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'Havana' Revisited: An American Gangster in Cuba
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.
As President Obama gently moves the U.S. toward a closer relationship to Cuba,
and the island awaits the passing of the Castro regime, you can get a vivid
picture of a very different time in the Caribbean nation from our guest, T.J.
Heâs the author of âHavana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba, Then Lost it to
the Revolution.â The book recalls the Cuba of the 1950s, when a military
dictatorship opened the nation to the American mob, which saw the island as a
safe haven for gambling and prostitution.
English describes a Havana teeming with American tourists staying in swank,
mob-owned hotels, gambling at casinos, dancing the mambo at nightclubs, and
indulging their fantasies at live sex shows and bordellos.
Castroâs guerrilla movement also lent an air of exotic danger to tourism in
Havana. But English believes American hedonism and other forms of exploitation
of Cuba provoked anti-American anger on the island, which strengthened the
revolution and eventually led to the downfall of the Batista regime.
T.J. English has written three previous books and numerous magazine pieces, as
well as episodes of âNYPD Blueâ and âHomicide.â I spoke to him last summer,
when âHavana Nocturneâ was first published. It comes out in paperback next
Well, T.J. English, welcome back to FRESH AIR. This book that youâve written
deals with a period in the â50s mostly, when the American mob had its way in
Havana, and I thought we would begin by listening to a clip from the movie âThe
Godfather II,â which focuses on this period, and this is a scene in which the
main Jewish mobster in the film, Hyman Roth, who is based on the real
historical character of Meyer Lansky, is having a birthday party on a balcony
in Havana, and heâs meeting with a whole other American mobsters who are there
and talking about their plans for the future. Letâs listen.
(Soundbite of film, âThe Godfather: Part IIâ)
Mr.Â LEE STRASBERG (Actor): (As Hyman Roth) These are wonderful things that
weâve achieved in Havana, and thereâs no limit to where we can go from here.
This kind of government knows how to help business, to encourage it.
The hotels here are bigger and swankier than any of the rub joints weâve put in
Vegas, and we can thank our friends in the Cuban government, which has put up
half of the cash, with the Teamsters, on a dollar-for-dollar basis; has relaxed
restrictions on imports. What Iâm saying is that we have now what we have
always needed: real partnership with a government.
DAVIES: Thatâs Lee Strasberg, playing Hyman Roth, the Meyer Lansky character,
in the film âGodfather II.â T.J. English, this meeting of mobsters in Havana is
actually predicated on a real event, right?
Mr.Â T.J. ENGLISH (Author): Yes, it is. That incident took place at the Hotel
Nacional in Havana in 1946. It was a gathering of the brain trust of the mob in
the United States at that time, all of them to meet in Havana to discuss the
exploitation of Cuba, establishing Cuba as a kind of criminal base, which had
been the dream of the American mob going all the way back to the 1920s.
DAVIES: Now, this plan to in effect sort of adopt Cuba as a safe haven for mob
activities, you know, took many, many years to get going, but a critical moment
was in 1952, when Batista was in effect running Cuba at the time, and he
brought Meyer Lansky back, and itâs interesting that they quickly formed this
close partnership, and the hotel and casino and nightclub scene in Havana
flourished, and the mob began making a fortune.
Tell us just a little bit about the financial relationships that made this
possible. To what extent was the mob really running Cuba, and to what extent
was the government of Cuba helping to finance the mobâs operations?
Mr.Â ENGLISH: Right. Well, there was a development institution known as Banco de
Desarrollo Economico y Social, BANDES. It was a development institution
controlled by the government that financed the building of bridges and highways
and everything else on the island.
There were also a couple of banks, Banco AtlÃ¡ntico y Banco de Creditos y
Invesiones(ph). These were banks that were controlled by the mob in Cuba so
that this tourism boom that was also part of this development of the criminal
empire was all financed by mob money.
So you would have the overflow of money from the casinos, which was phenomenal,
that would flow into the nightclubs and also flow into the financial
institutions like banks and development agencies so that the very development
of the country was being financed by the mob, by the criminal activity, and
this was really kind of unprecedented.
And they a flood of tourists, mostly from North America and from Europe, who
came to Havana, seeing it as one of the great entertainment scenes throughout
history in a way because it really was a confluence of a kind of entertainment
and a sort of slightly dangerous feel to it, particularly as the revolution
began to unfold, and we can certainly talk a bit about that.
And so really what you had is this great entertainment era of dance and music
and gambling and sex.
DAVIES: One of the slogans that Vegas uses today is what happens in Vegas stays
in Vegas, and we live in an era where thereâs so much â you know, where sex and
all kinds of hedonism is so much more a part of the culture than it was in the
1950s. Did airlines and travel agents and others talk about Havana as a place
you could really go and just let it all out?
Mr.Â ENGLISH: Oh boy, did they ever. I mean, they really â see, this is part of
what led to the revolution. There became this relationship between the criminal
elements who were promoting Havana for their own reasons and large American
corporations like Pan Am and the Hilton hotel chain, who were promoting Havana
for their reasons, and so you started to see an intersection between the
legitimate American corporate business entities and also the underworld
entities, and so Havana was heavily promoted.
You know, Havana had sort of existed in the consciousness of Americans for
quite some time, probably beginning in the 1920s through the music and through
Hollywood movies, and it had been promoted as kind of an exotic tourist
destination that was, you know, just 90 miles off the coast of the state of
Florida, and itâs just there was so much money around that the nightclubs were
able to hire these huge orchestras, and they probably wouldnât have been able
to if it had not been for the money that was generated by the casinos. And so
you had orchestras like Perez Prado, who began the mambo craze, and all of this
was really quite an extraordinary period in time for those who passed through
DAVIES: You know, sex and the sale of sex is always part of an escapist tourism
scene, and thereâs a memorable scene in âThe Godfather IIâ where the gang goes
to a really, well, exotic sex club and sees a guy with a really exotic sex act.
How kinky was the scene in Havana back then?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr.Â ENGLISH: Well, that scene in âThe Godfather,â where they go to the theater,
that is based on an actual theater, the Shanghai Theater, which was located in
Havanaâs Chinatown, and it was an old Chinese theater that had been converted
into a kind of live sex emporium that was pretty kinky, I think about as kinky
as you can get, although it also had a theatrical nature to it.
You know, this just wasnât a strip club. It was a club where you would go where
they would actually do kind of comical skits often, little theater pieces that
were bawdy and usually ended with outright nudity if not actual live sex acts
being performed on the stage.
I mean, a lot of the tourists who passed through Havana in the 1950s wanted to
go to the Shanghai because it was notorious at the time. There was a performer
there who went by the name of Superman, who was famous for his â the size of
his appendage, and thatâs also portrayed in the movie âThe Godfather II.â
And so stemming from that, you just had a lot of sex going on in Havana,
ranging from just kind of tourists on the loose in an exotic foreign land,
sexual tourism, but you also had prostitution, and you had sex performances.
Along with the Shanghai Theater, they had private shows. You could go to a home
in a kind of nice, discrete neighborhood in the city, and there in that home
would be a kind of sex parlor, which you could view and perhaps even take part
in. And so it was kind of a multi-leveled sexual marketplace that contributed
to what was viewed as the allure of this whole entertainment era.
DAVIES: Tell us about American celebrities going to Havana. Sinatra, I mean, he
was known for having friends in the mob. John F. Kennedy made it down there.
Tell us about some of the, you know, better-known excursions by American
celebrities to Havana.
Mr.Â ENGLISH: Right, well that was also part of what would become the reputation
of Havana in the â50s, was that it became this scene that drew a lot of
celebrities there, and so you got celebrities like Marlon Brando, who came to
Havana in the 1950s. He was drawn by the music and the women. Brando was a
conga player, a bongo player, percussionist, amateur percussionist, and was
down there to buy a drum, a conga drum, and also to take part in the music and
Errol Flynn, the actor Errol Flynn was quite prominent there in the 1950s. Of
course, Hemingway had been coming to Cuba since the 1930s and actually lived
there in the 1950s, and so he was kind of a local mascot during this period of
The casinos often hired celebrities. The Capri Hotel hired the actor George
Raft, who was kind of near the end of his career by that time, but he was
famous for portraying mobsters and gangsters throughout the â20s, â30s and â40s
in many, many movies, and they hired him as kind of meeter and greeter at the
casino at the Capri. He became another kind of mascot of the era.
Yeah, that was a big part of it, the draw of the celebrities, partly the
underworld allure, the connections to gangsters. That was certainly the case
with Sinatra, who had many mobster friends. And keep in mind, gambling was
legal in Havana, and so you could go to the casinos and hang out with known
mobsters, and since you were outside the United States, it really wasnât going
to cause you any problems with the law.
DAVIES: Our guest is T.J. English. His newest book is âHavana Nocturne: How the
Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost it to the Revolution.â Weâll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If youâre just joining us, our guest is writer T.J. English. Heâs
written a book about mobsters in Cuba in the 1950s. Itâs called âHavana
While the mob is having its fun in Havana and making a fortune, and tourists
are streaming in, and this hedonistic nightclub culture flourishes, a guerrilla
movement grows in the eastern part of the island, led by Fidel Castro, the son
of a landlord, who was a student and intellectual, and we donât really have
time, I guess, to describe how the revolution develops.
You describe it - really one big improvisation, a whole series of disasters
that befall it, but eventually it takes hold and begins to get more support and
become a real threatening force in the late â50s.
To what extent did the mob scene and the nightclub and casino scene in Havana
fuel the revolution? To what extent was resentment at that form of American
exploitation, if we want to call it that, a driving force for the revolution?
Mr.Â ENGLISH: Yes, I think â to me this is the most important point of the book
because here are these events, this exploitation of Havana, and the revolution
sort of â they were unfolding at the same time. So of course they had to have
had some sort of relationship, and I think what it was is the exploitation of
Havana, the plundering of Havana economically and turning it into a kind of a
bordello, was a symbol to the revolution of the capitalist exploitation that
was taking place through the Batista regime.
Castro and the revolution saw the mob and the capitalists who are operating in
Havana kind of as all one entity, and so what was taking place in Havana really
became a symbolic motivation for the revolution, a driving motivation for the
revolution in a way.
DAVIES: Yeah, and as you said earlier, the fact that the rebels were making
some progress, and there were acts of sabotage, made the Havana scene all seem
that much more dangerous. This, of course, comes to a climax on New Yearâs Eve
1958, December 31, 1958, and it was known that the rebels had made progress and
were getting closer to Havana.
Did the fact that there was some sense that â and Batista was seen as perhaps
being increasingly isolated and on his last legs - did any of that prevent the
nightclubs from holding big New Yearâs Eve celebrations? Did they have any
sense of how close the revolution was to taking over?
Mr.Â ENGLISH: No, I think it just added to the excitement of the nightlife scene
in Cuba at the time. See, the revolution was unfolding on the island mostly
outside of Havana, and Havana was kind of this little dream world where all
this kind of money was flowing, and people were dancing and drinking and
fornicating into the tropical night, and so they didnât really pay much
attention to what was happening around the rest of the island. And since
Batista controlled the media on the island, there was propaganda that led
people to believe that Batista had things under control and everything was
There were intimations of it because, like you say, there was occasional acts
of sabotage, bombs that would go off in the city of Havana. Even in the
Tropicana nightclub a bomb was set off, but this only added to the excitement,
in a way. And so you kind of have a frenzy, a peaking as the revolution. As
rumor of the revolution grows and grows, the excitement of the nightlife scene
in Havana at the time only became more heated and exciting.
DAVIES: So New Yearâs Eve, people are partying the night away, and then
somewhere in the middle of the night Batista quietly resigns and leaves the
island with zillions of dollars, and whatâs fascinating is you describe how
Meyer Lansky, I mean the American mobster who is in many respects the architect
of all of this, learns of the events. Tell us about what he heard and what he
Mr.Â ENGLISH: Yeah, well, I had a great source on this. I had a number of good
sources on this, but the best source, I dedicated the book to a man by the name
of Armando Jaime Casielles, who was Lanskyâs driver and bodyguard and valet
during the last two years of this period, â57-â58 on in to â59, and he had
become quite close to Lansky and was with Lansky that night, and Lansky, he
caught wind of it.
The revolution, at that time, was coming very close to Cuba. They were in the
city of Las Villas(ph). Che Guevara led a column of soldiers that had taken the
city of Villas. So everyone knew that the revolution was approaching, and
Lansky actually got word that the city of Las Villas had fell and that Batista
had fled the country. Batista had loaded up a lot of cash and, without telling
the mobsters or anyone else, he got on an airplane and left the country right
after midnight on January 1st, 1959.
And so Lansky is given this information discretely, before anyone else really
knows it, when heâs at this restaurant, and he immediately kicks into action.
And his first concern, of course, and it makes perfect sense, is get the money,
get the money.
He tells Armando Jaime Casielles weâve got to make the rounds to all the
casinos. Weâve got to make sure the counting rooms are secure, that the money
is secure. You know, the island is going to fall. It could get violent. It
could get heated, and we have to protect our assets. So there was a frenzied
night and into the early morning of Lansky and his driver-bodyguard driving
around to the different casino hotels and trying to make sure that the cash was
secured so that if they needed to get it off the island, they would at least
have it all gathered and ready to go.
DAVIES: Now, Lansky gets word before the populous does, but as heâs proceeding
through, trying to secure these enormous amounts of cash that the casinos have
generated, word begins to leak out of Batistaâs departure. How do the citizens
of Havana react?
Mr.Â ENGLISH: Well, there was â it took a while because no one quite believed it
when they first started to hear it, and the word spread through Havana, through
the streets of Havana, and people were kind of stunned by it. It wasnât the
kind of thing that would make its way into the media because the government
controlled the media, and so it was just wild rumor for a while. But as time
went on, and people got a sense of what was happening, they started to gather
in the streets.
It became a kind of a combination celebration and riot all rolled into one, and
one of the most telling things about it was by the early morning, huge mobs of
people started to flow through the streets of Havana making music and cheering
revolutionary slogans. One of the first things they did was target the casinos.
They went into a number of the casinos and trashed the casinos and dragged the
gambling equipment out into the streets and set it on fire.
So this was a really clear example of the degree to which the casinos and the
gambling and the whole presence of the mob in Havana had become a source of
resentment, anger and even revolutionary fervor that eventually boiled over on
the morning of January 1, 1959.
DAVIES: And the actor George Raft was doing his usual business, greeting people
at â was it the Capri Casino?
Mr.Â ENGLISH: Yes, it was.
DAVIES: And what happened?
Mr.Â ENGLISH: The people and the revolutionary guard stormed into the casino at
the time when he was there. He was determined to save the place. And so he
tells the story - there are other eyewitness accounts of this story. His
version of it from his biography is, of course, the most flattering to him of
how he stood up to the revolutionaries, and one of the lead revolutionaries who
was there to trash the casino looked at him and said to the others, she said,
Thatâs George Raft, the actor.
So they all kind of stopped, a recognizable face, and he said to them Look, you
know, take what you want, but thereâs no need to trash the casinos, and so the
legend is that he kind of talked them down and saved the Capri Hotel casino
from being trashed.
DAVIES: T.J. English, recorded last year. Heâll be back in the second half of
the show. His book, âHavana Nocturne,â comes out in paperback next week. Iâm
Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Dave Davies sitting in for Terry Gross.
Our guest is T.J. English. His book, "Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba
Then Lost It to the Revolution," comes out in paperback next week. It describes
the Cuba of the 1950s, when American mobsters ran hotels, nightclubs and
casinos in Havana, while Fidel Castro's, guerrillas were gaining support in the
When we left off, English was describing New Years Eve, 1958, when the island's
dictator, Fulgencio Batista had fled the country and the legendary mobster,
Meyer Lansky went around Havana trying to secure cash from hotels and casinos.
DAVIES: If you look at the position of someone like Lansky, I mean back then it
wasn't so clear exactly what kind of government Fidel Castro would set up. And
if you're Meyer Lansky you've put, I guess tens or hundreds of millions in
investment into this place. It's making a fortune, and you figure that this new
government is not going to want to give up all that cash, all that foreign
exchange, so you might be able to deal with him. On the other hand, they might
shoot you. What did Lansky decide to do?
Mr. T.J. ENGLISH (Author of Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Lost It
to the Revolution"): Yes this was the most fascinating phase of the story to
me. What did the mob do after Havana fell, after Castro came into Havana, which
he did, on January he 8th he finally arrived in the city. And so now the
Revolution has taken over and the mob is caught in this in-between phase of
trying to see if they can salvage whatever they can salvage, or are they just
going to have lose everything and leave the island. And Lansky and also one of
his primary, his primary partner in the Havana mob was a Mafiosi by the name of
Santo Trafficante Jr. from Tampa, Florida. These two men kind of were the
controlling gambling impresarios on the island.
And both of them maybe were in a denial to an extent. They - Trafficante in
particular, believed that this was all just going to blow over and that Castro
would be no different than all the other people who had run Cuba over many
decades, that they would need the gambling money. That the money generated by
the casinos and the nightclubs really was what was keeping the island afloat,
and that they wouldn't be able to cut that off or the economy would collapse.
And so the mobsters, Lansky and Trafficante placed a lot of faith in this
belief and started a process of negotiating with the revolutionary government
over the course of a few weeks and months on into the middle of 1959.
And it just started to become apparent to them that this was something
different, that Castro government was not just another government taking over
in Cuba, that is was a true Revolution and that, you know - the last straw was
that the revolutionary guard wanted to have rebels in the counting rooms in the
casino to monitor the money as it came into the casino, because they knew the
gangsters were skimming, you know, skimming money from the casino when it went
directly into their bank accounts. And so the Castro government, if they were
going to allow the casinos to operate, they were going to make sure that they
got their piece of the pie.
And that's when the mob decided this was an untenable situation. There's no way
we would be able to exist with this government. That was made emphatically
clear in early 1961 when the Castro government finally took over ownership of
all American businesses on the island. Not only the casinos, but the holdings
of Shell Oil Company and the Hilton Hotel Company, and all the major American
corporations that had flourished and benefitted from this mobster exploitation
of Cuba throughout the 1950s.
DAVIES: You traveled to Cuba to research this book.
Mr. ENGLISH: Yes.
DAVIES: To what extent is this period of underworld domination, you know now
decades ago, still a part of the Cuban popular or national consciousness?
Mr. ENGLISH: Well I think it's the Rosetta Stone. It's the most important thing
to know to understand the Revolution, and why it happened, and also the
relationship between Cuba and the United States that has existed since 1959 -
the animosity, the deep resentment, and hatred. A lot of it has to do with the
capitalist exploitation of Havana that took place in the 1950s - the belief
that the gangsters, the organized crime figures, and the heads of the so-called
legitimate American corporations, and American politicians were all kind of in
it together. And this has been used over the many decades, by Castro and others
within the Revolution, as a kind of a call to arms, a reason why we could never
trust the United States government because of its criminal connections and
And in modern day Havana, today, you still see the remnants of this era through
the - the casinos are all gone, but many of the hotels are still there: The
Nacional, The Hotel Riviera, which was Lansky's baby, and a few others. And
this era in general still exists in Havana. You know, Havana kind of froze in
1959. So anyone whoâs been there knows this kind of surreal atmosphere of
American cars from the 1940s and 50s, the architecture which really hasn't
changed much. It's all still there. It's crumbling and broken down, but itâs
still very much a visible presence in Havana when you are there. So in terms of
research, it was very easy to recapture the spirit and atmosphere of this time
just by walking the streets of Havana.
DAVIES: Well T.J. English, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. ENGLISH: It's my pleasure.
DAVIES: T.J. English recorded last year. His book, "Havana Nocturne: How the
Mob Owned Cuba Then Lost It to the Revolution," comes in out paperback next
While PÃ©rez Prado was playing in the mob-owned hotels in Havana, Louis Prima
was tearing it up in Vegas, often backed up by tenor saxophonist, Sam Butera.
Butera died on Wednesday in Las Vegas. He was 81. Here's Prima and Butera
recorded live in the Painted Desert Room of the Wilber Clarks Desert Inn Hotel.
Mr. LOUIS PRIMA (Singer, musician): Nobody move. I don't know where I'm going.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) It happened in Monterey, a long time ago. It happened in
Monterey, in ol' Mexico. And there were stars and steel guitars and luscious
lips as red as wine. Stole somebody's heart and I'm afraid that it was mine. It
happened in Monterey, without thinkin' twice. You kissed me and gave me the key
to paradise. Oh, oh, my indiscreet heart do and youâre the sweetheart that I
left in ol' Monterey.
(Soundbite of saxophonist Sam Butera)
DAVIES: Coming up, the director of the Indie film, "Wendy And Lucy," which made
a lot of critics top 10 list last year. This is FRESH AIR.
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A Girl's Best Friend: Reichardt on 'Wendy and Lucy'
DAVE DAVIES, host:
The Independent film Wendy And Lucy, which won critical praise and the Best
Picture Award from the Toronto Film Critics Association, is now out on DVD. It
was directed and co-written by my guest, Kelly Reichardt. The film centers on
misfortunes that befall a woman traveling with her dog to find work in Alaska.
Wendy is played by Michelle Williams, who earned an Oscar nomination for her
role in "Brokeback Mountain." Her dog Lucy is Reichard's own endearing mutt.
Kelly Reichardt teaches film and electronic arts at Bard College, and has
directed six previous films, including "River of Grass," and "Old Joy." In this
scene from "Wendy And Lucy," Wendy talks with a supermarket security guard
played by Wally Dalton.
Ms. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (as Wendy): How late are you here tonight?
Mr. WALLY DALTON: (as security guard): Eight o'clock. Eight to eight.
Ms. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (as Wendy): Okay.
Mr. WALLY DALTON: (as security guard): Better than my last job. I'll tell you
that. That was all night every night.
Ms. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (as Wendy): Not a lot of jobs around here, huh?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WALLY DALTON: (as security guard): I'll say. I donât know what the people
do all day. Used to be a mill, but been closed a long time now. Don't know what
Ms. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (as Wendy): I can't get a job without an address anyway.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (as Wendy): Or a phone.
Mr. WALLY DALTON: (as security guard): You can't get a address without an
address. You can't get a job without a job. It's all fixed.
Ms. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (as Wendy): That's why I'm going to Alaska, âhear they
Mr. WALLY DALTON: (as security guard): I hear itâs real pretty up there.
Ms. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (as Wendy): Yeah.
DAVIES: Well, Kelly Reichardt, welcome to FRESH AIR.
In this film, "Wendy And Lucy," you - we follow this woman Wendy, played by
Michelle Williams who is traveling alone, well, with her dog, Lucy, and runs
into a rough patch. She's headed to Alaska, and the car breaks in a town in
Oregon. You know the interesting thing about the film is that we don't learn
very much about Wendy's life and history, how she came to be in this
predicament. And I wonder in order to direct Michelle Williams in the role, did
there need to be a back story in your head? I mean did you have a fuller
biography of Wendy that you shared with Michelle Williams?
Ms. KELLY REICHARDT (Director of movie "Wendy And Lucy"): She did want a fuller
biography. And the screenplay came from a short story by John Raymond. And the
short story was called "Train Choir." And the "Train Choir" had a bit more
background in it also. And so we used that and we sort of filled in the blanks
ourselves, Michelle and I, so that she would have something to work with. But
the idea in the film for me was that I wanted the audience to experience her
like a stranger, the way the people she comes across in the film experience
her. So that you - you know you sort of have to make this judgment call without
having a lot of facts about her. You know, is she worthy of your sympathy just
based on what you know or what you don't know?
Ms. REICHARDT: Sort of what, I guess in a way that you know if you live in New
York City the way you maybe experience someone on a subway train asking for
help or something like that. Where, you know you check them out and you make
quick decisions based on really superficial things. What kind of sneakers are
you wearing? Are you really in need? Are you in need enough?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. REICHARDT: Whatever your thought process is in that moment.
DAVIES: She's also making judgments every moment herself, because she's on her
own and has to decide how much she can trust people.
Ms. REICHARDT: Yes. And she makes some bad decisions, as people do. You know
that I guess the whole story sort of came about in just post-Katrina. And where
there seemed to be more than ever this sentiment of you know, people shouldnât
let their lives get quite so precarious, and you know, they wouldnât find
themselves in this situation. And so as the sort of gap between the rich and
the poor was becoming wider and the you know during the Bush years, I think you
know John Raymond and I were just asking ourselves when we were coming up with
an idea for the story, just is it really possible to pull yourself up from your
bootstraps in America if you don't have the benefit of health insurance,
education, a financial net, a family net? Can you just, is all you need is the
gumption and an idea to get out and do something differently to better your
circumstances? Is that really enough? And so that's sort of was the nugget that
we started with.
DAVIES: There's a scene early in the film where Wendy meets up around a
campfire with a group of people that are just traveling, living on the margin,
gutter punks I think was the phrase you used?
Ms. REICHARDT: That is the phrase. Theyâre kids, there's quite a huge network
of young people living off the grid. And these kids, they're homeless, and they
travel all over the country, and they travel by trains. And they, it's
dangerous post-9-11 to be hopping trains, but they do it. And I think Portland,
where we were, is a place where maybe you - there's a community there and you
maybe stop there for a while and you know, lick your wounds before setting back
But we had a local casting man in Portland named Simon Max Hill, who really
just made the scene with these kids and brought them in so I could meet them.
And you know itâs forever evolving and changing because they're in motion and
they don't stick around for long. So he actually had a few kids living at his
house near the end just to keep them in town.
DAVIES: Well just to be clear, these were not actors in other words.
Ms. REICHARDT: No they're not actors. They're just kids living in various
places and traveling around on trains. Mostly outdoor places where they're
living. But there were a few experiences that really gave me a lot of character
information, not even just location information...
DAVIES: Experiences that you had while you were scouting?
Ms. REICHARDT: While I was on the road.
Ms. REICHARDT: One experience that was really particularly stands out is
driving in Texas on Route 10, I was driving behind a van that had a blowout and
went into the ditch in front of me. And I pulled over to see. It was a woman
and she was in her mid 40s and she was in her socks, no shoes. She was a
Mexican woman and I asked her if she had, you know, AAA and she said no. And I
asked her if she had a spare tire and she said, that tire was my spare tire,
the one that just blew out. And she said, before I bought this Pepsi, I had
$20. And so I ended up spending the day with this woman, driving her to try to
find a mechanic, which we were in the middle of nowhere.
And then, you know, getting a jack from a trucker and driving all the way back
around to where our cars were and really experiencing I think a lot of what the
security guard in the movie experiences, just questioning, you know: how deep
do I want to get in to this? How can I get out of it if I want to? Whatâs my
obligation to her? Whatâs the right amount to give? All these sort of
questions. And also the woman herself just made such a huge impression on me.
She was completely, obviously used to things going wrong.
She at no point got panicked over her situation. She really seemed to just look
at it like, Iâll take - Iâll go as far with her as I can and Iâll â you know,
almost like she was looking at it to do list of exactly what was in front of
her but not the big picture of her situation. And it was - you know, I was
guessing that it was a management kind of thing that she was doing and I really
did apply that to Wendy.
DAVIES: Thereâs also this interesting phenomena of, you know, Michelle Williams
who then was, you know, one of the â one of a pretty recognizable Hollywood
star. I assume traveling around pretty anonymously with this small film
shooting crew and, you know, this is - of course, this was made before Heath
Ledger died, right. But she had been in this relationship with him and that had
gotten her all kinds of publicity and attention, probably a lot of it
unwelcome. I wonder what the experience was like for her to sort of play this
Ms. REICHARDT: She had always said that one thing that attracted her to the
character is that she felt Wendy really feels invisible in the world. And she
really wondered what that would be like. And so, you know, when she came to
Portland because we donât have, you know, weâre just so small. Weâre a group of
cars on the side of the road. Weâre not â we donât have trailers and tents and
all that sort of apparatus. She â I never saw Michelle get recognized while we
were there. And I think it had to do with - you know, sheâd just be sitting on
the curb not looking like a movie star. And I really do think that she got to
have that experience.
DAVIES: Film director Kelly Reichardt, more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
Our guest is Kelly Reichardt. Her film âWendy and Lucyâ is now out on DVD. We
should talk a little bit about âOld Joy,â your film you made in 2006. This is -
two guys in their 30s. Mark, whoâs played by Daniel London, is married and
about to be a father. And he gets a call from his old friend Kurt, played by
Will Oldham, the singer/songwriter, who is a sort of more - I guess more of a
counterculture free spirit. And he invites his old buddy to get together and go
visit a hot springs. I thought that weâd listen to just a bit of dialogue from
Ms. REICHARDT: Sure.
DAVIES: This is a scene where theyâre just heading out of town. They are not in
the country yet. And letâs just â letâs give a listen.
(Soundbite of movie, âOld Joyâ)
Mr. WILL OLDHAM (Actor): (As Kurt) Man, Mark, you really hold on to (beep), not
that I should talk. Iâve got â I still got crates of records in the garage
(unintelligible) stuff I havenât even listened to in 10 years. Iâm gonna have
to take the whole load down to Sidâs, Iâm thinking, see what I can get for it.
Mr. DANIEL LONDON (Actor): (As Mark) Sidâs is gone, man.
Mr. OLDHAM: (As Kurt) No way.
Mr. LONDON: (As Mark) The rent got to be too heavy. Now itâs a smoothie place,
Mr. OLDHAM: (As Kurt) Oh, no.
Mr. LONDON: (As Mark) Yeah, Sid sells on Ebay now.
Mr. OLDHAM: (As Kurt) Oh, that makes sense. I should be doing that.
Mr. LONDON: (As Mark) Tanya went by on the last day, said the only records left
in the bins were our friends.
Mr. OLDHAM: (As Kurt) No more Sid. End of an era.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: And thatâs from the film âOld Joy,â directed by my guest Kelly
Reichardt. Couple of guys confronting change in their lives here, right?
Ms. REICHARDT: I know, Will is doing that whole scene without exhaling a bunch
of pot smoke.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: Right. He keeps lighting the little pot in his hands. Yeah. Yeah. There
are a lot of things going here. And it kind of reminded me of being in my 30âs
and getting together with people I had known in college and just after college
and discovered that we kind of wanted to be the same bunch of guys with each
other but couldnât quite.
Ms. REICHARDT: Right. And I think that film - thatâs really what the film is
about. And I think itâs also - for us it was about I think the loss of
liberalism in America on some level. Jon Raymond had written that story before
we even thought about making a film. It had come out in a book of photographs
by Justine Kurland. And then when we were turning it into a script â in the
original story Mark wasnât married. Their lives were a little bit closer
together. And I ended up making Mark a married guy and on the brink of
But it was â we were making that film right before the re-election of Bush and
I guess had made the film by the time he did get reelected. And there really
was this overwhelming feeling of like, where do people like Kurt go? You know,
are they allowed to â is there room for them in the country anymore?
DAVIES: Kurt is the guy just sort of - has hung on to a counter-cultural
lifestyle, sort of, yeah.
Ms. REICHARDT: Right, he is a roamer and he doesnât really fit easily in to,
you know, buying a house, raising a family and, you know, following that path.
And so, I donât know, I guess with both films I think that theyâre really small
stories about, you know, in the case of âOld Joyâ about friendship and how time
changes that. And how being a person thatâs sort of unhinged to anything in
your 20âs has sort of romance to it. And what a fine line it is that, you know,
you get to a certain age and that person is just, you know, a mess.
DAVIES: Right, right.
Ms. REICHARDT: â¦their lifestyle makes them, you know, that line of when youâre
a partier and then suddenly youâre an alcoholic.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. REICHARDT: You know, and that sort of kind of what happens - seems to
happen in your 30âs, you know, where, you know, even your, you know, free-
wheeling friends suddenly feel you should get with the program.
DAVIES: Right, right.
Ms. REICHARDT: And, you know, and I had, after making my first feature, âRiver
of Grass,â I had lived around New York for five years without an apartment,
just crashing at other peopleâs houses trying to get another film made and, you
know, living out of a duffel bag. And, you know, so I could relate to Kurt and
I can also say that Kurt, the Kurt character, you know, asked too much of his
friends and that his freedom becomes a big burden for everybody else. And, it
was that film was just a real joy of a project. It was a six-person crew and we
really just went into the woods to make an art project and, you know, six crew
people, two actors and a dog. It was just - felt like an experiment and it was
very, really gratifying and challenging.
DAVIES: I wanted to ask you one question about your background. I read you grew
up in South Florida, and your dad was a crime scene investigator, is that
Ms. REICHARDT: Right, he was a crime scene detective and my mother was a
DAVIES: Do you think that you could - your films have - you have such an eye
for visual detail. Do you think you picked anything up from your dadâs sort of
craft of looking for clues at the scene of crime?
Ms. REICHARDT: I do think so. I mean, I became really interested in photography
in the summer of 5th grade. And my mom used to take us camping every summer,
weâd go from like, Miami to Montana. And I started taking my dadâs camera with
me. And all those crime scene photos were a big influence. Everything is, you
know, itâs super wide photography. And then you, and you have these - the
detail shots which are, you know, the fingernail in the carpet sort of shots
that are the side photos at the detail photos. But by and large, itâs a really
low to the ground, wide-angle approach and my first photographs were all like
DAVIES: Did you see your dadâs crime scene photographs in the house or in the
Ms. REICHARDT: Yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. REICHARDT: In the house and in his office. When my - actually when my
parents got divorced, my father moved into a house with five detectives who had
all gotten divorced at the same time. And, you know, we used to go to his
office and there are a lots of crime scene photos about, big and blown up and
they had notebooks of them.
DAVIES: That sounds like a movie to me, boy. This little kidâ¦
Ms. REICHARDT: Thatâs, you knowâ¦
DAVIES: â¦a bunch of detectives.
Ms. REICHARDT: â¦thatâs the movie that never got made. But itâs all fine. Other
people have made it much, probably better than I could have. But that, my first
film, âRiver of Grass,â my dad and his crime scene buddies actually, you know,
we built a crime scene room to imitate their â the office they had when I was a
kid. And they worked with the production designer Dave Doernberg who was on
that film and those guys all came down and brought all these photos and
recreated their own office for the movie, which was kind of a kick.
DAVIES: Wow. Well, Kelly Reichardt, congratulations on the film and we wish you
more opportunities to do that kind of filmmaking you want to do. Thanks for
speaking with us.
Ms. REICHARDT: Thanks for having me.
DAVIES: Kelly Reichardtâs film âWendy and Lucyâ is now out on DVD. You can
download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. For Terry Gross, Iâm Dave
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