Kelly Reichardt, director of such fantastic films as Certain Women, Wendy and Lucy, Old Joy, and the Western Meek’s Cutoff, is a master at showing the intricacies of human life. Now she brings her talents once again to the American frontier with First Cow. Her latest feature, based on the novel The Half Life by Jonathan Raymond, follows two men in 19th century Oregon Territory as they try to make a life for themselves, selling oily cakes.
I talked with the legendary independent filmmaker about how she and her crew prepared for the film, what draws her to the Western genre, and what she needs from a story.
Your lead actors, John Magaro and Orion Lee, have spoken about how they immersed themselves in the location before you started production. What does that bring to the shoot once everyone is on set?
It’s nice because it doesn’t feel like everyone is sitting on a freshly built set. We were shooting in that hutch, which Tony Gasperro, our production designer, and his team built. We spent so much time there that it ended up having some life to it. I think John and Orion had talked about how, in lieu of rehearsing, the way they got to know each other was we sent them off in their costumes with a survivalist into the rain for three nights. They learned how to make fire without matches.
I had been sending John recipes from like Lewis and Clark cookbooks while he was back in Hell’s Kitchen in New York. So, he had been cooking for a while with the ingredients that would be available to him. He was in Cookie mode. Orion was doing some stuff in London, too. He had done something crazy to help him get comfortable with the heights. Anyway, they needed to become comfortable in those clothes, learn the traps, and make sure things felt natural in their hands. John Magaro used it as an excuse to smoke a million hand-rolled cigarettes. For me, that’s what we do instead of rehearsing.
Did your research for this film differ from what you did on Meek’s Cutoff?
Yeah, it did. For this, there were no photographs because it was 1820, and for Meek‘s we had images. So, that made this more challenging. The people that would have been here, being from places like England, they would be surveyors. They might have done some sketches, so I was working with a research person in London. It was weird getting to know that Oregon region from the point of view of England.
Then we worked with the Grand Ronde, which was a confederation of tribes near Eugene, Oregon. They have a museum that had just opened when we were getting into pre-production, and that was a huge thing for us. They opened their library to us. They ended up, as reluctant as they were at first, being so generous to us. The canoe [in the film] is from their museum and they helped us with the language. They helped us make the cedar capes and hats. Everyone that we met, we got their family story.
Was there anything in your research that surprised you?
Meek’s was about coming from the East and discovering the West, but this was more hunkered down. Everyone is an immigrant coming by ship, besides the indigenous people. I didn’t realize how quickly the indigenous people in the area were wiped out and how long they had been able to sustain themselves on the Columbia River. I was surprised at how much of an effect that beaver trade had on the natural world of the area.
It kind of showed that America was always this place where there was always capitalism, there was always an underclass, and there was always this hubris about the natural world that it could just sustain whatever was put upon it. I always have this feeling like, “Oh, corporations took over America,” but corporations were America from the get-go. I always feel like I’m learning things that I’m sure my friends’ kids know by junior high. I’m like, “Wow, this happened!” and they’re like, “Yeah, we know. Okay.”
Cookie and King Lu’s dream feels like what people imagine the American Dream to be. Did you think about how this story would represent that at the start of America?
In a way, I feel like it’s [just] King Lu’s dream. I feel like Cookie is not that ambitious of a person. It’s weird that he’s a Jewish guy in the West, but he’s more discriminated against because he has a lack of wealth and toughness. King Lu has all this ambition, but he understands he needs to join up with a white-skinned person in order to achieve any of it. I feel like Cookie goes along with King Lu’s ambition.
I feel like something that we’ve come back to a lot in these movies is questioning the mythology of America. It’s supposed to be this place that’s open to everyone and all you need is an idea and ambition, then you too can make it to the top of the ladder. However, there’s a need for connectedness. There’s a swayed justice system. There are so many made-up roadblocks for people.
That scene in the Chief Factor’s house has a servant, who is supposed to be from the islands. Then you have a Chinese man, a Jewish man, the Chinook women, a prominent Chinook man, and then the Chief Factor is like the CEO of a company that’s come to a new place with his army of men with guns and wealth. There are so many levels where everyone falls on the power ladder. Before there is even an agreed-upon currency, there’s already a chipping order where everybody is. Some of it is quite random. The character played by Lily Gladstone is married to the Chief Factor and a Chinook woman, but then there is the other Chinook woman who is married to the prominent man of the tribe and they are on different levels, too.
Another scene I was interested in showing that dynamic was when King Lu is negotiating with the Chinook man. There are these two men confronting each other when there isn’t a question of where you’re from, who has the power? The man with the canoe. It depends on the situation.
What draws you to make films that show how money plays a large part in the lives of people who don’t have it?
I mean, the territory of what the have’s are doing, well that’s been covered. Just speaking as a woman of my age, when I first realized that I thought me and my boy pals were just going to make films, but then we had to stop at the gate, that was a heartbreaking thing of realizing how personal it can feel and how maddening it can feel that there are brakes put on people for different reasons. It doesn’t have to do with their own energy of what they can bring forward. It is a way to deal with that, to keep sussing it out in stories with people who have more at stake and more to lose.
Also, I’m interested in the strength that it takes. There’s this idea, especially in the Western, of this powerful white man, and really what strength does that take to be? Try being the indigenous woman without any money. That takes some strength. It’s a good way to work inside the formal language of narrative and also be able to skew it to show a different point of view.
What do you look for in a work of fiction that you want to adapt into a screenplay?
Jon Raymond and I are in each other’s worlds, and we have a similar political point of view and interest in people. Jon always says that our writing sessions are more like gossip sessions because we are always trying to understand everyone and figure everyone out for character reasons. I’m interested in the small moment, in the minutia of things, and in the small moment, so I tend to tell stories that happen over a short span of time.
I like that Jon’s stories deal with the natural world and commerce while talking about how those two balance each other. He writes about the internal feelings of people, and filmmaking is about having to physicalize all that. There’s room in these stories to extend and be creative. They’re not locked. There’s room for me to get in there and do my thing.
Even in the novel of this case, we had to take out a lot, but instead of just that, we kind of pulled what we wanted and put it in a simpler story structure. There was still room to create and expand inside the foundation that Jon’s giving me, which is strong characters. He really manages to say a lot in his writing with a very light touch. I never feel like I’m being told something when I read something by Jon, but it leaves me thinking.
That is something I strive for as a filmmaker, too. I felt this working with Maile Maloy’s story [for Certain Women]. Having that foundation of good characters and stories means then you can make your way into the screenplay and make that a tool for how you get to your film. It’s a big leg up.