Michelle Williams in MEEK'S CUTOFF, a film directed by Kelly Reichardt. Picture courtesy Oscilloscope Pictures. All rights reserved.
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- Simon Max Hill
- Corey Walter
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Meek's Cutoff (2010/2011)
Opened: 04/08/2011 Limited
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Trailer: Click here to view at Apple Trailers
Rated: PG for some mild violent content, brief language and smoking.
The year is 1845, the earliest days of the Oregon Trail, and a wagon team of three families has hired the mountain man Stephen Meek to guide them over the Cascade Mountains. Claiming to know a short cut, Meek leads the group on an unmarked path across the high plain desert, only to become lost in the dry rock and sage. Over the coming days, the emigrants must face the scourges of hunger, thirst and their own lack of faith in each other's instincts for survival. When a Native American wanderer crosses their path, the emigrants are torn between their trust in a guide who has proven himself unreliable and a man who has always been seen as the natural enemy.
Notes on the Film
In Meek's Cutoff, as in her previous films, River of Grass, Ode, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt hews to a vision of small-scale cinema characterized by naturalism and close observation of the dispossessed.
Loosely tagged as a Western, it could be tempting to look back to the so-called "anti- Westerns" of the early 70s (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Ulzana's Raid, Bad Company, Dirty Little Billy) as the antecedents of Meek's Cutoff's unorthodox take on the genre. But unlike those films, for all their revisionism, this is not the Wild West; there are no sheriffs to be found, no saloons, no cavalry.
Meek's Cutoff continues Reichardt's penchant for foregrounding those too often ignored by society, history, and Hollywood--in this case, the women in the story. "Meek's Cutoff is told from the vantage point of those without the power, from the people who don't get a say in the decisions that are being made," says Reichardt. Even the film's 1.37:1 aspect ratio could be seen as representing the viewpoint of the women looking at the trail, curtailed by the narrow scope of the bonnets they wear. In researching the film, Reichardt read diaries of women who made the migration west. "The women's stories offer such a specific take on the history - one totally different from the one portrayed in the Hollywood Western. The diaries really get across labor and the monotony of that labor. They call to mind Flaherty's Nanook of the North more than say Ford's The Searchers. You know: build the igloo, catch the fish, make the fire. Or in our case: set up the tent, empty the wagon, build the fire, make the beans. The diaries paint a picture of an endless landscape and a trance-like feeling of one day rolling into the next. So in Meek's the routine of chores, the rattle of the carriages, the squeaky wheel, and the intense silence that falls at night - those things are intended to reflect a journey dominated by time and space and repetition. "
Jeff Grace's score, which alternates between swooping cello glissandi and eerie clusters of sustained tones, also sidesteps the usual musical evocations of Americana in a Western (as well as the guitar-based instrumentals Reichardt used in Ode (1999) and Old Joy). "I wanted to use instruments from the period and the Cayuse Indians were flute players," she explains. "Our direction was geared more towards 'sound' than music. I didn't want a score that would make the journey more romantic in any way. Jeff and his cello player were putting rocks under the strings and distorting the sounds to the point where I could hardly tell a flute from a guitar from a cello, which worked really well."
Reichardt and writer Jon Raymond, who have worked together on Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and Meek's Cutoff, have referred to the three films as an "Oregon Trilogy," and thematically, Meek's does share much with the other two. Paul Dano carving out the word "lost" near the film's beginning echoes the "I'm LOST!!!" fliers made in hopes of finding Lucy, and Old Joy's protagonists also get lost, on their way into the mountains. The problematic wagon wheel recalls Wendy's broken down car, and in both films a sketchily planned journey deteriorates into a precarious situation marked by bad decisions and increasing desperation. There are also political undercurrents running through all three films. Old Joy was made in the shadow of the rise of the neoconservatives, Wendy & Lucy in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and numerous reverberations of recent American politics can be felt, in a characteristically subtle way, in Meek's Cutoff. The clash of cultures in the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan is felt in the friction between the emigrents, Meek and the Indian. The arguments over the necessity of violence to obtain information from a prisoner, the lingering doubts over an elected leader, and the basic question of whether to "stay the course" are topics in the film that have also been prevalent in the national conversation of the past decade. The film's reticence about the settlers' ultimate fate is perhaps its most timeless political parallel (in suggesting that we have no more knowledge of what will become of Meek's traveling party than we do of what will become of the United States itself), but it's also consistent with where we leave the characters at the conclusions of Reichardt's other films, still in transit, but now aware that they have to decide which direction to take next-- and wondering whether their lives are actually moving forward or not.
Dispatches from the Production
Production Designer - David Doernberg
I didn't know anything about 1845. Did they have matches? Did they have guns? All I knew was from a documentary I made on the Industrial Revolution in seventh grade, but Kelly wanted real accuracy. She suggested a bunch of books to read, and I did... and they were interesting so I read more. One thing that became clear was that there was no one way that things were done, which was liberating but also frustrating. Everyone had their own way of making his or her way across the country, especially the early travelers like the ones depicted in Meek's Cutoff who hadn't learned from others' mistakes.
We went to the Oregon Historical Society, which was a great resource. There were exhibits and pictures of the rugged travelers and Meek himself. But the most interesting part of my research was contacting the individuals out there that are devoted to preserving our past. For a scene where Emily Tetherow grinds her morning coffee I needed the right grinder. On the internet I found a club that collects antique coffee grinders. When I told them what we were doing the club's president said he needed more specifics. "Where was the family from?" "What was their income?" It turns out that every region in the country had a distinct type of grinder. A family from Indiana might have one style where a family from Ohio would have another, each made by a local blacksmith using distinct styles. You couldn't just walk into Bed, Bath and Beyond and grab a Krups.
Kelly and I agreed that having quilts in the movie might seem a little too Little House on the Prairie-ish and it turns out that a lot of the emigrants used a more rugged woven cloth called "overshot". There was a woman in Illinois that loaned us some of her antique overshot coverlets, which became the Tetherow and White families' bedding.
The wagons were a big deal. There was a collector/restorer just a few hours from where we were filming. We bought three antique wagons and hired him to build a replica of the Tetherow wagon for us to use in a stunt. When the oxen handler arrived he deemed the antique wagon's running gear (the axels and wheels) too fragile to use with real oxen on rugged terrain. At the last minute we switched our antique "boxes" on to his Hollywood running gear. It was a compromise that had to be made.
In a small aircraft hangar at the Burns airstrip, Roger Faires our location manager arranged for the art department to have an enclosed work area where we could paint wagons, distress the canvas bonnets and tents and store all of the items we collected. Local cattle ranchers would stop by to see what was going on with all these wagons and antiques. One local young man became our intern and expert on wagons. Growing up on a farm just up the road, Arly developed a fascination with these vehicles and helped us outfit them with tools borrowed from his grandmother's barn.
One of the most valuable resources we found was Mike Buckner, an historical re-enactor and muzzle-loading rifle collector. He ended up loaning us many items from his personal collection such as lanterns, skins, and rifles. Mike likes to actually live like a pioneer, which made calling him on the phone difficult. He was also the main instructor at "Pioneer Camp".
Kelly wanted the actors to be immersed in the realities that the emigrants faced and it was important that they looked like they knew what they were doing. At the airport hangar and adjacent fields we spent a week where Mike and the crew taught the actors to build fires without matches (using a glass to focus sunlight on dry brush), pitch a tent, load a wagon, fix a wheel, repair an axle, and load and fire a rifle. Michelle Williams spent hours practicing her leap into the wagon and painstaking loading of gunpowder and ammunition.
When Bruce Greenwood arrived he immediately jumped into his yet to be aged deerskin suit and started smoking his Meek pipe. Not happy with the amount of weathering applied to his tent, Bruce tied it to the back of a pick up truck and drove around the fields dodging small aircraft until he was happy with the amount of dust and dirt stuck to Meek's teepee.
Will Patton wanted his character Solomon to have a very specific hammer; it would be one of the things he chooses to keep when he is forced to pare down. He wanted something simple and strong. We sent Arly back to his grandmother's barn numerous times until he found something that Will was happy with. He used this hammer at Pioneer Camp to practice knocking the iron on and off his broken wagon wheels.
Rod Rondeaux arrived with his lasso in-hand. Award winning stuntman and expert horse trainer, Rod ended up being another teacher at our Pioneer Camp.
Neil Huff asked me to show him what Mr. White's Bible looked like, a few days before filming I had yet to find one that seemed right. He had his wife send his family Bible which turned out to be perfect.
Also at Pioneer Camp, all of the actors learned to lead oxen. The animal wranglers, a group of genuine badass cowboys, taught them the proper terminology: "Haw" (turn left) "Gee" (turn right) as they prodded them with sticks with the wagons bobbing along behind. They did all of this wearing their long dresses and wool pants in heat that was over one hundred degrees.
At Pioneer Camp we set up a collection of tools, blankets, pots and pans, sacks of beans and all of the things the emigrants might need. Each couple "shopped" in our warehouse and learned how to pack their wagon. Kelly wanted each couple to have a distinct feel to their wagon and campsite. The Gately wagon was the largest and considered a Winnebago by the standards of the time. Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan chose the fanciest wares to outfit their wagon while the poor Whites were left with the dregs.
Before arriving in Oregon I received an email from Michelle Williams requesting historically accurate knitting needles and yarn so she could practice and look like an experienced knitter by the time we started filming. We were able to locate genuine unbleached yarn and wooden needles for Michelle, Shirley and Zoe to work on their knitting expertise.
Vicki Farrell - Costume Designer
The email I received from Kelly on a freezing day in Jan 2009 went something like this: "Would you like to come to the desert to work on a Western? There will be 3 women, 3 husbands, 1 child, 1 Indian, 1 crazy mountain man and 6 oxen. We have no money yet." The answer of course was yes! And of course it turned out to be one of my all time favorite jobs. Just imagining what Kelly Reichardt would do with a western made me very happy.
In our initial discussions Kelly said she pictured Emily Tetherow in a rose pink dress. Everything spun out from there. Printed calicos in strong garish colors with names like Cinnamon Pink and Cheddar Cheese were popular in the 1840's. I started thinking about what these dresses would look like sun bleached, dusty and worn. Kelly was scouting and sending me these amazing pictures of the desert and I was sending her bleached out swatches of calico. It all came together beautifully.
Sewing began in the hottest August on record at my friend Grace's un-air-conditioned studio in the Bronx. Fueled by popsicles from the local Western Beef, we cut and sewed every day. Because sewing machines were yet to be invented in 1845, everything on the exterior of the costumes was hand sewn. I learned the value of thimbles and always had some handy. In the end our fingers were hard and cracked and calloused. We were proud of them!
After 2 weeks everything was about halfway finished. It was all shipped off to meet us in Oregon. There were about 10 more days to get the costumes completed.
Our plane landed in the tiny, shiny new Bend, OR airport in the middle of the night. Rives Curtright picked us up and drove us to Burns. I convinced him to first take us to the 24 hr superstore where I bought a sewing machine, ironing board, sewing supplies and a couple of gallons of bleach. We then drove four hours into the desert night. The sky was so beautiful. There was the sweet night smell of cooling earth and the things that grow in it.
In the morning costume making began again in earnest at the Horseshoe Motel. It was a beautiful thing to see bonnets and dresses drying and sun bleaching on the grassy field outside our rooms.
Pioneer camp was where the clothes were going to get their authentic layer of dirt. Things got a little messed up for me here because it was also the only time to fit the costumes on the actors and get the alterations done. Driving to set on the first morning of shooting Grace and I were still stitching on trim and hooks and eyes in the back of the crew van. The clothes were bleached but not dirty enough. But after one day in the real desert getting things dusty and dirty was no longer a problem. Every man, woman, child, beast and vehicle was coated inside and out with a thick layer of desert dust. And dusty we all remained for the 30 days and nights of shooting.
We started with sweltering days of high desert sun and ended with snow and actors shivering under the humble horse blankets that we bought to keep them warm. Every day was incredible, magical, difficult, unforgettable.
My last duty as costume designer for Meek's Cutoff was on a Saturday afternoon in Bend. On my way to the airport I went back to the 24 hr superstore and returned that sewing machine no worse for the wear. Then I headed back east.
David Rives Curtright - Driver
Thursday nights were our Friday nights at The Horseshoe Inn in Burns, OR. This is where the cast and crew stayed during the filming of Meek's Cutoff. We had one night to relax because we had one day off each week. The Inn was actually shaped like a horseshoe with a large courtyard in the center that had an enormous fire pit. Everyone would gather around the blaze on Thursdays to share their thoughts, laugh, play guitars, and ruminate about the previous week's ordeals.
"Wow, that was crazy when the van almost went off into the ravine." "Bruce took a pretty bad fall. I hope he'll be okay." "I can't believe we ran out of water yesterday morning." "Man, Rod was giving me the chill bumps when he did his scene over the canyon." "Every single vehicle has broken down on this shoot except Roger's Toyota."
One of our main locations was a salt flat that was an hour and a half from any sort of civilization. There was no cell phone reception. Dust storms would come up and obscure our vision. It would be hard to breathe. When those days of shooting were over, we would pile in the van with a knocking engine and push it as hard as it would go across the flat. The soft ground would force a fishtail. We'd skid to a halt just before the steel gate that marked the property. The mood was somber on those rides back to town, but everybody was glad to have gotten through one more day.
We had one last bonfire for the wrap party. At that point, each of us had empathy and an understanding of what the actual emigrants went through. The big skies, landscape, and colors of the west are certainly alluring. The desert has a way of turning inhospitable fast. Often times we wondered, "Are we going to make it?"