Director and writer partnerships that deliver consistent high quality work are an anomaly in filmmaking. Yet in the indie cinema world, the combination of director Kelly Reichardt and writer Jon Raymond is an exception to the rule, with their films Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy receiving critical acclaim and a loyal following.
As Raymond explains, their friendship and eventual partnership came through an introduction from another popular indie filmmaker.
“We met through our mutual friend Todd Haynes [director of Far From Heaven]”, said Raymond. “Kelly and Todd go back a long way. They have known each other for around 20 years at least. So through him, Kelly and I met and we were friendly.”
“I published a novel in about 2004 that Kelly liked, and she was looking to make a film soon thereafter, around 2005 or so. She asked if I had any smaller stories to potentially adapt, because the novel was beyond her resources at that time. I had the story Old Joy, which incredibly she liked also and decided to adapt into a film. That experience was really fun for both of us, and we just kind of gone on from there.”
There latest venture is Meek’s Cutoff, a slow burn western that stars Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine), and is based on the true story of a small bunch of settlers who are led down the wrong trail by famed mountain man Stephen Meek (played by Bruce Greenwood), way back in the Oregon High Desert of 1845.
For Raymond, the idea for the film came to him while working on a project of a different kind. “It’s sort of a funny story. I was hired back in 2007 during the housing boom here, to name a golf course out in eastern Oregon, which is where the Meek’s Cutoff story takes place”, said Raymond.
“In doing that strange job, I ran across the story of Meek’s Cutoff, which was a pretty famous story in the Oregon Trail although I hadn’t heard of it before. Something about it kind of rang some bells for me, and it was this idea of a group of pioneers lost in the desert, being led by a leader who may or may not know where he was going. That was the determinable thing for me.”
As a native of Oregon, Raymond found this pivotal story in the history of his hometown to not only be a great idea for a movie, but one which added even greater appreciation for his surroundings.
“I think that’s for me part of the interest”, said Raymond. “Having grown up around here, the stories of the Oregon Trail have always been around. You start hearing about the pioneers and the covered wagons from the oxen in like third grade. So this definitely was a way to kind of talk back to that history a little bit, and also to learn more about it.”
“So much of that stuff is backdrop for some of the States self identity, and you kind of take it for granted in a lot of ways to. You don’t really burrow into the details, so it was really fascinating to have to go through the re-education of it, to re-learn all of the stuff you kind of forgot from grade school.”
Equally fascinating are the subtle political hints found in Raymond’s screenplay, with Stephen Meek leading his wagon to an uncertain future an allegory for the then George W. Bush administration’s handling of the countries affairs.
“I think that the Bush administration was definitely casting a shadow in the original conception of the film, but the hope was to write something that was much more broadly applicable to political life and to personal life”, said Raymond.
“This idea of a group of people trying to decide something with a limited amount of knowledge, is something that crops up all the time in lots of different contexts. Sadly it transcends the Bush moment and sort of this evergreen problem that we find ourselves in. It’s been interesting to see how malleable the allegory actually is, even though it did kind of come out of that moment it just continues to mutate in different ways all over the world.”
With Raymond steeped in the stories of Meek and his infamous “cutoff”, it has to be asked: is Stephen Meek a legendary pioneer man? Or, a legendary muck up?
“Oh, I would say he is definitely a muck up!” laughed Raymond. “But he’s fascinating for that. For me that’s such a more interesting kind of character.”
“His brother Joe Meek was a very legendary mountain man. Really an almost mythological figure of the west. So I was always like how Stephen Meek was the lesser known brother of a legend, and just was never able to fill those shoes. So to me that kind of character is so much more interesting than the hero that we normally hear about. I am so much more attracted to the “muck up” than whatever else he could be.”
Meek’s Cutoff is screening at the Sydney Film Festival;
Saturday 11th June 4:30pm at Events Cinema
Sunday 12th June 3pm at The State Theatre
Also, Focus on Kelly Reichardt is screening at ACMI in Melbourne from June 2-19th and includes her rarely seen debut River of Grass (1993) plus Ode (1999). For more information visit ACMI’s website
Images taken from http://meekscutoff.com/