Kelly Reichardt makes small, focused movies about great big stories.
Wendy And Lucy used a young drifter’s separation from her dog to take
the pulse of a nation teetering on the edge of economic collapse. Meek’s
Cutoff turned a tale of 19th-century pioneers lost in the Oregon
territory into a disturbing allegory for America’s involvement in Iraq.
Reichardt’s new film, Night Moves,
is a drama about three ecological activists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota
Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard) plotting to blow up a dam in rural Oregon.
It’s also about the way well-meaning people can convince themselves to
do terrible things – and how far some true believers will go in the name
of a greater good. We talked about contrasts, environmental activism
and that time one of her stars nearly wrecked her location with a
Night Moves feels like a total reversal from Meek’s Cutoff –
going from this brightly lit period drama to a dark, furtive thriller
set very much in the present day. Was that a deliberate calculation on
your part, or just where the next story took you?
You mean, like, after making a film where there’s no water, then making
a movie in a dam? [laughter] No, it really is just where the story took
Besides the dam, your other principal location is an organic farm, a contrast to the bleak badlands of Meek’s Cutoff.
[Co-writer] John Raymond and his partner went to college with the woman
who owns the farm. John and his family visit there often and, when John
got interested in the local politics, he started bringing me down
there. It was a world we were interested in, and it kind of sprung from
In the movie, the people who work on the farm moonlight as eco terrorists, but I’m assuming that was just dramatic license.
Well, you know, everyone’s made up. [laughter] Everyone is a sort of
salad. All the characters are drawn from people – you take things from
here and there. But no, no one’s like a prototype of the people who
actually live on the farm, though we sometimes used them in the
background. We just invaded their space and their vegetable patch.
So did you encounter any sort of real-life civil disobedience or activism in your research that informed Night Moves?
Not really. I mean, ideas and conversations, sure. There are a couple
of farms in the movie. There’s also a goat farm, and we were spending
time in all those places. There was someone associated with the farm who
had burned his cheese license, and that worked its way into the script.
Your characters express their environmental activism by planning to bomb a dam. Does happen a lot in the U.S.?
Well, it’s kind of died down a little bit here since 9/11 –
everything’s seen as terrorism, so the penalties are so gigantic. The
Occupy movement in Seattle was very much based around dams. Even the New
York Times had an op-ed piece, Let’s Reconsider Dams. I think that
conversation, especially with all the drought down in California, will
stay in the forefront for a while.
You go to the East Coast after you show the movie there and people ask,
“Why are you so mad at the dams?” It’s just not on their radar. But on
the West Coast, dams are the conversation. There must be things afoot in
Canada too, though, right?
Mostly pipeline stuff – and not sabotage as much as protests
and legal challenges. And there’s been some push-back against the
fracking movement out in British Columbia.
Fracking’s huge here. When I drive up from New York to Oregon each
year, I don’t even bother going through North Dakota any more. Fracking
is so intense there that you gotta take a different route.
In Meek’s Cutoff, you sent the actors to pioneer boot camp,
getting them comfortable with period wardrobe and equipment. Night Moves
takes place in the here and now. Was there an activism boot camp?
Not a boot camp, though Jesse [Eisenberg] kinda put himself through
one. He came down early and worked on the farm. Those yurts are for
people who work on the farm. You can’t just go there and read a book –
they put him to work the second he got there.
What did they have him do?
He took part in building a gigantic greenhouse. I had gone out to the
farm a year earlier to work out all my shots, being completely naïve to
crop rotation, and so when I went back none of my shots made any sense
and I had to rework them all again. I went back [a week later] and Jesse
and those guys had built a giant airplane-hangar-sized greenhouse right
in the middle. And it was white and horrible to my eye. And he was so
proud of it. I was, like, “Oh my god, what have you done? I’m getting
you off this farm!” [laughter] But yeah, the farmers became
super-attached to him, actually.
Did that happen with everyone?
It was a weird thing. At first we were just worried about invading
their space and their privacy. All the actors who were playing the
[visiting] interns were romanticizing that they should give up acting
and live on the farm. One of the farmers was ready to jump in the truck
with us and join the crew – you know, “The farm’s too isolated!”
Everyone was having sort of a reverse romanticism with film work versus
What’s it like to make a movie on a working farm?
We really did have to be in sync with the farmers. We’d be planning to
shoot a scene and see the farmer going out with his cutters to take down
a patch of cabbage. It was a constant renegotiation: “If we can shoot
here, we’ll help you box vegetables for the next two hours, or help you
cut this field.” The worlds collided much more than either of us ever
imagined. At first, a lot of the farming interns who worked on the farm
were confused and suspicious of us – not wanting their scene to be
intruded upon – but there was, in the end, a mutual respect for
intensely hard work that starts really early in the morning and goes
really late at night.
What were the conditions?
No one has to act wet or cold in our movies. We just made sure that
happened for them. [laughter] Alia [Shawkat] and Logan [Miller] arrived
the night Dakota [Fanning] left. We were eating outside in a tent and it
was three in the morning. It was so cold, and I was looking forward to a
meal so I could get warm. I didn’t realize we would be eating outside.
All of a sudden these beautiful clean people showed up and I was, like,
“Are they investors? Who are these people? They’re so clean!” We were
all so filthy and the farmers, who were being our extras, were all so
filthy. And then I was, like, “Oh yeah, these are the actors for the
next part of the film.” I couldn’t even recognize them in my haze. I was
like, “God, they look so beautiful and rested and clean.”
Did it take long to dirty up the new arrivals?
Oh, you know, everybody works on the farm for a day and you get pretty
dirty pretty fast. I mean, Alia and Logan just immediately went out into
the fields – that night we were at the goat farm and it was a gnarly
freezing night. And these farmers start partying at four in the
afternoon because they go to bed at eight, and we were [working] until
all hours of the morning. I remember some of the farmers going, “Wow,
filmmakers are incredibly boring.” Which is true.