Interview: Kelly Reichardt on ‘Showing Up,’ creating art and the importance of background casting in her films
Writer/director Kelly Reichardt may have been born in Florida but her heart is in the Pacific Northwest. As the location of seven of her eight feature films, Oregon specifically provides the backdrop for the filmmaker regardless of genre or period be it the grueling Oregon Trail in 1845 for Meek’s Cutoff or a modern day thriller of two environmentalists plot to blow up a dam in Night Moves, the versatility of the area speaks directly to Reichardt’s versatility as a storyteller.
In her eighth feature, Showing Up, Reichardt and writing partner Jonathan Raymond look to the Portland art world and follow sculptor Lizzy (Reichardt staple Michelle Williams) the week before her big show as she struggles with family issues, interpersonal office relationships, her landlord, plus her cat and a bird who cause more than a bit of havoc.
I sat down with Reichardt recently at BAMPFA in Berkeley, California while she was there to present a screening and conversation of her 2019 film First Cow, and we talked about how she approached the world of artists, working with Michelle Williams, background players (“They’re not extra…they’re essential to the texture of everything”) and creating the art school and world for her actors to play in.
Erik Anderson: One of the things I really love about Showing Up is that I think it’s probably your lightest film and there’s a little air of Portlandia to it, but not in a mocking way.
Kelly Reichardt: I mean, I love Portlandia, but yeah, it has a different tone than that. It’s not satire. The people I’m making the film about aren’t ‘other’ to me that I can laugh about it, but because I can laugh at myself because I teach at a liberal arts, not at an art school, but a liberal arts school, and I went to an art school, and I like makers of things, I’m not making a parody of anybody.
EA: There’s a great love and great affinity to it.
KR: This humor, it’s not something I feel that it’s so precious either. So that’s the balance I tried to strike in the script and in the filmmaking.
EA: I like that. And the origin of the story with Jon Raymond was going to be Emily Carr, then that kind of morphed?
KR: Yeah, that was at the very beginning. We thought Emily Carr was a very, very obscure, unknown painter, and we wanted to make a film about someone that wasn’t known. Then we went to Vancouver. Yeah. I know she’s not that known in the States. I don’t know why.
But yeah, it was a long road to landing where we did.
EA: What did that look like, that road? Was it just you and Jon back and forth, figuring out how to change from that to Lizzie?
KR: Well, that’s probably too direct. It’s really wrapped up in life, and seeing art, and talking, and hanging out, and trying things that didn’t work. And then at some point, after some failed attempts of back and forth, Jon constructed the family, and we knew we wanted to work around that school, and how they would work with the school, and the dynamic of Joe. And he got the skeleton built from all the various pieces in a really lovely way. Once that happened, I was like, okay, this is the core of it. The main relationships are in place now. We can all start working on the school and the characters that aren’t the family and that sort of thing.
And then somehow, at some point, Jon lays an egg, and we work from there. But yeah, it’s a process.
EA: There’s a fascinating power dynamic between Lizzie and Jo, Michelle Williams and Hong Chau’s characters, that keeps changing.
KR: They’re not one thing, and even collaborating is hard but they have a bedrock, they have a history, and respect each other as artists and each other, as different as their work is. And thank goodness their work is really different, or they’d kill each other (laughs). So, the dynamic changes depending on who’s most stressed or how everyone’s day is going.
EA: I think Lizzie’s sculptures sometimes reflect a part of her that either she doesn’t show, or maybe she wishes to be. Can you talk about the conversations that you had with Cynthia Loti in creating Lizzie’s sculptures versus maybe hers?
KR: Well, I was never telling Cynthia what to make. Oh, well that’s not true. I asked her to make a specific one… Maybe a couple specific, maybe I did, but mostly those are her creations. I wanted to have Joe with the tire, that kind of thing. But those are more of going into her studio that’s filled with stuff, and once we approached her with the project, she just couldn’t be stopped. When we first talked to her about it, she was kind of packing up her studio and packing it in and saying she didn’t want to do it anymore. And then when she met Michelle, then she was just on fire and could not quit making stuff. She was making stuff and she’s been on fire ever since.
Her work is really dynamite, and her studio was becoming more and more crowded, so we had to sort of fall on the sword for the show because we needed Cynthia to make more than one of the things she makes. So, curating the show and then you’d go and you’d be like, “Oh, but wait, there’s that guy now? Well, that guy needs to be…” But at some point, we have to be like, Cynthia, this is the show. This is the show. But she’s her own brain, and I’m not really saying… She’s just… I’m working around her thing.
EA: You’ve worked with Michelle Williams four times now. Do you ever write with her in mind, or is it just character and then we’ll deal with it later?
KR: Deal with it later. Yeah. Yeah. I think when we did Meek’s Cutoff, we had her in mind for Emily, but beyond that it, I’m more looking at trying not to get into an actor… I like to live in a world where it can be changing all the time, and it’s trying on a lot of different hats, not with actors, with people, like who this character will be and live with it. Usually, I have some picture of someone from a newspaper or something, someone from the world that I get attached to. And then eventually I had the image of… After going through a million sculptors and artist, the image of [American sculptor] Lee Bontecou, who actually looks like Michelle, and that was the start of looking at having her on my wall. I was like, “Okay, wait. She looks like Michelle. All right, this is good.” It sounds really basic and fundamental, but it was really good. It opened the door.
EA: Speaking of casting, we have a mutual friend in Simon Hill, your Oregon casting director, who I’ve known for almost 30 years now.
KR: Simon Max Hill. Wow. [In these interviews] we never talk about Simon Max Hill. We never talk about the extras casting thing, which is a huge job. Huge. And he worked again on this film. I’m so glad that you want to talk about him.
EA: It is. It’s one of my favorite elements of your films because everything is so observational. We’re looking at everybody around. Can you talk a bit about the background casting, populating the art school and how it’s a crucial component of your stories?
KR: We created that whole school, which was the Oregon College of Arts and Crafts, which sadly closed down. But we were able to make our own school and bring in all these local artists and young artists to come make stuff to fill up the school, with Tony Gasperoni and the fabulous Showing Up art team. And then Simon and his crew, they had to not just find young people, we wanted young people that really went to art school, he found people that would know how to do these various things. And he always is a tireless searcher and will keep going forever. I think I started working with him on Wendy and Lucy, and I mean, in that film, all those crazy kids around the fire, I mean, I could hardly take a night with them.
He had them staying at his house so that they wouldn’t leave town so that they’d be in the film. So, he’s gone really far out for all the movies. But on this one also, it was during COVID, and we needed kids that would know how to make things, and that would really turn up for all the… and we had… well, we called them extras, but that’s like a… I hate that word because we really had names for everybody, we had descriptions for everybody of who these kids would be so that we could find really particular folks, and he did that. And then those people that were filling the school were just hanging around so much, all getting to know each other, getting their hands in the clay, and learning how to work the looms and dye. And they were just waiting on us. There’s so much downtime.
They were all making stuff with the other people that were making stuff, so it became such a hotbed of activity. Everyone takes the background for granted, but it’s got to be particular, and he’ll keep going back and back and back and back. He’s never just like, “Just settle on it.” Simon and I go through a really long process of finding people, and he has a million readings. And he’s found some of the really key people, like the kid in First Cow that doesn’t get any oily cakes, he was an Uber driver that somehow Simon found, who was also wanting to act and acting.
But yeah, it’s a really particular job, and it’s a job that flies really under the radar. You have to like people; you have to be into it. You can’t have any cynicism about it. He knows all the people he brings; he knows everything about everyone, and he’ll pitch for them like, “Give this person a second look.” He’s super all in and he really does care about these people that want to… that do more than fill space. They’re going to make something. And it’s usually the assistant director that is directing the background. And I always cringe if anybody ever refers to them as extras because they’re not extra. They’re essential to the texture of everything. And so, yeah, you have to start with a casting person that’s all in.
EA: You mentioned your teaching. What are current art and film students curious about? What does the next generation want to do with their art?
KR: That is a big question that I don’t know the answer. I mean, when I went to art school, it was like, one year there was five of us that were interested in film. There wasn’t even a department. And then they got more cameras, I think by the end there was eight of us. And it wasn’t even really a department, and we didn’t even know. Now there’s film schools everywhere. There’s more kids than you could teach, not to mention all the things online. Every single person has a camera in their hand. I mean, when I was a kid, I was the kid with the camera. It’s a really interesting position to be in, to try to become a maker now, and when it’s not the odd man out thing to do. You’re in a big bunch of other people doing the same thing. But I don’t know, the kids are really good at collaborating. I give them a lot to do, so they’re not in like a weird class where they’re not so much making stuff up, they’re working on things. But there are a lot of classes where they are making stuff up and… Yeah, it’s too big a question.
EA: A different conversation for another day.
KR: Yes, I think so. When we have more time.
EA: Kelly, thank you so much.
KR: Thank you, Erik, and thank you for letting me talk about Simon Max Hill.
A24 released Showing Up in select theaters in Los Angeles and New York on April 7 and will go wider in the coming weeks.