Short stories and location shooting with 'Certain Women'

03 Mar 2017 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

4 mins
Certain Women
Certain Women

Certain Women is the sixth feature film from Kelly Reichardt, a filmmaker who specialises in telling quiet, contemplative stories of strong, independent women in the rural United States. Based on a series of short stories by author Maile Meloy, the film tells three loosely connected tales, all located in and around Livingston, a town of just over 7,000 people in the North Western state of Montana. 

Laura is a lawyer, defending a local labourer who is having a workplace dispute. He refuses to listen to her advice, although when the same information comes from a male colleague he appears more receptive. Eventually, he takes a local security guard hostage, and the police call in Laura to act as negotiator.

Elsewhere, Gina and her husband Ryan have decided to build a new home outside of town. Together with their teenage daughter, they visit an elderly family friend to try and persuade him to give up a pile of unused sandstone from an old Native American schoolhouse that lies on his property. But Gina finds herself struggling with dealing with the man in the face of his apparent senility. 

A four-hour drive from Livingston, just outside of the town of Belfry, an unnamed ranch hand goes about her daily business taking care of the animals, isolated from the rest of the world. Dropping in on an evening class at her local school, she develops a crush on class teacher Elizabeth, a recently graduated lawyer from Livingston trying to pick up extra cash by offering legal workshops, despite the long drive. 

Short stories have always been popular source material for filmmakers; their condensed form working well with the traditional running time of a feature film, or providing the opportunity to combine several stories into the same overarching narrative. Stephen King's Different Seasons short story collection produced both Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption; whilst other classic films adapted from shorts include Double IndemnityThe Third ManWhere The Wild Things Are and Brokeback Mountain

Certain Women's decision to tell several interconnected stories is reminiscent of Robert Altman's Short Cuts, which in turn was adapted from a short story collection by American writer Raymond Carver, an author to whom Meloy's work has been compared. Telling multiple stories is a technique also seen in films such as Babel21 GramsCrash, and Syriana. Typically, the individual stories are intertwined through the narrative, with the audience dropping in and out of particular character stories as their connection is gradually made clear. For Certain Women, Reichardt decided to present each story fully and sequentially, allowing them their own distinct space to play out. The stories do eventually overlap, but the links are subtle: characters may merely brush past one another in the street, rather than have their connection turn into a moment of high narrative drama.

There are also other ways in which the film challenges expectations: for instance, Laura's hostage drama plays out in a much more understated, controlled fashion than the chaotic scenes typically seen in a thriller. The film links to the Western genre throughout; most apparent in the story of the ranch hand. At one point, she leaves her truck at home to ride into town on a horse, calling to mind the traditional entrance of the heroic cowboy - although here it is a Native American woman riding in to pursue a romance with her female crush.

Location is crucial to the film's tone and the mind-set of its characters. Vast, dramatic skylines and mountains surround the town and its inhabitants, providing a remarkable beauty, but also locking the characters in, impacting the way in which they look at the world. Location, light, and landscape have always been crucial components of Reichardt's films (such as Meek's Cutoff and Wendy and Lucy), adding a striking cinematic visual impact to the stories and the deep-rooted emotional concerns that the characters are grappling with. The location here also develops the themes of American history and colonialism that underscores the film, and adds to the stillness that characterises its mood.

One striking aspect of the film is its use of sound. Told almost entirely without non-diegetic music (such as a composed musical score), the dominant sounds are those of freight trains passing through the edges of town, cars on the highway, or the sounds of the local nature and birdsong. These all serve the same storytelling function as musical cues: subtly impacting on the film's emotional themes. But while the film makes use of natural sounds, capturing this footage was surprisingly complicated. Livingston is one of the windiest cities in America, which made capturing clean sounds impossible, and forcing the filmmakers to use archive material.

There were also further filmmaking hazards as a result of the geography. Initially planning to use digital film, test footage failed to capture the snowy surroundings in any detail, leaving the background looking like a white wall. So, Reichardt decided to shoot the film on 16mm film. This brought its own challenges, though, as processing and viewing daily footage (known as dailies) was rendered difficult due to the isolated setting. The filmmakers were also keen to use real horses on the ranch, rather than trained animal actors. The horses chosen were not used to human interaction, and so when production began only a skeleton crew was used, in order to not frighten the animals. The crew were gradually reintroduced as the horses became more used to their new guests.

Certain Women examines the large and small moments that make up the lives of women trying to understand and shape the world around them. It deals with daily struggles that range from the mundane to the life-changing. Told in almost real time, against the backdrop of real locations and places that both define and confine the characters and their actions, it also subtly explores American history, adding a vital and strong female voice to subjects traditionally dominated by men.

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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