Reichardt’s ‘First Cow’: Birthed of collaboration found on trail from Miami (with stops at Brattle)
Kelly Reichardt’s latest, “First Cow,” an Oregon frontier saga about two outsiders trying to get ahead, marks her fifth collaboration with writer Jonathan Raymond and her seventh film overall. The film (screenplay by Raymond and Reichardt) is vastly different from Raymond’s novel “The Half-Life,” which, as Reichardt points out, “spanned four decades and two continents and didn’t have a cow in it. John invented the cow for the movie.” A fairly drastic realignment from any point of view, though the director is quick to add that the story still focuses on the bond between Cookie (John Magaro), an introverted cook, and King Lu (Orion Lee) an enterprising Chinese expat – though King Lu is a composite of two characters in the novel. The entrepreneurial endeavor the pair undertake in the book is exporting beaver oil to china; in the film, with the creation of a lone cow at a trading outpost, there’s milk and thus batter to make “oily cakes” (scones), a super hot item in a land where there is only mutton and slop.
Reichardt’s journey to the directorial chair is long and intriguing, with a crucial stop at The Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square. “I grew up in a cultural void as far as art goes, and in a family of cops,” Reichardt said. (The void was Miami.) Her mother was in drug enforcement and her father was a crime scene investigator, though they also opened her eyes to the arts. “My father listened to jazz and gave me a Pentax camera.” Reichardt got into photography, using expired rolls of film her father got her from the crime lab and taking lessons at a studio run by a notorious pornographer. Then the artist Christo came in 1983 to wrap his “Surrounded Islands” in Biscayne Bay. Reichardt, inspired by the grand installation, knew she’d have to go elsewhere to expand her cultural palette and find her calling. She landed with friends in Boston, where she studied art and film at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and School of the Museum of Fine Arts. “But,” she added, “my real film education came at the Brattle Theatre, which played a different repertory pairing each night.”
Reichardt met Raymond early in her career, becoming fast “pals” after being introduced by filmmaker Todd Haynes (“Carol,” “Velvet Goldmine” and most recently, “Dark Waters”). Both had collaborated with Haynes (“I was the one flicking the spit in “Poison,” Reichardt says of Haynes’ controversial, career-launching film) and he’s been an executive producer on most of Reichardt’s projects. After 2010’s “Meek’s Cutoff,” about my ancestor leading a posse across the Oregon desert, “First Cow” is the second anti-western by Reichardt and Raymond. “Westerns have alway been about a white man on a horse with all the power. This is about two outsiders finding a safe place with each other. They’re mindful and thoughtful, not physical,” Reichardt said.
Still, to prepare for the film, Magaro (who has a Bob Dylan-esque presence in the film) and Lee had to go through a survivalist boot camp to learn their characters’ skills, including lighting fires without matches and catching fish without hooks. “It wasn’t much fun,” Reichardt says, “because it rained most of the time.” To cast the two “mindful dreamers,” Reichardt interviewed and interacted with each actor via Skype, never meeting either in person until they were pretty much on set. Given the current state of things with the coronavirus spread, that virtual casting call feels eerily prescient: At the time of my interview, Reichardt had just been told her publicity tour for the film was being canceled, and the Harvard Film Archive was limiting the audience for Reichardt’s “in person” screenings on Monday and Tuesday to a max of 99 people. Then it suspended its spring schedule.
“First Cow” opens locally this Friday.
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.