To celebrate tomorrow’s UK release of First Cow, this profile of screenwriter and author Jon Raymond delves into his decades-long collaboration with Kelly Reichardt.
Perhaps Kelly Reichardt’s closest and most long-term collaborator is Jon Raymond, the Portland-based author and screenwriter who has worked on five films with her. (That’ll be six with the upcoming Showing Up, set to shoot in a month’s time.) Their collaboration began when she adapted a short story of his into her second feature, Old Joy (2006), and it’s continued with Wendy and Lucy (2008), Meek’s Cutoff (2010), Night Moves (2013), and the recently released First Cow (2020).
If it weren’t for her collaboration with Raymond, Reichardt’s career would probably look incredibly different. For one, she probably wouldn’t have made so many films in Raymond’s home state of Oregon (each of their collaborations have been set there, whether in Portland or in the desert), where the landscape is intertwined with the history of westward expansion. Raymond’s and Reichardt’s thematic interests have grown together as they’ve written together, each screenplay building on the previous one’s explorations of themes like power, disenfranchisement, and the myth of the American West.
In early 2019, just a few months after shooting of First Cow wrapped and well before it premiered to the world, I spoke with Jon Raymond over the phone about his collaboration with Kelly Reichardt. It was one of the first interviews we did for a project that turned into the ebook Roads to nowhere: Kelly Reichardt’s broken American dreams.
By a twist of fate, I was quarantined away from home while we were putting Roads to nowhere together last year. I thought the audio file was tucked away somewhere on an old, faulty computer, but I had no way of accessing it, so it never made it into the book. (Instead, I interviewed Raymond again, this time specifically about First Cow.) Months after Roads to nowhere was published, I was back home, and I found the file.
To celebrate the release of First Cow in the UK, I dug up this career-spanning conversation with Jon Raymond, in which he discusses his collaboration with Kelly Reichardt, and the origin story of all of their films together. This interview was conducted before the release of First Cow — to find out more about how that film was written, you’ll have to read Roads to nowhere!
Seventh Row (7R): How did your collaboration with Kelly begin?
Jon Raymond: We met through our mutual friend, a filmmaker, who had moved to Portland where I live. Kelly would come visit him. And then I moved to New York where Kelly lives. We bumped into each other there and became friendly. I published a novel called The Half-Life that Kelly read and liked [and later adapted into First Cow]. That was around the time that she was looking for something to adapt [into her second film], so she asked if I had anything. I had a story called Old Joy. We started working together on that.
7R: Were you always going to be involved in co-writing the screenplays with Kelly?
Jon Raymond: She really did the adaptation on that one [Old Joy]. She gave me a credit on it, as I recall, since I was in conversation with her as it was happening.
We came to see that we really liked each other. Screenwriting was not precisely my goal, or even totally part of our initial conversation, but it has evolved that way.
7R: So with each film, you became more involved with actually writing the script?
Jon Raymond: Each one has been different. Wendy and Lucy was a story that stood in a collection of short stories that I was writing at the time. I wrote that as a short story, explicitly for Kelly to adapt. I did help on adaptation, but again, she really took the lead on adaptation. But it was material that was built to flow into the screenplay format. Meek’s Cutoff didn’t fit into any prose ambitions that I had, so I just wrote it straight as a script.
7R: How does your screenwriting process with Kelly work?
Jon Raymond: I wish I could say there was a real recurring process, but they truly have each been their own invention. It’s hard to generalize, because the way they emerge is really in the details.
With that first Old Joy experience, that’s not a story that anyone in the world, besides Kelly, would have imagined as a feature film. I learned something about her metabolism and her tastes in watching her go through that process.
With Wendy and Lucy, there are a lot of a lot of sources for where that began. For myself, it had to do with moving back to Portland and experiencing this new neighborhood. It had to do with the economic situation at that time, which was irrationally exuberant. It seemed clear there were financial storm clouds on the horizon. It felt like a time to do something with a real economic engine. We were talking about Hurricane Katrina and displaced people. Both of us liked the idea of a drifter story. And then, for me, [another catalyst] was watching Umberto D., the [Vittorio] De Sica movie, and [thinking of] a way to harness that plotline in a different time and place.
In that case, I was writing the story and showing her drafts, and she’s weighing in on it, acting, in a sense, as an editor. And then, she took it out of my hands and put it into a screenplay.
There was momentum coming off of those two and understanding that there were certain themes we put in place [regarding] the American West and the road movie. It led to the subject matter of westward expansion and manifest destiny in our country. It felt very appropriate to complete that cycle of storytelling by going back in time and doing a period piece that preceded those other stories, but had some of the same figures and themes in them.
For me, it was a matter of finding the story [for that film, which turned into Meek’s Cutoff]. That was a research question. That one has an amusing genesis. I was doing branding work at the time for real estate properties in Eastern Oregon, which is high desert. I ended up doing some research into the history of that region, and what turned up was this wagon train story of Meek’s cutoff. That rang some bells immediately. It was a great, great story about a lost wagon train and a leader who is either evil or insane. That appealed to Kelly, as well. We could both see the potential. And then, it was a matter of me, in that case, going in and writing.
7R: All of the films you’ve worked on with Kelly take place in Oregon. How does the setting come into your process? Is traveling to the locations featured in the script part of the writing process?
Jon Raymond: This is where I grew up. I do look at the land as a sort of character, I guess… or not so much of character, but there’s certain kinds of stories that I feel are suggested here. There’s a certain history that I’m curious about that happily dovetails with Kelly’s interests, as well.
There are ways in which I’ve been doing almost way advanced location scouting for some of these [films]. Sometimes, they have come out of drives that Kelly and I have taken together, too. It’s been fun to think, “Wow, I’d love to have Kelly have her camera out here.” Night Moves, in particular, was shot on an organic farm that my wife and I go to that’s run by friends of ours. We were taking trips there for a while. I was like, “Wow, this would be a good place for a Kelly operation.” It was then a matter of fabricating the story and characters that would populate that.
Similarly, with Meek’s, the Eastern Oregon desert is an under-filmed backdrop. It tells a different story than the normal American Western, so that was exciting. Wendy and Lucy was literally the neighbourhood I was living in.
7R: I think you’re right, that the locations lend themselves to a certain kind of thematic content, but what do you think those themes are, specifically?
Jon Raymond: I’m super lucky and grateful that Kelly has found something in these stories. I have looked at things differently, knowing that she’s going to be looking at them.There’s a very mutual inspiration going on there. Her sense of the road story and people on the road and displaced is something that has gone through all of her films, regardless of whether I have been involved in them.
Questions of power are a huge interest for her: power and resources. I think that’s a recurring interest for her, beyond whether there’s trees in the background.
7R: How long do you tend to spend working on one project from conception to final draft?
Jon Raymond: A few months? For me, once the idea is there and the writing begins, there’s usually a draft within about a month. Tthen, it’s just a matter of refining and refining, all the way up until the shooting starts. With the one that we just did, [First Cow], the first draft took about three weeks. In like five months, we were shooting. It was a really crazy fast one. Although by the same token, that was [based on] a book [The Half-Life] that we’d been thinking about [adapting] for about fifteen years.
Read our resource page on Kelly Reichardt
This primer on Reichardt’s films and process is a vital resource for anyone who wants to find out more about her work
7R: Can you tell me about that process of refinement? I’ve heard that Kelly is very particular about the language in her scripts, and that she likes the actors to speak the words exactly as they were written.
Jon Raymond: Kelly doesn’t like dialogue that says what’s happening in the image. She’s got a very acute sense of the image having its own power and the language not really needing to encroach on that. I think that is something we share. The less words in the dialogue, the better.
I’m often surprised how little dialogue can be included [in the edit], although it’s not like they’re written with tons of dialogue. It’s just a constant minimisation. Kelly has an amazing bullshit detector, and an amazing detector for [what’s] extraneous. She really understands how little it takes to get a certain idea across. Or even how it can be more powerfully gotten across without baggage and dialogue.
7R: How does your collaboration work on a practical level?
Jon Raymond: I show her a draft, and then we talk about it. That’s what happens up until things get much closer to production, at which point, it does enter her world, and she creates what you would call a director’s script. There’s a lot of notes as she’s responding to locations, actors, costumes, and all that kind of stuff. It very much becomes her document.
7R: So in those early discussions, you’re talking more about the story rather than the visuals?
Jon Raymond: I mean, we talk a lot about movies, art, and photography. The wonderful thing, for me, about collaborating with Kelly, is it’s almost like a very high form of gossip. We’re basically talking about things that we like and people that we know, things that we’ve seen happen. It’s pretty organic. We’re just sharing a lot of pieces of information. It’s never like, “Oh, there should be a shot like this.” But definitely, “Look at these amazing photographs by Robert Adams,” and “Look at these amazing paintings by whoever.”
7R: The dialogue in the films is very sparse and non-expository, so while we have an understanding of the characters through their actions, we’re not told much about them in explicit terms. Do you have many conversations about the characters and their backstory outside of what’s depicted in the script?
Jon Raymond: Definitely. They become part of the gossip. You’re sharing a lot of information that’s partly about their backstory, but I wouldn’t even say their backstory [is the most important thing]. It’s more just about their psychological profile and relating it to people in our lives, people that we’ve heard about, or ourselves. It’s not even so much a process, just kind of an interest. That’s another fun thing about Kelly: she’s a great student of human behaviour. She very much enjoys dissecting people and ideas. That dissection can really be endless.
7R: How would you say your collaboration with Kelly has changed over time?
Jon Raymond: It’s been going on so long, it’s kind of amazing. It really is one of the most amazing, creative things in my life. Fifteen years, at this point. It started incredibly innocently, and with no real expectations.
I think that a writer and director relationship probably has inherent traps in it. We’ve worked hard to avoid those traps. But it became a little bit more work, at a certain point, to keep things clean and nice. I think we have done an amazing job on that, personally. It really has become like a family thing. I’ve had kids in that time. Kelly is a dear part of our family now and lives less than a mile from my house. It’s just gotten richer.
7R: A lot of your films with Kelly act as “modern westerns”, or subvert tropes of the western genre. Is that a conscious interest?
Jon Raymond: Is it conscious? Yes. There is a conversation about the mythologies of the American West going on in the films that we’ve done together. There’s an effort to come at some of those stories and figures from a pretty perpendicular angle. I think that’s probably where the politics of the films lie, ultimately: in addressing some of those genre conventions that we inherit. In a weird way, they have been very oblique takes on genre, as much as they’re tone poems.
7R: There’s also a thread about environmentalism running through them. Obviously, Night Moves explicitly deals with environmental activism. But a lot of the films deal implicitly with how humans shape or affect or hurt the land they live on. How does that ethos come into your thought process?
Jon Raymond: I think that is part one of the Western myths that are hopefully being overturned: the idea of the West as a virgin, untouched country. I think the depiction here is very much of a man-made landscape. There’s no untouched or unspoiled spot.
Night Moves goes more explicitly into that. Some of the romance around environmental activism is questioned there. Many, many romantic narratives of Western people get deconstructed in the movies in some way.
One of our friends, Mike Brophy, is a really great painter who paints scenes of nature that are very explicitly almost suburbs at this point. He has been an interesting influence on both of us as far as how to look at the western landscape. Robert Adams, too, in the same way. You see in these people’s work, in the things they’re drawn, that they understand the West as a man-made place.
7R: Old Joy is one of my absolute favourite films of Kelly’s. Can you tell me about the origin of that story, when it was just a short story?
Jon Raymond: The story was written, initially, in response to some photographs by a photographer friend of mine, Justine Kurland. She was publishing a book of her photographs and was looking for a piece of fiction to accompany it. She shoots a lot of photographs of people in the woods.
I thought of it at the time as a sort of Cain and Abel story. I like the idea of brothers [and in the case of Old Joy, old friends] that come to some form of violence with each other, but in a very new age, feminist sort of milieu. They’re not literally violent guys. They are the kinds of guys I know and grew up with who hug each other, are extremely liberal, and are mellow to a fault.
I probably would never have said this had it not been made into a film, but I ended up thinking of those characters as the opposite of the characters in a Sam Peckinpah movie. Those films are finding the tenderness inside of male violence. In this case, it was trying to find the violence inside of male tenderness. That sort of extremely liberated guy who still has a certain kind of dominating urge.
A lot of it does have to do with sucking the blood of people I know. The Kurt character is patterned on someone I know. The Mark character was patterned, I guess, on someone I know, or maybe more on myself. It’s hard for me now to even remember who those characters were on the page, because I just think about Will [Oldham] and Daniel [London, who played them in the film].
I think they were making bets on set as to whether it was going to be an actual feature or not. I don’t think people fully understood the pacing that she was doing.
There was a great addition that she made to the story, which is giving the Mark character a pregnant wife. His girlfriend’s not pregnant in the story, which is something I totally wish I would have thought of at the time.
7R: Night Moves is the most genre-based and plot heavy of your films with Kelly. What challenges did that present? Were the two of you apprehensive to wade into those new waters?
Jon Raymond: That was part of the appeal. I had originally proposed doing more of a romance on that farm between an eco-terrorist and an intern. But I think Kelly really enjoyed some of the bigger narrative things in Meek’s Cutoff, like the wagon going down the hill. [Night Moves] felt like a fun challenge. Can we do something that has suspense? A thriller drama with a heist set piece? Can we do our own version of a Hitchcock film?
7R: Do you have any favourite scenes in any of Kelly’s films that you’ve worked on?
Jon Raymond: I weirdly really, really like the scene in Night Moves that we would call the Jaws scene, like in Jaws when they were waiting for [the shark] to show up. In Night Moves, it was when they’re waiting to blow up the dam. That’s a fairly tranquil scene of everyone talking on the boat, waiting for the proper moment to come where they’re going to go do it. The scenario is so dire that you don’t have to make any kind of reference to it. The dialogue can become weirdly free and easy. There’s a nice little arc to the conversation that has almost no bearing on the apocalyptic moment that they’re in, but you feel that pressure.
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Roads to nowhere: Kelly Reichardt’s broken American dreams is an ebook that will take you on a journey through Reichardt’s filmography.
It’s also the only place you can find interviews with her and all her collaborators, which together reveal Reichardt’s filmmaking process like never before.