Kelly Reichardt First Cow

Orion Lee and John Magaro in First Cow

Kelly Reichardt on her 19th century heist movie First Cow

We spoke with the filmmaker about making movies outside, working from a novel by her frequent collaborator and more.

First Cow is the seventh feature film by director Kelly Reichardt and her fifth written with Jonathan Raymond

Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) is a drifter who, like so many others, has gone west in search of fortune. He winds up travelling to Oregon and working as a cook for a bunch of fur trappers that have little sympathy for Cookie and his struggles. While foraging for some food one night, Cookie finds Chinese immigrant King Lu (Orion Lee). Misfits both, they forge an unlikely partnership that eventually leads to a fledgling business selling cakes and biscuits to trappers and other hard-living workers. The only problem is that the cakes require milk, and the only milk available has to be surreptitiously taken from a cow that belongs to a rich governor (Toby Jones) — which effectively makes First Cow a sort of heist thriller.

First Cow is director Kelly Reichardt’s seventh feature film and her fifth written with Jonathan Raymond, who also wrote the novel upon which the film is based. I asked her if there’s anything different about this collaboration considering that the source material was devised by Raymond first.

“Everything I’ve done since my first film has come from short stories or novellas or an outline that John wrote the first pass of,” says Reichardt. “I’ve never dealt with a blank page. When I’m starting work on a script, it’s full of a kind of depth that I don’t know how to get to writing on my own. Usually the stories have enough for me to get in and expand upon, but the core and the themes and the main characters are there and I create some other characters. It’s better that way. (laughs)”

Kelly Reichardt shooting First Cow

I bring up that as a young film student, I found a lot of inspiration in the films that Reichardt made that were mainly set outside (Wendy and Lucy, Old Joy) because they seemed to exist in such an off-the-cuff, off-the-grid world. I imagined myself making movies out in the woods where there would be no need for permits. First Cow is more elaborate than those previous films in its sets and period detail — and, as it turns out, my romanticized idea of making a Kelly Reichardt film was a little off.

“As you’re saying that, I have a vision of Pete Sillen, the wonderful cinematographer on Old Joy, walking down the mountain carrying his equipment and screaming ‘WHY THE FUCK AM I DOING THIS?’ at the top of his lungs,” Reicherdt laughs. “There is a thing about going out and being off the grid a little bit — not that anyone’s really off the grid anymore. In Meek’s Cutoff, we were definitely off the grid. But there’s something about just not dealing with day-to-day life and it’s like you’re on a camping trip with all these people you’re making a film with, But I would say that in some cases, like with Meek’s, we pushed it too far. We may as well have been in 1845! Nothing from the modern world worked out there, so it was just broken cars and cellphones that couldn’t get you any help. You can’t over-romanticize it. Once you’ve spent 18 hours in the negative-degree weather, you think ‘Wow, we should shoot inside!’ (laughs) But both things are true. Everything is just heightened and extreme outside, so that when you finally do get inside and are somewhere warm, the crew are having their beers and all, there’s definitely a tightness that develops. This last film was shot in and around Portland, so we were back in the city at night, except for one week where we shot on location and were off to ourselves.”

First Cow opens with a hiker (played by Alia Shawkat) discovering the skeletons of the main characters in the Oregonian wilderness – which would seem like a spoiler were it not the very first scene in the film and were the film not pointedly set in the 1820s. As First Cow reveals itself to be a sort of cautionary tale about the many trappings and failings of capitalism, I saw the scene as the key to unlocking the entire film.

“It’s a funny thing,” says Reichardt. “I like the framework of going back in time, but it also allows us to introduce the Columbia river with the barge and saying that it was kind of a highway for trade in the 1820s and it still is. Goods are still being shipped up the Columbia River. But as far as it being a story about capitalism: the guys are breaking the law by stealing a basket of milk, but the fort under the Chief Factor, who’s sort of styled after John McLoughlin of the Hudson Bay Company… They very awfully come to a place and wipe out all of its natural resources and while doing that, also wipe out the Indigenous people who lived there forever. The idea that the big crime in the film is this milk-stealing thing — there are other things going on.” ■

First Cow opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, July 10. Watch the trailer here:

First Cow by Kelly Reichardt

For more film coverage, please visit the Film section.