Jon Raymond's Portland
Writer/filmmaker Jon Raymond guides us through Portland’s cultural scene.
For writer/artist/filmmaker/musician Jonathan Raymond, Portland is both the source and subject of his creativity. An editor/writer about art and culture for the Portland arts zine Plazm, Raymond later took up creative fiction, publishing his first novel, The Half Life in 2004, and Livability: Stories in late 2008. The later short story collection includes the tales on which Kelly Reichardt’s feature films Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy are based.
What was it like growing up in Portland?
I grew up in Portland since the age 8. When I was in high school in the late 80s, there was a really great rock scene here. I remember seeing bands like the Hell Cows, Dharma Bums, the Obituaries––pretty progressive and arty bands. It was really a small world and I was lucky enough to walk right in on it. I think that music is the bedrock of this city as far as creativity is concerned.
Why do you think there is such a big music scene there?
One theory is the preponderance of basements in Portland. This is a good architectural town for having bands.
And that it rains all the time.
Yes, that too. People have time to kill, and there are no jobs, so you have to do something when you’ve got nothing to do.
If that were so, every town in an America would be having a musical renaissance right now.
That’s true. But we were ahead of the curve on that one.
You left Portland to go to university?
I don’t think that I quite understood the opportunities I had growing up in Portland. I was always curious about writing and art making in general. So I went away to college. But afterwards, I came back. There was an obstinate part of me that didn’t want to have to go to New York or LA to be an artist. I felt one didn’t have to go to a major media center to do what one wanted. Although I did end up living in New York in 2005, but that was only after living here for 6 or 7 years and doing as much as I thought I could do.
Were you interested in film or writing or art when you grew up?
It shifted over time. During high school [in the late 80s], my friends were more music oriented. But when I came back after college in ’94, the people I was meeting were more interested in filmmaking. Miranda July was here then. Matt McCormick, who is just finishing his first feature, Some Days Are Better Than Others. And there were a bunch of others. The work was very moving-image related, although not always movies. Matt’s stuff was pretty experimental at that time. I made a feature for cable access with a bunch of friends, although it’s really hard to explain. It was based on the comic strip Crock, which was the French Foreign Legion strip from the guys who made Wizard of Id. There was a lot of plagiarism and post-colonial theory. I have no idea what we were thinking, but we got a cease and desist order when we tried to show it.
It sounds like there is a lot of community DIY spirit?
The nice thing about Portland is that the different disciplines are not Balkanized like they are in New York and LA. There is not a huge social difference between musicians, and writers and artists and others. A lot of the people I ended up hanging out with were painters and sculptors, all sorts of creative people. It is a small enough city that everyone gets to deal with everyone else.
Is there a particular place that creative types hang out?
I wish I knew anymore. I am too old now. But a lot of the stuff happens used to happen at house parties. There would be a constellation of houses that would be connected to each other. Even though now I’m pretty much out of that, when I ride my bike by them and I can see that there is still something going on.
You’ve become good friends with filmmaker Todd Haynes who lives in Portland.
I meet Todd in ’99. He’d already moved out here and we met and started hanging out. Then later when I moved to New York to do an MFA at The New School, Todd came back east to shoot Far From Heaven and he asked me to be his assistant on the movie. That was an amazing opportunity—to see him work and how he made a film.
And you’ve collaborated with Kelly Reichart on Wendy and Lucy. How did you meet her?
I met Kelly through Todd, both here and then when I moved back East. Kelly was actively looking for a story to adapt for a new project. She had read a novel I had written called The Half Life, in 2004, and she liked that and was looking for something to do with people she knows. She wanted a story that had very few characters, largely took place out doors––so she would not have to deal with a lot of sets––and would have room for a dog to be written in. I had this story, “Old Joy,” although I couldn’t imagine anyone seeing a feature in it. But she did and went off and made it. It was an amazing surprise and blessing for me.
How did you two work on Wendy and Lucy?
That was more intentionally written to be a film. It was written first as a story, and Kelly and I had had lots of conversations about themes and possible narratives and influences and things like that. The story was written with her serving as an editor, and then she adapted it with me as an editor. It was a strange process, unlike anything I had done before, but it worked.
This film is also set in the Pacific Northwest. Is that important to you?
I feel that its location was important, although I never imagined it as Portland. In the story, she is few days from getting up to Alaska. I think that a lot of people don’t realize how normal it is for people on the West Coast to do that. It is like a last outpost, before you get into Alaska.
Portland seems like the new Santa Fe. Every one always talks about moving to Portland now. How has its new popularity effecting you?
Yes, but I am loath to admit anything is that different. There is a certain attitude of defeatism that is not as strong as before. There are enough people doing interesting things and enough tentacles out into the rest of the world, that Portland actually feels connected. I used to think that living here was like being behind a two-way mirror: you could see into what everyone was doing in the world but no one could see us here in Portland. It seems like now a person can have some interesting opportunities come their way here.
So who are the movers and shakers here?
Gus [Van Sant] is that figure for sure. He has done so much to build the imagination of this region. His mantle is pretty huge. And having Todd [Haynes] in town makes people feel that something is happening. Having Miranda [July] around was really great. Having seen her develop her performance and film stuff was kind of amazing. Matt McCormick keeps a group of filmmakers in touch with each other in a very grass-roots sort of way with the PDX Film Festival.
Are there a lot of places to see films here?
Well, of course, the Northwest Film Center. But also Cinema 21, which is the temple of art films here. I used to be a janitor there for a few years, so it’s always fun to come back as a filmmaker. I think, “Well, I used to clean these toilets, and now here I am.” There are a lot of other great movie theaters. There is the Hollywood Theater, which has beautiful old façade. And there are a bunch of second-run theaters where you can drink beer and eat food and watch a movie on the cheap. I just got to see Happy-Go-Lucky for a dollar.