To say that Kelly Reichardt “burst” onto the scene with 2006’s Old Joy is slightly inaccurate. First, because Reichardt had been an underground filmmaker of some repute for years, with the much-acclaimed 1994 feature River of Grass and the 1999 long-form short Ode. Secondly, because Reichardt doesn’t make movies that “burst”: Joy was a gentle, haunting story of two old friends reconnecting on a languorous camping trip and discovering how much they’ve changed. Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt’s highly anticipated latest, stars Michelle Williams as a poor and mysterious young woman scrounging her way to Alaska when her car breaks down in Oregon and her dog goes missing. Reichardt spoke to Vulture about the fine-tuned instrument that is Michelle Williams.
Old Joy was about two childhood friends who had drifted apart — one was a suburban husband; the other, Kurt, was a penniless drifter. Now Wendy reminds me of Kurt in that she’s running out of money and on the edge of society.
She’s another person who’s living off the grid. But Wendy is not too much like Kurt. She’s not a whatever-comes-my-way kind of person. She’s actually really buttoned down and looks at life in the short term. She’s a list keeper. She tracks her mileage and tracks her money.
I’m convinced we’re basically watching the last few days of Wendy’s life.
That’s funny. Some people actually say, “What a hopeful ending!” What I really like about Jon’s writing, and why I’m drawn to it, is because there’s really enough space in the story for every viewer to bring their own personal experience. There must be some expression of yourself in the way you see it. So, let me guess, you must be a glass-half-empty kind of person. [Laughs]
It sounds like the film has political overtones for you.
To me, Wendy and Lucy is a personal story of a girl and her dog. But when you’re strapped financially, it’s hard to escape some things. The myth that we’ve bought into in this country, especially in the last eight years, is that if it’s not working out for you, then it’s because you’re lazy or don’t really want it. So we started with this character who actually has the wherewithal to look around her and say, “There’s no opportunity here.” And she has the spirit to go out and seek something. Is that really all you need?
So what’s she going to do in Alaska, if she gets there?
That’s a good question. There’s that whole go-to-Alaska-and-work-in-a-fish-cannery thing. I met so many people, especially in the Northwest, who did that. And, of course, none of them came home with the pot of gold that they were promised: “You can save up! Get a nest egg!”
So much of Michelle Williams’s performance is wordless. How do you write something like that?
You don’t. Both of these scripts were basically like 40 pages. A lot of it is just Michelle. When I first met her, she said something offhanded about being a fine-tune instrument. When I was filming her, I realized that’s exactly what she is. She’s a master of her craft. She’s been working for so long, she can just make the smallest adjustments, and she’s capable of being really still and letting a lot come through that.
Did you improvise a lot?
We were moving too fast to improvise. We shot 22 locations in eighteen days. At the same time, I feel like Michelle is improvising with her body all the time. And you’re improvising because you’re not blocking off a street. You’re improvising because you’re working with an untrained dog. So there are elements that are keeping her in the moment at all times.