Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women is a departure for her in some ways.
It’s the first feature she’s worked on without a writing partner since her debut, River of Grass, in 1994. (She wrote her four previous features—Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008), Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and Night Moves (2013; with Jonathan Raymond.) It’s set in Montana, where her films are usually set in the Pacific Northwest. It’s based on three short stories by Maile Meloy, where her previous films were based on original stories. And yet, like all her work, it’s a quiet but effective observation of how some well-drawn characters interact with each other, and with the landscape around them. As with her other work, there’s a political aspect to Certain Women, involving gender dynamics, and racial and class differences, but her work never feels pedantic. The politics are just part of the characters’ lives, as they are with most of us.
The film is divided into three sections, and beyond their themes, there isn’t much overlap between the three tales. Laura Dern plays Laura, an attorney frustrated with a stubborn, desperate client (Jared Harris), who ends up taking drastic action in his search for restitution. Laura’s having an affair with Ryan (James Le Gros), who turns out to be the husband of Gina (Reichardt’s frequent collaborator Michelle Williams). Ryan and Gina are building a new house outside town, and Gina is intent on using some precious Native American sandstone owned by an elderly neighbor, Albert (Rene Auberjonois) for the foundation. In the third segment, relative newcomer Lily Gladstone plays Jamie, a ranch hand who wanders into an adult education course on education law one evening, and finds herself smitten with Beth (Kristen Stewart), the young lawyer teaching the course.
MovieMaker spoke with Reichardt at the New York Film Festival about working without a writing partner, casting, working with actors and her decision to shoot on film.
Josh Ralske, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): When we spoke with you two years ago, you were a bit concerned about writing without a writing partner for your next feature. Jon Raymond was not going to be available. Can you talk about how that went?
Kelly Reichardt (KR): Yes. I was reading a lot. I can’t remember how exactly I came across Maile’s shorts. Maybe it was The New Yorker?
MM: “Travis B” was in The New Yorker.
KR: Maybe I saw it there first. That might be how I looked up her other stuff. [Her stories] had all the immediate things. A lot happens outside. [laughs] I like shooting outside. Well, I shouldn’t say I like it so much. It’s like winter outside. Animals have a lot to do with it, and the people are all very much a part of their environment, so that all appeals to me. It’s just the kind of thing you read, and you start imagining how you’re going to do it, and what it would look like. So I played around with some of her stories. I eventually asked her permission before I got too deep into it, to see if I could even work with these stories. Then I switched out some. I tried different ones.
It was hard to get into the mode of writing alone. It took a long time. The script got way too complicated for a while. I went through so many variations, and the middle story [“Native Sandstone”] was a story that came into it all much later, and it finally made everything make sense. I’m not sure if it makes sense the same way to anybody else, but to me.
When I read that story of Maile’s, at first I wasn’t even sure why she included it in her shorts. I was like, “What’s that story?” And then it stuck with me. When I finally tried putting it in, it gave me this sort of through line, being able to work with ideas of the Native American presence, largely as fashion in some way, in the West.
When you’re in Montana, it’s almost like you’re in Oregon, but you’re surrounded by reproductions of Native American art. It’s so many miles away from what it originally started as. There’ll be a bank logo somehow referential to Native Americans, but the only thing you’re not seeing is Native Americans. So this idea of going to the West and acquiring something like the sandstone started this nice thread through the film.
MM: It also fits in with the gender dynamics. Talk about how you chose these three stories specifically.
KR: It was such a process. I mean, the “Travis B” one was obvious.
MM: But you did—
KR: Yeah, swapped genders there.
As I said, in the Laura story really felt like… With Maile’s stories, it’s not always clear what the period is, but especially now—this was even before Drumpf—it felt more of the moment, but it did feel sort of timely. The character in that film, Fuller [Harris], is in his mid-50s, maybe, and for the first time has the feeling that the system isn’t working out for him. And he cannot believe it. He doesn’t know how to take it, and he takes it so personally. Whereas the rancher [Gladstone in the third section] doesn’t expect things to go her way, and takes her knocks with such grace because she’s just putting herself out there, but not really presuming that things will go her way. I was interested in that first story, and I just liked the idea of sort of doing this really low-impact hostage scene. Then the kind of hinge between the two stories was the sandstone, and this sort of glamping couple from California coming in to build their new house and needing the authentic materials.
MM: There’s an ambivalence about Michelle Williams’ character. She’s not being heard, she’s being dismissed. There’s a lot of this in the film, people not hearing each other. At the same time, there’s this appropriation she’s doing.
KR: Yeah, I think so. Michelle did such a good job. She was so brave about not caring, being at some stage with this daughter that they’re not connecting, and they’re not enjoying each other, and also trying to hustle this old guy. Ultimately she’s trying to find a way. Her family situation is not what it seems to be. She probably knows, so she tries to fix it in ways that she has control of, that aren’t emotional, that are just more like, if she builds the perfect house, somehow it will all work out. When we filmed the scene at Albert’s, we shot Michelle first, and she really went for it: “I have this agenda. I’m getting this thing from this guy, and I don’t want it to take a lot of time.” And then Rene did his scene, and he gave this really heartfelt performance. We were all just like, “Whoa. Shit.” My heart was like, “Oh my God,” and Michelle was just like, [desperate voice] “You’ve gotta let me do mine over! [laughter] You can’t leave me to be that harsh. Please let me do it over.” I was like, “You’re not doing it over.” She was like, “Oh, my God. That’s so brutal.” I knew while Rene was doing his reading. I didn’t even wanna look at Michelle. [laughs] I knew she was gonna be like, “No way. You’re not gonna leave me out there to be that much of a… Come on.”
MM: In terms of casting, with Michelle obviously you’ve worked with her before. When I talked to you last time, we were talking about Laura Dern’s show on HBO—
MM: Right. Talk about casting her and Kristen Stewart. And especially Lily Gladstone, because I’d never seen her in anything before, and she’s really amazing.
KR: Yeah, she’s really great. She’s in the James Welch, the Native American author. He did Winter in the Blood [Alex and Andrew Smith’s adaptation of Welch’s classic novel]. I love his book. She’s very good in it, and I spoke to them about actors when I was looking for actors, and they said, yeah, check out Lily. All of the Native American actors work with this one casting woman named Rene [Haynes], and Laura Rosenthal worked with her through Meek’s Cutoff. My casting people on this film, Gayle Keller and Mark Bennett, went through that avenue. She sent us tapes and said, “Asterisk: Lily Gladstone.” Lily sent us a tape of herself and I didn’t know it was the same person they were talking about. She just did a reading herself. She had heard about us and she’s quite a hustler, that Lily Gladstone, and she did this really nice reading. She just taped herself and sent it to me. She had really great instincts and there was something really interesting about her, so I can’t remember if I wrote her or called her, and gave her some notes. And she did another reading. And she was in Missoula so she said she’d drive down and meet me.
In the meantime, I had found this ranch that I wanted to film at. As lucky as finding Lily was, finding this ranch was equally lucky. In the story it’s a cattle ranch. This was a horse ranch, and I had just kept envisioning this beige sort of setting, and everyplace we went to there was like, a red barn, and then all of a sudden we passed this beige… and I was just like, “Look, a beige…!” and my casting director just went to the door. The rancher was a woman in her 60s. She’s got 21 horses. Her husband’s allergic to hay, so she runs the whole place by herself. With that dog that’s in the movie, chasing her around. She was awesome.
Working with her made me see that Lily fit the bill. It needed to be someone that could pick up a bale of hay and actually do these chores, which are no small thing. I can’t budge a bale of hay like that. She came and met our rancher and worked on the ranch for two weeks, and they became very attached. A colt was born, that’s now named Lily. They became very close. Lily got really into it, to the point that when we started filming, she had to be pulled out of it. “You’re in a movie now! Don’t worry about feeding that animal. Do this!” [laughs] So those things were great finds.
Kristen came in really early. I’ve loved Kristen since The Runaways. She was so amazing in that, and then she was in my friends’ film [Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s] Still Alice. I was watching the dailies from that and Kristen was like, “Yeah, get it together. Call me, I’ll come do it.” There was a fear that she might be too famous for the part, you know, and that it would be distracting, but I think she really lets herself be stripped down and really played in a way that it’s Lily’s story. I thought she just gave such a generous performance. That scene in the parking lot, I think Kristen’s so good in that scene.