Synopsis : A sculptor (Michelle Williams) preparing to open a new show must balance her creative life with the daily dramas of family and friends, in Kelly Reichardt’s vibrant and captivatingly funny portrait of art and craft.
Rating: R (Brief Graphic Nudity)
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Original Language: English
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Producer: Neil Kopp, Vincent Savino, Anish Savani
Writer: Jonathan Raymond, Kelly Reichardt, Jonathan Raymond
Release Date (Theaters): Limited
Box Office (Gross USA): $63.0K
Production Co: Film Science, Digital One, A24
Q & A With Director Kelly Reichardt
Q: Talk about the origins of this project?
KR: I have this project that I do with my friend Jonathan Raymond, a Portland based writer. We took a long curvy road to getting to this [film], which started with the idea of making a biopic about Canadian painter Emily Carr during some years when she was a landlord in the hopes of getting more time to paint. It was a period of time that she ended up writing about where she was taking care of her needy tenant so much so that she got less time for work. That [project] really didn’t pan out. It turned out that Emily Carr is a hugely famous painter in Canada. We really didn’t know that.
I always tell my students that Google is not research but I probably could have Googled that. Nonetheless, things happened on that trip. John and I were both having family emergencies and not really able to concentrate on where we were going… It was a really long, convoluted road. I will say that there’s a period of time when we ended up coming back to a world closer to our own. It’s really John who figured out how to pull all these loose ends together into a form that we could work off of. It’s hard to say which were the many starting points.
Q: You mentioned this real college that you shot in before Covid. You made the location vital to your movie because it’s so beautiful and organic. What’s the story behind that?
KR: This was the Oregon College of Arts and Crafts, which some people know about. It was a pretty substantial place for a hundred years plus in the Pacific Northwest for pottery and ceramics. We have been at this location, I think, since the very late ‘70s or early ‘80s. But like a lot of art schools in America, it closed its doors in 2018. We wrote with this school in mind, not knowing if we’d be able to shoot there or not. Every time I went out to look at the school, they were sort of taking another door off the hinges, or pulling something out of it. But it’s great. I like the location very much. It has these beautiful Japanese gardens around it. There’s a Hilda Morris sculpture in the garden. Because of COVID, they stopped working on it. We were able to get in there and it really became our home for our whole production team. We were all able to set up there in this school. This became our home for making the movie.
Q: There’s the conflict in the friendship between the two women in this movie. They’re friends, both artists and both admire each other’s work. But there’s a little friction here, also a power dynamic. There’s so many layers to that. Talk about building those layers for either film or animation. It’s so unique with the female franchise that you see on the screen today.
KR: We were drawing from various things, life and such. Even in my time in New York in the early days, around when I made my first film, I shared an office on Lafayette Street with this group of filmmakers who I’m still friends with today, who amazingly are all still making films. But all my friends [at that time] had trust funds somehow. I was like, “How did I miss that boat?” I just was trying to live like they lived, — we didn’t have to have jobs, you know. They were actually very generous to me because we all shared this office which I couldn’t afford.
They let me have my own desk and I spent my time there. They let me sleep on their couches. And they were really helping me with this dynamic of getting things right. It’s all the money, gender, race, whatever it is, that gives someone a leg up from someone else, which is everywhere and everything. So in balancing that with [the characters in this film] — they’re both complicated people. In the script, it’s funny, people’s sympathies were much more with Jo [Hong Chau].
But it feels to me that in the film, from the response of people, that people find Jo much less appealing somehow. She’s just doing her thing too. Everybody’s just doing their thing. One of the “legs up” someone might have is that [others] have an easier personality. A lot of artists have a hard time because it’s hard to make it as an artist. Also, if you have a crappy personality, that makes it hard. I can speak to that personally. It’s not easy. Not crappy, but you know, like if you’re not… Some people are skilled at [communicating].
There are different ways to live, and some people are better at some things than others. So, ultimately, I wanted to make a film about — even in a small community that is in a place like Portland or Austin or wherever it is now — all these unaffordable places for young artists to be. Your audience is your community and friends. I’ve been in plenty of towns where, [when] the Whitney people are coming by, you feel the tension in town — like, whose studio are they going to go to? Whatever it is that makes you feel like there’s not enough room in the world for [you]… But hopefully, you make each other better.
Q: Lizzy’s more turned inward, and maybe wants to be left alone. But she also has to show up, to fit with the title of the movie — for a million different people in a million different ways. That’s been hard for her.
KR: It’s easy to find distractions too when you are stuck with your work. It’s easy to be put upon. You can always take, like when you’re on those phone calls with people and they’re the intermediate — the person who has the job of giving you the bad news that whatever, you got charged too much or your order’s not coming through or whatever it is. And, if you’ve had a crappy working day, you have to stop and say, “I don’t know why I’m on this thread.” I was talking to some poor woman today, I was like, “It’s not her fault, leave her alone, why are you making her suffer?” Lizzy is just taking her beef out on different people. Our original concept of her was that she was like a trapped badger, which is not unrelatable, but it’s not ideal either. She’s prickly however you see her.
Q: The sculptor making the girls that Michelle [Williams] is doing is Cynthia Lahti. Michelle Segre creates the bigger and larger installations that Jo, the character, is making. Talk about finding these artists and making them a part of the story.
KR: Cynthia’s stuff was her idea. In the script, we wrote for her art. It was like the art needed to be cast before the people so I could know what the people would be like. I made a short film of Michelle working in her studio. I met her through a mutual friend in Portland. I saw her work and thought it was, let’s see, it’s pretty dynamite. She dove in with us and let us do this, which was very brave of her.
It was like Lizzy was supposed to be kind of inward and working at her table. We wanted the Jo character to almost be like an art athlete, someone who would physically be in there with her stuff. And when you go to Michelle’s studio, it’s very uplifting. It’s colorful and takes up a good amount of space. Lizzy is in her little corner, chiseling in her way. We loved Cynthia’s work, really wanted it and thought it was so particularly Lizzy.
There’s a lot of art in the film, but the other artist, played by Heather Lawless, makes the glass work that is actually done by Jessica Jackson Hutchins. She has a studio near the camera house in Portland, and that’s like another place where it’s just fun to visit because these are people who get to touch what they’re making and at the end of the day. You can see what progress you’ve made. It’s all right there and you’re by yourself and you just do it. So different from filmmaking which goes on for a long time and involves a lot of stuff that’s outside of touching the art you’re making.
Q: You mentioned that Michelle Williams got quite good at making some ceramics. Did they have to look like they’re working on the screen? What kind of things were put on the table?
KR: Well, she made little funny things that were, I don’t know if good would be the word, but she knew the lane that she did well in. She did work with the clay for a long time, so she’d feel at home with it. She worked with Michelle in her studio and had to be able to do some things, like the single shot where she’s putting the arms on. That was a single take, since we only had one of those figures. So she had to be able to make the arms and attach them. She learned to do really specific things that were in the script which she knew she’d have to do. But making the faces and all that would have been hard.
And Cynthia works really, really quickly. She makes these things so fast, these girls, as she calls them. Likewise, Hong Chau spent time with Michelle in her studio, and we also gave her a little home kit to work with at home. I think for Michelle, it was like beeswax and what do you call your big yarn. Not yarn, but the things that hold together. Needles, threads, electrical conduits, tubing, metal tubing. Things that get bent. Anyway, a lot of stuff. We filmed a lot of stuff that’s not in there. [Hong Chau] learned all kinds of things too.
Q: Talk about John Magaro’s character as well. He’s a wonderful actor who’s also great in “First Cow.” That character on the page, has had some struggle with mental illness and is also an artist with so many layers. How did you research someone like that and approach that and also working with John and finding the right tone for that character?
KR: I don’t know. That was the hardest one to talk about. I just like anyone to interpret him however they want. John was doing his own investigations, but it was just conversations between ourselves and the people in our lives. But working with John is very amazing. He’s a really thoughtful performer. How could I have Michelle and John in a movie and not have them be siblings? I thought, “That would be really awesome.” So was the idea of picking the parents that would make that couple possible.
Maryann Plunkett and Juddd Hirsh became the sort of meshing. But I didn’t really know what that dynamic would be like until they were all together and working with each other. Because we don’t really rehearse, we do a lot of things to prepare, but don’t go through the lines until we’re there. So, the tension that John was going to bring [to the character] was somewhat mysterious. We had a lot of conversations, but I didn’t know what was actually going to [work], and I’m not even sure he did, until he was doing it and had Michelle to respond to — whatever it was.
Here’s the trailer of the film.