In the unconventional western Meek’s Cutoff, a group of settlers traveling the Oregon Trail in 1845 find themselves stranded in increasingly dire circumstances when their hired guide proves to be less than knowledgeable regarding their whereabouts. Directed by Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy) and starring Michelle Williams (see pg. 50) and Paul Dano, Meek’s Cutoff—which premiered at the 2010 Venice Film Festival—takes viewers on a surprisingly emotional journey, thanks to a screenplay by novelist and frequent Reichardt collaborator, Jon Raymond.
In the past decade, New York City native Dano has amassed an eclectic resume, with credits in acclaimed indies (L.I.E., Little Miss Sunshine, The Ballad of Jack and Rose), offbeat passion projects (There Will Be Blood, Where the Wild Things Are) and big-budget studio features (Knight and Day, the upcoming Cowboys & Aliens).
Here, the 26-year-old Spirit Award winner dissects the writing process with Raymond and discusses the relevance of Meek’s Cutoff to today’s Facebook-obsessed generation.
Paul Dano (MM): As a novelist who is also a screenwriter, how does your process of writing a film differ when you write a novel or short story? Do you make an effort to write your screenplays cinematically? Do you think about film structure?
Jon Raymond (JR): Thinking about it, I probably write more “cinematically” in my fiction than in my screenwriting. Which isn’t to say “cinematically” in the punchy, crime-fighting, gasoline-explosion sense. Just more visually.
In prose, one of the main pleasures for me is describing things, be it landscapes, hotels, grocery stores, whatever. But a director doesn’t want a bunch of visual information in the script cluttering things up. That’s their job to think about (and the DP’s, the art department’s, the costume department’s, etc.), and the camera’s job to capture. They just want suggestive situations and decent dialogue, as far as I can tell. With Kelly [Reichardt] in particular—who’s such a daring, radical, visual storyteller—I’m more than happy to just sit back and be amazed by what she pulls off.
Structurally, though, I find the different kinds of writing pretty analogous. Narrative, whether it comes in the form of prose or movies, follows the same kinds of rhythms and attempts to satisfy the same kinds of expectations. There haven’t been great innovations on that front since the 19th century, on some level.
MM: Wendy and Lucy is about a girl and her dog, but it’s also about recession and poverty. Meek’s Cutoff is about a group of people and their struggles both as a group and individually, but it’s also about leadership and xenophobia. Your writing seems to be character-driven, but always has an underlying theme, be it social or political. What comes first? What was the genesis of Meek’s Cutoff?
JR: The way I think about it lately is that I’m interested in political questions, but emotional and dramatic answers. I like to be guided to a project by some sense of political urgency, but once the writing begins, the politics become subservient to the characters and the plot developments.
Ideally I want to confuse my own sense of political certainty in the writing process. I want to push through to the point where some Tea Party supporter could find a way in, if that makes sense. For instance, it was interesting with Wendy and Lucy to hear of some people coming out of the theater just appalled at Wendy’s laziness, lack of foresight, stupidity, whatever. Whereas others were totally sympathetic to her.
One of my favorite e-mails came from a woman who broke up with her boyfriend after they saw it together because she couldn’t stand to be with someone who had so little empathy for someone like Wendy. I like that these different interpretations are available. Not to say I consider them equally valid—I’m on the side of empathy—but at least they’re there.
With Meek’s Cutoff, specifically, I ran across the idea for the script while working on the script for Wendy and Lucy. I read about this historical episode that just rang some bells with me. A bunch of pioneers lost in the desert, debating whether their hired leader is evil or stupid. That seemed relevant to me coming out of the Bush years, and also with the Obama era in sight.
I liked the idea of a group of people going through an episode of extreme scarcity, doubting the intelligence of the guy in charge and, ultimately, when things get really heavy, getting handed the reins. What does it feel like to inherit an unsolvable problem after you’ve been backseat driving for so long?
MM: What role do movies play in your life? Why care about movies? Or write them?
JR: I never watched movies growing up, and we had strict limits on TV in the house. So I’m kind of a latecomer to movies. Which is nice in a way, in that I’m still just kind of amazed by the idea of a moving image.
I care about movies for the same reason I care about any art: I just like them. Which is a glib answer, I know, but I’m afraid the reasons I actually might list would be too pretentious to bear. I write movies partly because I love the collaboration, the shared fantasy you enter into. What could be better than making movies with your friends?
MM: What is your ambition as a screenwriter? Aside from your work with Kelly, you have also worked with Todd Haynes on the upcoming HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce.” Do you have interest in all types of film? Or just a particular type of movie/moviemaker?
JR: I’ve been so ridiculously lucky in this screenwriting gig. It just so happens that two of my dear friends are also two of the best directors in the world. I imagine people who actually set out to pursue the art of screenwriting would want to shoot me for that—not to say I haven’t pursued it, or that I just stumbled into it accidentally. I’ve written plenty of screenplays with and for other really talented, great people, most of which sadly haven’t gotten made. I’ve also written about movies in my fiction. So even though screenwriting hasn’t been an accident, exactly, I think of it as a moonlighting opportunity in addition to the real work of writing fiction. I don’t know at what point the icing becomes the cake, though, if that makes sense.
Going ahead, I’m open to anything Kelly or Todd would ever want me to do, as well as other projects that are either really interesting or that pay me copious amounts of money. Preferably both.
MM: You and Kelly have made several films together. How did you guys get together?
JR: Todd introduced us, and then she read a novel I wrote, The Half-Life. She liked it and asked me if I had anything smaller to adapt. I happened to have written the short story “Old Joy” and, incredibly, she liked that, too. I don’t think there is another person in the world who would have seen a film in that story. But Kelly did, and she made it.
With Wendy and Lucy, I went ahead and wrote a story specifically for Kelly to adapt. With Meek’s Cutoff, I wrote a straight screenplay, much to her chagrin. She prefers having paragraphs to think about, but Meek’s Cutoff would have been a novel if I’d tried to write it out, and I wasn’t up to that.
What’s so great about the collaboration is that it seems to keep evolving. Each project entails a new process. Now we’re working on one that’s a much closer writing collaboration than in the past, and it seems to be working.
MM: I asked Kelly what I should ask you, and she said “Ask him about having to lift his cat off his lap and lift his ass off his chair when he is in his comfy warm office to take four steps to get over to his computer when I call him from atop a mountain in 20 degree weather to ask a question.” Your response?
JR: Yeah, yeah. It’s about the same as when she calls me from a gondola in Venice to complain about how huge her hotel room is while I’m changing some shitty diaper. MM