Writer-director Kelly Reichardt recently premiered Certain Women at Sundance, where it was picked up by IFC Films for U.S. distribution and Sony for worldwide release. It reunites her once again with actress Michelle Williams and also features Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart, a stellar cast if there ever was one. Reichardt has done well for herself and grown much since her 1994 feature debut, River of Grass, so you will have to forgive a little cynicism with her hindsight view on her first film, which was recently restored by Oscilloscope Pictures with the help of actor/director Larry Fessenden, her producers and a Kickstarter campaign. “There’s no mistaking it’s from the ‘90s,” she admits, speaking from her home in New York. “Maybe it’s the learning as you go kind of thing,” she says.
One of those early lessons she took to heart was “shoot what you know,” and what Reichardt knew then was her hometown of North Miami. “That’s where I had gone to high school,” she says, “and then for a while I lived with my mom in Broward County, which is just like the paving over of the Everglades, basically, and so it’s an unnatural place to live when they’re building on top of wetlands, so that was a completely foreign situation, and then I moved back with my dad in North Miami. So that’s what I knew at the time: one story houses, 300 sunny days a year with a handful of rainy days a year.”
Like many of the city’s local filmmakers, Reichardt was inspired to show a side of Miami that Hollywood doesn’t usually show. “Miami had turned up in ‘Miami Vice’ and was starting to appear in other places, and the Miami I would see on TV or whatever was so unrecognizable to me, so the idea was sort of to shoot a Miami that was… You know, when I grew up in Miami, it was like either you went there to retire or you went there on vacation or you went there ‘cause you were in some kind of trouble with the law. You could go down to Miami and they couldn’t seize your house or whatever. It was the crime capital of the country when I grew up there, but it was also so pokey and slow because it was also a retirement place.”
It’s the perfect setting for a couple of slackers on the run from the law who can’t seem to do better than to escape to one county to the north. Lisa Bowman plays a young Miami-Dade mother tired of her life who allows herself to be picked up at a Broward bar by newly homeless Lee (Fessenden). Lee happens to have a gun he picked up on the side of the road, which — unbeknownst to Cozy — belongs to her father Jimmy (Dick Russell), a Metro-Dade cop with a knack for misplacing his sidearm. They run off into the night and get into inevitable trouble.
Following the inspiration to shoot what she knows, Reichardt returned to Miami from her then new home in New York City, where she worked with Todd Haynes and Hal Hartley. In the company of producer Jesse Hartman, Bowman and Fessenden she began casting. “Everyone else was local,” she says of the film’s cast. “To say it was a shoestring budget would be a stretch. We had open calls down in Miami, which is how I found Dick Russell, who was supposed to be a drum-playing detective, and in fact he came out and read, and then I said to him, ‘Wow, you’d be perfect, but, you know, this guy has to play the drums, and how would we do that?’ and he pulled out a business card that said ‘Dick Russell, drummer.’ He was a professional drummer. And then the other detective, Stan Kaplan, he was a Rodney Dangerfield impersonator. Where are they now? I have no idea.”
Though she is a delight to talk to and happy about recalling her Miami memories (she hopes to make a return visit), she doesn’t have much regard for the quality of her first film, and she hints that the eventual DVD release of it will reveal how she and Fessenden feel about some of their filmmaking choices back in the day (she compares it to watching Statler and Waldorf in the balcony of the “Muppet Show”).
Now, she says her approach is much different. “Back in the day, it was shoot what you know, which is not anything I do today,” she says. “Part of what I really enjoy is dipping into a world that I don’t know and that I can discover and research and that doesn’t have any former baggage of life.”
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To read more of my conversation with Reichardt, including details behind some of the sets and her feelings about the film’s re-release, jump through the logo for the Miami New Times’ Art and Culture section below:
River of Grass will have its Miami premiere at the Miami Beach Cinematheque as part of Tigertail’s Water Series this Wednesday, April 20. It’s also being distributed to other parts of the U.S. For a list of screenings, visit the film’s website. Oscilloscope provided all images used in this article.