Kelly Reichardt's movies might have tiny budgets and struggle for distribution, but they do make history. Take Old Joy (2006), her critically lauded second film. It recorded the uncomfortable reunion of a disillusioned liberal and his deluded alternative-culture chum and their confrontation with their failed ideals. Wouldn't you know it, two years later disillusioned liberals and deluded countercultural types revitalized their ideals and got Barack Obama elected!
Reichardt's new Wendy and Lucy, however, offers a grimmer prospect: a young woman (on the road with her dog, Lucy) made homeless by a failed economy and a heartless society. Who knows how many of those shedding tears at Michelle Williams's plucky Wendy will be sharing her fate in the near future! But Reichardt isn't gloating.
The economy might be tanking, but it does make your movie all the more relevant.
It's not my fault!
Your last movie was also prescient; it showed liberal discontent and disillusionment and all of a sudden Obama gets elected.
So now it's all going to be roses and what are we going to make films about . . . ? Actually, when we were making Wendy and Lucy, the economy of how we were making the film was very much in line with how she was living — one slip-up and the whole production would fold. There was not a lot of room for error. It was the same thing she was going through.
I was reading in one of your interviews that after your first movie you had an itinerant lifestyle yourself. Did you draw on that experience for this film?
There was plenty to draw on from that, though I was never sleeping in cars. I did sleep in a friend's furniture store, in a beauty salon, and a few other weird places, but I had much more of a social network than the Wendy character has. While all my friends got sick of me, I was still able to couch-off for five years. But she does not have the social skills or the network, so I wasn't as precarious as she is.
Before it became a more common situation, this kind of precariousness was being held in contempt by many of those who were more fortunate.
We began writing the script after Katrina, when the contempt was really in the air. And we sort of started with this popular idea that if you're poor in America, it's because you're lazy. As the gap [between rich and poor] has grown over eight years, so has the feeling that it's okay. So we started with the idea that if you did have the wherewithal to change your situation and looked around and saw, oh, there is no opportunity here, I am going to venture out, is that really all you need to do it? Have some gumption? Is that all you need, if you don't have the benefit of an education or a social net or a financial net or health insurance or anything? I think that that's implied all the time, and I think that's a farce.
It might be hard to maintain that attitude after watching the movie; from what I've seen, there's not a dry eye in the house.
Oh, that's really hard to tell. It's easier to tell what an audience's response is when there is humor in the film, but there's not that many markers in this film to [let you] know what people are thinking. The response has been positive, and the Q&As have been interesting. There will always be, you know, these blogs where people get mad that you are even making a film about this type of person.
It shows where the different mindsets are in the country. Making the film, it did occur to me what the film is really about. This question: what is our obligation to each other, if any, and are we in any way responsible for each other? Or is it just each man for himself?
Do you think a movie can alter minds and bring about political change?
I doubt it initiates any political change. I think it more represents things that are going on and becomes part of the conversation. Though I have to say, I showed the film down in North Carolina and these two first-year college students came up to me and said that they thought about things differently now, about the idea of people being connected. Which is what I was talking about in the Q&A.
A number of recent movies —Ballast,Frozen River, your film — are minimalist efforts that deal with a segment of society that's less fortunate than the middle class. Do you think that's a coincidence, or do you think it's a movement, a sort of neo-neo-realist movement?
I always assume that if I'm doing something, other people are doing it too. I don't think I'm that out in front of the curve. I mean, it's been so in our face, how can people not be making films about it?