Kelly Reichardt and Michelle Williams engaged in loose reflection on the process of making art and collaboration, on the problems with the traditional artistic biopic, and on acting with cats and monkeys, at a wide-ranging press conference Saturday following the world premiere of their Cannes competition film Showing Up.
In the film, Williams plays Lizzie, a Portland-based sculptor nervously preparing for an exhibit while juggling the distractions of her family and friends. Hong Chau, John Magaro, Judd Hirsch, Maryann Plunkett and Andre 3000 co-star.
Williams’ late-stage pregnancy necessitated mask-wearing from all of the journalists present but the talk was surprisingly casual and intimate, a reflection perhaps of the ease with which Williams and Reichardt interact, having made four films together.
Reichardt said Showing Up initially started as a biopic project on Canadian artist Emily Carr but shifted after visiting Vancouver. “We thought Emily Carr was this really obscure artist and then we went to Canada and we found she’s like the Elvis of painters in Canada,” the director quipped. The project then shifted to become a portrait of a truly unknown artist, working at the Oregon College of Art and Craft in Portland (which closed in 2019).
“We wanted to make this about a regional artist where there are lower stakes, and it is more about the day-to-day work,” said Reichardt.
Jonathan Raymond, who co-wrote the Showing Up screenplay with Reichardt, noted that most artist stories on film tend to focus “on the narrative towards success or failure, but that’s not really how the art-making process works…you do art for many different reasons. That rise and fall story is really a fantasy.”
Instead, Raymond said, he and Reichardt wanted to embed Lizzie’s art in the context of her relationships to the people around her.
“We all have family, we all have friends [and] there is the question of how and why you make art when a lot of people around you are suffering,” he noted. “[But] the art comes from that struggle of being in a life with people.”
Williams found herself fielding a few animal-based questions, including one focused on her on-screen relationship with Ricky, a tomcat that has several scene-stealing moments in Showing Up (Reichardt revealed that Ricky was actually played by two feline thespians).
One thing about working with animals, Williams noted, is “they don’t know there’s a camera on [so] they are always in the moment and they demand the same thing of you. They can make really make you look like an actor.”
Her most impressive acting interaction with a non-human, she said, was with a primate.
“I once worked with a monkey [on Oz the Great and Powerful] who really impressed me,” Williams said. “This monkey should teach acting. Talk about presence.”
Reichardt revealed that the art Lizzie makes in Showing Up came from Portland-based artist Cynthia Lahti and that two other female artists — Michelle Degrey and Jessica Jackson Hutchins — also contributed works to the film.
The strong female focus on the film, a common thread in much of Reichardt’s work, was only briefly touched on at the press conference when a reporter asked Reichardt, who last week became one of the first female filmmakers to receive Cannes’ acclaimed Carrosse d’Or award for her life’s work, how much has changed for women directors in the business.
“Well, obviously not that much has changed, or you wouldn’t put my win in the context of me being a woman,” Reichardt said, bluntly.