It’s only after Kelly Reichardt shows you the mountains in Livingston that she’s able to show you the lay of the land in “Certain Women.” Uniquely situated between three separate mountain ranges, there is great majesty in the hills that border the small town, making it all the more stark when after a series of outdoor tableauxs, the film takes you inside a small bedroom where the distance between a woman (Laura Dern) and a man (James LeGros), putting their clothes back on in silence in separate corners, feels greater than it is outside.
“It seems simple like it’s just a bedroom in a house, but that house took forever to find,” says Reichardt of searching for the location for the perfectly arresting image. “While we were shooting [elsewhere] during the day, Tony Gasparro, the production designer and Charlie, our scout, continued and continued scouting and it was so late in the game when we finally found the house, but that’s just having an idea and then trying to find it in the architecture of the place.”
Though she’s speaking in physical terms, Reichardt could just as easily be describing what all the heroines of her latest film are asked to do, often stymied by their male counterparts in their desire to carve out a place in their world that they can call their own entirely. Culled from the short stories of Maile Meloy, the triptych of profiles in quiet courage and strength introduce us to Laura (Dern), a personal injury lawyer who ends up feeling the hurt when her irascible client (Jared Harris) goes against counsel in unexpected ways in his workman’s comp lawsuit, Gina, whose plan to build a home for her family puts her in complicated negotiations with an elderly man (Rene Auberjonois) to purchase some sandstone, and an unnamed rancher (Lily Gladstone), whose hope for companionship leads her to take a local adult school class on due process taught by Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart), a law student too preoccupied making ends meet to take notice.
A sense of yearning would seem to be part of what colors the sky grey in the Midwest envisioned by Reichardt, but “Certain Women” comes alive in the persistence of its characters to who refuse to let it overwhelm them. Gently recognizing the absurdity of every exchange where the women don’t find themselves on equal footing in the flatlands of Montana, Reichardt delivers her funniest film to date as well as quite possibly her most beautiful, illuminating the grit and gumption of Laura, Gina, Elizabeth and the rancher, all exquisitely portrayed by the actresses playing them. Shortly before the film his theaters, Reichardt spoke about the process of adapting Meloy’s work, the challenges of shooting in winter and conveying a sense of place through sound.
Because these three stories came from different Maile Meloy collections, how did you narrow it down to this group?
[It was] after a year of trying to find the structure and Maile Meloy, whose stories they are based off of, was just very generous in letting me swap something out if it wasn’t working and experiment. That takes some bravery because it’s probably hard to watch someone mangle your stuff for a while, and it does stay mangled for a while, but she went with it and it was just a process of fooling around, trial and error. The [stories] needed to work as some kind of whole. In Maile’s stories, like the couple [in the middle segment] doesn’t have a kid and there’s not a connection with the husband…in [the book,] the rancher is a boy [in the last segment]. The core of [the film’s] there, but it’s like anything. You get up and you work on it every day and it’s bad for a really long time. Then suddenly it finally seems to start working. I think you just have to sometimes let things be bad for a while and be okay with it when you’re in that search for whatever it is.
I was surprised to learn the rancher was originally a male character in Maile’s short story – how did the decision to swap genders come about?
I can’t remember the specifics of it, but I had been thinking about it for a while and I remember talking about it with Todd Haynes over dinner one night and I was presenting all the reasons I thought that couldn’t work. He said, “There’s nothing to do but just try it and see if you could work through your problems. Stop guessing if it’ll work and dig in and try it.” Then you face each little hurdle and things are just morphing.
Was there a specific point when you said to yourself this is working?
Well, sure. I wouldn’t have made a movie otherwise. [laughs] I wouldn’t make a movie if I thought the script wasn’t working because for the most part, things that aren’t working on the page won’t work when you film them magically. But I also wouldn’t make a movie if I thought the script was so pat that I could completely picture what it would look like before the movie was made. With all the films, there’s always a feeling that this completely might not come across – like maybe it will and maybe it won’t and I think if you could just picture it all, you might not bother. You have to stay involved and intrigued for a long time.
What kind of relationship do you want when you’re adapting someone’s work? It seems like you don’t just option the rights and say goodbye and with Jon Raymond, I know you worked with him as a co-screenwriter.
Jon and I are really close friends, so that was just a natural thing that happened [where] the seed either came from a story that existed of Jon’s or a concept that Jon had and then I worked on the scripts, but I never had the task of dealing with the complete blank page, which is something I don’t want to be faced with. [laughs] Maile and I didn’t know each other. She was just someone I wrote and asked if I could [adapt her work] and we had some phone calls, so it was a different experience. I didn’t have the weekly or daily bullshit sessions that you have when you’re working on something, so it was a little bit lonelier of a process. It was a change.
Circumstances required you to shoot these stories in the opposite order than they appear. – since the rancher’s tale, which is last, would seem to be the most logistically challenging, did that make the rest easier, perhaps?
Perhaps. [smiles] The rancher story was the hardest to shoot because there were so many animals, but also because it was way below zero every day we shot on the ranch. There was no relief, and we were working with a really scaled-down crew, so we didn’t have the support we would have because we didn’t want to frighten the animals. And a film’s always harder when you’re getting started. But because everything kept changing at the end of every week or two, it just felt like we were constantly starting. It was really cold in the Laura [Dern] section too – there’s fewer animals, but there was more logistics. When there’s not enough layers of clothes for you to put on because things just aren’t going to get warmer and you’re in the first hour of what’s bound to be a 16-hour day, you’re just like… (bundles up). There was a bit of a reprieve during the Michelle [Williams]-James [LeGros section], just weather-wise. The weather dictates a lot as to how things are going.
Lily Gladstone had mentioned this was shot right in the middle of three separate mountain ranges – did that actually contribute to why you picked this location?
We did not build the mountain ranges… [laughs] but we scouted the state and we were trying to find a town that felt the right size. Ultimately, once we found the ranch, which was first, we then built out from there and Livingston and Boseman were the closest towns. Once you find the main location, you build your world from a radius that can work from that spot [because] I couldn’t really afford a company move at any point. When we were scouting the state, we kept ending up in Livingston and it just became our place. And it’s a great town. It’s easy to get attached to it.
You’ve said you were particularly intrigued by the wind there, which is something that seems like an almost subconscious part of the sound mix. Did you do anything special to capture it?
Boy, nobody likes to go in and have mystery in a film anymore. [laughs] But it’s good to give Paul Maritsas a shoutout because he’s a really great sound designer and our boom woman was amazing too. Our sound team, which was just two people, was fantastic and I kept thinking like, “Oh, it’s too windy. Sound is going to shut us down.” And [Paul] kept finding ways and going with it – he went back on his supposed down day and would gather more [sound]. The wind was just had so many different tones to it, depending on whatever it was, and the sound mixer Lesley Shatz and I argued over the issue of wind for forever. Wind is only a sound if it’s hitting up against something and I’m always arguing, if it’s hitting up against the mic, that’s not the sound I want. [laughs]
But [Livingston] is such a windy place and we were able to hunker down and shoot through some of the wind, which is great because I think it added a lot to the scenes, [especially] the scene in the parking lot with Lily and Kristen [Stewart]. But it’s a real sound feed and you can only do that [when] everyone’s holding stuff down camera-wise because everything’s blowing all over the place. Trains are really hard to record also, and in Livingston, there is a depot right there, so there’s always trains in the background. In the mix, it’s matter of making your real trains that are running through everything work [with the rest of the film]. Back when we made “Wendy and Lucy,” working with Lesley Shatz as a sound mixer, we stole a lot of train sounds that Lesley had recorded for “Paranoid Park,” Gus [Van Sant’s] movie. I think there’s some of those trains in this movie too.
“Certain Women” opens on October 14th in Los Angeles at the Arclight Hollywood and the Landmark and in New York at the IFC Center.