With each successive film she directs, Kelly Reichardt refines and clarifies her unique aesthetic, one that’s rooted in gentle observation and cumulative grace notes. Set in 1820’s Oregon, First Cow, Reichardt’s latest feature, follows two men—Cookie (John Magaro), a soft-spoken cook, and King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant new to the region—who start a business selling oily cakes at a local trading post. In order to make the cakes, however, Cookie and King-Lu are forced to steal milk from a new cow purchased by a wealthy English chief who lives in the community, putting themselves and their new operation at immediate risk. It’s a portrait of an American community in progress at a time when the country’s capitalist society, and its hard-lined values, were still being developed.

Yet, First Cow also feels like a grab-bag of allusions to Reichardt’s filmography. Shades of her previous work like Old Joy, Wendy & Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, and even her first feature River of Grass find their way into the film. It evokes a rich interconnected worldview that functions as a text and a living gateway into an artist’s own recurring interests and obsessions. In other words, First Cow is another stellar entry in an urgent American director’s filmography.

We briefly spoke with Reichardt about the world of First Cow (which is getting a digital release beginning this week, after the pandemic interrupted its theatrical release plans), the survivalist who helped prepare stars John Magaro and Orion Lee for filming, William Tyler’s score, and more.

The Film Stage: The scenes in the town and around the fort have an in-progress feel, like the community is being built in real time. I’m curious how that idea translated to the production side. Did you direct the surrounding crew and extra to perform their handiwork like they normally would, a la Altman with McCabe and Mrs. Miller?

Kelly Reichardt: We did take some cues from McCabe and Mrs. Miller. I admit that because I have René Auberjonois right there in the town. I loved the idea of getting to know the characters of the town and seeing repeated people, and it also kind of worked for the economy of our situation. We went on location for the stuff around the fort—the town is separate—but we sort of had the same people there repeatedly showing up over and over again. We had people who worked for the beaver trade and then we had trappers and then we had sailors and then we had…what else did we have? I forget our categories, but we had like five categories. [Laughs.] Which also impacted how [costume designer] April Napier would have to dress everybody. We gave everybody their little synopsis of what their situation was. In the marketplace, there’s the selling going on, and in the town, Rene Auberjonois is the guy who’s already annoyed by the fact that his town is already getting crowded, as the third house is being built. A little world got built, which was, on the one hand, a way we could just be like, “Here are your clothes! This is you! This is what you do!” 

I have to say, all of that is really where Chris Carroll, the assistant director, who moves around all the background actors, gets to shine. I’ve made quite a few films with Chris now and we’re quite close, but I’m still always like, “No, that timing is going to be off!” But his timing is always right for when someone moves through the background and cross and do whatever. It’s really fun working that world out with him and watching him. Like at one point, we were doing the scene where Toby Jones tastes the biscuit and he’s talking to [John Magaro’s character] Cookie about the clafoutis or whatever. Right before we started, Chris said, “I think you’re really going to like this one,” and these two guys come walking into the background with this giant pole or whatever. It becomes fun in the editing room because I’m just like, “Uh oh, one person’s in the background of John Magaro, and at the same time, he’s magically in the background of Toby Jones at the same time.” [Laughs.] But we tried to make a world where we could give everybody a part like, “This is where you live, this is what you have to do at the fort, and this is what you would be doing there and that’s why you would go to the bar, or you wouldn’t be allowed in the bar,” or whatever.

Speaking of Altman, I have ask was having that one shot of Rene with the huge bird a homage to Brewster McCloud?

[Pause.] Oh my God, I didn’t think of that. 

Oh wow.

I really didn’t think of that right until this very minute. I didn’t think of that! Aww, that’s sweet. No, I really didn’t think of that! 

Who exactly was the survivalist that you brought on board to teach Magaro and Orion Lee how to live in the wilderness? Where did you find him and what was he like?

He went to high school with Neil Kopp. He and Anish Savjani have produced [almost] all of my movies. Those guys solve so many things, but I don’t know how Neil always pulls something out of his hat. His friend is a guy who became a survivalist and became obsessed with the Chinook jargon, the language used in our film, and has sort of made his whole life about studying the Chinook and trying to keep the Chinook Wawa alive. Neil’s friend Peter went out with [Magaro and Lee] and hung around the whole movie and was so helpful to us. But it’s funny, Gary Farmer wouldn’t deal with the language with him because he was white. Gary kept calling up Magaro like, “I’m not going to talk to the fake guy.” It’s like, “Ahh, Gary!” But Peter had to teach them how to skin squirrels and stuff and he was like, “Oh, I’ve got a freezer full of squirrels!” I was like, “Okay. That’s fortunate.” [Laughs.] Neil Kopp has pulled someone out of his hat like on every film that’s the equivalent of this guy.

I’m curious: Did John Magaro practice making oily cakes before filming began?

He was making other stuff. No, he learned the oily cakes there, but I was finding cookbooks and recipes from the time and sending it to him in New York in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment. He likes to cook, so he was cooking up recipes only dealing with what would have been available to him in the time and the region. So he was practicing a lot of the cooking stuff at home, and then when he came to the camp, instead of rehearsal we sent them off and had them practice cooking on fires and all that sort of stuff. I don’t think he did the oily cakes until he got there. There were so many oily cakes and clafoutis. They’re actually not super complicated to make.

Could you talk a little bit about the score? How did you meet William Tyler and what was that collaboration like?

I met him on the day he came to my edit studio with his four guitars and dulcimer. I played scenes for him and he played along. I was doing a lot of different things because I wasn’t sure. I was trying a lot of music that was from the period. It wasn’t really working out. It was too on the nose. I knew William’s music from Silver Jews and Lambchop, and I forget exactly what I sent to him, but he came to New York for a couple days with his instruments and me and the editing assistant just played scenes for him and recorded it so I could use that as scratch tracks. We would play it back and ask him to do something else just to get a variation of things that we were trying. I knew as soon as he started that it was going to work out. Then I spent some days in the editing room working with the stuff that we had done and used it as a launching pad. We worked remotely after that.

First Cow seems to callback to previous films in your career. Alia Shawkat and the dog recall Wendy & Lucy; John Magaro and Orion Lee broadly remind me of the guys from Old Joy; First Cow and Meek’s Cutoff take place in the Oregon area during the 19th century. Do you view your filmography as a continuum? Do you think in those terms?

No. I’m just working on what I’m working on. I was aware of all that, especially with Old Joy. I knew I was putting two guys in a forest and I wanted it to look very different. We shot Old Joy on film in a different aspect ratio. It’s a super green film. With this film, I was working with a different kind of light. I was working from these Frederic Remington paintings, trying to really muddy the greens. But I’m aware of the stuff you’re mentioning and knew there was some overlap. On the other hand, The Half Life [the book which First Cow is based upon] was the first thing I ever read of [co-writer and frequent collaborator] Jonathan Raymond’s. In some way, maybe we were already plucking the fruit from that tree along the way.

First Cow opens in Virtual Cinemas tonight and arrives digitally on Friday.

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