Kelly Reichardt is angry and always has been. Even as her ascendency in the world of independent cinema continues (with intimate, pensive gems like Old Joy, Meek’s Cutoff, and Night Moves), the Florida-born filmmaker refuses to be anything but apoplectic. Which is not the same as being unpleasant or ungrateful. She is neither. It’s just that Reichardt believes the world is one unmitigated disaster after the next, sporadically punctuated by fleeting moments of beauty. Coincidentally, that’s an apt description for River Of Grass, her breathtaking directorial debut which she poetically describes as “a road movie without the road, a love story without the love, and a crime story without the crime.”
Shot on 16mm, Reichardt’s entry into cinema is assured as it is imperfect; it’s the work of an emerging artist, a rebel still in search of a cause and voice. Nevertheless, it’s also a potent piece of filmmaking that has been lovingly resurrected by Oscilloscope Laboratories (and others) to create a new DCP. After the restoration’s premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival—where her latest movie, Certain Women, also screened—Reichardt sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss what spawned River Of Grass, her frustratingly content students at Bard College, and the origins of her beef with the whole damn world.
The A.V. Club: You didn’t stay for the screening. Do you not watch your movies?
Kelly Reichardt: No, I can’t watch them. But I edit them. By the time I’m done I’m just looking at the parts, and I would just be too frustrated.
AVC: Many people love your movies and yet you can’t enjoy them.
KR: I know. It’s not good. I can’t accept the joy.
AVC: That’s sad.
KR: But are you a happy person? Do you get to enjoy everything you do? Something you wrote? Do you read your writing and think, “I did a good job on that.” That may be generational thing.
AVC: Look at you. Right to the age.
KR: (Laughs) No, but I ask people, “What are you working on?” And they go, “I am doing the greatest painting right now.” And I’m completely jealous of that.
AVC: To answer the question: I dislike pretty much everything I’ve written once its about one or two months removed.
KR: I don’t dislike everything I do. Let’s just say, especially with a film, you don’t have an easy relationship with it when it’s done because it’s been your life. Making a film is very trying. I’m attached to them, and to the adventure of what it was to make that movie. At the very same time, I find filmmaking to be a super lonely, alienating experience.
AVC: Is there any part of River Of Grass that you look at with fondness?
KR: Larry Fessenden and I watched it without the sound to do the commentary. It was like two old people watching something and trying to remember everything. But I did say, sometimes, “That’s a good shot.” Then there’s one dissolve in the movie where you’re like, “What the fuck is that dissolve doing there?”
AVC: But how old were you when you made the film?
KR: Not that young. I was 30.
AVC: In those couple of years leading up to the film, what’s happening in your life?
KR: That’s a big question. I had gone back home to Miami to work on the script at around age 27, 28. Then I went to Nashville for awhile, and tried to write with one of the producers on the movie, Jesse Hartman, but then that didn’t really work out. So I moved back to New York, and I ended up writing the script there in my first apartment on 21st street.
AVC: Does that feel like a long time ago?
KR: Life has moved very fast. I’m in the age of now where I’m like, “I get it. This is all fast.”
AVC: But I feel that now.
KR: No you don’t. How old are you?
AVC: No comment.
KR: I’m 51. So I’m just saying, 30 years from now you’re going to have a different outlook. That’s what a midlife crisis is.
AVC: Are you having that right now?
KR: [Laughs.] I’m just saying that’s why that exists. You all of a sudden feel it. Only in America do we delude ourselves that 50 is midlife, too.
AVC: So what’s going on with you at 27, writing this script in New York?
KR: The joke with my friends was that I had a lot of beef.
AVC: And did you?
AVC: With who?
KR: Everyone. The world. You name it. I ask that to my students. I say, “Where’s the anger in your movies? Draw from your anger.” And they go, “What anger? What are you mad about?” You should be angry.
AVC: But how much time should we spend being angry?
KR: Sam, more species are going to die in the next 10 years—
AVC: Shouldn’t we be enjoying our time while we’re here?
KR: No! I’m not miserable, but I can’t not be angry. As I’m talking to you, I’m looking at the window and can’t understand why there are six hundred thousand SUVs here in this little town. No one can even move. Why doesn’t everyone just get out and walk? Or just the fact that I’m really thirsty, but I don’t want to drink that bottled water. I just want water from the faucet. I’m not beyond enjoying anything. Waking up and having a project to work on is one of life’s great pleasures.
AVC: Is that when you’re happiest, working on a project?
KR: Happiness is a strange word. So conclusive. Happiness is a thing that happens for a moment, right? A strange dog runs up to you and licks your hand, and you’re just so happy that the dog has chosen you. Or your friend’s kid plops down in your lap and does something stupid.
AVC: Do you feel like you have purpose when you’re making a movie?
KR: I don’t have to be making something to feel like life has value. Friendships are valuable to me. But I like to have a project. I live to have something to waste my energy on, something to think about. To figure out like a puzzle.
AVC: Does it consume your life?
KR: For the last 10 years it has. I’m trying to figure out my situation all the time.
KR: I don’t want them. I mean, I like them… but there’s enough kids. You don’t need me to have kids.
AVC: Plus, like you said, the world is going to shit.
KR: Exactly. But I’m thoroughly enjoying my friend’s kids.
AVC: You’re the person who goes on the friend’s boat, and then gets to leave the boat at the end of a fun night.
KR: No, I’m still the person on my friend’s couch, and I’d like to own the couch.
AVC: You never really revealed what exactly you had beef with at 27.
KR: It’s been a lifetime of trying to have less beef. Beef comes very naturally to me. I was born with my dukes up, but that’s not always necessary anymore. I have to retrain myself. As a child, I remember being in the pool at this pool party and having to get out of the pool to watch Nixon resign. My first idea of a president was of a guy who was a crook.
AVC: That set the tone for you.
KR: A little bit. Then, as I was coming to be an adult, the AIDS epidemic happened. Moving to New York, watching that unfold, and watching the activism around that… it was complete chaos of life, and then this horrific non-response from the powers that be. There was a lot of misery and sadness tied up in that.
AVC: Do you think all good cinema is driven by anger?
KR: You have to have some matter of dissatisfaction in order to be asking questions, or just acknowledging the complexity of the world and how fucking chaotic it is. The beautiful moment sits very close to the horrific one.
AVC: And now, do you feel any more at peace with the chaos?
KR: [Laughs.] In my mid-age? Yeah, I do feel more at peace—not with the world, but with myself.