Last May, the prestigious and glamorous Cannes Film Festival introduced the world to a movie about an aging and injured black bull rider living in rural southeast Texas and his friendship with his neighbor, a troubled white teenage girl. The first narrative feature from Austin writer-director Annie Silverstein, Bull opened Cannes’s official Un Certain Regard selection, receiving much critical acclaim, before later winning the grand prize at the Deauville American Film Festival. Now, a year later, the movie is available to everyone: Bull was released on VOD on May 1.
Silverstein and her filmmaking team—co-screenwriter and husband Johnny McAllister and producer Monique Walton—represent a new generation in Texas filmmaking. They are helping redefine the Western, as more than one critic has pointed out. After Cannes, Manohla Dargis wrote in the New York Times that Bull seems to be “in dialogue with the Hollywood western and, by extension, the worldview it often advanced. Here, cowboys don’t roam the frontier herding cattle and protecting wagon trains. Instead, they risk their lives entertaining crowds, suffering injuries, and popping Oxycodone to ease the pain.”
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McAllister and Silverstein didn’t make this movie to advance a genre, though. They were mainly interested in telling the untold stories around them. “We were seeing things and hearing things that are really part of the fabric of Texas, the people here, the things they did every day and every weekend,” McAllister tells me. “We just wanted to give them a life on screen.”
Silverstein adds: “There’s a more diverse group of filmmakers coming out of Texas currently, so I think the stories reflect that. My starting point is very much rooted in the social work I was doing before attending film school.” Before joining the graduate program in the radio, television, and film department at the University of Texas, she was a social worker who spent time with Native American youth in Washington state; she also received a Fulbright scholarship to teach a weekly filmmaking and media literacy course at an orphanage for teenage boys in Rio de Janeiro. “The teenagers I worked with were from underrepresented and marginalized communities. And poverty was also a big issue. I’m drawn to telling stories that reflect America as I see it.”
The movie centers on fourteen-year-old Kris (newcomer Amber Havard), who lives with her grandmother and younger sister on the low-income outskirts of Houston. Her mother is in prison. Her next-door neighbor, Abe (Rob Morgan), is cranky about Kris’s pit bull chasing his backyard chickens—and it doesn’t help that he’s nursing injuries from being a bullfighter in on the black rodeo circuit. The two begin to form a fragile relationship, as Abe slowly introduces her to the Texas rodeo subculture. The experience also leads Kris to want to be a bull rider—an unconventional dream but one that’s in keeping with Silverstein’s originality.
Silverstein says that the idea for the movie came about organically. “I met a man several years ago, while doing location scouting for a short film. He came from a black rodeo family in Texas and shared a little history about his life,” she recalls. “Later, when I began writing this feature, my intention was to expand on the themes in my short film Skunk, which centers on a fourteen-year-old girl growing up on the outskirts of Houston.” Skunk, which Silverstein made while at UT, went on to be selected for the Cinefondation competition at Cannes. And it won the top prize, which included 15,000 euros and a guarantee that her first feature would get a special screening at Cannes. That feature, of course, is Bull.
Austin directors Terrence Malick, Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, and Jeff Nichols have had films in the official Cannes selection; Silverstein is the first Texas woman to do so.
Feted at Cannes
Back in 2014, I was in the audience with Silverstein and Walton at the Palais—the vast complex where Cannes movies screen—when Skunk won the short film competition’s top prize. Everyone on the Skunk team was elated—and a bit overwhelmed. “I can’t really believe this,” Silverstein told me after getting the award.
Cannes considers publicity to be paramount, so the festival is geared toward journalists, who get to see the movies before the public. After the press screening, the filmmakers and cast must go through a series of events immediately afterward. When Bull opened the Un Certain Regard selection on the first day of 2019’s festival, Silverstein and three of her actors—Morgan, Havard and Yolonda Ross (who plays Abe’s love interest)—had to be at the Palais for a photo call on an outdoor terrace overlooking the Riviera. It’s a casual-dress affair, so Silverstein wore jeans and a floral blouse. Then they rode the elevator up to the third floor, where they made their way through another throng of photographers before entering the press conference room, where another group of photographers and reporters awaited, asking questions for thirty minutes.
And all of that took place before the premiere and the red carpet event, which is anything but casual. Formal wear is required. Black festival limousines carry the cast and crew to the front of the Palais, where yet another throng of photographers await, and then the attendees walk up the long red steps to one of two main theaters—the Lumiere and the Debussy—which host premieres and face the crowd-packed Croisette, the main thoroughfare in Cannes.
“Cannes was pretty surreal,” Silverstein recalls. “We finished the film three days before we left for France, so it was a total whirlwind. I was in borrowed clothes and hadn’t even had time to go shopping for anything to wear, and I’d been in the edit hole for months. But I was honored to be screening our film there, and I was just really happy to be sitting with my team, watching it together.” She ended up borrowing a formal dress and shoes from Jane Schweppe, the board president of the Austin Film Society, who attended to support the Bull team, along with Rebecca Campbell, CEO of the AFS.
Silverstein says she told Amber, who plays Kris, that she wanted her to know that Cannes is no ordinary film festival. “I felt like I needed to prepare her,” Silverstein says. “Like, she got the lead for the first role she ever auditioned for, and now the first festival she was attending was Cannes. But one of the many things about Amber I find amazing is that she wasn’t really fazed by any of it. In the first press interview she did, a reporter asked, ‘How are feeling about going to Cannes? Are you so excited?’ And Amber said, ‘Yeah, I guess, it’s exciting, but what really excites me is being on set acting. I just love doing the work.’ And I was like, ‘Damn, she’s got it.’ That wasn’t a canned response. … It was heartfelt. She found her calling. She loves doing the work.”
Untold Stories of the Rodeo
Silverstein met McAllister at a party when he came to Austin to help Berndt Mader, the writer and director of 2015’s Booger Red. Silverstein and McAllister were married in 2016 and now have a three-year-old daughter, Sefiya. The two of them began collaborating with Walton, a friend of Silverstein’s from graduate school at UT. “We started working on a few things together, and then Bull happened,” recalls McAllister, who now teaches film at Texas State University.
At first, Silverstein says, Bull was “just about this kid whose mom is incarcerated, and she’s at a crossroads—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 cowriter, attending backyard rodeos and interviewing bullfighters 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.”
Silverstein, McAllister, and Walton spent several years researching the film and getting to know people in the rodeo community, many of whom ended up in the film. When Silverstein and McAllister were visiting family in Oakland, California, they checked out the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, the only all-African American touring rodeo. “After the rodeo ended,” she recalls, “we approached a bullfighter named J.W. Rogers and got to chatting, told him about the project.” Rogers, it turns out, was from Houston, so when he found out they lived in Austin, “he invited us to watch him bullfight at a backyard rodeo the following weekend at Old William Johnson [an arena in Egypt]. As soon as we rolled up to that arena, we just knew it had to be in the film.” Rogers also ended up being the stunt double for Morgan as Abe.
“We wouldn’t have been able to make the film without the collaboration of all the rodeos involved,” Silverstein says. Among their collaborators were Joskie Jenkins, who owns Old William Johnson and runs the backyard rodeos there; Ricky Armstrong, who owns the Henderson Arena in Egypt, and Kenneth LeBlanc from the Okmulgee Roy LeBlanc Invitational Rodeo in Oklahoma, one of the oldest black rodeos in the nation.
While they were researching rodeos, Walton put much of her energy toward getting Bull produced.
“There are many types of producers,” Walton says. “I’m a creative producer, which means I work with the writer/director in the early stages of a project to support the research and development of the script, followed by assembling the creative team, casting, locations, crew, through production, post, sales, and finally distribution.” But she says that her job, in the broader sense, is “about helping to protect the creative vision, from the time the project is in its nascent stages through when it’s being released into the world.”
Silverstein and Walton took full advantage of grants and other kinds of support. They workshopped the script at Linklater’s ranch as part of an Austin Film Society program. Holly Herrick, the head of film and creative media at AFS, introduced Silverstein and Walton to Ryan Zacarias, who eventually joined the team as a producer. The Houston Film Commission helped them scout locations and connected the team to local vendors and crew members. They received grant support from the Sundance Institute in Utah, the film foundation Cinereach, and the San Francisco Film Society.
Paul Stekler, the Wofford Denius Chair of Entertainment Studies at UT, says he’s not surprised that Silverstein and her team have been so successful. He points out that Silverstein had already made a 54-minute documentary, March Point, before entering the film program at UT in 2011. It deals with three teens from the Swinomish Indian tribe who investigate the impact of two oil refineries on their community.
“Annie made good films the entire time she was here,” recalls Stekler. Her first-year film school documentary, Night at the Dance, which was years later included in Texas Monthly’s UT film showcase, highlights one of the last small-town Texas dance halls. Stekler also points to her second-semester short, Spark. It’s a small film, Stekler says, “but her direction of two young kids is pretty amazing. It gives you a sense of how well she’s going to be in directing young actors like those in Skunk and Bull.”
Spark received the jury award for Best Texas Short at the 2012 South by Southwest Film Festival. Eight years later, Bull was one of the festival’s most anticipated films until it was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Festival organizers still proceeded with jury awards; Bull received a Louis Black “Lone Star” Award special jury recognition for Morgan’s performance.
And it’s Abe’s story that’s really the heart of the movie.
“We are beginning to see more stories in film and television that shine a light on” black cowboys and others who have often been overlooked by history, Walton says. “Bullfighters are considered the unsung heroes of rodeo, and Annie’s decision to focus on a character that had the job created an opportunity for a deeply layered and compelling story.”