Kelly Reichardt Has Carved Her Own Lane in the Film World

The Bonnie Award winner brings 25 years of trailblazing and passion to her work behind the camera.

WORDS Sandy Cohen
March 2020

Photography by Andrew Vanasse

Then filmmaker Kelly Reichardt began her career in the early 1990s, she was an outsider by default. Coming from Miami, with little connection to an arts or film scene, she moved to Boston, and soon discovered that the industry she intended to join wasn’t very accessible to women.

“Even the indie world was, honestly, not that welcoming,” Reichardt says. “So in a you-don’t-want-me, I-don’t-want-you kind of way, I tried to figure out how I could do it.”

Her solution was to work with a close community of friends, telling small stories about people and places Hollywood typically ignores—stories, for instance, about a bored Florida housewife caught up in a possible murder, or a down-and-out woman looking for her missing dog in Oregon, or a pair of unlikely friends trying to survive the American West in the 1820s. Over seven feature films, Reichardt has focused on outsiders and the outdoors—often setting her films in the Pacific Northwest.

It’s a formula the writer-director has followed for more than 25 years, carving out her own brand of success. Her lyrical, minimalist movies have been lauded by critics and celebrated at famous film festivals around the world, including Venice, Toronto and Sundance. Actors such as Michelle Williams, Jesse Eisenberg,  Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart seek out her meaty roles between blockbusters. And in January, Reichardt became the third recipient of the nonprofit film advocacy group Film Independent’s annual Bonnie Award, a prize for accomplished female filmmakers.

Named for pioneering American Airlines pilot Bonnie Tiburzi Caputo, the first woman to fly for a major airline in the United States, the Bonnie Award is a $50,000 grant earmarked specifically for female directors. “I was trying to do the math on how many rolls of film I can buy with that,” Reichardt jokes.

The awards committee noted that by adhering to her own artistic ethos, Reichardt “embodies the true spirit of indie filmmaking,” and “consistently explores the profound complexity and humanity of her characters, regardless of gender.”

American Airlines, a longtime sponsor of Film Independent, established the Bonnie Award in response to studies showing that female filmmakers don’t experience the same increase in funding and career profile as men do with each successive feature. Reichardt’s approach to storytelling on-screen has, in some ways, been shaped by this bias. Though she bristles at questions about gender and moviemaking—“Does anyone ask a man why it’s worth supporting male filmmaking and male filmmakers?”—she acknowledges that the trajectory is often different for women behind the camera.

“If I look at the men I went to Sundance with in the years I started, the budget I got for my seventh film is what they got for their second film,” says Reichardt, 56.

Her tendency to tell intimate stories in wild, open spaces initially grew out of economic necessity. “I knew I couldn’t afford lights, and I didn’t have crews, really. We were just four or five people making a film,” she says. “So in the beginning it was just writing for the outdoors because that was accessible.”

Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard in a scene from Night Moves (2013)

That restraint has led to a unique ongoing creative process. “For me, writing involves a lot of location scouting,” she says. Stories often germinate with a sense of place—a desert or farm or forest—and the screenplay takes shape from there. Finding real-life locations to match those in her imagination might take 12 months or more, meaning Reichardt spends a lot of time with location scouts, who she says have a major creative impact on her films.

Characters and stories are “tied into their landscape—the landscape is either their friend or enemy; they’re grappling with it,” she says. “Whether they’re farmers or they’re making a pilgrimage cross-country, they’re working with the elements in some sort of way.”

The filmmaker has enjoyed a long collaboration with author Jonathan Raymond, whose work she adapted into 2006’s Old Joy, about two friends reuniting for a camping trip in the Cascade mountains, and 2008’s Wendy and Lucy, starring Michelle Williams as a woman down on her luck and separated from her dog while driving to Alaska to find work.

Reichardt’s latest film, First Cow, which opens in March, is based on Raymond’s 2004 novel The Half-Life—the two have been talking for years about how to bring the tale to the screen. The story, which takes place on two continents and jumps back from contemporary life to the 1800s, centers on two men—an American loner and a Chinese immigrant—who forge a friendship and a fledgling business as they navigate the Oregon Territory in the rough early days of the United States. Though it takes place during the westward expansion, it’s certainly not your average Western. “It offers a counterpoint to some of the myths of who we are as a people and how we got here and the American West,” says Reichardt. She actually didn’t expect to make the film, but when another project fell through, she and Raymond returned to their musings about First Cow. “Somehow we cracked the nut this time and found a way,” Reichardt says.

John Margo as the loner "Cookie" Figowitz in First Cow

Even while accepting the Bonnie Award at the Film Independent Spirit Awards Nominee Brunch in West Hollywood, Reichardt was reminded of the vicissitudes of the industry, and of her early struggles. Actress Alfre Woodard presented the prize, and as the filmmaker approached, she told Woodard, “I tried to make my second film with you! We tried for a decade.” The two shared a warm hug, and though they were never able to make that film, Reichardt has a sense of contentment about her career. “Everything sort of leads you to where you are, just not necessarily through the route you thought you were going to take,” she says.

Besides, Reichardt is inspired by working with future filmmakers (she teaches at various colleges) and crafting movies that suit her sensibilities. She may not have the blockbuster success of, say, the Spider-Man franchise, but her career is creatively rich. “It’s a lucky thing if you get to make a film.

And if you get to make a film that you’ve worked on since it was a little seedling and you take it through to the end, to me that’s the ultimate,” she says. “And that’s what I’ve been able to do by working on very small budgets. I felt like I was sneaking in around the edges, and by accident found this very nice way to work.”

Meet the Bonnie Award Finalists

Marielle Heller
Marielle Heller fell in love with acting as a child, but by the time she was a young woman, she was frustrated with the types of roles available. That led her to writing, and ultimately to her directorial debut: 2015’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was named Best First Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards. “The thing about being an actor is you’re not in control of when you get to do your art,” says Heller, 40. “That was always very painful for me. And with writing, you can sit down and write whenever you want to write.” She can also create the kinds of roles for women that she yearned to play. Heller has since gone on to direct screenplays by other writers, including Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which earned Oscar nominations for stars Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, and 2019’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks. Heller recently started a production company with her collaborators from that film and says she plans to write the next movie she directs.

Lulu Wang
Lulu Wang almost gave up on filmmaking before making her acclaimed feature, The Farewell. She wanted to make a movie about her traditional Chinese family and how they kept her grandmother’s terminal cancer diagnosis from her, staging a fake wedding as a way of bringing everyone together to say goodbye. But Wang couldn’t get financiers interested. After getting the opportunity to tell the story on This American Life, she considered shifting into journalism. “It validated my feeling that other mediums would allow me to tell my story authentically, the way I wanted to, without having to compromise,” says Wang, 37. “That was the moment I almost quit.”But the notion didn’t last long, because that broadcast led to a flood of calls from producers, which ultimately resulted in Wang making The Farewell just as she’d hoped: in China and mostly in Mandarin. The film was nominated for scores of awards and named one of the American Film Institute’s best movies of the year. Now, Wang’s future in the industry she almost left has never been brighter.  Next up, she’ll produce and direct Nicole Kidman’s new Amazon series, The Expatriates.

Previous Bonnie Award Winners

When Chloé Zhao won the inaugural Bonnie Award in 2018, she had just spent several years on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where she made her first two films. “Winning the Bonnie Award gave me the freedom to take time off and figure out what I wanted to do next,” says Zhao, 37. “I was able to work on projects I’m truly passionate about.” Those projects include Nomadland, starring Frances McDormand, and Marvel Studios’ The Eternals, set for release in late 2020, which stars Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek.

For Debra Granik, winning the Bonnie Award in 2019 allowed her to finally begin editing the documentary footage she’d been collecting for years about how convicted felons readapt to New York City life after prison. Perhaps best known for her 2010 film, Winter’s Bone, which won Jennifer Lawrence her first Oscar nomination, Granik released her latest narrative feature, Leave No Trace, in 2018. Besides the new, unnamed documentary, Granik, 57, is working on another narrative screenplay about life in New Jersey that she describes as “a love letter to Jack and Diane.”


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