Interview: Annie Silverstein on Bucking Convention with “Bull”

Annie Silverstein believes she’s rambling on a little too long about the origins of her feature debut “Bull,” though she’s the kind of storyteller where you want to hang onto every word.

“It’s my first interview of the day. It always takes me a while to become concise…” says Silverstein a bit sheepishly before being assured that longer answers are welcome. She laughs, “Ok, good. We both come from similar families.”

Besides this being an early hour during a period when it’s been so easy to lose all track of time, you can also understand her slight frustration with articulating herself when being put on the spot when what becomes clear watching “Bull” is that so much attention has been paid to every frame, almost serving as an inadvertent tribute to the sport at its center where each second spent holding onto a bucking bronco becomes its own triumph. It certainly starts to feel that way for Kris (Amber Havard), a 14-year-old in search of direction after her mom’s been incarcerated and takes an interest in bull riding from her neighbor Abe (Rob Morgan), a veteran of the black rodeo circuit in Texas. The two aren’t on friendly terms at first, with Kris seeing an opportunity when Abe’s out of town to invite her friends over for a raucous house party, but in serving restitution for the damage done in the weeks that follow, she increasingly becomes enamored of the notion of taming something wild and Abe isn’t one to discourage her, unable to prevent himself from competing even in the face of deteriorating physical capabilities.

To capture this specific moment in time for these two characters, Silverstein drew on countless hours of observation, not only of attending rodeos or visiting prisons to observe the relationships between the incarcerated and their children on the outside, but channeling how she saw firsthand how an activity could unlock new horizons for youth in underserved and marginalized communities when she co-founded the nonprofit Longhouse Media, where she taught filmmaking to Native American teens leading to the 2008 documentary “March Point,” and traveling to Rio de Janeiro to work with the homeless. Authenticity and naturalism are clearly prized by the filmmaker, but she appears to be well-aware of certain conventions that govern stories of redemption such as this and knowingly leans into them before upending them with the kind of cultural and emotional details she and co-writer Johnny McAllister only could’ve gleaned with years of research.

“Bull” is an exquisite debut, one that sadly was deprived of a big-screen release in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, but speaking to us a few days before the film was set to make its local premiere at SXSW in the grand Paramount Theatre, just shy of a year removed from its premiere last May at Cannes, Silverstein showed the same grit as the characters in her film in powering on as the film has become available to stream, offering audiences a chance to be transported deep into the heart of the Lone Star state and be swept away by a truly exciting new filmmaker.

How did this come about?

I was a youth worker for about 10 years, and this story is very much rooted in the youth work I was doing before I attended graduate school in UT Austin. The teens I worked with were from rural and underrepresented communities and poverty was a big issue. Several of the kids I worked with had parents that were incarcerated, so that was the starting place of writing about this girl who is really struggling with her mom’s absence. Then I moved to Texas in 2010 and during my last year at UT, I met a man location scouting while doing my thesis film who shared his story with me. We were looking at his home for a possible location and he comes from a well-known black rodeo family in Texas. I didn’t really know the history at all of black rodeo or black cowboys, so I became very curious, and I wrote the character of Abe and I was really curious about the intersection [of these two characters].

That’s where it started and then Monique [Walton], who’s the creative producer, and Johnny [McAllister], who’s the co-writer and also my husband, we all started attending black rodeos and backyard rodeos in and around Houston. We met a bullfighter named J.W. Rogers, who’s a bullfighter who really took us into the community and wanted to share his way of life and J.W. ended up being Rob Morgan’s stunt double and through him, we met several other bullfighters. As we did more and more research, we expanded the character of Abe and it became so clear that the world was a character in and of itself, so we wanted to collaborate with all the cowboys and the rodeo community, leaning into our research to bring it to life.

Besides inspiring the story, did your experience of working with youth actually inform your approach to taking on a film?

Absolutely. For example in our research phase of the process, Monique and I visited and did some volunteer work for a couple different nonprofits that work with incarcerated moms — there’s a nonprofit called Women’s Storybook Project that takes books into different prisons and records moms who are incarcerated reading a book to their child and then sends the book back home along with a recording of their mom reading it, and there’s another organization called GEM – Girls Embracing Mothers, so it was trying to understand the characters and what they’re dealing, which was very much rooted in real life situations. We spent a lot of time in the community, in which I was drawing on my background and that informed the writing process and it also informs how I direct.

After you cast, do you do a rewrite after to get that naturalistic voice?

Yeah, it really depends on the actor. The whole film was very scripted, but some of the scenes are exactly as they’re written, and in others — for example when there’s the teenagers and they’re having a big party, none of those kids had acted prior to the film — it didn’t make any sense to me for them to memorize a bunch of lines. That [party] scene, they knew the beats they had to get to, and there were [some side lines that were scripted, but the rest they had the freedom to say whatever they wanted because they understood what the scene was about. I would switch my method of working based on the actors I was working with, so sometimes we were completely rewriting lines and sometimes we weren’t.

What was harder to shoot – that raucous party or the rodeo scenes?

The rodeo! But actually the party was very fun to shoot. The rodeo was also fun, but in an insane way where we didn’t have any control over any of the bull rides or the bulls. We were shooting in live rodeos, inserting our actors into them in little breaks that we’d have and then we’d have no idea what would happen. And most of the film was shot in and around Houston, but we finished our principal shoot and then we were chasing rodeos around with our actors, so we went to Oklahoma for the Okmulgee Rodeo there [where we shot] one of the big scenes, where Abe is asked to be a clown when he can’t be a bullfighter, and then for the PBR scenes we had to travel to Colorado Springs, and it was so tricky because those riders were [really] competing for positions in the finals. This is their profession and this is their career and we couldn’t mess with their rides with our indie movie, so we had about 10-15 seconds in between each ride in which Shabier Kirchner, our DP, would literally just run out onto the dirt with Rob and I’d be standing on the side, just trying to capture footage of him. We had three cameras shooting all the rides. Our stunt double J.W. fought about 15 times, and we wondered what would happen those 15 times and whether it would piece together in the scene.

Visually, that footage fits so well with everything that’s happening within the film. Was it difficult to figure out a shooting style where there wouldn’t be a stylistic break?

It was tricky. Thankfully, Shabier, who’s wonderful and had a very diverse background as far as shooting styles was also incredibly open to problem solving this thing. [laughs] At first, we thought how are we going to do this? Are we going to have a bunch of CGI? We can’t afford that. And it was just through a lot of trial and error and the community helping us by letting us film test days where we were just trying to figure out if we could pull something off with a stunt double and whether it’d look real that really informed our style.

How’d you find Amber to play your lead?

We did this insane search for the teenager that would play Kris. We worked with casting directors Vicky Boone and Chantal Johnson, who are local here in Austin and we did traditional auditions and open calls, but we also looked through scouts at different schools and malls and skate parks. Vicky actually scouted [Amber] at a middle school, just doing casual interviews with the girls that she saw who looked like they might be the right fit for the part, and [ask] stuff like, “Hey, it’s okay if you’ve got no acting experience before. What do you like to do after school? And who’s your best friend?” And when she went to record this really short interview with Amber, the phone didn’t start recording — when Vicky pressed stop, she actually pressed start, so what I saw of Amber was the end of the interview, like just the part where Vicky said, “Record and when she’s saying, ‘Ok, well, the director will give you a call when she sees this video and if she’s interested in seeing you again. We’ll be in touch.” So I just heard Vicky’s voice [and saw] Amber listening to Vicky because this was the end of the interview, but her eyes were just darting all about and I was so intrigued by what was going on in her head.

One of the main things you’re looking for in your actors is how present they are and if they’re great listeners. I saw that in seven seconds of watching Amber — I saw her capacity to listen, so alive, so actively. And I said, “Oh my God, I hope I like her voice.” [laughs] That was just the beginning of course because then we worked together for about three months after I had her in the role because she had never acted before and it’s a huge responsibility. There can be a lot of pressure involved in it, and you want to make sure if you’re working with non-actors that they get the scope of it before you put them in that situation to be responsible.

Because of the relationship that Abe and Kris have, did you want Amber to meet Rob early on in the process or did you want that to unfold onscreen?

They met a couple times and it was important to me that they have a chemistry and they did. I just wanted to make sure they got along, which was so important because they were going to be together so much. They instantly connected and they met a couple times after that, but we didn’t really do much rehearsing together before we started shooting.

Is there anything unanticipated that comes up that’s now in the film that you really like about it?

So many things, but so much of what happened with the bulls or the bull rides, we had an idea of what we wanted to have happen and then there’s no way of controlling it, so we’d have to adapt. And there’s a scene where Abe runs and jumps over a fence as he’s being chased by a bull. Of course, that wasn’t planned — there’s a lot of those moments all through the film since we were working with kids and animals — and [it’s] J.W., our stunt double, [in the shot] and I loved that shot. It encapsulates what we’d been seeing for all our years of research as far as the kind of athleticism and craziness of the people that do this kind of work and what it means for them and the exhilaration of it.

What’s it like to be putting your first feature out into the world?

It’s exciting, exhilarating, terrifying. All of those things. There’s always a letting go process when you start something and you imagine how it’ll be and it never quite ends up that way, but as far as it being my first feature, I just feel very privileged to have it all come together. I certainly learned a lot, as we all did and had amazing collaborators on it, so I feel thankful, especially to the community. We couldn’t have made it without the community. There’s friendships there that will last a lifetime.

“Bull” is now available to stream on VOD, iTunes and Amazon Prime.