Wendy And Lucy director Kelly Reichardt has been criss-crossing the country by car since she was a child. But as she told The A.V. Club, what was once a pleasure has become a chore. That skepticism about what the country has become, not to mention serious opposition to the military intervention in Iraq, fuels her fourth film, Meek’s Cutoff, which in true pioneer fashion is moving around the country through May. Loosely inspired by an infamous episode in the history of the Oregon Trail, the movie re-teams Reichardt with her Wendy And Lucy star, Michelle Williams, and it stars Bruce Greenwood, almost unrecognizable behind his Buffalo Bill haircut and thick Southern drawl, as Stephen Meek, a cocksure cowboy who steers three families towards what he insists will be a shortcut through the Oregon desert. Instead, they become lost in an intractable, barren land, running low on sustenance and with no idea which way to turn.
Meek’s Cutoff screenwriter Jon Raymond surveys the territory of his Portland home in his novel The Half-Life and his short-story collection Livability, but he’s better known for his partnership with Reichardt: He scripted her features Old Joy and Wendy And Lucy before this latest project. After entering the business as Todd Haynes’ assistant on Far From Heaven, where he was billed as “Slats Grobnik,” Raymond devoted himself to writing and other pursuits until he got a call from Reichardt, responding positively to his novel and wondering if he had any short stories she might adapt. On Wendy And Lucy, they worked in parallel, devising the story together and then spinning it into both a short story and the film. Meek’s Cutoff is the first film Raymond presented to Reichardt as a finished screenplay, and it represents a turn toward historical resonance and away from the lyrical, character-driven movies that preceded it.
Character takes center stage in Raymond’s other current project, Mildred Pierce, the five-part miniseries he co-wrote with Haynes. Adapted from the novel by James M. Cain, a longtime favorite of Raymond’s, the series was also a pronounced change of pace for Haynes, his first film to embrace the grammar of the traditional filmmaking techniques he has often worked to subvert. Reichardt and Raymond recently spoke separately to The A.V. Club about Meek’s Cutoff, their partnership together, and Haynes’ input into their work.
The A.V. Club: This is the third movie you’ve done with Jon Raymond. How has your relationship changed over these three films?
Kelly Reichardt: We’re sick of each other. Is that what you’re looking for? [Laughs.] So just how our relationship has changed over time?
AVC: And what keeps it being fruitful for you?
KR: I’m just sick of carrying his water, you know. [Laughs.] No, it does continue to be fruitful. It has also been the same producers for the last three films, and some of the crew has been the same, so for me, I’m always working with people who I’ve already worked with. Jon and I speak every day, so we’re really involved in each other’s lives. You’re not starting a conversation from nowhere, from nothing. It has been really different every time. The joy was that we really didn’t know each other, and I wrote him and asked him to send me that story [for Old Joy], and I did the script. Wendy And Lucy, he was writing the short story [“Train Choir”] and I was working on the script. But still, the voices and the tone and the core thing, the idea and the concept and the story, is Jon. I had the script and he had the short story, so I could have my way if I wanted. And I could approach the story from a really fresh place of like, “Okay, this is where a scene starts,” or if we had agreed on something, I could add what I wanted and keep his story intact.
And then he selfishly, selfishly, went directly to the script on Meek. He was still working on his second novel, and he wanted me to be something outside of that. Having someone already giving me the ideas of where a scene starts, that was an adjustment for me. But also, he gets very wrapped up in the filmmaking process, and I get very wrapped up in the writing process. Once I started scouting, I could just take the script and structure it the way I needed it for the space I was in. If time allows, it’s nice to be able to call Jon, who is outside all of that, and ask a question to someone who is not caught up in the fray of production. I do feel like his writing is really suited for my filmmaking, in that we are both interested in landscape and atmospheric elements, and don’t necessarily plant the weight of everything in dialogue. Also, I think he writes really good dialogue.
AVC: Landscape plays a huge role in Meek’s Cutoff. But filming in the Oregon desert also made things difficult. Zoe Kazan said last year, “I would do it again in a heartbeat, but it’s one of those things where afterwards, you go ‘I’m really glad I didn’t know how hard that was going to be beforehand.’”
KR: Yeah, it was super hard, physically draining, and just super challenging. Probably one of the hardest things was doing the super-hardcore month of scouting with Roger Faires, who had moved out there at that point. We had zoned in on an area, so it was getting the script to work and finding the specific places for specific parts of the script. Not to mention getting to the spaces each day with the cast and crew and animals, I mean, they were all really hard-to-get-to places. And just dealing with time and the specifics of the script, like it says, “You’re on a salt flat,” or it keeps using the word “desert.” Desert can be many, many different things, and it takes on a lot of different shapes. A lot of times, the script wanted you to be surprised by things and the landscape says otherwise, so devising a way where it was still possible…
AVC: There’s a point in the story where you need a rise in the landscape, so it’s a surprise when you see what’s on the other side.
KR: There are all sorts of things. It was just maddening. And also just chasing the water. There was a point when Todd Haynes read the script—we didn’t have a river crossing at that point—and Todd was like, “You have to show water at some point in the film.” I happened to be reading about river crossings at the time, and just the mechanics of how they did it was intriguing. So that got put into the script. But finding a body of water out there, I mean, we would find one, and three weeks later, it would be gone. They were huge bodies of water, and it was just unfathomable that they would just disappear. So the water kept getting farther and farther away, and the river crossing got pushed to the end because we had to keep scouting while we were shooting, because all of our water spots were gone.
AVC: If you look at the history of the real Meek Cutoff, it took them two weeks to cross a river, so when people complain the movie is slow, they don’t realize how much you’re actually speeding things up.
KR: For me, the constant slowness… I don’t watch a ton of American film, so my sense of timing, I guess, is different. But time was a completely different thing, and nothing was immediate. Everything took effort and had some procedure that you had to go to. Like even putting your shoes on.
AVC: Or reloading a rifle.
KR: Yeah, and seriously, like putting your shoes on—they had like a million laces. Nothing is quick. In Westerns, everything is quick and highlighted. So we really wanted to play with that. Dave Doernberg, my production designer, and Vicki Farrell, the costume designer, we all got really into the research of the tools. And the actors got trained on that stuff, too, like what you would put in your wagon. I mean, if your wagon wheel breaks, you have to stop and carve a new wheel. So that really does have to be part of it. I’m taken aback by the comment that it’s slow, but then I guess if I go to a new film and sit through the trailers, I feel a little bombarded by the instant everything… I guess everybody’s clock works differently. Paul and Zoe were saying that the strangest thing for them was after walking across that desert for a month, to get in a plane and fly across that area in a minute. It was kind of striking. When I was still traveling with Wendy And Lucy, I was reading all those journals from people who made the journey west, and you read what they are going through, and then there’s an announcement that your plane is 10 minutes late or something, and everyone is like [Moans.] “Oh God,” you know, myself included. It’s not that long ago, but our sense of time has changed so dramatically. Our expectations about time in cinema in the U.S., I don’t know where it goes from here.
AVC: With Wendy And Lucy, you talked a lot about the time you’ve spent driving around America. You can look at both Wendy And Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff as road movies, but in a cautionary sense. There’s a real skepticism and a sense of the danger involved in traveling distances with no place to live. Where does that come from for you?
KR: My first film, River Of Grass, is also like that, a road movie. They aren’t able to work their way out of town, actually. It’s a theme that started at the beginning, and I look back, and I guess it’s just a good setup for different kinds of searching: question-asking, looking for the next place to go, what are you looking for, what are you leaving. All those things are good for grounding it in getting from point A to point B.
AVC: Traditionally, the road movie is a much more optimistic genre about freedom and new horizons, which are not the feelings people come away from Meek’s with.
KR: Ever since I was a kid, we had one of those piggyback campers where you could ride up in the bed; I don’t think you can do that anymore. We would go from Miami to Montana pretty much every summer and take a different route out west. I’d be in that bed looking out the window, and there was just a huge feeling as each state changed, and I had my little transistor up there and got local radio, and every place was just so distinct. We would camp our way across the country. And as it’s turned out, I continued doing that. In my 20s, I used to get those rent-a-cars and drive to the next state and wait for the next car, and that decides where you’re going to go. In these last years, I’ve been going back and forth between Oregon and New York, and the drive is now just something to get through. The interstates are horrific, there are no local radio channels. It’s Clear Channel, conservative corporate radio, all the way across. It’s just a series of chains, and they never end. Days Inn, Applebee’s—you really have to go far off. Even when you take the smaller roads, you still see the motels and stuff have all been run out of business. The gap between the big corporate motel and the mom-and-pop motel is huge now. It’s not exciting. It’s not an adventure now. It’s really just more of a chore.
Once you get past Colorado, there are states that are very beautiful to drive through. But you can’t help it—you have a lot of time to think about what it could have been, how great it could have been, and it’s just depression, I guess. The things that Americans value, and it has been passed on to people outside of America now… So much feels lost. It’s hard. It used to be a really inspiring thing that I would do, and now I find it just really depressing. The complete corporate takeover of the country is so evident, and you can’t escape it. Your choices are so few, and they are so bad. I was just showing Playtime, a Jacques Tati film, last week and the American tourist walks through the airport and she says, “Anywhere I go I feel exactly at home.” Wonderful.
AVC: Old Joy and Wendy And Lucy are intimate character pieces, and this is more of an ensemble piece. You use close-ups sparingly, for one thing. How did that change the process?
KR: The idea of how I was approaching it in the beginning, especially with the bonnets and the men’s hats, your first impressions would be of “the pioneers” or “the immigrants.” Even as we were making the film, we kept having to ask the reenactment guys, or the wagon guys, “How would you get a wagon down the hill?” and they would just say, “Well, how would you do it?” You have to remember that it’s just people out there. If you got a flat tire in the desert, what would you do? Approaching everything like that was really super interesting. There were so many things about the production itself that mirrored those ideas. Just the idea of the immigrants slowly revealing themselves as individuals with their own set of ideas about how to do things. In the production, because we were dealing with period wagons and oxen and landscape, all of those things, the clothes that they had to wear—Michelle [Williams] said on the second day of shooting, she was like “Wow, this is not Wendy And Lucy,” where we were just in constant communication with each other. And I was like “No, it’s not, it’s definitely not,” and she got it.
As it was on the trail, because the men had separate chores, people’s journals showed how alienating it was between husbands and wives, how the friendships really formed were with the other women on the trail. For myself, I did have less time to be with the actors. Since there was so much other stuff going on, they had to rely on each other a lot. There were so many practical things, we didn’t have the money to give the people a lot of comfort, and I would make the argument that that is all on the screen. That is easier to sell in the first week than in the last week. You ask yourself if you are someone who would have made the journey or someone who would have stayed back and watched them go, and I became pretty convinced that most of my cast and crew would have made the journey.
The A.V. Club: It was interesting to see that there was a real Meek Cutoff. I was curious how you came upon that story and what about it seemed like a movie you could do.
Jon Raymond: It’s kind of a funny story where I came across it. Back in 2006 or 2007, during the housing boom, there was a kind of gigantic building bubble that happened in Bend, Oregon, which is just over in eastern Oregon. It seemed to be decided by capital itself it that was going to become the new Aspen of the world or something. So they were hiring branding firms in Portland to like, name their properties and give them this instant patina of heritage. That was a freelance job that I ended up getting, to name a golf course they were building up there. I ended up doing some research into local history as a way of drumming up names, and I came across the Meek Cutoff story, which, as it turns out, is one of the more infamous episodes of the early Oregon Trail. I hadn’t heard of it before, but it’s actually quite a well-known debacle. I was just fascinated by the idea of it; it definitely rang some bells at the time. The debate amongst the pioneers, when they got lost in the huge Oregon desert, was whether Stephen Meek, their leader, was stupid or evil. There was this certain Bush-era resonance for me. Although I feel like it was more of a perennial political question of leadership and community decision-making and everything. It offered a really nice pared-down situation to explore some of those issues, like a very clean template to some of that.
AVC: Did the notion of Meek as a sort of self-mythologizing cowboy come out of that Bush-era resonance?
JR: Yes. To say it’s based on true events is maybe a bit of an exaggeration. I would say it’s “inspired by,” at best. Meek himself, by most accounts, was that kind of a Western frontiersman. What I found especially interesting about Meek, though, is that he’s the younger brother of a much more famous mountain man. Meek himself is kind of a second-tier mountain man. Joe Meek, his brother, was one of the really legendary mountain men, one of the founders of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, pals with Kit Carson and some of the other borderline-mythological kind of guys. Joe Meek then ends up becoming the first provisional governor of the Oregon territory in his retirement. But Stephen Meek never quite measured up to that, and is known almost solely for this mistake that he made. I just loved the idea that he sort of lived in the shadow of the legend.
AVC: You mentioned it being a pared-down version the real story, and from what I read, your cast of characters is off by a couple hundred wagons.
JR: [Laughs.] Yeah, exactly. Obviously budgetary constraints were a part of that, but in a way, I think it was better. It created a starker kind of drama with that number and allowed the actors to do their work.
AVC: You and Kelly Reichardt have worked together twice before, but this is the first time you’ve presented her with a completed script. There are so many scenes without dialogue; it’s something like five minutes before the first meaningful conversation. Did you just leave places in the script for Kelly to fill in the blanks?
JR: There was definitely some dialogue that didn’t make it into the final thing, particularly toward the beginning. There’s never tons of dialogue, but yeah, I’m able to comprehend some of Kelly’s rhythms at this point, write in some of those silences knowing that she’ll dilate them as she wants to. Part of it is creating opportunities for her to create her selective images. But this was always built to be that kind of thing, a slow and meditative experience, and it got even more so in the making than I might have imagined, which is an interesting thing. I mean, Kelly takes things farther than I would expect.
AVC: The character of The Indian is a tricky one. You don’t want to explain things beyond what the white characters would know, but there’s also a risk of alienating the audience from a character they can’t understand.
JR: Right. I think it is a fine line. It was something we were very conscientious of. For myself, the movie ends up being in many ways about racism and racist projections on kind of a cipher. It’s a fine line to depict that and indulge in it in some way. I think that was something I was trying to navigate that in the writing and I know Kelly was trying to navigate in the directing, how to create a kind of screen for those kind of projections without also dehumanizing a person. Hopefully we were able to do that in some way, and if we did, it was helped massively by Rod Rondeaux, the actor, who just brought such an incredible presence to it. I’ve been surprised by how little note people have taken with him. Yeah, you can’t understand exactly what he’s saying, but I find the performance to be just really compelling and interesting.
AVC: I realized the second time through that although Meek makes an assumption about where the Indian has come from, we don’t even know what tribe he is.
The character was written to be a Cayuse Indian. They’re not precisely in Cayuse country. Cayuse country is a fair piece north of where they are. I like the idea that the Indian in a sense was a wanderer of the area as well. The Cayuse were horse people. They were a big horse tribe and they did slave-getting runs down through this area, like, they would go and enslave Modocs farther down south and bring them back up. So in my mind, the backstory is he got separated from some slaving trip .As it turns out, there are only like three speaking Cayuse left in the world, so the language he’s speaking is known as Nez Perce, from an adjacent tribe, which is not impossible because even at this time the Cayuse were already being decimated by disease and being absorbed into the Nez Perce tribe. There are at least a handful more speakers of Nez Perce in the reservation in Pendleton where there’s a group that has a language institute there, and they were incredibly helpful in translating the dialogue that I wrote into Nez Perce. Rod Rondeaux, he doesn’t speak Nez Perce, but he speaks about five or seven other Indian dialects. He himself is Crow. He just has a real knack for language, so he was able, phonetically, to pick it up. They didn’t write down the translation, they just recorded it for him, so he, phonetically, was able just to perform them and produce them and did it in a very brief time. It was quite impressive.
AVC: You could write subtitles for his final scene that would radically change the way the ending plays.
JR: I think it’s really important that the audience not understand what he was saying. God knows, maybe they mistranslated it and he was just giving orders at Burger King. But keeping the audience in that position of not knowing was just really one of the goals, and the whole ending really depends on just not knowing what his program is.
AVC: So I take it you’re not telling?
JR: No, no. It’s not amazing dialogue. I always knew it wasn’t really going to be known, so it isn’t anything that incredible. For the tribal people, they sort of teased me, like I think it was a little overly spiritual for them. But they didn’t care.
AVC: Moving on to Mildred Pierce, what grabbed you about the book? It’s obviously not the James M. Cain people know, the guy who would start a novel with, “They threw me off the hay truck around noon.”
JR: That was what initially excited me about the book. I had read the other big ones, you know, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, and had enjoyed them very much. But when I read Mildred Pierce it was like, “Wow this is not hard-boiled at all.” It was just the portrait of a woman, but done in a way that was so fresh. The language of the book, it was not terse, it was not hard-bitten the way that some of this other stuff was. It was a different experience and it turned me on. It was just one those books that you feel like people should read, and I was one of those people. I never gave it to [Todd] because I knew he was going to want to make a movie out of it though.
AVC: How did the writing break down between the two of you?
JR: There were initial conversations on a macro level just trying to figure out how long it needed to be. We both had a very similar intuition that it would be around five hours. We went through and figured out the breaks, where the different possible end points would be. Then we divided it up and started passing them back and forth. We were helped a lot by digital screenwriting technology at that point, because we could just pass them back and forth and comprehend what the edits had been. It was a really lovely process. I think it helps that Todd and I have known each other for a while and we have a conversation and a rapport between us. We were able to start on a nice, friendly level. It was just a genuine, collaborative writing process. The fact that this was an adaptation made it also particularly easy because we were inheriting these situations and characters. There is a lot of basic problem-solving on a certain level, although we did have to imagine some significant passages to make the whole think time out properly and to make it work. But it was nice that we had the pieces already.
AVC: It goes back to the William Goldman adage, where screenplays are structure. Most of the heavy lifting is figuring out how it goes together, and the rest you can finesse.
JR: And the dialogue was so juicy and salty and distinct that once you put on your Cain goggles to do some of that writing, you’re starting way deep in and it’s easy to ventriloquize some of his salty dialogue.
AVC: Your novels and short fiction as well as the movies you’ve done with Kelly are very rooted in a sense of place, particularly Portland, where you live. Kelly tells the story of driving all around the country trying to figure out where to shoot Wendy And Lucy and ending up in the parking lot you originally wrote about, which you can see from your house. What was it like to work on something set in Los Angeles?
JR: The geography and the birth of where it comes from do a lot to help with figuring out what stories you want to tell. Thankfully the story was there. But I do wonder that: given the chance to write something that was not dictated by the place, I honestly don’t know what I would do. With Mildred Pierce, the ground was made by him. And Todd has a real connection with L.A. because he grew up there, so he had a real feel for the place of it.
AVC: It’s fascinating, just on a visceral level, to watch the scenes in the kitchen of Mildred’s restaurant, with all the dishes changing hands. There is a real joy and a sense of materiality there.
JR: Yes, yes, that’s one of the most exciting things for us. Cain was really precise about the work routine and the material viewing of stuff. For myself and Todd, that was a really exciting prospect. I find it interesting to watching people work. There is just something strangely gripping about it. There is a bar franchise in Portland that has been taking out firehouses and schoolhouses and turning them into brew pubs, and one of my friends was like, “You know what they should do? They should put a brew pub in an actually functioning school or office.” I would love to go to a bar where you just got to watch people work in their offices. That would be delightful. So we were really conscientious that there was room for all the restaurant orchestration stuff.
AVC: How much did you think about genre, about it being either melodrama or social realism?
JR: Todd is a real purist. To do something with Todd takes a full seminar. He has really elaborate and long-standing views about melodrama, and I think the appeal for this was in how it both satisfies and diverges from traditional melodrama. It is distinctly a melodrama, but it’s rare to find a melodrama where the two protagonists are a mother and daughter. And it’s also rare to find a melodrama where a woman character has a life outside the home and a work life. In some ways it was very classic, but it also posed an interesting wrinkle for Todd as far as his own models of melodrama.
I don’t know exactly why Todd invited me to help on this whole thing. I think it was just out of the fact that I handed it to him. Certainly I didn’t bring any great knowledge of or zeal for the melodrama. Although I guess being around Todd for a decade, I guess I have absorbed some of that stuff. I worked on Far From Heaven as his assistant and I’ve watched movies with him. So I guess I was up on his model just because of osmosis. But it’s not like I had too much to add. [Laughs.]