The American Con of Bootstrap Optimism

Kelly Reichardt talks about 'Wendy and Lucy,' her prescient film about a girl and a dog, a rock and a hard place

Michelle Williams in <i>Wendy and Lucy</i>
Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy

In an age when Hollywood studios are churning out $150 million computer-generated explosion reels and calling them movies, the idea of a quiet tragedy about a young woman looking for her lost dog seems almost revolutionary. Wendy and Lucy, the newest film from writer/director Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy) is a sort of minimalist opera in blue, with long, lingering shots of rain-soaked Oregon providing the backdrop for a story of financial and emotional collapse. The film stars a fantastic Michelle Williams, who gives the kind of subdued performance critics laud and Academy voters ignore.

Recently the Chronicle spoke with Reichardt about the best way to approach political themes as a filmmaker, the importance of capturing mood in a movie almost devoid of dialogue, and how, sometimes, the best moments can't be scripted.

Austin Chronicle: Where did the idea for Wendy and Lucy come from?

Kelly Reichardt: It was in the wake of Katrina. I had seen Colin Powell on some show talking about people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, and I thought, "Oh my God, what a bunch of crap!" [Laughs] Really? That's all it takes? All you need is the desire to change your life and a little spunk? You can improve your life without the benefit of an education or social skills or family security? The whole thing angered me. The idea that opportunity is just laying at everybody's feet in America is very dangerous. And it's an idea that seemed to be the tenor of the national dialogue after Katrina.

We wanted to base something around the economic situation in the country and explore how the divide between rich and poor is getting bigger. So Jon [co-writer Jonathan Raymond] went off and wrote a short story called "Train Choir," and then I started working on the script based on his story, and the idea started getting passed back and forth between us.

AC: Do you consider it a political movie?

KR: Well, I started off with those ideas, but no. It's about a girl and her dog. [Laughs] After some point, you're just focused on the character and the story you're telling. I like the idea of a political subtext but nothing more than that. My favorite political films are McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Shampoo, where the political ideas are buried and it's the characters we're following, and the other stuff dawns on you later.

AC: Wendy and Lucy is very light on dialogue. Were you ever worried that the movie wasn't going to grab viewers' attention?

KR: Sure. But I get nervous when there's too much dialogue. Which is why I spend so much time scouting locations, because I know the place I end up shooting is going to have a huge impact on the film. The landscape and the physical context become a part of the story.

We have so little time when we're shooting, so my fear is that we're not going to get to the contextual, tonal stuff because you tend to shoot the dialogue scenes first. And everything else that isn't on paper can easily get lost and forgotten because it may not seem so significant. But it is actually very significant. For me, it's what makes a movie.

For example, when we finished shooting in Oregon, the first day driving back east I stopped in a motel, and I made a list of all the little moments and visual ideas I hadn't gotten on film, shots of birds on a telephone wire or Michelle sitting in her car on a rainy day, for example. I felt like I had the meat of the movie but none of the extras. So while I was editing, Michelle and I would go back to Oregon to get more of those intimate moments, moments that really make the movie.

AC: Is it those intimate, human moments that can't be scripted that you're looking for?

KR: The unscripted moments have more room for possibilities. At the beginning, when the movie only exists in your mind, the possibilities are endless. And then all the things you have to go through to make the film – scouting the locations, finding the actors, finding the crew – everything becomes more matter of fact. And then the more things get written in stone, especially when you start shooting, you realize the possibilities actually aren't endless. But the scenes where you're just filling in, that's where the mood comes from. You just go and you sit in a train yard, for example, and you wait for the train, and you don't know if the train is going to come or not. Anything can happen. And that's exciting. That's life.

Wendy and Lucy opens in Austin on Friday. See Film Listings, for review.

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Kelly Reichardt, Wendy and Lucy, Jon Raymond, Michelle Williams, Old Joy

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