The New York-based director talks about her character driven thriller Night Moves.
Kelly Reichardt’s fifth feature film, Night Moves, stars Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard as three radical environmentalists who plot to blow up a hydroelectric dam in Oregon. The story starts with their preparations and continues to chart the aftermath of their actions. She co-wrote the script with her frequent collaborator Jon Raymond. New York-based Reichardt is also an artist in residence at Bard College. Night Moves had its world premiere in Venice and it also plays in Toronto. The Match Factory handles international sales.
Did this one start with a theme, a character, or some of the plot?
It started with a landscape. With this one we started out with an idea of where we wanted to shoot. Jon Raymond knew this farm for quite a long time and he invited me to some spend time there. We had it in mind that we should try to set something there. I loved it and the whole world there was really interesting.
How did you get from the farm to the plot?
Jon had written a love story set on this far mwhere a direct activist was hiding out on this farm after he had done some kind of caper. So it was a very still film. I sort of wanted to show the caper, we started building a film off this idea of a Rififi sort of feeling where you would stop and show the mechanics of how something is built and the small moments instead of the big moments, the process of it all. And then the aftermath.
I love that it starts with their process, not their reasons.
Everything I’ve ever done is basically like you are joining this person for a week, that seems to be the timeline I end up working in and it’s just a glimpse of someone, you’re entering their world for a short time.
Do you think some audiences will be frustrated by the lack of explanation of their beliefs and motivations?
I’m not sure. There’s plenty of those films for people to go see. You can choose a film to go to that’s going to reinforce everything you are already thinking, and give you those moments that you expect when you’re expecting them.
What’s your co-writing process with Jon?
I go to Oregon, or there are times when I’m in New York that we’re just on the phone. We came up with an outline and an idea once I’d been to the farm. We thought this other story he’d written wasn’t quite the thing. We came up with an outline or sketch of these three characters, and then at some point Jon goes off to write the first draft and establishes their voices. He’s a writer who writes every day, an actual writer which I’m not (laughs). And that becomes the base we work from.
We pass it back and forth and take turns with it, and sometimes it might be more in my hands. It’s different each time but we talk every day.
And then I go through a long process of scouting. In this case on and off for a year and a half and that turns up more information, you’re meeting people along the way and I’ll tell Jon about that.
This is a thriller, albeit a nontraditional one, and I wouldn’t necessarily expect that from the director of a film like Old Joy. Did it feel different to you?
Yes, it has more plot for sure than the other films. This film had a more absolute way that it had to be built. Similarly to the other films, though, is even though you’re setting stuff in a genre, it’s not meeting all the expectations that come with a genre. It’s much more focused on small moments and process as the other films are.
How did your three leads?
Casting is a long process because for me our films are so bare bones and there’s not a lot of separation from the cast and the crew. The cast at some point will be pushing a truck out of a ditch. They’re not just sitting in a trailer. It’s a physically grueling film. But everybody was game, and that’s part of it.
For a while I was scared Dakota might be too young for the part but she was absolutely convinced that she wasn’t. And once I was with her, I never really thought of it again. I was scared, I didn’t want her to be a teenager and she wasn’t. She had no fear about that at all. Peter showed up while we were already shooting and I said, you can drive a boat right!? Here we go, right now.
The character of Josh is complex but not showy. Why was Jesse right for the part?
Jesse has that intensity about him that’s undeniable, and that you can’t walk away from. If you are trying to get Josh as a character there is more access when he’s in a group but not so much when he’s alone. Jesse seemed like there is something percolating underneath.
Did you talk through the characters a lot?
You never stop talking about the character with Jesse. Every day, it’s question, question, question. That’s just his nature, so that keeps you on your toes, you have to keep thinking about it too. And Dakota is a completely private worker, I don’t think I ever had a real back-and-forth with her about the character. She just does her thing. With Peter he just showed up and was thrown into the fire.
All these roles for these films are so physical that it keeps actors having to be so active, you have to think about getting the rope onto the pier or whatever it is. Michelle [Williams, who starred in Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy and Meeks’ Cutoff) said that there were so many animals that you can’t go too far into your head because you make sure the bull doesn’t run you over. In this case there was a lot of driving at night, pulling a boat on a mountain road, all these physical things that I think keep you very much in the present.
It sounds like a physically demanding shoot.
It is. Shooting in Oregon is cold and wet. And shooting boat to boat was a new experience. We don’t have money for a lot of luxuries. When we’re out in the cold, when lunch comes, you’re eating out in the cold. We had some below zero nights. They are challenging films.
Were you trying to make a statement about contemporary radicalism?
No, no statements. Just really it’s a character film I think.
It’s funny, in the years I’ve been scouting in Oregon you’re driving through clear-cut forest after clear-cut forest and the drive from New York to Oregon, it occurs to me how radical it is of how little area you pass through that’s untouched. It doesn’t end the radicalism of the lack of choices of what does exist in any state. Anyone who has been on the highway knows the Holiday Inns, the Taco Bells, the lack of access to get the details of a town or an individual radio station, to me that feels very very radical. It’s radical to drive a boat through a river that’s supposed to be a forest. There is a radical feeling to that.
But all we were really trying to do is tell a story of three characters.
Will you stick with Oregon?
These last four films in Oregon have come from working with an Oregonian writer who writes about Oregon. He’s had two children in the time we’ve been working together. So he’s going to do some other stuff, and I’ll probably check out some other landscape. But we have such a nice crew in Oregon, the state has been good to us.
How do you balance being an active filmmaker and a teacher? Do you have to adjust your mindset?
No, not the mindset. It’s the physical time of flying home from a festival and driving right to class. When you’re teaching you’re just deconstructing films all the time and looking at films in a new way because you have fresh eyes looking at them with you. And so I can gear a class towards anything I’m interested in. And I think it works both ways, I think making films has helped my teaching and teaching has helped my filmmaking. Aside from negotiating the time,
And with editing the films myself, I can go up to school for two days and quit thinking about my own thing completely for two days, and just be looking at their work, and that can be a relief.
And at Bard College I am in a community of filmmakers, mostly avant-garde filmmakers, whose work I find inspiring. So it’s a good mix.