The Cow's Gaze: A Conversation with Kelly Reichardt

The American director talks about her new film, "First Cow," finding inspiring locations, working with animals, and American capitalism.
Pedro Emilio Segura Bernal
First Cow
Starting with her debut River of Grass (1994), Kelly Reichardt managed to capture, using her unique and particular style of patience, the underlying issues of the U.S. identity, using non-flamboyant narratives of the quotidian to explore the inner and physical travels of the characters, on this long, exhausting journey known as capitalism.
Her latest film, First Cow, is a slow-pace buddy anti-western in which two loner misfits (John Magaro and Orion Lee) and a cow (Eve) cross each other’s paths searching for a better life through milk theft and entrepreneurship in 18th century Oregon. This simple plot idea is the starting point for Reichardt, who makes use of her magnificent abilities—such as the sublime handling of arid comedy, her particular and empathetic sensibility, and her power to convert the most austere narrative, cinematographic or physical gesture into a blunt expression—to turn this almost anecdotal story of two semi-innocent clumsy businessmen / criminals into a deep and transcendental exploration of concepts such as friendship, nature, ambition, and everything under which the concept of America was founded.

NOTEBOOK: I want to start by asking you something that may sound really trivial, but I’m sure it's probably not. It’s about your scouting process. I found that especially in First Cow you manage to make the landscape such a stunning element. You transform nature without trying to amaze, but rather the complete opposite, with your characteristically sober style. I assume that the process demands time, contemplation, patience, so I’m really curious about it.
KELLY REICHARDT: First, thanks so much for asking about that because, definitely, in all of my films the hardest job is always scouting [laughs].  Location has to do with [location manager] Janet Weiss.  She's amazing. We start this really early; it's a whole process that even can go on during shooting cause, you know. Sometimes you have this scene with this place in mind and then when you're there, some rain starts, and the water rises and the beach that was in front you is no longer there, and you need to have some backup places in mind. But yeah, my films usually start with the scout. I go to search these places with my producer or with the cameraman. Other times I go with my assistant director or the production designer. There's a moment in which each one scouts on his own and then we bring the others to know these places.  In the past, I used to pass more time on my own doing it. But this project was more concentrated; it demanded a lot more effort. Especially because nowadays one of the greatest difficulties is to find places in which you can actually shoot, because there's so much air traffic now. You can barely shoot a single shot without an airplane passing by at some point. And I noticed the difference a lot from when I shot Meek's Cutoff [2010] to this film, which was more difficult to deal with air traffic. So this makes the finding of the right place difficult—it's not always about finding the prettiest place or the most extravagant one. Sometimes I have to hold back on that; that's why I think that sometimes the most incredible scene is behind us, at our back, and not where the camera is pointing. I believe these works must be focused on having the landscape to work with a scene and what is trying to get across, and not thinking about making a story about beauty or whatever.
NOTEBOOK: How long was the scouting process?
REICHARDT: This film happened really fast. The scouting was like a year. I was scouting for a year in Slovakia for another movie that didn't happen and then this movie did happen. It took like three months to prepare it, while other things were happening. I have to take the production designer [Anthony Gasparro] to these places. For him, it was important to know these places. But this implies a lot of driving around. Because I've worked with the same assistant director [Chris Carroll] for a long time and we go often to these places, but you have to go with other people too and sometimes you spend more time there.
NOTEBOOK: Do you love scouting?
REICHARDT: I found it really hard. But the thing I like the most is the time I spend there with the two Chrises [Carroll and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt], hanging around in these places that you already know. And I like too when I go to someplace alone and I think a lot or when you go in this van with all the team and we're all just sharing our research, things add up and just make sense together. That was helpful.
NOTEBOOK: Moving to the writing process, do you write your scenes while keeping specific spaces in mind?
REICHARDT: Yes, for sure. Sometimes I'm scouting during writing. Usually, I start with an idea of some places or how they are gonna be like. Me and Jon [co-writer Jonathan Raymond], sometimes we have this place in mind that's not gonna be the final place where we shoot, but we use it to make up some ideas.
NOTEBOOK: You have had a long-time working collaboration with Jonathan Raymond, with whom you usually co-write your films, but in this case, you started working on the film based on a novel that already was published and which is written by him. I would like to know if the process has changed in this case, as having a previous text as the starting point.
REICHARDT: Yeah, I mean the thing that is nice about John’s stories is that there's a lot of room to extend. To invent inside the space. This time we took some of the bones of the novel. The novel tells a story of two decades, it goes to two different continents... So we found this other device that allowed us to treat all these themes that are in the novel, but keeping the characters John had in the novel. King Lu's character is a fusion of two characters, actually. But then after we had the "cow mechanism" we built out everything from there. But we didn't intend to take out the contemporary part of the story, the 1820s to scale back, to expand in order to get into the nitty-gritty of things. We worked on this over a decade before deciding to make it just for that. Usually, I tell stories that last, like, two weeks. This was a different way of dealing with time. Years and years are passing by during this story, so…
NOTEBOOK: How was it working with this new “concept” of time?
REICHARDT: It was difficult to find how to figure it out, to be honest [laughs].
NOTEBOOK: Did you manage to solve this during writing, editing, or while you were shooting?
REICHARDT: It was completely figured out during the writing phase. Yes, well, I mean, in the “big sense,” of course. Then things got sorted out later, too.
NOTEBOOK: I would like to know a bit more about the editing process. You usually work in this department in your films.
REICHARDT: Originally it started for me as a practical thing, because at the beginning I couldn't afford to hire an editor. But it helps me as a way of discovering. In editing… well, I think when you're set, you're able to discover where you're not. To discover the exact moment when you're going to make a cut or how images are going to go together. But these kinds of films that I made can go together in so many different ways. There's a lot of discovery in the editing room. You have this really social way of making a film, with a lot of collaboration in production and post, so sometimes it’s nice to be alone with the film again and to start to get rid of this idea of a film that you idealize, and being with the film that you actually had made or you're making. I like the process of it. Also because I teach, I feel the need to have my hands to work directly with something, without someone else, without an intermediary. So editing, it’s good for me
NOTEBOOK: Do you isolate yourself during this process?
REICHARDT: Editing is by nature an isolating thing. I've a fabulous assistant, really smart, that's really good at look at things. Usually after I do some cuts, I bring some people to look at it, to have fresh eyes at it but usually is a process of being alone, by yourself. Which is nice [laughs].
NOTEBOOK: As far I understand it, First Cow demanded a lot of research to get an accurate description of the setting, as you couldn’t count on photos of the time. I imagine that influenced your creative process in the film a lot. Can you tell me a bit about it?
REICHARDT: Well, nothing could be fast during this specific process. As you said, there were no photographs, so it wasn’t that simple. We had a researcher in London who was really helpful because, at the time, everything was coming from England, so he was sending us stuff. We did a lot of reading, reading, reading. Prop people were doing their research, costume design did others, focusing themselves on fabrics and materials. And then we befriended a Confederation of Tribes named the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon, and they were really generous and allowed us to use their library, they connected us with someone to help us with the Native American language that’s used in the film, they ultimately helped us with the canoe.. But on the way, all the people who we met on the way, they had story notes, valuable information That's why these van trips that I told you about were so good because they're like meetings where everyone was sharing info.
NOTEBOOK: How did all this information influence your way of telling your story? I’m curious, too, about all these concepts that you repeat throughout all of your previous work that can be found in First Cow. How did they get into these new stories you’re telling? Is it completely deliberate?
REICHARDT: No, no, things just add up to it. I don't force it. All the info and these things just add up. These things that you mentioned, they're things that I have an interest in so, I guess it just happens.
NOTEBOOK: Can I ask you about the cow?
REICHARDT: [laughs] For sure!
NOTEBOOK: You work a lot with animals in your films: From Lucy in Wendy and Lucy  [2008] to the horses in Certain Women [2016], and now the cow that gives the name to this film I would like to know how it is working with them or how they influence your working process. 
REICHARDT: Well, in this case, it was really hard [laughs].
NOTEBOOK: But in the film it looks like everything went well!
REICHARDT: I’m glad it looks like that [laughs]. Every frame that could work is in the film. Eve was so sweet but was really hard to work with. She was trained and we had to do a lot of things like making her comfortable, for example, with the ferry because cows don't swim and besides that, crews move fast and they're huge, so any animal would react to this in an uncomfortable way. Working with animals forces you to step everybody down, to slow down. We learned all these lessons on Certain Women with wild horses. But we forgot it all, [laughs]. And now we’ve got to relearn it. To work at animal speed. But still, you know, "tick-tock." Chris [Blauvelt], he is a very positive person, but still, the only time I saw him losing it was when he is trying not to lose his temper while working with animals! [Laughs.]
First Cow
NOTEBOOK: So the cow kind of set the tone for shooting. Besides that, you already told me the cow is a narrative mechanism, a device for narrative. Starting from that, I could even dare to say it may work as a MacGuffin. But I have another idea coming from her. I think the film’s point of view comes from the cow. I know it can be point of view of John Magaro’s Cookie too, but I think this is because there’s a completely innocent gaze throughout the film. It’s a non-judgemental perspective that I think is the closest thing that we can get to being in nature’s perspective of contemplating things: Seeing a landscape the same way as human behavior.
REICHARDT: Yeah, yeah, I agree. The film’s POV is definitely that—except, I think there's [Orion Lee’s] King Lu’s perspective too. And he is a hustler…
 
NOTEBOOK: But even King Lu or the Chief are characters based on naivety, and I think that this demands you to be innocent in your perspective.
REICHARDT: Yeah, yeah, completely. They're absolutely naive, too, about everything. The Chief, specifically. Not being aware they're depleting a whole race. The tribes were almost eradicated by disease in, like, five years. So his presence there is completely shattering. But I think King Lu is kind of more optimistic in a way. He is really aware of his presence on the social ladder. He knows he needs Cookie but, still, he can’t buy an idea of breaking through—and yeah, that's naive too.
NOTEBOOK: Now that the Chief popped up into discussion, I would like to ask you about a specific conversation that takes place in the film at his house, which is the conversation between two women with no male presence and about a necklace. After the screening, I was discussing the film with another fellow MUBI contributor, Flavia Dima, and she made me aware of this.  I’m curious if you made that specific situation just for the Bechdel Test.
REICHARDT: Yeah [laughs]. But it works too as a mechanism that shows us that are other lives going on. Other stories happening in parallel. On the outskirts of the story. But, besides that, at that time, they couldn’t be really woman there. I mean, Lily Gladstone’s character is supposed to be a Chinook woman that married the Chief [Toby Jones] who has probably another white wife back in Britain. At the very beginning, besides this particular situation, at that time, they wouldn’t be able to find a woman there. You maybe have to be able to find someone work as a translator or something, but really they wouldn't be women there. So, it’s how would society will be without woman except for... But in the moment you speak about, these women who had married, one is married to the prominent man, the head of his tribe. At that moment there was trade going on, bargaining.. Another naive point of view, that this was going to work out..
NOTEBOOK: The naivety of capitalism.
REICHARDT: Yeah.
NOTEBOOK: Do you think that the film is about the naivety of capitalism or the naivety of fraternity?
REICHARDT: Both [laughs] That's a really funny way to put it, but yeah, it's a film about it...
NOTEBOOK: Capitalism believing it’s going to work.
REICHARDT: Well, capitalism works for some people. It does not work for nature. It doesn't work for... [pauses]
NOTEBOOK: Human beings?
REICHARDT: Well... yeah, but... Chief Factor will be fine, you know? Life will work for him. He lost a bit of milk but that's it.
NOTEBOOK: Now that capitalism is on the table, was there any specific reason to tell this story right now?
REICHARDT: The truth is I had been figuring out how to make this story happen for a long time. But it seems is a nice time to tell the story of America as a place of immigrants, just to talk about the power structure that has always been there, the place of capitalism since the beginning, about natural resources being wiped out, on how we’ve ignored all these signs coming from nature. And to talk about ingenuity, you need this, the one thing that tells you that you can always make it the long way to better high life standards, and it could only happen if you're sort of disconnected. This film spoke to those things. But as you mentioned, it’s about friendship too. About all different things friendship can be, about intimacy. It is a love story, for me as well. [Cookie and King Lu] are just two home out people who wish for a domestic life..
NOTEBOOK: A love story crossed out by capitalism.
REICHARDT: Yeah, yeah. If only they would have stayed.
NOTEBOOK: Yes, if they would have stayed with their kind of precarious stability achieved, they would have lived happily ever after...
REICHARDT: Yeah, [but] if they didn’t have the ambition...
NOTEBOOK: You wouldn't have a film.
REICHARDT: [laughs] Yes.

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