In London for the UK premiere of her fifth feature film, the Oregon-based environmental thriller Night Moves, indie filmmaker Kelly Reichardt is sitting alone at a large conference table. The critically acclaimed director has carved out a career on the edges, creating low-budget, complex dramas that focus on tales of outsiders and misfits. Her subtly political films – such as Old Joy (2006), starring Will Oldham, Wendy and Lucy (2008) and the mid-19th-century western Meek’s Cutoff (2010) – share themes of restlessness and the struggle of navigating the minutiae of reality. Night Moves takes a darker, more intense turn. The first film she’s shot digitally, it stars Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard as a group of Oregon-based activists consumed by their plan to explode a dam.
Dazed Digital: There’s a recurring sense of restlessness in the experience of your characters. In Wendy and Lucy the security guard says, ‘You can’t get an address without an address, you can’t get a job without a job.’ What draws you to stories of freedom and people struggling against an impossible system?
Kelly Reichardt: I’m drawn to outsiders. I mean, who wants to see a film about the winners? Fuck the winners, you know? I’m completely uninterested. I like the small struggles, and if a character has a task at hand, just a really basic task – like, ‘I have to get from here to there.’ The minutiae of things is very interesting to me, and people who don’t have a big safety net and are trying to get a leg up. When we made Wendy and Lucy it was very much in the environment of the George Bush years, when there was this real disdain for poor people and a whole movement towards doing everything you can to further embrace people that are already the haves. So we wanted to focus on this idea of pulling yourself up from your bootstraps, and how you get ahead if you don’t have much to begin with, and you’re young and you make bad decisions sometimes and you don’t have any good voices to guide you. A lot of those themes are in Night Moves – making decisions and having to cope with the aftermath of them.
“I’m drawn to outsiders. Who wants to see a film about winners? Fuck the winners, I’m completely uninterested. I like the small struggles”
DD: What drew you to photography and telling stories through images?
Kelly Reichardt: I was very into photography when I was young – my father was a crime scene photographer. Those photos are very wide and involve landscape to some degree, and then work their way into details. Then I went up north with the idea of wanting to make movies. I went to art school and met people; we shot 16mm and Super 8, and it went on from there, just projects with friends.
DD: It seems that in modern life there are more forces and obstacles in the way of moving from A to B than, say, when Meek’s Cutoff was set.
Kelly Reichardt: You see movies all the time where young people – especially films about New York – just have these big apartments and it’s never explained how they got them. And I watch the whole movie thinking, how did you get that fucking apartment? Like, explain it! You work at the coffee shop, but you have that apartment?That amount of space you have doesn’t make any sense to me. I wanna know how people got the places they live in.
DD: Are the uphill struggles of your films reflected in your experience as a female director?
Kelly Reichardt: Certainly in my first film, River of Grass (1994), which had a completely different ending and got completely changed. On Night Moves I was thinking, ‘Wow! Age has finally trumped being a woman.’ I have a really close-knit crew, and there’s a lot of men on that crew, and it took a really long time to find the right people to work with, so a lot of those issues I’ve made ground on. It’s probably a privileged way to grow up in some respect, that it took me till my early 20s to really know what sexism was, and to really feel it and go like, ‘Oh wow! Okay, this is it!’ And your heart breaks. I took all those things so personally and in some ways taking things personally defeated me and made me unable to work. And at other times it just pushed me forward out of spite; I could harness my resentment towards it and make my resentment productive.
DD: How about now?
Kelly Reichardt: Now, the challenge is trying to not respond to everything as if it’s necessarily sexism, because once that curtain opens and you see it, it’s really hard not to see it everywhere all the time. The really ugly portrayal of feminism by the right is a really effective, long-lasting impression that makes young women resist the word even. And so I’m sure it takes new shapes, but you also see a lot of backward movement.
DD: People really shrug away from the word.
Kelly Reichardt: Oh, completely, no more so than young women. I notice, in my world, it’s hard to find an educated 20-year-old woman who will align herself with the word ‘feminism’, which is a pain in the ass.
DD: What do you think about the conflicting ideas in Night Moves about direct action and the more gentle approach of sustainable living?
Kelly Reichardt: I have to be able to relate to all the characters throughout the movie, and shift around and be with each one. In the 90s I would read about the environmental liberation front burning down a ski lodge that’s made of old-growth wood, or a young kid who goes out and blows up some hummers. I can get as excited as anyone, but then you see a lot of young people sitting in jail afterwards, and a lodge gets rebuilt with new old-growth forest and the hummers get replaced and you think, ‘Oh! There’s a reason we all don’t go out and do these things,’ you know? What can really be accomplished? But there’s also the thought that you’re up against these forces, whoever they are... Exxon, BP, the World Bank, whoever owns all the fucking water in the world! What is anyone supposed to do? What is your average person who feels that a lot of corporations and corporate money act in technically legal ways but are very radically destructive supposed to do? What’s reasonable? If you go out to Oregon now, since we shot Old Joy, all of those forests are gone. They’re just gone. So I don’t really know what the answers are. It’s all so murky, even for me.
DD: Portland-based writer Jon Raymond is a longstanding collaborator of yours. How did you evolve the story of Night Moves together?
Kelly Reichardt: Jon had a love story based on the idea of this guy hiding out on this farm. We kept that and tried to imagine the whole process in which someone had committed a radical act and was just laying low. I find Jon’s way of writing, and what seems like the nothingness of his writing, full of ambiguities and things that are hard to pin down.
DD: The characters have this violent passion but their personal motivations seem unclear.
I don’t really think people know themselves that well. We all have ideas of what we believe, but these people are surrounded by people that are so likeminded that there’s never really a reason for them to talk about how they feel. They have absolute hard-driving feelings that are so ironclad that it’s a problem for a while, until they pull off this big act – then the ambiguities of it all come into play and everything’s less sure. Along with paranoia and isolation and the things that come with a radical act.
DD: Questions about human responsibility, to one another and to the environment, thread throughout your films.
Yeah, I think sustainability is great! You know, can we all be farmers? What does it take to be sustainable? Making something grow instead of killing something seems like a good idea. But I also understand Josh’s (Jesse Eisenberg) point of view in the film – it’s not fast enough! It’s not enough to equal the destruction that goes on! But it is a question through all my films: what’s our obligation on all these levels just as people, and what are we supposed to do as individuals? For me as much as anyone – I’m not sure filmmaking is the most environmentally friendly thing you can do!