Maria Lattila spoke with ‘Cowboys’ director Anna Kerrigan
When the world was struck with the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the film industry took a severe hit. Production was halted, film festivals were either cancelled or had to become virtual and cinemas closed down, some for good. Anna Kerrigan’s Cowboys, a sweet and tender film about a transgender kid and his father on the run, was scheduled to premiere at the prestigious and popular Tribeca Film Festival, but with no physical event being able to take place, the film received a very limited, online-only premiere. Cowboys still nabbed Best Actor for Steve Zahn and Best Narrative screenplay for Kerrigan at the festival and finally arrives on UK screens.
We chatted to Kerrigan about releasing a film during a pandemic, casting a film like Cowboys and working with Sasha Knight. You can also read our review of the film here.
I really loved the film, it was so beautiful. I just want to start by asking how have you been? This must be such a weird time to release a film.
Anna Kerrigan: We’re so lucky that we made it when we did, because we did it on a really small budget. It was sort of impossible on the budget we had anyway, without COVID. If COVID had happened, we just wouldn’t have shot the movie. But it was very strange. I had almost finished my post when COVID hit, the festival I was supposed to premiere at, Tribeca in the States basically just became virtual. So I went from preparing a film for hundreds of people to preparing it for like three jurors. It took a very long time but eventually we were able to finish, but it is very weird. I’m really happy that the film is getting a good response, but it feels like a surreal fantasy where it’s just people on the screen telling me that they like that instead of a human coming up to me in person and saying, I loved your film and seeing it in their eyes. It’s crazy, but I’m lucky that the film has opened up other doorways for me, so I’m busy now.
Oh, that’s very exciting. Why this story, what made you pick up a laptop and write this specific story?
This was a story that when I started writing it, I really didn’t know where it was going. I grew up going to the part of Montana where the film is set with my best friend and her family. And I just fell in love with it. I think partially because I had a transient childhood where I moved a lot, I didn’t really have a place I called home, I clung on to Montana, and very like unwillingly because even now I’m like, I wasn’t there that much. But it made such an impact on me that into adulthood, I would think about Montana when I was homesick. Five or six years ago, I was moving from New York to LA and I was feeling very unsettled and I think it was comforting for me to return to Montana through the story. All I knew initially was that it was about a father and son on horseback and they were outlaws and they were running from something. Then I uncovered slowly through scene work that the kid was transgender, and that Steven’s character was suffering from mental illness. And I was like, Oh, this is making much more sense, this idea of modern outlaws, I’m writing a straight Western.
As a filmmaker and a writer, do you prefer writing about what you know? Or do you like to dip your toes into something that you’re not familiar with, and find the story that way?
I think people take the idea of writing what you know very, very literally. There’s a lot of things in my life that I brought into Cowboys. I bring myself into characters that are not my gender, or my age, or whatever. And Cowboys, there’s some characters in it that are sort of amalgamations of people that I know in Montana. I think that I’m always interested in non-traditional families and outcasts. I bring what I know about that from my life into those stories. I think my world is kind of boring. I am a white woman in Los Angeles, who cares? I think it’s very literal, the way that some people interpret that and I love some super autobiographical movies that are thinly veiled versions of the filmmaker as the lead character. I just have more fun in a new world and it’s just a more exciting journey.
The cast is is brilliant. What made you cast Steve and Jillian?
Steve was the first one to come on board. I knew I had to cast the kid last because the way that indies like this get set up. You write the script, you bring in a producer, you attach cast, you raise money so until I had my budget, my money lined up, I couldn’t cast a kid. In terms of Steve… He’s an actor who’s played these sort of sidelined, misfit characters. He’s never played the kind of leading role, like winner, handsome dude, which was something that I definitely wanted to keep. I feel like when you have someone like Tom Cruise, you’re casting a winner. You know, he’s going to win. It’s Tom Cruise. And if he doesn’t win, then you’re like, I don’t believe it. So I felt with the baggage of Steve’s history, but more importantly, he’s just a fantastic actor, he trained in theatre, he’s incredibly disciplined. And he brought this very unique mix of being the super charismatic, sensitive, super masculine guy. He’s just a character that has a lot of insight as well, but it’s not like intellect, if that makes sense. And he was able to imbue that into the role so beautifully. He also lives on a horse farm in Kentucky, which is helpful. The first time I talked to him, we tried zoom. And this was pre-COVID and we were both uncomfortable. We’re like okay, we’ve seen each other, it’s fine, we don’t need to do this anymore. We transferred to the phone and he was going about his day. And he said, Oh, I’m so sorry for all the noise. And I was like, I actually don’t hear anything, I don’t know what you’re talking about. He’s like, Oh, I’m feeding my animals. And he has goats on his farm and rescue dogs and horses.
And Jillian’s character, she’s my favorite, because she feels so real and human, but she’s never a villain. Was that important to you?
Yeah, that was something that Jillian and I talked about a lot. When I was writing Sally, I just wanted to be clear that this is a woman who’s working with the tools that she has, with the knowledge that she has. She’s not a very curious person, she’s fearful. She’s worried about what the society around her is going to think. And she internalizes judgment that hasn’t even happened yet. I think in her mind, she thinks she’s protecting her kid, against people bullying him in the future, but what she doesn’t realize is what she’s doing is incredibly damaging. That was something that Jillian and I talked about a lot, and she’s so wonderful and so great to work with. And she really connected with the role in a way that I knew she’d be great. And one thing that was very funny with her is that she, whenever she had to do something that she thought was mean, she would apologize afterwards to everyone. She’s such a nice person, and especially in the scenes with with Joe, if she had to be judgmental about his gender identity, we’d cut and then she’d be like, I’m sorry, you’re great. It was very, very antithetical to who she is. She’s like a big ally to the community.
The real star is Sasha, who’s just absolutely remarkable in the film, how did the role of Joe evolve or develop after he came on board?
That’s a really good question. I think that when you’re working with kids, I think this is true to an extent with all actors on some level, it’s smart to tailor the role to them once they come on. I didn’t want to get too attached the idea of what Joe is going to be like, but when I met Sasha and saw his tapes, I had already cast Jillian and Steven, I was like, Oh my god, first of all, this child is Jillian Bell and Steve Zahn’s child, how did this child appear? We had done this very epic search and we saw a lot of great kids, most of whom didn’t have acting experience. And Sasha was someone who was already taking acting classes, and it was already something that he wanted to do. Once he came on, I took some time getting to know him, and we went through the script together. I tried to make sure that it all made sense to him. And then if there was anything in his experience that would make it seem more real, I could imbue that into the script. I also think that because he’s such a ray of sunshine, the movie could have ended up feeling a little darker had it been another kid. There’s something very like buoyant about Sasha, that works really well for Joe. That was something that definitely shifted the course of the film.
Did you have to work on the chemistry or the dynamic, especially between Steve and Sasha? Because it feels really effortless.
We gave them time. As soon as they were all cast, all three of the family members started talking to each other over text and phone and whatnot once I introduced them. Partially because of schedule, but it also worked out character-wise, Steve and Sasha were called to Montana, like a week and a half, two weeks before we started shooting. There were things that they had to do, like horse training and rifle training, but it was also because we wanted to give them time to connect, and they just got on like gangbusters immediately. Steve is a dad, and he just has a great way with kids. They’re both incredibly physical people like natural athletes. Sasha’s like an award-winning rock climber and had already ridden horses, so the two of them are similar in a lot of ways and they both have a very high energy level. Luckily, the chemistry was immediate with them.
I think my favourite scene is actually that very last scene in the school bus. Because we so often see how cruel kids can be and like you said, this could have been a very dark film. Was it important to you to make a film that wasn’t about cruelty and struggle, but one about acceptance?
My point with that final scene was that before parents meddle with kids, they’re actually unlikely to really care about gender. But I also think that what happens in that scene is a reflection of the fact that this kid, Joe, is more of a cowboy, has had a crazier adventure that they’ve all read about in the papers and watched the news about. Like this kid is a hero and it trumps the fact that he is a transgender kid. When he comes on, he’s worried. Oh, my gosh, what do they think of me? Are they gonna judge me? But then he realizes, basically he’s a celebrity. Would it be different if the story had been that he came out dramatically and didn’t go on this adventure? Possibly. I wanted there to be some sort of version of reversal on that final scene and something more hopeful.
Cowboys is on Curzon Home Cinema and digital download 7 May.