n Annie Silverstein’s Bull, an at-risk teenage girl, Kris (by Amber Havard), is thrust into a relationship with neighbor Abe (Rob Morgan), a rodeo bullfighter nearing the end of his career. Silverstein’s feature debut builds out from her 2014 short Skunk, both set in a blue-collar part of Houston where rural and urban poverty collide. Most film productions drop in on locations, shoot what they need and depart. Silverstein and her husband and writing partner Johnny McAllister take a different approach, embedding themselves in communities for months and even years before filming. Bull has a documentary realism, but also a deep, unashamedly subjective empathy for the people it portrays.
Bull screened at Cannes in 2019. Silverstein spoke with Filmmaker from her home in Texas.
Filmmaker: About the script: some reviewers wrote that you expanded Skunk to feature length.
Silverstein: I had the idea of turning Skunk into a feature, but early on in the writing process a completely different story emerged. It happened organically. I met a man several years ago while doing location scouting. He came from a black rodeo family in Texas and shared a little history about his life. When I began writing, my intention was to expand on the themes in Skunk, which centers around a 14-year-old girl growing up on the outskirts of Houston. At first it was just about this kid whose mom is incarcerated, and she’s at a crossroad: is she going to follow in her mom’s footsteps or not? But as I wrote, this man kept coming to mind. I knew very little about him but it was enough to spark my imagination and I began writing the character of Abe. As I started researching more with my husband and co-writer Johnny McAllister, attending backyard rodeos and interviewing bull fighters who have spent their lives on the rodeo circuit, the lifestyle and community took hold of me, and the story changed to become about these two people and their intersection.
I was a youth worker for ten years before I started making fiction films. And that experience really shaped me and the kind of stories I’m interested in telling.
Filmmaker: What do you mean by youth worker?
Silverstein: I co-founded a nonprofit called Longhouse Media based in Seattle, and we ran a program with the support of the Swinomish tribe called Native Lens, which taught filmmaking to Native American teenagers as a form of self- expression, cultural preservation and social change. For many years I worked with youth on different reservations, collaborating with them on stories they wanted to tell about growing up on the reservation, issues around poverty, dispossession, as well as videos that celebrated their culture and history.
I also spent a year in Rio de Janeiro teaching filmmaking to youth living in an orphanage. We used filmmaking as a way of processing their experiences and filmed short skits together. The program was very much focused on process and expression versus any kind of product. I feel like my approach to fiction and storytelling is heavily informed by experiences during this time working with youth.
Filmmaker: Your process relies on documentary techniques for settings and characters?
Silverstein: Yeah, I’m very much inspired by real people and settings, and I spend a lot of time researching, observing and listening to people talk while writing. I really became interested blurring the line between fiction and documentary during my time working with teenagers on the reservation. We mainly made documentaries together, but every now and then we’d fictionalize a story if the theme was too sensitive or uncomfortable to address in the documentary form. Fictionalizing these stories made it possible for us to tell them. This stuck with me and I became interested in using documentary techniques to inform my approach to fictional storytelling. Also, I just enjoy working with young people and the creative energy that comes from these collaborations.
Filmmaker: Bull is set in the suburbs of Houston?
Silverstein: Cruz Valley is a fictional neighborhood on the outskirts of Houston. Johnny, producer Monique Walton and I live in Austin, but we spent a ton of time in Houston researching for the film. From early on felt it had to be made there. We primarily shot in Acres Homes.
Filmmaker: How did you find the rodeo community you portray in the film?
Silverstein: Johnny and I were in Oakland visiting family and went to the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo while we were there (it’s a traveling rodeo). After the rodeo ended we approached a bull fighter named J.W. Rogers and got to chatting, told him about the project. He was from Houston, and invited us to watch him bull fight at a backyard rodeo the following weekend at Old William Johnson in Egypt, Texas. As soon as we rolled up to that arena we just knew it had to be in the film. It’s a very special place, a special community with a lot of history. J.W. and many of the bull fighters we came to know helped us so much throughout research and production.
J.W. ended up being the stunt double for Rob Morgan in the film. Before the shoot, J.W. and Teaspoon Mitchell, another bull fighter, led movement trainings with Rob where they would chase him around with a wheelbarrow. The first time we met J.W., we asked him, “Why do you touch the bull’s head after the rider falls off?” And he explained that right before the bull makes impact, it closes its eyes. So even if you just tap its head, it thinks it’s already hit you, and it relaxes. We thought that’s a beautiful metaphor for these characters. Anger, touch, connection… it became a part of the film.
Filmmaker: I’m not sure I really believe it.
Silverstein: It’s good to know, should the occasion arise.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about casting the two leads?
Silverstein: We did a huge search for Kris, our lead, at schools, parks, malls and open calls throughout Texas. All in all we saw about 1000 girls. Our casting directors Vicky Boone and Chantel Johnson scouted Amber Havard at a nearby middle school. Something went wrong with their recording, so at first all I saw of Amber was seven seconds of her listening to Vicky talk. But there was so much behind her eyes—darting about, and yet so actively engaged in the moment. From those seconds captured on a simple iPhone, I felt we had found Kris. She had no prior acting experience.
What was important to me in casting the character of Abe was finding someone who was seasoned but also had rawness and authenticity, as well as an ability to connect with the non-actors and make that dynamic feel seamless. I saw this all in Rob Morgan. We brought him to Texas, and he got to hang out at backyard rodeos and meet some of the bullfighters we had been talking to for several years. He also met Amber, and when I watched them listening and responding to each other, it all felt right. The film truly hinges on their connection, and I believed what I was seeing. I loved the casting process because we met so many interesting folks from different communities who wanted to share their stories.
Filmmaker: Do you have special strategies when you’re directing nonactors?
Silverstein: It’s specific to every person. The actor who plays Billy for instance, Steven Boyd, had trouble memorizing lines. It stressed him out. So instead we would talk through the beats of the scene, and the key lines it was important for him to say. We would have conversations together, to kind of paint a picture of the scene and create personal truths behind the made up lines, until he could see it in his own head. I would always tell him he could use his own words, but these were the important points to hit. For Amber, I didn’t show her the pages until right before we shot them because I wanted her to be in the moment and not rehearse. But I swear Amber has a photographic memory, because she’d take one look at the lines and know them.
I think when working with nonactors it’s so important to get to know each other first as people and really take time to establish trust. In my experience, hanging out together and talking about our lives yields better tools for getting to a performance during the shoot than actually rehearsing.
Filmmaker: What do you do if you’re not getting the emotional response you want?
Silverstein: With nonactors, we’d talk about their own life experiences they could draw upon. I’d share things that were personal to me too, so there was a shared vulnerability. Establishing this kind of communication and trust always helped us get there. Some of the different methods you might use to communicate with professional actors were too abstract.
Another tool I found useful was if they couldn’t connect to an experience personally I would try and help them identify someone in their life that reminded them of the character. For instance, this was helpful in Skunk when the boy playing Marco acts out and is ruthless with the female character, Leila. He told me, “I would never do that. That’s really fucked up.” And I said, “I totally understand that. Is there anybody in your life who might act that way when they’re feeling really insecure or ashamed, who might act out like that?” He immediately said, “Yes. My friend acts like that.” I said, “Okay, play it like him.”
Filmmaker: At the same time you have to protect Amber because she’s so emotionally vulnerable in many of her scenes.
Silverstein: I spent four months working with Amber before offering her the role. This gave me time to get to know her, establish trust, and try and prepare her for what production is like. And we wanted to make sure it would be a good experience for her, so we took our time. I never showed her the script (her mom read it), but we talked through every scene with mature content so she knew the character well and what she was taking on. She’s an old soul, very self reflective, and I felt I could trust her judgment. She’s also incredibly brave, compassionate and an extremely hard worker. When there were scenes she found tough we would process them, but ultimately she always wanted to take them on.
Filmmaker: What did you do over that four-month period?
Silverstein: At the time Amber was spending every weekend at Playland, a roller skating rink. So we would often meet in the parking lot and hang out for a while and talk. We might do little skits or role play to start building an understanding of the actor/director relationship. I explained to her that we would sometimes do things multiple times, not because she was doing anything wrong, but because I needed to capture different performance options, and why that was important. It allowed us to dip into it bit by bit. We got to know each other and found a very organic way of working together.
Filmmaker: Was it different dealing with a veteran performer like Rob Morgan?
Silverstein: When we first sent the script to Rob and offered him the role we spoke a lot about the approach. I told Rob he’d be working with a lot of non-actors, and that for certain scenes we’d be throwing him into live environments, like the rodeo scenes. So while this was a very scripted film, and certain scenes were pretty traditional as far as shooting approach, there were other parts of the shoot that were very much like a documentary. We would be putting him into live events and he would need to stay in character and react to whatever was happening. Rob is serious about his work, but he also likes to play, and I think he had a lot of fun in those scenes.
Filmmaker: The rodeo sequences are crucial to the film. How did you shoot them?
Silverstein: It was intense. We shot at live rodeos.For two of the scenes we had to travel to Colorado Springs, after principal photography was over, because PBR [Professional Bull Riders] agreed to let us shoot at one of their events. Those scenes were really crazy to capture. We had so little control over what would happen. It was really important that we work within all these constraints but still make it look like Rob Morgan is bull fighting. We had to get creative about how to use our time and space.
We were often responding to real things that happened during bull rides, then running in with Rob and re-creating those moments. Rodeos are incredibly dangerous, and if you’re shooting for a certain amount of time something is likely to happen. We had to be open to the possibility that what happened would be different than what was scripted, and we would have to work with that. It was really challenging to figure out, and I think it’s a testament to our crew, cast, stunt doubles and the communities we were working with that we were able to pull those scenes off.
PBR is like the NFL of rodeos, and the riders were competing for a slot at the finals in Las Vegas, so we could not be on the dirt one second longer than we were afforded or it could affect someone’s ride. We dressed J.W., who ended up being our stunt double for Rob, in the same jersey as Rob. The rodeo agreed to let J.W. bull fight in the rodeo that night. We had three cameras on him. Every time the bull went back to the catch pen, after a ride was over, J.W. would run out of the arena and Rob would run in. Most times it was Shabier Kirchner, our DP, on the dirt with him. (The other two cameras were stationed outside the arena.) We’d have about 30 seconds to shoot Rob, sometimes it was only 15-20 seconds. I mean, it was insane. So 20 seconds to be on the dirt and interact with people, and run around as if he were bull fighting, and sell the character, before the next rider would be ready, at which time we’d have to haul ass out of the arena, with no idea of what would happen from one ride to the next.
Filmmaker: How did you work with cinematographer Shabier Kirchner? Was there a guideline or understanding about the material you’re looking for?
Silverstein: We started by sharing a lot of films we each respond to—visual references, photographs, documentary films too—and through this back and forth conversation and discussing the script we came to a shared visual language. We were really lucky to have Shabier come to Texas for an extended period of time before the actual shoot so that we could go to rodeos and try to put our heads together about how to capture them, how to make it look like Rob was bullfighting and how to do it in a safe way.
For the rodeos we shot on Alexa Minis with Panavision Ultra Speeds and Cooke/Angenieux Zooms. There’s one shot at the PBR rodeo where we designed a special helmet cam that a bull fighter could wear, that wouldn’t interfere with his ability to move (thank you Kevin Steen). Shabier wanted to get in the arena himself, but obviously the producers and I had safety concerns, so this was the idea we finally landed upon. We worked with a stunt coordinator, Jeff Schwan, and two bull fighters, Travis Tyler, and Teaspoon Mitchell, so they could practice wearing the helmet. Then at the actual shoot Travis stood a safe distance behind J.W., our stunt double for Rob, so it was like an over the shoulder shot. That’s how we were able to get that shot in the arena during a bull ride.
Filmmaker: It must have been tough for Shabier to predict how and where animals as well as the nonactors would move.
Silverstein: Shabier is so experienced and has filmed in so many different environments. He had just worked on Skate Kitchen, chasing a bunch of skateboarders tearing around New York. So he wasn’t thrown by it at all. He’s amazing.
Filmmaker: How long was the shoot?
Silverstein: 35 days. I think we had 40 or 41 days total. Then had to get back together a couple of days go to Colorado Springs. Going into production we knew that we were going to have this untraditional shoot with principal photography and then additional short units, based on the rodeo schedule.
Filmmaker: It feels like you built an entire world behind this movie.
Silverstein: I believe the world already existed, and we just found people who wanted to collaborate with us on this fictional story. One thing Monique and I did early on was volunteer as a way of getting to know the world and community. We’d volunteered at a black rodeo in Athens, Texas. We volunteered for an organization that visits incarcerated moms called Women’s Storybook Project of Texas. They take children’s books to moms in prison and record them reading them for their kids at home. It’s a really nice way for children to hear their mothers’ voices, and feel connected. We also had the opportunity to do a prison visit with Girls Embracing Mothers (G.E.M.). They facilitate visits between incarcerated moms and their daughters. We set up a feedback group through Lauren Johnson, who worked with an organization of formerly incarcerated women called Conspire Theater. In the rodeo world, we worked closely with Joskie Jenkins and his rodeo at Old William Johnson Arena, as well as Ricky Henderson at the nearby Henderson Arena in Egypt, Texas. Really there’s so many collaborators that helped us bring this world to screen.
Filmmaker: What was the response to the Cannes screening?
Silverstein: Cannes was pretty surreal. We finished the film three days before we left for France, so it was a total whirlwind. I was in borrowed clothes. We were just incredibly honored to be screening our film there and I was just really happy to be sitting with my team, watching it together.
Filmmaker: What’s next?
Silverstein: I’m finishing a pilot with Johnny we’ve wanted to write for a while, and developing my next feature about a fringe community set in Texas, which I will write and direct.