Kelly Reichardt is an American filmmaker whose latest film, First Cow (2020), is now playing in Boston-area theaters. Adapted from Jonathan Raymond’s novel The Half-Life (2004), First Cow is Reichardt’s fifth collaboration with the author, following Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008), Meek’s Cutoff (2010), and Night Moves (2013), all of which take place in Oregon. Reichardt’s other features are River of Grass (1994) and Certain Women (2016).
Set during the peak of the beaver trade in the Oregon territory (suggesting the years following 1825), First Cow depicts the burgeoning friendship between Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro), a fairly inept cook traveling alongside fur traders after time spent as an indentured servant to a baker in Boston, and King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant who claims to be on the run from a crew of Russians. Once they shack up together, the pair begin procuring milk from the eponymous first cow of the territory—owned by the Chief Factor (Toby Jones)—so that they can make and sell Cookie’s delicious “oily cakes”, which quickly draw the attention of nearby settlers and bring them a modest but significant income.
Reichardt visited Cambridge last week to present two of her films on consecutive nights at the Harvard Film Archive. We spoke at the Charles Hotel on Tuesday; that same day, the Archive’s public programming was suspended through at least next month in adherence with standards established by Harvard to address the ongoing pandemic. At the screening that night, Reichardt half-jokingly dubbed it “the last picture show”, clarifying right afterwards that it “really does feel that way”. Given that some theaters playing First Cow remain open to the public at press time, we’ve chosen to publish the following interview as planned. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.
DIG: You tell stories about American people living under capitalism. I’m curious how that changes, if at all, in a moment where there’s not just widespread disillusionment with American imperialism, not just widespread disillusionment with “the state of the economy”, but indeed widespread cultural disillusionment with the very system of capitalism itself.
No—I mean, only for about 45 percent of Americans does it feel that way…
That seems to me a very significant number!
I guess. I don’t understand why it’s not higher.
This story was written in 2004, and the script came from Jon Raymond’s novel The Half-Life. And… it’s never a bad time to question capitalism, you know? It just happens that everything is stark at the moment, and that everything has this heightened feeling. But we had been talking about doing this [adaptation] for a long time.
Really, I tend to just give in to the story I’m working on—the story of King Lu and Cookie. The bigger conversations do happen early on, and then again later in the editing, but for awhile it’s good to just put all that aside and be in the world of the characters, and the situations at hand. And to trust that the subtext will come to light.
So, acknowledging that raising a budget and other practical concerns are a big part of this, I still have to ask: There wasn’t a moment, before or after Certain Women, around that period of time [2015-17], where you thought there is something about this country right now that makes The Half-Life the story I want to tell next?
It was more personal than that: Being able to make it, and to find a way to tell the story that wasn’t just going to be a whittled down [version of] the novel. Most of Jon’s writing is spacious, I can get in there and expand on things. The cow [which is not present in the novel] is the big thing that changed it.
It does fit in the moment nicely. Obviously we knew we were making a story about immigrants in America, and how all people in America, except indigenous peoples, are immigrants. We knew that would be an interesting thing to show. And it’s also just the question that I think has been in a lot of these films, and in a lot of Jon’s writing: The question of capitalism and the natural world, and whether they can coexist in any kind of balance.
So we were aware that it was a nice time to tell the story, but that doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t have told it in another time if we’d had the way. Because it’s not like all this that we’re in right now came to light three years ago. And I think even for myself, I’ve always had this feeling of like, [sigh], the corporations won—as if there was this time that existed without corporate power! Of course it’s always been that way, aside from when First Nations people were able to live here on their own.
Along these lines, I wanted to ask about some of the language choices in the script. I don’t necessarily think contemporary is the right description, but there are many words and phrases used in the film—especially by King Lu—that struck me as sounding like they were taken right out of a present-day board meeting. He’s talking about a “[sales] window”, he’s talking about “leverage”; the word “capital” is of course deployed regularly. At one point he even says “ancient Chinese secret” like a proto-slogan. I wanted to ask about the coding of the language.
There is one line, Chief Factor’s line about how “when things can’t be measured”…
When he’s talking about the ratio between worker death rates and ensuing productivity?
That was something Jon heard two CEOs say to each other. He was so excited to use that line.
Like Meek’s Cutoff, the language is both not contemporary, and not old-fashioned. It’s some other in-between thing. Artistic license, you know. Would King Lu have had those particular words at the time? Sitting here right now, I’m not sure.
I’m certainly not asking if it’s accurate, to be clear—I don’t care about that side of it.
Right—I mean, he’s the big-picture hustler! King Lu does have that sort of mind.
And nobody’s pure, right? The Gary Farmer character, who’s a prominent man of the Chinook tribe, is there [with Chief Factor] to trade, and to take advantage of what there is to be taken advantage of. Chief Factor is there to exploit everything he can. Everyone’s doing their bit, at whatever level they can manage.
In all this, First Cow creates this interesting contradiction where it very explicitly presents capitalism as being this inherent sin built into American life—and yet at the same time, it seems to play on the very American tendency to affectionately romanticize ground-level entrepreneurship. Which I think is an affection often shared by even those of an anti-capitalist leaning. And that affection is if anything emphasized here, given that King Lu is such a charismatic personality, and from what we can tell just a generally lovely human being. And so you seem to lead us into a place where we can’t help but feel a deep regard for what is actually the exact subject of the critique.
I mean, the line outside their [oily cakes stand] could be for some artisanal donut in Portland today. Yes… enjoying all the privileges of your privileged class while having a critique of it at the same time. It can be seen the way you’re talking about it, for sure—like, this entrepreneur is at a level that’s acceptable, what they’re after doesn’t seem so unspeakable. But even still it’s all at the cost of indigenous lives.
But—the Chinook had slaves also. There’s no purity. So the measure of stealing a basket of milk to get to what your goal is, versus depleting a whole civilization, all the beaver… are there degrees that this could work better? [As opposed to] the complete all-out raping of the environment?
I want to ask about the shots of side characters playing music. One of the trappers at the very beginning, and another person later on in the village, are seen playing around for what seems to be entirely their own purposes. These instances of “pleasure for pleasure’s sake” really stood out to me within the larger context of the movie—could you talk about their inclusion, and maybe how you picked the music or instruments?
Yeah, there’s a fiddle player in the town that Cookie passes through. It’s just like, how do people pass the time? There’s a little girl beading a necklace, there’s a guy reading a paper, having a beer—and there’s the fiddle player. Small pleasures.
Part of the reason I bring it up is because these scenes could be held up as a depiction of very early American folk music. It led me to think about your work in the context of folk art, folk stories—one might even say that, with Ode (1999), you adapted a folk song. Do you think about your work in that context?
Not exactly like that. Sometimes I’ll be like, oh, I wish this movie could be as good as this perfect Meat Puppets record, or I wish this movie could be as good as some other thing I’m hooked on.
They are sort of folk tales, in a way. This one [First Cow] like a fable. I think of them like… If you’re in a palace, and you randomly pick up a book or discover a writer, and a small story in there spoke to you—that’d be nice.
Earlier you said the subtext comes up early in the writing, and later in the editing, but not so much during production itself. A similar distinction came up a lot during last night’s talk [at the Harvard Film Archive], as well as during other talks you’ve given recently, including for Criterion—people ask you about meaning and interpretation, and you push back by reorienting the discussion to characterization and depiction of behavior.
Perhaps mixed up somewhere in all that, I’m very interested in your use of ellipses and mystery in building your characters, which seems to me especially prevalent in Certain Women and First Cow. For a concrete example, there’s a scene in this film where Cookie and King Lu are speaking, and there’s a series of three different cuts bringing us to three different places, edited to make it seem like the conversation has continued across the whole time elided. When you’re crafting and editing that scene, do you feel like you’re getting it down to the essence—where everything left out is unnecessary—or are you eliding in the other direction, where what’s left out is quite crucial?
Well in that case that you’re mentioning… Obviously, film is a medium about time. You’re dealing with time all the time, elaborating or consolidating it. And that scene always was conceived as a montage, in the classic sense. [It’s like] Superstar (1999)—of all the films to think of [laughs]—the montage with music, where they’re walking on the beach. You know the kind, you’ve seen it in a million films.
That scene in First Cow is just King Lu’s ongoing patter about possibilities, and Cookie doing his work to get food on the table. It’s just showing a passage of days where they’re becoming comfortable with each other, and that King Lu’s dreamy schemes are ongoing. So it wasn’t really about leaving anything out, necessarily.
But I would say, to my mind, all the films are like: You drop in with these people, and you catch them where they are, and you take a ride with them for a certain amount of time, and then that’s it. Which is why I wouldn’t really go after making a film, or a novel, that lasts for decades.
To put it another way then: I was recently watching your interview for the Criterion release of Old Joy, and you recalled asking Jon Raymond, after first reading the story that inspired that film, so are these guys gay or what?—
Well, in that moment, around 2000… When Todd [Haynes] moved to Portland, which is how I got tied into Portland, he’d be describing all these new friends to me and for some reason I kept saying, but are they gay, or what’s going on? It’s funny to think about it now, but he, being perhaps more progressive, was just sort of like, it’s more fluid than that. He wouldn’t use those words then, but whatever the words were. I don’t know—I was just trying to get to the bottom of something.
I bring it up only because the same question was basically asked last night at the end of the talk, about First Cow. The person used the word “romantic”, “soul mates”, and was essentially asking are these guys gay or what? about Cookie and King Lu—
And to be honest, that question makes no sense to me. I always thought of them as friends—
Well let me say though—I’m not interested in that specific question either—what I’m interested in is: How much do you think about, and how crucial is, the lives of the characters outside what is being depicted clearly and directly within the frame?
Well, those are conversations with the actors. We talk a lot about their background with them. But it really has to do with the [specific] actor. Some actors want to go deeply into that, and some don’t. So to me it’s more about having the information in case I’m asked—but not hoisting it onto anybody that doesn’t want it.
Magaro is kind of a private worker. Once in a while he has a question, but it’s more immediate. Now, Michelle Williams—she needs to know what her character ate for breakfast that morning, and what her great-grandmother was doing. She likes a lot of information. And then Orion Lee, he wants information like [starts laughing] where are you gonna cut this? And I say, none of your business. Or he’d be like, why am I getting this ladder? He never took any move for granted… Everyone comes at it in such a different way.
To me this relationship between what’s directly shown and what’s indirectly suggested, most specifically with regards to the characters, becomes such a central element of your films. I find myself going back and forth thinking about what’s in the frame, and then, separately, what’s out. And more specifically, wondering: Is what’s out essential, or totally besides the point?
That gets back to your question about mystery. To keep a sense that there is an open frame, that other lives are existing—hence the shot [in First Cow] of the man going down the river with his dog. And it adds to the idea of danger a little bit. Thinking of the Academy ratio and all [the film is 1.37:1]: What is literally outside the frame? What’s around them? We tried to plant little signs of other life around Cookie and King Lu. There’s the threat at the beginning, from the Russians—against King Lu, whether that’s true or not—and then someone threatening Cookie, I’ll be waiting for you at the fort. I think this idea of it being a dangerous place is what’s outside the frame.
You worry: Are they in a bubble of intimacy? Are they aware of [the danger around them]? Which, you don’t have to do much to suggest it, because the genre—western—is just that at any moment someone is going to kick your door open, and there’s gonna be a gunfight. To people who are used to the genre, they start to anticipate—something could be coming. And that just has to do with the history of cinema.
With so few exceptions, contemporary movies shot in Academy ratio feel hugely indebted to the standards established in pre-60s Hollywood. You bring up the western—but First Cow, against this particular tendency, never seems to evoke it visually. Given that, your sense of pacing, your choices about what to leave “outside the frame”, and various other qualities of your films… do you think consciously about reorienting the way that audiences receive moving images?
Because I teach, that question is in my head. A part of filmmaking I really love is the planning of how you’re going to get things across that aren’t said in dialogue. How you’re going to do it in the frame. And if the camera’s gonna move, then how’s it gonna move? I always set up rules for myself and [cinematographer] Chris Blauvelt, like no beauty shots, or nothing for the sake of sentiment or grandeur. Everything in the frame has to be doing something to either underscore or subvert what’s happening.
Also with Academy ratio, there is this feeling of telling the story that’s with the people, right in front of you, and not on the edges. And for close-ups and stuff, I find it to just be a lovely frame. But it’s a constant play, because I do enjoy a lot of “old Hollywood”, like Anthony Mann films, and I do like the narrative form in a traditional way. But I’m also aware that people like me haven’t had a voice in creating that language. And so the constant goal is: How do you use it, but not feel trapped by it?