Kelly Reichardt is a no bullshit filmmaker that makes incredibly deep and subtle films. Working primarily in New York City but having filmed largely out west (something she says she will probably move away from for her next project), Reichardt creates truthful, nuanced character pieces out of genre elements, Her latest effort, the ecological caper film Night Moves (opening this Friday at the TIFF Bell Lightbox following a showing at TIFF last year), is certainly no exception.
Having most recently tackled the road movie in Wendy and Lucy and the bleakness of the western in the historically minded Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt now takes on the Bressonian thriller with a tale of a trio of ecoterrorists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard) of varying temperaments working together to blow up a hydroelectric dam in Oregon. The first half of the film follows the planning and execution of the task at hand, while the second half focuses on their lives as individuals living with the aftermath of their actions.
It’s not the average suspense flick. Things unfold realistically and without dramatic contrivance, something Reichardt has made a hallmark of throughout her career. We got a chance to chat with Reichardt over the phone from New York about the genre aspects of her films, the temperament and contradictions of her characters, and why her films always feel rooted in specific moments.
Dork Shelf: You don’t strike me as the kind of filmmaker who likes to think specifically in genre elements, so Night Moves marks a bit of a change for you because there’s a really pronounced thriller or shell game element to the film. So what was it like for you trying to make a caper film?
Kelly Reichardt: I mean, all the films I’ve done have genre aspects to them, I would say. Road movie, western, and yeah, the caper. It just seemed like a good sort of frame for telling a story that would have a lot of ambiguities to it, narratively and emotionally. So yeah, we started there, and this film definitely has more of a narrative path to follow when compared to the other films.
DS: One of the things that really struck me about the film is that it’s a movie about great contradictions in people. Even in the very basic mechanics of the plan, their ideas on how to save the environment are actually at the same time doing damage to it. What is it like creating characters that have open political ideas that aren’t cognizant of their contradictions?
KR: Well, everyone’s filled with contradictions, right? So that’s a given, I guess. We sort of started with this idea of Josh as a fundamentalist who doesn’t have a lot of ambiguity. He’s the kind of person who’s completely secure in his ideological views and in his intuition. We wanted to see this real, firm believer and then watching him unravel. That’s his sort of story, but I guess if he had a little more ambiguity in his thinking, then he might have ended up in a better place. He has all the problems of any kind of fundamentalist thinking, which is that it’s such a contradictory viewpoint. It’s a hard thing to sustain.
DS: Because at the outset Josh doesn’t really say very much, which gives off the illusion that he’ll be the person least likely to crack under pressure, when in reality it turns out that he’s probably most likely to snap.
KR: Well, sure. He’s the most rigid. He’s the most susceptible, but I really think that’s how it goes.
DS: This theme of contradictions seems to run through Meek’s Cutoff and Wendy and Lucy, as well. Josh is in many ways as self-reliant as the characters in those films, and yet they all seem in denial at times that they need any help from outside sources. Was that something that you’ve noticed throughout your work?
KR: Well, I don’t know. That might be too much. I don’t think I have an overall sort of blanket feeling about it. Hmmm. I don’t know. I think for me there’s more of an idea of how people act when they’re with a group. Being around one kind of group might bring out another kind of behaviour that they don’t show when they’re alone or one on one with someone. Especially in this case. The group has these tasks that they need to carry out. They wake up knowing what they have to do in the morning and they know how to go from Step A to Step B to Step C, and they all have to be with each other. They’re only reconfirming their ideas about everything. There’s no one in the group with any outside opinions. They’re able to just sort of march along. Then, once they go and complete the task and they’re just three individuals in their own space, it’s harder. Life on its own outside of a group is way more ambiguous. They’re just living with the fallout. Things aren’t in their hands anymore. They’re still and left with their thoughts and all that comes with that. I think all the films touch on the idea of how people are within a community or within a group versus how they are on their own.
DS: The scene on the boat when they’re pulling up to the dam is something I wanted to talk to you about because it’s a scene where no one really says anything, but it really underlines the temperament of the people in this group as individuals. Peter is kind of half-assedly driving the boat, Jesse is looking behind him, and Dakota keeps darting her eyes around. Was it intentional to use this scene to kind of foreshadow everything that happens after that point?
KR: No. (laughs) When we were on the boat (DP) Chris Blauvelt and I went out and designed the shot to know what our aim was for what we wanted to get to, and I can see where it might look like that, but when we were out in that boat with the actors, shit was really happening. Peter’s not really driving the boat half-heartedly because he’s really driving the boat and paying attention because he can’t afford to hit anything! (laughs) Jesse is in charge of stopping the boat so it doesn’t hit the dam walls, and Dakota has to stop the back of the boat from smashing into the dam wall. Everyone is actually working there. There’s so much that the actors have to actually do because there’s no stunt person standing by to do it for them. (laughs) We’re just trying to work our own designs – either as filmmakers or them as actors – around what’s really happening. We have to make what’s happening work into what the original concept was. But at that point, the movie is alive.
Michelle (Williams) always talks about working with the oxen (in Meek’s Cutoff). She would always say that you can’t really be acting because you have to be actually physically driving a bull while wearing a bonnet and having no peripheral vision. You just have to be in that moment and pay attention to what you are doing. That’s true for especially the boat scene, but as actors they have a lot of very physical things in this film that they have to pull off.
DS: That’s interesting because I was really marvelling at what I thought was acting in the moment, but I see what you mean. I guess that really speaks to how you have said in the past that you strive to place recognizable actors in realistic situations.
KR: You know, that striving, I guess, is because these films are living, breathing things. (laughs) You’re striving to get as many people to fit. Everything is constructed, you know? So you’re trying to get these things put into place to ultimately lead to some kind of larger truth being revealed. Many people could put that in a more graceful way than I could, but that striving is minute to minute. It’s about accomplishing a task much like the people in the film. You have to get the task at hand done and have something be revealed in each moment that can ring true as much as possible. I guess that’s the overall striving.
You know, when you’re planning a film you always have lots of ideas, but when you start making it, you’re just fucking in it. (laughs) So the heavy thinking goes out the window at that point.