Lucy is the dog. Wendy (Michelle Williams) is her owner, a 20-something urchin chasing dreams of economic stability in Alaska and trying to cross the country in a shaky car with her canine companion and a precariously small amount of cash in a money belt. When a series of misfortunes strands the pair in a backwater town in Oregon, “Wendy and Lucy” unfolds like an unlikely thriller in which what should be small setbacks loom as large, life-changing obstacles for a vulnerable character with no safety net facing the frequent indifference of strangers. It seems unfair to burden director Kelly Reichardt (“Old Joy”), whose three films have been defiantly modest stories of minor dramas and understated emotions that never fail to have bearing on our national state of mind, with declarations of saving American independent film, but there’s no doubt that she’s one of the most vital artists working today. I caught up with Reichardt at the New York Film Festival, where “Wendy and Lucy” had its U.S. premiere after debuting at Cannes in May.
What was the genesis of “Wendy and Lucy”? It’s your second time working off of a Jonathan Raymond story.
It was very post-Katrina — what it was for everyone just to be watching, but also the conversation of, you know, “Those people, living in such peril,” they wouldn’t be in the shape they’re in, the position they’re in. We just started pondering: If you don’t have a net and you’ve had a shitty education and you don’t have the benefit of family that’s in any better situation than you’re in, how does one improve their lot? Not even reaching the middle class, but how do you just get a toehold in the next level? That was the seed, and then Jon went off and wrote the story. The screenplay was just an adaptation of his story.
The film also find you returning to the Oregon setting of “Old Joy.”
It’s because Jon Raymond writes about [Oregon]. I got back into feature film-making having read his novel and really identifying with his writing and wanting to make a film out of the way he was dealing with relationships and the way people fit into their environment, the way he was able to through the personal get to the political. He lives in Oregon, was raised in and writes about Oregon. The people I made “Old Joy” with all live there, and everyone was pleasant to work with and wanted to do it again.
I did scout — I drove around the country for six months going to Walgreen’s parking lots. Sometime in February in Butte, MT in a snowstorm I said okay, this is crazy. This looks just like the Walgreen’s Jon wrote about that’s two blocks from his house. Why am I fighting it? But I’m starting to learn, over the years, that that’s always been part of any film I made: It first involves driving around with my dog. It just helps you to figure things out.
It is a very different kind of Oregon than that of “Old Joy” — the unprettier suburbs.
That’s everywhere — that is America. It really is. I drive back and forth to New York because the dog doesn’t fly, so I’m always driving back out there, and once you leave Laramie, WY, you’re in for days and days and days of the same shit. You know, Taco Bell, Days Inn, Cracker Barrel… you realize, forget the war on terror, what about the war on corporations? The country just gave it over.
As a kid we always camped, from Miami up to Montana, and every state was so particular. Specific radio stations, specific sites — things that you look for. [Now] it’s all Clear Channel. It all looks and sounds the same. Even Walgreen’s at this point seems romantic, it’s been around so long. But [in “Old Joy”] we were trying to [capture] the landscape, and this one was restrooms and parking lots and the stuff you see when you’re on the road.
On that topic, it seems the idea of the road movie, or maybe more just the myth of the freedom that comes with being on the road, is worked into all of your features. What’s the appeal there that you keep returning to?
I didn’t mean to. It took me a long time to realize the similarities. They’re all stilted road movies, everybody’s stuck and lost, and nobody really gets to where they’re trying to go. But, I really am not sure. I’ve always been driving around, as a kid with my family and in college.
And everything’s a road movie. Everything’s a western. You’ve got to pick a genre, and then work from there.
How would you describe Wendy? She seems to be chasing the dream of a lifestyle that most would say died off four decades ago.
I don’t know if she is chasing that lifestyle. I think she’s just practical. She was aware enough to realize that there weren’t opportunities in Indiana for her, and, the way many people in their young 20s at some point do, heard about the canneries in Alaska as a place you can go and make money and somehow get ahead. Probably her neighbors and friends didn’t have that kind of idea, they would stick with what they know, but she did have the awareness to realize that it wasn’t happening where she was. I don’t think she’s out seeing the world. I think she’s trying to find some work.
In the press conference at the New York Film Festival, you mentioned that there was a back-story for Wendy. Why you decided to kind of leave most of it out?
I always felt the back-story was just between me and Michelle. I feel like I shouldn’t talk about what happens to her or where she came from because that’s for the viewer to add. Suffice to say she was a renter and didn’t have any insurance, and shit happened and there was nothing keeping her there. And so she was striking out for higher ground.
Your films rest on delicate performances that are just about the opposite of big, actorly displays of overwrought emotion. How you direct actors through nuances that subtle?
It’s completely collaborative. There’s a lot of room for them to work. If they have an idea, I’m happy to shoot it. None of these films have any rehearsal time. Will [Oldham of “Old Joy”], I knew for a long time and so had an idea of what that would be like, but Daniel London and I didn’t really know each other. Michelle and I had met you know, but we didn’t really know each other. In all these cases, we’re all figuring out the characters as we go along.
I have something set in my head, and then a living, breathing person comes and brings their own dynamic to it, and so there’s that adjustment to make. But, I think it works best for myself if there’s something I’m missing, and then try to interject that, but mostly to embrace what these people are bringing — that’s why you brought them there. Directing is just all really intimate because the films are so small.
Can you talk about working on that small scale? At Cannes this year, where it seemed everything else was sprawling and immense, seeing something that felt so close up was close to revolutionary.
Well, we’re making these films out of nothing, so we know from the beginning when we’re working on a story that it has to mostly be exteriors because there are no lights, and to keep the apparatus small so we can have movement and that there aren’t going to be a ton of characters. They’re small stories because we don’t have the money for anything [else]. And I’m a minimalist. I really just want it to be manageable so that I can focus. I enjoy watching bigger films, but it’s just so not my way. I want to avoid, I guess, as much of the film industry as possible. It brings me to cast people I know and that I already have relationships with, there’s no real division between cast and crew. We’re all just sort of in it together. I can’t really picture doing anything that’s you know, the crowd scene. It’s just too much action for me.
“Wendy and Lucy” is still fundamentally the story of a girl and her dog. Were you ever worried about the potential sentimentality of that set-up?
Completely. We were scared about that the whole time. Still. What’s not to be afraid of with that?
[Photos: “Wendy and Lucy,” Oscilloscope Pictures, 2008]
“Wendy and Lucy” opens in New York today.