Bright Lights Film Journal

Of Time and Place: An Interview with Writer Jon Raymond on Meek’s Cutoff and HBO’s Mildred Pierce

“In Meek’s Cutoff — about a community making decisions based on limited information, confronting their own attitudes toward the unknown — it seemed appropriate that the movie would end on a moment of unknowing, incompletion.”

Photographer-turned-director Kelly Reichardt’s films Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008) were widely applauded as small gems of observational cinema. But writing for such quiet works would seem daunting. Reichardt is so keen on place and character that plot development feels accidental. Ironically, her writing partner on these and other films (including the 2010 western Meek’s Cutoff), Jon Raymond, says he clings to plot, and that even those collaborations that appear to be most devoid of narrative incident (Old Joy) are examples of this.

Most recently, Raymond adapted James M. Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce for Todd Haynes on HBO. This classic work is steeped in the Depression’s milieu: its ambitions, grittiness, and deceptions. Like many coming to the novel after Cain’s Postman and Double Indemnity, Raymond (then a novelist foreign to filmmaking) found “shock and joy” in reading Mildred Pierce and wanted to share the feeling. Eventually, thanks to Kate Winslet signing onto a risky project, Haynes gave him that opportunity, and he was able, writing in collaboration with Haynes, to make the work in some ways his own.

In a recent phone interview with Matt Sorrento, Raymond discusses Mildred Pierce, Meek’s Cutoff, and other subjects. — Gary Morris

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After I learned that you wrote Meek’s Cutoff, I realized that you helped to adapt Mildred Pierce as a miniseries for HBO. How did your involvement in Mildred come about?

I actually met Kelly (Reichardt) through Todd (Haynes). I met Todd back in 2000 or so, when he moved to Portland, and I ended up being his assistant on Far From Heaven. We’ve been close friends ever since. Mildred Pierce was a book I was pressing on people for a while, and Todd was among them. Eventually, he decided to make it as a miniseries, and kindly asked me to help do the adaptation.

Going back to Far from Heaven [Raymond worked as Haynes’s assistant on that film under the name “Slobs Grobnik”], it must have been great to experience the making of that film.

It was really great. I’d never been on a movie set much before, and suddenly I had an amazing catbird seat through the whole production. I learned so much. One always learns a lot when Todd makes a movie. He is a voluminous researcher and becomes an expert on whatever material he’s working on. And by osmosis, everyone around gets an education. I didn’t work on I’m Not There, but just being around, I had a real Dylan seminar on that one. [Laughs] On Mildred Pierce, I learned plenty about the Depression era, about cooking chicken, about opera music.

I remember reading the novel Mildred Pierce and realizing that it was about chicken and pie baking more than intrigue. All the realism — is that how you saw it?

Absolutely. To me, that was the shock and joy of reading that book. I had read a few others by Cain, including the big ones, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. I loved those, for all their hard-boiled artfulness. But I wasn’t ready for Mildred — it’s completely a social novel, like a 19th-century naturalist French novel. The pictures it drew of LA in the ’30s were so fresh and different than I had encountered before. And the tone was completely different — it was a total surprise.

Was Mildred Pierce a hard sell to HBO? It seems it would be.

It wasn’t that hard. Kate Winslet was on board early on, so Todd Haynes approached them with a lot on his tray. Also, the economics of Mildred Pierce gave it a topical relevance.

I remember hearing how Todd Field wanted to make Little Children as a miniseries for HBO, but they turned it down.1

Wow, that’s interesting. I’ve come to think the miniseries is so much more conducive to the novel than the feature film. I would think many filmmakers would like to go that route. Certainly, novelists would like to see that happen.

When looking at Meek’s Cutoff in comparison to Mildred Pierce, I’m curious about the importance of setting in your work. Do you see it as a starting point?

I live in Oregon, and, mainly my fiction is about here. I like to find stories that make sense for this place. Meek’s Cutoff definitely comes from that regionalist impulse. Eastern Oregon geography has always amazed me. It’s largely unknown and unrecorded. It’s surprising for people to find out that two-thirds of the state is a desert, and a very peculiar desert, diverse and strange. This is partly what led me to Meek’s Cutoff. I was excited to see what would happen if Kelly took a camera out there. She’s so sensitive to landscape, and I was interested to see what she found out there.

Since Reichardt is so visual, do you have to think in images when you write for her?

Yes and no. One always thinks in images, I guess. But with Kelly, it’s also just about allowing her the space to do her work. [My scripts] don’t dictate images. They try to give a certain feeling. And at this point I’ve come to recognize her rhythms and impulses, so I try to be suggestive, but it’s really about getting out of the way and letting it happen.

It must be amazing to see what she can do with a script.

She always pushes things much farther than I’d imagined. Her eye is so subtle, so unique. She comes out of photography, and that compositional sensibility is so evident in her process. She’s worked with some great DPs, of course, but she’s very engaged with the camerawork. Sometimes I just like to look at these movies as photobooks, one great still image after another.

I’m currently teaching a university course in the western, and Meek’s Cutoff comes along . . .

[Laughs]

Did you think a lot about the genre while writing the script?

I’m not a huge western aficionado, but I have come to my own comprehension of the genre. My take on the genre comes more from books, though, and one that led met into this project was Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. To me, it really is a summation of the genre. I always thought it would be interesting to take one of his almost cartoonishly vengeful and blood-thirsty characters and put him in the context of normal people. What would youdo if you came across one of these desperadoes? For me, entering the genre meant putting the myth in a day-to-day context to see what happens.

Do you consciously try to keep your dialog low-key, to work against melodrama?

I do like to keep things tamped down in that department, I guess. The dialog for Meek’s was strange, because it was period, in a way. I didn’t it want it to be too mannered, though, either. An interesting book that helped me out was Joe Meek by Stanley Vestal, a biography of Stephen Meek’s brother, a famous mountain man of that era. Joe was one of the founders of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, and hung out with Kit Carson and people like that. He was one of the inventors of whole type. Stephen Meek was a second-tier mountain man in comparison, mainly known for the failed expedition [in Meek’s Cutoff]. The book I found on Joe Meek was written in the 1950s, and it felt like Cormac McCarthy meets the Boy Scouts Guide. A very jaunty, Daniel Boone-like recounting of frontier atrocities, with this aw-shucks, let-the-boys-be-boys attitude toward all the violence. It was a funny tone, but it was well done, and helpful in writing [Meek’s] dialog. It was really the 1950s imagination of the 1850s I ended up trying to tap into.

I feel that Meek’s Cutoff focuses on the middle passage. The western is so focused on closure and resolution. I like how your story opts for the middle.

I guess it is about the middle. [Laughs] I hadn’t thought about it that way. . . . It does forgo a lot of the lead-up. I like a story that starts already in progress, in medias res. And I don’t mind a story that ends abruptly, either. In this story — about a community making decisions based on limited information, confronting their own attitudes toward the unknown — it seemed appropriate that the movie would end on a moment of unknowing, incompletion.

—which is great, I think. The western is often burdened by what must come at the end.

This was very much meant to be a different angle of the western. The genre is bound up in ideas about the individual and redemption through violence. For me, this is about a community and the drama of non-violence. How do you dramatize not killing someone? That became an interesting dramaturgical question.

I like how the ending poses a question of faith. Do we have the faith to go onward?

For me, the question of faith is what you project onto this abyss of not-knowing. And it’s where the story may have political ramifications. Assuming you don’t know the answer to a given question, are you going to make a leap towards annihilating something, or towards waiting for more information?

I love how you shaped your characters. Do you find a certain inspiration to shape someone like Meek? To me, he seems like a false prophet.

Meek was fun to write. He was the most colorful, with that self-deceiving confidence of his. He got most of the fun lines, definitely. He came out pretty easy for some reason.

And he had a contemporary swagger to him. He could be an offbeat hiker of today.

I think the kind of type he represents has had, for whatever reason, a long shelf life. This kind of dude really holds people’s attention. Around here [in Oregon], many people tap into that.

And my favorite character, who will stay in my mind forever, is the Native American role.

God, he did such an amazing job!

I’m so curious — how did you conceive him before filming?

Well, it’s funny — I always thought of him as a more schlumpy guy. More normal looking, as you see in many photos of Native Americans [in the late 19th century]. We actually had trouble with the actor we originally cast. It didn’t work out. So Rod [Rondeaux, the actor playing “the Indian”] jumped in at the last minute. He had been our strong second choice, but was such a physically imposing presence that it felt like he’d be playing into notions of the physically imposing, menacing “other.” But he brought a real sense of abstraction to the role.

And part of it is his use of the language, which is another interesting journey. I wrote the dialog in English, with the intention of having it translated into Cayuse, the tribe to which this character belonged. Thankfully, we found some generous folks at the reservation out in Pendleton, [Oregon]. They helped us translate [the script] into Nez Perce, the closest language we could get to Cayuse, since there are only about three speakers of Cayuse left in the world. The people at the reservation translated the dialog phonetically, and then recorded it. And Rod memorized it phonetically off these tapes. It was a really tall order, something I could never do myself. But he has a real knack for this kind of thing. Crow is his first language, and he speaks five or seven other Native dialects. He had the ear to do that, even though he didn’t know Nez Perce specifically.

He gave such a wonderful sense of otherness. At times his dialog sounded Asiatic, and the whole made him seem so foreign to their universe.

It is a fine line, when the movie is about the projections put onto him by the immigrants. The hope is to show those projections without indulging in them at the same time. To make something about white racism without performing it. He is a tough character, because there is so little to go on. But Rod just did an amazing job of showing a human who can fulfill these symbolic and totemic needs for the story, and also maintain his own identity. It’s pretty remarkable.

Do you feel like Meek’s Cutoff and Mildred Pierce are your personal works?

I definitely feel that Meek’s is a personal work, and that it relates to other work I do. Obviously it’s a huge collaboration, but I feel a lot more of personal stake in that one. With Mildred, I feel hugely proud of the work I did with Todd, but it’s more of a collaboration between Todd and James M. Cain in my mind. Those characters and situations didn’t come from me in the same way.

When writing Meek’s, did you feel like you were restricted by the plot? Your other scripts for Reichardt, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, are much more episodic.

Meek’s was inspired by an actual event that was well documented by journals. But I was not faithful to the historical record at all. For me, once the idea of a lost wagon train with a leader who was either evil or stupid was in place, it became a fiction project more than a historical adaptation.

I actually cling to plot. It allows me to figure out pacing, and fill in the spaces between events. To me even Old Joy has a plot, just not a traditional one. But compared to Old Joy, Meek’s is a total thriller. But then, Wendy and Lucy is a thriller compared to Old Joy.

  1. http://www.kcrw.com/etc/programs/tt/tt061011todd_field []