Montana story

Anna Kerrigan on gender, casting and locations in Cowboys

by Jennie Kermode


Anna Kerrigan’s Cowboys was one of the big hits of Tribeca last year and has played at numerous other festivals since. The story of a mentally ill father who runs away into the wilderness with his young trans son because his former wife doesn’t recognise the child’s gender, it stars Steve Zahn, Jillian Bell and young newcomer Sasha Knight, and it has now found a place in the Glasgow Film Festival line-up. Shortly before the festival started, I met Anna and asked her how this rich and complex story first developed.

“I set it in a part of Montana where I used to spend time as a kid,” she says. “I was in a lonely, weird, transitional moment in my life and I was like, I need to go back to Montana. I started writing the story and all I knew was that there was a father and son on horseback and they were running away from something.”

Next, she says, came the idea that the father had a mental heath issue and the boy was transgender.

“And just, you know, thinking about how different that is to be a trans child coming out in a rural part of America versus New York or L.A. I think that in terms of gender, masculine and feminine, they all play a role in the movie. and everyone is sort of, there's a lot of people, a lot of characters that feel sort of trapped by their gender, right. Like, I think the audience gender identity conversation is surrounding Joe. But you know, I think as a father who wants to support his family but has physical and mental problems that prohibit him from being reliable, there's a challenge to his own masculinity and what it means to be a provider. And for Sally, she is so constrained by her idea of what it means to be a woman and by her idea of what it means to be a good mother. I think because she's created or bought into the prison that she lives in, that dictates her role in society, she can't accept her own kid, because all she can think about is like, how is this picture going to present to the community?”

She adds that she also sees Faith, the marshal (played by Ann Dowd) who goes out into the wilderness looking for the missing father and son, as an interesting challenge to ideas around gender. I tell her that Faith reminds me of Marge Gunderson in Fargo because she's so calm and she's trying to save everybody.

“Right,” says Anna. “And she's the only one in the movie who doesn't care about t his child's gender. She's just like, ‘I don't care if your child is dressed up like Donald Duck, your child is missing!’ She has a very specific job to do and with all of these family shenanigans and ego, she is just like, ‘Let's cut through the crap. Don't you want your child, period, versus not having your child?’”

I found it interesting, I say, because it's not just a story about people dealing with gender change. It's also a story about somebody who has to become an adult very fast when he finds himself out there in the middle of the wilderness and his dad's losing it.

“You know, it's more of a coming of age than a coming out. For me, the gender identity is a catalyst for things going crazy, for an already cracked family to explode.”

I note that I like the way that she uses the Montana landscape so that, to begin with, the film feels very much like a boy's own adventure kind of story, like the kind of pulp cowboy books that the kid wants. And it seems maybe that's how the father sees it as well, because he still has his own growing up to do.

“I definitely was inspired by certain westerns,” she says. “The Western and the western tropes are so pervasive, we all know what they are. It's part of the common language, I think, whether you live in the US or not. I think they're inhabiting the idea of being in a Western, rather than actually being in a Western. When things actually start getting tense and problematic for them, they really don't know what to do. So, we thought about that a lot and choosing the locations.

“I wanted it to feel like lush at the beginning of the film, and then, as their confidence in what they're doing and Troy's mental health start to deteriorate, the environment changes to something that's very exposed. So I picked locations around that. They're closer to road [than they look], but there was no cell reception in many of those places. My darling producer, who was just a total hero, Gigi Graff, she drove around in a pickup truck with a porta potti attached. Originally we were like, ‘We don't need an RV,’ but eventually we had to get one. That was where the actors hung out, essentially. Before that they were just sort of like milling around.

“We had enough infrastructure but it was difficult, you know? There was one location I found that required trekking for ten minutes into a bog. And that was the one moment where I was a little bit of a diva, where I really wanted to shoot there, but there's no way in hell we could have brought our equipment into this bog, it was too far from anywhere.”

Some parts of the shoot also looked difficult to do safely, such as a scene where the father and son are caught in a fast-flowing river.

“That was a crazy Tuesday night,” she says. “We worked with a stunt coordinator, but the first thing that my DP and I did was scout for different parts of the river. That was work. I wanted the action to build in a certain way – I was flexible to an extent, but it was actually very tricky. We had to basically find the stretch of river, and then we divided it into different sections, and then I ordered them in my mind as to how it would actually cut together... but for some of those sections we only got two takes. It was so incredibly dark. But it was safe. I mean, we're always very safe. We had a bunch of water safety people that day.”

So how did she find the actors for the three leading roles? It's very effective casting in terms of the chemistry between them.

“Well, Steve Zahn is someone who's always been around, you know? I feel like I started seeing him in things when I was like a young kid, and he's so lovable. And I think a lot of people had sort of typecast him as a sidekick character, as a sort of goofy guy. And I saw him in Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this guy is so committed, so good.’ And once you have that different perception of someone, then you start seeing how fantastic they are after that. I was like, ‘Oh, he's a great actor and he just hasn't had a chance to really show what he's made of.’ And I thought, ‘He plays an underdog so well, he works so hard as an actor,’ but I really needed someone who could be super, super charming, but also was like willing to plumb the darkness of the human experience. And Steve is willing to do that.

“And Jillian, we actually met through our agent. We have a great agent, Blair [Kohan]. Jillian got the script and we had dinner together. I was familiar with Idiotsitter at the time but I hadn't even seen Brittany Runs A Marathon, and talking to Jillian I just, she's such a dynamic person. And the way that she talked about it all made me feel really confident in how she was going to wrap her mind around it and fill that role.

“And then Sasha was the last because until we had the actors and the financing lined up, we didn't want to pull the trigger on this kid. Because he has to be such a specific age and he was hard to find. That was by far the scariest task. I worked with Eyde Belasco who's the casting director in L.A. It was very important to me to cast a non-binary or transgender kid. And we did a nationwide search. But we also had people submit from the UK and South Africa. I guess, the internet travels. We went through the standard channels of casting where you blast the agencies and whatever, but we also reached out to grassroots organisations. GLAAD consulted with us on the process.

“We couldn't even afford an assistant for the casting director, so she and I were doing the legwork. And we were blasting like, summer schools, community theatres, any place where we thought there might be some young actor who was non-binary or trans. And ultimately, we were lucky. We got 50 something submissions. I think, ultimately, and Eyde narrowed it down for me. I seriously looked at about 12 of them, and then we narrowed it down to five, and then I worked with those five kids. So it was really weird. And Sasha, luckily, was based in Southern California, so I was able to work with him personally. But you know, I watched videos first before I met with him, and he just has a kind of gravity to him. He looked like Paul Newman to me, which I thought was like amazing.

“He was so excited to be first film role, and I think he knew of the Diary Of A Wimpy Kid [which Zahn stars in], and they just got on so well together. And Jillian and Sasha love each other, too. He was so celebrated and everyone was awesome. And I think he had a really good time.”

Coming up: Anna Kerrigan on portraying mental illness and exploring the history of a marriage in Cowboys.

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