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'First Cow': 2 Men Try To Start A Business Using Stolen Milk

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A muddy outpost deep in the Oregon frontier is a really unforgiving place. It's the 1820s. And this lawless town of scrappy fur trappers just got a precious resource, a cow.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIRST COW")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You have a cow.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) First cow in the territory.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) This ain't a place for cows.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Well, it's no place for a white man, either.

GREENE: OK, so this is definitely not your typical Hollywood Western. The new film is aptly titled "First Cow."

This might be the first film that I've experienced where a cow gets an actual movie credit.

JOHN MAGARO: Yeah, and the title character, even.

ORION LEE: Yeah.

GREENE: So that's John Magaro and Orion Lee, the other stars of this film. They play King Lu, a Chinese immigrant who is on the run, and Cookie, a loner who has a culinary gift. These guys sense opportunity with this cow. And they think up a clever scheme - steal the cow's milk to bake biscuits unlike anything this frontier town has ever tasted and, in doing so, make a fortune of their own.

LEE: (As King Lu) The royal cow.

MAGARO: (As Cookie Figowitz) Maybe we should halt for a while. I think the captain sent something.

LEE: (As King Lu) Now is our time.

MAGARO: In a way, our film is almost like a proto-Western. This is pre-Western what we think of as the West.

GREENE: This is Westerns before there were Westerns.

MAGARO: Exactly. This is - you know, Lewis and Clark had just made it across to the West Coast. You don't have these dusty towns yet. You don't have the - you know, the doors that swing open and the guy with the spurs come marching in. It's a very different type of Western all all around.

GREENE: So am I right that you guys actually met on a wilderness trip for the movie that was meant to kind of get accustomed to this kind of life?

LEE: Yeah, that's right.

GREENE: Who - did give a guide? Like, who was...

MAGARO: Yeah, we had a guide who - he's a reenactor. He focuses on the Lewis and Clark era and the early 1800s, Northwest...

GREENE: Oh, cool. Oh, so you had - it was, like, an expert.

MAGARO: Yeah. So, you know, like, he was intense. You know, he - we stayed in little tents, modern tents. But he would lay out with just a canvas tarp over him, on a canvas tarp.

GREENE: Oh, he was all in.

MAGARO: (Laughter) I think he enjoyed it more than we did, although we had a good time.

GREENE: And, Orion, did you skin animals? Did I...

LEE: Yeah, that's right. He brought some roadkill along.

MAGARO: A muskrat.

LEE: Yeah.

MAGARO: But we did eat it after that.

GREENE: You did?

MAGARO: We cooked it. We cooked it and ate it.

GREENE: Oh, wow. So you got the whole experience.

MAGARO: Yeah, yeah. Now, I would not recommend eating roadkill muskrat to anyone out there.

LEE: (Laughter).

GREENE: Good to know.

MAGARO: Not the most pleasant flavor.

GREENE: I'm not rushing to do that today.

MAGARO: Yeah, yeah.

LEE: (Laughter).

GREENE: I mean, this - your film in the 1820s - basic survival took so much focus on every aspect of life. I mean, a cow suddenly showing up in life today would be like, OK, there's a cow. But in the 1820s, it changed everything for you guys.

LEE: Yeah. That's the other thing you forget - is something like milk - you know, it's taken for granted. And so when the cow comes, that first cow comes, it's like, wow, here's a resource nobody in the region has.

GREENE: And I don't want to give too much away, but, I mean, you guys start stealing milk. You become con men and doing pretty well.

LEE: Yeah, all thanks to Cookie's expertise and King Lu's - how do you say?

MAGARO: Peer pressure?

GREENE: Peer pressure.

(LAUGHTER)

LEE: Ingenuity.

GREENE: Ingenuity.

LEE: (Laughter).

GREENE: We talk about the American dream being often such a pure and beautiful pursuit, but it can push men like Cookie and King Lu to not just risk everything but even to to cheat. Like, what do we learn about the American dream here?

MAGARO: (Laughter) I think many people have cheated to achieve the American dream. We might be living in that world right now a little bit. I mean, I think, you know, if you've done a little of thinking and you've looked at our vision of the American dream, you realize it might be a little dirtier than we thought it was when we were young people or even a young nation. You start to see this disconnect between the rich and the poor, which Cookie and King Lu see. And if you want to get out of that, or you want to get to the next place and maybe achieve the, quote, "American dream," you might have to take some risks.

LEE: And - for some reason, I'm thinking of the time I got my tooth punched out.

GREENE: Say more.

LEE: It starts off really boring.

MAGARO: Well, it ends with you getting punched in the face.

GREENE: Yeah. There's nothing mundane and boring about that.

LEE: OK. So very quickly, I was leaving my apartment. And somebody slipped in the gate, as I left. And it just looked really suspicious. So I confronted him. And it turns out he was late for work, and he was trying to slip into this restaurant which is below my apartment. And things just sort of escalated because he was very cagey about it, and I was like, hold on. I can't let you in. And then I took a photo. And then he slapped the phone out of my hand. It was just - yeah, it just went way out of control suddenly.

MAGARO: I'm confused how this is related. I think the moral is mind your own business.

GREENE: I think I'm getting it. No, I think I'm getting it. Like, this guy was doing the right thing to try and get to work, maybe, and...

LEE: No, no, no.

GREENE: No.

LEE: The thing was, afterwards, I fell into this kind of mild depression, maybe - I don't know - about the violence in the world and how it can be visited upon anyone at any time. And the only thing that stops any of those things happening is our common bond. And maybe, you know, talking about the American dream is just this common bond of friendship of being kind to each other and not living on that edge of, you know, potential violence all the time. You know, what if that is the dream?

GREENE: Not being an actor, I don't know how much movies stay with you after you're done. But I just wondered, being in this space, the 1820s - are there things now that you're never going to take for granted again in your real lives?

MAGARO: I wish it was that way. This world we live in - I think, we have short-term memories and once you're in the comfort of your modern life, you sort of start to forget how hard they actually had it. So sadly, I feel like I'm not as grateful as I should be for what we have and what they didn't have.

LEE: Yeah. Oh, I've got my TV - click of a button. Oh, I've got my hot water. It's easy to slip into the habit and forget. Yeah, and common decency is so beautiful.

GREENE: Well, that's a lovely way to end the conversation. Thank you, guys, so much.

MAGARO: Thank you.

LEE: Thank you.

GREENE: That was Orion Lee and John Magaro. They star in the new film "First Cow." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.