Kelly Reichardt examines the artist’s life in her new film Showing Up

We spoke with Reichardt about teaming up with Michelle Williams for the fourth time and how her teaching job at Bard College influences her work.

Kelly Reichardt’s cinema has been categorized as “minimalist” or “neo-neo realism” — two categories whose delineations and compositions have been greatly contested and rearranged. 

Regardless of the specifics of genre, Reichardt’s films are often patiently observed character (and space) studies. To some, Reichardt is a purveyor of granola cinema, to others she is “a major artist in a minor key.” Either way, her influence on North American independent cinema is non-negotiable. 

In Showing Up, Reichardt teams up with Michelle Williams for the fourth time. Williams plays Lizzy, a pottery artist in the week leading up to her show. With a permanently furrowed brow, Lizzy manages family conflict, a day job and her own neuroses. Her neighbour and landlord Jo (Hong Chau) is also an artist working with textiles. Jo’s career as an artist flourishes at the expense of her landlord duties; Lizzy hasn’t had hot water in weeks. Without demonizing her, Reichardt paints Jo as an artist whose freedom as a landlord affords her freedom as an artist. Time and money are as much factors in success as talent, Reichardt seems to argue. 

The film feels true to the experience of the struggling artist. Often, when we think of life’s influence on art, we think of it in terms of narrative events or characters plucked from the artist’s personal orbit. But life also influences art in the very practical details of living. An artist’s ability to show up at their work station every day is determined by a number of factors: housing, family obligations, part-time jobs and life’s inevitable obstacles. For Reichardt, you’re an artist if you show up. 

Sarah Foulkes: One of the things that I really appreciated in this film, as an artist myself, was the focus on artists that work day jobs in order to do their work — the work they want to spend their lives doing. How has that changed for you over the course of your career? I don’t know if you teach out of financial necessity, but Michelle Williams said in an interview that you don’t qualify for health insurance from the DGA (Directors Guild of America). 

Kelly Reichardt: Gosh, I gave Michelle so much shit for that. Well, listen, teaching isn’t for everybody. And there’s different ways to teach and being an adjunct is a really hard thing. I know a lot of artists who do adjunct work and it doesn’t leave them the energy to make work. But I cannot complain at this point in my teaching career. Like yes, it is my livelihood and my health insurance, but I also have a really good gig. I can make work and I like the place where I teach.

I teach one semester a year and I take the train up and spend one night a week up at Bard and I teach for two days. And it would be a strange week for me to come back to the city and not feel energized by my trip and feel depleted by it. I work with really good people. I like the scene up there. I stay at a boarding house that I really love and I like the landscape up there and I like the students. I feel attached to it and feel part of something that’s there — the same way I feel part of my filmmaking community. It’s not an albatros. Teaching can drain you, but it also can feed you, depending on whether you can find a balance — and if you can find the right school that makes sense for your life.

Kelly Reichardt and Michelle Williams Showing Up premiere
Kelly Reichardt and Michelle Williams at the premiere of Showing Up

SF: How would you say that teaching has changed your filmmaking process, if at all?

Kelly Reichardt: There’s kind of been a shift where I taught because two of my colleagues that were there for 30 years passed away. And that was a big blow. And then Peggy Ahwesh, who I’m a great admirer of, retired. So there’s been a shift. But with them and with the filmmakers that are at Bard now, it’s a different conversation about filmmaking because most of them aren’t narrative filmmakers. They have just a completely different way of experiencing film, and when someone works outside of that rubric, that’s something I can’t get somewhere else. And that’s not even just necessarily the times you’re looking at work.

Ben Coonley is actually in the movie. He flew out and built his dome for the movie. That was really cool. So those worlds came together. And filmmaking can be really all-consuming. And then when I go to school, because the students want all your attention, you get pulled outta yourself and it’s a relief, you know? Even the boarding house where I stay there, there’s just lovely people there that I’ve now known for a decade and see once a week and, you know, share doing the dishes with and making food with and it’s, it’s–

SF: It’s enmeshed. It’s not a separate thing. 

Kelly Reichardt: Yeah. And I mean, you gotta have a job, and it allows me to make work on a certain scale where there’s not a lot of intrusion by anyone. I’ve had pretty free rein in what I’m doing because we can keep the budgets pretty small. And so for me, I don’t necessarily want to be in the movie world all the time. I like real life. 

SF: In the film, when Lizzy discovers that her piece has been burned on one side, even though she’s disappointed, she still puts it in the show. And people respond to it well. How do you approach major or minor hiccups in your work? 

Kelly Reichardt Showing Up
Michelle Williams and Hong Chau in Showing Up

Kelly Reichardt: It’s funny because that scene was so hard. We didn’t know what the blemish on the work would be. And we tried different things and some of them just disappeared into Cynthia’s work because her work is so imperfect. It’s not pristine work. So we were ruffling the texture of stuff and she does that and she bubbles the glaze. So we couldn’t do that. And so it came to being burnt, but it was like a whole thing of like, “Is this enough of a thing or would you put this in the show? Or is it, does it add beauty?” And so to make the exact translation to film, I go to everything with a real plan and I know I have to stay open, too.

I’m dealing with real people, sometimes animals, weather, I’m often shooting outside, you know? Things are going to be different and there’s going to be great stuff in there and you can’t look at whatever’s coming that’s different than you imagined as a mistake. You have to try to guide it to how you want it to be, while remaining open to what you haven’t thought of and what might appear. It’s all process. Like, that’s everything.

In editing, too, you look at stuff and you might go home feeling great about it. And by time I walk home, I’m six blocks later and I go from like, “Wow, that was so satisfying. That was great.” And then, you know, another six blocks later, “Was it great?” And then closer to home, “That wasn’t great. Oh, I gotta change that in the morning. Let me get in. I can hardly sleep. I gotta get in there and change that. That’s not right.” You know, everything’s a process and you gotta live with things. One thing I was trying to convey in the film is that making work is looking at work all the time. Other people’s work, your own work. It’s just exposing yourself to stuff. And they all have to stand back and look at what they’re making all the time. ■

Kelly Reichardt examines the artist’s life in her new film Showing Up

Showing Up is screening in Montreal at Cinéma du Parc.

This article was originally published in the April 2023 issue of Cult MTL.

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