Kelly Reichardt's films are radical in every sense of the word: They're subtle and spare in an industry that favors conspicuous narratives; they're quiet and unapologetically glacial in pace; they fixate on the natural world in favor of the civilized one; they center almost exclusively on women. Her directorial debut, 1994's River of Grass, follows a disenchanted Floridian housewife (Lisa Bowman) who ends up on the lam with a stranger. 2008's Wendy and Lucy stars Michelle Williams as a drifter on a frantic search for her beloved dog. In 2013's Night Moves, Dakota Fanning plays an environmentalist who conspires to blow up a dam. But to sum up Reichardt's films with a single logline hardly does them justice; so much of the action takes place on her character's faces and in the feral settings that surround them.
Reichardt's latest, Certain Women, is particularly austere and resistant to standard structure. The film is divided into three separate sections, each based on a short story by writer Maile Meloy, each taking place in or near Livingston, Montana, under sprawling skies and on desolate stretches of snowy land. It also happens to feature Reichardt's most stacked cast to date. Laura Dern kicks off the triptych as an exhausted lawyer whose apoplectic client (Jared Harris) won't listen to her legal advice until it's confirmed by a male colleague. Michelle Williams plays Gina, whose desperation to connect with her cheating husband (James Le Gros) and sullen teenage daughter (Sara Rodier) manifests in an obsession with building a house in the country. Newcomer Lily Gladstone is particularly affecting as Jamie, a sweet and solitary ranch hand who falls for her teacher (Kristen Stewart), the only human being she regularly comes into contact with.
While the stories don't overlap as much as occasionally bump up against one another, thematically, they seem to all explore loneliness and that particularly female experience of being ignored or unseen (though, according to Reichardt, they don't necessarily thematically connect at all). In advance of the film's October 14 premiere, MTV News talked to Reichardt about her longtime working relationship with Michelle Williams, the commodification of Native American culture, and fangirling Laura Dern.
MTV News: What about these three short stories by Maile Meloy stuck out to you in particular, and why'd you think they'd lend themselves well to film?
Kelly Reichardt: Well, it was actually a bit of a process finding the three stories that worked together. I knew I really loved Maile Meloy's collections; she has two story collections, and she was so generous to me, and really let me have my way and try different stories. I was drawn to the first one [Laura Dern's] — I'd been wanting to try to shoot a little bit more indoors and I really liked some of the logistics of the hostage situation, to be honest. I kind of was just drawn to that. I liked that all the characters were so tied into Montana, and, of course, the challenge to shoot on a ranch. Really it was the middle story [Michelle Williams's] that came last. When I first read it, it didn't really strike me what it was really about. But as I was working on the other two stories, I thought it actually said so much about the New West, the idea of contemporizing the West, of going and conquering it. There were adjustments to be made in the relationships in the final story; in Maile's book, it's a male rancher on a cow farm, and in the middle story, [Michelle's character] didn't have a kid. But it was a lot of trial and error, to be honest. And I didn't know for a long time if they would work together.
To me, the unifying link in the stories — outside of them all being in Montana and dealing with the natural world in some way — seemed to be this idea of the innate invisibility that can come with being a woman, and the loneliness that comes with that. Is that how you saw them?
Reichardt: I'm not sure I exactly saw it like that. I tried to actually avoid themes, in a lot of ways. I just thought that they were all working — I'm drawn to people that have tasks to do [laughs]. And who spend a lot of time going from here to there. It was more like that. I wasn't really setting out to make some kind of women's picture, or something like that. It was more that they all had jobs, and each were relatable to me in a certain way. If anything, I thought that there was a sort of through line on how, when I started spending time in Montana, it was interesting how the Native American heritage has just kind of turned into a certain kind of commerce. Wherever you go, Montana is so white, but every hotel and every restaurant and every square has refabricated Native American culture, turning it into a decorative thing.
You changed the movie's title from Livingston to Certain Women, which was part of the reason I thought the film was saying something about women in particular. Why'd you change to that title?
Reichardt: It was the KR Untitled Project forever. I'm really bad with titles. Livingston is a super, super windy town, and the diner where we were shooting, they had T-shirts that said “Livingston Blows,” because of the wind. And all of the characters were having such a hard time, so I thought that was a really good title, but nobody agreed with me [laughs]. Everybody thought it sounded like a porn film. But the title was Livingston Blows for a long time. Sony World, who helped me make the movie, they were so generous when we were working with them, and so hands off, but they were like, “PLEASE don't call it Livingston Blows!” [laughs] So I thought it was the least I could do.
The title actually comes from a Peggy Ahwesh film. She's an experimental feminist filmmaker whose work I really love, and she made a film in the '90s called Certain Women. I asked her if I could steal her title, and she generously let me.
You've got really big names in this relatively small film, which is pretty rare both for your work and small indies in general. How did you get Kristen and Laura and Michelle on board, and why'd you think they'd work as these specific characters?
Reichardt: Kristen was actually, I don't know why, she was so easy and she was like, “Whenever it gets made, sure I'll come out to Montana.” She was willing to play not the feature role, in her third of the movie, so that was super generous. And Laura also — she was in the middle of doing awards things with Wild right when we were filming. So that was really tricky for her timing-wise. I've loved Laura Dern forever and was such a fan of Enlightened, the HBO series, and we really just kept banging at her door. She just fit us in, which was really amazing, because she was really in the throes of awards season, which is very taxing, apparently. We just needed people for not very long periods of time, so that was part of it.
And then Michelle is always game. I've really been wanting to reconnect with Michelle, and I'm always a little jealous when Michelle is in anyone else's movies. I've worked with James Le Gros before, and so that was — that section was shot in the middle, and that was just, weather-wise, the easiest section, because we had a little bit of a relief from the cold. And it's so easy working with somebody you've worked with so much before. And René Auberjonois, who plays Albert [Michelle's neighbor], is an actor who I've loved since McCabe & Mrs. Miller. And Lily was a surprising find.
She's incredible in this. How'd you find her?
Reichardt: Yeah, she's great. She is in a film called Winter in the Blood. That was a [James Welch] novel I really loved, and she was in the film, and that director said he'd had a great experience with her. And she sent me a reading, and her instincts were all so good. She was a James Welch fan, having been in that movie, so we connected over James Welch. So, yeah, she sent in that audition tape, just her on the street, doing a scene with a friend. She did it twice. I gave her some notes, she was in Missoula, so she drove over and met me.
I have to say: We were looking at all of these Native American actors, who mostly all work under one casting director. And there's so much talent to be cast. There really is. We saw some really good readings. There's more talent to be had there.
The camera just sort of rests on Lily's face for long periods of time. You do that with a lot of these characters. There's really not a ton of dialogue or even traditional action throughout the film. How do you direct really subtle moments like that?
Reichardt: Well, I never tell anyone to act with their face, that's for sure. But you can put a camera two inches away from Lily's face and she doesn't even know it's there, which is kind of amazing. I don't know, you're just in each scene, and she doesn't have a ton of dialogue, but she has a ton of physical activity that she has to be doing at all times. She has to respond to the animals, and the weather — it was negative 6 degrees when we were shooting. She has her work cut out for her. So I think with Lily, it was more that she's a really super-instinctive actress. So with her, it was more small, technical things. But she has really great instincts. I think the best thing for her was going to the ranch and spending a couple of weeks working with a rancher, getting that routine down and learning what it was.
What is it about Michelle Williams that keeps you both working together so often? What draws you together?
Reichardt: She doesn't come with a fixed idea of what the character is, which I really appreciate. She's up for debate about it; she's not locked into anything. She's also incredibly trusting, which is just such a gift from an actor. And she works all the time, so she's also super confident. I don't know, we always have a great conversation about who the character will be, and she brings some dimension to it that I hadn't thought of. And she's just...In this one, I thought also she has a great comedic timing that I hadn't been able, because of our material, to work with yet. Also, she's just kind of a pleasure!