In her excellent new drama First Cow, director Kelly Reichardt goes back in time while keeping her eyes focused on the present. We’re in the Oregon Territory in the 1820s, a moment when that part of America was still untamed and up for grabs, and we meet two very different men: Cookie (John Magaro), a soft-spoken cook, and King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant who receives a chilly reception from this world populated by pale-faced fur trappers. The sensitive Cookie feels like an outsider among those rugged, manly men, too, and soon these mismatched characters form a partnership to try to make their way in a harsh West that’s already starting to feel like the nation we know — full of haves and have-nots where only the toughest (and wealthiest) survive.
Reichardt is a filmmaker who doesn’t like to repeat herself, but First Cow (adapted from the novel The Half-Life, written by her frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond) is in keeping with the kind of smart, intimate movies she’s authored over the last two decades. Whether it’s the tale of estranged male friends in Old Joy, the story of a drifter and her dog in Wendy and Lucy or her pseudo-thriller Night Moves (about a group of eco-terrorists who blow up a dam and then try to evade the authorities), she’s drawn to characters who survive on the margins, their lives rarely examined in mainstream films.
That’s true of Cookie and King-Lu — who work together on a risky scheme to sell delicious cakes to the trappers, the milk stolen from a local rich man’s cow in the middle of the night — but it also applies to Reichardt, who specializes in low-budget films far away from the studio system, wowing critics and fans even if her movies remain largely unseen by the masses. (It was big news that her previous film, 2016’s relatively star-studded Certain Women, which featured Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart and Reichardt veteran Michelle Williams, actually managed to crack a million dollars at the U.S. box office.) A teacher at Bard University, Reichardt isn’t someone who seems to go in for the glitz and red-carpet glamour of Hollywood. Like her characters, she proudly does her own thing, and thank god she does: I think she’s one of the best filmmakers working today.
When we spoke last week at the offices of A24, which releases First Cow today, Reichardt discussed her interest in depicting men who aren’t macho stereotypes. (She doesn’t sound like she’s a fan of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.) But I was also curious about a very un-Reichardt thing she did last summer, which was be part of the prestigious competition jury at the Cannes Film Festival, an event that would most certainly require her to deal with a lot of red carpets. (Plus, since she’s only five-feet tall, her fellow jury members, including movie star Elle Fanning, would tower above her.) Fighting a cold but as sharp as ever, Reichardt talks about obnoxiously manly actors — including the one she had to contend with on the set of her previous Western, Meek’s Cutoff — the complexity of male friendships and why she loves a chore.
There’s a lot going on in First Cow, but something that comes through strongly is that, even in the early days of America, the country was falling into a class system — and that the people on the bottom have to cut corners and break the law sometimes to get ahead. Nothing much has changed.
The novel is big and goes over four decades — they go to China and all — but one of the themes we kept was this friendship [between Cookie and King-Lu]. There’s a Blake quote at the beginning of the novel — [“the bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship”] — that I wanted to keep in the film, like a guide: “This is what I’m making a film about.” But there’s also this idea of earliest capitalism. Also, capitalism versus the natural world: Can the two things coexist? Soon, the beaver and the First Nations people will be wiped out. Mostly everybody was coming [to America] by sea, and everybody was an immigrant, but the caste system starts even before there’s an agreed-upon currency.
There’s this American myth that seems to keep showing up in movies — this idea that if you just have ingenuity and gumption, anybody can rise to the top. It’s all just there for the taking if you’re not lazy. But is there really a way to break through?
Whether it’s Old Joy or First Cow, you feature men who are incredibly gentle and anti-macho. I don’t know if it’s intentional, but you seem to focus on men who aren’t like the men that we normally see in movies.
I just don’t understand [macho men] — I don’t get it. It’s beyond my comprehension. Like, in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, the idea of the shirtless man on top of the roof — the white man who beats up Bruce Lee, saves the damsel in distress, and sets on fire the “scummy hippies” — I’m just like, “Really?” People love it, but I don’t understand, especially in the climate we live in, how the macho-man thing just keeps being interesting to anybody. The idea of white man as savior? Please — as if that has any relevance anywhere on the planet. Give me a break. How the semiotics of that — and the mythology of that in the world as we know it — can still exist is quite fascinating.
So it’s not like you’re trying to comment on those kinds of male characters by going in the opposite direction — there’s nothing conscious about it on your part.
It’s just not my world. And it’s not in Jon’s or in Maile Meloy’s [whose short stories inspired Certain Women]. It’s just not who’s there [in my movies]. I mean, clearly “strong” men are the weakest people — isn’t the curtain been pulled back [on that]? If I should happen to come upon [that macho mindset], I’m more taken aback that it can still have any validity.
As you were talking, I was thinking that one of the few really “strong” men in any of your movies is the Bruce Greenwood character in Meek’s Cutoff. Stephen Meek is full of bluster, convinced that he knows where he’s going, but we quickly realize that he’s a fool.
And he was a macho guy on set. It was really hard working with him.
Was Greenwood doing it for the character?
I don’t give a shit. Like, who cares? I don’t know why anybody does anything but, yeah, that energy was really difficult to slog through. But the character had so much hubris, and that was during “George Bush going into Iraq” times. He’s supposed to be a “strong” man.
What’s also remarkable about First Cow is that you have two men be in close quarters together, without commenting on whether there might be some sort of romantic feeling between them. Most movies would want to define that relationship — yours doesn’t.
We always had this feeling that they’re private and they’re intimate but, no, we just wanted to let them be close. What is it [like] when there are no women around? Relationships have so many dimensions — [we didn’t want] to let it get summed into any one thing.
In interviews, you talk about your interest in filming processes — how your characters do things. We see how the terrorists in Night Moves carry out their plan in minute detail — or we watch Cookie making the cakes in First Cow. It made me wonder if you’re suggesting that the tasks we do define us more than the things that we say — it’s a way of learning about a character.
It’s funny, when I was just [at the Berlin Film Festival], the woman that works for the festival who was shuttling me around had so much energy. She’s 75, and her thing was, “Oh, you work or you die — that’s it.” And it’s like, yeah, exactly.
Making a film is such a series of processes. First, you’re alone and you’re building things in your visual book. Then you get with your cinematographer and you break it all down. Or you do a script: Jon puts together a first draft, and then I break it all down. You design your shots, but then the location is different, and you break it down, and you rebuild it. That’s what you’re doing in edits: Build, build, build, break, break, break, build, build, build. So I guess I like filming the process of doing things.
[A physical task] engages an actor so they’re not thinking about acting — they have to actually concentrate on doing something. And [during the 1820s of First Cow] it’s not like you could just lounge around — there were constantly things you had to do for your survival, like fixing your next meal. As opposed to things just happening, it is nice to watch the seed of something, and see how it takes root, or doesn’t work and then gets corrected.
I like a chore.
You mean personally? You like doing chores?
Oh, yeah. Get into the hotel room, take out the iron and iron. I like a chore — because you’re thinking, you know? I can’t just sit down in front of a computer and have an idea. But I can mop my floor and have an idea.
You were part of the jury for last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Did you enjoy that?
They wrote and invited me, and I immediately said no. [Laughs] Because my immediate reaction to everything is always to say no. But then my producers were like, “Do you want to think about that for one second?” My mind just goes to, like, “Oh, I don’t have the clothes for that — I can’t deal with it.”
But thank god [producers] Neil [Kopp] and Anish [Savjani] pushed me to do it, because I had the greatest time. It really was unexpected. It was a really diverse group of people I didn’t know, but it was a pretty quick love-fest — I don’t know why. Meeting Alice [Rohrwacher] and Yorgos [Lanthimos] and Elle Fanning. And Alejandro [González Iñárritu] was a great leader.
But it’s, like, you wake up and, honestly, someone rolls breakfast over to your bed — it’s a chocolate croissant and a latte — and then you go sit in a room with some people that have really different points of view and talk about film all day. It was great. I really thought it would be super-draining, but it was super-energizing.
From my outside perspective, it doesn’t seem like all the glitz of Cannes would be your type of thing.
Oh, I don’t want to shop. [Laughs] Don’t make me buy some outfit I’ll never wear again. And as much as there was fucking red-carpet stuff, it wasn’t like I was doing it alone — I was doing it with, like, some physically giant people. It was bizarre. I never saw myself look so small before — my god, so tiny. And that was unnecessary, because they’re all really tall people that wore, like, six-inch heels. It was a very unfriendly, unfair thing. [Laughs] That was my only negative takeaway.
Since you work in the low-budget world — and First Cow is critical of capitalism — I can imagine it must have been a shock to be pampered in that way.
You have this kind of manservant, and I was like, “This is overkill. This is so gross.” And then, by Day Three, you’re like, “Well, that elevator’s not going to call itself. Somebody’s going to have to push that button…” [Laughs] You’re thinking, “I can become used to this really quickly.” For a minute I was like, “Oh, I see the other half are living quite well. I see the draw.”