Kelly Reichardt‘s First Cow is one of the most heartwarming films on the festival circuit this year. On its own, it speaks about ownership and what success means to different people, but Reichardt and stars John Magaro and Orion Lee have more insight on what the film addresses and how it came to be.
Loosely based on the novel Half-Life by John Raymond, First Cow is about the friendship that grows between two men navigating the Oregon territory in the 1800s. Cookie (Magaro) and King Lu (Lee) meet while Cookie is traveling with unforgiving fur trappers and King Lu is on the run from a group of Russians looking to murder him. Cookie takes King Lu into the trappers’ camp and hides him without hesitation, but it seems like their friendship is shortlived when King Lu runs away.
Their chance reunion happens after the two are settled in an Oregon compound. King Lu invites Cookie to his shed and the two begin making a home together. They concoct a plan to milk the first cow in the territory and bake oil cakes to sell at the nearby trading post. Their success is more of a risk than they bargained for, however, and their friendship is tested, as is their survival.
Reichardt first read Half-Life when it came out in 2004. Over the subsequent 15 years, she and Raymond slowly collaborated on adapting it for the screen. One of the things that changed for the movie version was giving the titular cow a bigger role than it has in the book. “The novel spans 40 years and a trip to China, which is just so far out of my reach for budgets I work with. So, we somehow came up with the storyline of the milk,” Reichardt told the crowd at a New York Film Festival screening.
The milk became the focus of the story and a way to keep the film in one place rather than between continents as it is on the page. “In the novel, they take the oil from the beaver glands and take it across the ocean,” she explained of the source material. “I think the milk story came from the idea that I wanted to do a chase scene — and this sounds ridiculous — where people are dressed like trees. It came from these images of native costumes that looked exactly like trees.”
Even though Reichardt didn’t keep the novel’s long timeline and global scope, she still wanted to include the beginning of the story in the film. The opening scenes show a young woman (Alia Shawkat) and her dog walking through the woods. The dog spots something in the dirt and then, slowly, the woman uncovers two skeletons buried next to each other. “The book starts with these bones being found and in the investigation of the bones,” Reichardt explained. “They are thought to be Native American bones. The politics over these bones is a huge thread that runs throughout the novel. That was something we did away with, but I liked the idea of seeing these bones being discovered in a contemporary time and then going back to find whose bones those are and what their story was.”
King Lu and Cookie’s relationship has the intimacy that most male friendships on screen lack. A lot of the film depicts the domesticity of their friendship. They cook meals for each other and look out for one another as they create a home together. Both of them have been wandering for so long, and they find comfort with each other. The movie depends on their chemistry, and Magaro and Lee do a great job of forging a heartwarming friendship.
The actors had never met each other before shooting First Cow. To bond and create a believable friendship, they went out with a survivalist to the Oregon woods and camped together. “We learned how to make reed rope, and we started fires — safely,” Orion revealed when asked about the trip. “We made an oyster shell candle, if anyone spotted that in the corner of some of the scenes.”
Magaro also spoke about the bonding experience. “I always like doing that, and especially since it was a chance for us to get to know each other away from everyone else,” he told the audience. “Kelly told me for Meek’s [Cutoff] they did something similar, living on the frontier kind of thing. That really appealed to me because there’s a lot of skills in this that, living in this world, we just don’t know. We kind of took on our roles, I would cook and you [Lee] would forge and you even skinned a muskrat. More than all that, I think it was important for us to get to know each other and get a rhythm as we were going into shooting the next day.”
While the story doesn’t focus on the Native Americans in the Oregon territory, every time they do appear on screen it’s with sincere consideration. The language they speak and the costumes they wear were all heavily researched by the filmmakers while prepping for the shoot. “A breakthrough [in the research] was when the Confederation of Tribes opened their library to us and eventually started helping us with the language,” Reichardt explained. “Every department did their own research. [Costume designer] April Napier met women who made all the cedar capes and hats, and they had family stories. It felt really fast in one way, but a lot of it had a lot to do with meeting people who still have a thread of the tribe. We ended up having a lot of research in England because that’s where most of the research was brought back to. We were kind of spending all of the shoot cramming research in for every location.”
The cast and crew became infatuated with learning the native language and practiced so much that Lee became too good at it. His character is meant to fumble with the native language in the film, and Reichardt had to rein him back a little.
The profound story of First Cow is even better, knowing what they did to make the film. The authenticity of the images we see on screen, with props from the era and native costumes advised from descendants of the same tribe, brings the world to life even with such a small budget. Reichardt shows that making a period film with a wonderful story doesn’t require a big studio budget. The early workings of class and greed are present in First Cow, but so is the diversity of different cultures and an innocent dream.
Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow will be released to video-on-demand and other digital platforms on July 10, 2020.