Interview: Filmmaker Kelly Reichardt on Showing Up—the Film, and for the Work of Making, Sharing Art

If the films of Kelly Reichardt have a binding theme, it’s that her works are populated by characters in search of their place in the world, both in a geographical and metaphorical sense. With a career that now stretches 30 years (beginning with her sublime River of Grass), Reichardt has made some of indie cinema’s greatest achievement, including Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy (her first of four collaborations with Michelle Williams), Meek’s Cutoff, Night Moves, Certain Women, and her astonishing First Cow. Her latest work, Showing Up, is not only her most recent with Williams, but it feels like her most personal, as she explores the tense, competitive, hectic, draining, and often quite funny world of an art school/collective in Portland, Oregon.

In it, Williams plays Lizzy, a sculptor preparing to open a new show while also balancing her creative life with the daily dramas of family and friends. Reichardt seems decidedly in her element with this vibrant and captivating portrait of art and craft and the intersection those things make with commerce. Joining the recently Oscar-nominated Williams in the cast are fellow nominees Hong Chau, as fellow artist and Lizzy’s neglectful landlord, and Williams’ The Fabelmans co-star Judd Hirsch, as her father.

In this immersive movie, it’s difficult to tell whether the filmmaker is gently mocking these folks and their unsustainable way of life or honoring them. I sat down with Reichardt recently to ask her just that and more about what is arguably her most accessible work to date. Please enjoy our conversation…

I have artists in my family; they are my cousins, they are brothers, they both were education in art schools in New York City, and eventually both moved to San Francisco. And I was laughing a great deal watching this movie because so much of their experience is represented in it, and it made me realize this is a universal experience for a certain section of the creative population. What was it about that aspect of the artist’s life that you and your co-writer Jonathan Raymond found so fascinating?

Funny enough, in the very very beginning, we went to Vancouver. We were interested in making a biopic on Emily Carr during her 10 years when she was a landlord. She bought a piece of property and fixed it up, thinking that would give her more time to paint, rather than having a day job. In fact, her tenants needed so much of her attention that it didn’t give her any more time. We thought Emily Carr was an obscure painter, but she’s a hugely famous painter in Canada, so we clearly didn’t Google enough before we began, and off we went, And then we came back, and John kept saying “All our friends are artists and struggle with working. Why don’t we ask them about this.” I was very nervous about dipping into our own lives and what we saw. 

Obviously, the film is all fictionalized, but we wanted to concentrate on process, how you mix making work with this black hole of survival, family, friends, all the things that get in the way and call you away from the table, and what it takes to get to work every day. That and the idea of the big moment—like a show. The moment I love the most is the one after the big moment, where I’m rehashing it back at the hotel with John, and we’re talking about it with our producers. I’m always the first one home, so I love the rehash of any event, almost more than the event itself. We wanted put our focus on those things.

You make it seem like the hardest part of any day is carving out the time to actually create. In the writing process or beforehand, did you collect stories from artists you knew?

We’re old enough and know from our friends…I mean, Cynthia Lahti, whose work we use in the film, John goes back many many years with her. And Michelle Segre, I had already filmed her in her studio working on 16mm. The work of of the third artist in the film is by Jessica Johnson Hutchins, who made the glasswork. I’d filmed Jessica in Long Beach working. So I’d started to wade in just shooting on 16mm in their studios. Plus, I’d gone to art school, I’ve been teaching at Bard for 20 years. 

That was the other important element, this very important school, the Oregon College of Arts & Crafts, was shuttering its doors, and that was a really big deal. A lot of art schools are closing their doors around the country. Before it’s going to become whatever it’s going to become, we really wanted to shoot in that space. It was a completely empty space, and we got to create an entire art school with the art department. The production was set up in part of the school, so you could go to one place and get your costume, and then go over an be involved in making stuff. It became a very active place while we were in pre-production because everything that was in the school had to be made. I got to borrow a lot of art that I love from local artists. It was really great to put some of that in other places in the film. That was really great.

You mentioned the artists whose work we see in the film. Did you have your actors spend time with those folks, not so much to learn who they were but to how to work in their various mediums and look natural doing so?

Yeah yeah. We sent Michelle a clunk of clay probably six months before we shot, and she started doing Zoom tutorials with Cynthia that I eventually took part in. And then Michelle came to Portland and spent time with Cynthia in her studio. Likewise, Hong Chau was working with Michelle Segre at her place in the Bronx, and we loaded her up with a home kit that she could take home and work on. So, in both cases, I was like “You’re not absorbing from the artist; it’s about how they make stuff and how they work.” They both make really personal work, and I’m sure, as an actor, you’re sponging up all sorts of stuff. But who these characters were in the writing phase goes through so many processes and stages of evolving ideas, and the salad of things put together for the characters. The actors are off working with these two particular artists, and we all come back together, and they’re in their clothes and in their apartments. The art department did take almost everything out of Cynthia’s studio for Michelle’s studio, so those things were familiar to her for the times she was there.

I love the contradiction in their art styles and how they reflect their personalities. Jo’s work is big and colorful and fills a room. But when Lizzy has her show, all her work fits on one fairly small table. Somehow, that dynamic typifies their personalities. Was that done deliberately?

Yeah, we wanted Jo to be a physical person, someone who is really comfortable in her body. Things come easier to her; she’s more open and maybe has an easier life to some degree. She gets down in it in her studio. Then Lizzy is close on the table, working with her stuff, and it’s more scaled-down pieces, and her pieces have faces and gestures and bodies, and Michelle Segre’s work is more abstract. So yeah, the differences of the characters were important to get across in the film.

Speaking of learning their craft from an expert, I did not know Andre Benjamin was in this film, and I was thrilled to see him. I would imagine he took to learning to operate that kiln with much passion.

He did. He went to the school where I went to film Jessica. The manager of the space agreed to let Andre go there to learn and work with these huge kilns, different types of kilns because he’s playing the kiln guru. So he started going there and was only supposed to go for a day, but then he started texting me: “I knew there was something I should be doing with clay,” and he just kept going back and got really into it. So he was having his own trip in California, learning about all the kilns worked before he even got to the kilns he was going to work with in the movie.

How did you even land on him for that part? It’s inspired.

I worked with the casting director Gayle Keller. I’m always gathering photos of real people, not actors, and somehow in my “real” collage of people, Andre Benjamin was in there in his overalls, and this kiln person is meant to be really zen and master of his craft, and Andre’s picture—he just sort of glows and has such a charismatic smile—was on my wall with these other people, and I started to think how interesting it was to think of him as that character. And then I have the bonus of having him walk around playing his flute, and I asked him if I could record him playing it, so we went out in a field and he just played for 45 minutes, and that becomes part of the school.

Anytime I’ve ever hung around an environment like that, there’s always music playing.

For sure. Although now what happens is everyone is listen to music in their ears. So you go there expecting there to be music everywhere, and you realize everyone has their own private music now.

My mother used to use this word “persnickety” to describe certain people, and I don’t think I knew quite what it meant until I saw Michelle as Lizzy in this movie. You two have worked together—well, Wendy and Lucy is almost 15 years old now—and I love director-actor partnerships. Tell me about the process of fine-tuning the Lizzy character, because she’s definitely making some choices about her essence.

For sure, it’s process process process. At the very beginning, I sent her a picture of Lee Bontecou, the sculptor, and that was a jumping off point for us. Then she got introduced to Cynthia and went through working with her, and then she spends a lot of time with April Napier, the costume designer, and me. April’s set up is right at the school, so Michelle could try some shoes on and walk around and go to her office. Getting the clothes going is always a big deal. She’s getting her space set up as well, and so you’re wading into it further and further. 

Then there’s the surprise element of what the dynamic of Hong Chau and Michelle is going to be. They’re each working separately, so what’s that dynamic going to be like when they start doing a scene together. How are they going to play off each other? We don’t rehearse, so we don’t really know. And then there’s the whole building of the family and how that was working. Michelle and Judd, that’s actually one of my favorite scenes, in his workshop. Then Maryann Plunkett was actually Michelle’s idea. We were talking about her, and Michelle just said “She should be my mom.”

Once we meet her family, parts of her persona become so much clearer.

It’s complicated, yeah.

There’s a notable appearance by a bird in this movie. You have a history of working with animals in your films.

I don’t want to discuss the bird. I would love for it to be discovered in the movie, if possible . We can talk about the cat; I’ve never worked with a cat before. Cats are hard. And I’m allergic to cats, so I can’t cuddle up to the cat, but they won’t let you anyway. So cat wrangling was a challenge, and we’d go through this thing where the animal is the king of the set, and we all shut up and slow down, and everyone is holding their breath the whole time at each take wondering what will happen. But we had some good kitties and good animal people on set that were helpful to us. Definitely different than working with dogs or cows or bulls or whatever.

Teaching is a big part of your life. Did you want to incorporate the idea of learning into this film?

Yeah, I’ve been at Bard for 17 years, and I’ve been teaching for about 30 years now, so my relationship to Bard is very special and it has been a big partnership in my filmmaking, having to do with my colleagues there and the environment. When I first started teaching there, it was a dinosaur department of people who can’t be replaced who are now gone or retired, but it shaped my thinking about art making in a lot of ways. So this was a really great opportunity when we thought about the school and saw it, and I saw how all of it could come together and meet. That was cool to be able to bring those things together. And one of the best things for me was being able to make up a whole school from an empty space. It was great fun for the art department and myself to make a school.

I’ve certainly found moments of humor in your works before, but this one is outright funny throughout. I wondering if you were gently ribbing this whole scene or are you in awe of it?

All things. I think the script is humorous, and John brought a lot of humor to it. Michelle and Hong’s actions are funny, and the filmmaking underscores those things. It was in the mix, but I didn’t want to make fun of it because I worship at the alter of making work. My real hero is filmmaker Peter Hutton, who I got to teach with for a long time before he passed away, and watching him with students, and they would come in with all of their concerns, and he would say “Who gives a shit. What did you shoot today?” That was his mantra. “Get to work” basically.

Just create. I love it. Thank you so much, Kelly. Best of luck with this.

Yes, it was nice to meet you. Thanks a lot.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.