Director Kelly Reichardt on Why Hollywood’s ‘Not That Liberal’ and Her Brilliant New Film ‘First Cow’
Kelly Reichardt (“Meek’s Cutoff”) may be the best director you might not have heard of. She opens up about her latest, “First Cow,” and navigating Hollywood as a woman director.
The Academy Awards may have ignored women directors for yet another year, but Kelly Reichardt isn’t letting it bother her. “I just don’t give a shit about the Oscars. I just can’t bring myself to watch. I find them a little embarrassing—the strutting of money and everything.”
Nonetheless, as one of America’s most acclaimed and admired female auteurs (who, by the way, has never been recognized by the Academy), the 55-year-old Reichardt can’t escape questions about industry gender disparity—a situation that can definitely grow frustrating. “I never do an interview where people don’t ask me about it, and I would really like it if people started asking men about it—how do they feel about it?” She elaborates: “It would just be nice if people were more curious about different points of view. Hollywood is supposedly so liberal, but it’s not that liberal because it’s not that inclusive. So for all the patting itself on the back that it does, it’s the old boys’ club that everything else is.”
Whether the Hollywood establishment cares to acknowledge her or not, Reichardt has proven herself a cinematic master over the past two decades, with Pacific Northwest-centric indies—the Michelle Williams-headlined Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff; the Jesse Eisenberg eco-terrorist thriller Night Moves; the star-studded ensemble Certain Women—notable for their patience, their quiet, and their concentration on the complexities of individuals’ relationships with each other and their environment. That’s also the focus of her latest, First Cow, an 1820s period piece about a nomadic cook named Cookie (John Magaro) who develops a business partnership, and friendship, with Asian-American go-getter King Lu (Orion Lee). Together, they endeavor to make their way by selling homemade deep-fried oily cakes produced with milk stolen from the cow of local bigwig Chief Factor (Toby Jones).
A tranquil, plaintive tale about outsiders struggling to subsist in a world marked by inequality, intolerance and hardship, First Cow is a deeply empathetic portrait of unlikely camaraderie, and Reichardt admits that its opening William Blake quote—“The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship”—guided her approach to the material, adapted from long-time collaborator Jonathan Raymond’s debut novel The Half Life. “We’re always trying to find someone with qualities we know in our life, to help us. Cookie is what draws me to want to make this story. I just love this character. And King Lu, Jon was talking about him in terms of being ‘the Asian David Crosby,’” she laughs. “He’s a hustler. He has a need for a white friend to help him have any success. And Cookie is just looking for friendship.”
“It really is friendship, and shared dreams, that binds them. And good company—whatever makes people friends. The unspoken stuff,” Reichardt adds. “But also that they’re both outcasts in this rough setting with all this macho male aggressive energy. They’re domestic. King Lu by sea, and Cookie by land—they’ve been travelling their whole lives, and they both have this fantasy of settling down and setting something up; getting a toehold in what would today be like the middle class. Cookie is down and close to the Earth—he’s with the milk and the cow, and he’s nurturing and he forages. And King Lu is like the owl up in the tree, observing, with the bigger overlook on things.”
First Cow hinges on the bond shared by Magaro (best known for The Big Short, Carol, and David Chase’s Not Fade Away) and newcomer Lee, and to help develop that rapport, Reichardt did what she often does with her leads: dumped them in the wilderness. “We sent them off with a survivalist into the woods to go camping together, to learn to build fires without matches. That’s really been what I’ve done instead of rehearsing—have people have an experience together,” she explains. “So they went off and camped in the rain together, learning to fish and use all the tools and build all the traps and stuff like that. Oddly, Magaro is very much like Cookie and Orion is very much like King Lu. I don’t know how that happened. Some of it’s just luck, and some of it is their craft as actors.”
Giving particular credit to cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt for setting an inviting mood, Reichardt says Magaro and Lee’s chemistry was partially the byproduct of her small, relaxed set—which not only created solidarity between cast and crew, but afforded a measure of creative comfort. It’s a career-long approach born from both her artistic instincts and out of necessity, since, “I personally felt in the ‘90s that it was such a closed world [to women] that I spent a decade trying to find my own way to making films. Going back to Super 8, and shooting 16mm, and making films with a crew of two people, four people, six people.” Though she concedes, with a chuckle, that her own outsider status is somewhat contradicted by her current partnership with A24 (which is distributing First Cow), that doesn’t change the fact that “I don’t think of myself as part of an industry.”
Freedom is what Cookie and King Lu ultimately seek, as does Reichardt, who achieves a measure of independence by keeping her endeavors modestly scaled. “That’s the thing about working small: no one’s really paying too much attention. I show some of my completed film when it’s done, and it’s like, ‘Here’s the film.’ There aren’t a lot of hands in it. There are usually a lot of hands in the casting part of it. But again, the demands are smaller because the budgets are smaller.”
If First Cow’s production was defined by its intimacy, so too is its depiction of Cookie and King Lu’s efforts to earn a living—and find a way out of their trading-post circumstances—by profiting off delicacies made with the pilfered-at-night milk of Chief Factor’s bovine. Reichardt’s drama is an understated aesthetic marvel, whether with regards to visuals that alternate between striking handheld close-ups and studied compositions that convey her characters’ interpersonal dynamics, or to a sound design that places a premium on environmental noise. Aided by the graceful score of William Tyler, First Cow powerfully draws viewers into its particular space, where the rustling of windblown trees, the muffled crunch of boots on damp leafy soil, and the diverse calls of the wild accompany every step and gesture.
Such a natural audioscape wasn’t easy to come by. Shooting First Cow closer to Portland, Oregon, than she did Meek’s Cutoff meant that “there’s never quiet. The amount of airplanes overhead, that you’re maybe not thinking about, but when you’re trying to shoot something from 1820—there was no getting through a take without an airplane, ever.” Consequently, the film’s sonic elements had to be constructed in post, which led to some obsessive behavior on the director’s part. “Building quiet is harder than building non-quiet,” she says. “I worked with Leslie Shatz here in New York and mixed, and then I went back to Portland and was really aware that some of the birds weren’t appropriate. Just this idea of quiet—it seems funny to think about now, my obsessiveness over crickets. Listening to crickets, and how many crickets, and it’s not the right time of year for crickets, but I have to have something, so what will I put there? Will people be thrown by the crickets because it’s this time of year?”
Be it the chirping of its insects, or Anthony Gasparro’s production design and April Napier’s costumes, Reichardt’s attention to authentic detail is felt throughout. So too is her trust in her audience. As epitomized by the suggested link between its modern-day prologue and its mysterious final shot, First Cow expects a measure of intuitiveness, and cine-literacy, from its viewers. Reichardt agrees that her films don’t necessarily spell everything out in purely conventional Hollywood terms, but that’s because, “I like to think that my audience is smarter than me.” It’s additionally due to the fact that, in her mind, her target demographic is akin to her colleagues at New York’s Bard College—where she teaches—as well as her closest cinematic colleagues, Todd Haynes and Larry Fessenden, about whom she reveals, “I’ve been in conversations about film with them since the beginning, since I was young and they were young.”
Reichardt’s attraction to ambiguity is why she frequently returns to the prose of author (and screenwriter) Jonathan Raymond. “A lot of his stuff, especially his shorter writing, you have this feeling of, ‘Oh, it’s nothing,’ and then it gnaws at you for a few days, and you realize it’s about this and this and this.” Echoing Raymond’s indirect storytelling is “an ambition I have—it just has to happen in a different way because Jon’s writing can be really internal, and films have to work in a visual language.”
The result continues to be one of the richest collaborative partnerships in cinema, and First Cow is remarkable for its tender portrayal of not only Cookie and King Lu’s alliance, but of the fraught (and relevant-to-today) economic circumstances in which they find themselves. “How to live in nature, versus capitalism—that’s a question that’s in all these films, and is here again,” she says. This time around, that inquiry is directly related to Chief Factor and his ilk’s exploitation of the local Native American Multnomah tribe, which has long resided in the area and, like the beaver sought by American and British interlopers, is destined to be wiped out in short order.
Despite such pressing socio-political concerns, Reichardt states that “at the end of the day, when we’re working on the scripts, we try to focus on the characters and their exact situation. The conversation is about the particulars of what King Lu and Cookie have to do, and how they’re going to survive. We try to stick to our story, and outside the screenplay writing, we never really talk about those bigger elements. We’re sticking to the minutia, and the small stuff. Then hopefully once back in the quiet space of the editing room, you start putting it together and you see these things. I mean, they’re in the fabric of the story, so they should present themselves.”
When it comes to the emerging next generation of female directors, Reichardt seems cautiously optimistic. Describing her students at Bard—half of whom, she says, are now women—she remarks, “They’re not out in the world yet, and I was probably like this too at 22—they don’t yet know the wall they’re going to hit. So they’re getting to fully express themselves, and they’re so much more articulate in the medium than I was at their age. I don’t want to buy into it too much, because I know realities will hit them when they leave. But it’s hard to imagine, when I see them, anyone stopping them.”