“They are really full characters who have everyday kind of problems” American filmmaker Kelly Reichardt says of the characters that lead her new film Certain Women. Played by Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, and Lily Gladstone respectively, these women are our window into an intriguing yet isolated life in the American North West. They’re trying to make sense of their surroundings, and this isn’t always an easy feat. For Reichardt, taking the camera and passing through the everyday lives of a character is something of a speciality, and it is something she continues to explore in her latest production. View of the Arts were on hand to talk to her about the film.
Certain Women tells three distinct stories, and they’re based on a collection of short stories by Maile Meloy, what was it about the characters that made you want make this film?
Well, not that I can really remember because it was three years ago and who knows what that moment really was, but her writing is really great, and you get pretty sucked in. Some of them, like the middle story, you sort of ask yourself ‘what was that about?’ and it gnaws away at you for a couple of days. I felt her stories kind of lingering with me after I read them, and I went and got her second book of shorts and read that, then I went back to her first book and I thought that maybe I could fiddle around with them. They are really full characters who have everyday kind of problems, dealing with the small politics of life and how to navigate their job or their trip to work, all of these sorts of things. All of them were also pretty deeply set in their environment, so that’s why.
What is it about the American North West that’s interesting for you as a filmmaker?
I’ve never lived anywhere inland before. I’m from Florida, I live in New York and sometimes I live in Oregon, I’ve even lived in Los Angeles but I’ve never not lived near a coast so it’s fascinating to me. Montana is big and sprawling, but it’s locked in by these three giant mountain ranges so you feel really isolated which at first feels isolating but then it becomes kind of comforting in a way. It’s an interesting landscape to take on, it’s really beautiful. We were shooting at the foot of Yellowstone, but it’s big and cold and sort of hard to get your arms around, so it was a matter of circling in and finding a spot to hunker down and get to know the area intimately.
Do you feel the characters were stuck in their surroundings then?
Well some of them were stuck and some of them are coming in to get a piece of the area, in the middle story Michelle Williams and James Le Gros’ couple are probably from California and are bringing their California money to Montana to get an authentic house built, whatever that means. Then there’s the Kristen Stewart character who wants to get out of there, so there are people who want to buy in and people that want to find their way out, and people who are a little more isolated and stuck.
You mentioned Michelle Williams, and this is the third film that you two have worked together on. When you were adapting the story to a script did you have her in mind for the character she plays?
Yes, well first I thought that Michelle would be too young to be a mum of a teenager, I mean she is a mum but not of a 16-year-old. So I was a little worried about if she would feel too young, Michelle would kill me if I say she didn’t feel too young. We kind of kept squeezing the maths so that it did work, it just seemed ridiculous to make a film in Montana without Michelle because she’s from Montana and I hadn’t got to work with her in quite a while. I think it worked out quite nicely, it felt right.
What was it like working with the rest of the cast? Kristen Stewart has previously said she’s a big fan of yours.
Oh that’s nice, I’m a big fan of hers. Well Kristen and I met the day before we started shooting, well no she did come and take horseback riding lessons with Lily but I feel like suddenly we were on set together, that’s mostly how it is. We were communicating when we were getting her clothes together with our costume designer which was fun. Kristen was great, everyone was so game.
Laura Dern and Jared Harris came at the end when we were all exhausted, and when I met Laura she was so smart and on it so I felt I had to get my game together to rise up to meet her level. They both really came so prepared and down to the detail. It was like I was making three different films with three different sets of actors in a way, it was super challenging because as soon as you hit your groove you’re back at the beginning again.
Did you not shoot it chronologically then?
No, we shot the ranch first because I wanted snow for that setting and it was the cusp of Winter. Then we shot the middle story, so we filmed them in reverse order basically.
When it came to adapting these short stories, was it quite challenging to get them to all fit in?
Yes, actually. I wasn’t sure it would work for a while and it was just a nice experiment. When I had found the middle story, which had been a different story for a while, it was then that I felt it started to work. It had the right amount of plot without too much plot, and it made sense to me what these women were doing together and how the stories worked in an emotionally chronological way. So it all made sense to me when I got that story.
You’ve worked with Jon Raymond on your scripts quite a lot, what is it that you look for when it comes to adaptations?
Well with Jon I had read his novel and I really loved his work, so I got in touch with him and asked him if he had any short stories and he sent me Old Joy and that turned out to be a really great experience. So I wanted to do something again with him and he brought up the idea for Wendy and Lucy, I wasn’t sure and was on the fence about it but then he wrote the story and that’s when I got on board with it.
A lot of it had to do with wanting to work with him a lot and we had a good thing going, we would go places and check out different parts of the state and it was good in production to have someone to call and talk to about what was happening. I would call him on this movie too, but he was working on a novel which just came out called Free Bird and I wanted to work on something else. I was drawn to Maile’s stories, but with Jon Raymond he would throw an idea at me when I was finishing one film and we would just go from one film to the other, which was great as I always knew what I was doing next.
In 2016 there was quite a dramatic rise in films which have female leads, and of course you have four in yours. Why do you feel it’s important to keep doing this in cinema?
I was going to say that there are two sexes, but that’s not true as it turns out there’s a lot in between. Women are a huge part of the population and it’s nice to hear their story once in a while! It depends, I’m really drawn to whatever the story is and what the characters are.
What’s the option? All stories about men all the time? You might want to have some diversity here and there. That might lead to more women directing too. I would get on the bandwagon about it but we have bigger fish to fry right now, we have so many problems. It’s not the main one, but representation is pretty important.
Written and interviewed by Roxy Simons
All photos © IFC Film