An interview with Kelly Reichardt, director of Old Joy
By Vicente Rodriguez-Ortega
Old Joy is the story of two friends, Kurt (Will Oldham) and Mark (Daniel London), who re-unite for a weekend camping trip in a forest near Portland, Oregon. For Mark, the trip is a last hurrah before the looming responsibility of fatherhood. Kurt, for his part, considers it yet another of his many youthful adventures. As the trip unfolds, the two friends attempt to connect with each other the way they did years ago. The film is a collaboration between photographer Justine Kurland, writer John Raymond, and director Kelly Reichardt. Raymond based his story on Kurland’s most recent book of images, which features burned forests and naked men and women in natural tableaux. After recruiting Pete Sillen as cinematographer and the two main actors, Reichardt headed to Oregon with a very small crew and shot the film in less than two weeks. The result is beautifully minimalist, capturing in visual terms the disenchantment of the Left in the current era of rampant conservatism. It also functions as testimonial: Old Joy aims to reflect the emotional and social conundrums that constrict the mid-to-late thirties American white male. In addition to featuring indie-folk favorite Oldham, Reichardt recruited New Jersey band Yo La Tengo to create a delicately intimate soundscape enveloping the spectator in a mood of reflection. Coupled with the filmmaker’s static frame and slow-paced treatment, Old Joy’s aesthetic seems to exist in direct antagonism to Richard Linklater’s verbal marathons. Recently, Reverse Shot shared a few words with filmmaker Kelly Reichardt.
REVERSE SHOT: How does Old Joy relate to the current extremely conservative political context in the U.S.?
KELLY REICHARDT: If you grew up in the Seventies you have a certain perspective. The president I remember the most is Jimmy Carter. My first political memories are of being in a pool party and having to get out of the pool to see Nixon resign. You have a sense of a certain justice or an idea of liberalism during the Carter years as a positive phenomenon. I was born during Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency. Now, there is this twist in the country where it’s all so far to the right. Yesterday Katherine Harris, unable to get the nomination in the primaries, is invoking the fact that God didn’t want this country to be secular…to invoke God is so extreme. During the John Kerry campaign you could see the democrats were really lost. To sum it up: liberalism has become a dirty word. What is that? To return to the movie: these are two friends who embark on a weekend trip to connect, and they can’t. They miss the opportunity to express what they might want to express to each other. They can’t articulate what they want to say. There’s a feeling that the Democratic party has struggled to do this as well. In the film, these two friends are lost in the woods, and they finally get stripped down, even physically stripped down.
RS: How did you come up with the idea of including the “Air America” radio excerpts in the film?
KR: People in the radio station are also arguing and not coming to an understanding. It sounds like loud talk radio, and I think it’s reassuring in a way, because if you are in the Left it is very easy to feel righteous right now about so many things. But that doesn’t solve anything either. One of the voices in the beginning is Robert Kennedy Jr., and he and the callers are discussing Lyndon B. Johnson, making the argument that LBJ, by signing the Voting Rights Act gave the South to the Republicans. Ironically it’s Robert Kennedy Jr. who is making this argument. As a viewer you experience these crazy, arguing voices, and by the tone of it you encounter politics.
RS: I also think that these voices allow Mark to enter a comfort zone—that he feels it is enough to listen to these radio broadcasts, and he doesn’t have to act.
KR: Yes, Mark is not really doing anything, but he is listening to his radio as if the act of listening is enough. At the end of the day Mark is this guy that wants world peace. However, he needs to connect with a friend or his wife about this, but he is unable to cross the bridge so it makes one feel defeated about the bigger picture.
RS: Was all this political content present in the short story you are adapting?
KR: It was not. Mark is not married in the short story either. He is single, so he and Kurt are closer to each other in the story; their worlds are not so far apart. John Raymond wrote about a very personal and nuanced friendship, about the elusiveness of friendship. There’s a lot of space in his writing and in my filmmaking for people to grab on to what they want and identify what they want. I can see two people walking out of the movie and feel completely different about it. There’s space to create this kind of encounter.
RS: Is this film directed to thirtysomethings, people in between getting married, having kids, having and not having steady jobs? Are you also trying to capture with this film the doom of (in)action that seems to be looming over people born in the early Seventies?
KR: When you are younger is easier to bond with your friends, and then your respective paths for some reason separate. This is what happens to these two characters. Kurt’s way of life is much more accepted as romantic when you are in your twenties. But, of course, he is past that. He is in his late thirties and people are very opinionated about him. He walks a fine line: at what point are you a wanderer and what point are you homeless.
RS: Do you see Kurt as the twentysomething child that could never grow up, as a loser that doesn’t find his place in life?
KR: In my view, Kurt is actually more open and honest than Mark. Is Mark jealous that Kurt is free? This is a possibility the film opens up. Ultimately I don’t want to say who both of them are because I have gone out of the way in the filmmaking to leave these possibilities open, so trying to nail them down in an interview is the last thing I want to do. I definitely didn’t want to go into the movie with some definitive idea. There are many ways to read each of the characters.
RS: Why was it so important for you to create these open-ended characters?
KR: It has to do with the pace of the shoot, and the environment. Oregon is so spacious, and the forest speaks so much of its own. The sound design is very inclusive, very environmental, and beyond the pinning down of who they are. Hopefully a lot of what is coming through has to do with their body language, the way they put up a tent together or walk across a log and the spectator can read as much into that as in what they are saying.
RS: The film feels extremely invested in the space of the forest and in the ways in which Kurt and Mark interact within the particularities of that space. Could you elaborate about this?
KR: It’s a road trip so we had one way to deal with the city, Portland, and another way to deal with the country. It’s pretty formal and minimalist, and it’s all hard cuts and almost all completely natural light. If it was overcast we shot in Portland, and if it was sunny we went to the forest. And as you get to know the forest you bring more and more of the forest into the shoot, and as we got deeper and deeper into the forest we began shooting in a way that they become more and more part of the forest. This is one of the central ideas of the film: they get lost in the forest and they become part of it and one with nature. At the same time, they become a bit more vulnerable with each other, and then the forest just starts to take over. In addition to this, I tried to keep the filmmaking from being distracting. Besides, when you are working with a six-person crew, you are hoping a lot of the limitations will end up serving you and add to the fragility of the story. Also, by keeping the apparatus very small, it is invisible to us when we make the film. It’s just six people in the woods. Everything was laid out in the storyboard, but, at the same time, we were shooting in a way that we wanted the actors to feel that they have the freedom to bring their own ideas. We tried to create a place and an intimacy in the filmmaking where they would feel comfortable to respond accordingly as they started figuring out who these characters are. Mark, for example, is the listener and a lot of who he is in the film comes from what he does physically. I see him folding a sleeping bag, and I realize his whole character is right there.
RS: Why did you choose to shoot in super 16mm as opposed to digital video? DV would have also facilitated the shooting process in a location like the forest.
KR: The director of photography and I really love film, and there’s so much motion in this film that I don’t think digital video would be the way to do it. The level of colors and depth in the forest would have not been doable in DV. I was hoping to really capture the feel of the weather, and film was necessary for this sensory element. In addition, we are both very film-oriented. We even talked about shooting in super-8 at one point, but never film. I am not against video at all, but it was not an option we considered.
RS: Old Joy is a road film. I haven’t actually seen a film in a long time that has so many car tracking shots, and, at yet the camera is fairly static for the most part.
KR: It’s static, but it’s not always static. It’s not Jarmusch. In addition, there are many things crossing through the frame. The camera is deliberate. I love the road-movie genre and, specifically, Monte Hellman’s Copfighter and Two-Lane Blacktop. Both in terms of the way Hellman shot these films and in regard to the sound design. I was also watching a lot of Satyajit Ray’s films and the ways he deals with nature. Same with Renoir and the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It’s hard to say what has influenced me at this point since I’m in my forties. Last year in New York we had a full month of Ozu films. He also has a very steady camera and amazingly interesting framings. If I had to say which one of these is my main influence I’d say Ray in terms of how he deals with nature. Hellman was also working with very small crews, and he had a special way of dealing with silence.
RS: You just mentioned the sound design. I would like to ask you about your collaboration with Yo La Tengo, and how you approached the making of the soundscape of the film.
KR: They read the story early on. I showed them several cuts in which I used all kinds of weird sounds to give them an idea of what I wanted… bells, chimes, temporary music. We just approached the film from where the characters where in each part of the film. Georgia [Hubley] kept thinking about two guitars as two characters having a back and forth. So they brought me a lot of stuff, and I chose to include some and reject others.
RS: Could you talk about the ending of the film a bit?
KR: Each of them goes back to their lives. It’s something Will Oldham and I discussed while preparing to make the film. I wanted to end the film with Kurt and… I don’t really want to talk it… People should just watch it, I can’t talk about it without telling what it is, and I don’t want to do this.
RS: Finally, how did Kino get involved with the project?
KR: I used to work in the mail room at Kino. I knew them. I teach for a living, so for me making films is not a matter of money. When we started making the film, we didn’t even know if it was going to be a feature or a short so we certainly were not sure someone would pick it up. Kino was great because they are a bunch of super cinephiles, and once they showed interest it was like a dream come true. I already felt tremendously lucky making the film, so this was the icing on the cake. On top of this, the film is playing at Film Forum and I feel so fortunate.