June 2, 2023


Without Art It's Really Boring!!!

Kelly Reichardt on Andre 3000’s flute, Michelle Williams’ career, and being a tough teacher.

9 min read

Since 1994, Kelly Reichardt has been making small, quiet movies exploring the lives of marginalized Americans, always on a shoestring budget. While her films have led to her being acclaimed as one of the best American filmmakers, they’ve never been box-office hits, even when starring big-name actors like Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, and Michelle Williams. So while her newest film Showing Up, once again starring Williams, is ostensibly about a sculptor’s jealousy of the more successful artist who lives next door, it’s moving to think of it as a kind of manifesto about the importance of artistic communities, supportive networks, and continuing to make beautiful things even when they won’t make you rich and famous. While some critics have found Showing Upfeather-light,” I’d argue that, seen in this light, it might be the richest and most personal of Reichardt’s films yet. I spoke to the director about André 3000’s flute, Michelle Williams’ career, and Reichardt’s reputation as a tough teacher. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Dan Kois: I want to start by asking you about the school where you shot so much of Showing Up, a real art school in Oregon. I loved the way you let us roam the campus, finding activity and beauty and weirdness everywhere. It’s its own world. Not a utopia—it has its problems—but a place separate from those of us who have forgotten about art. Why was it important to you to explore a place filled with artists?

Kelly Reichardt: The Oregon College of Art and Craft is, sadly, like many art schools in America, defunct. It’s been a super important institution in the Pacific Northwest for 100 years. Everyone we were in contact with making the film had some connection to the school. Everyone went there, worked there, came in and taught a class there.

If you were involved in the art scene in the Pacific Northwest, the school played some role in it.

Yeah, I think so. So when we got there, it was completely empty. And then we mapped out the floor, and what would go in each room. We were making up our own art school, which is really fun. Tony Gasparro, the production designer, started bringing in artists to make the work that would fill the rooms. All these recent art school graduates. It was Covid, so people were dying to do stuff, and they just started making stuff in every room, learning how to use the looms. The whole school just became a place of making. It was so alive and energetic.

But that was the idea. You know, we were writing about communities of artists that didn’t have a built-in audience beyond maybe their family and friends but are still compelled to go to their table every day and work.

So you have this ready-made environment that is thematically appropriate to a film about people making art, even if you are not famous.

Most people that are making art are not famous! Most people that are making art do have day jobs. And it takes a community to sustain any art scene. In my day, you’d try to get to New York so you can meet people that are gonna be like you. And now I don’t know what the equivalent of that is. Rents are so high everywhere, I don’t know how young people could do it.

In this movie that is about people making the art that is important to them and not being famous, you have in the midst of it an unbelievably famous artist doing something different from what they’re famous for: André Benjamin, also known as André 3000, playing the guy who runs the kiln. I laughed a lot when I saw that credit: “Flute by André Benjamin.” Did you aways hope he would provide some music in this movie?

No, that only came about because he just walks around playing the flute all the time. He does a lot of drawings, too. He’s interested. We sent him to Long Beach where they have all these giant kilns. I thought he’d go for a few hours, and he spent the day there, and then just kept going back to make stuff. While we were shooting, he was getting his hands in the clay, and he had a room where he was just doing drawings, but predominantly he was walking around playing his flute. It just became the soundtrack to the film, because it was the soundtrack while we were making the film. On the last day at the school, he was kind enough to let us record him. He went out in the field and played for like 45 minutes, and the crew just sat out there, really quietly. It was quite beautiful.

Lizzie, the Michelle Williams character, is an artist who is not famous, is frustrated about her career, and the movie shows us that. But—and I thought this was really important—the movie also allows us to see her really enjoying the process of making something. What do you still really enjoy about making films, even after you have made so many of them?

Well, I enjoy the beginning process with [co-screenwriter] Jon Raymond of thinking about what we might do. I enjoy the time by myself when I’m figuring out how I’m gonna shoot the script and what it’s gonna look like. I very much enjoy when [cinematographer] Chris Blauvelt comes, and then that gets taken to the next level, on a location with lenses. Location scouting is one of my favorite things, honestly. You know, Saturday and Sunday, you figure out how the things are going to go for the next week. I really love that. I really like the one-on-one with the production designer, or the costume designer. But then the …. ach, the pressure cooker of, everything’s happening, the pressure cooker of shooting, you’re under the gun.

Money is being spent everywhere and it’s all up to you.

Right, well, you gotta try not to spend too much money. [Laughs] And then I like editing. I like getting to be alone in the film again, figuring it out.

You’re describing all these things that are not what everyone thinks of when they think of “directing”: the filmmaker on the set, ordering people around, getting the shots. But all the other stuff is directing, too. Have you had periods in your career where, like Lizzie, your anxiety about other people being recognized made it hard for you to do your own work?

Other filmmakers?


Oh, no. I mean I came up with a community of filmmakers, with Larry Fessenden and Ira Sachs and Pete Sillen, and we all shared an office in early days, and I could not even afford to be in an office, and they let me be in the office. I really got help from other filmmakers. In the kind of films that we make, anything good that happens for someone else is good for the whole. Those aren’t your competitors. And I don’t think Lizzie and Jo are each other’s competitors. I think they really admire each other’s work.

But of course, especially when you’re young, you have feelings of, like, Oh my God! All my friends have trust funds. Jeez. I have to have a job, and they get to work on their films. In Lizzie’s case, Oh, you own an apartment building I have to pay rent for. You can work on your art all day. But that exists everywhere.

Definitely exists in journalism!

Yeah, and I have to say, if it wasn’t for my friends’ trust funds, I would have never got to make my first film.

Don’t discount your friends with trust funds, young artists.

A lot of people I know blew through their trust funds paying for their friends’ art—films and records and stuff—helping other people out.

Michelle Williams did an interview earlier this year where she really drew a distinction between the naturalism of the work that she does in a lot of films, including movies with you, and the expressionism of the big stylized characters that she’s recently begun to take on, like Mitzi Fabelman or Gwen Verdon. She still really clearly loves the challenge of creating characters with you who reveal themselves to the audience slowly, but is also interested in working in this different mode. Have you ever thought about going with her into this more expressionistic place, and writing a character for her who would challenge her in these different ways?

Lizzie is a character who challenges her in different ways. I mean … I always think everything we’re doing is so different, and then you’re like, “Oh yeah, that’s us again.” I saw Fosse/Verdon and I thought, Oh my God, Michelle’s got a lot up her sleeve I haven’t tapped into, and I thought that we were doing that with Lizzie.

Michelle Williams and Kelly Reichardt on the set of Showing Up.

A lot of film has to do with time. Are you getting into the nitty gritty of someone’s day, or are you spending your two hours telling a life story? Those are like different trucks, right? But all the actors get to dig in, and nothing has to be too summed up, because we’re not covering a huge expanse of time. Usually it’s, like, a two-week window of someone’s life.

I teach undergrads creative writing. You also teach, at Bard. You’re known as a tough teacher. Meanwhile, I often find myself wanting to be tough and chickening out and sparing my students’ feelings, even if the work that they turn in is bad, because it just seems like the deck is stacked against them already, and I don’t want to shit on them.

I don’t want to shit on anybody! I think there’s a difference between … I mean, please. What these kids consider tough! I’m really not very tough.

When I feel like I’m being even a tiny bit tough, they clearly blanch.

I know, but this is a generational thing. I’ll just speak for myself. In my generation, it was like “Get out of the room! Nobody wants you here! Get out, do whatever you’re gonna do with your friends!” If I stuck around and my parents saw me, my mother would give me a chore. Kids today, and I’m not saying that it’s a worse parenting style at all, but the amount of reinforcement and positive feedback a child gets today, oh my God! Any critique at all is like …

In my world, when I’m making work, when I go to my core group of people that I’ve been going to for 20 years for notes and feedback—God forbid they just think about my feelings! Give me the real feedback. My filmmaking is better because I can count on a real critique. And so I approach teaching as: You’re here for that. They’re here to learn. We’re working. It’s not even supposed to be good yet. We’re figuring out how to do stuff.

And so this generation, not all students, but a lot of them, have not dealt with a lot of criticism, and they get into a classroom and someone’s like, “Yeah, it’s not really happening yet.” Doesn’t mean it’s not going to! But why would it be? You’re 18, or you’re 19.

That’s very heartening. I’m going to try to take that spirit into my class and deliver it in a useful way to my students.

I think what would be really hard about being a young artist is, every single person you know carries a camera, grows up on YouTube, on TikTok. How do you distinguish yourself? How do you find your voice?

That’s true of writing, too.

Yeah, and music. All the arts. I guess I should just give everyone an A, now that I think about it.

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