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Meek's Cutoff poster

An interview with Meek's Cutoff screenwriter Jon Raymond


Director and writer partnerships that deliver consistent high quality work are an anomaly in filmmaking. Yet in the indie cinema world, the combination of director Kelly Reichardt and writer Jon Raymond is an exception to the rule, with their films Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy receiving critical acclaim and a loyal following.

There latest venture is Meek’s Cutoff, a slow burn western that stars Michelle Williams, and is based on the true story of a small bunch of settlers who are led down the wrong trail by famed mountain man Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwodd), way back in the Oregon High Desert of 1845.

Raymond talks to Matt’s Movie Reviews about writing Meek’s Cutoff, his working relationship with Reichardt, and his career as a screenwriter.


How did you come about this story of this Wagon trail and Stephen Meek?

Well, it’s sort of a funny story. I was hired back in 2007 during the housing boom here, to name a golf course out in eastern Oregon, which is where the Meek’s Cutoff story takes place. There was so much money swashing around in the housing market, and developers were hiring people to name their properties and give them some instant heritage.  

In doing that strange job, I ran across the story of Meek’s Cutoff, which was a pretty famous story in the famous Oregon trail although I hadn’t heard of it before. Something about it kind of rang some bells for me, and it was this idea of a group of pioneers lost in the desert, being led by a leader who may or may not know where he was going. That was the determinable thing for me.

You are from Oregon, where these events took place. When researching this movie, does that make you appreciate your hometown even more? 

Yeah! I think that’s for me part of the interest. Having grown up around here, the stories of the Oregon Trail have always been around. You start hearing about the pioneers and the covered wagons from the oxen in like third grade. So this definitely was a way to kind of talk back to that history a little bit, and also to learn more about it.

So much of that stuff is backdrop for some of the states self identity, and you kind of take it for granted in a lot of ways to. You don’t really burrow into the details, so it was really fascinating to have to go through the re-education of it, to re-learn all of the stuff you kind of forgot from grade school.


Meek's Cutoff image

"This idea of a group of people trying to decide something with a limited amount of knowledge, is something that crops up all the time in lots of different contexts." - Jon Raymond

You’ve compared Meek leading these people to nowhere with the George W. Bush administration. Could you talk about that?

Yeah...I feel like it’s something I don’t want to get too topical about in a certain way. I think that the Bush administration was definitely casting a shadow in the original conception of the film, but I think the hope as to write something that was much more broadly applicable to political life and to personal life.

This idea of a group of people trying to decide something with a limited amount of knowledge, is something that crops up all the time in lots of different contexts. Sadly it transcends the Bush moment and sort of this ever green problem that we find ourselves in. It’s been interesting to see how malleable the allegory actually is, even though it did kind of come out of that moment it just continues to mutate in different ways all over the world.

What is your opinion of Meek? Is he a legendary pioneer man, or a legendary muck up?

Oh, I would say he is definitely a muck up! (laughs) But he’s fascinating for that. For me that’s such a more interesting kind of character.

His brother Joe Meek was a very legendary mountain man. Really an almost mythological figure of the west. He hung out with Kid Carson and was one of the founders of the Rocky Mountains Fur Trapping Company, and ended up becoming one of the first Governor’s of the Oregon territory. He was a real major figure.

But I always liked how Stephen Meek was the lesser known brother of a legend, and just was never able to fill those shoes. So to me that kind of character is so much more interesting than the hero that we normally hear about. I am so much more attracted to the “muck up” than whatever else he could be.

This is the third time you have collaborated with Kelly Reichardt. Tell me about your relationship with her.

We met through our mutual friend Todd Haynes, the filmmaker. She and Todd go back a long way. They have known each other for around 20 years at least. She worked on Poison, one of his earlier films and they’ve been friends ever since.

Then I met Todd in about 2000, or so. So through him Kelly and I met, and we were friendly. I published a novel in about 2004 that Kelly liked, and she was looking to make a film soon there after, around 2005 or so. She asked if I had any smaller stories to potentially adapt, because the novel was beyond her resources at that time.

I had the story Old Joy, which incredibly she liked also and decided to adapt into a film. That experience was really fun for both of us, and we just kind of gone on from there. 


Meek's Cutoff image

"But I always liked how Stephen Meek was the lesser known brother of a legend, and just was never able to fill those shoes. I am so much more attracted to the 'muck up' than whatever else he could be." - Jon Raymond

What is your philosophy when you hand over your script? Is your job over at that point, or do you leave yourself open to more contributions?

Hmmm....well, I guess I’m open to contributions at their request (laughs). I’m totally thrilled to be included in any kind of decision, or any kinds of discussions. I’ve been really lucky to Kelly has been generous with that.

But my assumption is that now it’s leaving out of my hands, and someone else is in charge. That definitely has been the case in the actual production. I don’t have anything really to do with the shooting work. But Kelly’s been really open as far as the editing goes, and has been really inclusive in that kind of phase. So the conversation definitely continues after the shooting, but it’s definitely her thing in that point.  

You recently adapted Mildred Pierce for a TV mini-series. What are the pros and cons of working on such a mammoth project?

Yeah, it was probably like 5 hours of screen time. But to me it’s all good. To me it’s the much more natural ratio from a novel into a film.

I only actually recently watched the film version of Mildred Pierce, the Joan Crawford movie, and it was a really good movie. Actually better than I thought it would be. It had some really clever ways of compression some of the action, but the just inherently had to leave so much on the table.

It is such an interesting book, and to me the mini-series is just the much more apt way of bringing a full novel to the screen, and maintaining a lot of the subtleties and plot points that one would like to keep. It would have been easier of adapting it into a 5 hour thing than compress it down into 2 hours. I have no idea how that would have been done.  



Meek's Cutoff is currently playing in limited Australian cinemas through
Madman Entertainment.

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