The Silent Majority

By Owen Armstrong

wendy-and-lucy-kelly-reichardt.jpgWendy and Lucy, 2008

Returning to the broad and bewildering landscapes of America, Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy offers a glimpse of the lives of the silent majority. Just as Old Joy elegantly essayed the nuances of the seemingly unremarkable, her latest film is a delicate deconstruction of human interaction – those overwhelming moments of simple gesture and thoughtless judgement. Michelle Williams’ Wendy is met with a mixture of sympathy and antipathy as the young girl travelling to Alaska in search of a new life for her and her dog Lucy. After her car breaks down and Lucy runs away, Wendy is stranded in Oregon - at once dependent on herself and the occasional kindness of strangers, but also the victim of hostility from those that see her as a target. Reunited with Old Joy screenwriter Jonathan Raymond, Reichardt explores the disparity of wealth that has pervaded America, unveiling a vast and largely ignored segment of its society that exists in relative poverty.

Owen Armstrong: Both Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy share a preoccupation with disenfranchised portions of American society. Why is this of particular interest to you?

Kelly Reichardt: The slice of life. I think they’re both films that catch up with people for a certain amount of days, you don’t know where they’ve been before and don’t know where they go afterwards – just dropping in on people’s lives I guess.

OA: What drove you to approach Will Oldham?

KR: Well, I had made a short film called Ode which he had done the soundtrack for so we’d already worked together. When I first met him he had just seen my first feature River of Grass and he was really obsessed with Miami at the time...when I read John Raymond’s story, Will came straight to mind. We talked about the film for a while and for a long time he was going to play Mark – the character eventually played by Daniel London – which seems absurd now. I think we both felt it would be more interesting for him to play a character that was further away from his ‘type’ and ultimately he was really relieved that we switched.

OA: Your films seem to generate a similar emotional quality to Oldham’s songs. Is this something that informs you specifically?

KR: That’s funny. Not really but that’s interesting. Actually, I haven’t thought about this in a really long time, but in the very first draft of the script, Wendy does take Lucy back at the end of the film. It’s odd that you mention Will and particularly because he was making The Letting Go at the time. I was teaching somewhere for a period of about two weeks and I remember talking to Will about it. He felt that she had to leave Lucy at the end, which is I guess one of the messages of the album, that we should be able to let go of what’s important to us.

OA: Something that also comes across in both films is an appreciation of diagetic and temporal space. Why is this of interest to you?

KR: That’s actually something that drew me to John Raymond. He has a novel called The Half-Life and I was driving cross-country at the time I was reading it and I really felt he was somebody who knew how to integrate people into a space. So much about his characters came through in simply how they existed in the places they were in. That was what really drew me to him because I thought it quite suited my filmmaking style, particularly in the way I like to shoot and working to low budgets – we don’t close off streets or anything like that so people are always left to interact with what’s around them. In the forest in Old Joy it was a bit more predictable, but in Wendy and Lucy the background is the background of whatever street Michelle is on, or whoever she passes on the street is whoever is there when we’re filming.

wendy-and-lucy-kelly-reichardt-2.jpgWendy and Lucy, 2008

OA: What kind of budgets do you work to?

KR: Old Joy was shot for $30,000 and this last one, the whole film was $300,000. They’re very small and everybody who works on them is pretty much a volunteer. I teach Film Production for a living and I edit the films in my apartment by myself so it’s a small operation to say the least. I guess it depends on what you’re making. If you’re dealing with reality you can afford to make things cheaper but if you’re creating a world like in a period piece, something like a few million dollars might not get you that far. It’s very expensive, because once you get outside a very limited project, you start to become regulated by the union in terms of what you have to pay people, so if you can’t make a film really small, you get pushed into another bracket of films that cost under 1 million dollars. So unless you’re making something that’s very tiny, your budget just gets wiped out by the actors union. It really is true that you could be making a film for several million dollars, but everybody is getting paid a certain wage so the amount you actually have to make the film can be deceiving. I got around it because if you’re making films for under $600,000 dollars, then it is classed as an experimental project. You still pay the unions, but it just isn’t as much.

OA: You’ll have to excuse the comparison but broadly speaking, it may be easy to liken you’re style of filmmaking to that of Vincent Gallo who clearly works very hard to create the aesthetic quality of his films. Watching your films, it feels effortless and natural. Is this something you aware of while you’re filming?

KR: Not a favourable comparison! Are you familiar with the films of Monte Hellmann? Two of my all-time favourite films are Two-lane Blacktop and Cockfighter and Warren Oates is one of my favourite actors. Both are a huge inspiration to me as far as American Cult figures go and they’ve really existed on the periphery of American Cinema.

wendy-and-lucy-kelly-reichardt-3.jpgWendy and Lucy, 2008

OA: A much better comparison, and definitely a similarity between them and Wendy and Lucy is that all the central characters are more or less met by strangers with indifference, as opposed to hesitation or warm welcome.

KR: I guess it’s just my outlook on people living in poverty in America. Even in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a planned evacuation of thousands of people didn’t take into account the huge number of them that didn’t have cars, places to go to, or any other ways of getting out. In the campaign right now, Obama doesn’t talk about poverty, it’s all about the middle-class. Of course I’m hoping that he’ll do something more progressive than he has so far. There have been things in Chicago that he did for people on Death Row, but Obama’s the great hope and I suppose in any case he’ll be an improvement on what we have now. I was excited to vote for him. I teach for living and I’ve never had my students give a shit about what’s going on politically and now they really do so I have to give him a lot of credit for that. He has been able to awaken part of society that was just not involved.

OA: Do you have another project lined up?

KR: I do, at least I have a script. It’s a Western that John Raymond and I have been working on, set in Oregon, so it’s a little frontier crossing. If you mean do I have the money, then no, but I do have a script and that’s what we’re researching right now.


Owen Armstrong is a projectionist and beekeeper. He lives in London.