North Miami-born-and-raised writer/director Kelly Reichardt is a well-respected indie filmmaker. More than 20 years after she debuted her first film at Sundance Film Festival in 1994, River of Grass has been restored and re-released. For three nights only, it will screen at the Miami Beach Cinematheque beginning Wednesday, April 20.
The director admits it feels "strange" to have her first film out there again. She is quick to acknowledge the film distribution company Oscilloscope, actor Larry Fessenden, and her producers for putting in the time and effort — including creating a Kickstarter campaign — to restore the movie.
"It was all happening while I was making my new film [Certain Women]," she says of the restoration while on the phone from her current home in New York. "So I was outside the loop and didn't really realize until I came up for air how much had gone into it. There had always been a certain kind of comfort in that it was not ever going to be seen again,” she says with a laugh.
The film follows disaffected, suburban Miami-Dade housewife Cozy (played by actress Lisa Bowman), who crosses over the county line for a drink at a dive bar in Broward. She meets Lee (Fessenden), whose mom just kicked him out of the house. He buys her a beer, and off they go on an escapade that involves some breaking-and-entering and gunfire that possibly kills someone (they don’t stick around to find out).
To fund their life on the lam, Lee steals his mother’s record collection and tries to hawk it at record stores. One of them — Blue Note Records in North Miami — will be familiar to many South Florida music buffs. The store’s owner, Bob Perry, even plays himself in the movie. “Oh, wow! I forgot that name: Bob Perry,” Reichardt declares.
Perry now sells records online after having to shutter the store in 2011, but he remembers Reichardt coming into his shop and hanging out. “She asked if it would be OK to film a few scenes,” he recalls. “Of course I said yes. Then, the next time she came in, she asked me if I would like to be in it, playing a store clerk — not too much of a stretch... We shot the scene in two takes and never closed the store. There were customers milling about, and to me, it was just another day at Blue Note with Dexter Gordon in the background.”
Reichardt chose her locations because she was familiar with them. "I just sort of started at my dad's house and circled out in the neighborhoods I knew... and I knew the Blue Note, for sure, so I was trying to keep it to what was familiar to me at the time... That was the idea: Shoot what you know, so those were the streets I knew and the places I knew."
The Swifty Coin Laundry on West Dixie Highway in North Miami still looks about the same as it appears in the movie, but many of the film's other locations — like Blue Note — are gone. Kids playing with fireworks burned down the Bottle Cap Inn in 2012, and Reichardt was there to film the final days of the Royal Court Motel on Biscayne Boulevard. "They were tearing [the motel] down before we even finished our shoot, so I remember one of the things that we wanted to get that we didn't get was the demolishing of it."
Before shooting River of Grass, Reichardt had already settled in New York and was working with leading peers in the indie film scene, including Todd Haynes and Hal Hartley. She soon got the bug to shoot her own movie. “I think, like a lot of young people, you saw [American filmmaker Jim] Jarmusch’s early films and you thought, OK, maybe I can do this,” she says.
Two short films followed this debut feature, which was originally distributed in the U.S. by Strand Releasing in 1995. But not until 2006 would she release another feature, Old Joy, which revealed a new, lower-key tone for the director, featuring characters with intense inner conflicts. Her 2008 film Wendy and Lucy, starring Michelle Williams, garnered high praise when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and 2010’s Meek’s Cutoff (also featuring Williams) won the SIGNIS Award and was nominated for a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
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Reichardt recently premiered her latest film, Certain Women, at Sundance, where it was picked up by IFC for U.S. distribution and Sony for worldwide release. It reunites her with Williams and also features Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart. The director has done well for herself and grown much since she made River of Grass.
She expresses a sort of mixed nostalgia of the restoration of her first film, finally admitting the best part about it may be its documentation of a North Miami that no longer exists.
“Larry Fessenden and I did a commentary on the DVD,” she says, “and we watched it without sound, and I still haven't seen it with sound, but it did seem like such a lifetime ago. We had such bad memories. We were like those two old Muppet guys in the balcony: ‘What did we do? We did what?’ And I think there are still parts of Miami that probably don't exist anymore, so that part of it is interesting.”
River of Grass
Screening at 7 p.m. this Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Tickets cost $11. Visit mbcinema.com. The screenings are part of the Tigertail "Water" series. More info on that is available at Tigertail.org.