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Director Kelly Reichardt at the "First Cow" press conference during the 70th Berlinale International Film Festival Berlin at Grand Hyatt Hotel on February 22, 2020 in Berlin, Germany.Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Kelly Reichardt can bring out the best and worst of film critics. The best, because the Pacific Northwest-based director has delivered a remarkable string of quiet and cautious low-budget films that force us to question our fragile place in the world, from her heartbreaking 2008 drama Wendy and Lucy to her devastating 2010 neo-western Meek’s Cutoff. The worst, because her latest movie, First Cow, has caused a particularly bad outbreak of bovine puns among critics who can milk a joke for all it’s worth.

While the title might lend itself to sour gags – ones that will not moooove you, and may in fact send you into udder revulsion – Reichardt’s new film is anything but a joke, instead telling a gentle story of friendship and economic hardship set at the height of the beaver-fur trade in 19th-century Oregon. It is there where a nomadic cook nicknamed Cookie (John Magaro) finds common cause with Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee), plotting a small-scale criminal enterprise that involves stealing the milk of the area’s titular cattle. That scheme may sound as silly as the film’s name, but like every other Reichardt film, the plot is of less importance than the characters nestled within it, and the small and slow wonders of their world that the director patiently reveals.

Ahead of First Cow’s Canadian release this Friday, Reichardt spoke with The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz about struggling, studio systems, and success (and nothing about dairy; we steered clear of that).

Review: Kelly Reichardt’s wonderful and powerful First Cow demands your attention, no matter your tolerance for lactose

New movies this weekend, including spare and powerful First Cow, heartbreaking Red Snow and Netflix thriller Lost Girls

This is kind of an odd opening, but the one thing I was left wondering about the new movie is that scene where Cookie is drinking at a bar at the fur-trading outpost, and is suddenly left with a baby to watch while its father has a bar fight. Cookie leaves the baby eventually, and I kind of expected that moment to rear its head again – a Chekhov’s baby kind of moment. But it doesn’t. What was the thinking there?

That was just about how, well, it's a dangerous world, and there are some vulnerable people in it. It was about everyone having to fend for themselves, even the littlest guy.

Being on their own, is that something that you feel like you’ve had to do as a filmmaker? Most of your films seem to be made autonomously, without a lot of studio checks and balances and oversight. But also without a lot of support.

This is also a movie about friendship, and I do have great collaborators who I've been working with: Neil Kopp and Anish Savjani have produced all these movies, and it's always been quite a feat on their part to figure out how they can be made. I have felt alone, though, before, in feeling like I've needed to find my own way to make films outside a system that was already set up and not particularly welcoming. That was a very long process, many decades, but step by step and film by film I've been expanding in small ways and finding a way to work outside the system. Which has ended up allowing me to make films that are suited to the stories I want to tell. There's not a lot of oversight and there's not a lot of hands. There aren't test screenings, and there aren't script notes. It's a very good way to make films.

Have you ever felt, in an earlier part of your career, a yearning to be part of that system, though? I imagine it must be exhausting.

It is. But I was never trying to get into Hollywood – that just didn’t interest me. I have nothing against it, it’s just not my bag. I was always trying to find a way to make a world where I wanted to be able to express myself and not feel shut out. But at the same time, it’s been very hard, especially in the nineties, where there were clearly gatekeepers in the independent film world. It’s also been difficult to tell whether it was based on being a woman or based on the fact that I was telling these kinds of stories. If you’re telling a story about someone stealing milk, and you’re doing it with actors who have faces that people don’t readily recognize, well, I understand the economics of things.

On the subject of gatekeepers, is it easier now to get a film like First Cow made – a not-inexpensive period piece about, well, stealing milk from a cow? What has the landscape shift been for you between this and, say, Meek’s Cutoff a decade ago?

It is certainly easier for me. I’m in my 50s now and have made seven films, so I’m finally at this point where I don’t feel that I have to justify what I’m doing. When I was making Meek’s, it was clear that I was making a different kind of western, but it was also often seen like I didn’t know what I was doing, like I didn’t know where to put the camera. It was justifying everything that you wouldn’t otherwise have to justify. But it’s easier – this is the first time that I’ve had a budget where I could shoot five-day weeks, which is such a gift. Yet even the smallest budget is someone’s money, and I’m wary to say that just because it’s gotten easier for me that the battle has been won. I don’t want to annoy a 20-year-old woman who wants to make films and is beating her head up against the wall.

Someone like one of your students at Bard College in New York, where you teach film. Are you optimistic about the industry reality that they’re going to face when they graduate?

I’m not exactly optimistic about the world itself, but it is so impossible for me to know what they’re in for. Granted, I teach at Bard, so this is a group of people who have had good luck. I’m not at City College or whatever – some of the kids, not all of them, but a lot might not graduate with a world of debt. The women in my classes are so confident and so articulate and they seem so much more sure of what they’re doing in a way that I was absolutely not at when I was their age. So I look at them go, Oh god, who can stop them? But they’re also in the bubble of college.

If Adam Yauch at Oscilloscope hadn’t picked up Wendy and Lucy and given it all the special care that they did, I don’t know what would’ve happened to me. It’s not like I also didn’t get a lot of help from Larry Fessenden or Todd Haynes, who have helped me my whole career. It’s not like I haven’t had male support. I don’t want to draw the lines of the sexes that concretely. The nineties were hard. But I don’t know what it will be for [my students]. I can’t tell. They’re entering a different world.

This interview has been condensed and edited

First Cow opens March 13

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