Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt discusses his close collaboration with Kelly Reichardt on all her films since Meek’s Cutoff. This is an excerpt of our Reichardt ebook, Roads to nowhere.
Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt shot his first feature with Kelly Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff, and they’ve collaborated on every one of her films since: Night Moves, Certain Women, and First Cow. In the interim, he’s also worked with Sofia Coppola (The Bling Ring, 2013), James Schamus (Indignation, 2016) and Autumn de Wilde (Emma., 2020).
Although Blauvelt and Reichardt began their collaboration by shooting on 35mm in the Academy ratio, they have since worked on digital (Night Moves and First Cow) and 16mm (Certain Women), despite a love of celluloid, which has become prohibitively expensive.
During pre-production, Blauvelt and Reichardt prepare intensively, using films and other artworks as references, building detailed shot lists, and location scouting often far in advance. Everything is planned meticulously, but as soon as they get on set, they throw the prep away so that they can respond to what’s happening in the moment, from the actors and the setting; Reichardt actually gets annoyed if Blauvelt pulls out their shot list.
Because they work with small budgets, they are limited in how they can light a scene, which sometimes dictates the shot choices. Equally, though, they’re not afraid to work in low light, and they do everything they can to make use of natural light. As Blauvelt told me, “Kelly lets me light things dark!”
Seventh Row (7R): When you get one of Kelly’s scripts, which I understand contain some very specific directions about the visuals, where do you start with determining a film’s look and feel?
Christopher Blauvelt: Kelly is very visual, but we have always started with conversations about the story and it is trying to convey. For example, on First Cow, the script wasn’t ready to be sent over email when I first came on board, so we found time to take some walks; Kelly would break down the story as it was at that point. She is very descriptive, and I am lucky to have her personally describe these things to me.
Her vision for a film starts early on. Because she’s written and co-written these films, the aesthetics are an integral part of her stories. We figure out the aspect ratios, lenses, film stocks, and processes by starting with her visual references and her descriptions of what it’s to become.
She often gives me many movies to watch so we can communicate about a style and aesthetic, as well as certain nuances in the story, that will inspire us [for the film]. I have never been less than enamoured by anything she’s brought to my attention. She’s the most knowledgeable in this field as I’m sure any of her students would agree. [At the start of the process,] she’s already found ways to relate scene structure and nuances [of other films] to our project so we begin to distill it down to create our language.
She makes these folders that relate to every scene accompanied with visual references, and her notes are all over them. We spend a lot of time together watching films. We do not storyboard. Kelly does extensive research so our reference material is abundant.
Of course, films are a prominent source, but Kelly pulls references from everything: paintings, photography, sculpture, and textiles.
We spend a lot of time making a shot list. We’ll make adjustments during prep as things evolve and our locations are found etc. But she doesn’t like to use the shot list. It’s mostly an exercise to keep our minds on the same page about our approach. Sometimes, I am the only one using it for reference, just so so my crew knows roughly what’s going on.
We scout a lot, and we’ll bring the director’s viewfinder with the lenses. Usually, by the time we’re getting close to locking a location, we’ve decided roughly how to shoot the scenes within them. We have to adapt to our locations because everything is practical.
We usually throw out the shot list so that we’re more open to the blocking and our actual set. We don’t get to be there too much before principal photography with actors and the sets aren’t always finished at that point. Coverage is sometimes decided on set. We usually don’t shoot more than two or three takes per angle.
We work out scenes on the spot before and after seeing our actors block things out. We keep our eyes open for good compositions to let the actors tell the story within. It’s always a serious exercise that happens all day on the shoot, and it can be exhilarating.
Kelly Reichardt mug: ‘Sorrow is just worn-out joy’
7R: How do you collaborate with the production designer and costume designer to achieve a cohesive aesthetic? The colour schemes for each film feel very distinct. I tend to think of Meek’s Cutoff as browns and pinks and yellows (and pale blue skies); Night Moves as rich, lush greens and blues; and Certain Women as having a more muted colour palette. How do you determine that palette? Is that done after you choose the film stock or does this inform your choice of shooting format?
Christopher Blauvelt: This is a long process and a huge reason why Kelly’s films are so distinct, in my opinion. She will research an environment and take pictures to start this process with our production designers and costume designers to create the palette that the film calls for.
This is another reason I feel so lucky shooting these films: the aesthetic is so well planned out. All I have to do is respect what I’m seeing with my own eyes, and hopefully, just enhance the feeling that is supposed to exist within them.
7R: Can you give me some examples of how you do this?
Christopher Blauvelt: For Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly went out to southern Oregon to see the actual spaces these people would have traveled through. She photographed it with production designer Dave Doernberg and costume designer Vicki Farrell. They took into consideration the colours of the ground, the dirt, the cloud, and the sky. They went to work and made the canvases for the wagons and handmade the dresses and suits to work in simpatico with the world in which they were to move.
With Night Moves, once again, we started finding locations a year before production. We stayed at the farm to see the colours of the vegetation and what it looks like in the season that we were going to be there.
Elliot Hostetter built these colours into our yurts and farmhouse. Again, Vicky Farrell and Kelly worked closely to create the palette that would complement or contrast these environments.
For Certain Women, April Napier was the costume designer and Anthony Gasparro did the production design. We would do so much scouting to find the locations that appeased the story. Every step of the way, there’s an ongoing conversation about colour and space and how our clothes and sets will support this. Tony made the apartment that Lily would live in, and I saw his assistant Pamela [Day] sleeping in the place to make it look lived it. Now that’s something else.
I can’t overstate the dedication we all have for Kelly. It’s become a family, and each one of us trusts her so much to have ideas and research grounded in the spirit of our film… THIS IS A PREVIEW. READ THE FULL INTERVIEW IN ROADS TO NOWHERE: KELLY REICHARDT’S BROKEN AMERICAN DREAMS.