Kelly Reichardt makes small, focused movies about great big stories. Wendy And Lucy used a young drifter’s separation from her dog to take the pulse of a nation teetering on the edge of economic collapse. Meek’s Cutoff turned a tale of 19th-century pioneers lost in the Oregon territory into a disturbing allegory for America’s involvement in Iraq. 

Reichardt’s new film, Night Moves, is a drama about three ecological activists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard) plotting to blow up a dam in rural Oregon. It’s also about the way well-meaning people can convince themselves to do terrible things – and how far some true believers will go in the name of a greater good. We talked about contrasts, environmental activism and that time one of her stars nearly wrecked her location with a construction project.

Night Moves feels like a total reversal from Meek’s Cutoff – going from this brightly lit period drama to a dark, furtive thriller set very much in the present day. Was that a deliberate calculation on your part, or just where the next story took you?

You mean, like, after making a film where there’s no water, then making a movie in a dam? [laughter] No, it really is just where the story took us. 

Besides the dam, your other principal location is an organic farm, a contrast to the bleak badlands of Meek’s Cutoff.

[Co-writer] John Raymond and his partner went to college with the woman who owns the farm. John and his family visit there often and, when John got interested in the local politics, he started bringing me down there. It was a world we were interested in, and it kind of sprung from that.

In the movie, the people who work on the farm moonlight as eco terrorists, but I’m assuming that was just dramatic license.

Well, you know, everyone’s made up. [laughter] Everyone is a sort of salad. All the characters are drawn from people – you take things from here and there. But no, no one’s like a prototype of the people who actually live on the farm, though we sometimes used them in the background. We just invaded their space and their vegetable patch.

So did you encounter any sort of real-life civil disobedience or activism in your research that informed Night Moves?

Not really. I mean, ideas and conversations, sure. There are a couple of farms in the movie. There’s also a goat farm, and we were spending time in all those places. There was someone associated with the farm who had burned his cheese license, and that worked its way into the script.

Your characters express their environmental activism by planning to bomb a dam. Does happen a lot in the U.S.?

Well, it’s kind of died down a little bit here since 9/11 – everything’s seen as terrorism, so the penalties are so gigantic. The Occupy movement in Seattle was very much based around dams. Even the New York Times had an op-ed piece, Let’s Reconsider Dams. I think that conversation, especially with all the drought down in California, will stay in the forefront for a while. 

You go to the East Coast after you show the movie there and people ask, “Why are you so mad at the dams?” It’s just not on their radar. But on the West Coast, dams are the conversation. There must be things afoot in Canada too, though, right?

Mostly pipeline stuff – and not sabotage as much as protests and legal challenges. And there’s been some push-back against the fracking movement out in British Columbia.

Fracking’s huge here. When I drive up from New York to Oregon each year, I don’t even bother going through North Dakota any more. Fracking is so intense there that you gotta take a different route.

In Meek’s Cutoff, you sent the actors to pioneer boot camp, getting them comfortable with period wardrobe and equipment. Night Moves takes place in the here and now. Was there an activism boot camp?

Not a boot camp, though Jesse [Eisenberg] kinda put himself through one. He came down early and worked on the farm. Those yurts are for people who work on the farm. You can’t just go there and read a book – they put him to work the second he got there. 

What did they have him do?

He took part in building a gigantic greenhouse. I had gone out to the farm a year earlier to work out all my shots, being completely naïve to crop rotation, and so when I went back none of my shots made any sense and I had to rework them all again. I went back [a week later] and Jesse and those guys had built a giant airplane-hangar-sized greenhouse right in the middle. And it was white and horrible to my eye. And he was so proud of it. I was, like, “Oh my god, what have you done? I’m getting you off this farm!” [laughter] But yeah, the farmers became super-attached to him, actually. 

Did that happen with everyone?

It was a weird thing. At first we were just worried about invading their space and their privacy. All the actors who were playing the [visiting] interns were romanticizing that they should give up acting and live on the farm. One of the farmers was ready to jump in the truck with us and join the crew – you know, “The farm’s too isolated!” Everyone was having sort of a reverse romanticism with film work versus farm work.

What’s it like to make a movie on a working farm?

We really did have to be in sync with the farmers. We’d be planning to shoot a scene and see the farmer going out with his cutters to take down a patch of cabbage. It was a constant renegotiation: “If we can shoot here, we’ll help you box vegetables for the next two hours, or help you cut this field.” The worlds collided much more than either of us ever imagined. At first, a lot of the farming interns who worked on the farm were confused and suspicious of us – not wanting their scene to be intruded upon – but there was, in the end, a mutual respect for intensely hard work that starts really early in the morning and goes really late at night. 

What were the conditions?

No one has to act wet or cold in our movies. We just made sure that happened for them. [laughter] Alia [Shawkat] and Logan [Miller] arrived the night Dakota [Fanning] left. We were eating outside in a tent and it was three in the morning. It was so cold, and I was looking forward to a meal so I could get warm. I didn’t realize we would be eating outside. 

All of a sudden these beautiful clean people showed up and I was, like, “Are they investors? Who are these people? They’re so clean!” We were all so filthy and the farmers, who were being our extras, were all so filthy. And then I was, like, “Oh yeah, these are the actors for the next part of the film.” I couldn’t even recognize them in my haze. I was like, “God, they look so beautiful and rested and clean.” 

Did it take long to dirty up the new arrivals?

Oh, you know, everybody works on the farm for a day and you get pretty dirty pretty fast. I mean, Alia and Logan just immediately went out into the fields – that night we were at the goat farm and it was a gnarly freezing night. And these farmers start partying at four in the afternoon because they go to bed at eight, and we were [working] until all hours of the morning. I remember some of the farmers going, “Wow, filmmakers are incredibly boring.” Which is true.