Acclaimed independent director Kelly Reichardt isn’t a fan of the bait-and-switch. Her seven feature films, which include the ecoterrorism thriller “Night Moves” (2013) and meditative triptych “Certain Women” (2016), present themselves carefully and deliberately, often retracing familiar terrain — most tell slice-of-life stories about working-class people set against the haunting landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. But despite Reichardt’s consistency, her films defy genre and resist categorization, perhaps most of all her latest work, “First Cow.”
Based on “The Half Life” (2004), a novel by Reichardt’s longtime collaborator Jonathan Raymond, “First Cow” focuses on the budding business venture between indentured baker Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) and Chinese immigrant King Lu (Orion Lee) around a trading post in 1820s Oregon. The titular cow, the very first in the territory, belongs to the Chief Factor (Toby Jones) of the post — but that doesn’t stop Cookie and King Lu from making off with her milk. It’s a tale of tender friends and desperate entrepreneurs struggling to carve their path through the wilderness of early American capitalism — a Reichardt story, with a bovine twist.
The director, an alumnus of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, returned to Boston this week for her Harvard Film Archive retrospective “Traveling Light: The Films of Kelly Reichardt.” Reached at the Charles Hotel on Tuesday, Reichardt discussed capturing intimacy, forging her own path, and frying up “oily cakes” for her new film.
Q. “First Cow,” like your film “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010), has the dressings of a western, but you’ve also called it a caper or heist film. How conscious were you of genre in the filmmaking process?
A. While making “Meek’s Cutoff,” I had the shadow of the western over me: the bonnets, the desert, all that. Every time we were setting up a camera angle, we had to think about what we were saying in a bigger sense. But with “First Cow,” I didn’t feel that way. Maybe because we were in a forest, and everything was so intimate, but it felt so much like its own weird little story. I felt really free to make the film what I wanted it to be. It didn’t feel like every shot had to say anything [about the genre] beyond what was in our story.
Q. There’s no cow in Jonathan Raymond’s “The Half Life” (2004), the novel from which “First Cow” was adapted by you both. What made you and Jon think to introduce this outsider?
A. I wish I was taking notes along the way so I could remember! I’m sure it was something Jon thought of first. I didn’t just want to be extracting from his novel, I wanted to have room to go in and expand. As soon as the cow was introduced, it was fun to be able to think around that central figure.
Q. The tenderness between Cookie and King Lu is central to the film, and it’s at odds with the harsh realities of nature and the world around them. How did you establish that intimacy?
A. Production designer Tony Gasparro and I designed [Cookie and King Lu’s] hutch around where each character would be situated — close, but with their own corners. I think the Academy square (the aspect ratio of the film) really helps the intimacy of being in the hutch. At first, I looked at “Ugetsu” (1953) and “Woman in the Dunes” (1964) and the “Apu” trilogy (1955-1959) and all these films where people are sitting on the ground in their small hutches, and I cobbled together pieces and took sketches from some of those designs. Then I spent an afternoon in the final hutch with our assistant director Chris Carroll and our cinematographer Chris Blauvelt. I had them act out the parts to really hone it in before the actors got there.
Q. The indigenous communities of Oregon play a major role in “First Cow,” and a number of characters have conversations in Chinook, an indigenous language. Why did you choose not to subtitle those conversations in English?
A. There’s a cultural barrier and a communication barrier between the immigrants that are arriving [to Oregon] and the indigenous people. I didn’t want to translate those conversations for the audience because it makes things a little too easy for them, that bridge just gets crossed. By [not translating], the audience has to work in the way that Toby Jones [as the Chief Factor] does, or that King Lu does, to understand what’s going on.
Q. From the “oily cakes” that Cookie and King Lu sell to the French clafoutis they prepare for the Chief Factor, food functions many ways in the film: as a shared cultural experience, as a form of production, as a display of wealth. How did you decide on each dish?
A. It was a step-by-step process: figuring out what ingredients would have been available, letting [the actor who plays Cookie] John Magaro experiment, and so on. We wanted to showcase that Cookie is a kind of artist, and that [baking] is something he’s intuitively good at. And then we wanted to show [the process of] going to market with your artisan baked goods, presenting something that’s homemade and fresh and provides a piece of home. Everyone loves something fried! And it was also about the performance — both that [Cookie and King Lu] put on as sellers, and that Toby Jones [as the Chief Factor] puts on in his home.
Q. You were recently in conversation with Bong Joon-ho for The Atlantic, and you’re a close friend of director Todd Haynes. Are there other contemporary filmmakers that you feel you’re in dialogue with through your work?
A. I met Alice Rohrwacher at Cannes Film Festival after seeing [her film] “Happy As Lazzaro” (2018) — it’s a beautiful film, and I thought there were themes in that which overlap with my work, which was exciting because I came to love her so much. But I have to admit, unless I’m on a jury, I don’t see a lot of new American cinema. However, I do feel I’m [literally] in conversation with the filmmakers I came up with. Todd [Haynes] and I have been reading each other’s scripts for such a long time, and I’ve been talking to Larry Fessenden about films for most of my adult life. I also have my colleagues at Bard like Peggy Ahwesh and Jackie Goss, and it’s both painful and nice to show a cut to them. You’re scared they won’t ultimately see the final cut, so you just feel awful [laughs]. But they’re great to get notes from.
Q. You were on your first Cannes jury last year. How was that experience?
A. When they first asked me to be on the jury, all I could think was, “Ugh, clothes! I don’t want to go shopping.” But [my producers] Neil [Kopp] and Anish [Savjani] were like, “Hold on a minute, just think about it.” And thank God they said that — it was great, it was so fun. I loved the filmmakers and actors that were there with me, and I spent my day watching and talking about films with people with different points of view.
Q. As an independent filmmaker, has working with a company like A24 been a dramatic shift from what you’re used to in terms of marketing and distribution?
A. While I’m not on social media enough to really know how [audiences] perceive A24, it hasn’t felt like a big change for me because it’s reminded me of my time working with [production company] Oscilloscope. A24 has been so hands-on, and because the time is so weird [with COVID-19] they’ve been checking in on me to make sure everything’s OK. And they were willing to put out a film with unnamed actors — it’s such a hard world for small stories. These distributors that are willing to take a gamble on it are pretty amazing.
Q. What’s next for you?
A. I’m not going to say! I’m so happy to have something to myself for a little while. But I’m happily working with Jon Raymond, who has these ideas that he wants to let me have my way with. And “The Half Life” was the first thing I ever read of his. It feels like we’ve come full circle.
Interview has been edited and condensed. Cassidy Olsen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.