The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Showing Up.
How did you go from making First Cow to telling a story like Showing Up?
Kelly Reichardt: Well, both films were written with Jonathan Raymond and we started out with this idea of making a film of this little-known Canadian painter, Emily Carr. We wanted to focus on a ten-year period of her life when she was a landlord. She had sort of bought this building and become a landlord because she thought it would give her more time away from day jobs and leave to more time to paint. And then we took the ferry to Vancouver and we learned that she was a hugely famous painter in Canada. Do you guys know Emily Carr? She’s huge in Canada.
It’s true! I’m Canadian. She’s huge! There’s a school named after her, right?
KR: Yeah, there’s an art school. And we stayed at the Emily Carr hotel. But you don’t hear as much about her here in the states. It’s like saying you’ve never heard of Norman Rockwell. There are statues of her up. She’s amazing. But we didn’t want to make a film about a famous painter! We came back closer to our own world and started focusing on artists we knew that were working in areas we knew. There was this school, Oregon College of Arts and Crafts, which is an art school. You don’t get a BA or anything. It’s purely art on the docket. Those types of schools have been closing down around America and this school which is like 105 years old had also shuttered its doors. It’s a really important institution for people doing pottery and crafts in the Pacific Northwest. We wanted to film in this place before it ceased to exist, and because of Covid we were able to do that.
Pottery has a lot of inside politics!
Can you talk about recreating that environment?
KR: It was pretty cool because it was completely empty and so I went there with the art director and we measured out the rooms and made a big floor plan. I had that in my apartment and we got to make up what the school would be. There were some clues in some of the rooms like, okay, there are sinks, so that’s the dye room. And then one of the first times that I visited the school, there was a giant loom. I mean, a giant loom that would take up this whole wall. But then that disappeared. Things were just kind of being moved out of the school. And another art facility gave us the rooms to use. We were just making up what this school would be. I’d been teaching at Bard College—which is a liberal arts school like NYU—for the last 17 years. I’d been interested in the Black Mountain College of Arts for a long time and I’d visited what is now a boys camp. I had a lot of ideas about what would be in the rooms. And we knew lots of people who went to school there. Then Tony Gasparro (the production designer) started inviting young artists and recent graduates of art school to come and make the art that would be the students’ art in the film. And so little by little, all the rooms started filling up and art started getting made. It was pretty cool. One of our production assistants knew how to use the looms and taught everybody how to use the looms because the loom woman had Covid! All the young actors had a long time to just hang out with nothing to do, so they all started learning—getting into the clay and getting into the dying, and they were learning everything. Then I’d like walk around and everybody would be teaching me how to do stuff. It became a totally active place before we started shooting. There were people making stuff in every room. It was so cool to see it go from nothing to being. It made you think like, oh, someone should put an art school here, a lot of people want to study art! One of my colleagues from Bard, Ben Coonley, made the sort of Buckminster Fuller-like dome. He came and did the projections and worked with the art department. It was great. That was like the hive. The whole thing was making an art school come to life.
What caused you to think of Michelle Williams for this project?
KR: One thing that helped me see Michelle in the part was in this collection of artists and sculptors. I had this image of Lee Bontecou when she was about Michelle’s age. She looks so much like Michelle, and that helped me see Michelle in the part. So aside from, you know, that I wanted to work with Michelle and I wanted to work with John Magaro, and I had to consider, how are these people related? Then came Maryann Plunkett and Judd Hirsch to make that family make sense. Michelle kind of waded in with Cynthia Lahti, whose art she’s making at first, virtually. Cynthia’s important and Michelle was in New York for a few months. And then I sent her like ten pounds of clay and some tools. And she waded into it and then she came to Portland and just started spending days in Cynthia’s studio. We then moved everything in Cynthia’s studio to that garage space. There are some houses and apartments that friends of mine built and sold to their artist friends there, and they’ve been passed down to various artists. I’ve stayed there too. I knew those spaces really well and that was for sort of planning how that would all go.
How has your relationship with Michelle changed over the course of making four films together?
KR: She goes off and works on a lot of things and I’ve made things in between the films I’ve done with her. But then you get together and I sort of reap the benefit from everything she’s been working on and learning in between. I mean, when I was watching Fosse/Verdon, I was just like, oh my God, Michelle can do so much more than I’m eking out! We were being a bit braver in a way than we were when we were younger because I think I had more trust in myself to start bigger and then pull stuff back as opposed to starting where you want to end up. Honestly, Michelle’s always been so trusting, which is an amazing thing. She’s just always been really trusting, which is the best thing you could ask for from your actors—that they trust you. Michelle always did, which was a big gift.
How did André Benjamin (André 3000) become involved?
KR: I was working with the casting director Gayle Keller and she sent me tons of images and somehow André ‘s picture got mixed in with the regular people pictures! And I had him on my wall with some of the sculptors, and over time, you know because you see pictures of him in his overalls, he just became Eric the kiln guy. I guess he took my number and he called and was like, hey, what’s going on? What you got going on? And I said, I want you to be this kiln guy. He was just up for it. He went out to Long Beach, to Cal State, and I had made a short film there, a 16mm film of the artist Jessica Jackson Hutchins, who was out there working. They have huge kilns. I mean, they have enormous kilns and different kinds. Right after I was there filming, they got to know some of the people there and Jessica worked there. They said André could come—which wasn’t hard to talk them into. They would teach him how to work the kilns. I thought he’d go in and spend a day. After the first day he was like, oh my God, clay, I knew I needed to be doing this! He kept going back and making stuff. He would walk around whenever he wasn’t shooting, playing this wooden flute that he carries around with him and it was kind of always wafting in. On the last day at this school, I asked him if I could record him playing, and he went out in a field and he played for like 45 minutes. The crew sat around and listened to him and we recorded him and it was beautiful. I had that to work with in the editing room.
There’s this inherent power dynamic in the landlord/tenant situation between Lizzy and Jo, but there’s so much nuance and complexity to that relationship. Can you talk about that?
KR: I’m hesitant to in case in resonates differently for different people. When I was starting out in New York, we had an office on Lafayette Street. Killer Films was there, but it was called Apparatus at that time. And there were a lot of people in that building who could never afford to be in that building now. But I was in this building with all these filmmakers, and they all had trust funds and I didn’t. I could only be in that office because my friends let me have a desk there and work there. They all helped me get my first film made; they were so generous to me. Anything that happened that was good for any of us was good for all of us. I’m always saying this to my students: what you want to graduate with is people you want to make films with. We still go to each other for notes for our films. You need that. And a lot of those people blew through their trust funds helping people like me! But it’s never an even playing field regardless… race, sex, gender, money, connections. It’s like in the art world. Even in small ways, someone’s family is more draining than someone else’s family, you know, just in all the ways that one person’s life is more complicated. You know, when I think back, if someone had given me money to make a second film after my first film, I would not have known how to negotiate any of those things. All the things that come with making a film that are outside making a film, I had no idea how to negotiate that world. Some people totally know how to do it. I didn’t want to make a film about filmmaking, that’s for sure. But I do like the idea of how small politics are in everything. The original thinking when we came back from the Emily Carr trip came about when I was in L.A. with some friends and I went to these two different dinners where everyone was gossiping about the politics at the ceramic space. Like, who’s sleeping with the kiln guy? They’re getting the better space in the kiln and someone else’s stuff got burnt because they’re getting the short end of the stick. It was all about the kiln and space. I called John Raymond and was like, pottery has a lot of inside politics! This is so exciting, you know? Anyway, I think Lizzy and Jo really like each other’s work and that doesn’t mean you don’t have your moments of being like, we’re in a small town and there’s only so many people’s attention to get. When you write a grant, there’s only so much money in the world, and who’s going to get it?