Interview: Michelle Williams, Kelly Reichardt On Making 'Meek's Cutoff' Michelle Williams plays settler Emily Tetherow in Kelly Reichardt's frontier drama Meek's Cutoff. Both Williams and Reichardt join Fresh Air's Terry Gross for a discussion about the film, which was shot with exquisite landscapes and virtually no dialogue.
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Going West: The Making Of 'Meek's Cutoff'

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Going West: The Making Of 'Meek's Cutoff'

Going West: The Making Of 'Meek's Cutoff'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Michelle Williams, stars in the new film "Meek's Cutoff," about a group of pioneer families trying to find their way through the Oregon Territory in 1845. It's a Western told from the perspective of the female settlers, and the New York Times' A.O. Scott calls it a tough, quiet revelation of a film.

Later we'll talk about "Meek's Cutoff" with Williams and the film's director, Kelly Reichardt. But first I'm going to talk with Michelle Williams about her life and work.

She got her start when she was a teenager and starred in the 1990s TV series "Dawson's Creek." Her films include "The Station Agent," "The Baxter," and "Wendy and Lucy," which was also directed by Kelly Reichardt.

Williams received her first Oscar nomination for her supporting role in the 2005 film "Brokeback Mountain." On that film she met Heath Ledger, to whom she was once engaged. Their relationship and his death are topics she still prefers not to discuss. Earlier this year, Williams received a second Oscar nomination, this time for Best Actress, in the film "Blue Valentine."

Michelle Williams, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start this part of the interview with a scene from "Blue Valentine." You star in this with Ryan Gosling," and the film follows you as you fall in love and as the relationship falls apart, although the story is not told in chronological order. It kind of flips back and forth between the sweet part and the increasingly sour part.

In this scene, you're in the car together and you've just stopped at a liquor store, where you ran into a guy who appears to be an old boyfriend named Bobby Ontario(ph). And Ryan Gosling is questioning you about that encounter.

(Soundbite of film, "Blue Valentine")

Mr. RYAN GOSLING (Actor): (As Dean) (Bleep) What's he doing there?

Ms. MICHELLE WILLIAMS (Actor): (As Cindy) I don't know. I mean, buying liquor, I guess.

Mr. GOSLING: (As Dean) Jesus, how come you're just telling me now?

Ms. WILLIAMS: (As Cindy) Because I'm telling you now.

Mr. GOSLING: (As Dean) How come you didn't tell me when we were there?

Ms. WILLIAMS: (As Cindy) I don't know, because I was just flustered. And I'm telling you now.

Mr. GOSLING: (As Dean) You talked to him?

Ms. WILLIAMS: (As Cindy) No. I mean, like: Hi, bye, how are you, fine, good, how are you.

Mr. GOSLING: (As Dean) How are you?

Ms. WILLIAMS: (As Cindy) Yeah. He asked me how I was.

Mr. GOSLING: (As Dean) And you told him?

Ms. WILLIAMS: (As Cindy) I mean I didn't want to, but we were just, we were stuck there. We were in the same store buying things together at the same time. I wish you'd seen him. I wish you could see him. You wouldn't feel so bad. He's fat.

Mr. GOSLING: (As Dean) What do I care?

Ms. WILLIAMS: (As Cindy) I don't know.

Mr. GOSLING: (As Dean) I don't care if he's fat or not. What does that mean, make me feel better?

Ms. WILLIAMS: (As Cindy) I don't know, because he's a loser.

Mr. GOSLING: (As Dean) What does that have to do with me, whether he's a loser or he's fat or not? What the (bleep) do I care?

Ms. WILLIAMS: (As Cindy) I don't - what?

Mr. GOSLING: (As Dean) What are you saying that for, that would make me feel better, he's fat. So what, if he was in good shape, I shouldn't -then I wouldn't I shouldn't feel good?

Ms. WILLIAMS: (As Cindy) I said the wrong thing. I'm nervous, okay?

Mr. GOSLING: (As Dean) What do you mean, you're nervous?

Ms. WILLIAMS: (As Cindy) I feel - because you because you feel funny.

Mr. GOSLING: (As Dean) You're nervous because I feel funny? What does that mean?

Ms. WILLIAMS: (As Cindy) Yes. I feel like I said the wrong thing. I feel like I shouldn't have said anything.

Mr. GOSLING: (As Dean) Really, that's an option? You run into Bobby Ontario, and it's an option not to tell me?

Ms. WILLIAMS: (As Cindy) I feel like you're upset, and I upset you, and I'm sorry. And I said the wrong thing.

Mr. GOSLING: (As Dean) Baby, you can do whatever you want.

Ms. WILLIAMS: (As Cindy) Okay. I'm sorry.

GROSS: That's my guest, Michelle Williams, with Ryan Gosling in a scene from "Blue Valentine." How much improvisation is in that scene?

Ms. WILLIAMS: You picked a good one to ask that question. A tremendous amount. Just listening to it actually makes me feel a little nauseous inside because...

GROSS: Nauseous? Why does it make you feel nauseous?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Because I remember how long we were in that car and how many incarnations that scene went through. There's versions of that scene where I don't tell him the truth, where I don't tell him anything that happened. There's versions where I tell him immediately. There's versions - well, the version that wound up in the movie is where I lie about the encounter and saying that he was fat and that he shouldn't feel badly about it.

So the fight took on so many different shapes and colors and sort of temperatures within that car. And so to listen to it again kind of recalls all those states.

GROSS: Now, let me ask you: If you've done all these different takes, and you've told him different things in each take, you've taken a completely different approach, how do you know what the final cut is going to be when you're doing the next scene? How do you know what your character really told Ryan Gosling so that you can...

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah, that's a good - that's a good question. I asked Derek, the director, the same thing. Once we got to the future room, this sort of love-nest motel that we wind up in, I asked him the same thing: How do I know how I'm feeling because I don't know how it's going to cut? And he said: Well, just give me all your feelings. So endless variations on that movie. There's probably 10 movies inside of that movie.

GROSS: So this is the kind of movie, it's kind of legendary for the preparation that you did. You and Ryan Gosling moved in together for a while so that you could have like a genuine relationship. And you created together like fake memories for your characters.

And another legendary story that was told on our show by Ryan Gosling was that there's a scene on the bridge where - was it the Brooklyn Bridge?

Ms. WILLIAMS: It was the Manhattan Bridge.

GROSS: Manhattan Bridge, where he wants to know something that you've kept secret from him, and he's threatening to like climb over the bridge. He's starting to do it. And you eventually tell him, because you think that he's going to accidentally, like, fall off the bridge into the water and kill himself - and the director told him to do whatever -told Ryan Gosling to do whatever he needed to do to get you to tell him that secret.

And when I hear that, I'm thinking: Okay, say he's on the top, climbing over the bridge there, and you finally tell him. Say the take doesn't go well and you have to do it again, but this time, like, he knows the secret because you've already told him. So all of that - what happens to all of that improvisation to all of that, you know, the threat of him climbing over the bridge? Then you're down to just plain acting.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, I suppose so. I suppose sometimes you are just down to plain acting. You know, those kind of extremes can't happen every day or within every scene, where all of a sudden the person that you're working with is suspended between the water and the bridge, with one foot over the fence.

You know, those kind of risks aren't going to happen all the time, and sometimes, you know, acting should be a - acting is a last resort. But you know, in that situation, luckily it was caught. That take is what was used in the movie, and mostly because the producers after that take rushed the scene and shook their fists and said that can never, ever, ever happen again, visions of Ryan Gosling swimming in the East River.

GROSS: No more insurance for this film.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILLIAMS: No more insurance for that film. No, and we were stealing the shot anyway. You know, we didn't have permits to be on the bridge. So I think that with that kind of improvisation, sometimes - well, the camera's there to catch it, which is why, when we were working the way that we were working, we never worked on the script, we never explored the scenes or the beats or talked about what it was about or what it meant. We did everything - all of our work kind of circled around it, like a lion around its prey or something, you know, waiting to pounce, because you only have to get that right once, and when the camera is on, ideally. So yeah.

GROSS: What did you get from living together with Ryan Gosling in preparation for the movie?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, the break in-between the past and the future was supposed to be something like 10 days.

GROSS: The shooting break?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah, the break for us to kind of shed our earlier selves and grow into our more grownup selves. We had 10 days. And as we got into those 10 days, we realized that we needed more time for a few reasons.

One was to make the physical transformation. I had a kind of last-minute idea to put on as much weight as I could. Ryan had his own sort of plan. But to make that transformation, we needed more time.

And the other reason was that we had to learn how to fight, and neither of us wanted to. Neither of us were very quick to sort of break down what we had built up. So really that's what we needed so much time for, was to learn the ways that we got under each other's skin to the point of annoyance, to the point of disturbance. And it took time.

GROSS: So if Ryan Gosling walked into the room now, would you be irritated by his presence because that's the part that you shot last, like you've learned how to dislike each other?

Ms. WILLIAMS: You know, in all honestly, I'd say it took us a while to get back to a good place. It was like catching a disease that you couldn't cure. It was uncomfortable to be around each other.

GROSS: Did you ever wish during that film that you could just like read your lines, figure out how your character would do it and then go and act and go and like just, you know, do the scene and not have to live with Ryan Gosling and not have him threaten to jump over the Brooklyn -over the Manhattan Bridge? Do you know what I'm saying? Just do traditional acting?

Ms. WILLIAMS: It felt like such a rare opportunity and one that I know even more now that I'll probably never have again. And it's a way that I had dreamed of working since I was a kid because it's such a throwback.

When I read all of those biographies as a pre-teenager of Marlon Brando and James Dean and this idea of the Method, and it was so alluring to me, and it really got a hold of me, of the 13-year-old me. And so I'd had a longtime desire to experiment with that way of working, and this fulfilled it.

GROSS: So your career has taken a very kind of independent film direction, kind of adventurous films, not necessarily adventurous in terms of it being a story about people who are adventurous but adventurous in the kind of filmmaking that it is.

How did you head in that direction? Commercials creak - commercials creak - "Dawson's Creek"...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILLIAMS: That's a really good Freudian slip, actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...a commercial TV series, you know, for teenagers. And you headed in a very different direction after that, and I'm interested in hearing why you wanted to go in that direction.

Ms. WILLIAMS: I remember when I was 18 and I was offered this play called "Killer Joe," and I was also offered a movie about cheerleaders who carry guns.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I can see the pitch meeting for that movie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILLIAMS: And "Killer Joe" was, I don't know, maybe a 200-seat house, making scale. And the cheerleader movie was the kind of money that you can live off of for a long time to come.

And I remember seeing the paths diverge. And I remember how easy the choice was. And so to me that feels like the beginning. That feels like where I began to develop my taste. I did the play, obviously.

I really, I feel like I can sort of directly link almost everything back to that moment and back to being given that job, because it was the first piece of kind of adult work that I'd been allowed to do. And it took one man - Wilson Myland(ph) was the director - to say: Yeah, let's give her a try.

And from that point on, it gave me a little bit of belief in myself, that this thing that I wanted to do, maybe people would let me.

GROSS: It's like - that sounds like a metaphor, do you know what I mean, for what one option is for young actresses, you know: sex and violence, you know, like the gun and the cheerleader.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILLIAMS: Uh-huh. Uh-huh. I know. I wonder who they were making that movie for. Yeah, I don't - it really wasn't an option. I mean, it was an option in front of me, but it was never something that I was going to -that I could actually take on.

GROSS: My guest is Michelle Williams. She stars in the new film "Meek's Cutoff." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michelle Williams. She starred in "Blue Valentine" with Ryan Gosling. She's now starring in the movie "Meek's Cutoff."

So you knew you wanted to act by the time you were 13. By the time you were 15, you were on "Dawson's Creek," the TV series. So how did you know?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, I imagine I knew in the way that a lot of young girls say that they want to be actresses. It's just that I had, because of the way that my life and my family situation and where I was living all conspired together, I had the actual opportunities in front of me.

So I wouldn't say that I had more desire than any other 13-year-old girl. It's just, it was in front of me.

GROSS: How did it get in front of you?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, we moved from Montana. I grew up in Montana, and I most closely associate to being from Montana. But we moved from there when I was eight. We moved to San Diego.

And there was a kind of wave of kids who were being driven to Los Angeles by their parents for auditions, and I got swept up in it. I wasn't unlikely or unusual for doing it. But you know, I did that for -my mother packed me up in the minivan for two years before I ever got a job, even a commercial job. So it wasn't - it certainly didn't happen quickly or naturally or easily.

GROSS: What were some of the things you were rejected from?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Everything. Gosh, I can't remember. What did I audition for? I can't remember that far back.

GROSS: I don't think I could take that much rejection, especially when I was that young, when you don't...

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah, I think that's the most dangerous part of it and why it's something I wouldn't want for my own daughter, family or friends, because that rejection really leaves its mark on you.

GROSS: Now, you went to a Christian school before starting on "Dawson's Creek"?

Ms. WILLIAMS: I went to a lot of schools. I went to - I was homeschooled quite a bit for three or four years. I went to a Christian school for a couple of years. I went to a public school. I changed schools almost every year, every two years.

GROSS: So why were you homeschooled for a while?

Ms. WILLIAMS: I was homeschooled for a few reasons, I think. A lot of it, I think, had to do with the fact that I was auditioning, and it was a bit of a nuisance to be dragged in and out of school. And when you're homeschooled, obviously there's nobody really to answer to.

And then when I was 15, I got emancipated from my parents. And when you're emancipated, you have to either have your GED, or you have to have graduated from high school. And so from the back of a magazine, we bought this education through correspondence school. It was called ICS, International Correspondence School, bought it for $300, and I finished three years of high school in nine months.

I couldn't - you know, I can barely add and subtract now. It was - it's nothing to write home - my classmates were truck drivers, housewives and inmates. And we would get - I would get sort of monthly updates on what everybody's GPA was.

GROSS: So do you feel like you missed out on something, either on the school experience or on a good education?

Ms. WILLIAMS: I feel like I missed out on a good education, but it's a trade-off. The plus is that then I got this TV show. It afforded me six and a half years of practice of work. It was like an acting class, being on "Dawson's Creek," and being able to experiment and say: Am I better when I know all of my lines and I've really practiced them or am I better when I'm kind of off-balance a little bit because I'm tired? Or how about if I try this? Or how about if I try this? What does it look like when I walk like this? Silly things.

But it was - so I got that - you know, it's that Malcolm Gladwell thing of 10,000 hours or something. I definitely have 10,000 hours in front of the camera thanks to that show. So I got a different kind of education, but I do find myself - now I'm 30 - feeling frustrated with the limitations of my own mind.

GROSS: To which I'd say who doesn't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But you mentioned you were emancipated from your parents. This is a legal separation that you did for what reason?

Ms. WILLIAMS: It was done for work. The notion is that it makes you more appealing, that people are more apt to hire you because they don't have to pay for a teacher, a guardian, and you - a teacher or a guardian, and you can work you can work as an adult. You can work the same amount of hours as an adult.

GROSS: So, like, if you legally divorce your parents, so to speak, then you're not treated as a minor on the set?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Exactly.

GROSS: So that enabled you to work more?

Ms. WILLIAMS: It did. You know, I think it actually is the thing that got me "Dawson's Creek." All the other kids were 18, and I was - I think I was 16, actually, when I got the show. And I don't think I would have been hired had I been a minor. But, you know, there's obviously a lot of danger in that - a kid on their own - basically a kid on their own on a film set. Movie sets are very adult places.

GROSS: So what were some of the risky things that you encountered as a 16-year-old?

Ms. WILLIAMS: You know, when I started, I mean, I started at the bottom. And so I met all the people that lived there. I can say the experiences that I've had in the last 10 years have only been good ones. And I've really yet to work with somebody in my more recent past that I didn't respond to.

But in the beginning, there was definitely a place to - there was definitely a trajectory.

GROSS: So when you got emancipated from your parents, was that risky in the sense that even though you may have done it for very practical reasons, for your career, you're still divorcing your parents - did it affect the emotional ties between you?

Ms. WILLIAMS: I think in the beginning. Now it feels like ancient history. It's 15 years ago. And it doesn't feel to me like something that lingers between me and my family.

And I've actually had - I regretted that I missed out on being a big sister and leaving home when my little sister was still quite young, 12 or so. But it's really come around in that now we live together. My sister and her now-husband, we're all living under one roof. So it's like we're getting to kind of re-experience and make up for the childhood that we didn't really share.

GROSS: Michelle Williams will be back in the second half of the show. She stars in the new film "Meek's Cutoff." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Michelle Williams. She stars in the new film "Meek's Cutoff." She received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in the 2005 film "Brokeback Mountain." This year she received a Best Actress nomination for her performance in "Blue Valentine." She got her start when she was a teenager and landed a starring role in the TV series "Dawson's Creek," which premiered in 1998.

Your father had money, at least he did part of the time, because he was a stock and commodities trader and wrote a very successful book about how to prosper in the coming years. And then you had made money on "Dawson's Creek." I'm sure you did well on that. So was it easier for you to reject the commercial route as an actress and take the more, you know, like small theater, independent film route for some of your work because you knew what money was and you had some money?

Ms. WILLIAMS: My father grew up very poor in Billings, Montana. He, I think, carried that mentality with him while we were growing up, and that was passed on also. I had started auditioning for things when I was, gosh, 10 years old and didn't get a job until I was 12 or 13. So I had this idea in my head that money is something that comes in and out of your life. And I also had this idea in my head that I don't know where my next job is going to come, and that I'm more used to not getting things than I am to getting things. And so when I got "Dawson's Creek," I spent those six and a half years as a bit of a hoarder or something.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WILLIAMS: I was always trying to find the most - the least expensive apartment and moving from place to place so I could get a lower rent, get a better deal, because I wanted to be smart. I knew - and also I was on "Dawson's Creek" for a very long time without getting movie parts or theater parts or anything that I really wanted. So I felt like I had to be very careful with what I had.

GROSS: That's not your typical picture of the teenage star - that kind of frugality.

Ms. WILLIAMS: I suppose also we didn't really identify as teenage stars. This was before the onslaught of sort of the weekly tabloid magazines that have made I don't know what they've made, but it was pre- we didn't identify, and I think I speak for us as a group, with being teenage stars. Because it was before the advent of Us. Us Weekly was a monthly back then and it wasn't a tabloid. There were no paparazzi sent out to Wilmington to take our pictures and follow our every move. We were kids who were allowed to behave in a way, in a normal way without the kind of scrutiny that I think exists now.

GROSS: Though it wasn't, I mean you're post "Beverly Hills 90210," so -and that, they got all the tabloid coverage though.

Ms. WILLIAMS: I wonder if it was because of being in Wilmington, North Carolina, because we were so removed.

GROSS: Yeah. That might be it.

(Soundbite of laughter)


(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That might have something to do with it.

Let me play a scene from "Brokeback Mountain." And I think this is a movie that really established you as a movie actress. It's also the movie where you met Heath Ledger, with whom you had a child, and he played your husband in the film. So in this scene - just a little bit of background on the movie. So the movie is about Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal's characters, who fall in love while on a summer job herding sheep on Brokeback Mountain. And - but homosexuality is so taboo, they can't carry on the relationship outside of Brokeback Mountain, and the Heath Ledger character is really confused about who he is sexuality.

So each of those characters marry. Heath Ledger's character marries you, your character. But at one point you see him kissing Jake Gyllenhaal. And in this scene you're divorced. Heath Ledger's at your house visiting with the kids on Thanksgiving. You're doing the dishes. He's standing by the sink, and you tell him that you know what he and Jake Gyllenhaal, the character's named Jack Twist, were really doing on their fishing trips together.

(Soundbite of movie, "Brokeback Mountain")

Ms. WILLIAMS: (as Alma) You ought to get married again, Ennis. Me and the girls worry about you being alone so much.

Mr. HEATH LEDGER (Actor): (as Ennis) Well, once burned...

Ms. WILLIAMS: (as Alma) You still go fishing with Jack Twist?

Mr. LEDGER: (as Ennis) Not often.

Ms. WILLIAMS: (as Alma) I used to wonder how come you never brought any trouts home.�You always said you caught plenty, and you know how me and the girls like fish.�So one night I got your creel case open, night before you went on one of your little trips - price tag still on it after five years - and I tied a note to the end of the line.�It said, hello, Ennis, bring some fish home. Love, Alma.� And then you come back looking all perky and said you'd caught a bunch of brownies and you ate them up.�Do you remember?�I looked in the case first chance I got and my note's still tied there.�That line hadn't touched water in its life.�

Mr. LEDGER: (as Ennis) That don't mean nothing, Alma.

Ms. WILLIAMS: (as Alma) Don't try to fool me no more, Ennis. I know what it means.�Jack Twist.�

Mr. LEDGER: (as Ennis) Alma.�

Ms. WILLIAMS: (as Alma) Jack Nasty.�You didn't go up there to fish.�You and him...

Mr. LEDGER: (as Ennis) Now, you listen to me. You don't know nothing about it.

Ms. WILLIAMS: (as Alma) I'm going to yell for Monroe.

(Soundbite of crying)

Mr. LEDGER: (as Ennis) You do it (bleep).

Ms. WILLIAMS: (as Alma) Get out of here! Get out!

Mr. LEDGER: (as Ennis) You too...

Ms. WILLIAMS: (as Alma) Get out!�Get out! Get out of my house!

GROSS: Great scene. That movie was so life-changing for you in terms of your personal life and in terms of your profile as an actress. And for all the wrong reasons you became even more famous after Heath Ledger died. Does it amaze you the way one film can change your life? The way one choice, the choice to do this movie, can totally change your life?

Ms. WILLIAMS: I feel like yes, it did, it changed my life. But I also feel like every movie that I've made. I mean that was just in a very sort of public way. But like I was saying earlier about taking on that, about deciding to do that play when I was 18, the change was as big, wasn't as big to the world, but it wasn't as big inside of me.

GROSS: After "Brokeback Mountain" and after Heath Ledger's death, you had to learn to live with the tabloids, the kind of thing that you avoided on "Dawson's Creek," maybe because of where it was shot. You got the full force of it, you know, later in your life, and it's a part of celebrity tabloid culture that both worships and bullies celebrities for entertainment. How did you learn to live with that?

Ms. WILLIAMS: I suppose I haven't. Trying to think about how to expand on that. No, that's pretty much the full answer. I haven't learned to live with it.

GROSS: Right. I will move on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And ask you about your actually lovely singing voice.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Oh, really?

GROSS: Yeah. Well, I mean it's not like I've heard you sing a lot but at the end of the comedy "The Baxter"...

Ms. WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: sing and you have a really lovely voice. And to prove that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...I'm going to...

Ms. WILLIAMS: No. Oh no, please don't.

GROSS: Why? Why, why? Why do you feel that way? And let me expand on that.

Ms. WILLIAMS: My mommy would be so happy.

GROSS: You know, you are so - you will take any risk for your acting and are so shy about your singing or so uncomfortable with it.

Ms. WILLIAMS: I am. Well, I think I'm a much riskier actor than I am a person. There's this Flaubert quote that I love, that I'm going to get slightly wrong. But it's something about I want to live - I want to live the quiet life of the bourgeois so that I can be violent and unrestrained in my work. That makes, that works for me. And for some reason I let myself between action and cut go into a kind of freefall, a place in a space where I am allowed to think, behave, move, appear in any way that I see fit.

Unfortunately, I don't let myself do that in my own waking life. But at least there's some place for it.

GROSS: Is singing not a part of your work to you? Is that much more personal?

Ms. WILLIAMS: I suppose I feel that I had to do it again recently in the last movie that I did. I had to sing. And I would put so much work into it, a lot of rehearsals and recording it around the piano and with technicians. And when the day came and they started to do the playback on the set and I had to hear my own voice and then move my mouth to it, I couldn't take it and decided that it was going to be easier for me to just sing live. And so that's what I did and that's the performance that, well, you'll see in the movies...

GROSS: Is this the movie where you play Marilyn Monroe?

Ms. WILLIAMS: It is. Yes.

GROSS: My guest is Michelle Williams. By the way, that forthcoming movie is called "My Week With Marilyn." Williams stars in the new movie "Meek's Cutoff."

I'll talk with the director of the film, Kelly Reichardt after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest Kelly Reichardt directed Michelle Williams in the new film "Meek's Cutoff." It's their second film together. In 2008 they made the film "Wendy and Lucy." Reichardt is known for making independent films that are quiet and stark. "Meek's Cutoff" is no different. It's about a group of 19th century settlers trying to make their way West through the Oregon territory in a small wagon train. They've been traveling for some time, are running out of food and water, and some of the settlers are starting to suspect that they're lost, even though their guide, Stephen Meek, won't admit it. One of the mothers in the group, Emily, played by Michelle Williams, is especially skeptical of Meek. In this scene, he picks up on that skepticism. Meek is played by Bruce Greenwood.

Mr. BRUCE GREENWOOD (Actor): (as Stephen Meek) Sometimes I get the sense you don't care for me much, Miss Tetherow.

Ms. WILLIAMS: (as Emily Tetherow) Oh, I have no feelings one way or the other, Mr. Meek.

Mr. GREENWOOD: (as Stephen Meek) Well, that's just a kind way of saying you don't like me.

Ms. WILLIAMS: (as Emily Tetherow) I don't like where we are.

Mr. GREENWOOD: (as Stephen Meek) So that's what you think, that we're lost?

Ms. WILLIAMS: (as Emily Tetherow) I'd say that seems about the right word for it.

Mr. GREENWOOD: (as Stephen Meek) We're not lost. We're not lost. We're just finding our way.

Ms. WILLIAMS: (as Emily Tetherow) I certainly hope so.

Mr. GREENWOOD: (as Stephen Meek) We're going to make it all right.

Ms. WILLIAMS: (as Emily Tetherow) Oh, you don't need to patronize me, Mr. Meek.

Mr. GREENWOOD: (as Stephen Meek) Well, now, I think you're flirting with me, ma'am.

Ms. WILLIAMS: (as Emily Tetherow) You don't know much about women, do you, Stephen Meek?

Mr. GREENWOOD: (as Stephen Meek) Well, I know something or other.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILLIAMS: (as Emily Tetherow) If you say so.

Mr. GREENWOOD: (as Stephen Meek) Well, I know women are different from men. I know that much. But I'll tell you the difference, if you care to hear it.

Ms. WILLIAMS: (as Emily Tetherow) I don't doubt you will.

Mr. GREENWOOD: (as Stephen Meek) Women, women are created on the principle of chaos. The chaos of creation, disorder, bringing new things into the world. Men, created on the principle of destruction. It's like cleansing, order and destruction. You think I'm wrong? You can tell me. Chaos and destruction, the two genders always had it.

Ms. WILLIAMS: (as Emily Tetherow) Chaos and destruction. Well, I don't know. I have to think about it.

Mr. GREENWOOD: (as Stephen Meek) Mm-hmm.

GROSS: That's Michelle Williams and Bruce Greenwood in a scene from "Meek's Cutoff."

Director Kelly Reichardt, welcome to FRESH AIR. That was one of the talkiest scenes in the whole film.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah, there's very little dialogue in the film. And, you know, it's interesting, part of what makes - this is kind of a Western - and part of what makes Westerns great is their iconic nature, charismatic men on horses, charismatic women on horses, gunplay, showdowns, stories of courage, swelling theme music, romance, villains, good guys, ethics that have to be seriously examined most of which you've totally stripped from your movie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And I'm sure you have a good reason why there's no swelling theme music and, you know, charismatic heroic characters and gunplay and showdowns and all of that stuff. Kelly Reichardt, why have you made a Western without any of the things we associate with Westerns?

Ms. KELLY REICHARDT (Director, "Meek's Cutoff"): Well, I did try not to use the word Western when we were making the movie, just to avoid any expectations on the part of the actors. But you know, a lot of it was based on reading journals from the time, from the period, women's journals. And you know, after growing up on Westerns, which are really films that are really about these super-heightened moments, you know, you read these journals about the journey and this whole idea of space and time is just completely different, and there's this sort of trancelike quality about the journey that I haven't really experienced in tales of going west. And so I wanted to investigate that and try to use this more elaborated time and the detail of chores and monotony and wide-open spaces to see if, you know, if you could get tension by basically not delivering the heightened moment, but working with the way time might have seemed in 1845.

GROSS: I went to see a screening of "Meek's Cutoff" because it hasn't opened yet, so I saw an advanced screening in a movie theater. And the -instead of the full widescreen, the screen was cut off so it was just like a square, kind of like a television as opposed to a widescreen movie screen. And my producer and I, my producer was with me and we complained. You know, it's like open up the curtain so we can see the full the full image. We're not seeing the full image. And he kept saying, no, it's supposed to be this way. And we kept saying, really? Open up the curtain. Let's find out for sure. You know?

(Soundbite of laughter)


GROSS: So it turns out, after reading about the movie, I learned he was right. It's supposed to be that way. Why did you want a square image as opposed to what we think of as a widescreen, you know, a typical movie image, widescreen?

Ms. REICHARDT: Well, the square was typical for the early Westerns. Wellman and Anthony Mann, a lot of people used the square. Widescreen was really sort of the 3D of its day. But for my purposes, I felt like the square A) gave you a sort of idea of what the women, the closed view that the women have. And...

GROSS: Because of their bonnets...

Ms. REICHARDT: Because of their bonnets, right. And...

GROSS: Which are almost like blinders and shut out...

Ms. REICHARDT: They really are. We used the real size ones and they come out a foot on either side. But also, you know, if you're traveling seven to 12 miles a day and you have a wide screen, you can really see what tomorrow is and what yesterday was, and I really wanted to keep you right with the immigrants. So it worked - and also just aesthetically I thought the bonnets of the wagons and the bonnets of the women all looked really beautiful in this square frame, which gives you a lot more foreground and gives you space over the mountains, which to me is a really nice way to photograph the desert. Which I should say, Robert Adams, you know, did this book "The American West," which is a more '70s, you know, man's footprint in the West. But those photos were all in the square and those were kind of inspiring to me, looking at the desert in that format.

GROSS: You know, one of the impressions as a viewer I got from the square format is that they're in this like vast wide open space, this desert. But you feel a very claustrophobic sense because you're not seeing the full panoramic view.

Ms. REICHARDT: Right. You don't know what's there.

GROSS: So it's like claustrophobia in a wide open space.

Ms. REICHARDT: It's true. And that's sort of, I think, to some degree how it was. You know, you'd be traveling in this big community where you never ever really have privacy. But it's also - from the diaries you get the idea that it's a really lonely journey also. And I think cutting out the peripheral, it does leave you an idea of - that some things could be there that you're that you don't know about, and so it offers that kind of tension.

GROSS: Kelly, sometimes your movies don't resolve. Like we don't know exactly what happens to the character. And I think most people go to the movies expecting a fairly clear ending. What do you feel like your responsibility is to the filmgoer in terms of the story that you're going to provide and the resolution to the story?

Ms. REICHARDT: Most of the stories take place in a small amount of time. It's a, you know, a week in the life of Wendy or a week in the life of these immigrants who have walked for six months across country and then we catch them for this moment in time for these days. And so I don't, I feel like I'm telling stories that are a glimpse in bigger stories that surround them. And they do end more with a question usually, I guess, than with an answer. And, you know, hopefully that can be probing. And, you know, to me an ideal situation would be that, you know, you could leave the theater with a person that sat next to you and that you would both have different ideas about what comes next. So I don't know. Yeah, I suppose I - things don't get wrapped up.

GROSS: Kelly Reichardt directed the new film "Meek's Cutoff."

Coming up, we continue our conversation with the film's star, Michelle Williams.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to where we left off a few minutes ago with actress Michelle Williams. Her movies include "Blue Valentine" and "Brokeback Mountain." She stars in the new film "Meek's Cutoff." She plays Marilyn Monroe in the forthcoming film "My Week With Marilyn."

So Marilyn, I find Marilyn Monroe a fascinating actress. I didn't like her when I was growing up because I always thought, like is that what a woman is supposed to be? Is that what a man expects? But now that her era is over and I can look at it more from a distance, it was such an interesting construct. I mean I think it was Gloria Steinem who once described Marilyn Monroe as like a transvestite. Like...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...a certain construct of a woman. A kind of a woman who doesn't really exist but you could create her, you could those hips and that bosom and, you know, the hair. And so tell me what it was like for you to try to embody this creation of what an ideal woman is.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Well, one of the fascinating things about it that I didn't realize is that I didn't assume going into it is that it was a creation. Marilyn Monroe was a shtick. Like Groucho Marx, like Charlie Chaplin. It was something that she put on. It was a character that she had honed and developed with such attentiveness and such detail. She spent so much time developing this persona, learning how to hold herself, learning how to walk correctly, learning how to move her head like a queen when she walked into a room, tricks that she would keep in her mind to appear a certain way. But what was on the inside was as ordinary and as confused or maybe even more so than you or I. So Marilyn Monroe was something that took four hours to get ready in the morning and probably an hour to take off at night.

GROSS: So to become her, you probably had to wear like hip padding and a bullet bra.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And did it change like the way you walked, the way you moved, to suddenly have that shape - the Marilyn Monroe shape?

Ms. WILLIAMS: MARTIN: It did, because I like to disappear, personally. I like to go - which, and also she did too, mind you, but not when she was Marilyn. But I like to kind of slink through the streets and, you know, hope that nobody sees me and use my invisible powers. But I have to say, the reaction that you get when you put on these hips and you cinch up your waist and you put your shoulders back and you let yourself be observed, it's intoxicating.

GROSS: Did you just automatically have a wiggle when you...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...when you put all of the Marilyn Monroe accoutrements on?

Ms. WILLIAMS: No, I had to work for my wiggle. I remember that I turned 30 while I was making the movie and I remember on September 9th I found my wiggle on my birthday.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: How did you find your wiggle?

Ms. WILLIAMS: I found my wiggle - you know, it's a feeling. You just have to catch the right feeling. It can't, you can't really have any, the technique has to sort of lay somewhere underneath, ideally. And it -you know, it came from watching her movies and trying to study how she's moving her hips that makes this sort of undulation happen. I read somewhere that she had shaved off half of an inch on one of her heels to make this kind of unevenness, but then I read that that wasn't true. And I'm practicing, practicing, constricting my knees. So all this is behind it, but then really you've just got to breathe it.

GROSS: Now, I read - and I don't know when this referred to - that you had been feeling like you were, that you needed to recharge, that you needed some time off.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Hmm, hmm.

GROSS: Is that past you now?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Work is something that I've always done. It's been something very consistent in my life since I was in my early teens, and it's carried me through so many situations where I think I might have gotten stuck, either because it would geographically transport me or it would give me a purpose or it would give me something to cling to, think about, enjoy, get better at. And so I was used to working through anything in my life and I kept working through while things in my life were falling apart and then realized that I had probably burned out three movies back or something, and that I had stopped feeling creative. And I took a year off and after that I made "Blue Valentine."

GROSS: Wow, you really came back in full force after the year off.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You must've wanted to take another break after that. That must've been such an exhausting film to do.

Ms. WILLIAMS: And then after "Blue Valentine" I made "Meek's" with Kelly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, Michelle Williams, thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been a pleasure. Thank you.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Thank you. It really is all mine.

GROSS: Michelle Williams stars in the new film "Meek's Cutoff."

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