APRIL 30, 8PM
Meek's Cutoff is a 2010 American western film directed by Kelly Reichardt. The film was shown in competition at the 67th Venice International Film Festival. The story is loosely based on a historical incident on the Oregon Trail in 1845, in which frontier guide Stephen Meek led a wagon train on an ill-fated journey through the Oregon desert along the route later known as the Meek Cutoff in the western United States.
Kelly Reichardt: how I trekked across Oregon for Meek's Cutoff then returned to teaching
The Guardian, Friday 8 April 2011
She has made some of the most haunting and enigmatic movies in recent American cinema, but chances are you won't recognize Kelly Reichardt's name. Although she's been directing since the early 1990s, she still has to rely on her job teaching at New York's Bard College for a steady income. Indeed, cash is so tight that the 46-year-old, Florida-born film-maker couldn't even afford an extra day's shooting to finish off the original ending for her latest.
This is Meek's Cutoff, a brooding western of sorts which trails three families inching across the Oregon desert by foot and wagon in 1845. Their guide is the maddening Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), whose flawed navigational skills have left them plodding from one parched and featureless plateau to another as supplies and energies dwindle. When the group captures a Cayuse Indian (Rod Rondeaux), the vague hope presents itself that he could lead them to water. Then again, as Meek warns, he might just peel the flesh from their sleeping bodies instead.
The Guardian meets Reichardt, a small, wry-humoured woman in jeans and grey sweater, in her producers' Brooklyn office on a crisp Sunday morning. She is sitting at one end of a long sofa; Lucy, the mutt that starred opposite Michelle Williams in the director's 2008 credit-crunch drama Wendy And Lucy, is snoozing at the other end, having nabbed a cushy spot in the sun. It's a long way from the punishing conditions of the desert near Burns, Oregon where Meek's Cutoff was shot.
"The desert is beautiful," says Reichardt. "But it's 110 degrees. Everything's so unfriendly and prickly, and the fine dust gets in the vehicle engines. We were worried about the wagons, because they were from the period. In the end it was the cars that broke down; the wagons held up perfectly. There was a struggle to get to set every day with all the animals, but it put everyone in the frame of mind to think about what conditions were actually like on the Oregon Trail. Well, that's what I kept telling the cast when it got really hard. They'd say: 'Look, we're actors. We can act.'" She lets slip a short, devilish laugh.
With its emphasis on the cruel beauty of the US landscape, Meek's Cutoff has attracted comparisons with the films of Terrence Malick. While it shares his lyricism and faith in silence ("I feel like a lot's being said all the time, it's just not in dialogue," notes Reichardt), it is a leaner, tougher work. And although the women (played by Williams, Zoe Kazan and Scot Shirley Henderson) wear fetching bonnets, there's no room here for the niceties of costume drama. Authenticity was so vital that Reichardt even had to veto the actors' laundry. "They threatened to stage a mutiny if they weren't allowed to wash out their costumes, which had become so smelly. We reached a compromise where they could wash the inside of them."
'I wanted to give a different view of the west from the usual series of masculine encounters and battles of strength, and to present this idea of going west as just a trance of walking'
What's most striking about Meek's Cutoff is how radical it is on every level. Most obviously, it's a western that prioritizes the female perspective. "Women are usually the objects. But I always wondered what, say, John Wayne in The Searchers must have looked like to the woman cooking his stew." Reichardt researched the journals of women who had travelled on the Oregon Trail in the 19th century with the real-life Meek. "When you read these accounts you see just how much the traditional male viewpoint diminishes our sense of history. I wanted to give a different view of the west from the usual series of masculine encounters and battles of strength, and to present this idea of going west as just a trance of walking. Some of the actors were saying the most intense thing for them was when they left at the end and flew over the area we'd been filming in. It took two minutes – whoosh! – and they were over it, whereas they'd just spent a month walking across it."
The cost of feeding the oxen and horses on Meek's Cutoff was equal to the entire budget of Reichardt's second film (the melancholy buddy movie Old Joy, which starred the singer-songwriter Will Oldham, AKA Bonnie "Prince" Billy). But she's not in any hurry to surrender her frugal self-sufficiency. "The more money you take, the more hands there are in the pie," she points out. "Right now, there's no one telling me what to do. I can edit on my own schedule. No one gives me notes outside the same friends who I've been showing my films to since I started." Small wonder she's so contented when those friends include fellow directors Phil Morrison (Junebug) and Todd Haynes (I'm Not There), who have executive-produced most of her work. She began her film career on the crew of Haynes's 1991 feature debut, Poison, but he's an equal rather than a mentor, and has been known to drive her around when she's scouting locations.
'I teach for a living, and I make movies when I can. I've never made money from my films'
Despite such influential friends, it continues to be a fight for Reichardt to get her movies made. Depressingly, her difficulties have often come down to old-fashioned sexism. "I had 10 years from the mid-1990s when I couldn't get a movie made. It had a lot to do with being a woman. That's definitely a factor in raising money. During that time, it was impossible to get anything going, so I just said, 'Fuck you!' and did Super 8 shorts instead." She's doubtful that the climate has changed much, even after Kathryn Bigelow's best director Oscar for The Hurt Locker. "I'm outside the industry so I have no idea. But you can watch awards shows or see what's being made and you still don't see women who have the career of Todd or Gus [Van Sant] or Wes Anderson, or any of those men who make personal films. I teach for a living, and I make movies when I can. I've never made money from my films."
Before our time is up, we have to pin Reichardt down on one element of Meek's Cutoff that will represent a bold touch for some viewers, and an infuriating sticking point for others: the ending, which withholds provocatively any trace of resolution. (Think John Sayles's 1999 thriller Limbo, or the final episode of The Sopranos.)
"The film actually ends a little differently than the script," Reichardt admits, somewhat bashfully. "The sun went down before we got our final shot on the last day, and I came back home without an ending to the movie, which is really devastating. I had to rearrange it in my mind. We didn't have the money to go back out there, so it had to become something other than what it was designed to be. I have this little prayer I say, where I tell myself that the lack of means is somehow working in my favour. Often it's true, and it can lead you some place good. In this case, it led me to an ending which was more suited to the film."
Was the movie originally going to finish with a happy-ever-after, or a musical showstopper?
"Oh no," she laughs. "Even in its original form it wasn't an ending that would have left anyone feeling satisfied."
Of course not.