From First Cow (2020), dir. Kelly Reichardt (all images courtesy of A24, unless otherwise stated)

Throughout her career, Kelly Reichardt — one of the most important voices in American cinema — has focused on telling stories about people rarely shown on screen. People on the outskirts who are constantly moving, struggling, and surviving in hopes of achieving some aspect of the American Dream — a dream that no matter how hard they push themselves or far they travel, always seems out of reach. 

Many of those stories have come from the work of Jonathan Raymond, who has collaborated with Reichardt on every screenplay she’s directed besides her debut feature, River of Grass (1994) and Certain Women (2016), for which Reichardt adapted a trio of short stories by the novelist Malie Maloy, all set in Montana. While they have shared a fruitful partnership, for as long as they’ve known each other, there was one story of Raymond’s Reichardt dreamed of adapting, his 2004 debut “The Half-Life,” the story that brought the two together in the first place.

After reading the novel sometime in the mid 2000’s, Reichardt reached out to the Oregon native, asking him if there were any short stories he had lying around; anything close to a faithful adaptation of “The Half-Life” was beyond her resources at the time, as it spans both decades and continents. Their first collaboration was Old Joy (2006), Reichardt’s comeback after a dozen years away from feature filmmaking; then came Wendy and Lucy (2008), the first of three collaborations with Michelle Williams, followed by Meek’s Cutoff (2010), her first examination and deconstruction of the Western. Their second-to-last collaboration came in the form of Night Moves, the 2013 eco-terrorism thriller starring Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning.

John Magaro in First Cow (2020), dir. Kelly Reichardt (photo by Allyson Riggs)

Between each project, Reichardt and Raymond would discuss adapting “The Half-Life,” unable to properly bring in Raymond’s characters and story to life with the limited budgets Reichardt usually works in. It wasn’t until she walked away from another project that she and Raymond once again went back to “The Half-Life.” 

First Cow, another deconstruction of the Western made famous by the likes of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, focuses mainly on the charming, quiet friendship between two kind souls. Cookie, a sensitive young man from the East Coast who is as sweet as his name, and King Lu, a devoted, business-minded immigrant from China. The two find themselves together in 1820’s Oregon,  a time so early in the life of the American West that Lu once remarks, “history hasn’t come here yet.” They bond over dreams of a better life, jokes, and later, a little crime. When an Englishman landowner (Toby Jones), brings a brown milking cow (Evie, who has since given birth to a calf named Cookie) to the region, the two hatch a sweet scheme in order to make some much needed capital. The question soon becomes, how much can they (literally) squeeze out before their dreams come crashing down? 

Just before the release of First Cow, I had a brief phone conversation with Reichardt about what finally clicked when it came to adapting “The Half-Life,” if she would ever return to shooting on film, and if recent headlines about toxic masculinity played a part in how the story was told. 

Filmmaker Kelly Reichardt (center) and John Cooper at Sundance Film Festival, 2016 (photo courtesy of PunkToad)

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

*      *      *

Hyperallergic: I read a conversation you had with Gus Van Sant back in 2008, where you both spoke about “The Half-Life” and you said, “It’s my dream to someday make it into a film, but it can’t be done in a small way.” What were the obstacles you saw in adapting the novel, and what changes were made to finally get it going?

Kelly Reichardt: We finally found a way to do it in a small way. The novel spans 40 years and it goes back and forth between 1980 and the 1800s, and there’s even a trip to China. There’s no cow in the novel, so once we figured out the cow and the caper with the cow, we could bring scenes and characters from John’s novel — and actually, the King Lu character is two characters from the novel who get fused into one, which was one of the big things John pulled off with the script. 

H: I know this is the fourth time you and Jonathan Raymond have collaborated to adapt a piece of his work. What is it about this story that drew you to adapting it? 

KR: I liked finding out what life was like for the Multnomah tribes that lived on the Columbia River, and what capitalism and the arrival of the beaver trade did not just to the beaver, but to them as well. I also liked thinking about capitalism in terms of the natural world and if the two can coexist. 

H: Before you and Raymond started putting together First Cow, you were working on another project, an adaptation of Undermajordomo Minor with the author Patrick Dewitt that would have actually taken you out of the US. Are there any plans of returning to that project or is it dead in the water?

KR: It’s not dead in the water for Patrick; it is for me, but I really liked that story. It’s super visual so I’m super psyched for it, fingers crossed that Pat gets it going.

Toby Jones in First Cow (2020), dir. Kelly Reichardt (photo by Allyson Riggs)

H: You’ve said recently that you looked to Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy for inspiration when it came to [First Cow]and that it is a series you return to all the time before each project. What is it about the trilogy that makes you want to keep returning to it for inspiration? 

KR They really speak to me; I like the economy of his shoots, how lyrical his shooting is, I like his sound design so much, and also the people he’s interested in portraying. They’re complicated, flawed, and often are people not from a position of power. 

Also the locations are so amazing, there’s just so much texture to everything. You really feel the weather, the dirt. The Apu Trilogy just keeps giving somehow. 

HYou shot this film digitally, which you’ve done with your last few features. Do you see shooting on film as something you can ever return to or has [that]become a thing of the past for you?

KR It is in some ways, with the film stocks getting so pure and colorists disappearing for film,  there is going to be a point where it’s just not practical to shoot on film. The cost didn’t used to be so different [between film and digital] but now it is. But it’s so fun to shoot film, it excites the crew and I have been shooting 16mm lately — not for a narrative thing, I’ve just been going out with [cinematographer] Christopher Blauvelt and some other friends of mine and shooting 16 because I got a grant and it’s so beautiful. So I’ll keep shooting film.

Orion Lee (left) and John Magaro in First Cow (2020), dir. Kelly Reichardt (photo by Allyson Riggs)

H: In the last few years, there have been a number of discussions about masculinity and the effects it can have on not only women, but men like Cookie, who are more sensitive and thoughtful. I saw this as being a film that both tackled and even poked fun at the traditional view of masculinity normally seen in Westerns and I wondered if the recent conversations around masculinity were somewhere in your mind while making this film.

KR Sure, you’re dealing with a genre that is built around this white strongman/ hero stereotype and it was fun to have those guys be like muppets in the background, and instead focus on more nuanced and stronger guys — I say stronger because they’re so vulnerable. It’s still so shocking to me that in current times the big, white, strong man with the big voice holds any appeal to anybody.

First Cow (2020), dir. Kelly Reichardt, opens in theaters today.

Christopher Lee Inoa is a freelance reporter, and critic specializing in film and animation. His work has appeared on The Film Stage, Fandor, Birth.Movies.Death, Syfy Wire, and Polygon. He has a Masters...