Interview by Becca Harrison
Annie Silverstein won the Cinéfondation jury prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival for “Skunk,” a short about a 14-year-old girl whose pit bull is stolen by an aspiring dog fighter. She returned to the fest this year to screen her feature debut, “Bull.” Set in Texas, the drama explores the friendship between Abe, a black cowboy, and Kris, a young white teen whose mother is incarcerated.
We spoke with Silvertstein and “Bull” star Rob Morgan (“Luke Cage,” “Mudbound”) about spending time at rodeos, childcare on set, and words of advice for women directors.
“Bull” premiered at Cannes on May 15.
This interview has been edited.
W&H: Could you tell us what inspired you to tell this particular story?
AS: I was location scouting for my last short film and I met a man who came from a black cowboy family and he shared a little bit of their history. Later, when I was turning that short film into a feature script, this man that I met was in my consciousness. I was trying to expand this story about a 14-year-old-girl in Texas whose mum was incarcerated and this man, who had literally been our neighbor when we were shooting [the previous short film], kept coming into my mind.
I didn’t know anything about black cowboy culture — it’s not taught, and it’s not represented in cinema. I kept thinking about him and started going to rodeos with my husband, Johnny McAllister, who I co-wrote the film with.
This man inspired the character of Abe [Morgan’s character], and from there we wrote a draft and spent a few years in the community.
W&H: It seems like you did an extraordinary amount of research for the film.
AS: We did a lot, as it felt important to make it authentic, and we needed the community to want to be a part of it and participate. We couldn’t have done it without the community. But it was the right pace. As for the character of Kris [played by Amber Havard], I was a youth worker for 10 years before becoming a filmmaker. She was an amalgamation of a lot of kids I’d worked with whose parents were incarcerated. Seeing them deal with the absence of their mum or dad inspired her.
W&H: Did you find that gaining the trust of the black rodeo community was challenging, or were people very willing to share their experiences with you?
AS: I’d say people were incredibly welcoming and sharing and also, with good cause, some folks would look at me like: “What does she want?! What is she doing here?!” I think it’s true whenever you’re an outsider and white and going into a black community, given our history.
But we met Wayne Rodgers at our first rodeo, the Bill Pickett Rodeo, which is a traveling black rodeo. Wayne is a bull fighter, and he was the one who explained to us why you touch a bull’s forehead [a recurring and poignant motif in the film]. It’s because the bull closes its eyes right before impact and then it’s the most gentle touch, but it’s made impact, and the bull calms down. So we had this shell of a script and then we spent so long learning from the guys that do it.
RM: All these men are high-level professional bullfighters, competing in the PBR [Professional Bull Riders], which is the highest form of bullfighting organization, and they allowed us to come in. That was very informative and helpful for us — to have that direct connection to [their] close, everyday world experience.
W&H: Rob, did you know anything about black cowboy culture or did you have to do a lot of research for the role, too?
RM: I knew that there was a history of black cowboys in America that was always ignored. I felt like it was very important to go and experience what it was actually like to have a bull in your face, a real bull between your legs. That was informative to the character, bearing in mind these brothers do it every day.
I felt like this experience would be a blessing for us to have in Annie’s script and in our movie. I was very much open to going down there seeing how they relate to each other, because a lot of people have this idea of a cowboy chewin’ on hay! And then you go down there, and you see the love and compassion, and the friendship and camaraderie, that these people have for one another — and all looking death in the face every eight seconds. It was a phenomenal experience to go down there and get immersed in the culture directly coming from Brooklyn, New York.
W&H: Speaking of camaraderie, the performances in the film suggest there was a strong sense of teamwork among you.
AS: Amber and Rob both have this playfulness, and I think that helps. When Amber met Rob, very quickly they found how to naturally play with each other, which from a director’s point of view is like, “I believe this connection.”
RM: That’s a testament to Annie creating a safe space on set for us to all go in and be honest and have a good time. She was clear about what she wanted, so we were all prepared and ready to execute. Eating together and being awake together for 18 hour- and 24-hour days – that’ll bring people close together that’s creating something. And they’re family, you know? I’ve probably done more things with these people than with my real family, as far as vulnerability goes.
W&H: It’s a remarkable achievement to have your first feature – especially as a woman director – play at Cannes. Do you have any advice or words of encouragement for other women filmmakers?
RM: Don’t tell them about your breastfeeding while shooting scenes! [They laugh.]
AS: I was like, “Mommy’s going to set today and we’re going to keep breastfeeding.” Anyway, I don’t know if I’m saying this just as a person or as a woman but the only thing that feels true is that you have to pull from your own life experience — you have to do what inspires you, what connects you on a deep soul level. As far as making anyone’s best work, it sounds simple and like a cliché but writing and creating from there is the best place to start.
RM: Tell her about when your daughter would be on set and would have a little tantrum and you’d have to go and be like –
AS: True, but I did have an amazing nanny. Working mums need childcare! It’s the only way to keep making films and I honestly have so many people to thank – Amber and Rob, the DP [Shabier Kirchner], my husband. Also, I’m so thankful to the woman who took care of my child. She gave her so much emotional stability while I was working. Set life is hard and she would come to set whenever she could. She provided that. I think it really takes a village to make a film. It took us villages to make this film — literally villages in Oklahoma, in Texas.
RM: I was impressed with her being a mother and running a set like that, to be honest. You all have that ability to just pull straws and connect them and it’s like, how do you do that?
AS: I guess there’s one more thing I wanna say. You’ve got to be fierce and fearless and just go for it.
W&H: I think that goes for women and people of color across the board?
RM: Of course. I love working with women. I think I’m developing a track record of working with women directors. The future is female! But I’m thinking the present and the past is, too.
AS: Right. You’ve got to be fierce and fearless — because no one’s gonna come and invite you in. You’ve got to go for it!
Rebecca Harrison is a feminist film critic and broadcaster based in the UK, where she contributes to MAI, Sight & Sound, and BBC Scotland, among others. She is also a researcher currently writing about “Star Wars.” You can follow her on Twitter @beccaeharrison.