Writing, location, and performance come together in the delicate, heartbreaking father/son story of Cowboys.
Cowboys is just about everything you want in an indie film. It's a character-driven story about family, adventure, and acceptance that explores people and places general audiences might not have seen before, with a careful balance of humor and heart. Most of the action is set against the breathtaking vistas of Glacier National Park in Montana. (Maybe it's because I'm coming off a year of being housebound, as well as a recent viewing of Alberta-shot Sundance film Land, but I think more movies should be set in the mountains. In this essay I will—)
And the movie's cast is populated by familiar talents like Steve Zahn, Jillian Bell, and Ann Dowd, all flexing acting muscles here that many of us have not had an opportunity to see before. It's a delight to watch an actor challenge themselves.
Zahn plays Troy, a loveable father to Joe (Sasha Knight). Troy is recently separated from Sally (Bell) and struggles with mental illness. When Joe comes out as trans, and Sally refuses to accept him, Troy and Joe flee into the Montana wilderness, local detective Faith (Dowd) in pursuit.
The film's writer/director Anna Kerrigan comes from a theater background and time spent in both LA and New York. She started as a writer, then moved into directing short films and series. Her short film Hot Seat was at Sundance in 2017. She also directed The Chances, a digital series written by and starring two deaf actors, also at Sundance 2017. Her shorts have been featured on Funny Or Die, Amazon, and Refinery 29. She is a Film Independent and Sundance Fellow.
Cowboys was set to premiere at Tribeca in 2020, but obviously, COVID-19 had other ideas. Despite this, Zahn won the festival's award for Best Actor in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film, and Kerrigan won Best Screenplay in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film.
The film later premiered at Outfest on August 22, 2020, and was picked up by Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Kerrigan spoke to No Film School ahead of the movie's wide release to share her perspective on film school, working with locations, and how to find a balance in writing. Enjoy!
Editor's note: the following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: What was your personal inspiration for starting as a director? What got you into it?
Anna Kerrigan: I grew up in LA. My mom is a poet and was a stay-at-home mom, and my dad was a visual effects producer. And so, I was sort of around the industry from a young age. And my parents met through Lucasfilm, on Empire Strikes Back. [...] I've been around the industry, but I also was kind of disgusted by it as a child, because I saw firsthand how unreliable it is. It's a really hard business.
So, when I went to college, I went to Stanford, and they didn't have a film program at the time. I mean, I love film. I loved watching it. I think that generationally, this is shifting, but I didn't know of a single female director. Do you know what I mean? Basically, it just seemed like something that I would never—I couldn't even fathom it. It never even occurred to me.
I was really into writing, and that's sort of where I started. I wrote these long stories as a kid. I started conning my high school English teachers into letting me write stories instead of essays. I went to a college prep school. I cannot believe they let me do it, but they did. And I also did it at Stanford. I really was like, "You don't want to read an essay. You'd much rather read a play. Right?"
But at Stanford, I studied theater, because they didn't have a film program. So I was doing playwriting, and I started directing there. I started directing theater. And then I moved to New York, and I did some film production. I was a PA, and then I stopped doing that kind of work, because I found it so hard, and it wasn't really what I wanted to be doing.
So I just started writing my own screenplays and plays, in isolation essentially. And my first creative community there was really in theater. And so, I was working as a playwright, and then I started making little projects of my own, just tiny, horrible-looking things that were essentially looking back, kind of like experiments.
I didn't go to film school. I couldn't afford to go to film school. I'm actually pretty anti-film school. I just think it's so expensive, and so many of my friends who went still have just crazy amounts of debt. So I'm just very thankful that I actually didn't go. But the trade-off of that is you have to find your community and find people who trust in your vision to make projects with you as you're teaching yourself.
And I made a very, very, very low budget feature, that was essentially—it's an okay movie. No one will ever be able to see it. It never was distributed, and I'm going to keep it that way. But before that moment, I was so hesitant to describe myself as a filmmaker. I would say, "Oh, I am an aspiring filmmaker." Which is like the kiss of death, is lacking so much confidence, you know?
And by the end of that movie—I did everything on that movie. I was in it, I directed it, I wrote it, I edited it. And at that point, I was like, "I don't want to do half of these things ever again." But I understand the value of them. And it was getting over that challenge, getting through that, I was like, "I am a filmmaker. And the next thing I make is going to be bigger." And then I went on to do shorts and webseries, which were received much better than my film, my first films. And I started writing Cowboys six years ago, and we shot it in 2019.
NFS: Wow. That sounds like—I mean, everybody has their journey into things. I went the assistant route. So that's how I got in, and then I feel like it was a similar experience, where it was like, "Oh, this is so hard. It's not what I want to do."
Kerrigan: Yeah. Right. I know. It's really hard. I think transitioning from a below-the-line job into directing is really hard.
NFS: The whole cast is incredible in this movie, even down to actors that appear for two seconds. Steve Zahn is amazing as Troy. When you were casting his role in particular, what was your process?
Kerrigan: I had talked to Steve before we had financing, but I had a casting director. He went on our list, and I just could not shake him for the role. It's a role that—it's a really, really tricky one to play. I was looking for someone who could be the most charming, amazing dad that everyone wants, but also is struggling with mental health. And so it had to be someone who had a playfulness to them but also was really willing to plumb the depths of the human condition in a really fearless way. And obviously, I've been following—I feel like Steve, he's been in my film experiences for so long as a viewer.
And when I saw him in Rescue Dawn, I was like, "Oh my God." I knew that Steve was always good, but he has a crazy commitment to that role. I remember the seed of thinking in that movie, like, "Oh, this guy hasn't had a chance to show who he is. " He's a fantastic actor. He just made a lot of sense for the role, and he worked so hard.
Honestly, Steve's first take was always fantastic. Do you know what I mean? I would give him a second because it seems irresponsible to just do one. He nailed that role, and he elevated it in ways that I could have never imagined.
NFS: I know that you've spoken elsewhere also about how important it was for you to cast trans actor Sasha Knight as Joe. And I know you worked with GLAAD, but can you tell us more about that process and why that was such a focus for you?
Kerrigan: I'm not transgender, so that aspect of the story is not my experience. So it was always important to me to find a kid who understood the role through their own personal experience. And casting a non-binary or transgender kid was always part of the plan. I worked with GLAAD. I also spoke with transgender people who live in Montana, including a transgender therapist who works specifically with trans youth in Montana. Because it is a specific experience to come out there, versus to come out in LA or New York.
I worked with Eyde Belasco, my casting director. And we went through the normal channels of casting, where you blast it out to the agencies, but we also hit up grassroots organizations, nonprofits, any transgender support groups. PFLAG re-posted our casting notice.
But we also hit up summer camps, youth theaters, really any place we could. We put it on our own social media. And Eyde went through, I think, 50, 60 submissions. I looked at about 12 and then focused on about five or six people to work with, mostly over Zoom, because there were submissions from as far as the UK. I still don't actually know how they got there, but somehow they heard about it.
And so, I worked with these kids. And Sasha, luckily, was actually based in the LA area. So I was able to work with him personally. And he just had a gravity to him, and I also think he looks like Paul Newman, which I thought was amazing. But more importantly, he understood the role emotionally and intellectually, and he's just precocious—at that time, he was 10 years old.
He lives in the LA area now. They had lived in Colorado for a while. So there was a personal connection to the experience of living in a conservative place and what that was like. Like I do with all my actors, I went through the script with Sasha and talked about it. We had multiple meetings before we actually got up to Montana, just to get to know each other. Also, he would do journaling exercises. And if there were any weird lines that he didn't understand or didn't come naturally to him, we would shift them.
NFS: Just to speak to your point about conservative states, I can relate to that. I grew up in the Midwest. And I think I've seen you talk elsewhere about that notion of liberal experiences in red states, but I noticed that your story wasn't so much about demonizing people for their beliefs or where they were from. And as a writer, that's a very delicate balance. So I wanted to ask about that process and how you made sure in the writing to strike that balance.
Kerrigan: From spending time in Montana and other places that are sort of in more—I mean, Montana also has a huge spectrum. There are also places in Montana that are super liberal and college towns, and there are great fluctuations of wealth, depending on where you are. But since I was focused on a more rural, working-class community, I'll speak more to that.
What I've found is, we live in this super, super divided time, where there is this assumption that if you're living in an area like that, you have got to hate all trans people. There is this idea that like, all of your viewpoints are going to fall in a certain category. Right? And so, I was interested in portraying that community, specifically within the microcosm of this family, as not a monolithic force.
People are complicated, they hold views that are unique to who they are. Even someone who voted for Trump—it's mind-boggling to me that people from the LGBTQ community voted for him, but it happens. People are very complicated. So, sort of creating that contrast between Troy, who, as a fellow outsider, connects and accepts his son so easily, with this mom, who is really caught up in what people think of her and her family.
And I was interested in a character who—I think people fear what they don't know, they fear what they haven't seen. It's scary to stick out, right? And to be a possible lightning rod for other people, bullying, or commentary, or whatever it is. So here is this woman, who, in her mind, is trying to protect her child from the wrath of the community, but in effect, becomes a personification of that judgment. And through the course of the movie, she goes through her own journey.
But I think what's interesting is, the more universal thing to take away from the movie, I think, is we all project our judgments and how we want the people in our lives to behave. And the reality is that that gets in the way of us accepting them as they are in this moment for who they are, all of these things will be projected onto them. So that's the sort of more universal thing I was going for.
NFS: Yeah. I think it was very effective.
Kerrigan: Thank you.
NFS: As far as the look of the film—you had the benefit of those amazing landscapes. The color also leaned kind of dark, but it was still so rich and layered. How do you land on the look of the film?
Kerrigan: I worked with my DP, J.P. Wakayama Carey, we pulled so many images. We had lots of discussions about various films, ranging from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to Last Picture Show. And we also created a LUT with our colorist that we used in-camera.
We shot on the Alexa, and that helped calibrate and gave us a sense of where we were going with the film, in terms of the look.
NFS: And the location is really a character on its own. I've heard you also talk about how it kind of mirrors the characters' emotional states, or their journey. Can you talk a little bit about being deliberate about that?
Kerrigan: Searching for locations, when you have a very small budget and no location scouts, is really fun if you have the time. We were really lucky. People were excited that we were there. I was often the first on a location with my producer, Gigi [Graff]. We would drive up driveways and knock on people's doors.
I had seen this one house from the road for years, and I was like, "Oh, it'd be perfect if that was their house." And we ended up just driving up the driveway and knocking on the door, and we were able to shoot at that house for the Johnson house. But there were all these exterior locations, when you're dealing with a place that's so—there's so much nature. It was like, "Oh my God, how do we start?"
So we started by talking to locals. We shot a lot of the national forest that surrounds Glacier Park. And we talked a lot to the rangers. But most of the tips about location came from people in the community. I had a cop/river guide. A lot of people in this part of Montana seemed to have like three or four different jobs. He took us to various rapids locations. We had one guy who sort of scouted for us a little bit, but I think we used none of the locations that he found and almost became just a way to eliminate locations.
We had fishermen giving us tips. The opening vista of the movie is a location that someone had told me about that you would never be able to find online, because it's just a local spot, where high school kids used to go make out and spend the night.
It was amazing that way. And I think that's the benefit of having a small production is people are more willing to help you. You're not walking in with Hollywood money, so that was really fun.
I wanted it to feel lush and idyllic, in terms of their journey through the wilderness at the very top of the film. And then as things start to sort of fall apart with them, I wanted them to feel exposed. I wanted it to feel kind of scary. There were a lot of places that unfortunately have been affected by wildfires in the past few years, so we landed on this amazing dead forest location, up along the North Fork River. So I did a range. We jumped around, depending on where locations fit in their personal trajectory of the journey.
NFS: Last question—any advice that you would offer to up-and-coming directors?
Kerrigan: I would say find your community, find other people that you can grow with, have people that you share your screenplays with. I think a writer's group is the best thing in the world. I used to have one every week. It's just so awesome. Read your scripts aloud, hear what people have to say.
Like you said earlier, everyone has their own journey, and there's no right way to do it. You just have to keep on going, and you sort of develop your own style. As you're simultaneously developing your voice and your confidence, the right people will come to you. And you can only get better by doing. So even if you're starting off on a phone and a couple of your friends, it's part of your journey of getting better as a filmmaker.