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Kelly Reichardt on Her Michelle Williams Western, Meek’s Cutoff

Photo: Michael Buckner Images for AFI/Getty
Photo: Michael Buckner Images for AFI/Getty

Leave it to Kelly Reichardt, director of such small, quiet films as Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, to make a Western with more wide shots than gunshots. But Fordian showdowns or no, Meek’s Cutoff is as Western as it gets, telling the story of three families led astray on the Oregon Trail by wayward guide Stephen Meek. “I never called it a Western while we were making it because I wanted to avoid the pitfalls,” Reichardt told us. “It’s just a really testosterone-filled genre. But they are heading West. With hats. And there’s an Indian.” The film, starring Michelle Williams, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood, and Will Patton, is out this week. We spoke with Reichardt about pioneer camp; the Oregon Trail video game; and the genre she’ll never, ever tackle.

Shooting in the desert must have been miserable.
There’s a reason it’s very untouched. It was 110 degrees when we started, and we had hailstorms and snowstorms by mid-shoot; it’s a place of real extremes. We lived in this two-street town called Burns, Oregon, and we would go off-road two hours into the desert. We were worried about our old wagons getting damaged. Our wagons were fine — it was the cars and the trucks that couldn’t handle that dust. Anything with a motor broke down. And I knew there was a reason people don’t use bulls in Westerns, which I did: They’re bulls! They’re good while they’re good, and sometimes they go bananas and you have a bull running through your set. It keeps you on your toes. It keeps everyone very much in the moment. That’s how I tried to sell it to the actors: You’re suffering and it’s helping you!

Besides dealing with bulls, what else did the cast have to suffer through?
We had pioneer camp for about a week. They worked with animals and they learned how to drive the oxen and pull the wagons and that kind of stuff. They learned to load their wagon, pop their tents, make a fire without matches, cook bread, and load guns.

Watching the scene where Michelle and Zoe Kazan are knitting, you could tell they had to really learn this stuff.
Michelle was like, “I’m not knitting, Kelly, get it out of your head.” And then she had Dave [Doernberg, the production designer] send her the stuff to practice. She just hated it. But by the end, you know, they’re out there in the middle of the desert all day long, we have no accommodations for them, they’re just literally under a tent — and she knitted her little fanny off. Everybody would be like, “Where did you get that scarf?” “Oh, Michelle made it for me.”

You worked with Michelle on Wendy and Lucy. Safe to assume it was easy to get her onboard for this film?
We wrote the part of Emily for Michelle. I knew that I wanted to work with her again. It was incredibly different with Wendy and Lucy — that was just her and myself. Now there are nine actors and six bulls. It was different. But the women really found friendships with each other. You’d see the clutch of female actors in a knitting circle. I have all these photos of Zoe and Michelle on the salt flat and you can’t even see their faces because of their bonnets.

Do you think you’ll ever stray from Americana films, go sci-fi or something?
I completely don’t enjoy sci-fi. I have to say that’s a genre I’m deeply, deeply not into. I can’t — I’m so literal. I cant even read sci-fi. As soon as they start messing with time, I’m completely confused. I guess I’m drawn to these smaller stories where you can delve into the details.

Have you ever played the video game>Oregon Trail?
I’m older than that. An intern showed it to me. I don’t work with computers. I’d never played a video game.

So you don’t like sci-fi and you don’t play video games?
I’m not about the future. I’m definitely not about the future. I want to live to see it, but I’m wary of it.

Kelly Reichardt on Her Michelle Williams Western, Meek’s Cutoff