Kelly Reichardt and Hong Chau on Art, Inspiration and Ursula Le Guin

For the release of ’Showing Up’, Carlos Valladares speaks to the director and actor about how their new film reframes the idea of working artists

BY Carlos Valladares, Kelly Reichardt AND Hong Chau in Film , Interviews | 06 APR 23

Kelly Reichardt’s latest film Showing Up opens in the US this week. Reichardt’s films start with small concerns and an endless series of questions, then branch out to reveal fresh, pinecone-sized insights into human relationships in the crumbling antisocial, anti-art United States. Like most of her films, Showing Up is set in Oregon. Taking place in and around Portland, it chronicles a week in the life of harried and overworked sculptor Lizzie (Michelle Williams) as she races against a looming deadline and her moderately-more-successful landlord-cum-sculptor (Hong Chau) to set up an exhibition of her small, odd clay models of girls.

Reichardt neatly avoids all of the clichéd filmic tendencies of the new century: the fashionable cynicism-nihilism-pessimism, the rapid-fire editing that grabs the social-media addict’s attention but does little with it, the segregation of politics and art that values one over the other instead of seeing them within and through each other and the postmodern self-referencing that never stakes out anything original because the postmodernist is frozen in place by the weighty notion of a constantly recycled Now.

Now, she has made a film which is a masterclass in dissipation. Showing Up calmly follows the tense act of making art which, in Reichardt’s vision is as natural – and as mysteriously monotonous – as breathing. I sat down recently with Reichardt and Hong Chau and discussed COVID-19, sculpture and their artistic inspirations ranging from Emily Carr to Ursula Le Guin.

Carlos Valladares: Hong, what was the first film of Kelly’s you saw?

Hong Chau: Wendy and Lucy [2008]. For a lot of reasons, it greatly emotionally impacted me. It stayed with me. I think all of Kelly’s films are so different and each one is so unexpected. If you watched Wendy & Lucy, you wouldn’t think that she would then go on to do Meek’s Cutoff [2010] or Night Moves [2013] or Certain Women [2016]. What’s so interesting about Kelly is that she truly is just working. She’s following her own artistic compass and simply doing what she is personally interested in at any given moment in her life. It’s not about speaking to the moment, or to the culture, which makes her work feel so singular and unique to her voice and timeless, because it’s not about answering a question that we may be asking right now.

Kelly Reichardt, Showing Up, 2023, film still. Courtesy: A24; photograph: Allyson Riggs

CV: Kelly, as I understand it, you were initially going to make a film on the Canadian painter Emily Carr.

Kelly Reichardt: Yes, before COVID-19, Jon Raymond [novelist and Reichardt’s frequent co-scenarist since Old Joy, 2006] and I already had the script and had taken a trip to Canada when we were considering doing the Carr biopic. But we didn’t know how really famous she was in Canada. And so, when we did learn, that blew the idea out of the water. By that point, I had already made a short film of Michelle Segre working in her studio in the Bronx, shot by Chris Blauvelt. Then in Long Beach, California, I made a short film of Jessica Hutchins working. In addition to clay-work, she was doing the glasswork that eventually you see in Showing Up.

We were still focused, however, on the ten years of her life that Emily Carr writes about in her book [The House of All Sorts]. She was a landlord. Her idea was that she would have tenants instead of a day job, and this would allow her more time to paint. But instead, she realizes, you know, that the amount of time and work need to take care of the tenants is huge. So, her painting time dwindles. That’s what Jon Raymond, who lined up all these different elements together to make it a cohesive story, and I held on to: the landlord idea, and the issues we were both kind of having with family when we made our initial Canada excursion.

Kelly Reichardt, Showing Up, 2023, film still. Courtesy: A24; photograph: Allyson Riggs

CV: Who came to your and Jon Raymond’s minds first? The actor or the artists? That is to say: Cynthia Lahti and Michelle Segre, whose real works are ‘cast’ as the works of Michelle Williams’s and Hong Chau’s characters, or Michelle and Hong?

KR: The art first. We wanted Cynthia’s work for [Williams’s character] Lizzie, and I really wanted Michelle Segre’s work for [Chau’s character] Jo. And Jon Raymond and Cynthia go back a million years. I kept dropping into Jessica Hutchins’s studio, and she was so generous to let us use her own glassworks. Now, Lizzie and Jo were not these two artists, Cynthia and Michelle. They were a salad of many people. Jo is not at all based on Michelle Segre since I didn’t even really know Michelle Segre that well at the time.

CV: Hong, after the intensity of your performance in The Whale, how did you negotiate the dramatic shift in tone and volume in Showing Up, where your performance is very lowkey, burbling and delicate?

HC: I was actually very surprised by how physical the role ended up being. Getting to roll that tyre down the street, learning how to do a knot for the swing and especially working alongside Michelle Segre. She was so generous with her time. If a stranger asked to shadow me on set, I do not think I would be as nice as Michelle was.

She opened up her studio to me and allowed me to watch her work. She would start from just the very basics of what she would do, and what I came to realize was that she is really physical. She was starting to sweat by the end of her work. She was bending pipes and drilling and climbing ladders and melting wax and wrestling with wire. And I thought, wow. I had no idea! When you look at her work, you’re just dazzled by the colours and the scale of it. The work, the physical work that goes into it, is not at forefront of your mind. But that was why Kelly sent me to Michelle’s studio: to see how she works.

Kelly Reichardt, Showing Up, 2023, film still. Courtesy: A24; photograph: Allyson Riggs

CV: Did seeing her affect how you performed Jo?

HC: In the original script, there was a bit about seeing Jo’s hands weaving the yarn. There were already a lot of closeups of Lizzie working with her hands, moulding the clay. Michelle Segre’s work is the complete opposite of that, and Kelly wanted to show that. So, the script shifted gears to reflect my character’s physicality. That’s why we see Jo wrestling with the wire on the ground, getting on ladders. That’s not something you know until you’re in the thick of it.

Kelly Reichardt, Showing Up, 2023, film still. Courtesy: A24; photograph: Allyson Riggs

CV: Kelly: I wondered if you could talk about your perception of Manny Farber. I feel like Showing Up is a film that very subtly responds to this polarity he wrote about for Film Culture in 1962 between termite art and white elephant art. I wondered if this essay influenced your thinking about the film.

KR: Well, not exactly. When he writes about those two things, when you first look at it, you think, ‘Oh, elephant art is overburdening, termite art is specific and into the details.’ But when you really read him, he’s not pro one thing more than another, you know, because he talks about art as if you can’t just be on one side or another.

Obviously, I relate more to the termite. Ursula Le Guin has a piece [‘The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’, 1986] where she talks about early tools and early human instruments, and about art being the carrier bag, instead of the idea of early instruments deriving from the classic bone, which is weapons. It gets thrown in the air, and you get the first tool. But the first tool was the carrier bag; like, what do you carry your seeds in? But there’s no narrative thrust to that, is there, the carrier bag? But the bone, it is a weapon; it has a narrative to it.

So Ursula Le Guin is pro-carrier-bag-narrative. And I relate to that.

Related to the termite thing: I also often wish often that I could break away from the three-act narrative structure, which I find embedded in my brain and very hard to break away from. As much as I try, I’m a really linear person. But I’m linear within a span of stories that last, say, a week. Or two weeks. And with what you said in mind, I try to get into the nitty gritty of things as opposed to spanning large swaths of time, huge events. Is this sculpture going to be ruined or is it prettier because of the mistake it had in the fire? That’s a big moment, but it’s not world-altering. We’re not going for huge heroics of everyday life, getting through your daily stresses as, in this case, a middle-class person living in a pretty place. Art is their problem, and they’re good problems to have, but they’re still those people’s problems.

Main Image: Kelly Reichardt, Showing Up, 2023, film still. Courtesy: A24

Carlos Valladares is a writer, critic and PhD student in the departments of art history and film at Yale University, New Haven, USA.

Kelly Reichardt is an American director who has made eight feature films, including Wendy and Lucy (2008), Certain Women (2016) and First Cow (2020).

Hong Chau is an American actor who has starred in Alexander Payne’s Downsizing (2017) and Andrew Ahn’s Driveways (2019). She was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale (2022).