Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008) is a film in which locations and space play a pivotal role. The film centers on Wendy (Michelle Williams), a young woman who navigates unfamiliar spaces over the course of the film, after her car breaks down in Oregon.
The film is based on Train Choir, an original short story written by Portland native Jon Raymond, whose story captures the locations that surround his everyday life. In using actual locations rather than sets, Wendy and Lucy captures a sense of realism.
The primary setting for the film is established early on. The Walgreens parking where Wendy’s car breaks down and an adjacent street where she moves her car serve as Wendy’s home base. Wendy becomes immobilized after she loses her car and this location becomes an anchor for the film by becoming a space where Wendy returns at the end of every day.
In an exclusive interview with Interiors, cinematographer Sam Levy, production designer Ryan Warren Smith, costume designer Amanda Needham and location manager Roger Faires spoke about their individual work as well as their overall relationship with the use of space and locations in the film.
In the case of an independent film, one of the most important aspects during production is open communication among all those involved. Roger Faires notes that oftentimes directors can be inaccessible and unapproachable on a film, but the opposite was true for their director. “Kelly Reichardt is very available. She knows that if someone is hired to do a film, then they’re just as important as any other aspect of the film.” This encouraged communication and resulted in a collective effort with everyone involved.
In terms of the locations for the film, he also remarks that his work developed with conversations he had with the director. “I would look at inspirational photographs that Kelly had collaged to get the color texture.” In a film such as Wendy and Lucy, where we are offered a unique look at the surrounding landscapes, because the protagonist is constantly on the go, traveling through town on foot, locations are an essential part of the film.
These locations remained as natural as possible with minor intrusion from the filmmakers. In speaking of the production design of the film, Ryan Warren Smith states that with Wendy and Lucy, more than any other film, his focus was on simplifying what’s within the frame by removing objects or adjusting specific colors rather than adding onto the locations. Their objective with this film was creating a stark visual look for the film, one that lacks bright colors, as a way of focusing the attention on its story and characters.
The primary focus of the film is Wendy and the entire story is experienced through her perspective. Wendy’s stay in Oregon is unexpected and unplanned, therefore the details of her wardrobe as that much more essential to the story itself. Wendy’s wardrobe, which consists of a hoody, a long sleeve flannel button-down, corduroy cutoffs, a pair of old sneakers, and an ace bandage, was designed with a color palette that would compliment the various landscapes and locations in the film.
“I think the most challenging aspect in coming up with Wendy’s ‘look’ was to make Michelle Williams feel real, while at the same time suppressing the natural beauty and glamor that Michelle exudes on screen,” says Amanda Needham. In keeping consistent with her character, the actress wore no make-up and was asked that she didn’t groom her eyebrows.
The audience follows Wendy around various parts of the town, but the film effectively draws us back into her primary location because she depends on her car. Sam Levy notes that feature films often rely on a single space or location that is the center of focus. “There’s usually one space, one location, that is like an anchor to me. The Walgreens was definitely that place.” In addition, he observes that Wendy’s car is her only salvation from the rest of the world. “It’s where she finds rest from all of the harsh realities that happen to her.”
In her first night alone in this unfamiliar town, Wendy spends the night in her car – alone and afraid. In a later scene, when the mechanic shop takes her car away, she no longer has a “space” that she can depend on; as a result, she camps out in the woods and ultimately suffers a breakdown.
“There had to be a lot of space around her because the world is coming down on her and you just want her to be the focus,” says Smith. This feeling of uneasiness was effectively communicated through her wardrobe as well. “The decision to keep her in one look throughout the whole film was essential to understand her transitory state and in the end helped convey an over all despair in Wendy,” notes Needham. In addition, this allows the audience to relate to the feeling of wearing the same clothing over an unknown span of time, naturally building up an unavoidable anxiety. Wendy later suffers a breakdown and feels suffocated, as she naturally strips off her clothing.
The Walgreens used in the film is located on 2829 North Lombard Street in Portland, Oregon and Wendy’s car is later parked on North Russell Street. It’s interesting to note that the mechanic shop in the film, On the Go Auto Services Inc., which appears to be right across the street, was actually located a mile away. The insert shots of the mechanic shop were therefore cheated quite effectively.
The Walgreens used in the film was the same location that the author had in mind while writing his story. Faires comments that using a Walgreens in the film was essential because “Kelly understood that it needed to be a place that looked corporate, that looked like an entity that was probably less than personal.”
Interiors visited Portland in May 2013, and while searching for the location, drove around endlessly, visiting various Walgreens locations in the city. The location of the Walgreens used in the film was in a part of town that felt disconnected from the rest of Portland. In using this location over others in the area, the setting of the film feels more a small town rather than big city. Levy states, “I think what attracted Kelly to it and why it works in the movie is that it doesn’t really feel of Portland.”
The fact that the setting of the film feels like a small town was an important element for the filmmakers. Smith remarks, “We knew it was Oregon but we didn’t want you to know exactly where. It’s never referenced. We really wanted it to be very vague, to feel like it could happen anywhere.” Levy similarly notes that Wendy’s location was never a specific place or city. This was something, he says, that wasn’t overtly discussed among the filmmakers, but rather something that was understood by everyone involved.
The information we have about Wendy is very minimal. The audience knows that Wendy is from Indiana and only knows minor details of her past locations through the few glimpses we have of her notebook and map.
In terms of finding locations for the film, and creating a city that didn’t remind viewers of a specific part of the state, Faires explains he wanted to focus on how banal the town was rather than painting a beautiful portrait of Portland with the locations. This resulted in a much more authentic portrayal for the story, because as he notes, people in Wendy’s situations often land themselves in these parts of town, where people are struggling.
In addition to the locations, Wendy’s car is an essential part of the story as well, and when she loses her car, she becomes handicapped and her future is uncertain. “The car was such a huge character,” exclaims Smith. In the original short story, her car is described as a gray 1996 Toyota Camry, but the film utilized a maroon 1988 Honda Accord DX, which Smith claims he came across in his own neighborhood. In fact, the car was such a crucial aspect of the story that, for preparation for her character, Michelle Williams slept in the car for a week.
The various other locations that Wendy visits offer revealing information about the film. The audience is provided with a clue about Wendy’s location in the police station after she is booked – a quick shot of her form reveals that she is in Washington County. This is accurate to the shooting location, which was in the Washington Country Jail in Hillsboro, Oregon, approximately 20 miles away. These scenes, which were filmed in an actual jail and actual cells, were the first scenes shots for the film. Levy describes this space as “modern” in comparison to the other locations in the film. There were very little lights used in this sequence – interestingly enough, the flash we see during her mug shots were created with Levy’s point-and-shoot camera.
The dog pound that Wendy visits while searching for Lucy is the Oregon Humane Society, which is 3 miles away. It’s interesting to note that the distance to the dog pound from Wendy’s car is the same distance that the security guard (Walter Dalton) tells Wendy in the film.
In a specific scene, Wendy puts up flyers for Lucy as we see her through a window. There is a great reflection of clouds on the left side of the frame with the Walgreens in the background on the right side of the frame, highlighting its close proximity to the location.
The film’s conclusion is in the backyard of a home, where Wendy finds Lucy. This location is 90 miles west from where Wendy’s car is parked in Astoria, Oregon. Wendy is told that Lucy is “where the 30 meets Leif Erickson.” This dialogue matches the actual location of the house. Smith says, “We knew we were going to shoot there and we had the cross streets so we added those into the dialogue.”
Wendy and Lucy was a labor of love for all those involved. The open collaboration among the various departments left a special impact on those who worked on the film, particularly Smith, who admits, “I got really spoiled right off the bat. I thought they were all going to go this way.”
The film was a small production and oftentimes the crew resorted to unusual practices for the sake of the film. Smith made a second key for the car behind the owner’s back, in case of an emergency situation. The car was loaned rather than rented and the crew couldn’t afford to lose the car midway through production.
These unconventional ways of working were also true for the costume designer, who didn’t think of making doubles for Wendy’s wardrobe and was approached by one of the film’s producers during their first week of production. “The look of total confusion and panic must have communicated enough for him to know there wasn’t a double,” confesses Amanda Needham. In the course of production, she was extremely careful with her wardrobe and didn’t wash anything out of fear. “Good thing Michelle was a good sport and joked that it helped build her character. Lesson learned.”
Sam Levy states that even though their production was on a tight schedule and the weather was often unpredictable, he was never concerned. In a single day, the weather would change dramatically and go from a bright sun to overcast skies and even rain. “I don’t know what it was, but I was never worried. I had total faith in Kelly and the story and Michelle Williams. I just felt confident.”
Ryan Warren Smith realizes he won’t always work on a film that is as intimate as Wendy and Lucy, but it’s “awesome” when he can, because a collaborative team means everybody in the various departments work together. “It’s everybody making a movie together so you’re helping each other; like, Michelle was carrying sandbags. There was no division between anybody.”
This article first appeared in Interiors Journal, an online journal exploring the relationship of architecture and film edited by Mehruss Jon Ahi and Armen Karaoghlanian. Follow Interiors Journal on Twitter, where they discuss movies from the architect’s point of view.
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