Hitting the dusty trail with Kelly Reichardt
We talk to the director about her remarkable western, 'Meek's Cutoff'
Did you watch any classic westerns before making ‘Meek’s Cutoff’?
‘Yes, but I feel like I was more influenced by films like Robert Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North”(1922) than classic westerns. But I adore the films of Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher and William Wellman.’
Is it even right, then, to call ‘Meek’s Cutoff’ a western?
‘I’m not sure. I’m wise enough to know that, as one of my colleagues at Bard College where I work as a film teacher asked me, “This film isn’t for ‘real’ audiences, right?” I’m realistic. “Wendy and Lucy” was seen by so many more people than I expected. I’m not quitting my day job, if that’s what you’re asking?’
Do you feel the film has more of a European sensibility than an American one?
‘I’m a fan of European cinema, I’ll say that. I like American films up until the end of the ’70s, but that’s where I drop out. As a viewer, I’m more suited to the pacing of early Japanese cinema. I go to a cinema now, and by the time the adverts and trailers are over, I’m completely worn out!’
The slow pace of this film feels very deliberate.
‘A lot of American westerns are all just about heightened moments and everything peaks with excitement. I was trying to get across how different the concept of time was in 1845. Things didn’t come quickly. Life was labour intensive.’
Was it easy for you to find areas to shoot in that were untouched?
‘Yeah. But I almost don’t want to say it, because I know someone will rush in and build a golf course if you mention an unspoilt area.’
Geographically, ‘Meek’s Cutoff’ is different to the classic western.
‘We had a “no vistas” rule. That explains why the film is shot in the more boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, to keep you really with the characters and to deromanticise the landscape.’
You clearly spent a lot of time making the film feel authentic. Was there a historical advisor on set?
‘Our production designer had a huge job. All the dresses were hand stitched. We started researching really early on in New York, it was like being back in sixth grade. We went out west and we took a bunch of field trips to historical societies. We had a week of re-enactment camp, and found this guy who’s obsessed with the period. We borrowed a ton of props from him. He came out, and for five days before the shoot the actors were picking the stuff that was going to be in their wagons and learning how to load and unload them, start a fire without matches, cook bread in the ground, fire the guns and walk the oxen. We became friendly with this guy in Oregon whose entire livelihood comes from restoring nineteenth century wagons.’
Was it tough for the actors to be shooting out in the wild?
‘Oh yeah. Some of the actors work on bigger films, and, it can be quite shocking for them. Although someone like Shirley Henderson, who’s worked with Mike Leigh, is not fazed by anything. It’s sometimes hard for an actor when they have to be on set all day and we film their back for ten minutes.’
Do you get actors contacting you requesting to work with you?
‘Nobody contacts me about anything! C’mon get it touch! I think that I’m still a little off the grid. I guess because we’ve been in our own little world doing this stuff. In my experience, British actors are less affected by the “star system”. The actors here were incredibly good sports. I mean, we virtually gave them nothing. It was ridiculous. All the women just sat there knitting in a tent for hours.’
You imagine if it’d been made in the ’70s that someone like Warren Oates might have played the Bruce Greenwood character.
‘Wouldn’t that’ve been a dream to work with Warren Oates? I mean it probably would’ve been a nightmare for a female director to work with him. I think the fantasy would probably be better. It was a boys’ party. There’s a fun Warren Oates biography, and a bunch of books on Sam Peckinpah, and the deal seems to have been that, for men of that era, women were for fucking and having babies.’
Do you have anything else lined up?
‘Jon [Raymond] and I are writing a script right now. I can’t really tell you more than that, but for us, it has more action and more story than usual. But that’s just for us! Don’t worry: it’ll still be safely outside the mainstream!’
Read our review of 'Meek's Cutoff ' here
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