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What Kelly Reichardt learned from directing First Cow, her gentle masterpiece

People keep asking me what Kelly Reichardt’s newest film, First Cow, is about. And the answer is easy: a cow! The first one!

The first cow in a frontier settlement, that is. The settlement in question is a 19th-century collection of tiny houses somewhere in Oregon, near the Columbia River, populated by people who are trying to scratch out a living in the New World, as well as the First Nations people who’ve been living there for generations. Into that settlement, a cow arrives, setting off a chain of events that are both momentous and small. They’re the sort of stories that are lost to history.

But the film is about much more than just that. First Cow is also a gentle (and gently devastating) tale about male friendship, about finding someone to share your aspirations and dreams with, and, most deliciously, about cooking. It’s also about the kinds of constructed hierarchies — based on factors like race, class, money, and firepower — that seem to be imposed on the world wherever new civilizations pop up.

First Cow is directed by Reichardt, based on a screenplay she co-wrote with her long-time collaborator Jon Raymond (which in turn is based on a short story by Raymond). Reichardt is one of the most prominent independent directors in American film, with a career that began with the 1994 drama River of Grass and — in films including Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, Night Moves, and Certain Women — has led to collaborations with Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Jesse Eisenberg, Paul Dano, and many more. In First Cow, she tells a story of two men on the Western frontier (played by John Magaro and Orion Lee) who encounter one another by chance under dire circumstances and become fast friends and business partners.

I met with Reichardt in New York in early March to talk about the challenge of recreating a First Nations language, cooking in movies, and casting the titular first cow. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

Alissa Wilkinson

I interviewed you in 2016 for your last film, Certain Women, and you told me, “I’ve had my day with the oxen.” And now you’ve made a movie about a cow.

Kelly Reichardt

A cow is different! It doesn’t have horns.

With oxen, the big problem is they don’t go backwards. Our cow was mostly just forward moving. I also [once] said I would never do another winter film, and then I did Certain Women, which was the coldest film I ever made.

Alissa Wilkinson

Can you tell me more about the first cow in First Cow?

Kelly Reichardt

The cow is Evie. We did a little cow casting. I got a bunch of cow pictures in. We landed on the Jersey cow, which was a good-sized cow. They also have these big, sad eyes. I think there was some actual historical logic to it. It wouldn’t have been called a Jersey cow [back then].

But anyhow, I met Evie via the internet. Then the animal trainer people started training her.

The big thing was the ferry, because cows don’t swim, so we wanted to make sure she wouldn’t be afraid on the ferry. We didn’t want her to spill into the water. That was the main thing. Whenever you have animals like this, you have to train the crew around the animal to move slowly and talk softly, which is not really how film crews operate. They’re all rush, rush, rush.

The first cow leaves the barge on the river.
A24

Alissa Wilkinson

So cows have handlers?

Kelly Reichardt

Yeah. She had her people.

Alissa Wilkinson

In our previous interview, you also said, “I used to think everything was a Western, but now I think everything was a road movie.” This movie is sort of both, right? Except the road is a river.

Kelly Reichardt

I actually think this is a heist film! It’s a caper. The river was a thoroughfare for trade, so it all takes place on and near the Columbia River. I open with that shot of the river on which a barge is floating, in contemporary times. But historically it was a trading highway, of sorts.

Alissa Wilkinson

The river feels like it’s also separating bits of the story in the film — signaling to us that something new is about to happen.

Kelly Reichardt

It’s all supposed to keep us located. The fort is built near the river because it’s close for the trading and the trappers. It’s also how everyone is arriving to this new place. Everyone is pretty much an immigrant, because everyone was coming to the West by sea at that point, except for Cookie’s crew and some trappers. [Note: Cookie is the character played by John Magaro.] But people really weren’t hiking across the country yet. Lewis and Clark did, but not much more.

Of course, the cow comes down the river.

Alissa Wilkinson

There is something inherently funny about a cow on a barge, visually.

Kelly Reichardt

It’s visually a beautiful thing. It was fun to think about that.

Alissa Wilkinson

First Cow is also a food movie. It doesn’t just capture people making and eating food, but the actual textures of the food, the colors, the way things sizzle when they’re cooked. How did you go about creating that world?

Kelly Reichardt

Do you remember that film Tampopo? It lasted forever. I was like, “Ugh, food films, blech!” I just remember that Tampopo took up my local movie theater in the ’80s for months.

Preparing new food for the day is a major undertaking. You’re constantly doing it for the day. They’re setting traps and fishing and getting clams to sell at the market. It’s endless prep.

John Magaro in First Cow.
A24

And then, of course, Cookie is the cook — the “cookie.” Cookie is a close-to-the-ground guy. He’s foraging, I don’t think you could have passed much time without doing something during the day. And it’s nice for the actors to have stuff to do just to keep them conscious. There was a big thing on set about how many blueberries there would be in the clafoutis. All of these tiny decisions would have felt very important then. Building a fire was an undertaking.

Alissa Wilkinson

They talk about food all the time. Walnuts, blueberries, fish ...

Kelly Reichardt

... Coffee and tea. Oily cakes. There was a lot of competitive clafoutis-making amongst the crew.

Alissa Wilkinson

Clafoutis is kind of a big pancake, right?

Kelly Reichardt

Yeah. There were not that many ingredients available [on the frontier at the time].

Alissa Wilkinson

How did you find out about the ingredients that would have been available?

Kelly Reichardt

I have some cooking friends in Portland who helped me. I found a bunch of cookbooks, like the Lewis & Clark Cookbook, from the early 1800s in the region, and I sent them to John [Magaro]. He likes to cook anyway, so he was making these weird stews back at home. When they came to Oregon, they both went off — Orion [Lee] and John — we sent them off with a survivalist, who taught them how to skin a squirrel (it was roadkill) and build a fire without matches. How to do a fishing line, and build the traps, and all that kind of stuff, so that it would eventually be second-nature to them. We researched what was there and what ingredients would have been available to people.

Alissa Wilkinson

That’s why the milk is so exciting — they didn’t have it otherwise.

Kelly Reichardt

“Milk is so exciting.” They should put that right on the tagline.

Alissa Wilkinson

There’s something entrancing in how you capture people just going about everyday mundane tasks. In one scene, we just watch a guy sweep his house, and then John and Orion walk by, and he kind of angrily sweeps at them.

Kelly Reichardt

That is the great René Auberjonois. He was in Certain Women. I came to know him through the Robert Altman films. He just recently passed away. He’s that cranky man in town who already feels town is getting too crowded, because the third house is already being built. It was a super thrill for me to work with him, because I was a huge fan of his, so we wrote that part for René.

Alissa Wilkinson

How many men were doing that kind of sweeping at the time? The movie shows a lot of men doing tasks that probably would have been relegated to women, if they weren’t in the West.

Kelly Reichardt

There were no women around, so they had to do some of the domestic work. The only women were the First Nations women, the Chinook women, or someone from the Multnomah tribes who would have been there. Men had to buck up and do some chores.

Alissa Wilkinson

There are people from the First Nations throughout this film, and the way the settlers treat them — which often comes across as ridiculous — is a big part of the story. How did you go about researching the language and culture?

Toby Jones in First Cow.
A24

Kelly Reichardt

There’s a confederation of tribes down near Eugene, Oregon — it’s called Grand Ronde. They had just opened this very beautiful museum that was in an old high school. It’s so handmade and gorgeous. Jonathan Raymond went down there to do some research. They were a little wary about getting involved with us, as they would be. Eventually, out of our persistence and Jonathan’s persistence, they opened up the library to us, and then ended up hooking us up with a woman who made the cedar capes and hats [worn in the movie], which was cool, because we then donated those back to the museum.

Then they helped us find someone who spoke the language. It’s a jargon, a mix of languages — the Chinook Wawa. Orion had to learn that, as did James [Jones], the Native American actor who takes them up the river. That was pretty tricky. And I had to edit that language, which is not really phonetic. Hopefully, we didn’t slaughter it too much.

Alissa Wilkinson

Is the language still spoken commonly, or is it being preserved?

Kelly Reichardt

There’s not that many people left that still speak it, but those who do are trying to preserve it. We had some help with learning it. It’s a difficult language. Orion Lee really picked it up. He’s an overachiever. We were like, “You know, you’re not supposed to be able to speak it that well.”

But he was a great help in helping all of us, too. [Actor] Gary Farmer learned it, and it happened that [actor] Lily Gladstone’s grandmother or something for some reason knew the jargon, so she was able to help her with it. The whole thing was a big undertaking, and then the Grand Ronde folks would come and stand off to the side and listen to us. I remember one night, they were like, “You’re getting near to the ballpark.”

An interesting thing happened — one night, I realized that the whole sound crew, because they were listening to the language constantly, had come to understand the language. I think it’s a bit like Spanglish, where it’s a combination of languages. But the Grand Ronde ended up being incredibly generous to us, and that’s their canoe in the film.

Alissa Wilkinson

A lot of this film is about settlers, mostly white settlers coming into a place that’s already inhabited and trying to impose a hierarchy on it. And there’s a silliness inherent in this hierarchy — something everyone seems to know except them.

Kelly Reichardt

I guess it’s really about who has the guns and the money, as always. But there isn’t even a currency — it’s just trading whatever you need. Somehow the levels of race and class exist from the get-go.

There’s the complicated scene, with the First Nations people, and the Chief Factor (who’s played by Toby Jones), who’s sort of like a CEO who would come and exploit the resources. He’s married to a Chinook woman. A Chinese man shows up. There’s a servant there. That was a really tricky scene to balance all that.

It’s also just a movie about capitalism versus nature. The beginnings of capitalism, and how quickly the beaver was depleted. If those two things can co-exist.

Alissa Wilkinson

I was also really taken by the end of First Cow — what do you think the ending means?

Kelly Reichardt

Well, I can’t talk about the ending at all! Oh, look, our time is up!

After a brief theatrical run in March before theaters closed, First Cow is available to digitally purchase on platforms including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, and on-demand providers. (It will be available to rent on July 21.) First Cow is also playing in select “virtual theatrical” release. See the film’s website for full details.

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