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Living In Such Peril

August 14th, 2009 · 2 Comments

Wendy and Lucy, 2008, poster Wendy and Lucy, 2008, poster

Wendy and Lucy (2008)
Screenplay by Kelly Reichardt & Jon Raymond, based on the short story Train Choir by Jon Raymond
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Produced by filmscience/ Glass Eye Pix
Running time: 80 minutes

So, What’s This About?

Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams) treks through the woods near a town in Oregon with her dog, Lucy. They stumble onto some young hobos gathered around a campfire, and Wendy reveals that she’s headed to Ketchikan, Alaska for summer work. She spends the night in her ’88 Honda Accord in a Walgreens parking lot. Come morning, an elderly security guard (Walter Dalton) politely asks her to move along, but Wendy’s car stalls. Marking time until a mechanic opens shop, she makes a decision that lands her in jail for several hours. By the time Wendy returns to the spot where she left Lucy, she discovers her traveling partner is missing.

Wendy puts in a call to her brother-in-law and antagonistic sister in Indiana, but we learn little about her background except where she came from, where she’s headed and that she has very little cash to make it on her own much longer. When Lucy fails to turn up at the local pound, Wendy spreads “lost dog” notices all over town. She finds the kindness of strangers in the security guard, as well as an honest mechanic (Will Patton) who regrettably has bad news about her car. Wendy finally reunites with Lucy, but the difficulties on the road ahead prompt her to reconsider taking the dog along on the journey.

Wendy and Lucy, 2008, Michelle Williams

Who Made It?

Kelly Reichardt grew up in Miami. The daughter of homicide detective father and narcotics agent mother, she immersed herself in photography after borrowing her dad’s crime scene camera in the 5th grade. Reichardt would drop out of high school and move to Boston, where she enrolled in the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Making non-narrative films on Super 8 led to a BFA. Reichardt returned to Florida in 1993 to shoot a feature film, River of Grass. Rather than making filmmaking her focus, Reichardt entered teaching — first at the School of Visual Arts in New York, later at Columbia and NYU. She returned to directing in 1999 with a 48-minute short she’d filmed in North Carolina titled Ode.

Reichardt met Portland based author Jon Raymond through her friend Todd Haynes. The positive experience on Ode led her to ask Raymond if he had any short stories they might adapt into a film together. Their collaboration resulted in Reichardt’s second feature: Old Joy (2006). They came up with the idea for another feature — Wendy and Lucy — together, with Reichardt working on a script while Raymond realized it as a short story titled Train Choir. Producer Anish Savjani secured financing and with Michelle Williams starring, Wendy and Lucy would prove Reichardt’s most critically and commercially successful work to date.

Wendy and Lucy, 2008

How’d They Do It?

After college, Kelly Reichardt worked as a property master and set dresser on Todd Haynes’ first live action feature, Poison. Reichardt went on to teach while Haynes rose to acclaim as director of Safe and Velvet Goldmine. Haynes later met Jon Raymond, editor of a Portland arts magazine called Plazm. Credited as “Slats Grobnik”, Raymond would serve as Haynes’ assistant on Far From Heaven in 2001 and publish a novel titled The Half Life in 2004. Haynes stated, “After reading The Half Life, I was amazed at Jon’s strong sense of regional identity, and then I spent some time around him and saw the sort of old-school way he related to his friends, the intimacy and warmth they shared.”

Raymond recalled, “I met Kelly through Todd, both here and then when I moved back East. Kelly was actively looking for a story to adapt for a new project. She had read a novel I had written called The Half Life, in 2004, and she liked that and was looking for something to do with people she knows. She wanted a story that had very few characters, largely took place out doors — so she would not have to deal with a lot of sets — and would have room for a dog to be written in. I had this story, Old Joy, although I couldn’t imagine anyone seeing a feature in it. But she did and went off and made it. It was an amazing surprise and blessing for me.”

Wendy and Lucy, 2008, Michelle Williams

Discovering Jon Raymond, Reichardt mused, “There is something elliptical about his writing. His stories are very open and leave a lot of room for the reader to bring their own experiences to the subject. This translates well to my approach to filmmaking. He also is very good at setting people into their environments so that whatever is going on with them internally is linked to where they happen to be. The landscape becomes more than just a place, but something like a character in the story. Which fits with my own long-term interest in representing the American landscape.” The success of Old Joy — a study of alienation between two friends on a camping trip — left Reichardt eager to collaborate with Raymond again.

Reichardt recalled, “It was very post-Katrina — what it was for everyone just to be watching, but also the conversation of, you know, ‘Those people, living in such peril,’ they wouldn’t be in the shape they’re in, the position they’re in. We just started pondering: If you don’t have a net and you’ve had a shitty education and you don’t have the benefit of family that’s in any better situation than you’re in, how does one improve their lot? Not even reaching the middle class, but how do you just get a toehold in the next level? That was the seed, and then Jon went off and wrote the story. The screenplay was just an adaptation of his story.”

Wendy and Lucy, 2008, Michelle Williams

Reichardt’s own traveling companion — a golden Labrador retriever mix named Lucy — had made her screen debut in Old Joy. The director added, “Two elements were there from the beginning: the dog and economics. We knew we had to have Lucy in the movie, since she came along anyway, and we felt like the times were right for a real financially driven plot-line. Jon wrote a few drafts of the story, with editing and commentary from me. And then I wrote the screenplay, making additions and subtractions, with editing and commentary from Jon. Once shooting began, the actors also made their own contributions to the dialogue and characterization.”

A former assistant to producer Scott Rudin named Anish Savjani established a production company — filmscience — in 2005. Producer of Old Joy, Savjani wanted to be involved in Kelly Reichardt’s next film as well. “With Old Joy, I came into the project during the post-production stage in order to raise money, and we stretched the budget. But Wendy and Lucy needed all encompassing financing, and the budget was a combination of financing from filmscience and private equity.” Todd Haynes again served as executive producer, putting Reichardt in touch with an actor he was eager to cast in I’m Not There — Michelle Williams.

Wendy and Lucy, 2008, Michelle Williams

Wendy and Lucy commenced an 18-day shooting schedule August 2007 in and around Portland on a budget of $300,000. Reichardt recalled, “It’s a small crew and we’re shooting on location so you just try and make the limits work for you aesthetically. That’s all you can do. Which it does, I think. I mean, we’re small enough that we can go shoot in these public places and nobody really notices us. I mean, it’s a struggle certainly, but the reward is that it’s a really private process. Jon and I, we don’t have anyone giving us script notes.” Reichardt then spent six months editing the film by herself in her apartment in Astoria, Queens. She added, “The process can continue and it’s just done when I’m like, ‘Okay, it’s done.’ There are very few hands in the pot and I’d say that it is the payoff.”

After screening Wendy and Lucy at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2008, Reichardt’s teaching semester was over and she was driving from New York to Portland when her “shitty cell phone” rang. Oscilloscope Laboratories — the film distributor founded and owned by Adam Yauch (alias MCA) of hip-hop pioneers The Beastie Boys — was calling. The company had distributed two documentaries — Dear Zachary and Flow: For Love of Water — but Wendy and Lucy would be their first narrative release. Reichardt recalled, “I sat in this parking lot, ironically, since the whole film takes place in parking lots and you know, it sounded like they just had a lot of energy and they seemed like they were really interested in focusing on theatrical. And that was really appealing to me.”

Wendy and Lucy, 2008

Premiering at New York’s Film Forum in December 2008 and expanding to other cities through January 2009, Wendy and Lucy was championed by critics. A.O. (Tony) Scott, The New York Times: “Much as Old Joy turned a simple encounter between two longtime friends into a meditation on manhood and responsibility at a time of war and political confusion, so does Wendy and Lucy find, in one woman’s partly self-created hard luck, an intimation of more widespread hard times ahead.” Michael Phillips, The Chicago Tribune: “If a Warner Bros. social-protest film from the early 1930s somehow got into bed with an American indie from the 1970s, how would the love-child turn out? Like this.”

Without expanding beyond 40 theaters in the United States, Wendy and Lucy grossed $865,695 domestically, and added $323,948 internationally. Kelly Reichardt remained humble about aspirations for her next film. “I don’t consider myself to be working in this industry. I didn’t find the industry that inviting. So to me it’s just been trying to figure out how to make films outside of it. Do it yourself. By any means necessary. And, you know, it’s nice. It’s been a really good ride.” She added, “I’m always prepared that I’ll go back to making smaller films at any given time. In between my two features I was making these sorts of films, but on Super 8. And when the well dries up, that’s where I’ll go back.”

Wendy and Lucy, 2008, Michelle Williams

Should I Care?
Wendy and Lucy stands apart from a lot of recent indie films by simply rejecting the quirk that has become standard issue for so many of them. This is a fine example of addition by subtraction. There’s no contrived romance with a young hunk Lucy meets at the laundromat. No local yokels are trotted out to provide laughs. There are no hugs, no lessons. There’s no hip music on the soundtrack. There isn’t any music, actually. As spare as this effort is, I can’t call it a great film, but it is great work, benefiting from the uncanny timing of the worst economic recession in anyone’s memory, as well as a beautiful performance by former teen soap opera star Michelle Williams.

Kelly Reichardt has the heart of a jazz artist, both to her credit and detriment. There’s a tremendous sense of freedom in setting her film outdoors, with shots of Michelle Williams lingering where it seems obvious the production had no permits to shoot. But like a lot of jazz, the movie is pretentious to the point of being anti-people. Will Patton is outstanding in his two scenes, but I would have preferred fewer shots of trains or trees and more time with the people Wendy encounters on her journey. In the plus column, Williams — who received an Academy Award nomination for her role in Brokeback Mountain — again conveys the restraint of an actor who’s at the top of her craft.

Wendy and Lucy, 2008, Michelle Williams

Where’d You Get All of This?
“By Any Means Necessary: Wendy & Lucy Director Kelly Reichardt” By Peter Knegt. indieWIRE, 10 December 2008

“Interview: Kelly Reichardt on Wendy and Lucy By Alison Willmore. IFC, 10 December 2008

“Writer Jon Raymond sees his work realized in Oregon films” By Jeff Baker. The Oregonian, 5 January 2009

“Interview with Anish Savjani, the producer of Wendy and Lucy
By Eren Gulfidan. Film Annex, 19 January 2009

“Filmmaker Eyes The Frayed Edge Of Social Fabric” By Laura Winters. The Washington Post, 25 January 2009

“Jon Raymond’s Portland” Film In Focus, 27 February 2009

Wendy and Lucy – Production Notes

Tags: Ambiguous ending · Based on short story · Interrogation · No opening credits · Road trip · Small town · Woman in jeopardy

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 moviezzz // Aug 14, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    Michelle Williams was robbed of an Oscar nomination for this film. Of all the DAWSON’S CREEK stars, I never would have guessed she would go on to the finest acting career. Yet, you are right, she really is at the top of her craft here.

    I agree, the film wasn’t perfect, but Williams is more than enough of a reason to see it.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Aug 14, 2009 at 9:22 pm

    Jim: The moment where Wendy gets a phone call from the dog pound shows why she belongs right alongside Kate and Cate. I never would have guessed anyone associated with Dawson’s Creek would be nominated for an Oscar, the least of which Michelle Williams. I hope she can continue to build a body of work and instead of being asked about Heath Ledger, can talk about her acting career. Thanks for commenting!

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