Kelly Reichardt is one of contemporary cinema's great filmmakers. The director of indie hits like Wendy and Lucy, Meek's Cutoff, and Night Moves, critics have labeled her modern portraits of the West—even the bumbling pioneers in First Cow felt revisionist—as feminist, minimalist, and slow. However, fans of her work will tell you every pregnant pause, every determined gaze, every harmonious moment between nature and human adds up. We wouldn't cut a second of it.
Her latest, the sublime Showing Up, reunites the director with actress Michelle Williams, who plays Lizzy: a Portland sculptor preparing for a show, while also working in administration at an arts school and trying to get her landlord to restore her hot water. The film contains Reichardt's deliberate pacing, but fills it with a gentle mirth, playing with the particulars of what it means to be an artist.
Showing Up hits Portland theaters later this week. Before the release, we spoke with Reichardt about the inspiration for the film's art school characters and filming at the Oregon College of Art and Craft. She began by correcting the record about her health insurance.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MERCURY: What do you see as the current state of independent filmmaking?
KELLY REICHARDT: As long as I've been making films, people have been worrying that small films are disappearing. So it’s so hard for me to know what real state things are in because I just assume every film I make will be the last. I’m always wondering what I'm going to do when this little trip of being able to make stuff is up. It’s why I’ve always kept a teaching job.
You mention teaching. Michelle Williams mentioned in an interview last year with Variety, that you do so in order to have health insurance.
I know, but I didn’t like that. Honestly, I got mad at Michelle for that interview. [She laughs.] There are different ways to live, and it never occurred to me that I wasn’t going to have a job. I do like my job.
I’ve taught at places that I didn’t like teaching, and it was a total drag. Bard has just been a good match for me. I’ve felt fueled by it and fortunate to be there. For most artists in the world, you have a job. Where Michelle is coming from is just a different world.
And the job really gives me a lot. There are practical things: It gives me health insurance, and that’s a real thing. I’m very close with my colleagues, even colleagues that have retired. I wouldn’t have any idea of what 20 year olds were up to, if I didn’t teach. Just to stay in the loop of filmmakers that are working in different approaches and less formal approaches—there’s a community up there.
When it comes to Showing Up, there are assumptions it must be autobiographical because it's set in Portland and you've made a number of films in Oregon. From what you're saying, the art school caricatures are potentially drawn from your time at Bard.
Yeah. I mean, I’m not from Portland by any stretch of the imagination. I’m from Florida, of all things. I've made films in Portland, but I still teach in New York, so it’s complicated.
Is it true you, and your longtime co-writer Jon Raymond, had originally conceived this as being about a real person from history?
[Jon Raymond] and I started with this idea that we were going to go to Canada to make a biopic about Emily Carr. We thought she was not well-known—she's a painter that we both love—and we really wanted to make a film about a decade of her life where she was a landlord. It was focused on: How do you figure out how to paint while you’re being a landlord? Anyway, it ends up that she's an icon in Canada.
We turned our sights closer to our own world, with makers that we know in New York, in Portland, and in North Carolina. Like any character, they are some assimilation of people you know. Jon always calls our writing sessions our gossip sessions. I went to art school, and you come up with this salad of characteristics that form a character. It’s a real hodgepodge of stuff. I wouldn’t call it autobiographical, but I find it relatable.
Showing Up was shot at the Oregon College of Art and Craft, which is no longer operational. The film becomes almost an artistic farewell—not just to the place, but to the people that made work there.
I know, it’s such a beautiful place too. I think they’re going to keep the footprint of the architecture, but it'll probably be something more like you'd see in Dwell magazine. It’s going to lose its shagginess, but maybe the gardens will survive. There’s a Hilda Morris sculpture out front.
The first time I went to the school with Jon, it was already closed. Every time I’d go back, people were hauling stuff out of it. I came to learn, over the course of spending a couple years getting this film going, what an important space it was to everyone. You can’t find anyone in Portland that doesn’t have some relation to it. They made things there or someone they know did. People on our crew had gone to school there. It had clay, ceramics, tapestries, and just all these tactile—not on the computer—kind of things. It's so sad that these things can’t sustain themselves over time. It was over a hundred years old, that school. I’m lucky that we got to film there before it becomes whatever it’s going to become.
You mentioned bringing people together. What are your thoughts on the ways art connects us, even in an administrative office where much of the film is set?
The administrative office is largely modeled off of Bard. It’s like the kitchen, you know? It’s like where everyone ends up at some point in the day. People who work in administration or production, they’re the first and they’re the last people there. I can only be an artist because of the people in production and the people in the administrative building.
Anyone who makes films really knows that the production assistants keep everything going. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve worked with really good production assistants, and they kill it. In school, I’m so reliant on the people in the administration office to make everything happen so other people can make art.
Earlier you said that you never know if each film is going to be your last. What do you hope to continue to do?
Oh hm. I don’t know what I’ll do. [She laughs.] I’d like to make another film, but we’ll see.
Showing Up opens Thurs April 15 at Cinema 21 and the Hollywood Theatre.