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September/October 2020

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DIRECTOR'S CHAIR 10 POST SEPT/OCT 2020 ost 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 fran- chise or monster movie with a built-in global audience and fat payday, should the chance ever come their way. Kelly Reichardt 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 — most- ly 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 nine- teenth 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 longev- ity is reliant upon the clandestine partic- ipation 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 cap- ture 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 paint- ings 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 ex- teriors with the tall trees, and the interiors, which I wanted to feel simple and inti- mate. This was also the most pre-produc- tion 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 col- or-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 KELLY REICHARDT HELMS FIRST COW BY IAIN BLAIR M THIS FILMMAKER IS HANDS-ON WHEN IT COMES TO EDITING Reichardt

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