with Kelly Reichardt
Director of First Cow
with Kelly Reichardt
Director of First Cow
Can you talk about the process of adapting The Half-Life into a film?
The Half-Life is the first thing that I ever read by Jon Raymond; reading it led to me working with him on Old Joy. It’s a novel that spans forty years in the 1800s and is set on two continents, so it’s always been out of my reach, as far as it becoming a possible film. Over the years, Jon and I often mused over how The Half-Life could be made into a manageable project.
For the last few years, prior to making First Cow, I had been trying to do a film in Europe, also set in the 1800s; it was a kind of fantasy, and I spent a lot of time thinking about small villages and looking at Courbet and Bruegel. That project fell through, so Jon and I started doing our usual thing, thinking about how we could adapt The Half-Life — and finally we came up with First Cow.
The film opens with a quote by William Blake: “the bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” Is that from the book, and do you see First Cow as a movie about friendship?
It’s a film about other, less beautiful things, but friendship is at its core. The Blake quote is in The Half-Life and is pretty much the impetus for everything. It was super nice working with so many friends while making a film about friendship.
First Cow is about making something, too: Cookie and King-Lu become partners in a creative enterprise, baking and selling biscuits and cakes. There’s a lot of focus on their process, and I wonder if your own interest in process is reflected in that aspect of the film?
All the films are process-heavy in their themes, and yes, filmmaking is obviously process-heavy — every aspect of it. This is the sixth film I’ve made with producers Anish Savjani and Neil Kopp. They’re the guys on the ground who figure out how to make everything happen — we’re shooting a scene where we need fish to appear in a creek, and right on time there are guys dropping fish into a creek.
There are all these parallel universes happening in a film. On every front, ideas evolve and morph into newer versions of the original idea. In the story, it’s how the biscuit becomes the oily cake, and then Cookie says, “I think they would like something sweeter,” and before you know it you’ve got a clafoutis on your hands.
How did you devise the look of First Cow with your long-time cinematographer, Chris Blauvelt?
Before I meet with Chris, I build a book that’s a visual guide that takes us through the entire movie, scene by scene, and gives us an idea about the look and tone and the basic shooting strategy. For First Cow, we revisited Ugetsu and The Apu Trilogy — films that take place in small shanty towns. Those films offered some good jumping-off points. The cowboy paintings of Frederic Remington were a color guide—the murky blues and greens and the coral-colored light.
Chris and I look through these image books together and have our first conversations. We go through the script over and over again. Chris goes and does some test shoots and tries various lenses that he wants to consider. Meanwhile, we are scouting locations; Janet Weiss was our scout. Janet is endlessly out digging up new places that we follow up on — usually with Assistant Director Chris Carroll, Production Designer Tony Gasparro, Chris Blauvelt, and my friend/ assistant Mikey Kampmann. Mikey shoots the locations with a still camera while Chris Carroll and Chris Blauvelt act as stand-ins for the actors as I’m blocking out the scenes. Blauvelt is always making lists and Carroll is always drawing maps. Somewhere in the mix, I have time alone in the actual built spaces before we shoot. It’s really key to get time alone with a viewfinder. Then, on the day of the actual shoot, I work with the actors in the space, and we make adjustments for whatever is in the air at that moment — but by that point Chris and I are working from a pretty strong foundation.
The camera is very low to the ground in First Cow, and you use a similar aspect ratio as in Meek’s Cutoff, except in a very different visual space. The aesthetic of the movie is very cramped and intimate, with no real panoramas or landscape shots.
It’s funny you call it cramped. Chris Carroll feels the forest is very claustrophobic. It’s certainly more closed-in than Meek’s Cutoff, which was shot in the desert on playas. Meek’s was all about the openness and the expanse of the landscape, and the square frame was a way of creating anxiety — not knowing what is coming next, not being able to see what tomorrow brings. First Cow is also shot in 4:3. In First Cow there is a lot of digging and foraging, and the fireplaces
are on the ground, the mat that Cookie sleeps on—everything is close to the ground. The square frame works nicely for the tall trees in the exteriors and makes things very intimate in the interiors. It suits the characters as well. Four by three is not about grandeur. It’s a kind of a humble frame.
In Meek’s Cutoff, there’s a certain iconography of the Western that you could draw on or work against. The period and setting of First Cow are far less iconic and familiar in the minds of most viewers: there’s the line in the script about how “history hasn’t gotten here yet.” What kind of visual references did you have to draw on for your production and costume designers?
Meek’s Cutoff was 1845, so we had photographic images to work with. With Meek’s, every time we set up a camera, it was like making a decision to either counter or support an existing trope. That’s just the nature of the Western genre, and how strong the visual language is. With First Cow, since it’s 1820, no photos exist — only a small number of etchings by early explorers in
the region. The research was more geared towards interpreting what’s written about the time, or passed down in stories. [Costume Designer] April Napier would figure out what people would have had on their backs as they left home and what they would have had access to along the way. We had categories for how people would have arrived and what their jobs would have been, if they were working at the fort or just passing through.
We ended up working with a researcher named Phil Clark in London, because the people keeping records of the area and making notes and sketches were coming from England. April’s research led to Nan MacDonald and a group of women in Powers, Oregon who made all of the cedar capes and hats that are in the film. Tony [Gasparro] and the art department were doing their own research. Jon Raymond was making trips down to the Chachalu Museum, the interpretive museum of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde — a really wonderful museum near the coast that just opened a year or so ago. Everyone was gathering information in a variety of ways.
There’s a feeling in the film of a society that’s still in formation; nothing has become standardized or uniform yet. The characters are all coming from somewhere else, and there’s a surprising amount of variance between them. It’s a primal American scene.
The area where the movie is set is called the Lower Columbia, the stretch of river from the ocean to where the Willamette hits the Columbia, in present-day Portland. It’s been inhabited by people for at least 12,000 years. The moment that we were exploring was a really interesting one. A lot
of new people had been brought to the area by the emerging global beaver trade. There are not nations there yet, but there are corporations, starting to extract natural resources.
The area was actually pretty cosmopolitan by some standards. People from Russia, America, England, Spain, Hawaii, and China were all there among the many tribes and bands that lived along the river and had used the river as a trade highway for millennia. It is a primal American scene in a way, but also totally counter to our normal understanding of westward expansion. It kind of turns the origin of America into a corporate colonial story, with people from everywhere in the world invading the space from every direction.
There is a strong, consistent presence in the film of Native American characters at the edges of the story. Can you talk about how that culture and community was integrated into the production?
This is a really big question. The story we were telling was an immigrant story, about a cook and
a sailor in an unfamiliar land. That said, we were making a movie set in the Pacific Northwest in the 1820s, and we wanted to make sure the people who lived in that time and place were properly represented. They’re also a really underrepresented group in film, and so the responsibility became even stronger. We were really lucky that we encountered some incredibly generous people at the Chachalu Museum and in the language program at the Grand Ronde who could educate us about their families and their history. They helped us with translations and introduced us to really useful books and films in their archives.
A beautiful thing happened one night when we were recording wild lines with James Lee Jones and Orion for the scene where King-Lu bargains with a man for a ride down river. They were speaking in the jargon called Chinuk Wawa—a global trade language rooted in Chinook. A small group of us were in a parked van with the interpreter, trying to get the pronunciation right, and I’m realizing how many people on the crew—the boom operator, the sound recordist, the script supervisor—were picking up on the language and its sounds and could join in on the conversation of what certain words meant or sounded like. All the actors speaking the jargon took their own approach to it. Hopefully we are somewhere in the ballpark with it all.
Who actually cooked the biscuits and oily cakes on set?
Sean Fong, who worked in the prop department with Paul Curtin. Sean was in charge of making the oily cakes and the biscuits, made with just the ingredients they would have had at the time.
William Tyler’s musical score is extremely moody and striking—and very unusual in that it sounds like something beyond or outside the period of the story.
William Tyler entered after various attempts at using more authentic music from the period. Nothing was really working—the closer I got to “the real thing” the more it felt like a show for public television. I broke away from that and William came to the edit room and played to a rough cut of the film, just to see if it made sense, and it did.
You’ve worked with a very wide range of actors over the years, and in your last few movies, you’ve had some people who would probably be considered movie stars. Can you talk about how you came to cast John Magaro and Orion Lee and how their performances were shaped?
Both John and Orion came by way of casting director Gayle Keller. I was mostly familiar with John Magaro from Carol, and I knew [Executive Producer] Scott Rudin was a fan of John’s theater work. Something about John’s overall vibe—the first time I Skyped with him I thought he had a lot of Cookie in him. He didn’t feel like an obvious choice in any way, so it was exciting and I was extremely happy he was up for it.
Gayle was relentless in the search for King-Lu. We looked at hundreds of actors. Orion did three or four readings, and each one was super interesting in its own way. The challenge for me with King-Lu was that he was a hybrid of two characters from the book, so the role was new; I didn’t totally know what I was looking for.
You can’t really know what the chemistry is going to be like until the actors are in their costumes and on location and doing their chores. Orion was a fantastic find for King-Lu. John and Orion had very different working methods. John is an internal actor and doesn’t really want to talk everything out, whereas Orion wants to know exactly what I’ll be wearing in the editing room the day I cut the scene we are about to shoot. That’s a slight exaggeration, but he really likes to know the lay of the land, which was funny because their acting approaches very much reflected the dynamic between Cookie and King-Lu.
Chris Blauvelt took a polaroid of the two actors standing in a parking lot in their full costumes during pre-production, and it was the first time seeing them together. John looked like Gustave Courbet! Then we sent them off into the woods for some camping time with a survivalist, who taught them how to skin squirrels and make fires without matches.
You’ve continued to edit your own films—how important is that control to you? Has your process as an editor changed a lot over the years?
It’s nice getting the film back into my own hands in a nice, quiet environment after all the activity of a shoot. Editing has informed how I shoot films; thinking about how shots are going to fit together while conceiving a scene. During the sound mix and the color correction, I no longer have my hands on the controls, and I’m just sitting on the couch in the freezing, dark room. I find it so sleep inducing. If I didn’t cut my own films, I’d probably sleep through the whole editing process.
Do you ever reflect on your movies as a body of work and consider the similarities between them, the themes and images that you’ve returned to? Can you think about where First Cow fits into that, or are you still too close to it?
I probably do think about it when I notice I’m repeating myself. I don’t know how First Cow fits into it all. Peter Hutton, who this movie is dedicated to, had a funny thing he used to say—that if you make enough work, people will be forced to deal with you. I guess someone will have to compare these films to each other.
There’s contemporary resonance in First Cow, whether in the way it deals with capitalism or divisions in society, or even just the presentation of a very loyal, loving interracial friendship; there seems to be space to read it specifically as a political movie.
I’d say all the films are political in their way. It’s just in the nature of things we are interested in. Where does the power lie? Where do people fall on the ladder of success and survival? And how does that affect how they treat each other? That seems to be at the core of the stories. But then hopefully the films are really about individual characters in individual situations.
We haven’t talked about the cow in First Cow — she probably deserves a mention.
Evie. She was selected from a bunch of cow headshots. She had the biggest eyes. One thing about working with animals is that everyone has to slow down. Film crews are not used to working slowly and quietly. But with Evie, or with the horses in Certain Women, as a crew we all have to move in slow motion and give over to the animal—if you fight it you will just be frustrated.