For her latest film, Reichardt collaborated with Jon Raymond on their most ambitious project to date, adapting Raymond’s first novel, The Half-Life, a bifurcated epic intertwining the stories of an atavistic Eighties Oregon hippie colony with the frontier town that long ago occupied the same site. Now set almost entirely within the historic past of 1820s Oregon, First Cow explores a touching and politically astute vision of early America seen from the other side: the West Coast as inhabited by immigrants from around the world intermingled with already endangered indigenous people and aimless drifters, all determined to lay their claim on the uncharted land. In First Cow, the important role of animals in Reichardt’s cinema finds its fullest expression as the eponymous cow and forest fauna together bear unspeaking witness to the human folly unfolding before them as two dreamers hatch an unlikely and ultimately doomed scheme to make quick money. Looking back at the earliest stages of entrepreneurial capitalism, First Cow offers a wistful but profound questioning of America as an ideal by gently casting doubt on the myth that innocence and profit can coexist. – HG
SPEAKER 1: March 9, 2020, Harvard Film Archive premiered Kelly Reichardt's film, First Cow. This is the audio recording of the introduction and Q&A that followed. Participating is director, Kelly Reichardt and HFA Director, Haden Guest.
HADEN GUEST: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Haden Guest. I'm director of the Harvard Film Archive. And it's really an honor and a thrill to at last welcome Kelly Reichardt to the Harvard Film Archive. This visit has been very long in the works. And I want to thank Kelly for bending her extremely busy schedule to be with us tonight and tomorrow night, making this visit a priority, even during this rather stressful time.
I consider Kelly Reichardt to be one of the great American filmmakers, not just of today, but of all time. I not only stand by what may sound to some of you a grandiose declaration, but I find it supported in each and every one of her films, perhaps most rapturously in her revelatory latest, First Cow, which receives its area premiere tonight here. Starting this past weekend, we have been screening all of Reichardt's featured films and taking this chance to study and admire the boldly understated style and approach to narrative, which is defined across her work.
Reichardt's taut minimalism seems to derive from a careful distillation of her film stories and dialogue to the most essential elements, a distillation that also gives her films a rare emotional weight and depth, allowing them to reveal intimate portraits of their characters while mining the strange ambiguities that so often define relationships. Friendship is, perhaps, the major theme shared by Reichardt's films. And yet, it is a kind of friendship defined with rare complexity and nuance, for in Reichardt's films, strangers often become fleetingly intimate companions, while seemingly close friends and loved ones drift towards inevitable estrangement.
In films such as her masterful omnibus work, Certain Women or her celebrated Old Joy, as well as First Cow, as you'll see, Reichardt carefully traces the shifting, often contradictory, power dynamics at work between people bound together, either by choice or by circumstance. At times, as we'll see in Wendy and Lucy, which screens tomorrow night, true friendship seems to be found more often between humans and animals-- in that case, a young woman and her dog.
Another common theme and focus of Reichardt's films is found in the quintessentially American stories they tell, with them each in their own way exploring the US as a place and as an idea whose exact meaning and identity remains unfixed and open. All of these elements converge in First Cow, which is Reichardt's second period film and is, like Meek's Cutoff, set in the long-ago West Coast of the early 1800s in an Oregon trading post reimagined now as a ramshackle microcosm of American capitalism in its very earliest stage.
Indeed, in a story of an unlikely partnership struck between a guileless itinerant chef and a quick-thinking Chinese immigrant on the run from some kind of trouble, First Cow describes a profoundly soulful cautionary tale and history lesson about the promise and perils of the entrepreneurial spirit, so often celebrated as the key to American success. With a melding of gentle humor and melancholy, Reichardt's new film looks with a decidedly critical eye to the distant past, reminding us how American industry and capital has reshaped this land into something very, very different from what it once was.
First Cow is Kelly Reichardt's fifth collaboration with Oregonian novelist John Raymond. And it finds them adapting, this time, Raymond's wonderful-- and I highly recommend it-- first novel, The Half-Life. It's a skillful distillation of that book's truly ambitious scope, which crosscuts between two stories and two different time periods, the first set in the present moment on a kind of hippie commune and the second in the distant past of frontier Oregon, and also, I should add, a long passage in China. While the present moment appears in fleeting but extremely important prologue in First Cow, one cannot help but notice the strong and, at times, ironic parallels made between the distant past and today, especially in the wonderfully improbable scheme invented by the two wanderers.
First Cow offers a very special gift to those of us here at the Harvard Film Archive and those of us in the Department of Art, Film and Visual Studies, formerly known as Visual and Environmental Studies, for it offers an homage to the late Peter Hutton both at the beginning and at its end. Peter Hutton was a dear friend of the Harvard Film Archive and the Department, and he visited very often to present his films in this very space. So we're moved to welcome Peter Hutton back again tonight.
Now, Kelly Reichardt is visiting not just as a guest of the Harvard Film Archive, but she's also a Baby Jane Holzer Visiting Artist in Film. This is courtesy of a generous gift pledge by Rusty Holzer and the Andy Warhol superstar herself, Baby Jane Holzer. We're really grateful for this promised gift.
I want to give special thanks to Robin Kelsey, who's the Dean of Arts and Humanities, as well as our friends in the Department of Art, Film and Visual Studies, especially Denise Oberdan and the Department's Chair, Rob Moss. I also want to thank our friends from A24, Max Simonson who's here tonight in this room, as well as Lisa Ritchie and David Lobb. I give a special thanks too to Anish Savjani from Filmscience who helped us source some of the prints for the retrospective.
I'd like to remind everybody, please turn off any cell phones and electronic devices you have. Please refrain from using them. As you know, we're now faced with a rapid and worldwide spread of the dangerous coronavirus that threatens to upend our regular schedules and habits here at Harvard and everywhere else it seems. I want to thank everyone for understanding our need, per University guidelines to limit the number of people able to gather in this room and, in fact, in any room across the University,
This measure was taken for your safety and for the safety of our community. I'd like to ask you all to draw on your deepest sense of civic-mindedness by not remaining in the theater if you feel at all unwell or have any flu or cold-like symptoms, especially persistent cough or sneezing. On behalf of the HFA, the Harvard College library, and the University, I thank you for your understanding. And now, on a brighter note, please join me in welcoming the wonderful, one-and-only Kelly Reichardt.
KELLY REICHARDT: Thanks a lot. Thank you. Thanks a lot. Thanks. I went to school here at the Museum School-- not here, but at the Museum School. And I saw all my first introduction to narrative filmmaking in any sort-- really, culture in any sort at all-- happened at the Brattle Theater and in this vicinity. So being that I started in Miami, Florida, which was kind of a cultural void in my little world that I grew up in-- so the area has a special place for me.
Then I walked around today for hours and hours, trying to see something that I remembered. And I couldn't remember anything. And I don't know if it's the city or my brain. But anyway, I'm really happy to be here. And I'm really grateful to Haden and the Harvard Film Archives for having me. And yes, this film is based on my friend Jonathan Raymond's novel The Half-Life. And that's all I'll say for now. Appreciate you being here. Thanks.
HADEN GUEST: Please join me in welcoming back Kelly Reichardt.
Well, thank you, Kelly. Thank you so much again for being here and for sharing this really beautiful film with us tonight. I'll ask a few questions. We'll have a short conversation here. And then we'll take questions from the audience.
Now, animals have, of course, played an important and prominent role in your film. And yet, I feel like it's slightly different with First Cow. And so if I look back at films, of course, such as Wendy and Lucy or Old Joy in which your own dog, the beloved Lucy, appears or if I look at the horses in Certain Women or if I look at the oxen and horses in Meek's Cutoff, I see a kind of intuitive-- a deep connection, a kind of soulmates, between animals and the the characters.
And yet, in this film, First Cow, animals also seem to have a sort of observational perspective. I think of the owl we see looking down. I think about the birds that the young girl looks up at the beginning. And then I think, of course, about the cow itself who seems to be observing human folly from a certain wiser distance. And yet, then there's also this connection. There's also this type of friendship, and I can't help but think that milk and cookies go together so well.
KELLY REICHARDT: Boy. Oh, boy.
HADEN GUEST: You know?
KELLY REICHARDT: Yeah.
HADEN GUEST: So I was wondering if you could talk about the ways in which the animals both have this certain connection, and again, King Lu also being up in the tree like [INAUDIBLE]. And at the same time, the animals here seem to know more, in a sense, than the people do.
KELLY REICHARDT: Right. I thought we were going to talk about the way the cat gets thrown out the door. That's the only cruel thing to an animal. Wow, that's a big question. Yeah. Well, it's the beaver trade, and the beaver obviously don't last forever. They're going to be wiped out, as are the Chinook and all the Multnomah tribes that are living in the area.
So there is this question, I think, of the seeds of capitalism in nature and that balance, and if these two things can work together. And yeah, the animal life, to me, is another idea of just-- could coexist with the Chinook. And you know, the cow is brought in. He's an odd animal for the area. But yeah, just the natural world, I guess, just thinking of that and how-- I mean, Cookie has kind of a light-- sorry to use this term, but a light footprint, but he does.
The film opens with the dog digging, and everybody's down low and digging. And he's down low and milking, and he's just kind of down in the earth with it all. But the Chief Factor's world is sort of like everything leads into everything else. Right? I mean, the crime in the film is this milk being stolen in this basket. The crime isn't that the beaver are wiped out or that the existence of all the indigenous people are wiped out. That's not the-- so wow. That's really off the track of the animals, but there you go.
HADEN GUEST: But just, again, the ways in which these animals, the owl and the cow with these big sort of wondering--
KELLY REICHARDT: Yeah. They are observers, yeah.
HADEN GUEST: --intelligent eyes, seem to be watching, seem to know-- like, the cow seems to know right away. And that last shot we see of the cow in the fence is so poignant and moving. And this is the time in which this idea of property, possession, land is being divided. So the cow does not, of course, appear in the--
KELLY REICHARDT: In the novel, yeah. Right.
HADEN GUEST: --in the novel. So I was wondering if you could talk about how the cow came to be and to play such a major role in the film?
KELLY REICHARDT: Right. Yeah. In the novel, they're taking the oil from the beaver glands and taking it to China. But the novel is really expansive and goes through four decades and two continents. And I usually do films that span two weeks of time or less and get into the nitty-gritty of things. So the cow idea allowed us to bring all the themes of Jonathan's novel into our story with not having to just be extracting, extracting, but have room to get in there and move.
And so the cow became this-- I mean, I can't remember how it all came about, but I'm sure Jon thought of it. This animal arrives that's the key to King Lu's possible getting a toehold into some kind of just stabilized life. And yeah, I don't know. I'm so bad about talking about all the symbolism of everything. That's your job, really.
HADEN GUEST: I mean, more than symbolism, but thinking about the role of friendship in your films. I know this is something we've talked about, and there's an interview published in Film Comment. I think of the latest issue and give a plug to that in a very nice, long piece on First Cow. But your films deal with this power dynamics between friends, good friends, bad friends. And it seems here the cow is a kind of intermediary.
The cow is, for Cookie, a friend, kind of the way in which they have this loving relationship. But then, for King Lu, he's a source of profit. And then for the British, he's a prestige symbol. So just thinking about the role and your deep connection to animals as well-- but this film seems to take it to another level where the cow actually is this pivotal sort of--
KELLY REICHARDT: Yeah. Well, I guess everything is whatever anybody wants to make out of it, to exploit or to befriend or whatever that is. I guess just the-- in my mind, it's the same as the whole idea of going to-- we modeled Toby Jones' character, the Chief Factor, he's like a CEO more than a land owner. It'd be like the CEO of Firestone going to Africa and exploiting the rubber or whatever.
So John McLoughlin worked for the Hudson Bay Company and came from England and went to Vancouver. And we used him as a sort of model. But this idea of the beaver forever and just the idea of wanting a cow to come over so you can have milk in your tea, just all of it, that everything's there for you for the taking. And that's just because you can, I guess.
And so the cow just becomes the-- the cow becomes the elephant in the room. The cow is the thing that everybody does with what they will. And it's true, the owl is sort of this kind of constant observer of all the behavior.
HADEN GUEST: I mean, I can't help but also think of the cow, again with the milk, as being is kind of generous, maternal figure in a way to these two sort of man children. And also, thinking about the film in terms of-- one of the striking aspects of it compared to your other work is that it doesn't feature a strong presence of a female protagonist.
And this is where I want to ask about the beginning of the film, the prologue, which, though, does begin-- the film is framed with this young woman and her dog, which we can't help but think about Wendy and Lucy. In this case, though, it seems like the dog is leading the owner, as opposed to in Wendy and Lucy, where it seems like Wendy is leading Lucy to this sort of terrible [INAUDIBLE].
KELLY REICHARDT: I'm not thinking about that other movie.
HADEN GUEST: Well, OK. But I wanted to ask about the prologue and the framing of this film beginning with this young woman, but most of all, the dog. It seems like the dog is the one who's drawn to the skeleton and [INAUDIBLE]. Can you speak about this, because it obviously references the novel in which two skeletons are discovered in the present day. But how did you come up with this sort of condensed and slightly elliptical mysterious--
KELLY REICHARDT: I couldn't go back and forth to the 1980s, so we decided on this prologue because I did want to show the Columbia River and how it was a thoroughfare for trade. Even the Chinook did all their trading on the Columbia. If you stand out on Sauvie's Island where we filmed this, you just have to wait for 10 minutes and one of these huge tankers will, rusty, come down the Columbia. So I liked the idea of placing the film there and showing sort of the natural world now, and then going back.
And so yeah, it was a way to get a woman in the film. That wouldn't have really been white women in the area at the time. And there would have been just, I think, the First Nations women that were there. So yeah, it was all very convenient as a way to be able to have a female face in the film.
I mean, we get Lily Gladstone later and some of those women that are also kind of peripheral, granted. But yeah, I liked the idea of starting with the-- you know, the novel starts with the discovery of the bones. And then a big part of the novel are the politics of the bones. They're thought to be indigenous bones and--
HADEN GUEST: Who owns them.
KELLY REICHARDT: --it's a fight over who owns the bones, yeah.
HADEN GUEST: And who owns the bones' history. I feel like that's part of what this film was about. But I love the cut from the present to the past and the way in which, in the figure of Cookie, he's both like the dog, digging into the soil, foraging, but then he's like the young woman where he has the similar scarf, and he's also looking up at the bird like she does as well. I was wondering if you could-- this is so-- I don't know quite how to say there seems--
KELLY REICHARDT: For a while, if you didn't read anything about the film, you just think it's a hipster from Portland with his beard out--
HADEN GUEST: Very good, yeah.
KELLY REICHARDT: --getting mushrooms.
But yeah, they're all kind of gleamers and diggers and I guess-- I was looking at Ugetsu a lot before I made this film, and also always returning to The Apu Trilogy and films where people are down on the ground all the time. And they're eating on the ground and they're cooking on the ground and they're foraging. And so I did want to sort of set the idea with Alia in the beginning of just the sort of digging and the dogs digging, and she's on the ground building some little arrows.
HADEN GUEST: Right. She was [INAUDIBLE].
KELLY REICHARDT: Yeah. And then the mystery, of course. Yeah. In real life, she would have taken out her phone, and she would have taken some pictures of her bones, and sent them to her friends. And you know, it would've gone all differently.
HADEN GUEST: Well, there is a direct quote or-- I don't want to say quote, but there's a very Ugetsu moment in the film, which is when we're not sure who's alive or dead, and this return to the little hut where this is, again, a similar circular moment when the husband returns and it gets to the empty house and then suddenly, magically, his wife is returned as a ghost we then learn.
And this haunting sense at the end that King Lu's return-- or whether they aren't already dead in this last moment. I was wondering if you could talk about this. The final moments of the film seemed kind of suspended in this sort of in-between netherworlds.
KELLY REICHARDT: Yeah. We kept calling it the ghost cottage, the place where this-- and that couple would have been from the Wappatoo Island, so they were Hawaiian really pre it being called Hawaii. But truly, when this actor did his tai chi, it wasn't a windy day. That wind only came when he was doing his-- he said, I'm moving energy around. But I swear that's how it happened. It was really something.
But yeah, in the beginning, the idea sort of came from Ugetsu, like where is he? Is he in a dream? Is King Lu his dream of what's happening? Then it kind of ends up getting rooted down in a more practical thing again at the cottage, but naught perhaps. So yeah, there's an ambiguous to it. But even Jon and I could see it differently of what it is or how it is, and so could the actors for that matter. There was no absolutes in it.
HADEN GUEST: But this idea, though, of this sort of floating world between the living and the dead, but also between the past and the present I find really fascinating. And you said how you could imagine a viewer being confused whether Cookie is a hipster from Oregon.
And I love, though, this idea of artisanal baked goods as having a line out the door, which we see every time a new donut shop opens or something like that. It's celebrated for having, I don't know, poppy seeds from wherever, something on it. It seems like there is this really quite sharp kind of critique, like this is both the origin and then the rarefied epitome of capitalism as a search for the authentic, which can be like making baked goods.
KELLY REICHARDT: Right, looking to the future, looking to the past to make your brand. Yes, but you've said it, Haden.
HADEN GUEST: Well, no, but it's also--
KELLY REICHARDT: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
And your question is?
HADEN GUEST: No, my question was just thinking about this idea, though, in which-- because it seems the film is also a bit like Robert Altman in the sense where you have this evocation of the past, but it's this past that slips between-- so it's a different kind. I feel like Meek's Cutoff is a very pure period piece.
We don't confuse that absolute past, and that's a wonderful film [INAUDIBLE] with the present. But here, it seems as though there's a slide that begins from the beginning. And I was wondering if you could just talk about how you maintain this, how much you were thinking of this with Jon Raymond.
KELLY REICHARDT: You know, it's funny. It's funny to think about it now, because those are all the very beginning conversations. But then you just get into the world of these two characters that I kind of have to live in and deal with in practical terms of what they're doing moment to moment and how they're in this sort of bigger-- more esoteric questions or even political ideas kind of go away, and you're just like, OK, I'm just telling this story of these two guys and this cow and they need this milk, and just start dealing with the sort of laundry list of what it takes to-- and how to frame that and tell that.
I mean, one thing that's happening is, also, that there's this-- when you're making a Western, which this is, but I didn't feel the oppressiveness as much as when making Meek's Cutoff, which had horses and wagons and things of that nature, bonnets, where you're kind of in the footsteps of a-- every time you set up your camera, some story already kind of exists that's been told already by what the angle is because of this genre that's really tied into American mythology but only comes from one point of view, which is this very masculine, white point of view.
And so I knew I was getting into a Western thing again, which I always seem to be falling into, but my way of getting out of that was to think of it as being like a heist film. But then there's a set of rules there too, also mostly made up by white men. But it's a freer form, you know? So there are these narrative sort of tropes happening that are really traditional, and then there's this more the Ugetsu thing of being able to open up and have it be a dream if it's a dream, or more, to me, just this sad feeling about, oh, what if, just the possibilities of what if, like if we would have just embraced some of the indigenous peoples' thoughts of how to live in the natural world, like, ah.
I mean, the Chinook had slaves. They were not a pure people, but they lived with their salmon and off the-- just in the sense of the natural world. I have felt, throughout this film, the sort of what if of it all, and the same way with Cookie and King Lu. Like, ah, if only-- maybe they didn't need to-- but maybe just in the air overall, just like a melancholy about the world today, about the end of the planet or whatever, you know, the end of the natural world. That's so sad.
HADEN GUEST: Yeah, but bringing that back to the past--
KELLY REICHARDT: Truly, yeah.
HADEN GUEST: --and not just place it on the present moment, I think, is quite profound. I mean, one of the tropes that you--
KELLY REICHARDT: Too bad. That could've been so good.
HADEN GUEST: But one of the great moments, I think, in the film is the first meeting between the main characters, and where Cookie immediately assumes-- there's this naked, different-skin-looking person. Immediately assumes it's a Native American. And then it's like, no, he's actually an English-speaking Chinese with a slightly British accent, which just immediately throws everything off of kilter. I was wondering if we could talk about the character of King Lu who, again, is a kind of composite or from two characters in the novel.
KELLY REICHARDT: Yeah. He's sort of a fusion of two people in the novel. Our idea of him is that he came from Canton and got on these British ships early and sort of spent his life on ships and always moving and, just like Cookie, being orphaned and making the trek across the country as a cook with these trappers. And both of them just have been constantly moving. But yeah, King Lu was a long search and a strange find, finding Orion Lee for the part.
HADEN GUEST: Did you know you wouldn't go to China as the novel, or did you--
KELLY REICHARDT: Oh, yeah.
HADEN GUEST: --consider that?
KELLY REICHARDT: I can't go to China on my budget. No, I can't do anything like that, nor do I really want to. I can't have it both ways. You can't be making the bit by bit [INAUDIBLE] and sweeping out the-- and go to China. You know, it's one or the other because they're just different kinds of films.
HADEN GUEST: To take much more of the energy of the film.
KELLY REICHARDT: Yeah. You would have to focus on the bigger strokes of things, I think. So it was always going to be the smaller story, yeah.
HADEN GUEST: Your stories always lie in these details. And I love the fact that you mentioned the sweeping out of the cabin, because I wanted to talk about the particularities of this friendship, if we can call it a friendship, because King Lu needs Cookie. Cookie needs King Lu in a certain sense. And I love the way Cookie falls into the more, if you will, feminine role. He's sweeping and cleaning, the domestic side, where King Lu--
KELLY REICHARDT: Why do you have to categorize it?
HADEN GUEST: What's that?
KELLY REICHARDT: Why do you have to categorize it?
HADEN GUEST: No, I'm just saying-- that's why I put it in quotes. But just thinking the way of the time where it would be traditionally like this. And again, he's connected to the hearth, to the home. And then King Lu's sitting there, sort of dreaming or scheming.
KELLY REICHARDT: Yeah. I think they start out with a-- I mean, King Lu just finally has someone who will listen to him, and he can't sort of make his way without a connection. Yeah, he needs Cookie. But that's the sort of evolution of the friendship, that he, in the end, is there for-- getting back to the William Blake quote in the beginning, just home friendship, and that's being where it's at. You know? So I think it evolves and is an intimate friendship, yeah.
HADEN GUEST: It's an intimate friendship, but it's also a friendship based on a kind of power dynamic.
KELLY REICHARDT: Sure, for a while.
HADEN GUEST: And this is an idea-- yes, although they end, movingly, together. But it seems like, in your films, friendship is never an easy bond. It's oftentimes where somebody is--
KELLY REICHARDT: Like all relationships, right?
HADEN GUEST: Right. But this is something again where you refuse, I think, easy tropes and you take it to a more difficult place. I think about Old Joy. I think about Certain Women. And I do think this film is quite striking in that regard.
KELLY REICHARDT: Yeah. But such are all relationships, right? I mean, they get to share things together and they share a space together and they share ideas together and days together and time together and food together and all those things. And then they have mutual needs, and maybe even Cookie has a little embarrassment of his friend in the house when he talks in the Chief Factor's house, and all those things that happen. Also, if you don't go to China, you can just sort of get deeper into those things.
HADEN GUEST: I have to say, I love, though, again, to me, the moment that marks Cookie in this role is where he's just handed the baby, like he's the one man in the room who everybody supposedly trusts to--
KELLY REICHARDT: He's just there, yeah.
HADEN GUEST: [INAUDIBLE]. But I want to ask a final question before opening it to the audience, which is about Peter Hutton. I know we spoke in our last conversation about the ways in which Peter Hutton's ideas of time were really important to you.
But I wanted to talk about landscape, because I think that's the other thing that Hutton is so known for, these sort of evocative and really expressive landscapes, and landscapes that he asks us to look at and to-- he allows us, I should say, to look at and to actually feel the awe and the beauty and the strangeness and the mystery. I was wondering if you could talk about this homage to Peter Hutton who you worked with and who was a colleague and friend, and also the ways in which his films may have been important to you.
KELLY REICHARDT: He always called his films his reels, so a shot is the length of a reel of film-- he always talked about how digital was confusing, because how would you know when the shot was over-- which I really like. So it was all about the frame and letting life happen in the frame. But that could end up being a story of all of the industrial world without him really moving the camera. So the idea was, yeah, that you could just get inside it and have the time almost more like an experience.
He showed his films at the MoMA once and a bunch of Bard kids came. And they were silent, all his films were silent. And I was sitting up front watching, and I was so proud of how quiet it was. Like, wow. I'm in New York City with all these young people and they're really just going with it, the silence. And then when the lights came on, I realized everyone had their earbuds in and was listening to their own soundtrack of--
HADEN GUEST: [INAUDIBLE].
KELLY REICHARDT: Yeah, but he didn't really mind for some reason. He was like, oh, good, whatever gets you through it. You know? But the opening shot-- he shot a lot on ships and spent a lot of time on ships.
HADEN GUEST: Merchant [INAUDIBLE].
KELLY REICHARDT: Yeah. And so he'd be on a boat. And then he'd go-- where'd he go, the San Francisco Art Institute? And you know, he was always shooting 16-millimeter. And so the opening barge shot is also kind of an homage to Peter who brought me to teach at Bard and who is a dear friend and much missed colleague.
HADEN GUEST: Hear, hear. Let's take some questions, comments from the audience. If you have a question, just raise your hand and you'll be given a microphone. Do we have any questions or comments about First Cow? We have one here in the front, Andrea.
AUDIENCE: Thank you. I saw that you edited this and most, if not all, of your other films as well. Can you talk about the process for this film specifically but compared to other films?
KELLY REICHARDT: Sure. This one was a nice experience. Yeah, I do cut them myself. You know, it's like you get your film back to yourself after you've had this big collaborative experience. And then you're alone in the room and you can sort of say, OK, what actually happened and what film did I make?
A lot of the films could come together in different ways, but this one really more stuck to, in a lot of ways, as it was imagined and as it was planned just the way it's shot. Maybe because I'd been editing for a long time, it kind of started thinking about where the edit is while I'm shooting. So a lot of the parts are sort of put together where they just kind of like [CLICKS TONGUE] big chunks that go together. But there are still a lot of things to be found in the editing, a lot of discoveries to be made.
And then we built the sound design over a slow period of time in the editing room. And the music is from William Tyler who came in and played in the editing room with his dulcimer and his guitar, and that was cool, and gave me some scratch tracks to work with. And yeah, that's a good four months of noodling around.
AUDIENCE: So I think that opening with a shot of the two skeletons side by side gives everything that happens afterwards a sort of sense of destiny. Like King Lu and Cookie, they're destined to meet each other and then end up dying together. But at the same time, the relationship itself feels pretty humble, and the characters themselves are not of any particular importance within the context of the story. So I was wondering, do you think about them in those sort of larger than life terms of being destined together soul-mates, or do you think about it in humbler terms than that?
KELLY REICHARDT: Those guys? Yeah. They're hutch-mates. They're shack-mates. No. I can't even think in those terms, soul-mate. Wow. I mean, the cow maybe. He could be a soul-mate with the cow. But they're kind of people that-- like the movies themselves, we drop in as an audience and we are with them for this small period of time and then we kind of move on. Same with them, you know. We catch them in this close moment. And no, I don't have as romantic an idea of it as that, I've got to say. I wish I did.
HADEN GUEST: I mean, in the book, Cookie ends up being mistaken for-- there's a racist attack on--
KELLY REICHARDT: Yeah.
HADEN GUEST: And he's being mistaken. They ask, are you Chinese? Or, you don't look like a Chinese.
KELLY REICHARDT: They get killed in a racist attack at the end.
HADEN GUEST: And he actually accepts that fate with a kind of beautiful bond. I can't help but feel an echo here though. I mean, there is this decision to lie down--
KELLY REICHARDT: Yeah. There's a decision by King Lu [INAUDIBLE].
HADEN GUEST: --by King Lu's side, right?
KELLY REICHARDT: Yeah, but it's more King Lu's decision here more than Cookie's, I think. Cookie's sort of on his last legs, and so yeah. But there is a decision with King Lu of where you're going to go and all this, and this bag of buttons probably might not add up to that much.
HADEN GUEST: We have a question. Behind the gentleman with the beard. If you just wait for the microphone so we can hear, and then we'll take your question.
AUDIENCE: Hi. Thanks so much.
KELLY REICHARDT: Hi.
AUDIENCE: Can you hear me?
HADEN GUEST: Yes.
KELLY REICHARDT: Yep.
AUDIENCE: OK. Thanks so much for being here. My question is kind of a broad question. In the opening scene-- not in the opening scene, the scene where we're introduced to Cookie-- there's a sense that the environment and the landscape is providing a space for him. There's like a real sense of reciprocity between what he's finding in the landscape. And then later, when he's in King Lu's house for the first time and he starts to sweep, there's also a sense of hospitality.
It seems to me, as in this film and your other films, this sense of hospitality between the characters and between their environment. And I'm just curious about how you think about the interactions as the characters move forward either into something maybe that's dangerous or that's taking them downward. Yeah. I think that's--
KELLY REICHARDT: Mm.
AUDIENCE: Sorry. That has a lot of parts to it.
HADEN GUEST: I think, also, the sense of care. Cookie seems to have this-- the way he's taking the mushrooms with the shallowest of roots, like he's doing the least damage to the-- he's apologizing to the cow for taking. There's a kind of, if I can, this almost compassion, environmental sense that he has as opposed to the Chief Factor or something. No? [INAUDIBLE]. And the question, though, how far does that take one? In which way does Cookie seem to represent this possibility of a kind of friendly marriage, if you will, between human and nature as opposed to others.
KELLY REICHARDT: Some of that really was more about setting Cookie aside from the sort of rough and tumble, all the sort of macho male energy of the--
HADEN GUEST: Trappers.
KELLY REICHARDT: --trappers, who we always called the Muppets. They're just slapping each other around.
HADEN GUEST: And the [INAUDIBLE].
KELLY REICHARDT: Exactly. So I don't know, I thought you were going to ask me how do I feel about hospitality, for some reason.
HADEN GUEST: Well, that's a good question too.
AUDIENCE: Well, I guess what I was just thinking was there seems to be a kindness and a compassion that happens despite the fact that we know that they're going to die. And within this story, and I'm thinking about the kindness of the security guard in Wendy and Lucy-- I know that's past-- or the sort of small kindnesses that it seems that you're attracted to, and the kindness of there-- I guess I'm just asking how you think about that as the story's unfolding, and then also how you visualize that. Sorry.
KELLY REICHARDT: Oh, wow. That's OK.
AUDIENCE: Just how that translates into the image.
HADEN GUEST: [INAUDIBLE] for human kindness.
KELLY REICHARDT: Well, a lot of that is in Magaro's performance, I think, and in the character that Jonathan Raymond wrote for him. I really stay in the moment to moment things when I'm making a film, like what we're doing right now and what's happening here. I mean, it's hard to talk about because it's such a process. You know, everything in the film is like everything's a process. It's really a process of being alone with your thoughts and building images and then explaining your images to other people and having them contribute, and finding the right spot for everything.
And then it ultimately comes down to the day it happens, like what the weather is, what the mood is of everybody around and how something-- a film has its own sort of life that is outside of your-- you put all your intention towards something, but it does-- you know, the way I was explaining the way the wind wanted to blow that day, like when things are on your side. But I don't know. There's something-- it's not-- everything, to me, isn't a grand scheme, I guess, is what I'm trying to say.
I mean, sometimes I'm in the editing room and I go, oh, yeah, that-- every minute of film, you're building something and you're taking apart. You build it and you take it apart. That's the whole thing all the way through, from your first ideas to scouting and building, all the things. And then I'll still be like, oh, yeah, there's that thing from Jon's story, that's what he's getting at, as I'm putting the film together. So yeah.
There has to be something against-- the cruelty doesn't make any sense if there's not kindness up against it, there's nothing at stake, there's nothing to be lost. So there has to be a thing they're fighting for, which is to have a place to live, and some comfort is really what they kind of have while they're trying to have that project of having that. But I don't know. Is there room for people like them, I guess, in the environment is more maybe the question. Yeah.
HADEN GUEST: I love this question though, about hospitality, because in so many of your films, your characters are looking for a home and they find this sort of temporary-- it's kind of like in Nicholas Ray's films-- and they forge a sort of strange family in these fugitive places, be it the motel in River of Grass, be it the house, the trailer park, the camp in Certain Women while they're building a house in this little cottage here.
It's kind of these fragile visions of home that sort of flicker elusively in your work. Or the covered wagons in Meek's Cutoff. It seems like this is a way to study the dynamics or the quintessence of a relationship is to pull people out of the home, though, and to see what kind of home they can imagine between themselves, like what kind of roof they can shelter themselves under, however makeshift it may be. You're going to say, exactly.
KELLY REICHARDT: True. No. Yeah. I mean, how to live. How to live. It's the ongoing question, how to live. I don't know. Yeah. Good observation.
HADEN GUEST: Thanks for the good question. Let's take the gentleman in the white shirt and then-- yeah, that'll be good.
KELLY REICHARDT: It's hard for me look at them as a whole, the films.
HADEN GUEST: And I think this will be our last question for tonight because--
AUDIENCE: Under pressure.
HADEN GUEST: No pressure.
AUDIENCE: So it's been a real revelation to be introduced to your films over this--
KELLY REICHARDT: Oh, thanks.
AUDIENCE: --past few days. I've really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I was not familiar beforehand, but it's been wonderful to watch them all in a row like this. And I've been struck very much by the pacing of them and the subtlety and the ambiguity, which I love and which, in all of these, I felt like I was in such good hands, that I wasn't going to be assaulted by any of these films. And I think that's so much a quality of, I suppose, all cinema for a long time, but it feels particularly now and just our world, I guess.
And I guess I'm curious, in your career as a filmmaker and how you've thought about making your films, is there a pressure to change them, or are you able to kind of maintain your-- Or do you feel like you want to do them differently? Obviously you don't because you didn't go to China and you--
KELLY REICHARDT: Right.
AUDIENCE: But I'm curious. Over time, how has the outside world pushed in onto your--
KELLY REICHARDT: That's all made very easy for me.
Don't worry. There's not that much of a push from the outside world.
HADEN GUEST: I mean, are you ever offered projects where you're just like, I would never. How could I even conceive of--
KELLY REICHARDT: No. It's very easy to keep being pure.
HADEN GUEST: Good.
AUDIENCE: You [INAUDIBLE].
HADEN GUEST: That's great to hear.
KELLY REICHARDT: No. I mean, it's a way of making films that really suits me. And so I make films with this really nice community of people that have been working together for a long time, and it's a really great thing in my life. And I also spend part of the year teaching up at Bard with a community of people that really keep me thinking in new ways about film, and way to round it all out. I'm working with friends, and yeah, it's nice.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
KELLY REICHARDT: Thank you very much.
HADEN GUEST: We have another wonderful film about friendship and so much more tomorrow night, which is Wendy and Lucy, so please come back for another evening with Kelly Reichardt.
KELLY REICHARDT: Thanks for having me.
HADEN GUEST: Please join me in thanking Kelly Reichardt and thanking First Cow.
KELLY REICHARDT: Thank you, Haden.
HADEN GUEST: Thank you. Not at all.