Yes, a cow is a pivotal part of Kelly Reichardt’s acclaimed seventh film, “First Cow,” but the period drama is much more than that. Based on a portion of “The Half Life” by Jonathan Raymond, who co-wrote the screenplay, the A24 release centers on two men whose unexpected friendship allows them to flourish in the harsh economic and societal realities of the Oregon Territory in the mid-19th Century. The 2004 novel actually started a long collaboration on Reichardt’s films “Oldjoy,” “Wendy and Lucy,” “Meek’s Cutoff” and “Night Moves.”
“I wrote him and asked him if he had any short stories, which led to us [adapting another of his works], ‘Old Joy,’ which was kind of the beginning of our thing. So, ‘The Half-life’s’ always been sort of been hanging in the air. We just never really knew how to get our arms around it,” Reichardt says. “My films maybe span two weeks of time and this was 40 years and there’s like an ocean voyage to China. And it was really outside my scope. So, for a couple of decades, we’ve been just shooting the shit over it. ‘How would we do it? Blah blah, blah.’ And then finally, the idea of the cow was sort of broke the logjam and that we would focus on the 1800s because the book goes between contemporary Portland and [that period of time].”
Another revelation that made the film work was Raymond’s ability to fuse two characters into King Lu, portrayed by relatively unknown British actor Orion Lee. And Lu’s relationship with Cookie, played by John Magaro (“Unbroken,” “The Umbrella Academy”), is still at the heart of the original novel. Although, how they meet on screen is somewhat less dramatic than in the book where they find each other in a Chinese jail.
“King Lu and Cookie talk through a hole in a wall for a decade and fall in love,” Reichardt says of the novel. “The love story of the two friends is definitely in the book. It’s two outsiders who find an attachment to each other. Like all relationships it’s changing as it goes.”
Making a period piece on an independent film budget isn’t easy, but Reichardt pulled it off wonderfully with “Meek’s Cutoff” in 2010. That film, however, took place in 1845, after the advent of photography. “First Cow,” on the other hand, takes place before photography was invented and in a part of the country that wasn’t captured until decades later. She notes that even the Oregon Historical Society didn’t really have much reference material to assist them.
“Some of the research came from London with a fellow named Phillip Clark who was a big help, But yeah, we were all cramming and sharing information and the people we met,” Reichardt recalls. “We got connected to the Grand Ronde, which is this Confederation of tribes near Eugene, Oregon. And they had just opened this beautiful museum and they opened their library up for us, and we became friendly with the people there. It’s their canoe that’s in the movie. They [also connected] us with someone that spoke the language and, through them, I think we found the woman that could make the cedar capes and hats .”
Finding the right actors to play Cookie and King Lu was just as big an endeavor. Reichardt stayed in Portland while her casting director, Gayle Keller (“Hustlers”), went on a far-reaching mission to find, in particular, King Lu.
“We, we watched auditions from like hundreds of people. I mean, the amount of a Kung Fu movies that Gayle had to sit through. The Chinese actor is really up against it, I realized,” Reichardt says. “It was really depressing the roles that a lot of Asian actors have to work their world around. And Orion read like three or four times and it was a process with him because we didn’t really have any immediate touchstones culturally as far as in art or movies or anything to immediately connect on.”
She continues, “Cookie was easier. I Skyped with Magaro kind of early on. And as soon as I talking to him, I was just like, ‘Oh he’s Cookie. He’s got to be Cookie.’ He’s not what I expected Cookie to be, but he also is. And [producer] Scott Rudin knew Magaro quite well from a lot of his theater stuff and I have known him more cause he had been in Todd Haynes, ‘Carol.‘”
Despite the importance of both roles to the film, Magaro, Lee and Reichardt didn’t physically meet each other until both actors came to the set in Oregon.
“April got them in their outfits and we sent them off with a survivalist into the woods to go camping together and, and just to learn how to build traps, how to skin a squirrel, how to make fire without matches, all these various things that they would need,” Reichardt says. “And, Magaro, he was doing Lewis and Clark cookbook recipes back in Hell’s Kitchen in New York leading up to it.”
While the cow gets the credit in the title, it’s the “oily cakes” her milk allows Cookie to create that really drives the dramatic conflict in the film. And, yes, there were a ton of the delicious critters on set.
“Sean Fung, the assistant prop man, made a million oily cakes and John Magaro made a million oily cakes. And the crew ate a million oily cakes,” Reichardt says with a smile. “It’s like fried dough. Delicious enough. How wrong can you go?”
“First Cow” opens in Los Angeles and New York on Friday.