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Annie Silverstein on Her Acclaimed Rodeo Drama ‘Bull,’ Working With Non-Actors

Bull
Cannes Film Festival

For her feature narrative film debut “Bull,” director Annie Silverstein chose to explore a world few people know about; that of the black rodeo circuit in Texas. The film stars Rob Morgan, a recent standout in “Just Mercy,” as Abe, an ex-bull rider who still works the circuit despite the toll it’s taken on his body. Newcomer Amber Havard plays his 14-year-old neighbor Kris, who forges an unlikely friendship with Abe. With Kris’ mother in prison, she is searching for family and connection, which she finds on the rodeo circuit. The film premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it earned raves, before going on to win the grand jury prize at the 2019 Deauville Film Festival. It is now available through video on demand.

Silverstein came to filming through her youth work. “I was using it as a way of working with teenagers; it was about using film as a tool for self expression and social change,” she notes. “Sometimes we would fictionalize things that were too hard to tell in a documentary form. It was really through this process I feel in love with filmmaking itself.” In fact, at one point she applied to graduate school for social work and film school at the same time, and had a tough time deciding between the two. “I really had one leg in each world,” she says. “Bull” melds these worlds perfectly, as she works with several non-professional actors to tell an intimate story set in a world rarely, if ever, depicted on screen.

“Bull” shows us a world I don’t think most people are familiar with. How did you learn about this culture?
Years ago I was location scouting for my short film with my producer Monique Walton, who is our creative producer on “Bull.” We were driving around looking for locations. We met a man who shared a little family history with us; he came from a black rodeo family. It was a brief encounter, but it opened up this history to me that I knew nothing about. We spent many years interviewing bullfighters and wanting to make sure it felt like an accurate representation of the lifestyle. I found it to be a very generous community and a lot of people kind of find themselves there. It’s a found family. So I think the generosity is a part of that, I don’t think it was unique to us. I think people were excited to help bring to life a story from their culture.

You cast Rob Morgan in the lead before some of his breakthrough roles, like “Just Mercy.” What made you interested in him?
Monique was the first person to say Rob would be great for this role. “Mudbound” was just coming out when we moved into casting for the film. As soon as we saw it, we knew we had to offer him this role, we could totally picture him as Abe. We flew to New York to meet with him and then he came down to Texas a couple time to meet with the bullfighters even before shooting started.

You cast a lot of non-actors in this film; what attracts you to such performers? And is that even the right term?
That’s a good question, because they’re acting. I guess I call them non-professionals, because it’s something they’re doing for the first time and maybe it will become their profession? In my previous work, I spent a lot of time working with people who didn’t have acting experience and draw on life stories so it felt kind of natural to me. I really love the process, I think it can bring to light performances and perspectives we don’t often get to see. No one in this film is playing themselves; the characters aren’t based on anyone real, so they’re very much playing parts. But I wanted to cast people who could relate to these characters.

For example, Sarah Albright plays Kris’ mom and in the film, she’s incarcerated. We did open calls in a big prison town in Texas because we wanted people who could understand this kind of experience. Sarah has never been incarcerated, but she was a prison guard and could draw on that experience for the role. Similarly, Amber is not Kris, so to speak, but she felt she could identify with the character in a number of ways. That’s always kind of what I’m looking for.

Can you talk about the process of finding Amber?
We had two wonderful casting directors based in Austin and we did a huge scout. Amber was discovered at a middle school in Texas and I think it was pretty bizarre for her. She was at school and one of the casting directors, Vicky Boone, was doing short interviews with girls she scouted, just asking things about their lives. She had accidentally not pressed record for Amber’s interview so the only part that got recorded was after the interview was done and all I saw was Amber listening to Vicky wrap up. But her presence on screen just in that and the way she was listening to Vicky talk, there was so much going on, it felt close to the character. I went back later and had a conversation with Amber, and I remember her telling me a story about a bird she tried to rescue and she got so emotional. I could see so much potential.

You co-wrote the film with your husband, Johnny McAllister. Was that the plan from the start or did it develop organically as you were working on it?
It was very organic. I wrote a draft on my own and was talking to him about it so much and he’s a writer, too, and had some ideas. We had never written together before. So we tried it. It was our first go at collaborating and we made it through. (Laughs) And we actually just did it again, we just finished writing a pilot together.

This is your narrative feature film debut and I’m sure you’ve heard the conversations around the need for more female filmmakers. Did that intimidate or discourage you, or were you able to sort of tune it out and just concentrate on your project?
I think because my background is in documentary, it’s a very different feel because there’s so many women. So quite frankly, I was more startled when I moved in to fiction how different it feels. I just kind of put my head down and worked. I think things are starting to change. Personally I don’t think about it too much because it would just be discouraging and I’d just rather do the work.