First Cow director Kelly Reichardt on adaptation, oily-cakes, and bovine stars
In a season of delayed releases, First Cow is getting a second chance: Kelly Reichardt’s critically beloved indie (and one of EW’s best films of 2020 so far), which premiered at Telluride last summer and had its theatrical release right as the U.S. began going into lockdown in March, hits VOD on Friday.
“We made a lot of decisions for what it would look like in a theater,” the filmmaker admits to EW. “So, you know, I’m a control freak and would like to go to everyone’s house and do their TV settings and make sure their room is really dark and that sort of thing. But I’m happy people are going to get to see it!”
Set in 1825, the film opens with Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro), a talented baker, traveling to the Oregon Territory as the cook to a group of fur trappers. On the journey, he encounters King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant on the run from Russian traders, and offers him a meal and a place to hide.
Later, as Cookie navigates a harsh life out west, news breaks of the arrival of the Territory’s first cow, the property of Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a powerful local businessman (“he would be the CEO of Exxon, or something, [of] the day,” Reichardt characterizes him; his beaver-trade business was largely based on the Hudson Bay Company). When the skilled Cookie reconnects with King Lu, an irrepressible dreamer, the unlikely duo hatch a plan to steal the cow’s milk in the dead of night and make their fortune selling sweet biscuits (“oily-cakes”) to the denizens of an unforgiving land of hardtack.
First Cow marks Reichardt’s fifth collaboration with author and screenwriter Jonathan Raymond, whose 2004 novel The Half-Life provided the basis for the screenplay, co-written by Reichardt and Raymond. The artists first worked together on the 2006 feature Old Joy, based on one of Raymond’s short stories, but it was The Half-Life that truly began their creative partnership.
“After I read [it], I wrote him and asked him if he had any short stories,” Reichardt tells EW. “Because I just didn’t know how I could make The Half-Life, which runs over four decades and there’s a big trip to China in it, and my films all, you know, take place over the course of a week. But I was always asking Jon not to let anybody else have it, because I thought, one day, we would figure it out.”
The filmmaker had been working toward another project that wasn’t panning out when Raymond came up with a device that would enable them to adapt the soul (if not the exact plot) of the book into a film: The cow, of course. “The cow’s not in the novel,” Reichardt admits. “But that gave us a kind of strategy to bring in the characters and the themes from the novel into this smaller story.”
King Lu (who is actually an amalgam of two characters in the book) describes the wild setting as an “untouched” country of “nameless” things: “History isn't here yet,” he enthuses to Cookie. “Maybe this time we can be ready for it.” It’s a thrilling, romantic notion, but he’s wrong, of course — someone else’s history is there already, and the settlers flooding in from the eastern states as well as foreign countries are quickly imposing their own as well.
Reichardt’s research into the unique historical setting was “a big team effort,” she says. Raymond forged a relationship with the Grand Ronde, a confederation of tribes in the Pacific Northwest, who generously gave the production access to their library and even lent them canoes (“though they haven’t even seen the film yet and they’re definitely not responsible in any way for anything that’s in the film,” Reichardt clarifies).
An old friend of producer Neil Kopp speaks the Chinook Jargon spoken in the film and advised on the language as well as helping Magaro and Lee develop their survival skills: “He had a bunch of frozen squirrels, sort of roadkill squirrels in his freezer, and taught those guys how to skin a squirrel and build a fire without matches and all that sort of stuff,” Reichardt says. “They went out to a rainy three-day camping trip as soon as they got here — that’s sort of how they got to know each other.”
But the research wasn’t all roadkill squirrels and rainy camping: “When we discovered the name of oily-cakes, these kinds of hole-less donuts, we were very excited, of course,” Reichardt says. “I really like filming the process of things, and Cookie is a cook, and he’s an artist in that way. We see him out of his element in so many situations, and then when he’s down sort of on the ground talking to the cow, [and] when he’s in the hut going through the whole process of cooking, we just get to see him in his element.”
While “down-to-earth” Cookie milks the cow on the ground, “the more aspirational King Lu is up in the tree,” Reichardt points out, and Magaro and Lee’s contrasts, and excellent chemistry, gives First Cow its beating heart. Theirs is a bitter existence, made a little more palatable by the sweetnesses of friendship and oily-cakes. It’s also a man’s world — but for the undeniable feminine power of the film’s true queen, Eve the cow.
“She was super sweet,” Reichardt says of the aptly named bovine superstar, who nevertheless, um, resisted direction. The filmmaker had previously learned her lesson, that “you come around to how to work with the animal; it’s not so much that [an animal] comes around to learn to work with a film crew,” by shooting with horses on 2016’s Certain Women. Still, “it’s amazing what happens when you’re shooting in the night and your whole crew is moving slowly, in sync and quiet,” Reichardt remembers fondly of their magical night shoots with Eve. “But I mean, if [cinematographer] Chris Blauvelt never has to shoot another cow or horse, I’m sure he’ll be very happy.”
First Cow hits VOD Friday, July 10.