking about?” It’s a very rewarding collaboration.

Filmmaker: There is such a painterly feel to the film. Did you have certain painters in mind, and did you look at particular paintings with Chris for reference?

Reichardt: When I began, my go-to painter was Milton Avery. I had a different collection of his paintings for each section of the film that sort of played into the production design, along with the clothing and the landscape. Finding a beige horse ranch was a huge needle in a haystack, and that was one of the real gifts from the gods — I really wanted a beige, brown-and-white look for the ranch. Another artist’s paintings [I was inspired by] for a lot of the posturing people in offices was Alice Neel. And then Stephen Shore’s parking lot photos. I knew there would be a lot of parking lots. When I was scouting, the parking lots were all filled with snow, the trucks all were filled with dirty snow, and it looked so great. But when we were shooting, there was no snow so we were having to deal with the ugliness of cars today — the ugliness of the shapes and colors versus a Stephen Shore parking lot, which has orange and green and cars with fins and big windows. He didn’t photograph an SUV minivan world of white and silver and grey. But it is what it is. You have to embrace the ugliness of the day, I guess.

Filmmaker: All of the references that you just gave — especially the Stephen Shore parking lots — convey a sense of loneliness. In some ways, all of your films convey this sense of loneliness and alienation in a cinematic language. Is that one of your primary goals?

Reichardt: (Laughs) That’s in the mix, for sure. How to make the space tell the story, and nothing like a parking lot to get that across. In Wendy and Lucy, in front of the Walgreen’s parking lot, there’s the sort of depressing thing of going to pick up a prescription, of errands. I feel like the parking lot in Certain Women is little bit more of a mall parking lot, like commerce. It has a different vibe to it. It’s also just the asphalt of Montana.

Filmmaker: Which of the three women in the film do you relate to the most?

Reichardt:  There are things to relate in all of them. There’s so many things when you’re making a film, you’re sort of hustling about asking people to “give give give” in so many ways. So, I can relate to the Michelle Williams’ character. I can relate to Laura Dern’s exhausted feeling — anyone who works in academia, or in film, knows that feeling. And with Lily’s character, just finding the stillness and peace of mind in a real connection with animals, I can relate to that also. I found them all really relatable.

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