“First Cow” director talks friendship and the filmmaking process

A24’s newest film is a deceivingly quiet Western about two friends and one cow

 “First Cow” director talks friendship and the filmmaking process

“I’m not trying to make any kind of message film, these films are about characters,”  “First Cow” director Kelly Reichardt said in an interview with The Eagle. “But there are themes that run through them that could be applicable to today’s world.” 

“First Cow,” which takes place in Oregon in the early 19th century, stars John Magaro as Cookie Figowitz, a cook for a party of fur trappers and Orion Lee as King-Lu, a Chinese immigrant that Cookie finds alone in the forest. The two become quick friends and begin a plot to steal milk from the first cow in the settlement. 

While the movie is based on “The Half-Life,” a 2004 novel by Jonathan Raymond, several characters, as well as the titular cow, were created by Raymond and Reichardt when trying to adapt the book for the screen. 

“You’re just trying to make particular and interesting characters,” Reichardt said.” A lot of the work was done in John [Raymond’s] novel.“The actors can kind of glean all the depth that’s been built for them. It gives the actors a lot to work with.” 

Though the film is set in Oregon in the 1820s, Reichardt made a conscious decision to steer away from any common Western tropes. 

“We’re telling this intimate story and we want the filmmaking to relate to the economy of King-Lu and Cookie,” Reichardt said. “We’re working against the grand. We used the academy ratio, which is square, that sort of gives you more foreground and depth and height as opposed to expanse.” 

Reichardt is no stranger to a pared-down, simplistic narrative structure, but says that it doesn’t reflect what’s happening behind the scenes. 

“The speed of the movie, which is the 1820’s, is not the speed we’re working at on set,” Reichardt said. “We do slow down for the cow but what’s not on camera is complete hustle, hustle, hustle.” 

Reichardt often works with the same team, which makes a movie about friendship that  much more special. 

“It’s nice to make a film in a trusting place, and I think that’s unusual to have,” Reichardt said. “It frees you up because that relationship was built from the ground, it’s not something that’s just appeared overnight.” 

Aside from directing, Reichardt is also a professor at Bard College. On the advice that she gives most to students, she said “Research is a lived experience, it’s not Google. You have to go out and live it.” 

“First Cow” was picked up by A24, and premiered at the Telluride Film Festival. It is set to release in Washington on March 12. 

igoodman@theeagleonline.com

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