'First Cow' Helmer Explains How She Brought a Female Perspective to the Western Genre

Kelly Richards — Getty — H 2020

Indie stalwart Kelly Reichardt also discusses why casting animals is no different than casting humans and and why she’s "all about the small strokes" of life.

Quietly, obliquely and without much fuss, Kelly Reichardt has become one of best chroniclers of the American experience on film. For a quarter century, the 56-year-old filmmaker has traced the solitary struggles of working-class people fighting, and inevitably failing, to get their piece of the American Dream. It’s a struggle to which Reichardt, who teaches at New York’s Bard College to pay the bills, can relate. Eschewing Hollywood to work exclusively in the indie world, Reichardt has built a fan base of critics and arthouse audiences with films such as Wendy and Lucy (2008), Meek’s Cutoff (2010), Night Moves (2013) and Certain Women (2016).

First Cow, her latest, is a uniquely Reichardtian take on the American Western. Based on Jonathan Raymond’s 2005 book, the film is set in the Oregon Territory of the 1820s and follows two outsiders, the orphan cook Cookie (John Magaro) and Chinese immigrant King Lu (Orion Lee), who strike up an unlikely friendship centered on a scheme: building a baking business with the help of some stolen milk from the first cow in the territory. Reichardt talked to THR about casting cows, reimagining the Western and why she’s "all about the small strokes" of life.

Why, in adapting Jonathan Raymond’s novel Half-Life, did you radically cut down the modern-day portion to focus almost entirely on the section in the 1820s?

I’ve never wanted to tell a story from the beginning of someone’s life to the end. It’s always about dropping the viewer in with my characters while they’re in motion. You spend a short amount of time with them and then, you know, onward they go. I’m all about the small strokes as opposed to the bigger strokes of life. Maybe that’s what has drawn me to Jon Raymond’s writing, which is also focused on the small moments.

How does one go about casting a cow?

Funny enough, just like an actor. I got a bunch of cow headshots. I knew I wanted a Jersey because they have such big eyes.

So many of your films — Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Certain Women — have strong animal performances at their center.

Well, it started with my own dog, Lucy. Like so many things in my filmmaking, it was purely for practical reasons. I shot smaller stories because I didn’t have the budget, and I still don’t have the budget for bigger ones. Lucy was in my movies because she just couldn’t be left alone without destroying everything. So she got written into the script.

When we were shooting Old Joy, I realized what a great directing technique it was to put an untrained animal together with actors in a scene. Because they can’t "perform," they have to just respond in the moment to this creature. I like the relationship between humans and animals, because it’s all intuitive. And it’s always sort of my goal to not rely on dialogue, to make scenes that work without dialogue.

First Cow, like Meek’s Cutoff, is a Western. What it is about the genre that fascinates you?

It’s such a masculine genre, and it’s mostly been told from a masculine point of view. So trying to find a different perspective, to find a different frame, for the Western is challenging and interesting for me. It’s a tricky thing, because the road has been paved before you, you know? But I’m trying to make the camera be inclusive of different points of view, something other than just the strong man point of view.

I’m pushing against the romantic myths of the Western, and of the West. That’s why we had a rule in the film: no beauty shots. There can be no image in the film that’s beautiful for its own sake. Because even if you shoot the West like Wim Wenders does, where you get the gas stations and the jukeboxes, it’s still romanticized. And it’s still male.

First Cow is in one way a classic American Dream story, with Cookie and King Lu believing that if they work hard enough, they can have an American success story.

The two are very different in their approach. Cookie is down at the ground, foraging, milking the cow, working. King Lu is the motivator, the guy with the ambition. In the film, he’s up in the trees, watching out, and has some pie-in-the-sky dreams. He just wants to get ahead, to have a comfortable life. But ultimately, it’s just not doable.

In your career as a filmmaker, who do you most closely resemble, Cookie or King Lu?

I can always find myself in every character I’ve had. Usually not with their best attributes. I see myself in both of them. Reflecting, I feel really fortunate to have been able to land a teaching place at Bard. I’ve never made any money with my movies, so to be able to teach one semester a year and be part of the Bard community and still be able to make a film about a cow with two actors that most people don’t recognize, that feels sort of amazing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 22 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.