READ - 6 MARCH 2020 - BY SAM MALLARI
HOW TO BUILD AN OLD WEST PERIOD PIECE: KELLY REICHARDT ON “FIRST COW”
The iconic director brought an era with no photographic references to life. Here’s how she pulled off the production design of a challenging period piece and brought thoughtful heart into the Western genre.
We’ve seen films about the Old West before, but you probably have never watched one that centered on a cow.
In truth, within the first few minutes of First Cow, you realize that the story is so much more than it seems. The A24-distributed feature was co-written by Kelly Reichardt and author Jonathan Raymond as an adaptation of Raymond’s novel, The Half-Life. In the film, an American cook bands together with a Chinese immigrant on a quest to make their fortune in 19th century Oregon territory. The challenge? Their fortune depends on stealthily stealing milk from a cow that belongs to the wealthiest landowner on the West Coast.
A mystical thing happens when you watch First Cow. Every prop, every outfit, every setting was so expertly crafted that suddenly, the present day melts away as you are pulled into the early 1800s. It’s the kind of film that feels so seamless, that you forget how difficult it must have been to construct a world that existed before a camera could capture it.
In this interview, Kelly Reichardt details how she was able to overcome the challenges of writing, designing, and shooting the film and drops a few tips for how directors can expertly bring any setting to life.
After reading, be sure to watch First Cow in a theater near you. The film releases in United States theaters on Friday, March 6.
FREE THE WORK: What’s interesting is that this film takes place in the early 1800s, before any photographs were ever taken. Was it challenging to make a film about an era with no photography to reference?
KELLY REICHARDT: Yeah, that was a challenge. I should say straight off that the production designer was Tony Gasparro, the prop man was Paul Curin, and April Napier was the costume designer. It was a great art team all around. [Researching the world of First Cow] involved a lot of different kinds of research because we couldn't just quickly go and look at photographs. We had a researcher in London who was doing some deep diving for us. A lot of it was reading and finding drawings and sketches of things and it was an all-out effort on everyone's part.
"Every character had a little bit of a story so that their clothes and [belongings] make sense in the scene. All the small stuff adds up to something."
How long did that research process take?
A couple of months. There was the research that Jonathan Raymond [the author of the book that inspired the film] had already done, the research we did together for the script, and then the art department started their research.
This confederation of tribes near Eugene, Oregon called the Grand Ronde had just opened this beautiful museum, [the Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center], which was super helpful. They opened their library to us and they connected us with people who spoke the language. It was helpful art-wise. They also helped us find a woman who made the cedar capes and hats for the film, and they rented out their dugout canoe.
Tony [our production designer] was really there on all the scouts and played a big part of finding the locations. The art department had to be pretty full-on. Eventually, I was able to have places like King-Lu’s hut and the “ghost cottage” that Cookie wakes up in. It was nice to be able to plan shots and then build around [the sets], which I hadn't really been able to do before.
How did you describe your vision to the PD and the prop team when you were first starting to plan the details and the overall look of the film?
I had three books. I built a book of images that take the movie from the beginning to the end. This involves sketches, photos I've collected, stills from other films or paintings, drawings. Then I do another book that's just a color guide. The color guide had the paintings of Frederic Remington, and so we were all working in the same color scheme. Then I made other books of just what I wanted the cabins to look like, and for other little details. I had mountains and mountains of images and books that I shared with Tony and that he shares with his crew. Visual books are a good place to start the conversation of what things are going to look like.
It’s clear how aesthetically connected this film is connected to all of your prior films. Is there a standard you try to achieve in terms of production design in all of your movies?
Top standard. On some films our resources are more limited than other films. Some of the earlier films involved shooting on location and not being able to adjust them too much. Really it's about scouting and finding the perfect spot, as opposed to being able to build some things. So much is shot outside so scouting, which was done by Janet Weiss, was a huge element of the film.
But the key is find the right people that want to be involved. The art department was so excited by everything. The second hut they built where Cookie goes when he gets hurt… that place just has magic to it. Every time we started shooting, the wind started blowing. It was really magical. Everybody's trying to get the smallest details right. And by right I mean it works for the scene.
Or for example, with the clothes, we started planning by thinking: What do you think they left home? What would have they picked up along the way? Every character had a little bit of a story so that their clothes and [belongings] make sense in the scene. All the small stuff adds up to something.
It's amazing how much care goes into making the setting feel real. How did you coach your actors to be as authentic as the props and every other aspect of the film?
They have really good instincts and they went through a weekend with a survivalist out in Oregon. We sent them out to the woods to learn how to make the traps. John Magaro had been cooking off the Lewis and Clark Cookbook for a while, even when he was back in New York. They went out in the woods. They slept in the rain for four nights, and learned how to build fire in the rain without matches and how to skin a squirrel—an already dead roadkill squirrel. Just the things they would need to know. John also had some oily cake lessons from our prop guy, Sean Fong.
So when [the actors] are doing things, they don't seem like they're doing them for the first time. The hope was that there would be enough for them to do, like get up in the tree or milk the cow, and that takes the place of performing to some degree.
"I built a book of images that take the movie from the beginning to the end. This involves sketches, photos I've collected, stills from other films or paintings, drawings...Visual books are a good place to start the conversation of what things are going to look like."
What was the biggest challenge of making this film?
Everyday on-set challenges. It's a real sign that it's taking me a minute to think because... Well, I would say shooting in the canoe was always an insane challenge because that's really like driving a tree down a river. Anything on the shoreline was a tremendous effort because we planned everything out for location, but on the day of the shoot the river kept rising and our location would disappear.
How did you navigate unavoidable challenges like that?
It’s more about putting a full-out effort at five in the morning with people running up and down the river trying to find new locations. And the crew was great in a crisis. It’s amazing how just everyone will just get in their separate cars and go drive around and be on the walkie talkies and it's pitch dark out and you're still trying to find a location. It takes everyone just performing in an over-the-top kind of capacity.
But the pay off in working with a lot of the same people over and over again, like the assistant director Chris Carroll, is that I'm working with people who really know me well and know what I'm looking for. It helps us in crisis moments. The same producers, Neil Kopp and Anish Savjani, have produced like six of the feature films I've done. They're really big troubleshooters. They sweat all [the logistics] out before it even happens.
What was your favorite scene or aspect of the film that you loved the most?
The scene that was the most challenging was the scene with all the actors in the Chief Factor's house because there are just a lot of levels of things going on there between the servant and the Chief Factor and King-Lu and Cookie. There's so much subtext going on. I didn't really know until I was cutting how successful it would all be.
Watching John and Orion, Rene Auberjonois, Gary Farmer, Lily Gladstone, and Toby Jones—all those actors. Everybody was always interesting. Like with John and Orion, I never had any panicked moment when watching them. I guess by now if you're going to be in one of these films, you know what you're in for, so people are up for it when they come.
Once you start meeting people to do casting and all these things happen, like getting costumes made, you just keep meeting people. You hear their family stories. Everybody was just all-in on it. Every single thing is a process...nothing just happens.
Kelly Reichardt is an American screenwriter and indie film director. Her style has been described as minimalist realism, with many of her films dealing with working class characters in small, rural communities.
She made her feature film debut with River of Grass (1994), and subsequently directed a series of films set and filmed in Oregon: the dramas Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008); the Western Meek's Cutoff (2010); and the thriller Night Moves (2013). In 2016, Reichardt wrote and directed the Montana-set drama Certain Women.
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