DANIEL LONDON AND WILL OLDHAM STAR IN OLD JOY.
John Cage once said, “there is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.”
Old Joy, the new film by Kelly Reichardt, is about a pair of reunited friends — Kurt (Will Oldham) and Mark (Daniel London) — who leave the din of Portland, with its strained strains of liberal talk radio and neighborhood record stores reincarnated as generic smoothie chains, and travel into the forest in search of a hot spring, hoping to recover a comfortable silence.
Working with cinematographer Peter Sillen, Reichardt carves out a portrait of modern America that is both timely and timeless, equally expansive and obsessed with minutia. Whether it’s the soggy northwestern sky, a banana slug, trash amidst the trees or the gleam in Mark’s eyes as he listens to Kurt tell a story that is simultaneously heartbreaking, hopeful and mystic.
The dreamy score by Yo La Tengo suggests a reverb universe: Kurt and Mark have left the city, but no matter how far they travel into the woods, the echo of their present lives, obligation and worries will find them.
The men of Old Joy are grappling with the state of the world or, rather, who they’ve become in relation to the world. Change is scary. Aging is scary. Friends from our youth — who remind us who we once were and how old we’ve become — can be both a comfort and a threat.
Kurt and Mark hike until they locate their hot spring, the sun sets and rises and sets, and the traveling partners — as well as the audience — are allowed to meditate on the space between places, the silence between words, and we are all challenged to stay optimistic and engaged with the world while recognizing our own powerlessness.
After premiering at Sundance, Old Joy is currently in release from Kino International.
I read a number of interviews with you to prepare for this, and in one from an Austin paper the interviewer talked about how you seem to not want to answer specific questions about the “meaning” of Old Joy. I didn’t say I didn’t want to talk about the meaning. I said that we had done a lot of work in the filmmaking to not nail things down, to leave a certain openness and space for people to form their own interpretations and their own experiences. The interview process is about defining things, and it’s a difficult process [for me] after working so hard on [not defining certain themes in the movie].
I’m completely with you on that. Do you think it’s important for artists to not explain, to just let the work speak for itself? I don’t have one big theory about it. I sort of don’t think it’s my job to [explain the film] — it’s your job! I mean, I feel differently about things that happen in Old Joy depending on how I’m feeling that day. [The film is] about friendship — I can say that. But there are other themes that are a little bit more elusive and a little harder to nail down.
When people talk about the politics of Old Joy, they tend to speak about the left-wing talk radio broadcasts the characters listen to in the car. But do you think the aesthetics of your film — the minimalism of its design and execution, or the fact that it’s simply a depiction of two men — is equally “political” in its content? I always thought of the film as being [about] these lost liberals and [their journey] deeper into the forest until they become one with it. I don’t think it’s an overtly political film, but it is set in this particular moment in time and [it deals with] the lost ideals of liberalism. A person like Kurt, who doesn’t want to live in the mainstream — where does that [desire] lead him today? I’ve talked a lot about the film in terms of it being a “New Age Western,” and I think it’s pretty traditional in that sense, except that the competition between these two guys is more about “I’m more open than you are.” They are still competitive, and I think their inability to really connect, to take advantage of the opportunity they have with each other, speaks to the state of liberalism in a lot of ways. But those things are so buried. Hopefully [when you watch the film] you’re just thinking about the two characters and the relationship at hand.
After seeing the film people often talk about the homoerotic undertones in the relationship between these two men. Was that a theme you were conscious about crafting? The two things that are somewhat inherent in [a story about] going into the mountains alone with someone, especially if they’re going to a hot spring, are the loneliness and desertedness or whatever it is of being in the forest and then sexuality. They’re either going to kill each other or they’re going to fuck each other — one of those things is bound to happen! A lot of that is just the anticipation that people bring with them from a million years of movie watching. But also, these guys are specifically from Portland, Ore., and that was part of what interested me in the story in the beginning. I started spending time in Portland five or six years ago, when Todd Haynes moved out there. I visit him every year, and we talk a lot about the difference in men out there and how the lines are maybe drawn more starkly in the East Coast, where you’re pretty sure where people stand. There seems to be this ambiguity [in Portland].
Can you talk about some of the elements in the finished film that differ from the Jonathan Raymond short story that you based the film on? In the short story, Mark was single — that was the main thing. Kurt and Mark’s situations were closer together. And then I guess also in the [filming] Daniel London brought something different to the Mark character. He’s a little more buttoned-down than the Mark character in Jon’s story, and more careful. And Jon’s short story all took place within Mark’s perspective. It was really subjective. The film has its moments of that, but it’s not as subjective as the short story was.
Why did you make the character of Mark married with a child on the way? Writing the script was part of the process of trying to picture the film and make it something that I really, truly understand. I was driving around the country a lot in the year leading up to this film, visiting friends who are more settled, who have homes and kids. I was always just sort of “passing through,” and that’s when [these themes] sort of got added on. After I made River of Grass, I lived in New York City for five years without an apartment, just out of a duffle bag, and that put me in a position to relate to Kurt’s situation, to understand how it changes your friendships with the people who you are depending on. If you are building your own freedom, you sort of become reliant on a lot of other people. You can romanticize this behavior if you’re doing it in your 20s, but if you start living like this in your 30s, it actually becomes somewhat questionable. Even your punker friends start to wonder. So many things that become our identity have to do with where we live and things of that nature. At what point do you become a wanderer, and at what point do you become homeless? That’s the fine line that Kurt’s walking as he enters his later 30s.
There have been 11 or 12 years between your first feature, River of Grass, and now your second, Old Joy, but you’ve been making short films in the meantime. Some of them have been long short films, like your 48-minute Super 8mm film Ode, while your features are short for feature films. [Old Joy is 76 minutes.] Do you see any distinction between shorter works and what are considered features? I teach, so my livelihood doesn’t rest on what my films are. That’s a really freeing-up kind of thing. You make what you can afford to make, and when there’s no money around, you can still pick up your Super 8 camera and shoot something by yourself. Some of my films have been a lot more like sewing — I’m shooting and editing and there are no people in them — and [this kind of filmmaking] allows [me] to practice and think about film and editing. Ode was made after quite a few years of having a bigger film in development. I shot it with my friend Susan Stover after a couple of years of agents and warriors, and warriors and agents, meetings, meetings and meetings. Like Old Joy, I wrote a script designed around exteriors. I knew ahead of time that I could keep the crew small, and that the apparatus could be super unimposing. Shooting Ode was such an amazing experience for me because I realized that I had the power to make a film and that I didn’t have to be in a holding position waiting on all these outside entities. And it just happened that I was able to be much more comfortable and creative than I had been on River of Grass with a [larger] crew of 13. Embracing limits has ultimately helped me figure out my best way of working, like with Old Joy to be able to [work with] six friends and two actors, just eight people, to get this cabin in the woods and try something. There were no Blackberrys and no a.d. telling us what time to get up. At the end of the night we’d all say, “What time should we get up tomorrow?” There was no sign of it being a production, really. We used a little Aaton A-Minima camera, put it in a backpack and climbed up a mountain.
Do you have any interest in working on a film with a significantly larger budget or larger crew? No. I just don’t have the personality for it. I enjoy making films, but I don’t enjoy a lot of film business, so I’m just trying to make films outside of the film business as much as possible. I like working in a really private way. I mean, we got as far as a cut of [Old Joy] without speaking to any kind of lawyer or anything. We got into Sundance before we thought we should form a company. Aside from a lot of sound work and stuff still to go, it was all very private, and that’s a dream for me.
How did you collaborate with your d.p. Peter Sillen on the visual design of the film? I met Pete in Sundance in 1994 when I had River of Grass and he had his film Speed Racer: Welcome to the World of Vic Chesnutt. I loved that film and the way it looked, and then I met Pete and his wife and we became friends. I thought at first of doing another [film like] Ode, but I didn’t want to shoot it myself. When I first approached Pete I was thinking about maybe shooting it in Super 8mm, and Pete has this A-Minima camera and he was like, “I’m in, but there is so much motion and you want the depth for the forest” — a lot of things that Super 8 is just too low-gauge to pick up on. So we went to this idea of Super 16mm and using Pete’s camera. Pete was the first [element] that made [the production] concrete. I knew I couldn’t waste his time. He is also a filmmaker, a documentary filmmaker, and he also shoots commercials and is in production all the time. Because we didn’t have an a.d., Pete was the guy who moved everything forward. He’s a force, and he has a great eye. It’s great to have a d.p. who is also a filmmaker, because when he’s doing my film, he’s perfectly content to try to figure out what I want and give me my thing, because he can do his thing on his own films.
What about the producers? How did you connect with them? It takes a village when you make these films. I met this guy Neil Kopp out in Portland. I moved out there about six, eight weeks before we started shooting, and he and I spent the days scouting and going to the locations so I could figure out how we were going to shoot stuff. Pete came out and we did a test shoot, and then Neil and I kept working together. This guy Neil, he’s the only producer we had for the shooting of the film. He had never worked on a feature before but he knew every back road in Portland. There was no a.d., so often he would become the a.d. He was our grip, he learned how to do the car rigging, and he found the stand-ins and the locations. I could not have made this film without Kopp. And then I came back [to New York after production], and Pete hooked me up with an Avid through Washington Square Films. I cut the film for three months, just by myself, and there were no producers. And then Sundance started approaching, and all of a sudden I realized, “Oh, wow, how do I do this next stage? I need to raise money to finish. I need a producer! “And Jay [Van Hoy], Lars [Knudsen] and Anish Savjani came up at that point — these three other producers who sort of work in tandem. They were completely amazing and they’ve taken the film all the way through post-production, the festivals and distribution.
I have a very specific technical question. When Kurt is telling his story at the hot springs, you’ve got that wonderful shot of Mark, played by Daniel London, and he has this look in his eyes, which is sort of beatific. And it was definitely in his performance, but there was also a glow in his eyes. Did you use a fill light there? Aren’t you the smarty-pants? I slowed the film down a little bit.
It was wonderful. Good eye!
Were there other moments in the film where you...? Other sneaky moments? No, that’s the only sneaky moment.
I read some review that referred to the talk radio as the film’s Greek chorus. Did you always know that the film would be more or less bookended with the talk radio broadcasts, or did you ever consider doing without it entirely? All my films are bookended, or I feel more like they’re actually kind of circular. I was sort of hoping that I could do a film that wasn’t that way, but my writing just always comes back around. I wasn’t positive that I would ever go back to Mark [at the end]. I thought I just wanted to end with Kurt, and it was actually [executive producer] Todd Haynes who said, “You know, do me a favor and just shoot it. Get Mark back home just so you have it.” And lo and behold, there it is.
After the film played at Sundance, it went to Rotterdam. Were there marked differences in the audience reactions both to the aesthetics of the film, the minimalism of it, as well as whatever political content people identify in it? No. I thought that the film would be. River of Grass played in festivals all over the world, but it was such an American sort of film. And I thought that of this too, but I am actually surprised how enthusiastic audiences have been. I wonder if it just has to do with how small the world is getting, and if there are less differences maybe.
I have one last question, and it’s a question that I don’t necessarily expect you to answer, and that’s fine. Do you imagine that Mark and Kurt are going to grow further apart? I definitely don’t want to answer that. Yeah, you’re right. It’s for you to imagine what their thing is.
I guess I’ll rephrase the question. On this afternoon, who do you identify more with, Mark or Kurt? Wow. It’s back and forth. I relate to both of them in probably, and unfortunately, their smaller ways — like not in their best qualities. I’ve weaned myself off of it now, but preelection and somewhat postelection, I lived in my little Air America bubble. I think of Mark as this guy who really wants world peace, but at the end of the day he can’t even be totally forthcoming and honest and giving to his wife or to a good old friend. He listens to the radio almost like an activity, as if he’s pulling something off or contributing in some way, and I’m guilty of all of that. So I relate to Mark. The way he just gets back in the car and flicks on the comfort of that zone where you can just feel really righteous — I relate to that. But I relate to Kurt too, someone who is not tied down, who moves around from thing to thing, whatever that is. So at the end of the day, I could simultaneously wear either hat. These days, it’s hard to say. I’m more of a worrier, so I’m probably more like Mark. Unfortunately.
PRODUCTION FORMAT: Super 16mm.
CAMERA: Aaton A-Minima (shot mainly w/ Zeiss mark I superspeed lenses-9mm, 12mm, 16mm, 25mm).
FILM/TAPE STOCK: Kodak 7205.
EDITING SYSTEM: Avid Media Composer.
COLOR CORRECTION: Pandora Pogel color correct telecine to 24p D5 , online in the Avid symphony Nitris and Avid DS Nitris, tape to tape color correction D5 to D5 with IS-8 2K digital projection (Postworks) D5 up res to 2k Arri laser film recorder out to 35mm Kodak 5242 interneg then printed on Kodak 2383.
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