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Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Sasha Knight as Joe and Steve Zahn as Troy in Cowboys (2020) (Tribeca Films)

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.

Anna Kerrigan

14 April 2020 (World Premiere, Tribeca Film Festival)


Anna Kerrigan's Cowboys (2020), is a family drama set against the Montana wilderness. It centres on father Troy (Steve Zahn) and his transgender son Joe (Sasha Knight), who are trying to make it to the Canadian border. They need to keep a low profile because Troy, who is separated from his wife Sally (Jillian Bell), has gone behind her back and taken off with Joe.

From this simple premise, writer and director Kerrigan crafts an emotionally wrought story of parental love layered with a father's struggles with mental health and a mother's struggle with intolerance. Cowboys takes narrative simplicity and builds an emotional complexity that challenges us to respond with thought, compassion, and understanding for the struggles of this American family.

Premiering at Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year, Cowboys earned Kerrigan the award for Best Screenplay and Steve Zahn the award for Best Actor.

Kerrigan's previous credits include the short films The Rub (2014), The Hot Seat (2017) and The Jury (2017), and the web series' The Impossibilities (2015) and The Chances (2017). Her debut feature Five Days Gone (2010), was also a family centered drama about a daughter's discovery of an illegitimate half sister in the wake of her father's death.

In April of this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, Kerrigan spoke with PopMatters about writing the film to escape a dark period of her life, the importance of representation onscreen to portray the diversity of America, and how she tried to find humor in the chaos of the filmmaking process. Kerrigan discusses her sophomore feature film Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach for a movie featuring LGBTQ characters, to be more about a boy becoming a man, than a child coming out. Her words of tolerance, compassion, and understanding are underlined by her belief that America is diverse, and every type of person should be represented in film.

Image by jimo663 from Pixabay

'What we are' versus 'who we feel we are' can often be out of synch. I've spoken with directors who say that it took a number of films before they felt they could call themselves a filmmaker. When did you feel that you could call yourself a filmmaker?

The worst feeling is when you know you want to make films, but you haven't made any yet. I remember the awkward conversations I'd have with people when I was in my twenties. I'd describe myself, as I blushed and cringed, as "an aspiring film director". I just felt so lame, so impotent.

I started to get recognition after a web series I wrote and directed called The Impossibilities. We got a Gotham nomination and Studio Canal+ picked us up for international distribution. The process of making that show was tough, but fun. I hustled crazily, and it was the first time that I felt secure enough to self-critique. I could recognize what I'd done well and what I could've done better, and that was the big turning point – finding enough security to be honest with myself.

If you're able to look at your work with a critical eye, you're able to grow. Being a director becomes an ongoing journey, not just a one-off accomplishment. This was when I started to feel like a filmmaker.

Discussing the relationship of the film to its filmmaker, writer/director Rebecca Miller said, "If they are made honestly, all pieces of art are self-portraits of the person making them." Would you agree? In regards to the cultural belief of a photograph stealing a part of the person's soul, by giving yourself over to the intensity of the creative process, does the film capture a part of your soul?

… Honest art is a self-portrait. There's a certain satisfaction from finishing something and feeling in your heart and soul that it's a part of you. I've also had the reverse experience, where you think, 'maybe I'm interested in this thing that someone is paying me to be.' I then end up with an inauthentic product that makes me feel yucky, or should I say "content", which is the grossest thing to call a film.

I don't think art steals your soul, I think you have to make a conscious decision to give it.

It's a commitment to make a film, requiring you to give up a period of your life. It requires everyone to believe in it. What compelled you to believe in Cowboys?

I wrote the film in a dark period of my life to return to a place I always feel nostalgic for: the Flathead Valley of Montana, where I spent time as a kid.

It takes so long to write something and get it going that if it's too overtly topical it might feel old by the time it's made. So I just commit to stories and characters that resonate with me and hope that other people will connect.

I often write about adults who haven't quite evolved, parents that aren't ready to be parents, and kids who are wiser than their years. Those are recurring themes that often emerge in my stories that I like best. While I started writing the script, I just knew it was a Western-ish father-son story set in Montana, but those themes I love quickly emerged.

Steve Zahn as Troy and Jillian Bell as Sally (Tribeca Films)

When I interviewed filmmaker Sean Brosnan for My Father Die (2016), he said, "I know a lot of friends who pick their themes first or they'll pick a story and then say: 'What do I want to explore?' I find for me that is very limiting because I just like to explore a world and its characters; to see what theme comes out of that and to let the story dictate it." Each storyteller takes a different approach. Are you attentive to specific themes from the outset or is it a journey of discovery?

I didn't know where Cowboys was going when I started writing it. I started with a persistent image of a kid and his dad on a horse running away together. The story and the world incrementally made itself clear to me.

Other times, I know the central conflict between characters before I sit down to write. But I never think about themes in advance. When I write, I'm forging a personal relationship with my characters, and I'm finding them.

When you start dating someone, you don't think about themes. Know what I mean? Once I've finished a script and I can give it a little space, then I can reflect a bit on the themes that've emerged.

What are your thoughts on the need for equal, open and honest representation, and your feelings about the representation of the LGBTQ community in cinema? How do you perceive the future relationship between cinema and the LGBTQ community?

Representation of all sorts of people in film is important – it's just more real. We live in America; it's diverse! If all your friends are white and straight, then maybe you should look at that.

I've never specifically set out to be inclusive in my work, it's just organically happened. When the fabric of your social life includes LGBTQ people, which mine does, you're just more likely to include characters that are too. My web series' The Impossibilities and The Chances (Outfest Audience Award for Best Narrative) both include LGBTQ characters. That said, I don't know any transgender kids, or transgender adults who grew up in conservative communities, and I knew pretty quickly that in order to do Joe justice, I would need some extra help getting it right.

Once I had completed my script, I reached out to Nick Adams, the Transgender Media Relations consultant at GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). He gave me input on the script and he connected me to a transgender son and his dad to talk about their experiences.

When we were ready, Nick also consulted with my casting director Eyde Belasco (Transparent, Joey Soloway, 2014-19) and helped us get our casting notice out to transgender support groups. There was never any question that we were going to cast a transgender or non-binary kid to play Joe, and when we found Sasha Knight, it was obvious that he was our Joe.

As a ten-year-old kid, Sasha understood things about Joe and his experience that just couldn't be taught, because he was drawing from his own experiences. Before living in Southern California, Sasha had lived in a conservative town in Colorado.

(Tribeca Films)

The Montana Film Office, which gave my film a grant, also set up a dinner for me with five transgender people in Missoula, Montana. It was interesting to talk to them specifically about growing up in Montana as transgender people. It takes courage to transition no matter where you are, but it takes extra courage to do it some place like Montana, and Missoula is on the liberal end of cities there because it's a college town. I stayed in touch with a woman I met at that dinner who transitioned later in life, and now works as a therapist for transgender kids throughout the state.

Though I'm not an expert on LGBTQ cinema, I have observed that a lot of films about transgender or queer characters are coming out stories, and/or end tragically for the LGBTQ character. I love some of these movies, but for better or worse, they often get labelled as "issue movies".

It's such a dangerous label because it makes watching a film feel like homework. I wanted to make a film that would be entertaining and relatable to people who don't know -- or don't know that they know -- any transgender people. While Joe's gender identity is an important catalyst in the film, in that it ignites the conflict between his parents that sets everything in motion, his character arc is more about a boy becoming a man than a child coming out.

Hollywood has been making a concerted effort to give more opportunities to underrepresented people. I just hope that this continues to the point where it's commonplace.

Cowboys touches on serious and emotional themes throughout. I appreciated was how you balanced these themes with humour. Do you see the value in humour or comedy as a tool to both entertain an audience while taking them into a personal moment of the character that represents real life experiences?

When dramas are humourless, I just tune out – it just doesn't seem honest to me. I also think there are a plague of films that depict working class people as so utterly miserable that it's alienating. I desperately wanted to avoid that.

I usually write dramas that are a little funny or comedies that are kind of serious – that's my happy place. I'm not much of a joke writer myself. I find humour in the moments that are funny because they're true and relatable. When you laugh with a character, you feel closer to them and more invested in their struggle, so it makes the dramatic things that happen to them even more painful to you as an audience member.

Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling (2014), she said, "You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it." If the audience are the ones that complete the story, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?

I thought casting was ninety-percent of making the movie? Just kidding. I can see what Carol is saying, and yes I agree. You craft this experience, but you have no control over the chemical reactions that will occur when [the film] interacts with an audience. This is why you just have to make a film that you like and that rings true to you as a filmmaker.

It has been interesting to read reviews, which have generally (thankfully) been positive so far, and seeing what different things people are taking away from it. We're all hungry for films that reflect our ideas and experiences, and it's interesting to see how the same piece of work can satisfy one person and offend another.

Making a film and giving another person an experience is a gift. Even if they hate it, you've given them an opportunity to at least reflect on why they hated it and learn more about themselves. Or maybe they won't reflect at all and send you hate mail. I guess that's out of my control.

Filmmaker Christoph Behl said, "You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before." Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process, and should the experience of watching a film offer the audience a transformative experience?

Making films are absolutely transformative. It's a series of highs and lows, full of plot twists that requires endurance and strength. I was alone for so long writing my script, acting weird and agonizing over stuff in a vacuum. Then there was the thrill of finishing the script, followed by the low of not finding the money for awhile. Then there was the high of finding the money, then the terror of involving a handful of other people, and then the thrill of involving other people.

When you finally enter production it's life accelerated, a series of new conflicts and problems you have to resolve every day. There were a lot of moving parts in Cowboys: animals, guns, wilderness locations, a child actor, limited time and money, and an unlimited fountain of problems.

I had to learn early on not to attach or obsess over any one problem, and to have faith that my team and I would resolve it in one way or another. Then there'd be another problem I couldn't have possibly anticipated. I had to learn to let go and find humour in the chaos.

I grew tremendously during Cowboys as a human and as an artist. I can't wait to make the next film.

* * *

Works cited

Risker, Paul. "Interview with Director Rebecca Miller on her film Maggie's Plan". Flux Magazine. 2016.

Risker, Paul. "Carol Morley | THE FALLING". Starburst. 24 April 2015.

Risker, Paul. Interview with Director Christoph Bel. FrightFest. (article lost)

Uncredited. "In Conversation - Sean Brosnan on My Father Die". Frighfest.co.uk

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