Kelly Re­ichardt says to hell with the women-in-cinema thing

To make the movies she wanted, Kelly Re­ichardt had to go it alone

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - By Lo­gan Hill

In the win­ter of 1994 di­rec­tor Kelly Re­ichardt al­most missed the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val de­but of her first film be­cause she was stuck on a train. “I couldn’t af­ford the plane tick­ets,” says Re­ichardt, shrug­ging her slight shoul­ders in a Man­hat­tan cafe. “The train froze on the tracks and took five days in­stead of three. We got there just in time for our pre­miere. We hadn’t show­ered in five days. We were to­tal grease heads.”

Re­ichardt was one of two women film­mak­ers at the Park City, Utah, fes­ti­val that year. Her fea­ture, River of Grass, which she de­scribes as “a road movie with­out the road, a love story with­out the love, and a crime story with­out the crime,” got strong re­views, though some of her peers were not so sup­port­ive.

“I re­mem­ber Kevin Smith was there with Clerks,” she says, sip­ping a chamomile tea. “He’s in this book [Spike, Mike, Slack­ers & Dykes by John Pier­son] talk­ing about my film and how it’s an ex­am­ple of a film that should have never been made. They say that it looks like it was shot on postage stamps. The guy who made Clerks …” She pauses for wry em­pha­sis: Clerks was mem­o­rably low-fi. “That’s the kind of friendly Sun­dance ca­ma­raderie back in the day. But there were other, nicer folks.”

That year, the fes­ti­val launched the ca­reers of the fan­boy king­pin Smith (Clerks, Chas­ing Amy), as well as peren­nial Os­car con­tender David O. Rus­sell (Spank­ing the Mon­key, Joy) and doc­u­men­tar­ian Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Life It­self), to hard­earned, near-im­me­di­ate ac­claim. For Re­ichardt, it was the be­gin­ning of a more cir­cuitous jour­ney that, like her ill-fated train ride, took much longer than nec­es­sary. Al­though River of Grass was later nom­i­nated for three In­de­pen­dent Spirit Awards, she was un­able to make a se­cond film for 12 years. Re­ichardt re­turns to Sun­dance this year with a re­stored print of her first film, as well as her sixth fea­ture, Cer­tain Women, star­ring Laura Dern, Kris­ten Ste­wart, Michelle Wil­liams, and new­comer Lily Gladstone. Im­me­di­ate ac­claim, how­ever, has re­mained out of reach. Re­ichardt’s gen­der has a lot to do with this. The in­dus­try con­tin­ues to wres­tle with sys­temic gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion, as the Sony e-mail hack re­vealed. Salary dis­par­i­ties af­fect even Hol­ly­wood’s most bank­able woman, Jen­nifer Lawrence. Ex­actly zero of 2015’s 10 high­est-gross­ing films were di­rected by women—as well as zero of the top 10 movies listed by the Na­tional Board of Re­view and the Amer­i­can Film In­sti­tute. Ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for the Study of Women in Tele­vi­sion and Film, 85 per­cent of films re­leased com­mer­cially in 2014 were di­rected by men; 80 per­cent were writ­ten by men; 92 per­cent were shot by male cin­e­matog­ra­phers. In Oc­to­ber the Equal Em­ploy­ment Op­por­tu­nity Com­mis­sion opened a for­mal in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Hol­ly­wood’s hir­ing prac­tices.

So far, the con­ver­sa­tion has fol­lowed the money: When will a woman di­rect a Marvel movie? A sci-fi epic? Why, af­ter the smash-hit suc­cess of the woman-helmed Frozen and Kung Fu Panda 2, was not a sin­gle an­i­mated film di­rected by a woman last year? Why did Sun­dance dar­ling Colin Trevor­row get to di­rect Juras­sic World af­ter mak­ing only one small-bud­get film? “It feels like a dif­fer­ent con­ver­sa­tion, be­cause that’s not about telling the sto­ries that mat­ter to me,” Re­ichardt says, adding that the de­bate of­ten feels like women are ask­ing, “‘Can I make a movie as crappy as those movies?’ How awe­some.”

But dis­crim­i­na­tion doesn’t just touch women who want to be the next Steven Spiel­berg. Un­like Smith (who comes back to Sun­dance this year with his 12th film, Yoga Hosers, star­ring his daugh­ter, Har­ley Quinn Smith, op­po­site Johnny Depp’s daugh­ter, Lily-Rose Depp), Re­ichardt strug­gled to con­vert prom­ise into a ca­reer. A pro­ject Jodie Foster was set to pro­duce died in de­vel­op­ment. “I had 10 years from the mid-1990s when I couldn’t get a movie made,” she told the Guardian in 2011. “It had a lot to do with be­ing a woman. That’s def­i­nitely a fac­tor in rais­ing money.” She

“WE OP­ER­ATE IN A GRAY AREA— DI­REC­TOR-DRIVEN FILMS IN A CELEBRITYHUNGRY MAR­KET. THIS IS THE LINE WE WALK EV­ERY DAY”

couch-surfed for five years, even­tu­ally tak­ing a job teach­ing at Bard Col­lege.

Re­ichardt brought her se­cond film to Sun­dance in 2006. Old Joy, a hushed, med­i­ta­tive ram­ble of a film set in the Pa­cific Northwest with no stars and omi­nous Bush-era over­tones of by­gone youth, was made for only $40,000. It was one of the fes­ti­val’s hits, land­ing on scores of crit­ics’ yearend top-10 lists.

Re­ichardt’s next film, the 2008 heart­breaker Wendy and Lucy, was her true break­out. Star­ring Wil­liams as a vul­ner­a­ble woman who loses her dog and any­thing re­sem­bling a safety net, it evoked the fear­ful ten­sion of Amer­ica as it fell into re­ces­sion. The fraught, el­e­gant film earned a Cannes pre­miere and a slot on the Amer­i­can Film In­sti­tute’s Top 10 Films of the Year list. New York Times critic A.O. Scott cham­pi­oned the movie and named Re­ichardt a leader of a “Neo­Neo-Re­al­ism” move­ment.

In a busi­ness dom­i­nated by global fran­chises, di­rec­tor­driven films not based on branded in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty are hard to fi­nance. Per­sonal films by fe­male film­mak­ers are dou­bly dif­fi­cult, but Re­ichardt’s abil­ity to keep bud­gets low and at­tract top-name tal­ent has been a virtue.

Wendy and Lucy was the first of her four col­lab­o­ra­tions with the Brook­lyn, N.Y.-based stu­dio Film­science, which went on to pro­duce her oblique Ore­gon Trail Western Meek’s Cut­off, the tense eco-thriller Night Moves, and Cer­tain Women. On the strength of Re­ichardt’s rep­u­ta­tion and her lat­est movie’s cast, the com­pany was able to pre­sell global dis­tri­bu­tion rights for the film to Sony Pic­tures World­wide Ac­qui­si­tions be­fore its Sun­dance pre­miere. In Park City it will look for a do­mes­tic-re­lease part­ner.

“We’ve all been in­cred­i­bly for­tu­nate in that amaz­ing ac­tors want to work with Kelly and make big con­ces­sions to do so (both fi­nan­cially and in terms of ameni­ties they may be ac­cus­tomed to on big­ger films),” Film­science pro­duc­ers Neil Kopp and Anish Sav­jani wrote in an e-mail. “We op­er­ate in a gray area—di­rec­tor-driven films in a celebrity-hun­gry mar­ket,” they added. “This is the line we walk ev­ery day.”

Ac­tors such as Jesse Eisen­berg (who starred in Night Moves af­ter the So­cial Net­work) and Ste­wart (who stars in Cer­tain Women af­ter hav­ing made her name in the Twi­light movies) are drawn to Re­ichardt be­cause she of­fers them roles Hol­ly­wood does not.

“I’m the one who was lucky to work with Kelly, not the other way around,” says Wil­liams, who also starred in Meek’s Cut­off. “When I saw Old Joy, there wasn’t a ques­tion of her gen­der, of the size of the film, or the crowds it may or may not draw. I wanted to be di­rected by that keen and sub­tle eye. I wanted to let mys­tery hang in the air of a film. I wanted the dig­nity and space she al­lowed her char­ac­ters.”

“Kelly is one of the true pi­o­neers in fierce, make-it-your­way, in­de­pen­dent film­mak­ing,” Dern says. “She’ll make movies how­ever she needs in or­der to al­low for that kind of free­dom.” Re­ichardt’s good friend and pro­ducer, the film­maker Todd Haynes, was nom­i­nated for best di­rec­tor at this year’s Golden Globe awards for his film Carol, which was nom­i­nated for best drama. If Re­ichardt were a man, he says, “the in­tegrity of an en­tire and an ex­tra­or­di­nary body of work would have been more vis­i­ble by now. It’s very hard to come up with other film­mak­ers in the in­de­pen­dent film com­mu­nity who’ve made such un­com­pro­mis­ing work so con­sis­tently, with such a clear, pre­cise, and res­o­nant vi­sion.”

In­stead, Re­ichardt’s work has qui­etly, steadily ac­crued greater res­o­nance, much like one of her enig­matic films. “I’m usu­ally not moved in the mo­ment dur­ing her films,” says Sun­dance Fes­ti­val Di­rec­tor John Cooper. “It’s more of a col­lec­tive ef­fect. You feel like you watched some­thing qui­etly be­come pow­er­ful.”

This year, 22 of the 54 films in com­pe­ti­tion at Sun­dance, or 41 per­cent, were di­rected by women. But crit­ics have pro­claimed it the “year of the woman” be­fore, and de­spite the iso­lated suc­cess of di­rec­tors such as Kathryn Bigelow, Ava DuVer­nay, Jen­nifer Lee, and El­iz­a­beth Banks, the over­all sta­tis­tics have barely budged. Re­ichardt, who’s been in­ter­ro­gated about the role of women in Hol­ly­wood since her de­but 22 years ago, says she feels a bit trapped by the un­chang­ing dis­cus­sion. “This is a los­ing con­ver­sa­tion for any woman to have—to hell with the women-in-cinema thing,” she says, sigh­ing more out of fa­tigue than pique.

Re­ichardt has al­ways pre­ferred to let her work speak for it­self, so she perks up when asked to de­scribe what’s at stake for the char­ac­ter in her new film. Set in Mon­tana, Cer­tain Women fea­tures a hostage sit­u­a­tion and feud­ing lawyers. But Re­ichardt says it’s less about top­i­cal con­flict and more about women find­ing ways to live their par­tic­u­lar lives. She could be de­scrib­ing her ca­reer.

“It’s about small strug­gles, just small, per­sonal pol­i­tics with strangers, with neigh­bors, with hus­bands,” she says. “And I think it might be about en­ti­tle­ment on some level: what some peo­ple feel they have com­ing to them and the ex­pec­ta­tions other peo­ple just don’t have.” <BW>

Cer­tain Women Bud­get: more than $1 mil­lion (ex­act fig­ure un­known)

River of Grass Re­ichardt’s first com­mer­cially re­leased film

Old Joy Bud­get: $40,000

Night Moves Box Of­fice: $272,000

Wendy and Lucy Box Of­fice: $1.2 mil­lion (her high­est-gross­ing movie)

Meek’s Cut­off Box Of­fice: $978,000

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