LOST IN AMERICA: KELLY REICHARDT’S “MEEK’S CUTOFF”
Originally published in the Winter 2011 issue. Meek’s Cutoff is nominated for Best Feature.
Before you see the first image of Meek’s Cutoff, you hear the film. Simultaneously swelling is the whoosh of rushing water and Jeff Grace’s unnerving, anxious score, which sounds like strings on guitar played backwards. Imagine a rusty fence gate slowly opening. That’s your invitation to the film.
Then a title card — hand-stitched on what looks like the potato-sack material used to cover a wagon — announces that we’re in Oregon, and the year: 1845.
This happens quickly, in less than 20 seconds, but by the time the first image fades in on a man leading two oxen and a wagon through a river in glorious, colorful 1.37 “Academy” ratio film (a square, not a wide-screen rectangle), there’s already a claustrophobic tension, and you know Meek’s Cutoff won’t be your father or even grandfather’s Western.
There’s a crisis, and there will be no easy resolution.
This statement describes each of the features Kelly Reichardt has directed. Since Old Joy premiered at Sundance in 2006, she has managed to add a chapter to her continuing exploration of America — through the lens of the Pacific Northwest — every two years (with Wendy and Lucy in 2008 followed by Meek’s Cutoff, which premiered in 2010 at the Venice Film Festival). Each of these stories, created with Reichardt’s writing collaborator Jonathan Raymond, follows travelers: disenfranchised outsiders, people trying to move on and having trouble reaching their destination.
The three films complement each other, yet each one feels fully realized and unique. As a viewer, I couldn’t help but hope that in some alternate film universe the sad-eyed Kurt (Will Oldham) from Old Joy would find Wendy (Michelle Williams) from Wendy and Lucy and they might stop each other’s drifting, try to save each other; become new partners.
Reichardt’s films are often labeled “minimal,” though a more appropriate term might be: specific. An incredibly thoughtful director, Reichardt’s camera framing is always precise and the score and sound design are pitch-perfect (she works with Leslie Shatz, the longtime sound designer of Gus Van Sant’s films). She’s able to tell her stories elegantly with simple images, dexterously hiding the incongruities of image, sound and story to create a dense cinematic experience. Reichardt’s choices aren’t accidental, they’re subtly idiosyncratic, and the net effect is that these films leave a wake behind them. They stay with you. They might even haunt you.
Meeks’s Cutoff follows a small, westward-moving wagon train of three couples and a child being led, perhaps astray, through 1840s Oregon by a charismatic leader, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). Meek is larger than life, deflecting questions about his navigation and leadership by keeping the settlers in a state of constant fear with his big stories about vicious Indians.
While the ladies of the group sit in a sewing circle, the long-bearded Meek articulates his primitive worldview: “Women are created on the principle of chaos…men are created on the principle of destruction.”
The group’s de facto leader — Emily Tetherow, played with strength and tight-lipped intelligence by Michelle Williams — grows increasingly skeptical of everything that comes from Meek’s mouth. At one point she wonders aloud: “Is he ignorant, or is he just evil?”
Meek increasingly becomes a Rorschach test, resembling a number of leaders, elected and otherwise, we might all know. Meek’s very existence begs the question: Can nations expand without violence — and violent men?
By the time an actual Cayuse Indian (remarkably acted by Rod Rondeaux) is captured, bound and beaten, abstract terror and tall tales must be reconciled with a simple fact: These settlers are lost, and they’re no longer in a country they recognize as their own. Meek’s Cutoff will be released in the spring by Oscilloscope Laboratories.
So when did you decide that Meek’s Cutoff was a story that you wanted to tell?
I had scouted eastern Oregon when I was making Wendy and Lucy, because for a minute, I had an idea of that movie being set in a desert town. Jon and I had made a trip out there with the painter Storm Tharp who knows the area really well. It’s such a diverse desert, so unlike Utah or Arizona or California. It really has its own thing. Then later, while I was editing Wendy and Lucy, Jon got some weirdo job where he was hired to name a housing complex that was being built out in the middle of Bend, Ore. He was researching names for the various things like the golf course and the kiddie playground, and he came upon the story of Stephen Meek. He told me about the story, I went out to Portland, and we just sort of dug into the period.
In your research did you come across questions about Stephen’s sanity?
No. Meek was a show-off and had a lot of hubris. Some people thought he was full of shit but I never read about people thinking he was insane. There’s a book I really like called Terrible Trail: The Meek Cutoff, 1845. The two authors, [Keith] Clark and [Lowell] Tiller, come to a point where they disagree on what happened. And that’s how the diaries are from the trail. Some people think Meek deserted the party after purposely leading them astray in the desert, and others just thought he misread the land, was lost and in over his head.
So with your collaboration with Jon Raymond, on this one he’s the sole screenwriter?
He is. The voices he came up with for our characters were so other from anything I knew — not quite period and not modern. They were just from the mind of Jon, and so it wasn’t an easy one to jump in on. I’m usually figuring out how to shoot during the process of adapting his short stories into screenplays, but this time he really screwed me on that. [laughs] And as much as I love the voices Jon created for the nine characters in the film, I see Jon as being more from the Waldo Salt school of writing where the heart of things rests almost completely outside the dialogue. One huge challenge in this project was figuring out how to keep the tone of the story as it was written. Time and space were a real puzzle. In the screenplay, one day rolls into the next, and the desert is monotonous but full of surprises. It’s hard to be surprised when you can see 20 miles in every direction. That was one of the reasons for the square frame. To keep you right with the emigrants and not reveal what was up ahead.
When you made that decision did you realize that was something that reviewers would grab onto, as a sort of statement or purpose?
When you’re in the desert and it’s 110 degrees you aren’t really focused on the mind of a reviewer. You are more likely thinking, “Hey, is that rattling sound coming from under that piece of sage in front of me or the one right behind me?” I was thinking about Robert Adams’s images of the West, which are more contemporary landscapes. I like the high foreground and background that you get in the square and that you don’t get in the wide frame. I also thought the oval shape of the wagons and the bonnets look so great in the square. So, for me, there were practical and aesthetic reasons to do it. So I settled on that, and then spent the rest of that film sort of compromising the frame because everybody constantly reminded me that I had to make it 1.85 safe because most of the country is not going to bother [projecting it 1.37]. That was the superfrustrating element of it.
It’s a very nice shape! It’s interesting though. Obviously, as far as cinema history, we associate Westerns with widescreen. Do you feel after spending time out there that the square format feels much more natural and that the widescreen format is actually the more unnatural way to tell that story?
Well, I don’t know. This whole thing now with all the TVs now being a rectangle, I’m not sold on it. I love a square. I mean, Anthony Mann used a square in Westerns. I think Yellow Sky is a square, the [William] Wellman film. But yes, it’s true that mostly you see widescreen. You have this landscape, and I guess you can try to get the vastness of a mountain range [with widescreen], but you can also get the depth of a mountain range with a square. And you can get your dry earth crawling right up to the edge of the frame. I mean, that stuff gets minimized in the rectangle.
You were talking before about trying to get those frames with Chris Blauvelt, your d.p. Can you tell me how you guys collaborated on the film, and what your working relationship is like?
I think people look for different things with d.p.s. according to what you’re shooting. It’s great to have someone to talk to about the frame and the approach, but with these low-budget films what I need most is someone who can light and in the case of Meek, who can move the camera. I’m sure on larger films you have a super gaffer who can figure out how to get you to the lighting design you and your d.p. desire but on these films, I really need my d.p. to be able to do that. I’m happy for ideas but I don’t want to have to negotiate with my d.p. over the frame or the lens I choose. That sounds obvious but believe me it’s not. Blauvelt is just there to give you what you want. He has a great energy, and he was a problem-solver for a lot of things — the terrain, for example. At first when filming the walking scenes, we had the camera on a buggy, and we were trying to follow the oxen and wagons. I was determined not to use a walking Steadicam. I just don’t like the look of it. So I was trying to keep [the camera] on wheels no matter what. But we were just sort of plowing through the desert, over four-foot sage, on this buggy, and it was all over the place. Looking at the monitor, everything’s shaky and I couldn’t concentrate on the performances. Chris came after shooting had already started and on his first day he just had all available hands out digging a road. He had dolly tracks running on the desert floor. We were then dollying along with the wagons and oxen and I could look through the camera and actually focus on the actors. We never used that buggy again. Chris has this amazing energy; everything is possible. He’s really nimble and able to adjust to the circumstances. The other big challenge was lighting these night scenes. I wanted it to appear to be all lanterns and firelight, to get the sense of how dark it was while, in some scenes, being able to see the whole camp set up — the wagons, the tents, actors coming and going through the camp. Chris was able to achieve that using fires and candles and a really minimal lighting kit. He knew how to light for true darkness, if that makes any sense.
Tell me about shooting with the animals.
The actors all came out a week before shooting for what we called Pioneer Camp. There they learned how to start a fire without matches, how to fire a gun, pitch a tent, cook in the ground, load a wagon and most importantly how to drive the oxen. Oxen are mostly lead by voice calls. One reason people use horses instead of oxen in films like Meek is because you can back a horse up for a second take. Oxen don’t back up. You have to turn the whole machine around after every take and that of course is time-consuming. Our prop man Ryan Smith and his second, Nate, spent a lot of time sweeping up oxen tracks. Also once in a while they just go off and out of nowhere there is a bull running through your set.
As W. C. Fields said about never working with children and animals, are you creating hurdles for yourself?
There’s something really great about [animals] from an acting point of view because things can’t become too stiff. You have to respond to what’s happening because you’re driving a bull. [laughs] Or there’s a dog trying to get the stick out of your hand. The real scary thing was the combination of the oxen and the bonnets which really take away any peripheral vision. So if an oxen has gone nuts next to one of the actresses, they can’t necessarily tell.
The bonnets are stunning, and the dresses are so beautiful.
They’re great. I really liked the idea of slowly revealing the women’s faces and these long bonnets from the period were perfect in that way. I thought they looked like these crazy birds. Vicki Farrell, who designed all the costumes, she and her tailor Grace hand-sewed everything. Their room at the Horseshoe Motel, where we all lived, was like a sweat factory with the two of them hunched over their sewing into the wee hours. The dresses and the bonnets can both be dangerous. There were so many things that had never occurred to me, that I had never read about, that the actors experienced and that had to have been dilemmas for the people in the 1800s who were making the journey.
I’ve heard someone say once that every movie is the story of its own making. Whatever goes on on the set shows up on the screen. The film in many ways deals with the role of women in westward expansion and perhaps the lack of a female presence in films about the West that came before it.
I probably didn’t necessarily make it clear enough from the beginning to the actors how I was going to shoot the movie, though Jon’s script is clearly from the point of view of the women. The first scene that we shot was of the men when they get to the Alkaline Lake. It’s a wide shot, with their backs to the camera. And then I spent the rest of the day doing close-ups on the women. Usually when you’re making a film you expect the camera to be on the person who is doing the talking. In the case of Meek’s Cutoff, the men are doing a lot of the talking. So yeah, there was some tension at times and it emphasized the assumption of power both on film and in life. Also, the desert is as brutal now as it was then. It’s steaming hot or it’s freezing cold. You have to wonder what propelled people to keep going. And sometimes I would wonder that about my cast and crew. Why did everyone keep going? My assistant camerawoman Eliza [Plumlee], who also worked on Wendy and Lucy, at one point said to me, “I’m never not in pain.” It wasn’t a complaint, it was a fact. But at the end of the day, the cast and crew are going back to the Horseshoe Motel and getting four or five hours of sleep in a bed while the emigrants who actually made the journey were crawling under their wagons for the night. It’s amazing how they endured.
On set, was there a sentiment among cast and crew, whichever side it was, whether Meek was delusional and ignorant, or just a bad dude. Did people have feelings either way? Were the pioneers’ journals helpful in determining this? And, in general, what kind of story did the journals paint of their emotional lives?
The journals were really fun reading, and we borrowed heavily from them. They gave a real glimpse into these people’s lives, and it’s fascinating to see how the writing changes over the course of the journey. For the most part, when the journey starts, when they’re leaving Missouri, the days are beautiful, the scenery is beautiful. The journals are very poetic. And then, as it goes on and on and they are worn down and tired and stripped of extra energy, the men’s journals become about directions — “crossed four rivers, passed two mountain passes” — and the real nuts and bolts of what they traveled through each day. And the women’s diaries become a list of chores. “Started the fire, took down the tent, cooked the bread. Fed the oxen, walked.” Our story picks up at the point when their water is dwindling. They have been traveling for months and have made it to Oregon, only to get lost. In the beginning, when our cast was at pioneer camp, everybody wanted all this background information on their characters. I had sent people a lot of books and diaries, and the actors had so many questions and ideas. By the second week of shooting the actors were exhausted. Everything came down to, “How do I work this gun?” It really mimicked the journals. It became Nanook of the West. Chores and chores and chores.
Have you had viewers who have read this as a political allegory, who have asked, “Is this about the Bush administration?”
Yeah, I don’t really want to go down that path. But it is interesting because Jon and I will think about those things in the beginning, and then we’ll make ourselves stop talking about them. There’s a point where we just cut ourselves off, like, “We can’t think about that anymore, we’re doing this story.” Bush was in office when we started and by the time I was editing Obama had been elected. It almost didn’t matter what was going on in the world, I felt I could project onto the film on any given day whatever was currently happening. Maybe because American history is so repetitive.
It’s your second film with Michelle Williams. Can you talk about your working relationship with her and how it sort of evolved over the two films?
In Wendy and Lucy, she’s the only actor for so much of the film. But for Meek there were nine actors, many animals, larger crew. Once we were shooting she was more on her own. I remember on the second day Michelle saying,“This isn’t like Wendy and Lucy,” and I’m like, “No, it’s not.” [laughs] We just had to make that adjustment at the beginning of the film, that we were so in it together in Wendy and Lucy but that there were other components in Meek. I think there is always this tendency to try to relive certain things that happened on your previous movie but a film has a life of its own. You can plan and plan but you can’t really know how it’s all going to shake out. Before we were shooting Michelle kept warning me, “I’m not going to knit. You have to find something else for Emily to do, I hate knitting.” Lo and behold she became a compulsive knitter like all the women on the shoot. A favorite thing for me was to look up and see Zoe and Michelle in their bonnets sitting cross-legged, heads down knitting, knitting, knitting at every location. And somewhere else Shirley Henderson in a straight-back chair, bonnet on, knitting or reading. But in many ways working with Michelle was the same. Like on Wendy and Lucy, Michelle really takes her time getting into her part. She likes to suss out everything that’s happening around her, and she likes to wade into it slowly, as the film goes on. An actress like Zoe Kazan has a real abandon. She just completely dives off the diving board, like, “This is what I’m doing.” All three of the actresses had such different approaches; it was really interesting to watch how they each got to their specific characters. I don’t know, it’s just different working with an actor one-on-one than working with an actor in a group.
I’m a very big fan of the way your films sound. This is a film that starts with this lush running water, then there’s an atonal, unnerving score. Could you talk a little bit about working with Jeff Grace and then Leslie Shatz and how you created the sound of the film?
Yeah, well, when I’m editing, I’m just sketching in all the sounds that I want. On Wendy and Lucy, we’re maybe dealing with two mics [laughs], and here Felix [Andrew], our sound guy, he mic’d the oxen, he mic’d the wagons — there were mics everywhere. That was a lot to sort out in the editing room, weeding everything out that I wanted, coming up with the sounds, like the wagons’ squeaky wheels. Just getting the particular sounds so that the quiet is emphasized. I started cutting in Portland and Tanya Smith, our production coordinator, suggested Sun City Girls and got me in touch with them. We started to work together but once they gave me the first cues, which had some supercool sounds, I realized it was going to be a much more involved process and headed back to New York to finish cutting. In New York, Larry Fessenden introduced me to composer Jeff Grace and once I got the cut far enough along we just started from scratch. It’s like casting or location scouting or anything, though. From everything that doesn’t quite work out you take something from it and it ends up influencing what you move toward. I knew from the beginning that I wanted wind instruments because the Cause were flute players. But every time I’d go into a yoga class or get a massage, I’d hear flutes playing and get in a panic. How do I separate flute from New Ageness?” It’s tricky. Jeff Grace was able to really do that by distorting everything enough where the instruments aren’t even specifically identifiable. Finally when the music was done I went to L.A. to work with Leslie Shatz. My time with Leslie is insanely short. I really have to have my ducks in a row and it’s still painful because we just could not afford the time I needed. A soundscape this quiet was so much harder than what we’ve done in my other films. There’s nothing to hide behind. You hear every mic bump, every hiccup. It’s actually really layered, the sound design, but it’s very quiet, and that was much harder to mix. I’m lucky that Leslie works as fast as he does.
You’ve worked with a number of the same producers over and over. Neil Kopp and Anish Savjani have been involved with at least the last three films. It seems like it’s been a great working relationship with them, I’m just curious how you guys worked together.
This time we also worked with Evenstar [Films], they were the New York producers and they were awesome. Actually, I want to say that all my producers stink so that no one steals them from me. How it usually goes is Neil and I start by going out and doing some preliminary scouts to get the lay of the land. On Meek, painter Michael Brophy was our guide. He’s been painting that desert for a long time. Neil Kopp is out there figuring out how in the world we can make this happen. I remember Neil and I were sitting in the desert one night and we’re like, “We can’t make a movie here. There’s nothing here, it can’t be done.” So then we went out to Marfa, Texas, where we knew we could make a film. In Marfa you have Fed Ex, good food, access to everything you need. Clearly a more practical place to make the movie. I think almost any other producer would have said, “Let’s go for Marfa. This is doable.” But after we both got home, I think we had the same feeling that the landscape just isn’t right. Neil said, “Let’s arrange another trip out to the Oregon desert.” So we went back and did another round of scouting with our location man Roger Faires and production designer David Doernberg. On that trip we decided just to find a way to make it happen. I forget the order of things exactly. Basically Anish is in New York dealing with contracts and Neil and I work out of Portland and I go to New York for casting. Over the months it comes together. For Meek’s Cutoff Anish came out to help with production. Together my two producers dug many vehicles out of many piles of sand. Both were with the film the whole time, and there is overlap, but for the most part, Neil is preproduction and production, they are together on post and then Anish takes the helm for all that comes next — for the years of work that come with getting a film out into the world. Anish does all the producing stuff that no one ever asks about in a Q&A. And as I said, this time we had Elizabeth [Cuthrell] and David [Urrutia] of Evenstar. Elizabeth and I probably worked most closely during casting, but they were both on board and working throughout. We keep things pretty trim. No one on set standing around tweeting or whatever. No “shadowing” [laughs]. I keep getting emails from young people who want to “shadow” me. It’s a funny idea of a total non-job. But really, I’ve been most lucky when it comes to producers and crew. Super great people we had out there in the desert. Really great.