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Michelle Williams & Kelly Reichardt Revisit The Artistic Process Of ‘Showing Up’ [Interview] The Playlist

May 3, 2023

In theory, Michelle Williams really did not need to do this. It’s just two days after she attended the 95th Academy Awards and, on her fifth nomination, sadly came up short. The last thing anyone in her position would want to do is then spend a day participating in Zoom interviews for a film that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival 10 months prior. Perhaps it’s a testament to her friendship with frequent collaborator Kelly Reichardt that she’s happily back on the promo trail. This time for “Showing Up,” another chapter in the pair’s increasingly impressive cinematic oeuvre. And also because it’s a movie that deserves your attention.
READ MORE: ‘Showing Up’ Review: Kelly Reichardt captivates with a warm and comical look at the world of arts and crafts [Cannes]
Set in contemporary Portland, Oregon, “Showing Up” centers on Lizzy (Williams), a sculptor who is trying to prepare for her next solo show but is constantly distracted by stressful influences in her life. There is a complicated relationship with her landlord and friend Jo (Hong Chau), a mother (Maryann Plunkett) who appears to detest being her daughter’s boss at their day job, a father (Judd Hirsch) she longs to impress, and a brother, Sean (John Magaro), whose mental health is a daily worry for everyone in his orbit. It’s also a film about the roller coaster of the artistic process and what if anything fulfillment means when it’s all said and done. All told with Reichardt’s sublime, often quiet, touch.
So, yeah, you should see it.
Sitting together on a couch in a mysterious hotel in New York City, the pair jumped online with The Playlist to discuss the origins of the project, Reichardt’s deep dive with significant artists in the sculpting field, whether Williams will ever say “no” to one of her scripts, and much, much more.
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The Playlist: Hi there.
Michelle Williams: Hello. How are you?
The Playlist: Good! Congratulations on the movie.
Michelle Williams: Thanks.
The Playlist: I have to tell you both. I saw it at Cannes and even though it’s almost been a year, it is a movie that has popped back in my mind over that whole time, which I think is a really positive thing, considering how much media we consume. So congratulations on creating something so lasting.
Michelle Williams: Congratulations to you Kelly.
Kelly Reichardt: Thanks. You’ve seen other stuff since then?
The Playlist: I know. Crazy, right? I don’t know how I found the time. Kelly, what was the specific inspiration for this film and what is your process working with co-writer Jon Raymond in developing these stories?
Kelly Reichardt: It’s hard to talk about the process, and maybe the film gets into this a little bit, because it’s so wrapped up in our life. He lives very close to me and we’re sort of very entangled in each other’s world. So it’s a long conversation of what this might be. And the idea of making a film about artists actually seemed like a scary undertaking. And we dipped in and dipped out of it for a while. We started with a trip to Vancouver to study Emily Carr, and we were really interested in her, not realizing how hugely famous she was. We were thinking of doing a biopic of a painter like Emily Carr who we thought was not well-known in her time. And then we found out she was huge. And she’s not really big in America, but she will be by the time I’m done with these interviews today. And then we started thinking about people in our own world, people we knew, and how scary that seemed to tap into that and try to get that right, but we wanted it to be about process and working every day and the things that come in and get in the way of that.
And so it was a lot of talking and a lot of coffees and some trips, some road trips. And then one day Jon took me out to the Oregon College of Arts and Crafts, which had just shut down. And looking into the history of that school and how meaningful it was to people in the Pacific Northwest, aligned a lot with the Black Mountain College in North Carolina, which I’d been really interested in for years. So anyway, the script started getting built around the school. And Jon was doing a first pass. And in the meantime, I went and some 16 millimeter in the Bronx in the studio with Michelle Segre and also out in California with Jessica Hutchins, the sculptor, whose glasswork is actually in the movie for the visiting artist. But the script was written with Cynthia Lahti‘s work in mind for Lizzy. And so we had some key things like, here’s the school and the landlord theme and Cynthia’s work. We had some cornerstones. And Jon developed a lot of what happens there between them. And then I worked more on the school and the relationships in the school.
The Playlist: So, Michelle, you get the script. What was your initial reaction to it and how did you see Lizzy as a character? What did you see as her motivation throughout the film?
Michelle Williams: Each time that Kelly has asked me to work with her again, it’s like lightning is dragging in the same place. As an actress, it’s so rare to have an ongoing collaboration over, now we’re 15 years in. And Kelly knows me so well and she’s seen me at my best and she’s seen me at my worst. But to feel like there’s still something that she wants to explore with me, even though we’ve already been to so many places, the fact that she comes back to me is just super special. So before I ever read a script, I’m attached to her, I’m attached to anything that she would ever want to do. And no matter where it is or what the role is or if it’s big or if it’s small or we’re…
Kelly Reichardt: I’m going to come up…
Michelle Williams: You’ll come with a really small role for me, aren’t you? Smallest role to test my…
The Playlist: A cameo. The next one’s a cameo.
Michelle Williams: Cameo, maybe in a bear suit.
Kelly Reichardt: Yeah, Sasquatch.
Michelle Williams: Yeah. So there’s that. And then really, my work becomes sort of understanding what it is that Kelly’s looking at, obviously, because her movies work both subtly and thematically. So I’m trying to understand [what’s] quite literally on the page in front of me. And then there’s always something that’s above my head that’s smarter than I am and more forward-thinking than I am. And part of my work is to figure out where she is with that and what she’s kind of scratching her head about at night, what she’s puzzling over, and the larger picture. But she won’t ever answer that question for me, so I have to deduce it in other ways.
Kelly Reichardt: We’re finding it.
Michelle Williams: Yeah, we’re finding it. We’re finding it. So then we go down this path of asking questions without any answers and stumbling down the road and there’s Andre Benjamin with his flute. That’s when we knew we were going in the right direction.
Kelly Reichardt: That’s right. That’s true.
The Playlist: But in that context, Kelly, are you someone who wants to do rehearsals before shooting? Do you just want to get on set and sort of explore it?
Kelly Reichardt: I mean, I’m such a fan of Mike Leigh and I love listening to him talk about how he works, it’s like, what could be further different, spending a year with actors? No, we get right to work. First of all, that system couldn’t really work here, but I like, instead of rehearsing, I like, with Michelle, working with Cynthia Lahti and getting her hands in the clay and spending time at Cynthia’s studio and getting her clothes right with April Napier, the costume designer, and then getting her in her apartment, Tony Gasparo, the production designer’s making it, just getting all her things situated that she can physically be in and work in and then have her work in the clay, which was really the main thing, to get her hands in the clay and to spend time with Cynthia. So a lot of the work is, a lot of it I feel like is left to Michelle.
The Playlist: Michelle, Lizzy and Jo have a complicated relationship as friends, landlord/tenant, and also as competing artists. I’m not sure I’ve seen a relationship like theirs on screen before. Did you have conversations with Hong Chau about your two characters?
Michelle Williams: It’s interesting. I think there really is an aspect to all of Kelly’s movies where you just dive in. You do your own prep in your own place, in your own way. So, in advance of making the movie, there’s a lot of time that’s spent, but Hong and I met on set, the breastfeeding tent. That’s kind of true. And so there wasn’t a lot of pre-gaming about what our relationship was. There’s a kind of…when you’re making these pretty [small]… I mean, every film feels like you’re kind of like you’re barely holding it together, but time…
Kelly Reichardt: Seat of your pants films.
Michelle Williams: Seat of your pants films. So, time is a luxury and, I mean, not that you would want to rehearse anyway, but no, I really don’t think I would like to. I would always be feeling like, “Oh, I wish I was filming that. Just what if the first thing is…” I mean, it’s usually not, it’s like you work it out, but especially if you’re shooting 35-millimeter film [there is no time]. But Hong was doing her work too with Michelle Segre, the artist. [As for the characters,] probably everyone’s had, at some point in your life, you’ve had a relationship like that, where you’ve had a friend that you’re getting too reliant on each other. You’re also each other’s maybe biggest supporters and Lizzy should really get her own place somewhere else probably. When I think of when I first came to New York and wanted to leave Florida and go find where the artists were, you come to New York, there was no such thing as Google or anything. You go to clubs, you, whatever. It was usually around the music scene and you met the people you were meant to meet and it seems incredible now to me that all happened.
But as much as finding a place to live was a big deal, rent was expensive, but it wasn’t like rent consumed your world. I don’t know how a young person comes to New York and is an artist anymore. I mean, you moved to Bushwick and you live with 10 people, but still, how to meet the rent to me, that’s a real thing, especially for artists that need studios. Almost like wherever you go live, rent’s going to be, if you’re going to be around some kind of art scene, some kind of scene at all, you’re going to need to fork up the rent.
“Showing Up” opens in limited release on April 7.

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