Of all the things The A.V. Club expected from an interview with Kelly Reichardt, the writer-director of Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and Wendy And Lucy (2008) being a cutup admittedly wasn’t one. We expected a sharp and empathetic observer of human nature (and the natural world in general), thanks to the novelistic level of detail in her films. We also, admittedly, had some pretensions about dissecting the American condition with Reichardt, who’s established herself time and again as one of its most astute commentators.
Both of those qualities—and an unexpected but welcome slapstick streak—are present in Reichardt’s latest, the infinitely charming First Cow, which stars John Magaro as Cookie and Orion Lee as King-Lu, two very different men who strike up a quiet rapport in the Oregon Territory circa 1820. Their friendship becomes a business partnership when territorial governor Chief Factor (Toby Jones) imports a milk cow from San Francisco to live on his property, the “first cow” of the title. Inspired by Cookie’s buttermilk biscuit recipe and an irrepressible entrepreneurial spirit, the men begun making nightly raids on Chief Factor’s cow, stealing the milk to make the “oily cakes” that they hope will fund their version of the American dream.
Initially released on March 6, First Cow gave Reichardt the best box-office opening of her career before the film joined the ever-growing list of movies whose releases have been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our interview with Reichardt was conducted over the phone after her press tour was canceled, but before theaters around the world began shutting their doors. For those who got to see First Cow in the brief window where it was in theaters, and those looking for something to tide them over before its re-release this fall, we’ve decided to run the interview as scheduled.
The A.V. Club: I have a question about a shot at the very beginning of First Cow. It’s the shot where you linger on a ship passing by for a while, but you cut before it’s completely off screen. What was the thought there?
Kelly Reichardt: I don’t want to diss my first shot, but the young B-camera fellas were out there shooting the ship, and it was a cut a little early. But it keeps the motion going, so, yeah, sometimes things get decided for you.
AVC: This film has a lot of humor to it; you could almost describe it as a buddy comedy. Was that something that you got from the source material, or did you inject that into it for the film?
KR: Oh God, it’s all such a process. It’s hard to remember where everything comes from. But I find some of the Cookie stuff in Jonathan Raymond’s novel The Half-Life [which the movie is based on] humorous. The book goes on a dark journey, but there are moments of humor, for sure, throughout.
And then there’s the cow—which is not in the novel—but stealing milk from a cow is going to offer some humor. And there were things like the trappers fighting each other, they were like Muppets. It was just kind of silly. And then John Magaro did this physical running stuff I found to be quite funny, just performance-wise. One guy is going to give another guy a leg up a tree, which is how we worked it out once we were there—it had to do with giving Cookie a leg up metaphorically, or whatever. But that’s so slapstick.
I’m not going for big guffaws, but there’s room for humor in this story, and then those performers all just kind of took everything up a notch. I’m just boggled by the idea that it’s slow, because it’s high action. This is my high action caper film.
AVC: It is kind of a funny idea—there are scenes in the film that are really tense, but it’s all over some milk.
KR: I think it works on both [levels]—it’s all over some milk, but then there is something at stake. Jon [Raymond, who co-wrote the script] and I were always thinking about this in the script part of it—do you remember the heist in [Paul Schrader’s 1978 film] Blue Collar? There’s a scene in that film where Harvey Keitel and Richard Pryor break into a union office to steal money, and Richard Pryor’s in charge of getting their costumes, and everything’s heavy and serious. But then Richard Pryor’s costumes are those eyeballs on springs— you know those slinky eyeball glasses? [Laughs.] It’s completely ridiculous, and you’re totally worried for them at the same time.
AVC: So the cow is not in the novel? You added the cow?
KR: Yeah, there’s no cow in the novel. The novel spans decades and crosses oceans; it’s a much more elaborate story. In the book, they’re taking the oil from the beaver glands to China.
So the only way to make the film for me—I think Jon’s novel could have been made by another filmmaker who would have done the whole enchilada. But I wanted to get in there and hit the small beats and extend on some themes. So it needed to not just be extracting things from the novel. We needed to find a way to get the themes from the novel and be able to use the wonderful Cookie and King-Lu relationship from the novel [without that epic scope]. And the cow allowed that to take place.
AVC: Did you have any other ideas, or was a cow the first thought? Were you like, “umm, first… chicken?”
KR: There were lots of coffees and brainstorming sessions going on. Jon would walk around spacing out, and then he’d walk back and have a great idea.
AVC: You mentioned the characters of Cookie and King-Lu. When you see male friendships on film, it’s often this chest-beating competition, but that doesn’t seem to be an aspect of their friendship at all. Instead, there’s a sense of gentleness and cooperation.
KR: There’s that Blake quote in the beginning of the film, which is in the beginning of the novel, too, talking about friendship in the context of the natural world, and as home. And that was sort of the theme of [the relationship]. The main guiding light of it all was that these two people find each other who are not fitting into this rough-and-tumble world.
And it added to the idea of wanting to make the violence ridiculous, [making you] really feel the absurdity of the chest-beating white man doing this [tough frontiersman] thing. I liked the idea of turning that into the scenery, to see the real danger and weight of being a vulnerable person in that situation. That’s who Cookie innately was. King-Lu was more of a rascal. Jon’s first description—I was like, “Give me an idea. Who’s King-Lu in our world?” And he was like, “He’s the Asian David Crosby.” [Laughs]
So in the film, Cookie’s down there, milking the cow. He’s a forager, a close to the earth kind of guy. He’s a nurturer. So he’s down there getting the milk, and King-Lu is up in the tree, the owl who has a broader look on things. Those were my attempts to tell that story in—in film language, I guess.
AVC: It’s definitely a different perspective on the frontier, because—especially when you go back to the days of John Wayne—that macho attitude is really glorified. Are you trying to offer an alternative view of it?
KR: Yeah, and the absurdity of it all. The absurdity of this myth.
AVC: So who was making the oil cakes, and all the baked goods in the movie?
KR: That was Sean Fong. He was a prop man who worked with Paul Curtin, our prop master. Sean was our main oily cake man, and he’s in the town. You see him sewing his blanket, and he’s in line buying an oily cake. We kept pulling him off duty to help fill up the town.
AVC: Did you and the crew and the cast eat these big batches of oily cakes you see King-Lu and Cookie selling in the movie?
KR: Oh, they got eaten. It’s fried bread, everyone loves it, you know? Especially Toby Jones, he really liked the oily cakes, as expressed in the film. And the clafoutis never stopped coming—even now, wherever I go, someone inevitably makes a clafoutis, which is really sweet. I like the idea of people going home and making a clafoutis [after they see the movie], too. A lot of crew people were having bake-offs during the filming.
AVC: John Magaro is a bit of a cook himself, right?
KR: Yeah, he is. He likes to cook and eat. That’s how he found his way into Cookie. He started working off The Lewis & Clark Cookbook from back in Hell’s Kitchen in New York before he came out here [to shoot].
AVC: The movie feels very close to nature. There are animals everywhere—not just the cow, but dogs and cats and squirrels and so on. Were you filming in an isolated area?
KR: No, we were about an hour’s range most of the time from Portland. We had lots of trouble with airplane noise, that was one of the biggest obstacles. But for the fort, we went on location to Fort Umpqua, which is further south.
We lived there for maybe a week and a half; I can’t remember exactly how many days we were there. But everybody was getting into it, especially [costume designer] April Napier, who was dressing everyone. And I was giving everyone their job, whether they were a soldier or they were working on the grounds or they were ship people waiting for another ride or the tax people. And so everyone had their job at the fort, and everyone was just there the whole time being in that role.
AVC: Is that something you like to do on all your films—have the cast and crew live in the environment?
KR: Well, it’s ideal. But I never had this many people living in an environment before, so that was different. I never really had a chance to get to have a whole community somewhere [in the past]. And it was really fun and great.
I have to say, all the background choreography that’s going on in those shots was really Chris Carroll, the first AD, who was timing everything out. It was fun to see; I’d be watching through the lens, and he’d say, “you’re gonna love this one.” And I’ll be like, “all right,” and then the guys would be doing whatever. [Laughs.]
It was a big muddy, muddy mess that was really intense, but really fun. Hard fun, challenging fun. But it was fun to create a little world.
AVC: Yeah, I bet the mud was out of control.
KR: The place actually had a nice lawn, so Anthony Gasparro, the production designer, and his whole team rolled up the lawn and brought in just tons of mud. So it could be nothing but mud. We had some good rain days, which made it a total mess. Sometimes, the worse things are for shooting, the better it looks on film.
AVC: The tight aspect ratio in this film, you used it before for Meek’s Cutoff. Why do you like using that aspect ratio?
KR: For this one, we were shooting in the woods, tall trees and all of that. Color wise, I gave everyone this book by [19th century American painter] Frederic Remington called The Color Of Night. The greens [in those paintings] are yellow and blue and kind of muddy. And then the skies have these coral lights, and the fires—everything’s kind of coral looking. So anyway, that put us all, the costumers and production designer and color timers and [cinematographer] Chris Blauvelt, that got us all on the same color page.
And then the square is really nice for intimacy. And shooting in the woods is going to mean shooting in hutches, and also the tall trees. So, as opposed to having the expanse, you’re feeling like you’re in this story with them, but there’s also a life outside the frame, and there’s danger outside the frame. Like in the scene where Toby Jones and Scott Shepherd and Ewen Bremner are standing on top of a ridge [in the woods] searching for Cookie, and Cookie’s hiding down below. You couldn’t really have done that in a different frame.
So you can set your shots [to be] more about height than width [with this aspect ratio]. And I like that. I don’t know, it’s interesting to me. And I thought it worked in terms of giving them their little intimate world, while working away from a big Western expanse kind of thing.
AVC: Oh, yeah, that makes total sense. This movie—I’m crazy about it. I think it’s so good.
KR: I hope people get to see it. It’s a bad time to have a movie coming out. I know the world has bigger problems than the release of First Cow, but I hope people get to see it on a screen. It’s so lovely to see on a screen. I will say, we didn’t shoot on film, we shot on an Alexa. And Chris Blauvelt was really working his magic, making it look the way it does.
A24 will re-release First Cow in theaters at a date to be determined this fall.