When Bong Joon Ho won the coveted Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for his film Parasite, one person’s vote on the jury held special meaning for him: that of the director Kelly Reichardt. A pillar of American independent cinema, Reichardt favors quiet, minimalistic storytelling, often focused on the margins of society. As she once put it, “My films are just glimpses of people passing through.” Bong has spoken frequently of his appreciation for her work; he called the opening shot of her 2008 film, Wendy and Lucy, “one of the most beautiful opening scenes in the history of the movies.”
Reichardt’s other films include Old Joy, a touching exploration of male friendship; Meek’s Cutoff, a dramatization of a journey on the Oregon Trail; and Certain Women, her phenomenal 2016 triptych about life in contemporary Montana. Her newest work is First Cow, a loose adaptation of Jonathan Raymond’s novel The Half-Life. Set during the 1820s in what is now Oregon, the film follows Cookie Figowitz (played by John Magaro), a baker from Boston, and King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant, who team up to sell baked goods made with stolen milk from a local land baron’s cow. The cow, championed as the first of its kind to be brought to the region, is a funny symbol of encroaching wealth—a striking but superfluous creature that becomes the focus of the drama.
Bong, who saw First Cow when it premiered at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival, is one of its biggest fans. Ahead of the film’s release, Reichardt, Bong, and I spoke via a four-way Skype call (Bong’s translator, Sharon Choi, was also on hand), with Reichardt dialing in from Los Angeles and Bong from Seoul. If Bong has been changed by winning four Oscars for Parasite (including a landmark Best Picture trophy), it doesn’t show. Sitting in front of a wall of DVDs in his home and tugging at the sleeves of his sweater, he peppered Reichardt with questions and showered her work with praise. For her part, Reichardt invited Bong to visit Portland, Oregon, after we discussed their writing processes, aspect ratios, how their works critique capitalism, and more. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Kelly Reichardt: I’m very intimidated! Where do we start, Bong, my goodness! Congratulations!
Bong Joon Ho: Thank you!
Reichardt: Are you able to do any work now that you’ve stopped going around with Parasite?
Bong: Now that I finally have time, I’m trying to get back on it, but I’m so exhausted, mentally and physically. I’m just a shell of a human.
How about you? We last met at Telluride, and I saw First Cow there. It was completely packed; I felt like I could hear everyone breathing as they watched the movie.
David Sims: Is that when you first met?
Bong: We first met at Cannes. On the awards stage. And I confessed, “Oh, I’m a huge fan!”
Reichardt: Which was very nice! I was on the Cannes jury with Yorgos [Lanthimos, the director of The Favourite], and wherever we walked, people were asking Yorgos for his autograph. And he would go, “Oh, excuse me, Kelly, I have to go give my autograph.” So when Bong won and he told me he liked my films in front of Yorgos, it was a very big moment for me.
Bong: At Cannes, they always talk about how directors in competition should never say hello to people on the jury, but since it was after the awards ceremony, I felt more comfortable.
Reichardt: It was perfect timing. Can I ask, Bong, if it hadn’t been for the Oscars, how would you usually write? Do you work by yourself?
Bong: Even when I have a co-writer, I don’t really discuss things with them. I let them do their own drafts, and then I take over and spend five to six months producing the final draft on my own. I have an iPad and a wireless keyboard that I always take to coffee shops, and I just hide in a corner and write by myself. I have to be at a coffee shop with noise around me; I always end up sleeping if I write at home.
Reichardt: Oh, I understand. But you can’t go sit in a coffee shop now! You’re too famous! You blew it!
Bong: There’s always corners where I can hide!
Sims: Did you follow your usual writing process for Parasite and First Cow?
Reichardt: I write often with my friend Jonathan Raymond. Usually he does the first draft, and then, like [Bong], I take it and break it apart. But I like to start scouting while I’m writing. Do you know your locations when you’re going to shoot?
Bong: Like Oregon is to you, I’m very familiar with Seoul as a city, and a lot of my films feature Seoul. Parasite was such an interior story, taking place inside homes and buildings, so the rich house was a mix of soundstages and a set we built outdoors, and we built the entire poor neighborhood in a water tank.
Reichardt: First Cow is based on a novel by Jonathan called The Half-Life. It was the first thing I read of his. The novel spans four decades and includes a ship ride to China, and I’m making small-budget films, so for many years we were trying to figure out how we could make it. The cow is not in John’s novel—we came up with it as a way to tell the story while keeping it small enough.
Bong: You basically re-created the premise of the novel.
Reichardt: The presence of the cow gave us a simple plot structure, and it allowed a lot of the themes Jonathan had in his novel about the beaver trade in 1820s Oregon to come into play.
Bong: [The cow] is part of a very primitive state of capitalism and commerce.
Reichardt: It’s this early seed of capitalism—can capitalism work with the natural world? There’s this hubris, the idea that these natural elements will be endless. In fact the beaver trade collapsed very quickly.
Bong: In First Cow, we see [the film’s main character] Cookie picking mushrooms, and it would be best if he managed to find the milk he eventually needs naturally. But the milk is already possessed by someone. When we learn about Marxism, we learn about who owns the modes of production, and that’s where the drama unfolds. It’s very interesting—you’re seeing the birth of U.S. capitalism.
Sims: I know both of you have worked with animals before, though I suppose Okja was a fantasy animal.
Bong: How did you find the cow? I’m sure it was a fierce competition!
Reichardt: It was! I picked the kind of cow I wanted, a Jersey cow, and then they’d send me videos of the cows, and I saw this one and I loved her. We trained her to ride on a ferry, because cows don’t swim. But it was very superficial casting—I was looking for the prettiest cow.
Bong: With Okja, because we didn’t have an actual animal on set, the director of photography and I were quite lonely. So we actually created a stuffy that was the size of Okja so that the actors could touch and interact with it. With First Cow, I’m sure it was more comfortable. [Raises an image of the Okja puppet on his iPad.]
Reichardt: It’s so big! She’s still so beautiful!
Bong, do you always work with the same cinematographer?
Bong: With Mother, Snowpiercer, and Parasite, it was one cinematographer; his name is Hong Kyung-pyo. With Okja, I worked with Darius Khondji. I think any foreign productions I do now will be with Darius, and any Korean films will be with Hong. Do you work with the same cinematographer?
Reichardt: It was different every time, and then from Meek’s Cutoff on, always with Christopher Blauvelt. I like working with him so much—you’re not starting from the beginning every time.
Sims: Director Bong, I know you’re developing two projects right now—one English-language and one Korean. Can you work on multiple scripts at the same time?
Bong: Only in the very early stages. Once I start writing, I can only work on one project, and the same goes for preproduction. I’m always jealous of directors who can do projects in between TV shows. How about you, Kelly?
Reichardt: One project for me, too. I teach in the fall every year, and I make my class somehow wrap around all the things I want to research for the film I’m making. For this, I was showing them Ugetsu and The Apu Trilogy and Woman in the Dunes, because I wanted to look at [films] where people are [living in hutches and] on dirt floors.
Bong: Whenever I watch your films, I always want to visit Oregon, but I’ve never been able to. I’m curious what that place means to you in your body of work.
Reichardt: Please come visit! We’ll show you everything! You know, I started going there because my friend Todd Haynes [the director of films such as Carol and Dark Waters] moved there. I’m from Miami, Florida, which is very flat and white with blue oceans, and [Oregon] was so different for me. It’s a very [geographically] diverse state—it has a desert, an ocean, an old-growth forest—and it’s not like California, where so much has been filmed. You can be a little bit off the radar.
Bong: Where is the forest that you shot First Cow in?
Reichardt: Everything is a one-hour radius from Portland. You can go a very short way and be in the forest.
Sims: Did you shoot in an Academy aspect ratio [which is very square] because of the forest?
Reichardt: I really like the square. There’s room up top and on the bottom for the trees, and for the close-ups, it’s so nice. And the economy of it: It’s not capturing grand landscapes, but people who have very small lives.
Bong: Even when you see the forest, it feels very personal and intimate. I can’t imagine [the film] where you see more of what’s left and right in the image. The relationship these two men share [in First Cow] is so uniquely subtle and beautiful, and I think the aspect ratio really helped in establishing that.
Sims: That’s noticeable when we’re first introduced to King Lu: It’s very dark, and he’s naked in the forest, and the mood and the situation feels very enclosed.
Reichardt: This was, on a practical basis, the hardest scene, because of the darkness. I was trying to shoot day-for-night and not have it look too hokey, because it’s tricky to light that, but then it actually became night—the final product is a mix—and so I found it really challenging. We also shot it early on, and these actors didn’t really know each other yet, and we’re in the forest and it’s cold. So Orion [who plays King] is very vulnerable—he’s surrounded by this crew and he’s sitting there naked! In the story, they’re just meeting each other, so maybe the awkwardness works.
Bong: That first encounter between the two men is so subtle and delicate. Although the character is naked, you can’t really see his skin color, so it’s almost like the two characters have the same skin color.
Reichardt: Because of the way we shot it, they both look kind of green! Everybody in Oregon then was an immigrant, besides the indigenous people. This moment is so dark in America, you know, with the fierceness against immigration and the false narrative that we’ve [been] some white nation for forever. So I didn’t want [the message] to be too pointed, but it’s there.
Bong: How did you find Orion? I assume it’s the first time you’ve worked with him.
Reichardt: It was a very long search. I was Skyping with actors in China who didn’t speak any English, wondering if they could learn the lines in time, as well as learning a Native American language. Orion finally came to us and read maybe four times over a month or two, and he just kept coming back to my mind. We didn’t really have any references to connect over, with film or music. He loves Shrek, you know; we’re not on the same wavelength! But he was so game, and always interesting.
Bong: The chemistry between the two men is amazing. They both feel so vulnerable.
Reichardt: When we were shooting, we had them go into the woods for three or four nights with a survivalist. They learned how to build a fire without matches and to trap, and it was cold and rainy. We did this instead of rehearsing—this is how they bonded.
Sims: Do either of you favor rehearsals before you start filming?
Bong: I don’t really like rehearsals, but my films often involve a lot of complicated camera movements, so for those we will have physical rehearsals where we coordinate the blocking. But I try to keep that as short as possible. I really like shooting when it feels like people aren’t ready and things aren’t meticulously set up. I want to capture the awkwardness you find in those moments on the camera. It produces a strange sense of reality, though it’s not always easy.
Reichardt: I can’t afford to have [rehearsals]! In Meek’s Cutoff, which was a Western, we had a pioneer camp so [the actors] could learn to walk oxen and things like that. But I’m not into rehearsing—just having people learn how to do chores.
Bong, I have to go, but I wanted to thank you! I really appreciate your voice. I’ve been going through your list of new filmmakers you like, and it’s turning me on to new things. It’s so inclusive.
Bong: Some films are more poetic and more beautiful when you go into them not knowing anything about them, and I think your films are always like that. With First Cow, it’s something that a filmmaker like me could never imitate—so I’m very jealous.
Reichardt: [Waves hand dismissively.] Oh, come on. Come to Portland, Bong! Come to Oregon! There’s no show business there, we can just go out to eat, and Todd Haynes and I will just take you out into the woods.