Days after the cancellation of the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, writer-director Annie Silverstein spoke with me over the phone about Bull and the SXSW impact on Austin.
It felt kind of strange last night while I was transcribing the interview. I spoke with the filmmaker on March 11, 2020 back when Bull was set to be released on March 20. This was days before movie theaters shut down in both New York and Los Angeles. The large majority of theaters across the nation would shortly follow. While the immediate impact of SXSW’s cancellation was on mind, it’s crazy to see where things are over a month and a half later.
While Bull will get its digital release on May 1, the film was supposed to screen as a Festival Favorite during SXSW. What went through your mind when they made the decision to cancel the fest?
Annie Silverstein: Of course, I was really disappointed. It was going to be our homecoming screening. We’re from Austin and we shot the film in and around Houston, primarily. We had organized trailer rides leading up to the Paramount and we were really excited to screen the film for everyone at SXSW including the community that was going to come up from Houston. A great disappointment but also I think it was the right a call. There are a lot of people who are disappointed, there are a lot of people who lost work and there are a lot of businesses that are impacted by it. So pretty quickly, I started thinking about the film and our family who made it. I started thinking about the (inaudible) community. I think it’s the right call and I think that it’s important just think about how we’re all here for the long haul as artists and programmers and continue to support each other and make sure we keep a perspective about it.
As an Austin local, what will this mean for the local economy?
Annie Silverstein: I’m not sure. I mean, I think that’s pretty scary. We’re all going to find out. I can just speak to my friends and I—there’s a lot of people in my community. We all expected to have contract work during SXSW as filmmakers. That’s all gone away. That’s true across different businesses and fields. I don’t even know what the numbers are and what the impact will be. I just know it’ll be great.
How did you and Johnny McAllister first come up with the idea for the film?
Annie Silverstein: Well, I came up with the idea and asked Johnny to work on it together. We work on projects together and we’re also married. We are writing partners on particular projects. The idea was very much rooted in my background as a youth worker. I was doing a lot of social work before going into grad school in film at UT-Austin. Several of the kids I worked with through the years, their parents were incarcerated. When I started writing, I was interested in exploring the experience with a 14-year-old girl who is really struggling with the absence of her mom. And then the character of Abe and the world of duck rodeo was really inspired by a man I met location scouting for my last film, who shared his story with me and introduced me to this whole history I didn’t know anything about I became interested in the intersection between these two characters.
The film also marks your first narrative feature as a director. How did you decide it was the right project?
Annie Silverstein: I always decide based on where I want to spend time and what I’m inspired by because it takes so much work and so much sacrifice. It’s such a long time in the making that basically, I just follow my heart—where do you want to spend your time? I wanted to spend my time in the world that it was set and with the people that it was about.
Can you talk about working with the cast?
Annie Silverstein: It was a mix of non-professional and professional actors. My method of working was really different with each person that I was working with. Some of the cast who had never acted before, I didn’t show the script to. We came up with a different way of working together because it was too overwhelming to memorize lines. Then there are also professional actors like Rob Morgan, who’s a really seasoned actor. I had a different method of working with him. It was just very specific to each person.
What was the most challenging part of the production?
Annie Silverstein: Probably the rodeo scenes. For most of those scenes, we were shooting at live rodeos. We had no control over what the bulls would do and what would happen in the bull rides. We were shooting them almost like they’re a documentary with our stunt double who’s a bullfighter, JW Rodgers, wearing the same jersey that Rob had on and so we had to be really flexible and just capture those and then figure out in the moment how to change things within the scenes so that they could work because we couldn’t really control what’s happening. We had three cameras. There’s just a lot to coordinate and figure out to make them look real and also make next sense within the bigger story.
Bull premiered to a sold-out audience at Cannes. What’s been the audience reception while playing film festivals?
Annie Silverstein: From what I’ve heard, the audience reception has been great. We played that Film Independent’s The New Wave to a sold-out crowd. SXSW was going to be our kind of big Texas, big US film festival premiere. That’s not happening now but hopefully we’ll have a great turnout on our release, which is tricky because our release is on March 20. Things are changing day by day and I understand that people are anxious about going to a theater. We’ll see
What were the most important factors when it came to selecting a distributor?
Annie Silverstein: If they’re committed to the film and if they understand the voice of the film and are dedicated to that.
What do you want people to take away from watching the movie?
Annie Silverstein: I hope the movie expands our sense of what we think of the Western and is included.