Kelly and Kenny gift us with a history lesson, a film education, and an intro to Kenny's dog, all rolled into one.
Topics covered include: following Todd Haynes to Portland, cattle politics, the nature of the “American Experiment,” why it’s so hard to make a good period piece, lessons from Lyndon Johnson, whether Mark Ruffalo could effectively play an evil person (answer: yes), the randomness of art, the actor/movie star dichotomy, bad old movies versus bad new movies, and why it’s always better when there’s a dog.
Speaker: Hey, and welcome back to The A24 Podcast. We've been trying to get First Cow director Kelly Reichardt on the podcast for the better part of a year, and we finally found her perfect match in brilliant writer, director, and playwright Kenneth Lonergan. Kelly and Kenny have notably both directed Michelle Williams in some of her greatest performances, so we were surprised to hear that this was their first time meeting. Speaking of which, we're thrilled to announce we're getting ready to make Kelly's next film, Showing Up, which will also star Michelle, and shoots this summer. We hope you enjoy this conversation between Kelly and Kenny, featuring special guest, Brownie the dog.
Kelly Reichardt: All right. Let's talk about our taxes.
Kenneth Lonergan: [Laughs] I'm going to get another extension. That's the entire... I don't think I've ever skipped one. Should we just dive in?
Kenneth: Should we just start? Okay. Hi, I'm Kenneth Lonergan talking to…
Kelly: Kelly Reichardt, on the A24 Podcast.
Kenneth: For the A24 Podcast. Hi, Kelly.
Kelly: How are you?
Kenneth: I'm okay.
Kelly: Where are you?
Kenneth: I'm in Long Island. Where are you at?
Kelly: Portland, Oregon.
Kenneth: Oh, nice. So you actually live in Portland?
Kelly: Recently, yeah, moved. I mean, I was in New York for 30 years and ended up spending more and more time out here, and then kind of made the shift from Queens to Portland.
Kenneth: But you've made so many films—how many of your films take place in Oregon?
Kelly: Quite a few. Five, I think.
Kenneth: How did you happen to end up there, or start out there? If you haven't answered that question too many times.
Kelly: I followed Todd Haynes out here. I worked on Poison back in ‘89 and became pals with Todd. And he moved out here and I thought really, it was very crushing that he was leaving New York, but I started coming out to visit him, and I, in one of those visits, met Jonathan Raymond and forging a relationship with Jon. We made Old Joy out here first, where I met Neil Kopp, the producer of that short, and the Portland family kind of built out from that.
And Jon just kept—I mean, he was born in California but grew up in Oregon. And so, the work out here has really stemmed from working on his writing. I made one film in Florida and one out in Montana that was based on some Maile Meloy stories, but all the Jon Raymond stories have been in—
Kenneth: In Oregon.
Kelly: —various corners of Oregon. A very diverse state.
Kenneth: Did you know anything about Oregon before you moved there, or before you followed Todd out there?
Kelly: No. The first time I was ever here, I had visited Seattle for the first time and Todd was out there with Safe at the film festival. And a mutual friend of ours, we drove Todd from Seattle down to Portland, and I remember it was pouring rain. And my first impression of Portland is so much that day, but just a rainy day near pals having lunch. And I was just here for a day, that was the first I'd ever visited it. And then I just started coming out. To me it was so exotic-looking compared to... I mean, I'm used to it now, but at the time coming from sunny days of Florida to the rainy days of Portland.
Kenneth: How old were you when you emigrated from Dade County?
Kelly: Dade County [laughs].
Kenneth: Isn't that where you grew up?
Kelly: Yeah, it is.
Kenneth: I looked that up.
Kelly: Wow. Very good.
Kenneth: [Laughs] Thanks.
Kelly: Yeah. I guess I must've been around 17, 18. I went to Boston very randomly first on my way to New York—I know it doesn't sound like on my way to New York, but anyway, it’s a long story.
Kenneth: I know what you mean.
Kelly: But yeah. And I ended up going to art school there, the museum school, and just being there for four years, and then I finally got to New York.
Kenneth: Yeah. There's something about the West that is just, I don't know what it's like to grow up there, but for an easterner when you get there and the scale of everything is so different, and you seem to breathe differently and the whole... I don't know what. That big sky they always talk about and everything's just so outsized, it seems at first.
Kelly: It is.
Kenneth: I've never lived out there, but I've been. But Oregon's got kind of an interesting history. I was reading about it a little bit and it's such an interesting combination, because it's considered so progressive and liberal now, but it has this terrible, particularly interesting history of racial laws and it's established as a free white state or an attempt to make one. And it's just interesting. It's an unusual—I don't know if it's a blend because I don't live there, but it's just an unusual—
Kelly: It's not much of a blend. I mean, Portland's a lefty place, but Oregon's not.
Kenneth: It's sort of east-west, isn't it somewhat, politically? With the coast being more liberal, if you want to use those words, and the eastern half being much more conservative? Is that correct?
Kelly: Yeah, that's right. You get out to the High Desert—and also a lot of the conservatism is about logging, and that's a big political thing here. The “save the tree” people versus the loggers. But the fires settled a lot of that argument, I guess.
Kenneth: I'm sure. Well, I know in Massachusetts, a lot of the local people who had used to make their living fishing were not complaining about conservationism, but they were complaining—in great detail—about the government regulation being so haphazard and random, and not having anyone in the fish and wildlife department who knew anything about fish or wildlife. And not that they were limiting fishing on certain species, but that there just was no scientific analysis of how to keep the fish populations going.
I don't know if that's the same with the logging companies out there, because they don't want the fish to be wiped out either, but they do need to make a living, and there is a way to do it without using up all the fish. They're supposed to switch fish populations, and the licenses change. You would buy a license to fish a certain kind of fish, spend a lot of money on the license, and then that December the regulations would change and your license would become worthless. But the perception was that they simply didn't care and wanted to use up all the fish in a very shortsighted way. But I don't know if there's anything analogous like that to the logging industry.
Kelly: I'm not really sure. I can remember when we were first scouting for Old Joy and Neil Kopp would drive around, and there was the explanation that you weren't allowed to clearcut near the—like you had to go deep in, so you wouldn't visually see the clearcuts. Places we shot in Old Joy you could go back to, and they’re clearcut right up to the road, that doesn't seem to exist anymore. And I think the argument has something to do with—there's not biodiversity in a new forest that you're constantly replanting. But I'm certainly not an expert on it.
Kenneth: No, me neither.
Kelly: When we shot out in Eastern Oregon, which is super conservative, out in Burns where the, I'm spacing on the name of the guys who took over the—the Bundys. They held up an area right where we stayed in Burns, Oregon, because they want all the land to be free-range ranching. They weren't even from Oregon. But when we were there, everyone's politics were based around cattle and where their cattle could go and where they couldn't go. I had the impression as an east coaster that the conservative ideas were all moral or abortion-based or whatever it was. But when we were working out there, my impression was that everything just had to do with ranching.
There's a beautiful bird sanctuary out there, which is right where they hunkered down, the Bundys. But talking to people who still live there—people who’ve lived there for generations, going back to the wagon train story that we were telling out there—and they had never known their neighbors' politics until that episode took place out there. And sort of felt that the place would never be the same again after having that. It's interesting to think about, because on the coast everyone wears their politics so on their sleeve all the time.
Kenneth: Yeah. It's an area that people feel so passionately about, but the combination of where their strongest feelings go, it's like there's a wide dispersal between things they really know a lot about and are very close to home, and then there are these ideas that we all have about subjects that we don't actually come into close contact with in normal life. But we seem to feel just as strongly about them, and even more outraged and frustrated when other people don't agree with us. I mean, some of the strongest opinions about issues that I didn't agree with I've ever encountered were people who'd never met anyone who was not like themselves. But, on the other hand, they knew a lot about their own area, whether I agreed with them about that or not. It seems like such an odd dynamic.
Kelly: True. But it's also true that, like, New Yorkers or city people can have almost what seems more of a die-hard environmental appreciation or guardedness for natural areas that you might never get to, you might never see.
Kenneth: Yeah. And they're accused of, not entirely wrongly I think, of “It's where you vacation, but it's where we have to make a living.”
But I'm curious, now that you've done all this stuff about the 19th century West, were you drawn back into the past by accident, by interest? I mean, a lot of your work’s about what was happening not now, but then, and obviously very much connected to what's happening now. I don't know, it's a sort of a vague question, but I'm really interested in that period myself and I'm curious what you've found out about it that you didn't know or what resonance you find.
Kelly: Yeah, I guess every time we dive in I am aware of how much I don't know. I would have thought that some of the things from 1845 when we did Meek's would have easily transferred over to 1820, which was First Cow, but it was actually really a different scene, in that the 20 years made a big difference. The migration hadn't really started yet, people were coming by boat and more from Europe and not trekking across country yet.
I guess I always have this naïve feeling of this sense of corporate corruption, as in something pure existed in America, not just in a first people kind of way. But as opposed to that it was, from the very, very beginning, it was a power structure set up to not work for the environment or for the people that were already present. I guess I am constantly interested, and I think Jon Raymond also, in the first seeds of capitalism and how just by its nature—it's not something that turns—that it's problematic just from the very beginning.
Kenneth: It's interesting too, that period, because the pioneers are very much breaking out on their own, away from all the restrictions. I often think like, how desperate must you have been to make that journey, whether by land or by sea. I mean, you had to be really in need of some of something above subsistence in order to go through all those hardships.
Kelly: Do you see yourself as a person that would have made the trek or not made the trek? I always ask myself that.
Kenneth: The way I turned out? No [laughs].
Kelly: There was a lot of fake news about what the trek would be like.
Kenneth: I'm sure. Many of these people had already come over the ocean and they'd come from abject poverty themselves, so they were very tough. I don't know. I mean, while they're taking everything away from the people who were already there, who had been taking it away from each other for centuries, they're also escaping the terrible bottom rung, or second-to-bottom rung, of the European and other societies they're coming from. So, I guess in a way, they're starting a new kind of capitalism, or a new kind of business-political structure. But one thing about the old pioneer days that I think is certainly true is they really were out on their own, without much law, or any, for quite a while. And yet, I'm always struck by the image of people recreating the structures they're getting away from, even when they're out in the middle of nowhere.
Kelly: Yeah, it's interesting, because there seems to be constantly in the American—I mean, today as much as any time—this idea of wanting absolute freedom and absolute rights and anything your heart desires is yours because you're American. But at the same time, wanting things from a government and presuming things from a government, and also still wanting some kind of class system, I think, seems built into it all.
Kenneth: Yeah. But do you think that's a particularly American thing? Things falling out or being pushed into a hierarchy of some kind? Because that's something that seems common to all structures.
Kelly: Yeah, and I'm not sure, but what strikes me as American, the idea of “don't tread on me, it's my right.” I have, maybe it's naïve, an idea that in the beginning of the American experiment, that there was maybe more of a—maybe not though, because the films sort of defy this all the time, the more research we do—but this idea of a joint adventure. It's a complicated thing, like where did the individualism come in, and I guess in a way that was part of the beginning of the experiment, but—
Kenneth: It's odd, because—sorry, I didn't mean to—
Kelly: No, no, it's okay. I don't really have a conclusive thought.
Kenneth: It's half my personality and half the microphone.
Well, there's the dog barking, let me just see if this is our big arrival, hold on.
Kelly: Okay. Bring the dog.
Kenneth: I hope this is adding color to the podcast and not wrecking it, but they'll tell us.
I was going to say, there's something about the idea of striking out on your own, perfect individuality, completely self-sufficient and wanting to be left alone completely, right alongside with the really rock bottom feeling that you're spreading civilization as you go.
Kenneth: So, they're both starting new and bringing with them—well, all the way through the 19th century, the idea that they're the greatest humanitarians of the period, the people who really, really respected and thought the Native Americans were being mistreated and had much more what we would call liberal ideas, there wasn't a single one of them who didn't—the most progressive solution was to get them out of their life and into farms and clothes and Christianity and what was thought of as white civilization. And that was as enlightened as they got, and we like to think we'd be much more enlightened, and I'm 100% we would not.
But there's something about that being the foundation, meanwhile they're completely out on a limb themselves. And, again, I guess you can't go out, I guess nobody, really—You can't leave everything behind, no matter what you do.
Kelly: Yeah, I mean, even physically, the stuff that's being taken with them and being thrown out of the wagons along the way.
Kenneth: Yeah. And in Meek's Cutoff, they're bringing everything with them but they can't use it.
Kelly: Yeah, you can't use it. Yeah, what you need is water.
Kenneth: Yeah, and you need someone who knows what they're doing in order to survive. It's a very terrible and interesting problem. But the other thing that I see in your films too, and what you're talking about, is the idea that you're claiming perfect freedom and individuality, while you're supported by this immense system behind you when you need it. It seems invisible, again, back to the Indian Wars, there settlers would break the contracts that the government had made, then some of them would be murdered, and then they would be in an absolute rage if they weren't given military support to avenge the murders that had been committed while they were broaching the treaties that had been made. So, they're completely on their own, expecting full support, while not actually abiding by the rules laid down by the government they're calling in to help them, when they're broken against—terrible English and syntax, but you get what I'm saying, I think.
Kelly: Yeah, I think it's complicated and everything's regional, how different tribes operated and different laws amongst each other, and who was willing to partake in trade early on and who was resistant to it.
Yeah, I mean, every time we wade into one of these period pieces, it's sort of like the thing, the more you know, the less you know. Yeah, it is interesting. Also, it's easier once you just start focusing on the characters you're trying to fit into this world, so you can focus on the smaller task that they have to get to, as opposed to the larger political landscape, I guess.
Kenneth: Yeah, well that's something that your work is really interested in, is this really immediate challenges that your characters are facing, and how they're facing them.
Kelly: Yeah, it's interesting, when we were shooting Meek's, because we were really out where the part of the wagon train got lost, and nothing has happened out there since. We could still find pieces of wagon wheels and stuff, or an old grave. But we would always—we moved from this point of what do you think they did? to starting to just think like, well, here we are, a group of people, and we're in this situation, we have to get this wagon down this hill, and these are the tools that we have with us. What would we do? Would the thinking really be that different? Here are the tools, what do we do? Instead of constantly trying to think of what would—just logic, I guess, of what you have at your disposal. But, yeah.
Kenneth: Yeah, and by extension I guess with First Cow, here we are, we're getting subsistence, and how can we make more of it? The First Cow corporation, so to speak, is the first natural extension once you've got enough to eat and drink, how do you lift yourself up a little higher than that?
Kelly: A little further.
Kenneth: That's such an interesting idea.
Kelly: Do you ever think of venturing out of contemporary?
Kenneth: Yeah, all the time. I mean, as it happens, I've always been interested in period pieces, and I love period films and I love history. I almost only read history, I have a lot of trouble with novels and I tend to read history, American history and I like the Middle Ages, and I'm reading a lot of Roman history at the moment. Mostly for fun. But, yeah, I have a couple of things that I'm working on that are not contemporary and I hope that they fall into place because I'm really interested in the past, and how people—
Kelly: Where is your family from?
Kenneth: My mother's family are Czech and Russian Jews, respectively, her father and mother's parents, and then my father was, his parents were French-Irish. So I guess French, Irish, Czech, Russian, Jewish, like a big blend. Very New York City. I'm actually not that conversant with the first half of the 19th century, where you've been spending so much time, and not so much out West, but I have been reading a lot about the Indian Wars recently, which are terrible and fascinating on so many levels. But, yeah, I'd love to.
There's so many challenges to it, and I think one thing, the way you put everything right on the ground, I think is such a great way to deal with it. Because I feel like so many period films and TV shows you see are just—the challenge of actually getting into the mindset of the past is just either not something they're focused on, which is fine, or something that's just too difficult, so you get either this very stiff, formal approach mixed with this complete abandonment of any attempt at verisimilitude. I always think it's fun to watch different films from different times in the 20th, 21st century and how they interpret or look at the past. And, of course, the old saw is that you're telling much more about the time in which you're making the film or writing the book than you are about the content. But the relationship between the two is always so interesting.
Kelly: Yeah, I always feel out of my depth talking about the content.
Kenneth: [Laughs] Me too.
Kelly: I'm a very nuts and bolts person, but I feel out of my depth quickly. I was up at Bard showing First Cow and I was starting to talk about it, and I realized the room was filled with some historians, so I just was like, “I have to quit talking right now.”
But it's nice to get into things deeply, though, and when you get to the point where you're just focused on what a day would be, and how much work there was to do in a day. And once you have everything around you that's just from the period, and those are the tools you have in your hands, those are nice. But then there were some scenes, the Toby Jones scenes, that were taking more into account where everybody is in the pecking order and trying to make that happen in some kind of—just sort of dealing with that, within a room, which is challenging.
Kenneth: Yeah, it's so challenging. I always feel, whenever I'm in a situation in real life that's an environment I've only read about or seen on TV, there's always this shock of the difference. You're like, "Oh, this is what it's like to be in this room, and this is what they're focused on.” It's so different. Have you—I don't know if you know the Lyndon Johnson books by Robert Caro.
Kelly: Yeah, I do, yeah.
Kenneth: Yeah, so he has that amazing chapter where he talks about Lyndon Johnson bringing electricity to the remote areas in Texas, which had never—and the lengthy, detailed description of what life was like for the farmers and the farmers' wives just getting water into the house, and what it meant to have electrification, if that's the right word, for that whole area. And you can't get a sense of what that meant without all that detail, but I think that's why your approach to history I like so much, because you're just down there with them at the well and getting the wood from the—there's that one shot in First Cow through the doorway where he goes all the way to get the firewood and then he comes all the way back in, I don't remember at what point in the movie it is.
Kelly: Yeah, it's funny, too, sometimes when actors have a task, how they can't leave it incomplete, you know? When they’re really into it.
Kenneth: Oh, I know.
Kelly: And so you're just like, "Wow, he's really going to chop up that whole tree before he comes back in” [laughs].
Kenneth: I know. I saw an interview with Orson Welles once, an old interview with Orson Welles where he's talking about American movies and foreign movies. And he says, "I was watching a German movie and the camera was placed on the corner of this building and looking down the long wall of this building that went all the way down into the distance. And the character came around the corner and I thought, 'My God, is he going to show her walking all the way down the side of that wall?' And by God, that's exactly what he did."
Though speaking about actors, you reminded me, in my movie You Can Count On Me, Mark Ruffalo—I'd never directed a movie before, and Mark had to—there was a scene where he was fixing a broken pipe and a hole in the floor. And the plumbing wasn't in the shot. You could just see him working on something. And he had tools and greasy pipes and parts around him, but there was nothing for him to actually do in the hole. And I thought it would be fine because he wasn't on camera. I thought he'd just pretend and do something. And he got really mad at me. Well, he didn’t get really mad at me, but he got quite annoyed because he didn't have any—it was just fake right below the level of the frame. And he said, "I have nothing to do here. There's no..." So next time we had him work on something, we made sure it was all screwed in and he had actually something he could do with his hands.
Kelly: Yeah, I think You Can Count On Me could be a good double feature with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, just as far as sibling movies go, favorite sibling films. They're very different, but nevertheless. I think that's where I first was introduced to Mark Ruffalo, was in that film.
Kenneth: Probably, yeah. I think that was the biggest part he'd done since he'd been doing theater in LA for the previous 12 years. That was his first big part. So quite likely that's where you saw him first.
Kelly: Here's a casting question I wrote down because this is constantly on my mind. Casting's always so hard to talk about for so many reasons, but when you love an actor and you think they're incredibly talented, do you still feel you need to—do you cast for the essence of what that person is? Do you feel the most kind-hearted person you know could play a dangerous, someone with a really dark heart?
Kenneth: Oh, I see. It totally depends. I think it depends on the actor, because there's some people who just aren't going to serve the role. There's things about each role that I think can be dispensed with, and things that really you need to have in the part to make the movie make sense. And every actor has a range, and I think some people can go very far away from—I know people who are bitter and sarcastic and snarky in real life, but only play more cuddly parts. And it's just a part of themselves they don't bring to their work, and vice versa.
Kelly: That direction seems easier to me for some reason.
Kenneth: [Laughs] Which one? To go from mean to nice or nice to mean?
Kelly: Yeah. To me, it seems harder for the good—I'm using “good,” not that anybody's an angel—but to go to dark and menacing seems a harder direction.
Kenneth: Yeah, I think it just depends. I mean, some people just have a natural menace that they can call up and other people don't seem as formidable or frightening in that way. I don't know. There's so many varieties to it. I mean, Henry Fonda, for instance, is—but he always has a slight edge to him, even when he's playing a nice person. But then of course, in Once Upon a Time in the West, he's a hideously cruel villain and he's just great. But I think it just depends, really.
Kelly: Yeah, but when you read his kids' biographies, you think he might've had some of that in him [laughs].
Kenneth: Yeah, I think so too. You don't get the feeling he was the warmest, fuzziest person.
Kelly: No. Not at all.
Kenneth: So yeah, so that doesn't really... Yeah, I don't know.
Kelly: Could Mark Ruffalo play an evil person?
Kenneth: Yes, I think he could because, first of all, I think he does have great range, but I think a lot of actors don't like to play evil parts. It's a more old-fashioned problem. There were certain actors in Old Hollywood who just had a certain persona they didn't want to go against, but nowadays when things are supposed to be more flexible and you're supposed to be more of an actor and less of a movie star, but I still think some—
Kelly: You think today that's true? You're supposed to be more of an actor than a movie star? God.
Kenneth: I don't think it is true, but I think that's the popular feeling or that's the fashion.
Kenneth: I don't think it's necessarily the case. Again, it depends completely on which actors you're talking about and what genre they work in, but yes, I think there's supposed to be less conscious awareness of what the role is going to make you look like. I think you're supposed to be an actor who can do all sorts of different things. People like Clark Gable and stars like that would not play certain kinds of parts because they thought it just made them look weak or they thought it made them look—or that some people were afraid, not as simple as being afraid to do comedy if that's not your thing, but not wanting to be perceived in a certain way. And I think that still is true, but it's not what you're supposed to be like. Do you have a different feeling about it?
Kelly: Well, I think the—
Aw, there's the guy. He's here.
Kenneth: Okay. Sorry. I'm sorry, A24. Hold on.
Kelly: Bring him to the table.
Kenneth: Okay, the barking is not totally over, but it's going to go down now. All right. Sorry about that.
Kelly: I don't mind.
Kenneth: So where were we? Oh. Yeah, do you feel that there's more of a movie star mentality now than there used to be?
Kelly: Well, there's just so many outlets and magazines and judgment of actors, and just constant analyzing of people's looks. I do sometimes feel, if you're watching some British films, you know, Mike Leigh, or even watching The Crown or whatever, and you say, "Wow, that 50-year-old woman looks like a 50-year-old woman," or, "That guy looks like he's never been in a gym. That's good."
Kenneth: [Laughs] Yeah. Yes.
Kelly: You know, where it just feels more like a job, without all the added stuff of—
Kenneth: Right. Oh, I see what you mean.
Kelly: —what American actors sort of have to jump through.
Kenneth: Yes. Yeah.
Kelly: Like, not being a 50-year-old in a character way, but just being 50.
Kenneth: I get it. Yeah, no, I know what you mean.
Kelly: I think it's difficult here. Todd Haynes and I often have the question of just—I think I tend to cast close to what I can see in someone. He, I think, does too. But Scott Rudin will get into a thing with you about actors that don't seem like you see it, but can you pull someone to be something that's completely different than who they are?
Kenneth: Yeah. Oh my God, I'm so sorry. Let's just let this go so we don't drive them crazy.
Kelly: See, if you showed the dog, it would all work out.
Kenneth: I know.
Kelly: Oh no, because it's not a... Well, for your still picture. Yeah, for your still photo.
Kenneth: Yeah, we'll put the dog—I'll get her in the photograph.
Kelly: Yeah. Yeah.
Kelly: Make the dog work.
Kelly: It always makes things better if there's a dog.
Kenneth: Yeah. Let me put what I think this way. I think that there are certain kinds of castings that seem completely crazy because the person doesn't seem like they’re anything like the part. And then there are other instances where it happens that, although it's not the type of role you've seen the person play and it's not necessarily close to who they are naturally, it's something that they can do and that there's a part of them that can move over to where that character is.
To take Mark as an example, just because we know him so well, I think he has great range, but outside that, I think his capacity to be, for instance, malevolent—he's one of the nicest people I've ever met, but we all have our side, which, when it comes up, it's not so pretty to look at. And I think actors, or some actors, are very good at bringing that out when it's appropriate. And if they're not afraid to show that side of themselves, they can be quite effective, even though in real life, they may be a pussycat.
And there are some people I feel, some actors, who have kind of an innate, what my wife would call crunchiness, not in a granola way, but there's something about them that seems a little bit aggressive or angry and that's part of who they are. And there's some roles that you might not want them in because that's always simmering underneath and that's something that wouldn't be in the character.
Kelly: But yeah, that would be the trick, to make it simmering underneath with someone that just doesn't have it simmering underneath.
Kelly: Yeah. Like you have to bring it out a little bit more.
Kenneth: I've been listening to an audiobook about the Ronald Reagan years and I remember—this is a bizarre association, but I'll go with it—his performative self was so genial and so joke-telling and so wise and so whimsical, and tough, and he wasn't a particularly good actor when he was an actor, and I didn't think he was a particularly good performer when he was the president, but a lot of people liked him. But you can see in certain press conferences when he loses his temper or someone makes him angry, his whole face changes. And Christopher Hitchens once described it as, he becomes like an “angry lizard” and very frightening and formidable. And really, you take a step back and you wouldn't want anyone looking at you like that, but I will bet you anything that's not something he would ever have been willing to, or even able to, bring to an acting role.
Kelly: To an acting role, yeah. That's interesting.
Kenneth: Because as a more shallow actor, I think, that's not something that—he wouldn't even necessarily want to acknowledge he had in him.
Kelly: But that's because he was doing the bigger performance of being a politician someday.
Kenneth: Yeah, exactly so.
Kelly: Or a bigger performance of a nice guy.
Kenneth: Yeah. But they're all different, which is part of what's so much fun about them.
I mean, do you feel like—I heard in an interview with Truffaut once, or I read it, where he said he always, once he's shooting a movie, he always tries to bring the characters closer to the actor, because the actor is what he's got in front of him.
Kelly: Exactly. I think so. Yeah, I think that happens no matter what. You start out thinking it's going to work in the opposite direction, and then you realize—I mean, when a character's in your head, you can change it every day. And the thing of casting someone is something's more concrete. That person has a voice and a body and a physicality, and some things are going to surprise you that are going to be wonderful, but there's always the limitlessness of being able to change your mind every minute of what you're doing. That has passed.
It's funny, with Michelle Williams, it always seems like we're about halfway through the movie where she says, "I think I'm really getting a handle on this character," and I'm always thinking like, yeah, that the character has come to meet—
Kenneth: Yeah, there's a meeting.
Kelly: —there's a melding. Yeah, there's a meeting.
Kenneth: Yeah, but I mean, unless the actor is exactly what you imagined, which is never—
Kelly: Yeah, that's never.
Kenneth: I always feel it's always in flux how much the part is moving towards them and how much you want to get them to move towards the part. And that's always fun to play around with and always interesting because there's certain things—I always feel like there's certain dynamics in a situation and in a scene that are just, the template has more or less got to be that. When you undo them, the whole thing falls apart. And then there are other things that really have to be enlivened, and refreshed, and beefed up, and taken over by the actor completely. And you're always wrong about which ones are which.
Kelly: Yeah. But if I could picture something completely before I started, easily, with an actor, I think I would just not have the energy to make the film.
Kenneth: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly.
Kelly: I want there to be a surprise element. It's like everything, I think. I was shooting some 16-millimeter of some different artists in their studios, just wanting to watch people make things that are tactile and happen before your eyes. And there's a randomness in, I think, all art, thank goodness, where you can see people are working towards something, but there's also constant surprises that you need to turn into something that's working in your favor.
Kenneth: Yeah. I think that's where it always feels the freshest, when something comes up spontaneously, but it's always such an odd balance because you don't—a long time ago, they used to say actors are not spontaneous, they plan everything, every gesture, every word—now we're going back a couple of centuries. And the illusion of spontaneity is something they rehearsed rigorously. And I always just think that those performances, if that's what they were actually doing, must've been just crashingly boring. But I also don't quite believe it, I believe they probably worked very much like the best actors do now. They really thought about what they're doing, or either they had an innate sense of what was happening pretty moment-to-moment before they got started, and then some kind of life was breathed into it, or they really worked through it and figured out what they were doing, and when they're performing, something else happens, that is a surprise and is an accident.
And I find that's what happens in all art, like when you're writing and when you're directing. And as much as directing is unspontaneous, film anyway, because it's so mechanical, even when you're doing it on a small scale, it's a little—but even so, you're like, “Oh my God, the wind is blowing and that tree is bending over in that certain way, and we can just turn the camera around.” That's a sort of spontaneity.
Kelly: Yeah. If you're on a location shoot. I would think in theater, that there'd be less, in a way—I guess maybe performance-wise, there's more spontaneity—but there's less in the physical space that's going to surprise you.
Kenneth: Yeah, that's true. And I would characterize it as different, not so much more or less. You're doing the same performance every night and there are certain things the actors—it changes every night and you don't lock it down, finalize it, and walk away from it ever, which is what makes it fun for people who like to do it. But you can't change the blocking really any more than you can wander away from the camera. The artificialities are different, I guess, is how I'd put it. You have to speak louder so the audience can hear you, you're facing out more, your body language is restricted.
And film actors who do theater are often really surprised on their first few encounters, because they feel very strange talking as loud as they are, and it just feels so phony to them that they can't—but somehow, it becomes possible to be natural at double your natural volume, the same way it becomes natural to speak to someone with a microphone hanging over your face, six inches over your head on a film set.
Kenneth: And experienced film actors simply don't notice them anymore. Or with a whole crew watching you when you're supposed to be alone in a room with someone. I think it's a question of what the artificialities that you have to get used to are, and being spontaneous within that. And I would say that most theater actors would say there's much, like you say, there’s much more opportunity for spontaneity inside of a play, in a way, but you can't change the performance completely, take after take, the way you can if you feel like it in a film.
Kelly: Right. Plays seem—I don't have any kind of natural affinity for the theater. I find it curious to watch, and maybe I'm not watching the right stuff or haven't seen enough stuff, but I always feel like I'm watching people doing things. It's always been so outside my expense level to go see a lot of theater in New York, though I saw some Shakespeare that sucked me in more than I thought it would, because the whole thing felt of a whole. You have to give it more, you have to buy the scenarios more. As an audience member, you have to meet it more fully, it doesn't all just get handed to you on a—
Kenneth: Yeah, I think that's true. The suspension of disbelief required is probably greater. But I also suspect you haven't seen enough really great plays.
Kelly: I do too. I'm sure.
Kenneth: Because it's like anything else, most movies are bad, most books are bad, most paintings are bad, most music is bad, most plays are bad.
Kelly: Oh, my God. That is true.
Kenneth: The thing about plays though, because you're trapped there with a live performance and there's just essentially, no matter what's happening, it's people walking around talking. I've always thought it was much more excruciating to be bored in the theater than to be bored in a movie. Movies have flashy lights, and they have music, and the scene changes every couple of seconds, and there's indoors and outdoors, there's a lot more going on in a bad movie than in a bad play. In a bad play, it's like you're socially trapped, talking to a bored person, and you can't get out.
Kenneth: But a good play is as good as anything, they're just harder to come by.
Kelly: I think that you've made a fair assumption there.
Kenneth: Well I don't like to presume.
Kelly: No, I would say that I haven't seen—exactly what you said. It's like I sent someone to sit in front of Netflix and Amazon, whatever, with a clicker and said, “Sit here, watch the first five films and make your judgment on cinema.” It's true.
Kenneth: Yeah, I think so. I think there's hope for you in the theater.
Kelly: Yeah, you'd have to just go more.
Kenneth: Yeah, I think so. You just need to get the breaks. I try to steer people towards certain movies that I like and that they haven't seen, and if I get the wrong one right off, then they're much less likely to give me a chance for the second recommendation.
Kelly: For the second one.
Kenneth: I much prefer a bad old movie because I enjoy the patter, and the cadence, and I like black and white.
Kenneth: And I like the way they—when it's a lousy movie and they're saying, "Say, I guess I love you,” that sounds good to me. Whereas, I have many friends who, when they see that color, they're just turned off or shut out, they feel it's artificial. And I like to point out that whatever we're doing is going to look just as artificial in 70 years, no matter how natural we think it is.
Kelly: Yeah, and I'm not against the artificialness of a world at all, but yeah, I'm much more forgiving for a different generation of film than I am for the one I work in, for sure.
Kenneth: Yeah, it has some anthropological value to it. It's got the fun of a cultural difference embedded in it, in a way that contemporary film doesn't necessarily have.
What I think is really great and makes me feel happy is how a very good movie from a completely different country, like where the language doesn't even sound similar enough for you to be able to follow—like if I watch a South Korean film and I'm just listening to the dialogue, I don't know when the characters are angry, making a joke, the musicality of the language is so completely different from English, that only by reading the subtitles—unless they're really yelling or laughing, those two things are easy to recognize, but the general cadences of speech are impossible to follow. But the fact that if it's good, whatever good means, you're really suddenly in that room, with those people, following that story, and I just think that's magical, even if you're missing a lot of associations that a South Korean audience would be picking up on and following and being involved by. But I think that's a real encouragement for the human race, not to be too grandiose about it.
Kelly: Wow. That's a good note to end on.
Kenneth: [Laughs] Okay.
Kelly: We’re ending on the human race.
Kenneth: Sure. Why not? Well, we need the help.
Kelly: Yeah. That's for sure. It's lovely to meet you virtually.
Kenneth: Yes, you too.
Kelly: Well, I hope you have a safe, good holiday there in Long Island.
Kenneth: You too. You too.
Kelly: And thanks for talking.
Kenneth: Yeah. It's great talking to you too. Alrighty.
Kelly: I'll see you in the flesh at some point.
Kenneth: Yes, I sure hope so. All right. Bye-bye.
Kelly: Take care.