UPDATE [5.7.09]: The contest is now closed. Thanks for playing!
UPDATE: We’ve got a few copies of the just-released DVD to give away! Just jump down to the comments and let know: who or what would ride shotgun on your own cross-country road trip? Make sure you enter a valid email address (it will not be posted) so we can notify the winners.
The head-West road movie is as American as apple pie and its continued relevance the result of astute tweaks for the here and now. Director Kelly Reichardt’s (Old Joy) latest low-budget award contender, Wendy and Lucy, morphs the typically man-made adventure into a day-in-the-life with Wendy (Michelle Williams), a young Indiana gal heading to the far-west reaches of pre-Palin Alaska for potential employment. Without much save a few hundred bucks and her dog Lucy (Reichardt’s real-life canine), she’s today’s Great Recession-worthy incarnation of Rosie the Riveter.
Reichardt’s gorgeous, near-verité cinematography finds Wendy during her stopover in Portland. After a typical night of sleeping in her beat-up Honda Accord, Wendy wakes to find that her car doesn’t start. Without revealing too much of the spare plot, her predicament is compounded when her beloved Lucy disappears. All the while, an imposing W-H-Y looms over the proceedings, a magnet for empathetic, economy-informed conjectures.
In the Q&A following our screening, Williams described Wendy as a resourceful, buttoned-up (“no leaking of emotion”) individualist whose back story can be reduced to the belief that “no one is going to giver her a hand.” The actor beautifully balances that reasoned reticence with a put-upon desperation that she likens to “catching the right light.” Reichardt’s notion to make Wendy’s buddy a disappearing dog further underscores her isolation. There’s more kept-in monologue than dialogue, but Williams, who moderates the silence with a Will Oldham-conjured hum, holds you rapt all the same.
Reichardt — who Williams called “maverick” — stuffs the narrative with the true-to-life details: the free-for-all milieu at a recycling center; the this-and-that diagnoses of sleaze-cased car mechanics; the awkward kindness of strangers; and Wendy’s morning toilet inside a gas-station restroom. By layering the film in the day-to-day mundane, Reichardt lyrically reflects on the small struggles of the hit-the-hardest rather than painting an imprecise big picture. Thus, Wendy’s lonely odyssey is marked by the unremarkable.
We recently sat down with Reichardt to discuss her wonderful little film.
Flavorwire: How long did Wendy and Lucy, at only 80 minutes, take to shoot and edit?
Kelly Reichardt: Eighteen days of shooting with a full crew. Then Michelle and I went back and did a few little location shoots with the cinematographer [Sam Levy]. Editing, I take a long time — about 6 months. I was also going back and doing some shooting and still getting the train footage, things I wasn’t able to get with the whole crew.
FW: You’ve adapted two Jonathan Raymond short stories now. With your minimal style, how do you translate his words into lyrical images? Did the $300,000 budget open up new possibilities, especially compared to the $30,000 for Old Joy?
KR: It’s all in the idea already. I know what my limits are, what I’m going to have. Jon’s writing works really well for my style of filmmaking because we’re both drawn to the same things. They’re not really dialogue heavy, have a lot to do with the environment that the characters are in — they’re character studies. With Wendy and Lucy, we came up with the storyline and concept together. He wrote it as a short story, I wrote it as a script. And so the parameters of what you’re going to have to deal with are obvious from the outset — it’s taken into account during the writing.
FW: So he specifically penned “Train Choir” to be made into a movie?
KR: Yeah. In fact, sometimes the script was ahead of the short story. We’re reading each other’s stuff constantly though, talking everyday. He really comes up with the first voices. It’s nice to have a short story because Jon writes in a very internal way, so even if you’re just showing it to your actor, it gives more depth.
FW: There is always a political element poking into your stories — Old Joy radioed in the Democrats’ disjointed state after the ’04 election and Wendy and Lucy loosely addresses the apparent dead-end future for many folks with the looming 21st-century Depression. How actively do current affairs shape your narratives?
KR: It’s sort of where things start out and then hopefully it becomes more character-oriented and those things settle into a subtext. Michelle and I never talked about any of the political ideas; we just talked about Wendy. But, when you choose a location, when you decide what you’re going to let be in the foreground and the background, then you know what’s going to come through — what you desire to come through. You’re building something that’s hopefully going to give another layer.
FW: In our post-screening Q&A, Michelle Williams said that you suggested she see Robert Bresson’s megadowner Mouchette — which means “little fly” in French — to inspire as a film and a feeling. What prompted that recommendation?
KR: I wanted her to be comfortable with the idea of a really emotionally inward person that didn’t have a bird’s-eye view on her situation. That can make an actor nervous, to feel like they’re doing nothing. So I showed her Mouchette, Mike Leigh’s Bleak Moments, the second part of the [Satyajit Ray’s] Apu trilogy that’s more focused on the mother. Reckless Moment, the [Max] Ophüls’ film. I just showed her films with female characters that were holding it in, but weren’t socially inept. They also weren’t people that would easily win over an audience. There’s such a sort of zeitgeist now — I call it Gilmore Girls syndrome — that’s bled into films. This super talky, clever female character.
FW: Michelle also confessed that she “was going to give Wendy a limp,” which eventually appears as just an Ace bandage. How was it to work with her?
KR: [dramatic pause] She’s just a total pain in the ass [laughs]. It’s really collaborative — we’re figuring it out as we go along. She’s an actress who’s like “tell me what you want.” She’s very trusting, but analytical; sometimes she would say “are you sure this is enough, are sure this is going work?” I would tell her to stick with it. She’s just capable of being really, really still and having so much come through. She was game for the whole thing.
FW: Trains are everywhere in the film — as musical score and symbolism. Is there any reason why you chose to have no score and settled with the train sounds?
KR: Well, the short story was called “Train Choir” and I always thought about it as a sound that would accumulate. Sentiment is not something you want to overdo — I’m already dealing with a girl and her dog and didn’t want to make the ride an easy one. The idea was that the trains would be this calling, offering this way out. I live near train tracks and when I went down to North Carolina to write the script, my apartment was right near a train yard. I drove for seven months around the country scouting and I rarely spent a night in a hotel where I couldn’t hear a train. Of course, Portland’s such a train place. So it’s this whole idea of a road movie that’s not really moving, and [the trains] suggest movement. If you just become aware of it, you can hardly stay anywhere in America where you don’t hear a train. I used them wherever I would have used a musical score.
FW: In past interviews, you’ve talked about the influence of Italian Neorealism, the German New Wave, and Britain’s Angry Young Men with their kitchen-sink realism. Those narratives are predominantly set in the big city — Rome, Berlin, London, even Manchester. Would you ever venture beyond Portland?
KR: I would, if Jon would [laughs]. The people of Portland want me to quit talking about Portland because it’s overcrowded [laughs]. Oregon is a very interesting state — it has a desert, an old growth rainforest, and a coast. So it’s a really versatile state. It also happens to be where my writing partner is, where my producer is, and where this group of people that I’ve been making films with are. I first started going there when Todd Haynes [who initially gave Michelle Williams the script] moved there and I’ve become really attached to the place. The thing is, I really do like working in a private, small way and keeping the apparatus as small as possible. It’s really hard to shoot on a low budget in New York. Film is such a completely macho world, you know — you see these crews in New York and everyone’s running around with all this junk on their belt, all this gear. Out there, people have made this sort of life decision, making films without all those walkie talkies — we just talk to each other. It’s a crew mentality, there’s not this huge hierarchy. Anything can happen though.