The Illuminerdi got the chance to sit down with director and writer Annie Silverstein to discuss her award-winning feature film debut, Bull.
The film follows a troubled youth, Kris, who is surrounded by a den of negative influences. After an act of teenage, and possible criminal negligence, Kris connects with an unlikely mentor in Abe Turner. An aging bull rider who is also in a new point of transition in his life. The two cross paths when they both least expect it and both of their lives will be forever altered.
In our new interview, Annie Silverstein opens up about how she achieved the film’s heightened realism, with a cast of both world class actors and neophytes. She also reveals the intensive casting search and stroke of luck that led to the discovery of Amber Havard, the hidden history of black cowboys, the wonder of rodeo life, along with her love of genre material, and so much more. Hold on to your saddle and get ready for a ride through the mind of Bull.
Director/Writer Annie Silverstein on Bull
The Illuminerdi: First off, this is an incredible movie.
Annie Silverstein: Thank you.
A bunch of things stick out. Like how authentic the cast feels. It almost feels like watching a documentary at times. How did you bring the cast together, particularly the lead who plays Kris?
Annie Silverstein: Yeah. Besides Rob [Morgan] (Stranger Things, Daredevil) and Yolanda [Ross] (The Chi) and Troy [Hogan] (The Righteous Gemstones), who are all professional actors, the rest of the cast had never acted before. For Kris, we did a massive search. We worked with two casting directors in Austin. Vicky Boone and Chantel Johnson. Who are amazing. They really understood the kind of approach that I wanted to take to making the film. They understood the world.
I worked with Vicky before, casting a short film I made called Skunk.There were traditional auditions too. But, I kinda felt deep down that we were looking for a non-actor. You know a kid who grew up in Texas who could relate to the character. So we did open calls. There were scouts. Vicky and Chantel had teams going to malls and skate rinks and all over. And ended up seeing a thousand girls.
First scouted Amber [Havard] at a middle school in [indecipherable] Texas which is a small town outside of Austin. It was funny. Vicky was making small short videos on her phone of some of the girls that she scouted that might be a good fit for the role. When she went to make a video of Amber, she was just using her iphone and asking questions like, “What do you do on the weekends for fun? Who is your best friend? What was the most challenging thing you went through this past year?” Questions like that, but she made a mistake. She didn’t press record during Amber’s video.
I’ve been there before…
Annie Silverstein: Yeah! Then when she was pressing STOP, she actually started recording and so all I saw of Amber at first was just after the interview ended and it was just her listening to Vicky say, “Okay. Thanks for so much for your time. The director will get in touch with you if she wants to talk more.” And I just saw Amber listening. But her presence as a listener was so dynamic. The way her eyes darted around. There was so much that she was concealing and had going on that I wanted to know more about. And that was so in line with the character. You know? This young person who has so many things that she’s up against and so much to contain and conceal.
I was like. “Wait I’ve seen like seven seconds of this kid listening” and I was amazed by her. And then we brought her in. I worked with her for seven months. So for all the non-actors it was a long process of working with them and learning how to work together and also how to work as a director in a way to bring out the best performance. You know? Because they weren’t trained and that meant something very different for every person.
Right. That’s even more impressive. Well let’s talk a little more about Kris’ character. You kind of mentioned it, she can’t catch a break. It seems like the cards are stacked ten stories high against her. Every direction she goes she keeps running into walls. What do you want people to take away from her journey or what do you want people to relate to about her character?
Annie Silverstein: You know it’s interesting… I don’t normally think about that when writing. I guess I think more from the story. What inspired me. What felt real. And of the world. I drew a lot for Kris’ story from my time as a Youth [social] worker and several of the kids that I had, had parents who were incarcerated. I was always affected about what this absence meant to them and what it meant to their identity as it was forming. What it meant to the kinds of decisions that they were making and the kind of situations that they were putting themselves in and how there can be so many ripples through all of that.
So, that what’s influenced the writing Kris more than anything and the it was wanting to explore this connection, for both Kris and Abe, can have such an affect on one. And this very particular place in her life and a very particular place in his life. And yeah, it was my interest in exploring that… in what I felt was realistic. Coming from the kind of work I was doing before film school.