“Why Don’t We All Go Blow Stuff Up?” Kelly Reichardt on Night Moves
In Night Moves, Jesse Eisenberg’s baleful, twitchy intensity finds another fitting incarnation. His Josh is an environmentalist visibly dissatisfied with perceived half-measures who plans to blow up a dam as an act of eco-terrorism-/-activism with the help of ex-Marine buddy Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) and Dena (Dakota Fanning). To do this, they’ll need to purchase suspicious quantities of ammonium nitrate and buy a boat to pack it into. The middle-aged suburban guy selling his fishing vessel couldn’t be more innocuous in his personal manner, but we see his neighborhood through Josh’s angry eyes: the backyard waterfall is a clear misallocation of resources, the golf on TV the final insult. The affront doesn’t have to be as overt as the water-heavy cultivation of vast tracts of land for conspicuous consumption/recreational purposes. The way Contagion forced viewers to see every surface as a potential viral breeding ground rather than an neutral object, Night Moves makes it easier to view the everyday world’s physical components through perpetually, justifiably aggrieved environmentalist eyes.
After the bomb-bearing boat is lodged against the dam, the trio drive away in a pick-up truck, the night so dark it doesn’t look like they’re moving at all. Since it’s impossible to see movement through the back window, it’s nerve-wrackingly unclear how close-by or loud the explosion will be. (The effect, Reichardt says, is not her favorite or an intentional choice — they simply couldn’t light for motion in the forest — and should be chalked up as an especially happy accident.) Only after the deed’s done do we see Josh’s home: a small family farm, where he seethes as his secret feat’s debated. Was the bombing a useful blow or useless theater?
Night Moves rejects the insidious idea of “equal time”: for every environmentally agitated player, there isn’t a corresponding voice heard scoffing that climate change is a conspiracy foisted by Al Gore’s profit-driven corporate friends or that it’s all a product of sunspot expansion. (For intellectual credibility’s sake, that’s as it should be.) Instead, Night Moves presents a sliding scale of activist involvement, commitment and oppositional pushback against the status quo and asks viewers to consider where they stand. The family farm Josh works on is a tiny, self-made community that manages to sustain itself while committing minimal harm to its surroundings; this barely sustainable retreat is barely a stepping stone to a greater good, more of a sanctuary for especially principled ecologically-minded types. Reichardt’s typical patience and visual precision is in a slightly more aesthetically crossover-friendly mode than in Meek’s Cutoff. No more abstracted, Gerry-esque slow pans through the desert: Night Moves has a plan and executes it with relative dispatch.
This is the fourth feature Reichardt’s made in Oregon with screenwriter Jon Raymond and, as she discusses below, probably her last effort in that state, at least for a while. Like Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, Night Moves has a hint of a repeatedly disenchanted activist’s understandable bubbling-under stridency while adding to Reichardt’s gallery of would-be liberal American citizens navigating a hostile landscape already shaped and perhaps permanently ruined by those who came before. Night Moves has textural credibility in its portrait of casually resistant farms and is lingeringly troublesome as an angrily almost-defeatist drama about liberal activism that tries and fails to break out of the safe space it’s carved for itself.
Filmmaker: I was struck by how there’s no false equivalence in the conversations. The movie takes place entirely within an environmentally conscious community. The question isn’t whether climate change is real, but what to do about it.
Reichardt: You’re in a world, so you’ve got to have the conversations that would exist in that world, just like if I went into the world of the Tea Party, I wouldn’t expect someone in the Tea Party world to be talking about…who the fuck knows what they talk about. But anyway, you’re in a world. Within that world, there are lots of different opposing views and degrees of what should be done. There’s no one in that world that would be a guy at the table that’s going to question climate change or something. They wouldn’t know those people. Those people would be on the farm next to them, who would be home-schooling their kids and living off the land. That libertarian family would be on the farm next door, which is really how it is down there: the extreme left next to the extreme right.
We were thinking of Crime and Punishment, not so literally, or American Pastoral, the poetry of William Stafford. In research that we did, you think about tone. Even the photographs of Robert Adams or Justine Kurland, where you’re looking at the footsteps in the landscape. If you live in Oregon or in the northwest, it’s in the air, it’s in the paper. The conversation about dams is constant. Part of the Occupy movement in the northwest, a lot of that scene took place at dams. I grew up in the ’70s with Patty Hearst in the news, which made a big impression on me when I was little, and Angela Davis’ trial. I grew up in Miami, where the convention went bananas, and my father was on the bomb squad for 20 years. It was an era of hijackings.
In the ’90s, all of the environmental radicalism, but also living on Houston Street during 9/11 — it’s all around you. I never really got the connection to The Monkey Wrench Gang, just because that’s such a romantic view, it’s almost the opposite. I read so little of that book just because it’s “wacky.” What I got from it is that it’s a romanticizing of activism.
Filmmaker: Bresson is a big influence for you The opening environmentalist activist movie montage of ecological disasters reminded me of a similar montage in The Devil, Probably. Was that on your mind?
Reichardt: For me, not for Jon. I read just recently where Richard Hell said that’s the punkest movie ever made, and it’s true. I mean, there’s so many films, Wages of Fear and Battle of Algiers, what’s the Fassbinder, The Third Generation, The Devil, Probably, and then there’s that Godard film [La Chinoise], there’s that long scene at the end of the film where the student is with her professor. She’s this student studying revolution, and he says “What will you do afterwards?” Because they’re getting ready to do this big action, and she says, “We’ll continue studying the situation.” They’re all hardcore anarchist kids supposedly, but they’re sitting in these velvet chairs drinking out of teacups. Those are all fun [movies].
Filmmaker: Are you still driving cross-country from Oregon back to New York after every shoot to decompress?
Reichardt: It’s not to take the time to decompress. I teach up here in New York and we make films in Oregon, so I made that drive four times last year. I’m trying to decide if I’m going to do it after the movie comes out. It’s not to decompress. It’s because I have a dog that doesn’t fly. Years ago it was to decompress but Lucy the dog… I don’t know, I’ve never flown a dog before, so I just drive.
Filmmaker: How do you get permission from a dam to film the bombing of a dam?
Reichardt: I had three scouts on this movie. It was a huge scouting situation, and one scout was just for the dam. This guy Roger Faires took me to over 20 dams. I don’t know how many dams he went to. These folks were game, sort of, and it was really Neil Kopp, my producer, who kind of forged a relationship with someone that worked at the dam that lasted over a year, from when we first scouted. They need money, and oddly it’s like we found someone who was open to the conversation and so we latched onto them. It was probably longer than a year that we were talking to them.
Our dam guy, the guy who took us out for my first tech scout on a boat, had grown up there where we were in the water. He was saying in his boat, “I grew up on a farm, and this is the forest where we hunted in.” I was like, “Wow, you must’ve been so distressed when it became a reservoir.” And he’s like, “No, I like fishing. Fishing’s good too. I was a hunter, now I’m a fisherman.” He literally took it all in stride, that the entire landscape had changed under his feet. But he’s someone who’s managed to continue living there and has a job, as where with his neighbors, that didn’t happen.
Harder than the dam was the fertilizer store. There was one day when Neil Kopp and Jon Raymond and I just walked into a fertilizer store that we would have liked to shoot at and just casually asked, just to see what would happen, if we could buy some ammonium nitrate. Someone took our tag number and said, “We’re calling the FBI.” We were like “Oh, we’re making a movie,” and the guy was like, “I think you’re full of shit.” So we really blew that location for ourselves.
Filmmaker: I assume the title overlap with Arthur Penn’s Night Moves came up fairly early.
Reichardt: That film was shot right near where my grandparents lived in the Keys, where I spent a lot of time when I was young. We were looking for boat names, and I wanted the title of the movie to be a boat name. Neil Kopp has a little sailboat in Oregon, and he kept coming in with stupid boat names. One of them was Night Moves, which just worked so well for our film. We always thought of it as a temporary title, but then I just grew attached to it, and I was like, “Oh well.”
Filmmaker: I’m not trying to insinuate anything negative, but this seems less self-consciously rigorous than Meek’s Cutoff and your other previous Oregon features.
Reichardt: They’re different films. Meek’s Cutoff is about monotony to a large degree. It’s the click-click-click of the wheel, the squeak of the wheel, like you’re walking through the desert for six months, so there was this repetitive pattern and sound design to get that across. This is this organic farm, people trying to find new ways to live. It is set in this traditional framework of a heist film, but it’s a more ambiguous movie, so the approach to the visuals, the language of the film and storytelling is trying to be reflective of that. But also they have a strategy that’s tight, and they have this to-do list of something they’re trying to achieve. I’m trying to do that filmically, have a tighter strategy and then have it open up. When the characters have less of a set plan and things aren’t in their hands as much anymore, the shooting style switches a little bit at that point.
The farm is a working farm, and so we’re inserting ourselves in the middle of their work. The cops are real cops, the campers came on that day for us, but they brought their boats, they brought their campers. People at the fertilizer store are all — well, a lot of them are people at the fertilizer store. I was with Vicki Farrell, the costume designer. We were looking out the window at two fertilizer workers. I was using them as reference for what I wanted these actors to look like. At the end of the day, I found out they were extras. So I was confused at the fertilizer store of who was an extra and who was working there.
People at the space, they always say they don’t want to be in it, and then when you start shooting they want to be in it. It’s nice to have real faces, and sometimes people that don’t act at all, you can get better performances than people who have acted a little bit, who have thought about it enough to dabble in it. People that act sometimes are harder than people who act all of the time or none of the time. The cop scene is a perfect example. She was just dealing with them as she would deal with them, though she said she would never have let them through.
Filmmaker: Are you going to keep working in Oregon?
Reichardt: That’s it for now. Jon Raymond and I aren’t working together right now, he’s doing other stuff. I dunno, I just gotta switch it up a little bit and I should get out of that state a little bit, you know? I mean. I like that state, but I’m going to try to do something different. I haven’t used the ocean, that’s the last, but we’ve used the desert, the old growth forest, the valley —
Filmmaker: Parking lots, drug stores. Would you like to shoot in a big city?
Reichardt: I really love going off the grid, especially if you’re working with actors that people recognize. The greatest thing is to go where there’s no cell reception and you’re all in it together. I just like going away with people and challenging landscapes. I live a pretty unadventurous life until we’re making a film. Wendy And Lucy, everyone went home at the end of the day. Life interferes at the edges. It’s nice to just go off and have everybody — like in Meek’s, you’re in the middle of fucking nowhere. Selfishly, that’s great for me. You feel like you’ve been through something afterwards, and the actors are so freed-up because there’s no one there. Not that I know about the world of Tweeting, but people will be on set talking to the world of the internet while they’re trying to make a movie. I don’t understand it. You should be busy! I don’t like to see any cell phones. I just like to be in the world.
Filmmaker: You’ve said that this isn’t a polemical film, but unavoidably it’s going to be received that way by some viewers.
Reichardt: Firstly for me, it’s a character film, and that’s how we approached it when we were writing. I hope all the films, at the end of the day, ask a question. They’re certainly not there to reinforce anything that anybody already thinks. I think that there is a question, and the question is, are any of these good solutions? Do any of them add up to anything? And if blowing shit up is not the thing to do, what should anybody be doing right now? If we’re gonna be driven over the cliff, and our government’s obviously not going to help us because they’re in the petroleum business, and things are as dire as they seem to be, why don’t we all go blow stuff up?
I think the answer that we came to with that is that your average person just doesn’t have complete faith in their ideology or their intuition. It’s not a complete world of fundamentalist thinking. Josh is a fundamentalist, and that was an early thing that Jon was interested in breaking down, the true believer in whatever world that person exists in. If their ideas are bad, and I think blowing shit up is probably a pretty bad idea — not taking down dams, but young people going out and taking an action that will land them for the next generation of their life in jail is probably not the best plan. But what the fuck? What should anybody be doing right now? No answer was discovered in the making of the film for that question.