Kelly Reichardt, Oregon Will Miss You

With the release of her latest film, Night Moves, the director talks moving on to a different cinematic landscape

Old Joy was the first Kelly Reichardt film I saw. It made me want to move to Oregon.

Four years ago I finally made the journey west to become an official Portlander, and high on my list of things to do when I arrived: hike to Bagby Hot Springs, where most of Old Joy’s final act takes place. Reichardt’s subtle directorial hand, the minor-key drama and lived-in, naturalistic performances by Will Oldham and Daniel London were enough to enjoy the film, but what about those gorgeous wood tubs where they soaked in the forest? I needed to go there, to experience what looked to my Midwestern eyes as a slice of paradise.

While Bagby and Oregon’s countless other natural wonders continue to thrill me, Reichardt’s had enough. Cinematically, at least. Her last four features—Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff and her latest, Night Moves, opening Friday—have all been set here. But her next project will not take place in Oregon.

“I think I gotta push myself a little bit to get out of there,” she said during our phone interview. “Everyone knows about [Oregon] now and now it’s really fuckin’ expensive. It’s outside my range to even be able to visit there now.”

She was coy about divulging any information on her next film, let alone where it will be set, insisting it’s “in the cooker,” but nothing to talk about yet.

Kelly Reichardt

Kelly Reichardt

Oregon writer Jon Raymond, who’s proven to be a vital collaborator as screenwriter on the last four films, confirmed, via email: “Kelly and I don’t have any current plans to work on anything re: Oregon stories. For me, the Northwest has been a crucial subject and inspiration for the last ten years or so, but I’m in the process of trying to expand my imaginary theatre of operations a bit [as well].”

The state’s natural diversity has been a rich breeding ground for the kinds of films Reichardt makes. Though she lives in New York where she spends  most of the year as an artist in residence at Bard College, Oregon has attracted Reichardt ever since her filmmaker friend (and Portland resident) Todd Haynes introduced her to its charms. Haynes also introduced her to Raymond (the two have collaborated on MIldred Pierce and Far From Heaven) during one of her many visits. When she began making films here the visits grew longer. “Life is so easy out there,” she says. “It’s a nice place to go and work.”

As much as she’s personally enjoyed it, working with Raymond is another big reason she’s made these last four films set in Oregon. “[He’s] prone to write about what’s outside of his window,” Reichardt said.

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Night Moves was made in the Applegate Valley, a truly cinematic spot in southern Oregon about 20 miles west of Medford. This specific location is one of the film’s many highlights, adding to the sense of isolation for the three main characters played by Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning (nicely maturing into a solid adult actor) and the always terrific Peter Sarsgaard. They play environmentalists who plan to blow up a hydroelectric dam, and the valley itself hints at what’s at stake for the three leads, with its natural beauty in danger (at least in their desperate, somewhat narrow view) of being ruined by modernity.

Night Moves ventures into genre territory more than even her last, Meek’s Cutoff, ostensibly a Western but one that moves along in her very specific style and pace. The narrative is akin to listening to a record. Side A is devoted to the hows and whats that go into the destruction of the dam. Side B details the after-effects, zeroing in on the guilt, paranoia and desperation of the characters. At times, it plays like a thriller, with some genuinely suspenseful set pieces springing from the unlikeliest of places. On paper, a scene in which a character attempts to purchase more than 100 pounds of ammonium-nitrate fertilizer from a farmer may seem dull or too low-key for a modern movie. But watching the scene play out in the film, with Reichardt’s crisp and clean editing style enhancing the performances, it is truly nail-biting.

The tension is unexpected, unless you’re familiar with Reichardt already. She’s a filmmaker obsessed both by minutiae and desperation–and how they work together. She has a gift for portraying people on the fringe in a realistic way (The New York Times critic A.O. Scott famously grouped her films with others as a small independent film movement he labeled neo-neo realism), but her patience as a storyteller really shines in each film. The revelation in her craft has been how she wrings genuine suspense from normal, day-to-day situations. Each film has been more impressive than the last in this regard.

“Almost no director alive is willing to marshall the apparatus of film to make such subtle, quiet, human-scaled work,” Raymond observes. “She has an incredible eye and she’s among the most incisive students of human behavior that I’ve ever met.”

In many ways, Reichardt is an anachronistic filmmaker. She’s unafraid of silence, of giving the audience time to process a shot and its meaning. Reichardt says that when she watches films and feels there’s a “dishonest overstimulation just trying to scratch some itch or serve something up, I become untrusting of the filmmaker right away,” she said. “I like films about process and watching people do things, having to do some work.”

Jesse Eisenberg in Night Moves

Jesse Eisenberg in Night Moves

Her films are so quiet that a whisper in the crowd could disrupt the entire thing. At the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival, Reichardt took the stage to introduce Wendy and Lucy, and immediately expressed concern over the many moviegoers in the theater with their “noisy snack foods.” She laughed at her own alarm, and explained, “it’s a really quiet film.” I laughed as well, because damned if I didn’t have a heaping pile of nachos sitting on my lap.

Her concern for this modern moviegoing habit has only increased. “I’ll sound so cranky saying this, my pet peeve with going to the movie theater is there’s so much food,” she said in our interview. “Listening to people eat in a movie theater—it’s all nachos and buckets of popcorn… I try to go where there’s less food. I know I sound old and cranky [laughing]. The whole thing of turning the movie theater into being as much like home as possible… I teach film and it’s really hard to get students to not bring food into the class. Everything’s about eating all the time.”

Though Night Moves sounds like it’s her last film set in Oregon, Reichardt says she’ll never truly be through with the state, because there are too many people she loves out here to be done with it. She also cited the Hollywood Theatre, Northwest Film Center, The Fox Tower and Cinema 21 as her theaters of choice while in town. “It’s weird that I end up getting out more [to see movies] in Portland,” she said. “It’s easier to get out more there as opposed to New York.”

In his neo-neo realism piece, A.O. Scott  asked, “What if, at least some of the time, we feel an urge to escape from escapism” and then suggested, “perhaps it would be worth considering that what we need from movies, in the face of a dismaying and confusing real world, is realism.”

As long as Reichardt continues to give us good reasons to escape from the endless flood of escapist pictures, we’ll have nothing to mourn from her moving on from Oregon.

“I’m just ready to investigate a new place as far as storytelling and filmmaking goes,” Reichardt said. “I’m going to check out a different landscape.”

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