Screenwriter Jon Raymond explains how the eponymous cow was the key to unlocking his debut novel, The Half-Life, and adapting it into First Cow. This is an excerpt of our Reichardt ebook, Roads to nowhere.
One might ask why Kelly Reichardt, a Miami-born filmmaker, has almost exclusively made films set in the Pacific Northwest. The simplest answer is because of Jon Raymond. The Portland-based author has been Reichardt’s writing partner since director Todd Haynes (a close friend to both) introduced them in the early 2000s. When Reichardt read Raymond’s ambitious debut novel, The Half-Life, she approached him to work on a film together, asking if he had a short story she could adapt. She ended up making Old Joy, and they’ve since worked together on every one of Reichardt’s films, save Certain Women (2016). Only now, with First Cow, has The Half-Life come to the screen.
The film reinvents the novel so as to be almost unrecognizable: a book with two timelines, set over two continents, becomes an intimate, low-budget film that’s thoroughly Kelly Reichardt. That’s to say, instead of attempting an epic scope, it’s set over a matter of weeks, and our main characters (quite poignantly, given they long to set off for San Francisco to build a better life) never leave the Oregon territory. Cookie is a gentle loner who works as a cook for travelling fur trappers. He befriends a Chinese immigrant, King-Lu, and together, they bake and sell biscuits made from stolen milk. What’s more, the cow of the film’s title is a total invention. This cow — rumoured to be the first ever brought into the Oregon area — was a way to introduce the novel’s ideas about international and interregional trade without requiring the characters to travel around themselves.
I spoke to Raymond about how he approached such a radical adaptation of a book he wrote 16 years ago, and the extent to which he was involved in the production once his first draft of the script was complete.
Seventh Row (7R): How did you and Kelly come to the decision to adapt your novel, The Half-Life? Why this story now?
Jon Raymond: It’s been a project that has simmered on the back burner for a long time. The Half-Life was the first book that I wrote, and it was the first of my writing that Kelly read back when it first came out in 2004. Her reading The Half-Life was what led us to do Old Joy back then. That was how our conversations began.
The Half-Life had always seemed too large for us to really place. The novel has a 160-year scope and double storylines [set over multiple continents]. There’s a largeness to the scope that’s beyond our resources normally. But this time, she [Kelly] had blocked out some time to make a film — we’d had a project that had fallen through — so as a kind of Hail Mary, we were like, “Let’s see what happens if we truly put our minds to doing The Half-Life.”
A choice early on was that we were going to concentrate on one timeline. We were going to cut out half of the book [the half set in the modern day] to begin with.
It was one of those enchanted things where there was an idea that occurred that allowed the nut to get cracked this time. A lot about the novel had been about this early capitalism in the northwest and this beginning of global trade networks around the fur-trapping economy. We didn’t have the resources to take those characters from that side of the story and take them across the ocean and send them to China like the book does. So I was thinking, could something come to them that could represent this burgeoning network of trade going on in the world? And for some reason the cow just kind of appeared to mind! Once the cow appeared, it became really easy to reconstruct the book, at least thematically, in a different way. It’s a radical turn, but it still felt like the same themes and the same tone.
Kelly Reichardt mug: ‘Sorrow is just worn-out joy’
7R: It is quite a radical adaptation. Was there much debate about whether to cut the modern sections entirely? Because you didn’t: the opening scene, which is a framing device for the entire film and reflects the end, is set in the modern day.
Jon Raymond: It was a pretty early decision [to remove most of the modern section of the novel]. We were more interested in the period stuff for some reason. There was an initial attempt to shuffle them together and see what happened, but we very quickly decided to put all our eggs in one of these baskets.
But it was important to have that opening scene. For both of us, that image of the two skeletons was really important to the whole thing, to have that image casting a shadow across all of the action… THIS IS A PREVIEW. READ THE FULL INTERVIEW IN ROADS TO NOWHERE: KELLY REICHARDT’S BROKEN AMERICAN DREAMS.