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How ‘First Cow’ Costume Designer, DP Helped Craft a Well-Worn Look

First Cow Movie 2020
Courtesy of Allyson Riggs/A24

Kelly Reichardt’s signature minimalism permeates “First Cow,” a good-natured friendship tale — enmeshed with a subtle critique of capitalism — set in the mid-19th-century Oregon Territory. Based on Jonathan Raymond’s novel “The Half-Life,” the adaptation follows John Magaro’s recluse chef Cookie and Orion Lee’s immigrant runaway King Lu, two dreamers who launch a mischievously lucrative business, frying up biscuits made with milk stolen from the region’s first cow, owned by a wealthy Englishman.

Reichardt entrusted prior collaborators DP Christopher Blauvelt and costume designer April Napier, to help deliver the film’s look. They drew inspiration from Reichardt’s references, such as “Ugetsu,” Kenji Mizoguchi’s mystery-drama about wartime profiteers, and “The Apu Trilogy,” Satyajit Ray’s coming-of-age classics. 

The film shot in cold and wet terrain, but Blauvelt was well-equipped for the elements, having shot Reichardt’s other Pacific Northwest-based pictures, “Certain Women,” “Night Moves” and “Meek’s Cutoff.” The cinematographer aimed to complement Reichardt’s patiently observant narrative style by favoring a mostly stationary, close-to-the-ground camera and a 4:3 aspect ratio, achieving a sense of down-to-earth intimacy rather than leaning into the typical sweeping grandeur of the Western genre. 

Blauvelt sought the textured look of celluloid despite shooting on digital; an ARRI Alexa Mini, vintage Cooke Panchro lenses and Glimmerglass diffusion filters proved to be a winning combo. To pull off numerous tricky night scenes on a budget, including a complicated chase sequence that leads to a cliff jump into a river, he planned for months, then did tricky day-for-night shoots, tempering down the tone and the palette to achieve a kind of 19th-century Frederic Remington look. In scenes that demanded bolder colors, he studied the elaborate sculptures of Michelle Segre. 

The shoots that involved Evie, the long-lashed, doe-eyed cow, were fairly straightforward, thanks to the work of the production’s animal coordinators, Lauren Henry and Roland Sonnenburg. “Being so close to her breath [at night] was hectic at times,” he says. “But we all shared a love of animals. Kelly would put [a dog] in every scene if she could.”

The challenge for costume designer Napier, meanwhile, was the brief research time she had for a complex era that existed before the invention of the camera and thus offered no photographic examples to rely on. Nevertheless, she produced a vast scope of nearly 100 authentic, lived-in costumes, mining the drawings of frontier artists like Alfred Jacob Miller and Paul Kane for ideas. And she contributed mightily to a concept that brought the grubby reality of the period to the screen, deliberately giving the outfits a soiled look. 

“We had a kit that we carried around” to make the clothes muckier, she recalls. The blackness in fabrics was especially imperative during day-for-night shoots. “There would be times when [Blauvelt would say], ‘Give me that kit. We need more black gunk on this thing.’”

Napier also had the garments reflect the wide-ranging socioeconomic and cultural forces at play, from the indigenous ensembles of the Native Americans to clothes worn by trappers, voyageurs and rich opportunists from all over the world flooding the last free land. 

In her multilayered designs of vests, scarves and jackets, she accentuated that people would bring things from their past and mix them with pieces that they traded. “You’d have one outfit that got dirtier and dirtier,” she says. “And a pair of [practical] leather moccasins that lasted longer than boots.” 

To create the genuine costumes of the Chinook Nation — dentalium jewelry to signify wealth, as well as breastplates, capes, hats and other pieces traditionally woven with durable red cedar tree bark — Napier contacted the Chinook Nation’s Nan MacDonald, who made original outfits (as did a group of women in Powers, Ore.). The costumer also consulted Heidi Bohan’s book “The People of Cascadia” to expand on her research of First Nations peoples. 

Both Blauvelt and Napier praise the kinship they feel on Reichardt’s sets. One of Napier’s favorite experiences was dressing a number of the filmmaker’s personal friends who appear in “First Cow” — the likes of Pavement singer-songwriter Stephen Malkmus, Mississippi Records’ Eric Isaacson and author Patrick deWitt (“The Sisters Brothers,” “Undermajordomo Minor”). “It’s about friends, and it features friends,” she says.

Adds Blauvelt of the director’s productions: “Over the years, Kelly has handpicked people with the same ethics and approach. It’s just become this amazing family that we work with.”