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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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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

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

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.