Director's Chair: Kelly Reichardt — <I>First Cow</I>
Issue: September/October 2020

Director's Chair: Kelly Reichardt — First Cow

Post indie auteurs comfortably orbit the red hot sun that is big-budget, tent pole-driven Hollywood, more than happy to exchange their artistic vision and the eternal quest for financing for a shot at a superhero franchise or monster movie with a built-in global audience and fat payday, should the chance ever come their way.

Kelly Reichardt (pictured, below) is not that kind of filmmaker. Since making her acclaimed 1994 debut River of Grass, she’s followed her own singular orbit as a true outlier of indie cinema, and over the course of ten films has amassed a small but potent body of work — including Old Joy, Certain Women, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff and Night Moves — that has cemented her reputation as one of the most distinctive voices in movies today, thanks to her hands-on approach (she’s also edited her last six films), and ultra-realistic, unsentimental and gritty approach to her minimalist material. 

And that austere material — mostly co-written with novelist Jonathan Raymond since Old Joy, and often based on his short stories — is, appropriately enough for the outlier auteur, mainly about proverbial outsiders and enigmatic figures, wanderers adrift in the American west, often alone in their endless and mysterious journeys.

In her new film, First Cow, Reichardt once again travels back in time to the Pacific Northwest, this time evoking an authentically hardscrabble early nineteenth century way of life. A taciturn loner and skilled cook (John Magaro) has traveled west and joined a group of fur trappers in Oregon Territory, though he only finds true connection with a Chinese immigrant (Orion Lee) also seeking his fortune. Soon the two collaborate on a successful business, although its longevity is reliant upon the clandestine participation of a nearby wealthy landowner’s prized milking cow. From this simple premise, Reichardt again shows her distinct talent for depicting the peculiar rhythms of daily living and ability to capture the immense, unsettling quietude of rural America.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, the Portland, OR-based Reichardt talks about making the film, her love of post and the challenges of editing.

Isn’t this a film you’ve wanted to make for a long time? 

“Yes, you’re right. It’s based on another Jon Raymond book, ‘The Half-Life’, which I read nearly 20 years ago and I always wanted to make a film of it, but it spans 40 years in the early 1800s and is set on two continents, so it was out of my reach just in terms of the scale and budget you’d need. But after another project fell through, Jon and I began talking about how to adapt it, and it became this kind of heist movie, a caper around the cow, which doesn’t exist in the book. And it’s about friendship and it’s a period piece, so that was all fun to explore.” 

Period pieces can be tricky. What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?

“Some of that fell on my longtime DP Chris Blauvelt, as we decided not to shoot on film this time, and we really wanted to avoid it having any contemporary look or feel to it. We didn’t want the hard lines of HD or anything like that, and he made good use of all the overcast days, which really helped us during the shoot.”

How tough was it casting the right cow?

(Laughs) “Her name was Evie and it was more the type of cow that mattered, a Jersey. She had huge eyes and we just picked her from a beauty shot.”

Talk about how you collaborated with Chris on the look you wanted. What’s the process?

“Part of the inspiration was the paintings of Frederick Remington, with their muddy greens and blues, and the whole team — the production designer, costume designer and Chris — all worked towards that. And we also watched films like The Apu Trilogy, about this peasant family, which is shot very low to the ground, and I did my usual book, which acts as a visual guide that goes through the whole film, scene by scene. Then I sit down with Chris and we look at my book and go through the script and work out how we want to shoot it, and start the shot list. There’s a lot of foraging and digging and stuff close to the ground, especially in the beginning, and we have a lot of pans and tilts, and we shot it in 4:3, a square format we also used in Meek’s Cutoff, and it really suited the story and the overall look — both exteriors with the tall trees, and the interiors, which I wanted to feel simple and intimate. This was also the most pre-production time we’ve ever had together, and he was able to do a lot of scouting and shoot tests. It was also the first time we were able to build the interiors around how we wanted to shoot them.”

How tough was the shoot?

“It was 30 days as usual, and it was great. We shot it all on location in Oregon in the fall, so it was cold and rainy, but you could dress for that, and it was the first time we’d ever shot five-day weeks, which was fantastic. We had time to think a bit and visit locations [on] the weekend.”

You shot digitally. That must help in post, right?

“Yes, it’s all set up for digital now. The other thing is, if you don’t have a big budget and you’re shooting 16mm, I find it really hard to know exactly what I’m shooting. But with digital, you have the monitor, which I love, and you’re basically looking at an image that’s almost color-timed on the set, and once you work like that, it’s very hard to go back. And we had our color timer on set and it was all geared up for that before we began the shoot, and our post color timer, Joe Gawler, also had my book as a visual guide before we began, along with the gaffer and so on, so everyone was on the same page. Chris and I did have other reference points, but in terms of the color palette we just kept it simple and uniform so we could follow it all the way through the shoot and post to the DI at the end. And in terms of the editing, it’s also very close to what your finished film will look like, even though you’re doing a lot of work in the DI, compared with just five years ago.”

Where did you post?

“For the edit we bounced around a lot. I was in New York, and it’s very hard to find quiet edit space there, but we started off in the city at Harbor and then moved to Light Iron. We did the sound mix and the DI at Harbor, and my assistant editor Ben Mercer did some of the sound design while we cut, and he got a sound designer credit as he really dug into it and then he also worked with our sound designer and mixer Leslie Shatz.”

The film has such a great naturalistic soundscape, with all the cricket and bird noises. Talk about the importance of sound and working with Oscar-nominated sound designer Leslie Shatz.

“I loved working with him, as he’s so experienced and creative. It’s interesting you mention the crickets and birds, as after we’d done the mix and were supposed to be finished with the film, I had a very unsettling feeling about them. We just hadn’t had time to address them to the degree I wanted to, so when I got back to Portland I spent a week hand-placing local bird sounds and crickets, and I was also able to see the film in a few different rooms and theaters, and get it the way I wanted. Crickets are hard as they have specific rhythms, like a pulse, and I got really caught up in all that. It sounds crazy now, but it was very important to me and the film.”

Do you like the post process?

“I love it. The only thing I don’t like is that sometimes you don’t have the control you want. Obviously the people at the controls are far better at their jobs than you could be, but it’s hard, as you’re sitting there in a freezing dark room all day while they work their magic on your material. It’s such a different frame of mind from the set and the shoot, and it’s a much more passive role. But it’s truly amazing what you can now do in post, and just how different your film is after you do all the sound and music and DI.” 

Talking of control, as usual, you were your own editor. What were the big editing challenges?

“Sometimes it can be so hard, as a film can be cut in so many different ways, but I have to say I really loved editing this. I had great performances, and the humor made it fun and it all just flowed. But I had to cut the hardest thing we shot — this big trip down the Columbia River, which involved people speaking Chinook and tons of extras. After I did my first pass, I had a sinking feeling that something was off, and then a friend saw it and told me I should cut the whole section, and he was so right. It was just too much of a detour, and the film lost all tension.”

All the VFX by 67 Nights play a role. What was entailed?

“We did a lot of clean up of modern stuff, like phone wires and so on, and I wanted those coral-colored stars Remington has. The hardest thing was dealing with the wolves. They began as hand-made puppets a friend made, and they were awesome, but we couldn’t animate them properly, so by the end they became fully CG. That was the most difficult VFX thing to do, along with their eyes.”

This doesn’t have the predictable period music. Talk about the importance of the score by William Tyler.

“I’m glad you noticed that, as I started out trying to use authentic period music, and it all ended up sounding like a Ken Burns documentary. So when William came on, he came to the edit room in New York and we sat down while he played around with ideas on a dulcimer and guitars, and laid down tracks I could use. Right away I could tell it was working, and we carried on from there remotely, and it’s the perfect score for this.”

Tell us about doing the DI at Harbor Picture Company with colorist Joe Gawler. How important is it to you?

“It’s so important. Joe actually fell ill, but he was fantastic and it was a goal to work with him from the very start. Apart from all the great color work he and Chris did, we also had to match some day-for-night shooting with our night-for-night.”

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?

“It did. It’s such a process, and it’s like a photograph developing in front of your eyes every day, but the result feels like what we all set out to do.”