Kelly Reichardt loves an animal. From the heartbreaking friendship between Wendy and her dog Lucy in their namesake film to the weakened oxen of Meek’s Cutoff and the grazing horses of Certain Women, Reichardt’s films often hone in on fulfilling relationships between humans and animals.
First Cow, Reichardt’s latest film, out March 6, is what she calls a heist movie with a wide-eyed cow at the center. Based on frequent collaborator Jonathon Raymond’s book The Half-Life, the film follows Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro), a cook for a crew of fur-trappers in the 1820s who dreams of owning a bakery. He runs into King Lu (Orion Lee), a savvy Chinese immigrant who wants to help him realize his dreams. After a cow arrives at their Oregon outpost, the first in the territory up from San Francisco, the two men quietly milk her at night, stealing from the Chief who owns her. They use it to make delicious hot cakes for grubby beaver-trappers, which attract a line (not unlike those that formed outside Dominique Ansel when cronuts dropped) and even sell some cakes back to the Chief himself.
But even with its “take from the rich and sell it back to them” ethos, First Cow is a quiet movie about friendship on the frontier. Jezebel talked to Reichardt about casting her titular cow, working with animals, and why period pieces suit the natural rhythm of her life.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
JEZEBEL: What compelled you to adapt this story now?
KELLY REICHARDT: [Writer] Jonathan Raymond nagging me and pushing me. No, I’m kidding. [Laughs] It’s the first thing I’ve ever read from John; it was his first novel. It’s what led me to write to him and ask if he had any short stories which led to [my second film], Old Joy. And so over all these years, we were always wondering how in the world could we ever do The Half-Life? It was a big book, and it spans like four decades. A two-week kind of timespan is what I’m used to working in.
It was like trying to remember something forever and then you look away and the answer appears, somehow it just sort of came together. A lot of it had to do with the creation of the cow and the keeper and focusing on the 19th century part of the book because the book goes in between 1980 and 1820s. Once we had the cow, we could kind of walk from there. But all the themes from John’s book really did reemerge through the beaver trade and the idea of early capitalism versus the natural world.
You mention the natural world. Obviously, the lead character, Cookie, is someone very in touch with the natural world and what he takes from it, whether it’s plants or milk from the cow, and other people in the film seem to take that relationship for granted. It’s a theme that comes up often in your films: how people interact with their natural surroundings.
Well, that’s the big subject, isn’t it? [Laughs] It’s the only subject. It keeps reoccurring for me because everything, I guess, feels so fragile. The existential thing doesn’t seem existential anymore. It feels real and upon us. I’m always just trying to find that balance myself, of what you want from nature versus what you want from a more urban life. I’m just trying to figure out how you justify the amount you’re using up, as I fly around doing press for my cow movie. And I think because animals end up playing such a big role in the movies, too. That attachment from characters and animals has a draw. There’s a kind of pure, innocent love that comes with animal love and animal, human friendship.
Can you tell me about casting the cow?
Yes, her name was Evie; she came from Washington. There were cow headshots and everything, trying to find the kind of cow that could have been around then. She’s a Jersey cow, and she was the right size because she had to be lovable, but she also had to be able to ride on the ferry we built for her that sails down the Columbia River. She had these big, soppy eyes, and as soon as the headshot came in I was like, I’m sold, let’s take this cow.
There’s a lot of training animals, but like all things, really, the crew has to get trained itself to work with animals, which is something I really learned with making Certain Women working on a horse ranch. With those untrained horses, we just had to scale our crew back and sort of work in slow motion and connect with each other, looking at each other instead of talking to try and not freak them out. When we were doing these night scenes with [John] Magaro and Evie, she’d get scared. We had to remind ourselves and slow down again and just train ourselves to get out of our fast filmmaking pace and get into the cow’s comfort space. It’s interesting trying to slow the machine down to make it aware of the presence of one animal. It’s like, hey, big guys, everyone slow down, there’s a kitty cat here.
It’s funny because so much of the movie is about calming a cow to get its milk, and similarly the crew has to be calming the cow to get the movie made.
Easier said than done.
There’s that line in the film where someone says the territory isn’t a place for cows: “If they were supposed to be here, God would have put them here.” And then someone responds that if that were true, then God would have had to have put white men here. It felt like a line that was explicitly political. Was that your intention?
I’m not really trying to make pointed political films. I mean, obviously, we’re politically minded people, but I try to stick with the story, but it’s really hard to restrain yourself in this moment. [Laughs] One of the things that drew us back to The Half-Life was getting back to this point of, aside from the First Nations, everybody’s an immigrant. It’s like, touché.
But you’re not really thinking about the political implications of your movies as you’re making them.
You’re aware of them, but I try to stay in the scene, in the moment to moment minutia of the lives were portraying, the needs and wants of these characters. Like the one line that was questionable in and out of the cut of the movie was “history is not here yet.” When King Lu says that it’s sort of like, would King Lu really say that? It’s a moment of not being in their lives and having a more objective perspective. And I went back and forth on it and I ended up leaving it in. But it’s just one of those moments when we’re a little outside [the story.] It’s not just a thought between them; it’s a big thought, and like the other line you mentioned I allowed it.
You could argue this movie is a Western, which is a genre that carries a lot of connotations of male toughness. There’s violence in the movie, but it doesn’t necessarily occur between the two leads, who dream of owning a bakery and have this very tender friendship. Were you consciously thinking about working against Western conventions when you were writing this film and making this film?
You can’t not think about it in the genre, because it’s a genre based on white, male, power structures really; it’s a white supremacist kind of genre. And yeah, I just don’t see the appeal honestly at this point. I’m just like, really, we’re still believing the strong man is the person that’s going to save us all? How very passé. But I kind of poke fun at it, with the goofy trappers, I called them “the Muppets,” who were fighting over everything every minute. Honestly, I didn’t feel [the constraints] so much like when I was making Meek’s Cutoff. I really felt like, am I in the footprint of the Western? Am I commenting on it? Every shot was like wagons and oxen and horses and bonnets and all that. But I felt pretty free in being able to just make the movie I wanted to make [with First Cow]. I kind of thought of it as a heist.
How does your filmmaking change when you’re making a movie set in modern times as opposed to a period piece? I read an interview once where you spoke about how much you love figuring out what everyone’s chores would be.
I’m always like, what would you have to do in a day? Because nobody can just sit around in 1820. Well, I guess if you’re a drunk trapper you could, but you have to think about where your food’s coming from. I like to think about the frame really early on and there’s so much research and so much shared research. There’s the writing process and scouting, and then you’re working with a production designer and costumes and everything is feeding into each other.
It’s always interesting in the editing room to see what remains from the first thoughts and how things evolve. John [Magaro] and Orion [Lee] didn’t physically meet each other until we were all in Oregon. There’s always a huge moment in contemporary films or period pieces where you’re imagining a film and you just change things in your mind constantly. You have this sound of a voice that you’ve come up with, and suddenly the dialogue is coming out of another person’s body and has its own inflections and gestures that make up the essence of a person. There’s always a moment of shifting where you’re feeling the excitement of something new and also this kind of loss. I didn’t experience that so much here because these guys were just so interesting to me from the go.
Everything is a process, but I don’t think it’s that different between contemporary movies and period. Period is nice because just not having to deal with technology is nice. The way time works in the 19th century is probably closer to my own natural rhythm than how we experience time now.
How would you characterize your own natural rhythm of working?
I feel time is so aggressive now, and at the same time, I can be completely impatient, like, “Buffering? What do you mean buffering, come on!” [Laughs] So I’m capable of wanting to be served in a second. But it’s funny like when I was working on Meek’s Cutoff, you know people spent six months going from the East Coast to the West Coast walking on foot. And then you’re taking a plane somewhere and you’re like, the plane is 15 minutes late?! [Laughs] Everyone’s all pissed off and you’re like, wow, how far we’ve come, you know? I was on a plane yesterday and there was a guy really upset, badgering a woman of color who was working, and he was so upset Delta didn’t have vegan options. Like, your laptop is open, you’re getting internet in the air, your legs are spread open, and you’re still a dude yelling at a woman over something he’s not satisfied with.