By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood April 21, 2011 at 8:19AM
Kelly Reichardt teaches filmmaking at Bard College in New York, and writes and directs rigorous low-budget indie films on the side. Her latest, Meek's Cutoff, is even better than her last, Wendy and Lucy, which was better than Old Joy, which I found a tough slog. Star Michelle Williams may have made some of the difference on the last two, but perhaps in spite of herself, Reichardt's austere, thoughtful films are gaining accessibility as she goes along. In person, she's seriously charming. Herewith, Professor Reichardt's tips for making a good indie movie:
1. Forget genre.
Reichardt loves westerns--indie westerners Anthony Mann, Budd Boeticher, Sam Peckinpah, Monte Hellman and Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller are among her favorites. But she did not set out to make one with Meek's Cutoff (trailer below). "When we were shooting we tried to keep as far away from a man-on-a-horse western as we could," she says. "It's a desert poem, more Nanook of the North than a western."
But as much as she tried to escape the Hollywood western, a high shot from above of a wagon train is going to look like a Native American's point-of-view, she discovered. "You can't deny it." Shooting in the desert, she says, "Wow, OK, this equals this. It's a balancing act, this language exists. But we're telling this particular story about individual people making individual decisions decoding what they're up against."
2. Location, location.
The director loves Oregon, and insisted on shooting the film in the same desert where in 1845 a much larger wagon train (200 wagons, 1000 people) led by unreliable blowhard Steven Meek (Bruce Greenwood in a bushy beard) was lost as they deviated, without a plan, from the Oregon Trail. But the desert reached 110 degrees, and everyone had to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes, even after the shooting area was cleared of them in advance. Mainly it was about problem solving, Reichardt realized as she and her team wrestled with broken-down axels in a barren landscape with no trees. "You had to get specific," she says. "Every vehicle broke."
In the desert they came across parts of wagons, children's graves and an ancient Indian burial ground. The sand was so fine that it came under the doors, and they had to wear bandanas. Camera assistant Steven McDougal was fanatical about keeping the 35 mm cameras clean. Reichardt put the cast through wagon train boot camp. Each family had a budget, and had to pick out supplies for their wagons, and then had to pack and unpack them.
3. Animals keep acting honest.
Watching for snakes keeps actors on their toes, as do dogs, horses or oxen, which although authentic, are not advisable for filming, Reichardt found out. They don't go backwards, for one thing. This made setting up each retake a total drag. "Every take was a huge deal. They're docile until they go crazy and a bull runs through the set," she says. "When a horse breaks free you have to catch it. Forget acting, or directing."
4. Arcane costumes build character.
Sunbonnets were a key decision as Reichardt wanted to allow the soft-spoken womenfolk, hidden at first by their full-size hats, to emerge from the narrative and take a more forceful role. But the sunhats muffled their hearing and blocked the actresses' sight as they walked between the wagons, often dangerously oblivious to what was going on around them. "Pictures of the women were like birds to me," says Reichardt.
5. Adjust to each actor.
Williams and Reichardt became close during the filming of Wendy and Lucy. "Michelle likes to be directed," says Reichardt. "She likes to talk through every scene in detail. She's still conducting her own private research. Bruce Greenwood is a chameleon film to film. He knows what he is doing. He arrived as Meek. As soon as I get used to an actor who wants to be told what you want, the next actor is completely different, and wants to talk psychology and history. I feel acting is a super-mysterious thing and mostly stay out of the way."
6. Embrace a film community.
Reichardt loves teaching at Bard: "The other teachers there are smarter than me; it's a good place to keep learning." When she's not teaching she drives cross-country with her dog Lucy (the same as in the film) to stay near the Portland, Oregon home of her best pal and confidant, writer-director Todd Haynes (Mildred Pierce). They like to talk through their projects together. Also in Oregon is writer Jon Raymond, who came up with the Meek story, which he wrote with Reichardt, relying heavily on pioneer women's journals, says Reichardt, who discovered "the monotony of traveling across an endless landscape, one day rolling into the next, a trance-like feeling." Their script also slowly reveals another layer, relevant to today, as the starving, thirsty pioneers meet an Indian who they must rely and follow, even though they fear him and do not trust or respect him. Reichardt and Raymond are prepping another Oregon story.
7. Keep your budgets low.
While Reichardt would like to make more money, and pay her crew better, she's realistic that there aren't large audiences for her films. "I don't want to be a purist," she says. "I'd like to have health insurance when I make a film. I'm not 20. I'm not even 40. These are not commercial films. But this way, the movie is done when I say it is. No one is looking over my shoulder. No script notes. I have the kind of freedom you can only have by not taking too much money." This also makes it possible to ignore playing to a wider audience in favor of thinking only about "an audience of ten picky, scrutinizing friends."
8. Slow things down.
Reichardt hates the speed and ubiquity of the internet. That's one reason she embraces her bi-annual drives across the country. They're long, slow and monotonous.