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Milk Money: Director Kelly Reichardt on the New World and Nascent Capitalism of First Cow

John Magaro in First Cow (Photo courtesy of A24/Allyson Riggs)

First Cow marks the fifth film in 14 years on which director Kelly Reichardt has collaborated with screenwriter–novelist Jon Raymond. I can’t think of a director–writer team in America that has produced so much superior work during this time period—Reichardt is one of the talents on whom hope for the creative possibilities of American filmmaking now rests.

Like Reichardt and Raymond’s first partnership, the critically lauded, microbudgeted Old Joy (2005), First Cow is a lyrical tragicomic story of male friendship, emerging against the background of the almost intoxicating beauty of the Oregon woods. But this time, Reichardt’s telling a more complicated, historically themed story with a somewhat larger cast. First Cow is a western like Meek’s Cutoff (2010) but an even more idiosyncratic one, set in a period we’re not used to seeing dramatized: the 1820s, when settlers had barely explored or mapped the Pacific Northwest and the very earliest rudiments of a society were coalescing. 

Its two protagonists, King Lu (Orion Lee) and Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro), are immigrants from China and the East Coast struggling to keep body and soul intact while trying to learn their way about. It quickly becomes clear that the white men who’ve gotten here before them aren’t that much better prepared to make a go of things. There’s a sheen of newness on all the eager, bustling human activity the film presents, the Oregon version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “fresh, green breast of the New World.” As King Lu puts it at one point: “History isn’t here yet.”

The bond between the two men forms around a simple dream of entrepreneurship. They come up with a product—a simple pastry deep-fried and served fresh in the dirt patch that passes for a market—and hope to prosper by selling it. Cookie is the maker, King Lu is the salesman. Then, there is the resource they need to produce their pastry, a cow, whose wealthy owner serves as de facto governor of the territory (Toby Jones) and is too dim to have found a proper use for the beast. We are given the basic elements of a little fable about the beginnings of modern capitalism and scarcity, but Reichardt, Raymond, their superb cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt and a very fine cast are in such immaculate control of imagery, rhythm and tone that the profundity of what we’re watching overtakes us without our noticing at first. 

In a 1929 essay about Dante, T. S. Eliot wrote, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Kelly Reichardt is a filmmaker–poet who continues to go from strength to strength. First Cow is out March 6 from A24.

Filmmaker:First Cow began as a novel, The Half-Life, by your [professional writing] partner Jon Raymond, published in 2004. I read that your interest in doing the adaptation of Half-Life actually preceded working together for the first time with him on Old Joy. Can you walk us through the history of how your interest in the book led to your becoming collaborators?

Reichardt: I met Jon through Todd Haynes. When Todd moved to Portland and I first came out to visit Todd, I met Jon. Then, I got his book and read it while I was on one of the drives out west and finished reading it in Kansas. I wrote Jon from Kansas and asked him if he had any short stories that I could do that were all exteriors—basically, something I could write a dog into. I think that was the criteria. He sent me Old Joy, which he just had published with the photos of Justine Kurland, an old friend of Jon’s. That was what kicked off this whole working relationship that’s gone on for a while now. Over the years after Old Joy, we talked about, “How could we ever do The Half-Life?” But we could never really figure out how to do it. Sometimes, we would think about just the contemporary part of The Half-Life.

Filmmaker: The Half-Life has two stories, one set in a post-1980s/90s counterculture environment in Oregon. That’s juxtaposed against the 19th century story, which makes an extravagant journey to China and covers quite a length of time. And you contemplated adaptations of the whole book for a while.

Reichardt: Well, we were always trying to think if there was a smaller story in The Half-Life. Because it would be a really epic film, and my films are more in the nitty gritty. [For me], “epic” is two weeks of someone’s life, you know? And it does happen [over] four decades, two continents. Sometimes, we would think about just the contemporary part. We never really found the smaller story in it until musing over the cow milk. I’m sure Jon came up with the idea of the cow, and we got this whole idea of the clafoutis [a pastry Cookie and King Lu are commissioned to bake for the chief factor].

Filmmaker: Clafoutis refers to a very fun pastry, right?

Reichardt: Yeah, made without butter. One of the big things that happened was the character of King Lu was a consolidation of two characters in the novel. Once we had the cow, there are big, pointed structural things that are very much from the novel. Also, the idea of the early days on the west coast, pre-Oregon: Our chief factor, who’s in the novel and in the script, he’s not a property owner, a landowner. He’s more like the head of Firestone who goes to Africa to [acquire] natural resources. We were sort of modeling that off the Hudson’s Bay [Company, the incorporated fur trading business operating under British royal charter that, from 1680 to 1698, essentially governed much of what’s now Canada]. So, there is this idea of [it] not [being] yet agreed what money is or what commerce is. That’s from the novel. Also, this idea of who was here first—aside from the Multnomah tribes, the Chinooks—a bunch of immigrants coming by ship, from other places in the world. That was maybe the impetus of the whole thing: “Why make this movie now?”

Filmmaker: The immigration story.

Reichardt: Yeah. 

Filmmaker: I saw First Cow at the New York Film Festival. There was a screening earlier in the afternoon of a 35mm print of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. And when I saw First Cow, I thought about Altman’s film as one of the only films I could think of that you might’ve taken in any way as an inspiration or a model. Someone who is prominent in that film plays a small part in yours, the late René Auberjonois. What’s so original about Altman’s film is that it takes a very imaginative but also clear-eyed look at the western frontier as the site of the beginnings of modern capitalism, like a fable or a fairytale of that event. In a certain way, to me that’s one of those things you’re doing in First Cow—giving us an episode from the origins, or pre-history, of capitalism. Am I on the right track?

Reichardt: Completely true. I mean, I remember that day, when both films were playing in New York, and I was like, “Ahhhh, I hope nobody goes to see both those films back to back.” Because, you know, I would not want to have to compete with McCabe. And of course, I worked with René on Certain Women. When we started working on this, [Jon] made up that part for René because I just wanted him there so badly. He’s amazing in it.

Corporate power won the day in America. It’s like corporate power was [there] the first day, spreading its stuff from the very beginning. The Chinook were living on the river eating salmon for forever before the arrival of the beaver trade and all of that. But, yeah, for as long as the idea of America has existed, for sure. I hate to talk about these things because I’m not a history buff in any way, so I don’t like to get out of my range. I love that town being built in McCabe and the whole idea of someone working so hard to get a toehold and then being able to get wiped out so easily when Sears & Roebuck shows up. We’ve looked a lot—in all the films I’ve made with Jon, at least—at this idea that there’s room for everyone if you just have initiative and a good idea. That’s what America is, the land of possibilities. Was that ever really true? Does it take more than that?

King Lu’s smart enough to know that he’s not going to find his way into this world without his friend, without having a companion. But he falls into the friendship in a deeper way, and that’s ultimately all this planning of home: Home is where your friends are. There is that part of it. But there’s also the machinery that’s keeping them out of this idea of the free market that happens outside the fort. Their idea can’t happen without some really basic component that they need to get from someone else.

Filmmaker: Do you view that as already the flaw in paradise?

Reichardt: What paradise? I mean, they already have such a hard life. King Lu has this aspirational attitude. Cookie is a really more down-to-earth person. Everything is very close to the ground [for him]: He’s foraging, he’s milking the cow. And King Lu sits up in the tree. He’s more aspirational than Cookie. In a way, it’s like Cookie knows better from the start that he goes along with the ride. Orion [Lee, the actor who plays King Lu] talked a lot about just realizing how much there was to do every day. There is no lounging about. There’s constantly something to do.

Filmmaker: The film begins with an extremely brief framing episode set in the present, where a young woman who is traveling with their dog, maybe an homage to Wendy and Lucy, uncovers the skeleton of your protagonist. That character doesn’t play a significant role in the rest of the film.

Reichardt: No, we don’t come back to it. The first image is of a barge going up the Columbia River. In the story, it’s a constant. So, the contemporary part of the film is setting you in the spot where we’re going to go back from and where the story’s going to take place. The Columbia was like a trading highway for the Chinook and the Multnomah tribes before there were any white people here. The barge coming up the river, you see that every day when you go out to the Columbia. So, the film opens with a contemporary view of that, then we go back. The film takes place in what’s now close to Portland. Before it was Oregon, it was called the lower Columbia district. So, it gives us where we are and a view of what’s happened as far as the little ferry and the canoes versus the commerce still coming down the river.

Obviously, the contemporary story weaves in and out of the novel, [and] I did want to hold onto that. It’s funny because there’s so much of this “artisan living” here in Portland, which is everywhere—you know, the bearded man with his new coffee and the perfect sauce, whatever it is. So, it’s also kind of funny to me, making something from scratch and taking it out to the market to sell it and having a little contemporary [resonance].

Filmmaker: John Magaro, who plays Cookie—first of all, a question about Cookie’s name. His last name, Figowitz, is Eastern European. I wondered for a second, is he supposed to be Jewish?

Reichardt: Yes, our Jewish cook in the west. 

Filmmaker: It’s not made clear that he’s Jewish in the film, is it?

Reichardt: No, it’s not. He’s probably a second generation.

Filmmaker: John Magaro is a very good actor. I’ve seen him in other movies, small parts. And Orion Lee, if I’m not mistaken, is mainly a British theater actor. Basically, these are people who’ve never starred in films before. You’ve worked both with stars and with non-stars in important roles. Tell me what you thought about the process of casting them, the risks involved in working with two guys who simply have not shouldered the burden of responsibility for carrying a film in quite this way before. 

Reichardt: It’s a long road, casting. I would’ve never found Orion Lee without [casting director] Gayle Keller. We looked at hundreds of Chinese actors, and it was a really hard, long search. Sadly, so many Chinese actors get really pigeonholed in roles where they have to be really physically built up or playing the delivery man. Orion was in London and did three or four readings for me. It developed over time, and his readings were really nuanced. He could do things in different ways. I will say, I was in a lucky position that Scott Rudin was producing the movie—he wanted to see the readings, but he loved John Magaro, so that was an easy sell. They had worked together a lot. But there was no point where Scott talked about—we had the conversation of, “This is the size film you’re making if you’re going to make this choice. And you’re doing this to yourself, but you can, if you want to.” It was freeing because you could have these faces that everybody didn’t know. You could just see them fresh. 

I didn’t have him and John together until they were both here in Oregon. It was scary before they got here. As soon as they were in their costumes and standing next to each other, I was, like, halfway there. I thought they looked great together, and we sent them off camping with this survivalist who was taking them out in the woods for a few nights to live in the rain and learn how to skin a squirrel and make a fire and all that kind of stuff.

Filmmaker: I had occasion to talk with Orion Lee briefly in Telluride, and he told an anecdote about being too much, too big and too theatrical at certain points, maybe in the beginning of his own performance, and that you’d had to kind of take him aside a little bit and remind him this was a movie and he could do less. Is that right? He suggested that you did it in a very gentle way.

Reichardt: He loves big films. I don’t think he had a lot of exposure to a film like this, what it would be and its vocabulary. So, it just felt like he was doing nothing all the time if he did it the way I told him to do it, which is the goal. I don’t think he had even seen my films, I don’t think he had a reference for what we were doing, so he worried about it all the time: “Is it enough?” When we were filming, he had all those questions and those instincts that weren’t necessarily aligned with mine, but he was always completely willing to do what I was talking to him about. And it was never not interesting. I was never not taken with him. So, I just thought he was a great find. It was so lucky. But it wasn’t even luck—Gayle did so much work.

Filmmaker: I want to go back to you and Jon Raymond because it’s quite a unique collaboration. You’ve done five films together. Is the process always the same or always different?

Reichardt: It’s always different because when we started, we didn’t know each other. Now, I moved to Oregon and live up the street from him and his family. And he and Emily Chenoweth, his partner, have two daughters now, nine and 11. So, life has changed so much in our amount of contact with each other and starting from things that were already written versus coming up with outlines together. The one thing that’s a through line is, Jon is a person that deals with the blank page, not me. He always does the first pass, being a person that writes every day and is an actual writer, which I think is different than [the way] I work on my screenplays. I don’t consider myself a writer. I feel like it makes my filmmaking stronger. It’s just an extension of life at this point, because we’ve talked all day. Everything with filmmaking, from the beginning to the end, is something you’re putting together and disassembling and putting together and disassembling. And Jon carries the heavy water of doing that first pass, and then I take it apart and put it back together and kick it back to him, and he does things, and it gets passed back and forth.

Filmmaker: Does he work through the production of the film? Does he come on set? Do you talk to him during the editing?

Reichardt: It depends where I am. He’ll visit the set, but he’ll mostly stay hidden from me. He likes the crew. On a lot of films, he can’t visit. He likes to watch casting tapes. And he’s not an editor. He likes to watch cuts of the movie. Sometimes I won’t show him a cut for a while, I just need time on my own, then I will show, but he’s in the mix for sure. Meek’s, we were further out, so I think [he] and Todd came and visited a day. He visited a day on Night Moves. He could come more often on this shoot because we were close to town. But we’re not usually so close to home, necessarily. He’s not on location with us.

Filmmaker: This film is, physically, astonishingly beautiful to look at. It’s your fourth film shot by Christopher Blauvelt. Before he worked with you, he was a camera operator for Harris Savides. You were the first to promote him to DP when he shot Meek’s Cutoff for you in 2010. How did you know he was ready to be a DP, and what is your way of working with him? How has that evolved?

Reichardt: I met him at five in the morning on the way to set after it didn’t work out with the first DP. A lot of people around me knew Chris, and [Stephen] MacDougall, who was the [first AC] on the movie, recommended bringing Chris on. We were in the middle of the desert, and Chris came on a plane. I was really about to give up filmmaking because I found the struggle so incredibly hard at the camera. My first day with Chris was the first time I ever said, “The camera goes here,” and the cameraman actually put the camera exactly where I asked for it and then was like, “What else can I do? Do you want it to move?” There was no having to negotiate with him. It was just like falling in love or something. It was such a high for me, getting to shoot that movie with him and be in it with someone. It was sort of my dream because that’s to me where it all happens, at the camera. And he’s a great collaborator. The whole crew loves working for Chris. He’s like third-generation focus puller, and his brother’s also a focus puller. He’s been on movie sets his whole life and only wants to think about light and how the camera’s going to move. He just doesn’t have an ego wrapped up in it. And he’s shot a lot of movies with women now. He’s just a great collaborator all around. He energizes the crew, and he came at such a crucial point in filmmaking for me because I was really like, “Oh man, this battle’s too hard.” 

Filmmaker: You’d been having so many frustrating experiences with other DPs.

Reichardt: Yeah, cameramen come with crews and with equipment, and there can be a lot of macho energy like, “Go work with your actors, and I’ll take care of the camera,” and that was not how I would make films. These collaborations, you’re not starting from scratch. Chris comes around, and I have my books built of what I want to do. We can jump in so fast. We already have a way of communicating. At the same time Chris came, Chris Carroll came, who’s been an assistant director on all these films. Chris Carroll and Chris Blauvelt and I, we spend a lot of time [together]. These guys will go out to the locations with me, and I can have my viewfinder, and they’ll act the parts of King Lu and Cookie for me on a down day so I can get things straight. The three of us have worked together a lot. And then, much [due] to the help of Neil [Kopp] and Anish [Savjani], the producers, making First Cow was really great. It wasn’t six degrees, it was 30 degrees, which is way more manageable. It was the first time we ever shot five-day weeks, so there was time to think while making it.

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