An Interview with Kelly Reichardt
By Ricky Dâ€™Ambrose
Kelly Reichardtâ€™s eighth feature, Showing Up, is a process film in which the processâ€”the many ways a closely confederated group of Oregon artists live and work togetherâ€”is part mental, part material.
Art is often depicted on-screen as the product of some kind of inexplicable magic. Yet the actual, demystified process of artmaking is rarely explored. This is one reason why Reichardtâ€™s film ultimately seems so attractive and unusual, and why I find it so difficult to talk about. It has no use for the storied myths, in which artists are burned up, extinguished, swallowed whole by their feverous imaginations, and solipsistic to the core; and neither are the artists here scrubby tinkerers consumed by the muck of craft.
Michelle Williamsâ€™s Lizzy isnâ€™t so easily slotted into either tradition. Like the miniature clay statues she sculpts with great careâ€”which lead to the filmâ€™s remarkable climactic gallery show, in which Reichardt and Jonathan Raymondâ€™s script is fully consummated in a high-speed crosscurrent of verbal and visual invectiveâ€”Lizzy is a quasi-figurine in various states of motion and repose. Neither magicians nor roustabouts, she and her community of artist-teachers are at once frozen by any number of daily humiliations and pratfalls (day jobs, dependent siblings, the threat of an uncomprehending public), and super-charged by the unstinting power of their artistic imaginations. For, as Reichardt knows, there is no magic. The sculptorâ€”or the painter or writer or filmmakerâ€”works, and looks, and doubts, and then works some more. She also hopes.
Ricky Dâ€™Ambrose: At some point in the film, a sign appears thatâ€™s stenciled onto one of the walls of the school. It says: â€śDo Not Mix Chemical Dyes with Natural Dyes.â€ť Itâ€™s shown quickly, but it has a strange thematic resonance with the way the film seems to be shuttling back and forth between the natural world and the world of machines, and is some sense a summation of whatâ€™s going on in this film. Did you consider this when you writing the script?
Kelly Reichardt: Jonathan Raymond and I were working on the script, I mean, we wrote the script for this around this working college of Arts and Crafts, the school . . .
RD: The school is in Portland?
KR: Itâ€™s in Portland, and it was a pretty important place for ceramics in the Pacific Northwest in the sixties and seventies and really up to today. And itâ€™s shuttered, like so many art schools. So I got to make up this entire school, which was amazing, with Tony Gasparro and the art team. But everything there is really tactile. Itâ€™s clay, itâ€™s dyeing, itâ€™s looming. Thereâ€™s a lot of homage for me to Black Mountain College, with the idea of teaching and making art the center of education. It would create critical thinkers, which would be good for democracy. So, all this is in there, but we live in this world of technology, so to make a contemporary film set in this location, which is very sort of worn-shingled, became a question of how to balance these things. The students have their cell phones and yet everyoneâ€™s getting their hands in their work. Clay and dyes. Itâ€™s sad that that school is closing, that these art schools are closing all over the country. So you see a little bit of things being lost. But you know, ceramics is very huge for young people now, in the way that vinyl is also. So maybe some desire for these tactile things will survive.
RD: It seemed to me that youâ€™re juxtaposing these two different worlds. Whether itâ€™s the younger artists and the older artists, or with the artists and technology . . .
KR: But they exist together, you know? For example, Michelle Segre, whose art is [Hong Chau's character] Joâ€™s art, has a studio in the Bronx. I went there and made a short film of her with [the filmâ€™s cinematographer] Chris Blauvelt. We filmed her for a couple days working, and we went and made a film. And then I went and worked with some of my ex-students in Long Beach and we made a film of Jessica Hutchens, whose glass work is in the movie. She was doing some big sculptures, clay sculptures, in Long Beach, and I went and made these two short films of working artists so I could see things for myself. Cynthia Lahti, who does the ceramics that Lizzie makes in the film, can finish something in a day almost. It wonâ€™t be glazed in a day, but the actual sculpture-making time is something like 20 minutes, and youâ€™re like, â€śWow, whatâ€™s that? It didnâ€™t take four years!â€ť But you know those people all have cell phones. So itâ€™s a blurry thing, because you would like these things to last and exist, and we were working at a school thatâ€™s completely empty because it is no longer. And this was a really fundamental place to be in. We had to make it a school, all this art had to be generated, so all these young artists and art school students were coming to the school every day and making all the work.
RD: It became a functioning studio.
KR: Completely. And the young actors that were going to play the students were at the school all the time, and they had to learn how to do all these things. So it became a working place.
RD: In your previous films, I donâ€™t remember the tracking camera used to the extent that itâ€™s used here. Following the characters in this way becomes a motif.
KR: Thereâ€™s sort of a different scheme for each film. First Cow had to do with the economy of the movie and what people had. And Showing Up probably is a little unique. Itâ€™s something that happened when I was shooting the artists in their studios. It seemed we were shooting where it wasnâ€™t so precious, where there wasnâ€™t anything at stake if the camera is moving. I just leave it to Chris, because heâ€™s a great camera operator. But in this case it was like being back in art school, back to an earlier day in filmmaking where I was just like, â€śIâ€™ll do this pan because how much am I going to screw it up?â€ť It was just very freeing in making those shorts. I really loved it.
RD: Did you think making the shorts helped refine your thinking about the form of Showing Up?
KR: Not as far as form goes. I was trying to figure out how I was going to shoot this stuff. We started out with this idea of a biopic about Emily Carr, a painter in Vancouver, whom Jonathan Raymond and I both love. She wrote a book about these ten years where she bought a property and she thought instead of having day jobs, she would be a landlord and she would have more time to paint. But her tenants just consumed her life. And she actually had less time to paint. So we wanted to make a film of someone struggling to balance life, survival, and making art. We got to Vancouver and discovered that Emily Carrâ€™s a huge artist in Canada, which we definitely didnâ€™t know. In the end, that didnâ€™t pan out. AndJon keeps saying, â€śLetâ€™s go closer to home and look at the people we know and how they work.â€ť So Jon kept at it while I was making these films and came up with this beautiful structure of Lizzie and Jo, and then I could create the whole school situation. So it was not a direct line. Because it felt scary to make a film about artists.
RD: There are so many ways you can film an artist at work, but that doesnâ€™t necessarily solve another visual problemâ€”of how to show other people looking at the work once itâ€™s finished.
KR: When I go to see art, I find myself often looking at how the people are looking at art, and thatâ€™s what I end up taking so many pictures of in galleries. The one thing you realize by spending time with people in their studios is that a lot of artmaking is standing back and looking at what you did. Which is the same as with editing: youâ€™re constantly rolling away from the table and looking at what you did. Standing back and checking out the progress. So that is always somewhat in the mix of what dictates how things are going to be shot, apart from thinking of how I want to shoot something when Iâ€™m working on the script. And how I want to shoot something comes down to something like, â€śMichelle, you will have to do this in a single take, because thereâ€™s one figurine to work with. Good luck, ok go.â€ť
RD: Are you visualizing scenes and sequences when youâ€™re writing?
KR: Yes. When I start working on a script, I have to take everything apart and put it back together so I can understand how Iâ€™ll shoot it. Just being handed a script and trying to figure out how to shoot it seems so hard to me. When I start working with Chris, Iâ€™m able to say, â€śThis is how the sequence goes,â€ť and I have the first two shots and the last shot, so by then Iâ€™m trying to figure out how to get from here to there. You know, weâ€™re always thinking about the cut.
RD: You edit your own films, but Iâ€™m wondering if thereâ€™s ever a period when youâ€™re sharing cuts with people your trust, or if thereâ€™s someone you rely on who functions as an unofficial co-editor.
KR: I donâ€™t have co-editors, but anything technical is taken care of by [assistant editor] Ben Mercer. I basically have the room for the day, and I cut all day, and Ben comes in during my off hours and cleans things up. I would leave him a list of sounds to put in at night. He really does a deep dive, and adds some layering and some breathing, because when Iâ€™m cutting I like the sound to be building, too. Once I have a cut, Iâ€™ll bring in maybe two people at most. John looks at cuts, Todd Haynes looks at cuts. And then I get notes.
RD: Do the sounds motivate the filmâ€™s cutting style?
KR: Sure, they can. Some sounds I know beforehand, and sometimes you hear stuff when youâ€™re at a location. Usually when we move so fast itâ€™s really hard, so itâ€™s great if the sound person is willing to go out on an extra day. I wouldnâ€™t want to wait to put in sounds later, because you know the libraryâ€™s building as you go. I have an idea of what I want the sound design to be going in, and then I imagine how the soundâ€™s going to be.
RD: Is there usually an outline or a treatment of some kind, before you start work on the script?
KR: Well, itâ€™s a lot of hanging out and talking. In this case, we did rough drafts, and Jon just kept on working. We knew these apartments, our friendsâ€™ apartments. When we went to Vancouver, Jon and I both had family crises, and we realized, â€śWe canâ€™t even pay attention to what weâ€™re supposed to be doing on this trip.â€ť And so Jon wisely took all those pieces and put it into the writing. Then I start doing my work on it.
RD: Are you exchanging drafts?
KR: Yeah, weâ€™re exchanging drafts. Weâ€™re taking walks and we talk all day. Jon really is creating the voices of the characters, and I am making up the school. But the coreâ€”the family and Joâ€”thatâ€™s really coming from Jon Raymond.
RD: At one point, a fellow artist looks at one of Lizzyâ€™s statues and remarks, â€śThe green stockings on the statue are very cool.â€ť The characters talk about each otherâ€™s work in a very casual way.
KR: Itâ€™s funny. We started thinking about the things people outside of academia say when theyâ€™re looking at things. Itâ€™s â€śawesome, great, cool,â€ť even from people who see a lot of art and are well-versed in art . . .
RD: Itâ€™s nice, because it shows how familiar and comfortable these people are with one another.
KR: Totally, yeah. For instance, Iâ€™ll press Jon to say more, and I know what Jon is thinking when heâ€™s telling me things like, â€śNo, itâ€™s good, yeah, good, good.â€ť And at first Iâ€™ll wonder, â€śWait, what are you saying?â€ť
RD: The mumbling sounds are enough.
KR: Itâ€™s funny, because when you work with someone for so long, sounds really are a thing.