Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008) is a film in which locations and space play a pivotal role. The film centers on Wendy (Michelle Williams), a young woman who navigates unfamiliar spaces over the course of the film, after her car breaks down in Oregon.
The film is based on Train Choir, an original short story written by Portland native Jon Raymond, whose story captures the locations that surround his everyday life. In using actual locations rather than sets, Wendy and Lucy captures a sense of realism.
The primary setting for the film is established early on. The Walgreens parking where Wendy’s car breaks down and an adjacent street where she moves her car serve as Wendy’s home base. Wendy becomes immobilized after she loses her car and this location becomes an anchor for the film by becoming a space where Wendy returns at the end of every day.
In an exclusive interview with Interiors, cinematographer Sam Levy, production designer Ryan Warren Smith, costume designer Amanda Needham and location manager Roger Faires spoke about their individual work as well as their overall relationship with the use of space and locations in the film.
In the case of an independent film, one of the most important aspects during production is open communication among all those involved. Roger Faires notes that oftentimes directors can be inaccessible and unapproachable on a film, but the opposite was true for their director. “Kelly Reichardt is very available. She knows that if someone is hired to do a film, then they’re just as important as any other aspect of the film.” This encouraged communication and resulted in a collective effort with everyone involved.
In terms of the locations for the film, he also remarks that his work developed with conversations he had with the director. “I would look at inspirational photographs that Kelly had collaged to get the color texture.” In a film such as Wendy and Lucy, where we are offered a unique look at the surrounding landscapes, because the protagonist is constantly on the go, traveling through town on foot, locations are an essential part of the film.
These locations remained as natural as possible with minor intrusion from the filmmakers. In speaking of the production design of the film, Ryan Warren Smith states that with Wendy and Lucy, more than any other film, his focus was on simplifying what’s within the frame by removing objects or adjusting specific colors rather than adding onto the locations. Their objective with this film was creating a stark visual look for the film, one that lacks bright colors, as a way of focusing the attention on its story and characters.
The primary focus of the film is Wendy and the entire story is experienced through her perspective. Wendy’s stay in Oregon is unexpected and unplanned, therefore the details of her wardrobe as that much more essential to the story itself. Wendy’s wardrobe, which consists of a hoody, a long sleeve flannel button-down, corduroy cutoffs, a pair of old sneakers, and an ace bandage, was designed with a color palette that would compliment the various landscapes and locations in the film.
“I think the most challenging aspect in coming up with Wendy’s ‘look’ was to make Michelle Williams feel real, while at the same time suppressing the natural beauty and glamor that Michelle exudes on screen,” says Amanda Needham. In keeping consistent with her character, the actress wore no make-up and was asked that she didn’t groom her eyebrows.
The audience follows Wendy around various parts of the town, but the film effectively draws us back into her primary location because she depends on her car. Sam Levy notes that feature films often rely on a single space or location that is the center of focus. “There’s usually one space, one location, that is like an anchor to me. The Walgreens was definitely that place.” In addition, he observes that Wendy’s car is her only salvation from the rest of the world. “It’s where she finds rest from all of the harsh realities that happen to her.”
In her first night alone in this unfamiliar town, Wendy spends the night in her car – alone and afraid. In a later scene, when the mechanic shop takes her car away, she no longer has a “space” that she can depend on; as a result, she camps out in the woods and ultimately suffers a breakdown.
“There had to be a lot of space around her because the world is coming down on her and you just want her to be the focus,” says Smith. This feeling of uneasiness was effectively communicated through her wardrobe as well. “The decision to keep her in one look throughout the whole film was essential to understand her transitory state and in the end helped convey an over all despair in Wendy,” notes Needham. In addition, this allows the audience to relate to the feeling of wearing the same clothing over an unknown span of time, naturally building up an unavoidable anxiety. Wendy later suffers a breakdown and feels suffocated, as she naturally strips off her clothing.
The Walgreens used in the film is located on 2829 North Lombard Street in Portland, Oregon and Wendy’s car is later parked on North Russell Street. It’s interesting to note that the mechanic shop in the film, On the Go Auto Services Inc., which appears to be right across the street, was actually located a mile away. The insert shots of the mechanic shop were therefore cheated quite effectively.
The Walgreens used in the film was the same location that the author had in mind while writing his story. Faires comments that using a Walgreens in the film was essential because “Kelly understood that it needed to be a place that looked corporate, that looked like an entity that was probably less than personal.”
Interiors visited Portland in May 2013, and while searching for the location, drove around endlessly, visiting various Walgreens locations in the city. The location of the Walgreens used in the film was in a part of town that felt disconnected from the rest of Portland. In using this location over others in the area, the setting of the film feels more a small town rather than big city. Levy states, “I think what attracted Kelly to it and why it works in the movie is that it doesn’t really feel of Portland.”
The fact that the setting of the film feels like a small town was an important element for the filmmakers. Smith remarks, “We knew it was Oregon but we didn’t want you to know exactly where. It’s never referenced. We really wanted it to be very vague, to feel like it could happen anywhere.” Levy similarly notes that Wendy’s location was never a specific place or city. This was something, he says, that wasn’t overtly discussed among the filmmakers, but rather something that was understood by everyone involved.
The information we have about Wendy is very minimal. The audience knows that Wendy is from Indiana and only knows minor details of her past locations through the few glimpses we have of her notebook and map.
In terms of finding locations for the film, and creating a city that didn’t remind viewers of a specific part of the state, Faires explains he wanted to focus on how banal the town was rather than painting a beautiful portrait of Portland with the locations. This resulted in a much more authentic portrayal for the story, because as he notes, people in Wendy’s situations often land themselves in these parts of town, where people are struggling.
In addition to the locations, Wendy’s car is an essential part of the story as well, and when she loses her car, she becomes handicapped and her future is uncertain. “The car was such a huge character,” exclaims Smith. In the original short story, her car is described as a gray 1996 Toyota Camry, but the film utilized a maroon 1988 Honda Accord DX, which Smith claims he came across in his own neighborhood. In fact, the car was such a crucial aspect of the story that, for preparation for her character, Michelle Williams slept in the car for a week.
In our diagram, we focused on the location of Wendy’s car in two specific scenes–when Wendy’s car breaks down and Wendy’s car parked on the adjacent street as Wendy sits on her hood. These events occur during two separate times of the day, approximately 8am and 8pm, respectively.
In the shot of Wendy sitting on her car, the lights from the Walgreens in the background served as a lighting source. “I thought that gave me some license to let her kind of go dim and not fill her in, so you could see everything. The image is in no way distracting–even though she’s just sitting there, she’s not saying anything, it’s a portrait, it’s just a visual piece, I didn’t want it to be murky or distracting.” The scene, as a result, doesn’t draw attention to itself. “Ideally, you’re just looking at her, taking in the environment, and thinking about the story and the character.”
In the shot that follows with Wendy sleeping in the back of her car and stepping outside when she thinks she hears Lucy, minimal lights were used by keeping the light off her and by amplifying her surroundings. Levy remarks, “My instinct was we should put something on her just to separate her a little bit or she’ll probably get lost in the background and it’ll just look like a wash.” This shot is then consistent with the shot of Wendy sitting on her car because theoretically she’s in the same place.
In addition to the character of Wendy as a drifter, the film effectively makes use of trains as a recurring visual and aural motif. The sounds of trains repeatedly spill over into scenes, almost as if the trains themselves are playing their part in a choir. The constant sounds of the trains also help hint at the notion of movement and travel.
“Kelly had a great idea, which was that the first and last shots of the movie would be moving. The first shot of the movie would be a bookend to the last shot of the movie, so that it’s basically like a train,” Levy remarks. The film opens with shots of trains and an image of Wendy walking down a path and the film closes with Wendy boarding a train and her point-of-view looking outside.
Wendy and Lucy was filmed in and around Portland, Oregon on Super 16 with five Zeiss Super Speed Prime lenses. In preparation for the film, the director made clear that she didn’t want to make use of a handheld camera and camera movement should be limited unless it’s following an action or a character. Levy originally suggested using a Steadicam for the opening scene, but Kelly was adamant about not using one because of her desired motif. They ultimately decided that a dolly was more of a machine than a Steadicam (because a Steadicam is attached onto a person) and the movement of a dolly felt more like a train. This offers great insight into the specific use of camera movements throughout the film. “That’s a good case study of camera movements for Wendy and Lucy,” notes Levy.
This scene is also essential because it’s one of the few instances in the film where Wendy still has control over her life. Faires notes that the space “she is walking in has a pastoral, bucolic feel to it. That’s one of the last pretty things that you see before things really start going south for her.” It’s also during this scene where Wendy first hums a tune as she is walking. This tune later becomes a structuring motif for the film and is heard multiple times, notably in the grocery store, where we hear the tune reprised on an organ by Smokey Hormel.
The street where Wendy’s car is parked is the main area of focus for the film, but Wendy also spends a great deal of time away from this location. In our research, we looked into these locations as a way of finding out their true distance from Wendy’s car and noticed the majority of these locations aren’t walking distance.
The Shell gas station, where Wendy visits a number of times, is 12 miles away from her car. The production wanted a corporate presence with the gas station for the overall tone of the film. This space blends private and public space for Wendy because it’s her where she washes up and detaches herself from the outside world. The mirror in the bathroom, which is essentially a sheet of metal, was added by Smith. This specific detail adds to the drama of the film. Wendy can’t see herself in this mirror and it’s a reflection of her internal conflict when she suffers her breakdown.
Jack’s, which is described as being “down the road,” is 50 miles south of Portland in Salem, Oregon. The location was chosen because of its original, old-fashioned look. “The colors hadn’t changed since the 70s,” observes Smith, who believed the space added to the production value of the film. The crew admired the fact that the store looked like it could be located in any part of the country.
The director had originally planned on using a more corporate grocery store, but using a family store creates a much more dynamic situation for Wendy when the store clerk (John Robinson) catches her shoplifting. Needham notes that Smith “added a cross necklace [to the clerk], which is an element that made his character more believable yet slightly more irritating.” In this space, everything we see is authentic to the actual location. The backroom where Wendy meets with the manager and the back alley where she runs into the store clerk are accurate to the store itself.
The various other locations that Wendy visits offer revealing information about the film. The audience is provided with a clue about Wendy’s location in the police station after she is booked – a quick shot of her form reveals that she is in Washington County. This is accurate to the shooting location, which was in the Washington Country Jail in Hillsboro, Oregon, approximately 20 miles away. These scenes, which were filmed in an actual jail and actual cells, were the first scenes shots for the film. Levy describes this space as “modern” in comparison to the other locations in the film. There were very little lights used in this sequence – interestingly enough, the flash we see during her mug shots were created with Levy’s point-and-shoot camera.
The dog pound that Wendy visits while searching for Lucy is the Oregon Humane Society, which is 3 miles away. It’s interesting to note that the distance to the dog pound from Wendy’s car is the same distance that the security guard (Walter Dalton) tells Wendy in the film.
In a specific scene, Wendy puts up flyers for Lucy as we see her through a window. There is a great reflection of clouds on the left side of the frame with the Walgreens in the background on the right side of the frame, highlighting its close proximity to the location.
The film’s conclusion is in the backyard of a home, where Wendy finds Lucy. This location is 90 miles west from where Wendy’s car is parked in Astoria, Oregon. Wendy is told that Lucy is “where the 30 meets Leif Erickson.” This dialogue matches the actual location of the house. Smith says, “We knew we were going to shoot there and we had the cross streets so we added those into the dialogue.”
Wendy and Lucy was a labor of love for all those involved. The open collaboration among the various departments left a special impact on those who worked on the film, particularly Smith, who admits, “I got really spoiled right off the bat. I thought they were all going to go this way.”
The film was a small production and oftentimes the crew resorted to unusual practices for the sake of the film. Smith made a second key for the car behind the owner’s back, in case of an emergency situation. The car was loaned rather than rented and the crew couldn’t afford to lose the car midway through production.
These unconventional ways of working were also true for the costume designer, who didn’t think of making doubles for Wendy’s wardrobe and was approached by one of the film’s producers during their first week of production. “The look of total confusion and panic must have communicated enough for him to know there wasn’t a double,” confesses Amanda Needham. In the course of production, she was extremely careful with her wardrobe and didn’t wash anything out of fear. “Good thing Michelle was a good sport and joked that it helped build her character. Lesson learned.”
Sam Levy states that even though their production was on a tight schedule and the weather was often unpredictable, he was never concerned. In a single day, the weather would change dramatically and go from a bright sun to overcast skies and even rain. “I don’t know what it was, but I was never worried. I had total faith in Kelly and the story and Michelle Williams. I just felt confident.”
Ryan Warren Smith realizes he won’t always work on a film that is as intimate as Wendy and Lucy, but it’s “awesome” when he can, because a collaborative team means everybody in the various departments work together. “It’s everybody making a movie together so you’re helping each other; like, Michelle was carrying sandbags. There was no division between anybody.”
This article first appeared in Interiors Journal, an online journal exploring the relationship of architecture and film edited by Mehruss Jon Ahi and Armen Karaoghlanian. Follow Interiors Journal on Twitter, where they discuss movies from the architect’s point of view.
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