A Girl's Best Friend: Reichardt on 'Wendy and Lucy' Director Kelly Reichardt's new film, Wendy And Lucy, has been described as the "best art-house girl-and-dog story you're ever going to see." Reichardt joins Fresh Air to discuss her work.
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A Girl's Best Friend: Reichardt on 'Wendy and Lucy'

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A Girl's Best Friend: Reichardt on 'Wendy and Lucy'

A Girl's Best Friend: Reichardt on 'Wendy and Lucy'

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The Independent film Wendy And Lucy, which won critical praise and the Best Picture Award from the Toronto Film Critics Association, is now out on DVD. It was directed and co-written by my guest, Kelly Reichardt. The film centers on misfortunes that befall a woman traveling with her dog to find work in Alaska. Wendy is played by Michelle Williams, who earned an Oscar nomination for her role in "Brokeback Mountain." Her dog Lucy is Reichard's own endearing mutt.

Kelly Reichardt teaches film and electronic arts at Bard College, and has directed six previous films, including "River of Grass," and "Old Joy." In this scene from "Wendy And Lucy," Wendy talks with a supermarket security guard played by Wally Dalton.

Ms. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (as Wendy): How late are you here tonight?

Mr. WALLY DALTON: (as security guard): Eight o'clock. Eight to eight.

Ms. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (as Wendy): Okay.

Mr. WALLY DALTON: (as security guard): Better than my last job. I'll tell you that. That was all night every night.

Ms. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (as Wendy): Not a lot of jobs around here, huh?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WALLY DALTON: (as security guard): I'll say. I don't know what the people do all day. Used to be a mill, but been closed a long time now. Don't know what they do.

Ms. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (as Wendy): I can't get a job without an address anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (as Wendy): Or a phone.

Mr. WALLY DALTON: (as security guard): You can't get a address without an address. You can't get a job without a job. It's all fixed.

Ms. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (as Wendy): That's why I'm going to Alaska, 'hear they need people.

Mr. WALLY DALTON: (as security guard): I hear it's real pretty up there.

Ms. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (as Wendy): Yeah.

DAVIES: Well, Kelly Reichardt, welcome to FRESH AIR.

In this film, "Wendy And Lucy," you - we follow this woman Wendy, played by Michelle Williams who is traveling alone, well, with her dog, Lucy, and runs into a rough patch. She's headed to Alaska, and the car breaks in a town in Oregon. You know the interesting thing about the film is that we don't learn very much about Wendy's life and history, how she came to be in this predicament. And I wonder in order to direct Michelle Williams in the role, did there need to be a back story in your head? I mean did you have a fuller biography of Wendy that you shared with Michelle Williams?

Ms. KELLY REICHARDT (Director of movie "Wendy And Lucy"): She did want a fuller biography. And the screenplay came from a short story by John Raymond. And the short story was called "Train Choir." And the "Train Choir" had a bit more background in it also. And so we used that and we sort of filled in the blanks ourselves, Michelle and I, so that she would have something to work with. But the idea in the film for me was that I wanted the audience to experience her like a stranger, the way the people she comes across in the film experience her. So that you - you know you sort of have to make this judgment call without having a lot of facts about her. You know, is she worthy of your sympathy just based on what you know or what you don't know?

DAVIES: Right.

Ms. REICHARDT: Sort of what, I guess in a way that you know if you live in New York City the way you maybe experience someone on a subway train asking for help or something like that. Where, you know you check them out and you make quick decisions based on really superficial things. What kind of sneakers are you wearing? Are you really in need? Are you in need enough?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. REICHARDT: Whatever your thought process is in that moment.

DAVIES: She's also making judgments every moment herself, because she's on her own and has to decide how much she can trust people.

Ms. REICHARDT: Yes. And she makes some bad decisions, as people do. You know that I guess the whole story sort of came about in just post-Katrina. And where there seemed to be more than ever this sentiment of you know, people shouldn't let their lives get quite so precarious, and you know, they wouldn't find themselves in this situation. And so as the sort of gap between the rich and the poor was becoming wider and the you know during the Bush years, I think you know John Raymond and I were just asking ourselves when we were coming up with an idea for the story, just is it really possible to pull yourself up from your bootstraps in America if you don't have the benefit of health insurance, education, a financial net, a family net? Can you just, is all you need is the gumption and an idea to get out and do something differently to better your circumstances? Is that really enough? And so that's sort of was the nugget that we started with.

DAVIES: There's a scene early in the film where Wendy meets up around a campfire with a group of people that are just traveling, living on the margin, gutter punks I think was the phrase you used?

Ms. REICHARDT: That is the phrase. They're kids, there's quite a huge network of young people living off the grid. And these kids, they're homeless, and they travel all over the country, and they travel by trains. And they, it's dangerous post-9-11 to be hopping trains, but they do it. And I think Portland, where we were, is a place where maybe you - there's a community there and you maybe stop there for a while and you know, lick your wounds before setting back out.

But we had a local casting man in Portland named Simon Max Hill, who really just made the scene with these kids and brought them in so I could meet them. And you know it's forever evolving and changing because they're in motion and they don't stick around for long. So he actually had a few kids living at his house near the end just to keep them in town.

DAVIES: Well just to be clear, these were not actors in other words.

Ms. REICHARDT: No they're not actors. They're just kids living in various places and traveling around on trains. Mostly outdoor places where they're living. But there were a few experiences that really gave me a lot of character information, not even just location information...

DAVIES: Experiences that you had while you were scouting?

Ms. REICHARDT: While I was on the road.

DAVIES: Mm-hmm.

Ms. REICHARDT: One experience that was really particularly stands out is driving in Texas on Route 10, I was driving behind a van that had a blowout and went into the ditch in front of me. And I pulled over to see. It was a woman and she was in her mid 40s and she was in her socks, no shoes. She was a Mexican woman and I asked her if she had, you know, AAA and she said no. And I asked her if she had a spare tire and she said, that tire was my spare tire, the one that just blew out. And she said, before I bought this Pepsi, I had $20. And so I ended up spending the day with this woman, driving her to try to find a mechanic, which we were in the middle of nowhere.

And then, you know, getting a jack from a trucker and driving all the way back around to where our cars were and really experiencing I think a lot of what the security guard in the movie experiences, just questioning, you know: how deep do I want to get in to this? How can I get out of it if I want to? What's my obligation to her? What's the right amount to give? All these sort of questions. And also the woman herself just made such a huge impression on me. She was completely, obviously used to things going wrong.

She at no point got panicked over her situation. She really seemed to just look at it like, I'll take - I'll go as far with her as I can and I'll - you know, almost like she was looking at it to do list of exactly what was in front of her but not the big picture of her situation. And it was - you know, I was guessing that it was a management kind of thing that she was doing and I really did apply that to Wendy.

DAVIES: There's also this interesting phenomena of, you know, Michelle Williams who then was, you know, one of the - one of a pretty recognizable Hollywood star. I assume traveling around pretty anonymously with this small film shooting crew and, you know, this is - of course, this was made before Heath Ledger died, right. But she had been in this relationship with him and that had gotten her all kinds of publicity and attention, probably a lot of it unwelcome. I wonder what the experience was like for her to sort of play this anonymous character.

Ms. REICHARDT: She had always said that one thing that attracted her to the character is that she felt Wendy really feels invisible in the world. And she really wondered what that would be like. And so, you know, when she came to Portland because we don't have, you know, we're just so small. We're a group of cars on the side of the road. We're not - we don't have trailers and tents and all that sort of apparatus. She - I never saw Michelle get recognized while we were there. And I think it had to do with - you know, she'd just be sitting on the curb not looking like a movie star. And I really do think that she got to have that experience.

DAVIES: Film director Kelly Reichardt, more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Our guest is Kelly Reichardt. Her film "Wendy and Lucy" is now out on DVD. We should talk a little bit about "Old Joy," your film you made in 2006. This is -two guys in their 30s. Mark, who's played by Daniel London, is married and about to be a father. And he gets a call from his old friend Kurt, played by Will Oldham, the singer/songwriter, who is a sort of more - I guess more of a counterculture free spirit. And he invites his old buddy to get together and go visit a hot springs. I thought that we'd listen to just a bit of dialogue from this film.


DAVIES: This is a scene where they're just heading out of town. They are not in the country yet. And let's just - let's give a listen.

(Soundbite of movie, "Old Joy")

Mr. WILL OLDHAM (Actor): (As Kurt) Man, Mark, you really hold on to (beep), not that I should talk. I've got - I still got crates of records in the garage (unintelligible) stuff I haven't even listened to in 10 years. I'm gonna have to take the whole load down to Sid's, I'm thinking, see what I can get for it.

Mr. DANIEL LONDON (Actor): (As Mark) Sid's is gone, man.

Mr. OLDHAM: (As Kurt) No way.

Mr. LONDON: (As Mark) The rent got to be too heavy. Now it's a smoothie place, Re-Juicination(ph).

Mr. OLDHAM: (As Kurt) Oh, no.

Mr. LONDON: (As Mark) Yeah, Sid sells on Ebay now.

Mr. OLDHAM: (As Kurt) Oh, that makes sense. I should be doing that.

Mr. LONDON: (As Mark) Tanya went by on the last day, said the only records left in the bins were our friends.

Mr. OLDHAM: (As Kurt) No more Sid. End of an era.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: And that's from the film "Old Joy," directed by my guest Kelly Reichardt. Couple of guys confronting change in their lives here, right?

Ms. REICHARDT: I know, Will is doing that whole scene without exhaling a bunch of pot smoke.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Right. He keeps lighting the little pot in his hands. Yeah. Yeah. There are a lot of things going here. And it kind of reminded me of being in my 30's and getting together with people I had known in college and just after college and discovered that we kind of wanted to be the same bunch of guys with each other but couldn't quite.

Ms. REICHARDT: Right. And I think that film - that's really what the film is about. And I think it's also - for us it was about I think the loss of liberalism in America on some level. Jon Raymond had written that story before we even thought about making a film. It had come out in a book of photographs by Justine Kurland. And then when we were turning it into a script - in the original story Mark wasn't married. Their lives were a little bit closer together. And I ended up making Mark a married guy and on the brink of fatherhood.

But it was - we were making that film right before the re-election of Bush and I guess had made the film by the time he did get reelected. And there really was this overwhelming feeling of like, where do people like Kurt go? You know, are they allowed to - is there room for them in the country anymore?

DAVIES: Kurt is the guy just sort of - has hung on to a counter-cultural lifestyle, sort of, yeah.

Ms. REICHARDT: Right, he is a roamer and he doesn't really fit easily in to, you know, buying a house, raising a family and, you know, following that path. And so, I don't know, I guess with both films I think that they're really small stories about, you know, in the case of "Old Joy" about friendship and how time changes that. And how being a person that's sort of unhinged to anything in your 20's has sort of romance to it. And what a fine line it is that, you know, you get to a certain age and that person is just, you know, a mess.

DAVIES: Right, right.

Ms. REICHARDT: …their lifestyle makes them, you know, that line of when you're a partier and then suddenly you're an alcoholic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. REICHARDT: You know, and that sort of kind of what happens - seems to happen in your 30's, you know, where, you know, even your, you know, free-wheeling friends suddenly feel you should get with the program.

DAVIES: Right, right.

Ms. REICHARDT: And, you know, and I had, after making my first feature, "River of Grass," I had lived around New York for five years without an apartment, just crashing at other people's houses trying to get another film made and, you know, living out of a duffel bag. And, you know, so I could relate to Kurt and I can also say that Kurt, the Kurt character, you know, asked too much of his friends and that his freedom becomes a big burden for everybody else. And, it was that film was just a real joy of a project. It was a six-person crew and we really just went into the woods to make an art project and, you know, six crew people, two actors and a dog. It was just - felt like an experiment and it was very, really gratifying and challenging.

DAVIES: I wanted to ask you one question about your background. I read you grew up in South Florida, and your dad was a crime scene investigator, is that right?

Ms. REICHARDT: Right, he was a crime scene detective and my mother was a narcotics agent.

DAVIES: Do you think that you could - your films have - you have such an eye for visual detail. Do you think you picked anything up from your dad's sort of craft of looking for clues at the scene of crime?

Ms. REICHARDT: I do think so. I mean, I became really interested in photography in the summer of 5th grade. And my mom used to take us camping every summer, we'd go from like, Miami to Montana. And I started taking my dad's camera with me. And all those crime scene photos were a big influence. Everything is, you know, it's super wide photography. And then you, and you have these - the detail shots which are, you know, the fingernail in the carpet sort of shots that are the side photos at the detail photos. But by and large, it's a really low to the ground, wide-angle approach and my first photographs were all like that.

DAVIES: Did you see your dad's crime scene photographs in the house or in the dark room?


(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. REICHARDT: In the house and in his office. When my - actually when my parents got divorced, my father moved into a house with five detectives who had all gotten divorced at the same time. And, you know, we used to go to his office and there are a lots of crime scene photos about, big and blown up and they had notebooks of them.

DAVIES: That sounds like a movie to me, boy. This little kid…

Ms. REICHARDT: That's, you know…

DAVIES: …a bunch of detectives.

Ms. REICHARDT: …that's the movie that never got made. But it's all fine. Other people have made it much, probably better than I could have. But that, my first film, "River of Grass," my dad and his crime scene buddies actually, you know, we built a crime scene room to imitate their - the office they had when I was a kid. And they worked with the production designer Dave Doernberg who was on that film and those guys all came down and brought all these photos and recreated their own office for the movie, which was kind of a kick.

DAVIES: Wow. Well, Kelly Reichardt, congratulations on the film and we wish you more opportunities to do that kind of filmmaking you want to do. Thanks for speaking with us.

Ms. REICHARDT: Thanks for having me.

DAVIES: Kelly Reichardt's film "Wendy and Lucy" is now out on DVD. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

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