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Kelly Reichardt on Surviving “Meek’s Cutoff”

Kelly Reichardt on Surviving “Meek’s Cutoff” (photo)

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“I don’t know what making a film is like,” Kelly Reichardt says near the end of our conversation. She’s referring to the way other filmmakers work, but it could just as easily apply to her own work since in the past few years, she’s been making experiences. In a celebrated run with screenwriter Jonathan Raymond that began in 2006 with the drama “Old Joy” and has continued on with two collaborations with Michelle Williams in “Wendy and Lucy” and “Meek’s Cutoff,” the director has become one of the most striking voices in cinema today by letting life take its course and gently adhere to Murphy’s Law when it comes to her characters who battle against the unforgiving nature of the elements in Oregon and the hegemony that’s been in place long before the protagonists ever enter the frame.

In fact, one of the most memorable shots in “Meek’s Cutoff” seems to stem from that very idea near the beginning of the film, as one wagon train exits to the left side of the screen as you get your first glimpse of Stephen Meek’s wagons in the distance. Meek, a blustery real-life explorer who led a group of settlers to a dead end of starvation and thirst, is a relic of the past, buried under a thicket of gray hair (making his portrayer Bruce Greenwood virtually unrecognizable).

KellyReichardtMeeksCutoff_04192011.jpgAs the trust unravels between the guide and the three families he’s been hired by to take through the Cascade Mountains, the film becomes a survival tale with several contemporary parallels, whether it’s the notion of a seemingly rudderless group of Americans or the discovery of inner strength from the women’s de facto leader Emily Tetherow (Williams), whose suspicions about Meek lead to an unlikely relationship with a Native American (Rod Rondeaux) she first greets by firing at him.

As Reichardt explains below, the film itself was nearly as unlikely, both as her largest-scale project to date and, it should be noted, her most accessible yet, and during our chat, she spoke about how the film changed her concept of time, showing a different side of Oregon and how historical accuracy lent itself to a low budget.

What drew you to this?

Probably some of the same things that drew Jon [Raymond] to it – just this idea of persuasive blowhard persuading a bunch of people out into the middle of the desert without really knowing the lay of the land or possibly being without any kind of real plan and just overestimating himself and the situation and then winding up at the mercy of people that he is culturally completely different than and is mistrustful of. It was interesting in that it had all these contemporary components to it — this idea of labor and just how we experience time and space, I think, in such a completely different way in 2010 than we did in 1845, which isn’t all that long ago. Also Jon and I had just driven through that desert when we working on “Wendy and Lucy” and knew we wanted to do something out there, so I really wanted to shoot in that particular desert.

MichelleWilliamsMeeksCutoff2_04192011.jpgPeople have made a big deal out of this film being a larger scale film than you’ve attempted before, but upon watching it, it becomes obvious this lent itself to a more stripped-down approach as the settlers rely on the limited resources. Still, was that something you had to overcome psychologically before making it?

That was the case with “Wendy and Lucy” too, where the fragility of the production kind of mirrors the situation of the people you’re making the film about and if just one thing goes wrong, it all could fall apart. And that was the case with “Meek.” Certainly, the landscape itself, we were shooting where the immigrants actually got lost and just the travel [to the set] every day and the dust and having the animals in these places is to be humbled by the landscape and the weather and all the elements out there. And the town we stayed in — Burns, Oregon — was a very welcoming town without a ton of resources for a film crew. So it stripped us all down to these bare necessities of what you need and really without any frills.

We didn’t roll under our wagons and sleep on the ground every night, but I think there were times, especially for the actors in those clothes, the women in those bonnets that give you no peripheral vision and dealing with the animals, it was haunting. You felt like okay, someone’s been here before us and Rod Rondeaux [who plays The Indian] realized at one point that we were at an Indian burial ground from things we were finding on the ground. It just changes your idea of time in the small ways because everything takes so much labor and everything is such a process. You just have to slow down yourself. There’s no Internet out there, so my producers can’t just be on their Blackberries. You have to climb a mountain to find a signal. You just couldn’t help but think about time when you were out there.

It was [also] just a great research project. My production designer Dave Doernberg and Vicki Farrell, the costume designer, they hand sewed all those clothes. The wagons were from that time. All those things, you had to figure out how to make things work in a different way and when we started researching, we would approach things where we’d be asking the experts how would you do this or how would you do that? And they just would always turn the question back to you: how would you do it? You had to just keep realizing it’s individuals with their particular resources. Just like we got a flat tire in the desert, we’d be like “What do we do?” We don’t have cell phone service, how do we work this? It would be the same thing in their case, like the wagon wheel’s broken and there’s no trees around and we need a new axle, how do we do it? I feel like the gap of years got closed. We just started to have some empathy for the situation.

When you’re making a film like this, do you feel an allegiance to history?

Not much of an allegiance. [laughs] It’s an art project. And it’s funny because on the one hand, Dave Doernberg, my production designer had a pretty big allegiance to period, but Jon Raymond doesn’t. I feel like we were very true to the period, but we weren’t true to one story of the period, so I would say that.

MeeksCutoff5_04192011.jpgAre you feeling more comfortable now with experimenting with form? Much has been made of the aspect ratio [which is 1:33, the frame size of traditional televisions], but the harshness of the editing — transitions from light to dark and smash cuts — was one of my favorite things about the film.

We’ve been able to make three features in five years and your filmmaking gets better when you’re making films. That’s just a fact because you can practice the art of what you’re doing. I think what’s hardest about filmmaking is when you have these huge gaps of time in between when you’re not able to do that. People ask me why I cut my own films, and it’s because it’s the place to learn filmmaking. I think editing helps my directing a lot and it helps you figure out what you should’ve done or what the possibilities were and it’s a place where you can keep rediscovering just the power of a shot. So I guess I feel like I’m becoming more articulate as a filmmaker. It also helps to some degree, getting in the mode of being able to have some working relationships that carry through over different films where you’re not starting a conversation each time when you begin. It’s mostly part of getting old though. [laughs]

When you carry over those relationships from one film to another and you’re bringing in new people on this film, is there a culture clash?

I always had a fear of working with a bigger crew and on some days, when we had the stunt people there and all, it was a crew of 50, but when everybody’s really good at their jobs, it doesn’t really matter what the size of the crew is. I just remember about over the halfway point of feeling really in a groove with the crew in such a way that’s a real high. Then a week later, as my assistant camerawoman Eliza, a super hardcore woman who worked on “Wendy and Lucy” and this film said, “I’m never not in pain.” [laughs] And I know what she means. She’s not complaining, but it was just really physically hard and also hard to let go of at the end because you feel yourself as a group. And I don’t know what else you could compare that to when just like 50 people…or on some days mostly 30, just start getting in a groove together. That’s so great.

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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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