First Cow, which concerns the new economic opportunities that two men attempt to seize after the first milk cow arrives in the Oregon Territory in the early 1800s, does not sound like a heist movie as a synopsis, but that is what Kelly Reichardt was able to pull off.
The director, famous for “slow cinema” gems like Wendy & Lucy and Certain Women, has made a Western that you’ve never seen before and perhaps the most thoughtful deconstruction of the genre since Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. John Magaro (Carol, The Big Short) and Orion Lee (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) star as friends who steal milk from the cow of the wealthiest land owner in their small Oregon town (Toby Jones) in order to sell baked goods at the market that the settlers have not tasted since being in London or San Francisco; the demand for their goods makes these Buttermilk Bandits a decent haul of money, but will they earn enough to leave town and make their dreams come true in California? Or will their stealing from the powerful homestead put them in their grave before they ever have the chance to leave?
Reichardt’s film would pair greatly with Parasite, as it’s very much about the early seeds of capitalism and the pecking order of society that’s established before towns even get a bakery of their own. Indeed, Bong Joon-ho himself is a huge fan of the film and Reichardt, herself. We recently had the chance to speak to the director about First Cow, how she adapted a much larger book (The Half-Life) into a smaller film with her co-writer Jonathan Raymond, and just how metaphorical the cow is.
Fandango: I really, really love this film. I've actually seen it twice. Most recently, I took my wife to the Aero preview the other night, as well—
Kelly Reichardt: Oh yes, that was nice.
Fandango: In the Q &A you mentioned something that I wanna talk about right off the bat, that you said that the action in the book this was based on (The Half-Life by Jonathon Raymond) wasn't centered on a cow, and I was wondering how did you and Jon arrive at the cow being the new narrative device? Were there other ideas that you were playing around with before and then kind of got into the first cow in the Oregon territory?
Kelly Reichardt: Oh, my god. If only I had a memory to answer this properly for you. I mean it's just such a lot of hanging out with Jon Raymond. I'm sure it was Jon's idea. We were just brainstorming a lot because his book is 40 years in length and has so many locations, which we couldn’t do. And I think, he came up with the idea of the first cow arriving in the Territory, and then I was like yeah and Cookie wants to make something from it…
Fandango: Was there a heist element that was involved in the source material, or was that something that you guys added?
Kelly Reichardt: Yes, there was an element of a heist in the novel. In the film King Lu is a composite of two different people in the novel. And so, this guy Henry and Cookie, they are taking the oil from the beaver glands to take to China. Henry gets killed, and Cookie ends up in jail, and he meets King Lu in jail. There must be a small heist moment because he ends up in jail, but I can't remember what it is. But I can tell you that to speak a little more specifically to it, once we had the idea of the cow and they're stealing the milk, all of which Jon wrote in the first draft of the script, and I remember getting that, and then the action was that they all run after them. So I asked, who are all them? So then it was like a working backwards point. So then just for the filmmaking, I really needed to slow it all down and had something to cut in between the milking; so we gotta get inside the house.
Fandango: Inside Toby Jones’ house?
Kelly Reichardt: Yeah. And so, this became the creation of the servant character and introducing him earlier, and then the bunk house on the property. Before, Ewen Bremner's character was someone who was just at the bar in the beginning of the movie, and so once I started to write the house scene, went back and said, 'there’ll be a bunk house with this kid who didn’t get an oily cake in the line,' and a cat—we need a cat!—and that'll be Lily Gladstone's cat and she can be Chief Factor’s wife. So then all these elements were worked out, for me I was just trying to figure out how to slow it down and get myself in the house and out of the house — and so then those characters that we added, we had to go back to the beginning and work those characters into the script so that we could have the chase set up long before hand and know each person’s status in it.
Fandango: I like that a lot! I'm an inside out type of writer as well — that's how I think as well. I'm wondering — did you or the cast have a nickname for these guys? Because, like I said, I really, really enjoyed this movie and so to shorthand sell it to people I've been calling them “The Buttermilk Bandits”.
Kelly Reichardt: [laughs] I like that. But no, there was no nickname for those guys, however I did call the fur trappers the Muppets.
Fandango: And why the Muppets?
Kelly Reichardt: They were so silly; every time they started fighting over every small thing. And visually, like one guy has a bear skin on his back, it just seemed ridiculous. They just seemed kind of armless in their way.
Fandango: I know that you said that you see this more of a heist film than a Western, but there are some Western elements. Was part of the appeal of this story showing men that we don't really see in Westerns? Like the kindhearted; usually in an old Western if it's kindhearted, like the Jimmy Stewart character, they have to like man up and shoot the bad guy as their arc.
Kelly Reichardt: Right, right, yeah. No, exactly, and getting to cast Magaro as the lead in a Western is pretty fun. Just 'cause he's like Cookie. Just the idea that he would be the ruffian. No, for sure, it's not the usual prototype for a genre such as this. I was thinking when I saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, with Brad Pitt with his shirt off on the rooftop, and he beats up Bruce Lee and then beats up these women and and I was just like 'wow, machismo — really, it goes on forever,' that prototype of white male superiority — it just doesn't ever die. Yeah, so the idea of idea of Cookie as the lead in a Western is very appealing.
Fandango: And King Lu as well. He’s more of an opportunist, but he also does have a kindheartedness that Cookie kind of bring out.
Kelly Reichardt: Yeah, he's kind of a natural hustler, but then, I just think he enjoys their friendship so much and enjoys the company and someone to listen to him ramble on and collect his thoughts out loud; it's not like he's out looking for a friend, but he finds one.
Fandango: And going back to the cow, I love how you're able to get so much symbolism out of it without directly saying to the audience, the idea of property and owning the means of production versus having a skill. What are some of the things that the cow represents to you in the story?
Kelly Reichardt: Well, Cookie, he's foraging, he's really a down with the earth guy, and with the cow, he's there with the mother's milk, the nurturing and domesticity that comes with all of that. I think with Cookie and how he is similar to the cow, and I think King Lu is more like up in the tree, the kind of wise old owl with a more objective far reading look into the horizon on things. And also that the cow is brought there from someplace else and that creates another element of just nature being there to exploit. Whatever anybody needs, as far as Chief Factor (Toby Jones) is concerned, can be taken if you own it. Then there's Tom, the boy who is in the bunk house who never gets an oily cake, and as he takes care of the cow. He takes care of it, but he doesn’t get anything from it. Nurturing motherhood, mother's milk, the milk of human kindness, all that stuff is wrapped up in the process of tending to the animal. In Chief Factor’s house, the Native American talks about eating the beaver tail, eating the complete beaver, those who were on the land first utilized natural resources as opposed to depleting them.
Fandango: Going back to a little bit of manhood and movies, particularly like these types of genres, you get a lot of tension from each milking session and each trip to the market, and it's opposite the old Griffith-Godard quote, “all a movie needs is a girl and a gun.” And I'm wondering was making a heist film, an organic stick-up movie without guns, was that something that you wanted to enhance by having multiple milkings before any chase sets in?
Kelly Reichardt: I don’t have it in me to have lots of shootouts. What drew me to it is I really like these characters, and I like the idea of looking at this time when the earliest seeds of capitalism being planted and how quickly that affects the natural world. And how people fall onto a power ladder, and how quickly race becomes established in a pecking order, even outside King Lu, Cookie's a Jewish cowboy. Just where everyone is on the pecking order, how that's kind of established before there's even an established currency that everyone's using. They don’t have a standard currency in the territories but they do have a pecking order and so that will be built into towns as the bone structure. So, those were the themes that were in The Half Life that I was happy to be able to have them have — this friendship story with these other elements involved.
Fandango: You brought up time, that was actually part of my next question. I re-watched Old Joy the other day, and all the political talking points on the radio still very much, they're from today, and it seems like there's a through line in your work about how very little changes in the structure of society, but locations change immensely, whether it's a record shop closing, or a small window of opportunity to be the sole baker in town. Is location the most important element for you to start with in building a story?
Kelly Reichardt: Location, location, location; the scout on this movie was Janet White, formerly of Sleater-Kinney. And the scouts always have such a huge job in these movies, but to me, living in Oregon, it’s interesting how the Columbia River is being used as a thoroughfare for commerce, like early on in the early 1800s by the Chinook and all the tribes that lived on the Columbia. And then thinking of it like you can just stand at Sauvie Island, where we filmed and one of those huge barges will come every few minutes down the Columbia. And so, that's interesting about a place just to sort of set things around, early commerce that’s still being used hundreds of years later. We usually start early on with the idea, sometimes the whole idea of a film starts with a place that we wanna dig deeper into. A lot of the stories with Jon (Raymond) in that way, too. I think what draws me to his writing is that the characters are so meshed in their surroundings where they are — it's never secondary to getting to an ending; it's all one story, what ends for the characters continues on for others in the same place.
Fandango: I love that conversation about fashions in France and how time moves so fast there that fads never even reaches anywhere else. I just think you handle the concept of time so magnificently in all your movies but especially this one.
Kelly Reichardt: Thank you, wow thanks. Well thanks for writing about the movie, I appreciate it.
First Cow is currently in theaters in New York and Los Angeles and is expanding the next two weeks. Find showtimes in your area or sign up for a Fan Alert for when it comes to your area!