TRANSCRIPT Bullseye with Jesse Thorn: Director Kelly Reichardt on First Cow

Our guest this week is filmmaker, Kelly Reichardt! Kelly’s new film, First Cow, is the story of a loner cook who befriends a Chinese immigrant while traveling across 1820’s Oregon and the cow whose milk they hatch a plan to steal. Kelly joins us to talk about how a Floridian ended up making films about the Pacific Northwest, why she’s not really interested in show business, and how a person goes about casting a cow! All that and more on Bullseye!

Guests: Kelly Reichardt

Transcript

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Speaker: Bullseye with Jesse Thorn is a production of MaximumFun.org and is distributed by NPR. [Music fades out.]

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jesse thorn

Coming to you from my home office, in Los Angeles, California—it’s Bullseye. I’m Jesse Thorn. Kelly Reichardt has been a filmmaker for more than two decades. When she’s not directing and writing movies, she is a teacher at Bard College. Her films are quiet. She usually shoots them in Oregon and films on location, typically on shoe-string budget. And odds are, if you’ve seen a movie that she’s made, you care really deeply about her work. She’s that kind of director. Maybe you loved Wendy and Lucy or Old Joy or Meek’s Cutoff—a western told from the perspective of the female settlers on the Oregon Trail. In it, the actors don’t talk much. The camera just kind of takes in the landscape, which is—of course—beautiful. Her work often brings out the human nature of her characters in a surprising and beautiful way. There’s a meditative quality to watching her films. She’s got a new movie. It’s called First Cow. Like Meek’s Cutoff, it’s also set in the American West, around the 1820s. And it’s a buddy film? And heist film? A beautiful, quiet, buddy-heist film? Also, the heist is stealing milk from a cow. One of the first cows to show up in the particular region covered by the film. And the payoff to this big heist is maybe they make tastier biscuits with the milk and then sell them at the trading post. Obviously, there is more to the movie than a cow and biscuits, but the cow is really something to look at. I wanna play a clip from the film, but first, a head’s up: Kelly and I talked back in February, which is why it sounds like we’re both talking from studios. We were talking from studios. The movie ended up getting postponed. Anyway. In the film, we’re introduced to Otis ‘Cookie’ Figowitz. He’s played by John Magaro. He’s been hired to be a cook in a fur trapping group in the Pacific Northwest. Cookie is soft-spoken and not really at home in the wild west. He’s barely capable of catching wild animals for supper; he’s kind of a gentle man. There’s a scene where he helps a newt struggling on its back. In this clip, he hears a sound in the distance in the middle of the night, and while everyone in the camp is asleep, he tries to find out what the sound was. Then, Cookie discovers a naked man hiding in a bush.

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Cookie (First Cow): What’s your name? King-Lu: King-Lu is what they called me. You? Cookie: Otis Figowitz. They call me Cookie. King-Lu: Good to meet you. There are, uh, some men chasing me. Russians. Have you seen them? Cookie: Why are men chasing you? King-Lu: [Cautiously.] I might have killed one of their friends. Johnny was my friend. They called him The Teeth and they gutted him from neck to groin. I had a pistol and took a shot. I got one in the neck. Then he came after me and I ran.

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jesse

Kelly, welcome to Bullseye. It’s great to have you on the show.

kelly reichardt

Thanks for having me.

jesse

That’s quite a way to meet a new best friend. [They laugh.] N-naked in the woods!

kelly

That’s never—that’s never happened to you?

jesse

[Laughing.] Not even one time, Kelly. Not even one time.

kelly

Wow. Strange.

jesse

You are—you live much of the time in Oregon and a lot of your films are shot in Oregon. How did you end up living there and why do you make films there and not somewhere else?

kelly

I know I’m a regional filmmaker, but I’m from Florida and I’ve lived for 30 years in New York City. But I’m somehow a regional filmmaker of Oregon. Well, just that we were working there so much. I mean, I’ve just started—you know, just sort of started the—more of my time was there. And then as soon as I sort of let go of my apartment, in New York, and moved there—of course—then it—my—I got pulled back to New York. So, I still have a foot in New York, ‘cause I teach at Bard College one semester a year, and I’m often editing in New York City. But I’m trying to leave the big city and live a smaller life, in Oregon. And, you know, it’s true we’ve made a bunch of films there. And I think—largely because of the writing of Jon Raymond—he has been in Oregon most of his life and he kind of writes for, you know—walks around Portland and thinks things up and [laughs]—about what he sees, and writes them. So, that’s been a big reason.

jesse

He wrote the novel that the film is based on and co-wrote the movie with you. [Kelly confirms.] And wrote novels and short stories that were the basis of some of your other works, as well. How did you meet him?

kelly

I met him through Todd Haynes, which is how I got introduced to Portland. I started—when Todd moved out there, I started going out to visit him. And I met Jon through Todd. But I didn’t really know him well, when I read The Half-Life—I’d only met him once. And I was driving cross country and I was in Kansas. And I finished the novel at a hotel in Kansas. And I wrote him from there and I asked him if he had any short stories that I could, you know, turn into a screenplay. And he—I recently found the first email he ever wrote me, which was like, “Yeah. Sure. Whatever.” [They laugh.] And anyway. So, that’s how we ended up making Old Joy. He sent me Old Joy. And then—I mean, uh, The Half-Life spans four decades and covers two continents and so it was really, you know, not something that was in my grasp as a film. And we’ve sort of pondered it, over the last decade, of how we would ever do it. And then finally, we came up with this—or, I should say Jon came up with this idea of the cow. And so, that kind of—the cow’s not in the novel. And so that kind of gave us a new thing to work around, that we could bring the characters from his novel and the sort of themes from the novel but bring it to a new narrative.

jesse

This is a period film set in the west of the United States. But it is shot in a, you know, not far from square aspect ratio and a lot of the things that happen in it are in places that are kind of thick with trees, instead of being grand mesas and vistas. Did you think of it as being western, in any way, when you were making it? Or were you thinking of something else?

kelly

I mean, it’s 1820 and it’s Oregon—pre-Oregon. This lower Colombia district that’s off the Colombia River. I kind of didn’t feel as, sort of, tied into the—you know—genre of the western the way I did when we made another film that was 1845, from the screenplay of Jon’s, that was called Meek’s Cutoff. And in that, I really feel like, “Okay, I’m in the footprint of the western, and if—I’m either commenting on it or I’m going with it.” And it was just—something I had to constantly consider. And I didn’t really feel that here. I felt—and maybe somewhat—you know, the Academy frame that you’re talking about, the 1:6:6—it does… it is an intimate frame. And it sort of allows for, you know, you can get the tall trees in and—‘cause you have more room on the top, basically, but you don’t have this expanse. Yeah. I just—I mean, this was kind of almost more of a heist film, if it had to be something. It—I didn’t feel—you know, in Meek’s Cutoff, it was the desert and there were bonnets and horses and oxen and wagons. And this was just following these two fellas around. And, you know, it’s a—it takes place around the beaver trade, the first sort of seeds of capitalism. And it’s in the area of the Multnomah tribes. And so, it—I don’t know. Yeah. It’s—it didn’t feel so western.

jesse

When you wrote the cow into the film—which, as you mentioned, was not in the original novel— [Kelly affirms.] How did that come about? I mean, did your—did your collaborator come to you one day and say, “What about a cow?”

kelly

I mean, we live right down the street from each other, in Portland, and we’re, like, talking all the time. So, it’s not—like, we were brainstorming.

jesse

Did you go through different animals and then be like, “Well, what about an emu?” Or—?

kelly

No, I can’t remember—I’m—I really don’t remember. I’m sure Jon came up with it. And then you sort of build one idea and the other. I was like, “Uh, well you know, we gotta have—he’s gotta make something for the chief factor then.” And, you know, you just kind of—it kind of builds. But… usually there’s room for me to go in and expand on the—more on the smaller characters and on the spaces. And then—yeah, it just kind of keeps going like that. But I can’t remember the moment—I mean, like, we’d been mulling the—I read this novel, in 2004, and sort of in between projects we’re always kind of mulling over The Half-Life, like, “How could we do it?”

jesse

What opportunities does having the… the, you know, instigator of your film—the… [stutters into a laugh] the MacGuffin of your film be a cow? What opportunities does that give you?

kelly

Well, I like working with animals. I like having, you know—looking at relationships between people and animals. It’s nice, because John Magaro’s character, Cookie, is this really earthbound person who’s trying to have some kind of—find some kind of domestic life, you know. Settled life. And he’s really down low to the ground with this cow and all this—you know, having this talk with her and the milk and all the stuff that’s really nurturing. And King-Lu is sort of our guy up in the tree—like the owl, you know. Just like, taking an overall view of everything and, you know, with his big dreams and ideas. And so, I liked how it—I could picture how it could be shot and how that could be a really interesting way to, you know, sort of… physicalize the whole idea of their relationship and what they wanted to do.

jesse

It’s also kind of… you know, as a domestic animal, it’s kind of like an intermediary between their human world and the intensely brutal natural world around them and, like, normally most of the characters in the film—most of the peripheral characters, who are like hunters and trappers are going to—out every day, essentially, to have a fight with nature. You know? And hope they come back. And it’s this visitor from a—from a liminal world—that there’s a cow there that is an animal that is, you know, friendly to people and provides this nurturing thing.

kelly

Yeah. Well, the beaver aren’t so scary. They’re not gonna kill anybody. They were—kinda had a bad deal.

jesse

[Chuckles.] Speak for yourself, I’m terrified of beavers.

kelly

[Laughing.] Yeah. They can do so much. We—there’s—well, you know, like, the sort of crime in the movie is, you know, these guys stealing a basket of milk. But, you know—but meanwhile, the chief factor in the industry he’s setting up—they’re gonna completely wipe out the beaver. Not to mention what’s gonna happen to all the indigenous people in the area. You know. The crime is the stealing of what is rightfully, in this whole—you know, whatever—he owns—it's just the beginning of the idea that you could own land, you could own—you know, there’s a whole idea of ownership. The cow is his. The land is his. [Chuckles.]

jesse

How do you cast a cow?

kelly

Much like you cast an actor. You get headshots and body shots and—

jesse

[Chuckling.] A cattle call.

kelly

You do. Oh, you do. You get a lot of—you get a lot of—look at a lot of pictures and then kind of narrow down the kind of cow we wanted, which was the jersey cow, ‘cause it was kind of the right size and had—they have those big eyes. And then the animal people we were working with found Evie in—I think she came from Washington—and sent—started sending videotapes of her, after I had, like, selected her from the photos. And she was just, you know—and they went and met her, and she was great, and they started training her, mostly for being able to be okay on—she rides on a ferry. And just to be okay with that. It’s a sort of very superficial casting experience, where you’re just like, “Oh, she’s the prettiest and she’s got great eyes and she’s not too big.” And yeah.

jesse

Is there a cow trainer?

kelly

Yes. Well, there’s an overall—the animal trainers who, you know, we got the crow from—that René is wearing on his shoulder, the little cranky man in town. And I mean, there was, like—they do dogs, too, but that wasn’t working out so great. I didn’t love the trained dog experience, so we started swapping them out for friend’s dogs as the movie went on. But they do everything. Like, they brought the little—what do you call them? The little lizard guy that’s in the movie.

jesse

Oh, there’s a salamander right at the beginning.

kelly

Yeah. Yeah. It’s not technically a salamander, but I’m spacing on what it is. But yeah. That guy.

jesse

Oh, he’s cute. I liked him.

kelly

He gets cast, too. Everybody gets cast.

jesse

I had newts for a little while, as a kid.

kelly

Newts! That’s what it was, I think he’s a newt.

jesse

Oh! Yeah. There you go.

kelly

I think he’s a newt. Yeah.

jesse

Cool. More with Kelly Reichardt still to come. After the break, we’ll talk about whether or not she’s happy with the life she’s leading or whether she envisioned something different. You know, just small talk. It’s Bullseye, from MaximumFun.org and NPR.

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jesse

Welcome back to Bullseye. I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest is Kelly Reichardt, the acclaimed filmmaker. She’s directed the movies Old Joy, Meek’s Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy, and Night Moves. Her latest is called First Cow. It’s a period piece set in the early 1800s. It’s about two men and a big, beautiful cow. It’s available to rent or buy digitally, now. You work, often, at a pretty small scale, in terms of…

kelly

Often? [Laughs.]

jesse

Yeah. [Chuckles.] Uh, basically always. This is a—this is a pretty grand project, for you. [Kelly agrees.] And it’s about as modest as a period film set in the 1830s could possibly be. Is that primarily because that is where your interests lie? Or if—or were you able to raise the 30 million dollars, would you be out making—you know, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or something?

kelly

No, I never really had those ambitions. This has been a world that’s been kind of created over a decade: this… what, you know, the sort of crew and going out and working on these films. And it’s—I mean, I will say, this was very satisfying, ‘cause we had a little bit more money and we actually shot five-day weeks, which is a dream. I don’t—I did—was getting to a point where I was like, “Okay, I can’t keep making films on this budget.” Like, on Certain Women I was like, “It’s too—like, I’m just getting too old for it. It’s too physically grueling.” But this was great, you know. The thing about small films is you get a lot of autonomy. You’re—you know—you know, I made a film about two guys stealing milk with unnamed actors and nobody, you know—I cut it myself and there’s no test screenings or there’s no one showing up on the set to watch what you’re doing. It’s all very… it’s—yeah, you’re just kind of making stuff. There’s not all these added hassles that takes a whole other skillset to deal with that I don’t think I quite possess.

jesse

Sometimes when I read about a film’s $50,000 budget or $100,000 budget or even, you know, $3- or $500,000 budget, or $1,000,000 budget, what I think about is—I think, like, you know, all of the crew and actors are getting paid a certain amount of money. And they have to fit that within that budget, but I imagine they can, because that’s how that works. You know. You just have a smaller crew or fewer lights or something like that. But I think, you know, the director of this movie worked on this movie probably for three years or four years and that amount of money sounds like a reasonable wage for one person for that [chuckling] three or four years! Like, the thing that always shocks me is that there is this one piece which is, like—there are people who have been pouring their hearts into this over the course of years who, you know, there’s only so many pieces of money to break off of $300,000.

kelly

Well, this was nicely a union film, so it’s—it is really nice to pay people and to, like I said, working five-day weeks was a total dream. But yeah. You can’t really do this kind of filmmaking for the thinking like, “Okay, now I’m—can… live some [laughs]—” But, um, I don’t know. I don’t know about all the other kinds of filmmaking, ‘cause there’s lots of ways to live and there’s lots of ways to make films. I’m not down on any of the other ways. I—it’s just a matter of, like, I just carved this way out and I happened to have this really nice community of people I teach with at Bard College that lets me not worry about—doesn’t put that tax on the movie of, like, this having to supply me with something else. I mean, and they work with each other. It’s nice. The teaching and the—and the filmmaking. It’s a—yeah. It offers a good headspace for both things, but I don’t know. I think everyone has to… you know, a lot of people that you probably think live off their films really live off making commercials. And, you know… don’t—you know. I don’t know. It’s—I don’t know. I don’t have that much of a foot in that world, so it’s hard for me to know exactly what everyone’s doing.

jesse

Yeah, I was gonna ask you, like—I know a lot of folks who direct small features make their livings directing commercials or directing episodic TV, which are both, like, jobs that you can have as a director that are… more discrete. Directing a commercial is generally, you know, I—you know, it’s two days onset or one day onset and maybe you’re working on it for a week or maybe you’re working on it for two weeks, on the long side. Maybe you’re just onset and somebody gives you a creative brief when you show up in the morning, or something. Shooting a television show, directing an episode of a television show—well, it takes a week, usually, to make an episode of a television show, ‘cause they gotta make one every week. So, it’s only a certain amount of work. Do you just teach? Or do you do other stuff?

kelly

Um, no. I—“just teach”. [Jesse chuckles.] I’m making these movies and I edit them! [Jesse agrees.] And it takes a long time. And I teach. [Laughs.] “Just teach.”

jesse

I don’t mean to diminish teaching, Kelly.

kelly

It—I mean, you know, that’s like—kind of takes up all my time. I have also a lot of knitting to do. [Jesse laughs.] And I am a faithful dogwalker to several dogs in my neighborhood. Yeah. But that sort of takes up all the time.

jesse

Have you gotten to the life that you hoped you might have, when you—at whatever age—decided, “Oh, I’ll be a filmmaker”?

kelly

Yeah. Recently. I… I have my own place, now, which I never had before. And it’s very nice. [Laughs.] Um, yeah. It’s—I like it. It’s good. It’s nice. Yeah. It’s nice. I mean, I just—like, the film really—this film is, you know, the whole thing of getting back to—that your home is where your friends are. And I—and I have lived a life around the goals for myself were I wanted to be around interesting people and I wanted to be able to… learn about art and see art and know artists. That’s what I wanted, when I was a kid and I was, like, in the cultural void of Dade County Florida. And that’s worked out. And some of—you know, a lot of these people—I’ve been talking to about films with or art with for, you know, like 30 years now, almost. And that’s, like, incredible. Some filmmakers are really, really different than me. Like Todd Haynes and Larry Fessenden, or my friend Phil Morrison—just—but that you’re in this conversation about film. Or being able to have a, you know, this ongoing collaboration with Jonathan Raymond and Chris Blauvelt, who I really liked collaborating with. And the people I teach with. Yeah. I—not to go on and on, but that’s what I wanted. I wanted an interesting—I find it all interesting and I find the people that I’m around keep me—turning me onto things and—I don’t know, it helps me. I think art helps you, like, get—you know, reminds you that, like, this is—you listen to all this [censored] and all this daily stuff that we have to suffer through, at the moment, and—you know—and then you go see some art and you realize, like, “Oh yeah, that’s—” Or you listen to a record or something and you go, like, “Oh yeah, that’s not every—that’s really not—it’s nothing. Like, really.” I mean, it’s not nothing, ‘cause people’s live get affected, but it’s not everything. And there’s other important things that are happening and people are—I don’t know. I should shut up now. I’m babbling. [Chuckles.]

jesse

[Laughs.] You’re not! [They laugh.]

kelly

Art is good. Friends are good. Yeah. Um, yeah. Is—this podcast must be, like, five hours! How long have we been talking, here? A long time, right?

jesse

50 minutes. It’ll be edited.

kelly

Oh. It’ll be edited? [Jesse confirms.] Down to what?

jesse

I don’t know, a half an hour?

kelly

That’s good. That’s good space. Alright, cool.

jesse

Don’t worry. Everything’s fine, Kelly! [Kelly agrees skeptically.] I’m a professional, ma’am.

kelly

I understand.

jesse

Do you think that… you might ever change your way of life? Or do you think you have found the one that is right for you?

kelly

Geez. Wow. Such heavy questions. Um. What do you mean change my way of life? I don’t know. I like to do things. “Way of life,” hm. Uuh…

jesse

I mean these—here’s my question, Kelly, like—

kelly

Okay, go ahead. Go ahead.

jesse

So, like, King-Lu—in the movie—is always working on the next step, right? He’s looking for—he’s look—

kelly

I got a project! I got a project!

jesse

Yeah?

kelly

Okay, go on. Go on.

jesse

Whereas, I think Cookie… you know, he has a—he has a dream, too, but his dream is more about stability. You know what I mean? [Kelly confirms.] And domesticity. Like, it’s—like, even his grand scheme to have his own hotel is literally the most domestic grand scheme you could ever have, you know? And I wonder if you are like, “Yes, this is my dream, to… have a good job and get to make a movie every few years, that my job accommodates.” Or if you’re like, “No, I’m gonna make—I have an—I have another plan. I’m gonna—I’m gonna—this is my springboard to this, to this, to this.”

kelly

To what, to what, to what?

jesse

I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking.

kelly

Gee whiz. You get to make a film every couple of years with people you like making films with and you’re getting to make the films you wanna make—I mean, like, how greedy am I gonna get? [Jesse chuckles.] I mean, what more am I supposed to—I don’t know what more I’m supposed to want. I know the subtext of what you’re asking, but I just don’t find—I don’t know. Why does everyone think that world is so great? Like, the filmmaking—the endless—like, if you make films, like, somehow you’re supposed to end up in this one world. My film’s dedicated to Peter Hutton and I got to spend ten years talking about film and teaching with Peter Hutton. You’re not gonna find anybody like Peter Hutton making giant films in Hollywood, if that’s what you’re getting at. I work with all these—you know, Peggy Ahwesh and Ben Coonley and, just, Jackie Goss—like, really—some really interesting filmmakers at Bard, that are thinking about films in different ways, not just straight narrative. And, um, I don’t know where else I’m gonna meet any people like that. And I don’t—well, I’m not that interested in showbusiness, to be honest. It’s just not, like, my bag. So, I don’t know. If you get to make a film every couple of years—I mean, I really didn’t like the decade of not being able to get a film made. But if you’re working and you’re getting make stuff—I mean, and you’re making the stuff you wanna make—it’s not like anybody should be giving—like, you know, I mean, I’m making films about a guy—like we said—who—some guys who steal milk with non-named actors. Like, I’m not expected that to—I mean, you’re lucky if you get to make that film. That’s a lucky, crazy thing. I mean, I worry that—about these films that tell, you know—like, when I’m on an airplane and I walk down the aisle and I see what everybody’s watching, I go like, “Oh my god! I can’t believe we’ve been able to make any of these films! Look at what people wanna look at!” You know. It always feels like we’ve gotten away with something. And—I don’t know, probably we have. I feel very grateful.

jesse

Well, I’m—I am grateful that you took the time to come on this show and I’m grateful for your wonderful movies!

kelly

Thank you so much. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it, actually.

jesse

Kelly Reichardt. Her beautiful, funny, moving, wonderful film—First Cow—is available to rent or buy now. Go check it out.

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Triumphant, bright music with heavy synth.

jesse

That’s the end of another episode of Bullseye. Bullseye is produced from the homes of the staff of Maximum Fun, in and around greater Los Angeles, California—where the Maximum Fun team ordered a Cameo for our colleague KT Wiegman’s birthday. The subject of that Cameo video message? Eve, the cow star, from Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow. Our show is produced by speaking into microphones. Our producer is Kevin Ferguson. Jesus Ambrosio and Jordan Kauwling are our associate producers. We get help from Casey O’Brien. Our interstitial music is by Dan Wally, also known as DJW. Our theme song is by The Go! Team. Thanks to them and their label, Memphis Industries, for letting us use it. You can also keep up with the show on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Just search for Bullseye with Jesse Thorn. I think that’s about it. Just remember: all great radio hosts have a signature sign off.

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Bullseye is a celebration of the best of arts and culture in public radio form. Host Jesse Thorn sifts the wheat from the chaff to bring you in-depth interviews with the most revered and revolutionary minds in our culture.

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