Oregonian Jon Raymond stays true to his roots. He has written three films to date (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, and his latest, Meek’s Cutoff) all of which are set and filmed in his home state of Oregon. In addition, they are all in collaboration with the insanely talented and visual indie director, Kelly Reichardt. The duo’s track record is one to be noted, all three films have their own unique story yet utilize a sort of strict structure, which seems to work. Old Joy was recently re-screened at MoMA and Wendy and Lucy generated various nominations with the help of twice co-star and twice Oscar nominated, Michelle Williams. Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy are adapted from Raymond’s short stories, both of which appear in Livability, a collection of tales with rich characters who all seem to live in the same world–neighbors, perhaps.
Raymond’s latest screenplay Meek’s Cutoff, currently being screened in New York and Los Angeles, as well as various cities throughout the country, is a true tale of emigrants traveling the Oregon Trail in 1845, lead by Stephen Meek, a fur trader turned wagon train guide, who leads the pack into unchartered territory. The struggle to survive with minimal supplies, scarce water, and the looming overhead mystery of whether a Native American they have captured is helpful or harmful, is stimulating and thought provoking, despite its long stretches of silence filled with exceptional cinematography and character’s nonverbal rituals. This seems to be Reichardt and Raymond’s style, using such tactics in order stay true to the emersion of the character and the story they have to share, defining these characters through struggles. Raymond’s talent was further proven when long time friend Todd Hayne’s enlisted him to adapt Mildred Pierce, the recent HBO five part mini-series, and he pulled it off while religiously staying true to James M. Cain’s novel.
I interviewed Raymond during his continuing promotion of Meek’s Cutoff, which continues to be well received as its release expands week by week.
Your screenplays rely on nonverbal cues to relay messages and grip its audience. In Meek’s Cutoff the band of pioneers are feeling a list of emotions–fear, uncertainty, and betrayal–and each character is constantly in a conflict, mostly conveyed through side bar comments and sinister looks. A perfect example is the Indian; we don’t understand him but we know what he’s thinking. This goes the same for your other two films. In Old Joy the tension between the reunited friends can be cut with a knife, the revelations the audience experiences all come through watching their nonverbal interactions and responses, for instance, the scene at the hot springs. Wendy and Lucy you feel your heart sinking and experience the pain and anguish right along with Wendy while she is searching madly for her dog. How do you execute this in your screenplay? I remember in an interview Michelle Williams said while reading your script, “How do I act this?”
JR: The earlier two screenplays, which were based on stories I’d written, had some measure of emotion and/or psychology built into the silences. The paragraphs at least suggested what the nonverbal moments were about. And I think Kelly was able, sort of miraculously, to translate those written feelings into filmic images. And often even make them deeper and more complex. I’m always amazed how much she can do in a shot, how far she lets moments dilate. She actually allows the viewer to have a thought, which for some reason is really rare in filmmaking these days.
As for the performances, I’m of the school that a decently dramatic situation gives the acting a chance to remain pretty minimal. Maybe it’s just me, but I always appreciate a kind of unemotive performance. I think I feel more empathy for a character (and for that matter, a person), when I see them holding their worries, fears, loves, inside, out of view.
Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy (“Train Choir”) are based on your short stories. I read both after seeing the films and was almost able to re-experience the film verbatim, aside from only a few obvious differences. If I am to do the same with a novel I often find myself shaking a clenched fist in the air and shouting, “Why did they leave this out!?” but I didn’t this time. So I suppose my question is, why are novels adapted so frequently, why not short stories? I was amazed to see how seamlessly they fit on screen.
JR: I totally agree with you about the fiction/film ratio. I think the conventional wisdom that a novel equals a feature is largely wrong. I’m much more inclined to think a short story equals a feature. Assuming you like your movies pretty small and uneventful, anyway. But for some reason, Kelly is one of the only directors who’s clued into this fact. That’s why I try to clear whatever room she ever walks into of any competing short story collections. Thank God she’s never read Maile Meloy or Charlie D’Ambrosio or Deborah Eisenberg. Some director other than her should check them out someday.
You have a long relationship with Todd Haynes, dating back to taking photos of him dressed as Big Foot with your Plazm Magazine crew, as well as being his assistant on the set of Far From Heaven. He seems to have been the link in your career, introducing you to both Kelly Reichardt and Michelle Williams. Tell me a bit how the collaboration came about for Mildred Pierce? How was it adapting another writer’s material for once, did you find yourself handling it with more care?
JR: Wow, you turned up those Bigfoot pictures! That’s pretty serious legwork on your part. That happened right when I first met Todd, back in 2000, and since then I have Todd to thank for so many blessings in my life. Honestly, without Todd’s generosity and friendship, I don’t know what I’d be doing right now. He introduced me to Kelly; he introduced me to the person who hooked me up with my first literary agent; he just really opened up a whole world of possibilities for me, for which I will be eternally grateful. As for Mildred Pierce, it was a book I recommended to him years ago, and which, upon reading, he decided to make into a mini-series. Out of kindness and loyalty or something like that, he asked me to help, and of course I jumped at the chance.
As far as the adapting went, I found myself strangely more protective of Cain’s work than of my own. Adapting one’s own stuff, I think a certain measure of politeness kicks in. You want the filmmaker to feel free to do what they have to do. Adapting someone else, one becomes reluctant to let certain things go. One feels a stronger sense of stewardship to the text, I guess. It was interesting. Thankfully we managed to end up with something that felt quite loyal.
Was it more of a struggle or a blessing to be handed 5 1/2 hours to play with for the adaptation? After having that length of time would you ever consider adapting your book The Half-Life in a 120-minute average window?
JR: It was great having all that time. The mini-series is so well-suited to the rhythms and structures of the naturalist novel. Let the feature film be the short story; let the mini-series be the novel. And let HBO take over the whole broadcast spectrum, I say.
As for The Half-Life, I’d consider adapting it for a lot of money. Or, preferably, someone else would do the adapting, and I’d still get a lot of money. It’d be hard to squeeze into two hours, though. I wouldn’t relish that job.
You consider yourself a fiction writer, not a screenwriter. Is that, perhaps, part of the reason your films are so entrancing in unconventional ways? You are able to make 10 minutes of silence compelling. I’m interested to know if from the get-go you visualized these films as a full experience: visual, emotional, and musically satisfying. The photography of Oregon in each film is simply stunning and then you have the music of Yo La Tengo to real help you delve deeper into your emotions. Gifting the viewer everything they may create themselves as a reader. Do you imagine all these elements while writing your short stories, or while adapting into a script, or is this simply all left to the director? How much say do you have in these scenes during production?
JR: I think the success of the film experience is really in the director’s hands. These have been far from foolproof scripts, and I doubt anyone but Kelly could have made them come out the way they did. I have no role in the actual production, except as a kind of safety valve for Kelly to vent to over the phone, and while I certainly offer my thoughts throughout editing, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily taken.
All that said, I think a lot of people have a mistaken idea of what a screenplay is. They seem to think it’s just dialogue or something, and, of course, it’s a lot more than that. In screenwriting, as in writing a story or a novel, you’re doing all kinds of things. You’re sketching landscapes, you’re describing costumes, you’re making up characters, you’re plotting time, you’re establishing themes, you’re figuring out transitions, you’re researching car engines or bomb-making devices, whatever. The odd thing is, you’re also always laboring under the knowledge that it’s all going to evolve a lot once it leaves your hands. The actors are going to bring their ideas, the production designer hers, the location scout his, etc. And the director is somehow going to orchestrate the whole collaboration without losing her mind.
To date Wendy and Lucy is one of my favorite films, easily making my Top Ten list. When I saw it in the theater I was completely alone, not a single soul was present in the other seats. I really experienced the journey along with Wendy and found myself crying, which I seldom do during movies, as she was promising Lucy “I’ll be back for you.” Most people who don’t own dogs don’t understand this gut wrenching unconditional love we have for them, which I feel you knew. While reading “Train Choir” in Livability I had this notion that Verna (Wendy in the film) and all the other characters knew each other, like they were neighbors. Do you have a particular individual in mind when you create characters and also have you experience some of these struggles yourself, such as saying goodbye to a dog?
JR: Well, first off, thanks so much for the compliment. As long you were the only one who showed up for the screening, I’m glad you at least liked it! The funny thing about that story, though, is that I’m not a real dog person. I was raised to fear dogs. But I find I am a dog person person: I love people who love dogs. I’m so impressed by you peoples’ devotion and commitment. And knowing some of you pretty well, I’ve come to know how deep the human/dog connection is.
And I love that you felt like the characters in Livability were like neighbors. That was always my hope. The sense that any of them might turn up in another story as well. For the most part they are composites of people, though in the case of Verna she is kind of her own thing. She is probably the least psychologically developed of any of the characters in the book, a function mainly of the socio-economic predicament she finds herself in.
(*MEEK’S CUTOFF SPOILER ALERT*)
In the films your characters seem to figure out in the end what is best for them and trek on despite the bumps they’ve experienced on the journey thus far. Throughout Meek’s Cutoff there is an interesting contrast between the fear of the unknown and the need the need to survive by any means necessary. When we arrive at the ending we can only assume that all is decided: They will go their separate ways, venturing in the direction their individual party feels is correct. Last week while I screened Meek’s at Film Forum there was a synchronized *humph* when the credits appeared. One lady furiously rushed an employee and asked him, “Why wasn’t there a clear cut ending? What does that mean?” He simply shrugged his shoulders, terrified of her wrath. I for one ran home and began Google-ing the actual events to close up the open end for myself. Why did you make this choice? Is this going back to emotions being depicted through actions, translation being the lack of control and impossibility the pioneers had over their situation?
JR: Yeah, the ending. I always knew it was going to bother some people. But for me, the story has really come to an end at that point. What happens next is on a certain level obvious: these people, or people like them, make it to Oregon; the Indians are decimated; a hundred-fifty years later some yuppie asshole like myself names a golf course after them (which is in fact true; it’s how I came across the story in the first place). In my mind, the main question isn’t one of the emigrants’ survival here, but rather of whether they kill the Indian. We’re in Camus country, not Jack London territory, you know? And by my reckoning, the question has been answered: at least for now, they’re not killing him. They are making a leap of faith toward nonviolence, for better or worse. They are accepting the limitations of their knowledge and choosing to trust someone they wouldn’t otherwise trust.
That said, they might be wrong, too. They might get killed. In 1845, we are about two years out from a really infamous massacre of missionaries by Cayuse Indians. Meek, for all his unpleasantness, might actually have a point. That’s the worry I hope people leave with, which is to say, I hope they leave with their own predispositions toward the unknown in mind. Where do I place my own blind faith? When do I cede my own moral instincts to someone else? The story revolves very much on how a community makes decisions based on incomplete information, and concluding on a note of incompletion and unknowing always just struck me as appropriate.
That might be an incredibly pretentious effect to go for. Clearly that lady at Film Forum didn’t care about any of that. And that’s cool, I guess. A part of me also just relishes the thought of people walking into this movie thinking they’re in for a big Michelle Williams Western, whatever that might be, and then getting hit by a genuine art film. If they’re that hung up on tidy closure, I can’t help them anyway.