Your films, I think, are often beautiful observations of characters and their stories. You have a unique way of making the audience wonder what a person is thinking or feeling deep underneath the surface, even when it is a character we glimpse briefly. That being said, Certain Women is adapted from Maile Meloy’s Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, which is a collection of 11 stories in total. Why did you ultimately choose these three stories from the book, and what was it about them that captivated you the most?
Actually, two of the stories are from Both Ways, and then one of the stories is from her other collection, Half in Love. The Travis, B. story is from Half in Love. I fooled around with these different stories from both books. Maile was very generous in giving me space and time and the room to mess around with her beautiful work. It’s quite hard, I think, to let somebody you don’t know to dig into your stories. I was really drawn to her writing and her depiction of these characters and the place where they lived. The stories are super internal but they felt cinematic right away, so it was an easy leap to make. I was exploring with an open mind that it might just not work and I might back away from it. This idea of is there a way that these stories would add up to a whole that had some kind of meaning.
Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and Certain Women are all adapted from literary sources. What do you think constitutes a successful adaption from a written text, in your mind, and what do you think are some of the mistakes people make when turning literary sources into a film?
Oh gosh, I wouldn’t want to say because I just don’t know. To me it just depends what it is. Jonathan Raymond’s (Jon) stories appeal to me because I liked that they were so different. I mean, I grew up in Miami and lived in New York and here were these stories that were all based around Oregon. Jon sent Old Joy to me and everyone I showed it to were like, “There’s no film there, there’s no film there,” and I was like, “No, there is a film there.” And then I remember a friend showed me Blissfully Yours and I said, “Ah, see, like, look, come on.” Not that the films have anything to do with each other but just there was something about the way he filmed nature, he’s such a brilliant filmmaker. It was just an uplifting thing to see right before I was shooting. But you know, it’s true they feel like experiments, like maybe they won’t work, who knows.
Wendy and Lucy was an idea Jon talked about with me and we talked about it before he wrote the story. Lucy is my dog and we had to work her into the story because she never could be left alone and she’s in Old Joy too. So, thus, Wendy and Lucy was born, and then it became a script, so the story and script was sort of happening while we were talking about it. But it’s the right length because you can expand on it and there’s room to just let things play out and when you come from a novel your kind of consolidating, consolidating, consolidating. And so it just depends, a novella is actually probably the perfect size. The shorts can be too short and the novels too big but the novella can be perfect.
Your films, I think, are often a Rubik’s Cube of interpretation. When I am watching your movies they feel like a stunning blend of anthropology and poetry. But how much of a specific intent do you have in each scene to convey certain feelings within your characters, or is it a combination of how your actors will interpret your direction, combined with their own feelings of what is actually their characters’ emotional root in the scene?
I think it’s a combination of things, I think it’s the seeds that are in the story that come from the writer before I am even involved and then there’s something that the locations are bringing, when you put people in those locations. Then there’s the addition of animals, like a dog in Old Joy or the animals in Meek’s Cutoff or in Wendy and Lucy, that keeps anything from being too planned. You have the script that’s quite tight but you are shooting on location, so you don’t know what the weather’s going to be and you don’t know what this animal is going to be. So there’s some elements that people are just going to have to react to, aside from the actors reacting to each other. Things like whatever sounds are in the space, untrained animals.
You also have the actors being very present in the moment, especially like if you are in a hot tub or whatever and it’s freezing cold out. When you are shooting on location there is a lot to react to and respond to, and so I think it’s a combination. Then there’s what setting things in a frame does and how you kind of shoot the space. So it is a lot of elements that help things come through, and it’s still amazing in the editing how you realise however long you give things or when you make that cut how much it can change something. I think when editors are talking about like [sic], it all happens in the editing room. I think they are referring to that, about how you play with time. It’s happening throughout, it is a long process and a lot of people are bringing things along the way.
You live with the story for a long time by yourself, while you’re working on a script and you’re scouting and you’re bringing it altogether, and then you start sharing it with other people, and then you have this intense time with a team, and then you are alone again in the editing room. And you start doing your post, and you’re with a team again, a colour timer, a sound mixer. There’s so many stages in a film, there’s what you set out to make but there’s also the thing of, you know, Gus Van Sant, I’ve read what he’s talked about. If you’ve shot a scene before lunch and you had all the same elements and you shot that scene after the crew ate, things would be different because there is a life that happens on it’s own.
Then there is also your interpretation and what the audience interprets.
Yeah hopefully, if you are leaving room for ambiguity, yeah, there is.
I feel like every person, place or thing that appears within your camera frame is a unique being I want to know more about. Sometimes you follow animals with your camera and I want to know their story. Lucy in Wendy and Lucy is one of the finest examples I have ever seen of an animal feeling like an important character in a way that doesn’t involve tricks or Eddie Murphy voice acting for them.
There might have been some Lassie tricks.
Not on camera, anyway. But would be able to shoot a film almost entirely around an animal’s perspective, in your style?
(laughs) That would be so corny, there is one shot in Wendy and Lucy and it’s the corniest thing but I didn’t know another way to do it, I just could not escape it. There’s one shot in of Michelle (Williams) from Lucy’s point of view, and I remember my film friends just busting me about it but I was like, I have to have that shot. I don’t know how you would do that without it being…it’s possible it could be a kid’s movie. When you do a point of view shot it’s a really strong thing, it just is.
So we will keep animals to a supporting cast?
Yeah, yeah, I think so.
The stories you tell always leave me wanting to find out more, and to me the pacing of your stories also seem perfectly suited for long-form storytelling. Other indie directors such as the Duplass brothers and Joe Swanberg have ventured into this medium. Have you ever considered telling your stories in a longer form of storytelling such as TV?
Oh, yes, that format seems nice, like being able to spread out over time. The thing with television is, it’s a writer’s game. The writers have a lot more creative say more than the directors so you do get more time. I mean, the mini series would be the dream but people are pulling away from that. The mini series can still be a director’s game and you could have more time, though I’ve watched friends make a mini series, it’s really a lot of work. It’s like making a couple of films all at the same time, it’s a lot. So, yeah, I haven’t gotten too close to that yet.
Out of all the movies you have made to date, if you had chance to take a look at where one of these characters was in their life now, which character would you pick and why?
Oh, Lucy, I wish I could have Lucy back. By the time you’re done making a film and talking about the film for (laughs) well, now like over a year, you’re ready to stop thinking about it. I mean, I wonder about characters in movies I’ve seen, but just my own I’m ready to let them go.
Your movies sometimes end at such a place where it is a real contrast between hope and misery in a lot of cases. I often wonder did Wendy in Wendy and Lucy make it to Alaska.
That small wimp of a girl trying to make it to Alaska, she can’t make it in Alaska.
I believe your next project will be an adaption of Patrick Dewitt’s novel Undermajordomo Minor. What was it about that novel that caught your eye in particular?
How do people know what’s going on in the world, that has not been announced (laughs). You get a very small amount of time in your life to live with something privately, that’s an idea, that’s a concept, that’s a possibility.
Certain Women is released on March 3rd, and you can read our review of the film here.