How 'First Cow' Director Kelly Reichardt Made One of the Best Movies of the Year
Talking cows, cakes, and cowboys!
Note: This interview was conducted in February before the spread of the coronavirus caused the shutdown of movie theaters across the country. First Cow, which was initially released in theaters on March 6, will be available for purchase on various VOD platforms July 10 and for rental on July 2.
Kelly Reichardt makes tough, wise movies that defy easy classification. Her latest film, the 1800s-set frontier drama First Cow, starring John Magaro and Orion Lee as a pair of enterprising friends trying to survive under harsh conditions, finds her returning to the same unforgiving, dust-covered period trappings of her acclaimed 2010 neo-western Meek's Cutoff, but the terrain and the tone feel different this time. Despite critics referring to First Cow a western, she thinks it's more of a caper. You could even call it the first ever milk heist thriller.
Here's what you should also call First Cow: great. Adapted from a 2004 novel by Reichardt's frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond, who co-wrote the screenplay, this simultaneously gentle and suspenseful film follows a quiet cook named Cookie (Magaro) and a more boisterous Chinese immigrant named King Lu (Lee) as they work their way across the Oregon territory, eventually stumbling upon a potentially lucrative business model. Using milk they steal from a cow owned by a rich landowner (Toby Jones), the two start selling delicious "oily cakes," a donut-like pastry drizzled with oil, to workers in town. As the cakes catch on, the pair find themselves in a classic crime-movie dilemma: Keep taking the risk and make a fortune or get out while the getting is good?
Having directed independent films for more than 25 years, Reichardt knows a great deal about the precariousness of the filmmaking process. In a revealing conversation at the A24 offices in Manhattan, she talked about pursuing this project for over a decade, casting the perfect cow, and whether or not the cakes on screen tasted as good as they looked. (Spoiler for this interview: The cakes were real.)
Thrillist: I was reading an interview you did with Gus Van Sant from 2008, where you mention Jonathan Raymond's novel The Half-Life and said it was a dream to one day make it into a film. When did the book first come into your life and what made you want to chase it?
Kelly Reichardt: It was the first thing I read by Jon. I met Jon through Todd Haynes when Todd moved to Portland, around the first time I came to visit Todd, which must've been 2000, maybe. I have such a bad memory. But I read The Half-Life when I was driving across the country and going to Kansas. I was in a little In Cold Blood phase and I was going to visit the courthouse and blah blah blah. Ultimately, I ended up in LA. But I had my dog Lucy at the time and I was reading his book and in Kansas I finished it and I remember in the motel room that day I just got distracted from the In Cold Blood thing by his book.
So I wrote Jon. I had met him but I didn't really know him, so I asked him if he had any short stories that were super small and took place outside that I could write a dog into. He sent me "Old Joy" and that became the beginning of our collaboration. He was like, "Here, take this." It had come out in a book of photographs with Justine Kurland and he didn't really expect anything to come of it. I found his first email to me recently and it was, "Yeah, sure."
Then over the years -- I can't even say how far back -- we've just come back to this idea of The Half-Life, but it spans 40 years and two continents and it was nothing I could get my arms around. Sometimes we'd play with the idea of just doing the contemporary part or just doing the other part. Then, I'd been working on another project with a different Portland writer and I was trying to make a film in Europe for a couple of years and it was just not happening. But I'd been scouting all these little villages in Slovakia from the early 1800s and looking at all this artwork, like [French painter Gustave] Courbet type of imagery, and Homer. Not wanting to let go all of that. I went back to Portland and we talked about The Half-Life again, a conversion we've had a million times, but I reread the book and I decided its definitely the 1800s section I want to focus on. Then we started scheming.
You've obviously written multiple scripts with Jon before but you've also written projects on your own. How has that process changed over time?
Reichardt: It's really different every time. With Old Joy, I took so much directly from the story. We're very close friends so we're in constant contact. But even when I wrote by myself [on Certain Women], I was working off Maile Meloy's stories. To me, having a foundation of someone's writing, especially from an actual writer -- I don't consider myself a writer, I need to work on my own screenplays so I can understand them as films -- it comes from a piece of something that already exists. Often, we're doing an outline first and Jon writes the first pass. There's always enough in his writing that when it comes time for me to do my pass, there's room to expand things and create inside the frame he's nicely given me with these fully developed characters. Then I can pick up some side characters and do what we've come to call the "surface funk" of things.
Having a good foundation is such a gift. Because then it's such a long process. The script is always changing. We're passing it back and forth to each other -- and he's always doing the first draft, which is the hardest draft. Then location [scouting] starts happening and that changes it, and then casting changes it, and research changes it. Especially on this film, the production designer Tony Gasparro, the costume designer April Napier, and the art team, they'd come upon research that would work its way into the story.
How do you cast a cow? I believe I saw her name in the credits was Bessie.
Reichardt: It's Evie.
Ah, sorry. Embarrassing.
Reichardt: She now has a little calf named Cookie. It's a lot like casting a person: you get headshots and full body shots. We narrowed it down so we knew we wanted a Jersey cow, just for the physical size of a Jersey cow. They have these huge eyes. Then the animal trainers go out and make some videos, so they start sending you the casting tapes. As soon as we saw Evie, it was a no brainer. Everything about her was so awesome. So that began our long training process with her because cows don't swim, so getting a cow onto a ferry and all that was a lot of work.
So that was the big cow challenge?
Reichardt: That was the big challenge. I found out on Certain Women when we were working on this horse ranch, most of the animals I'm working with aren't trained. This was the first time I was working with trained dogs, and it was not as rewarding because there's not a connection between the actor and the animal. There's this in-between person [the trainer], and they always have the gaze of the animal because they want to know where the treat is. It's like a machine. There's no interaction and there's no spontaneity. They're not going to do some crazy dog thing like roll in the mud, and it's too bad because in the past the actors would adapt and play off the behavior of the animal, which is a great thing. But if you just have a little robot dog, it's not the same. So we started calling our friends and having them bring their dogs to swap some of them out.
But certainly the bird on René Auberjonois's shoulder and the cow, Evie, needed to be trained. Still, all the same, like most of the horses in Certain Women, the animals weren't trained and we became a super pared down crew, doing these slow motion movements to learn to communicate with our eyes. Then when it was time to shoot with the cow, we completely forgot about it and you just go through this frustration. There's so much activity and you're always pushing a film crew to go faster but when you're dealing with an animal you have to pull back and say, "We're not determining the speed of this and it doesn't matter what our schedule is -- we have to chill out." In a way, the animals train the crew. Everyone has to be trained to deal with these animals or you can't get anywhere. It's challenging.
I need to ask you about the oily cakes because they looked so good and they're so essential to the story. What type of research went into the look of those?
Reichardt: Our friend Patrick Long helped us and some of our friends who cook helped us do research because [the oily cakes] would've come from Europe. It was actually Jon's partner's idea. It was a matter of thinking about what ingredients you could get and then working from there. There was donut research, and the oily cake would've existed in that period. At the time, there was either baking powder [available] but not baking soda? I'm forgetting which one it is. The film is correct -- Cookie says it and I just can't remember what it is. We made hundreds of oily cakes.
Were they as good as they looked?
Reichardt: Oh, totally. They never went to waste. It's like what you get at a fair. It's just fried bread.
It reminded me of a funnel cake.
Reichardt: Yeah, and John Magaro got quite good at making the oily cakes. Toby Jones actually really loved the oily cakes, so when he says his line about liking them, he really had something to work off of because he enjoyed them.
I loved William Tyler's score for the film. How did you end up working with him on it?
Reichardt: That was a whole process. I was trying to use period music from different places that might find its way into the movie. But it felt like it was trying [too hard] or something, and it just didn't work. Then William Tyler came in, and I knew him from his work in Lambchop and Silver Jews. He's one degree of separation from a lot of people I know. He came to the editing room, and I haven't really worked this way since I worked with Yo La Tengo.
Yeah, it reminded me a little bit of Yo La Tengo's Old Joy score.
Reichardt: He brought his dulcimer and his guitars to the edit room and I played him some scenes, and he just sat there and made up some stuff on the spot -- just so we could see and get an idea. Then I imported that and he went away and I played with it for a while. Just to see if I was in the ballpark of what could work, and it became pretty apparent quickly, "Oh, OK, yes, this will work." So we just built from there and started working more remotely.
Is that typically how you like to work on the music?
Reichardt: With Night Moves and other movies, there were more specific ideas beforehand. For Wendy and Lucy, I knew I wasn't going to use a score and was going to use train sounds as a score instead. The concept might happen before. With Certain Women, where we were shooting was surrounded by train depots and there were going to be train tracks nearby, so we wanted that worked into the sound design because they exist in the space. Sometimes you're finding cool sounds as you go that you want to work with.
I worked with the composer Jeff Grace for a couple movies and that was a whole different way of working that was super interesting and different. Basically, you're editing and they're sending you stuff and you're sending notes and it goes on and on. If you're working with musicians, they have other lives and stuff they're doing, so things happen in a shorter span of time. It's all trial and error.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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