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Variety Honoree Kelly Reichardt: Still on the Side of the Outsiders

Most indie auteurs comfortably orbit the red hot sun that is big budget, tent pole-driven Hollywood, more than happy to exchange their artistic vision and the eternal quest for financing for a shot at a superhero franchise or monster movie with a built-in global audience and fat payday, should the chance ever come their way.

Kelly Reichardt, who will receive Variety’s 2016 Indie Impact Award at Sundance, is not that kind of filmmaker. Since making her acclaimed 1994 debut “River of Grass,” she’s followed her own singular orbit as a true outlier of indie cinema, and over the course of nearly quarter of a century and nine films has amassed a small but potent body of work – including “Old Joy,” “Wendy and Lucy,” “Meek’s Cutoff” and “Night Moves” – that has cemented her reputation as one of the most distinctive voices in movies today, thanks to her hands-on approach (she’s also edited her last five films), and ultra-realistic, unsentimental and gritty approach to her minimalist material.

And that austere material – mostly co-written with novelist Jonathan Raymond since “Old Joy,” and often based on his short stories – is, appropriately enough for the outlier auteur, mainly about proverbial outsiders and enigmatic figures, wanderers adrift in the American west, often alone in their endless and mysterious journeys.

“Insiders are already well-covered,” notes Reichardt of her fondness for marginalized characters and stories that seem wary of firm resolutions. “I’m far more interested in the inherent drama of everyday life, the small beats you’re constantly up against. It’s more comfortable territory for me.”

Geographically, that territory has taken Reichardt to Oregon for her last four films (“I spend a lot of time there, but I’m not really based anywhere,” she admits. “I’m in my fifties and I don’t even own a house.”) and to Montana for her new film, “Certain Women” (“a drama about small life struggles”).

More tellingly, culturally and psychically, it’s taken her a million miles away from her Miami upbringing. “Florida was a cultural void growing up there in the seventies,” she reports. “My parents were in law enforcement, and I didn’t really have any movie influences until I got out of Florida and went to college in Boston. Then I was suddenly exposed to Hitchcock and noir, and I took a Fassbender class at art school – by accident – and one in Indian cinema – which completely overwhelmed me. It was this whole new world to me.”

“I had no idea when we did (“Old Joy”) that it’d even become a feature. It was just an art project we went off in the woods to make. I’d sort of given up on making films by then.”
Kelly Reichardt

She happily allows that that new world “is embarrassingly evident” in “River of Grass” (which is being re-released by Oscilloscope Pictures). “I can clearly see Godard’s influence, and noir and early Terrence Malick. It’s all laid quite bare.”

Despite her debut feature’s critical acclaim and success on the festival circuit (it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and three Spirit Awards), Reichardt struggled for the next decade to get another feature project off the ground. “Making that film was a real eye-opener,” she says, “and even going to Sundance and all of it – that was my first realization that it was different for women in this business,” she says. “There were just two of us women filmmakers at Sundance in ’94, and there was no sense of camaraderie or welcoming – no fault of Sundance. And I took it really personally and it took me a long time to get over it. That was a part of my retreating afterwards.”

“The other part was, I just couldn’t get financing, and it was so frustrating,” she recalls. “I tried so hard to be a more avant-garde, less narrative filmmaker, but it just didn’t come naturally to me. I went to L.A. for a while, and Jodie Foster was going to produce a film I was doing, but it never got made. I simply didn’t have the social skills needed to operate in the business. So I went back to Super 8, which is what I’d done in college.”

Reichardt then made a series of shorts before finally making her next feature, “Old Joy,” in 2006, a low-key but tense drama about two old friends – one settled and married, the other an aimless, homeless hippie. “It seemed like nothing happened during my time in L.A., but I’d worked – in the art department – on ‘Poison,’ and I became friends with (director) Todd Haynes,” she explains. “And he introduced me to (novelist) Jonathan Raymond, and one of his stories became the basis for ‘Old Joy’ – but I had no idea when we did it that it’d even become a feature. It was just an art project we went off in the woods to make. I’d sort of given up on making films by then.”

The film’s success (it won a handful of awards) enabled the filmmaker to land a star – Michelle Williams (now a frequent collaborator) – and a far bigger budget for her next film, “Wendy and Lucy,” which the New York Times’ A.O. Scott termed ‘Neo-Neo Realism’ in his article.

And since then, Reichardt’s films have attracted gradually bigger budgets and more star-power; “Meek’s Cutoff” featured Williams, Bruce Greenwood and Will Patton, “Night Moves” had Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard, and “Certain Women” stars Kristen Stewart, Williams and Laura Dern. “It’s still a super-low budget,” she says of the latter. “I’d love to have more time and money to shoot with. I’m getting too old to do these small budget movies, but it’s improving.”

As for being that rara avis, a woman director, things have also “improved a lot,” notes Reichardt who also moonlights teaching film (she’s been at Bard College for the past decade). “When I first started back in ‘98, there were no girls in the class,” she states. “This last semester, I had 10 girls and just three boys, and I never ever thought I’d see that. And Lena Dunham came along, and for this generation (of women), they feel it’s all there for them. It’s all possible.”

With that in mind, how would she respond if a major Hollywood studio suddenly asked her to helm a big budget production full of explosions and car chases? “There’s absolutely no danger of that happening,” she says firmly with a laugh. “But maybe there’s something for me somewhere in between that and my sort of films. I did really enjoy doing my little wagon crash in ‘Meek’s Cutoff.’ It was one of the most fun things I ever did, and I suddenly realized, ‘Oh, this is why people love to smash things up. It’s so much fun!’”

FILMOGRAPHY

“River of Grass” (1994)
Director and screenwriter
A deadbeat couple half-heartedly try to escape South Florida after a shooting incident.

“Ode” (1999)
Director
Loosely based on the ‘60s hit ballad “Ode to Billie Joe,” a fatalistic tale of repressed small-town dreams.

“Then a Year” (2001)
Director
A 14-minute experimental short about a crime of passion.

“Travis” (2004)
Director
A 12-minute haunting meditation on the costs of the Iraq war.

“Old Joy” (2006)
Director
An aimless, homeless hippie (Will Oldham) and his married best friend (Daniel London) visit a hot springs, skinny-dip, and avoid confronting unspoken tensions.

“Wendy and Lucy” (2008)
Director
A broke, struggling woman (Michelle Williams) and her dog are separated when Wendy’s car breaks down in a shabby Oregon town on her way to Alaska.

“Meek’s Cutoff” (2010)
Director
A charismatic but untrustworthy trail guide (Bruce Greenwood) leads a group of settlers (including Will Patton and Michelle Williams) on a quest for water in 1840s Oregon.

“Night Moves” (2013)
Director and screenwriter
Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard play eco-activists who plan to blow up a hydroelectric dam in Orgeon.

“Certain Women” (2016)
Director and screenwriter
Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams and Laura Dern star in a drama about three women whose lives intertwine in a small town

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