'Cowboys' director Anna Kerrigan on classic Westerns, Montana, shooting in the rapids

By Doug Laman
Special to the Herald Democrat
Cowboys

You’ve seen lots of Westerns. But you’ve never seen one quite like Cowboys, a new film from writer/director Anna Kerrigan. The film is a story about a father, Troy (Steve Zahn), and Joe (Sasha Knight), who go on the run together to Canada. The two are outsiders in their Montana town, Troy due to his struggles with his bipolar disorder while Joe is a trans boy struggling to find acceptance in his home life.

Steve Zahn: Nov. 13, 1967.

Their complex journey, both in the Montana wilderness and emotionally, provides the backbone for a unique take on the Western genre. It’s a production that benefits greatly from Kerrigan’s assured hand both as a writer and as a filmmaker. We got the chance to interview Kerrigan and dive into her experiences making this thoroughly distinctive entry in the Western canon. 

DL: Was there a personal significance to setting Cowboys in Montana?

AK: Yes. I grew up in L.A. but I went to Montana with my best friends family in the summer, starting when I was ten, and her family had a place in the Flathead valley of Montana, which is where I was able to shoot the movie. And I just loved it as a kid, growing up in an urban area and then landing in Montana. I mean, it was just like this fantasy of what America must be to people who don’t live here.

So I always had a special place for it in my heart. And during a transitional period in my life, when I was moving from New York to L.A. and I was feeling kind of lonely, I started feeling nostalgic for Montana and I started writing this screenplay to get myself back there, to feel that comfort, that part of the world. And it surprised me because the script started with a father and son on horseback…And I knew this father and son, they’re running away from something, I didn’t know what. And they bond with each other as outsiders, they’re sort of soulmates to each other. They’re trying to find acceptance, which they don’t find at home, with the boys mom.

DL: I’m always intrigued by comedic actors being cast in dramatic roles. Was that a specific goal in regards to Cowboys with the casting of Jillian Bell and Steve Zahn?

WESTWOOD, CA - MAY 07:  Actress Jillian Bell attends the premiere of "Angry Birds" at Regency Village Theatre on May 7, 2016 in Westwood, California.  (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic) ORG XMIT: 634838861 ORIG FILE ID: 529083258

AK: I don’t need to always cast comedic roles in dramatic roles, but this time, it’s about fit, it’s about when I’m imagining their relationship. I was looking for really dynamic people who could play these characters in a way that wasn’t heavy-handed. For Steve, when I was looking for somebody to play Troy, I knew that I needed to find someone who could plumb the depths of both the light and the dark parts of the human experience. Yes, Steve is famous for his comedic roles but he’s also a serious dramatic roles. I don’t know if you saw Rescue Dawn, but he’s absolutely fantastic in that movie and that is a dark, dark role. When I saw that movie, a lightbulb went off and I had Steve on my radar.

But I mean, he was just fantastic to work with, he works so hard. He and I talked a lot about the specificity of Troy’s bipolar episodes and the way those manifest is specific to the person who experiences them. And as for Jillian, I don’t know if you saw her in Brittany Runs a Marathon, but I mean, she is a very versatile actor. And it was important to me in portraying people living in a rural community, it didn’t feel heavy-handed. It didn’t feel like it was fetishizing how hard it is to not have money. The reality is that everyone has humor and lives their life and it’s a way you cope.

DL: Cowboys does an admirable job of subverting toxic storytelling tropes related to trans characters in cinema. When writing the film, were you conscious of subverting those tropes or did that subversion come about incidentally?

AK: I was just trying to tell a story that felt authentic and real. I wrote it first before I shared it with anyone, on this script in particular, I was very guarded about it. It felt like it had to be a very personal experience until I felt happy with it and understood what it was about. But once I wrote the script, I did talk to people at GLADD, people that work exclusively in trans media relations, I talked to trans families, I talked to trans adults in Montana about their specific experiences coming out in Montana versus coming out in L.A. or New York.

DL: What was the most difficult scene of the film to shoot?

AK: The rapids scene. That was one of the worst days of my life. I mean, not really, y’know, filmmaking, even when it’s a bad day, you have to step back and go “I’m making a movie! This is so cool!” But that night was just..it did not go as planned. That was the scariest day form a safet standpoint. We had multiple stunt people in the water, they had to switch out another stunt person at the last minute. And it was all in pitch-black darkness and we had all of our lighting on, but you’re still in the dark with nature with a limited amount of time to film your actors.

That was definitely a night. My DP was amazing and he…we shot with two cameras, we were expecting to do five takes of each shot…but we just assumed we were gonna get so many more take of that, and for like various reasons, we did not. But my DP, he built the underwater rig out of stuff he bought at Home Depot.

DL: That’s amazing! That’s some MacGyver-level ingenuity!

AK: He is a MacGyver. His hotel room, he brought his two cats with him because his wife was out of the country. So he had these two cats and then he was always constructing or figuring something out for us, which was amazing, I was so lucky to have him. But he tested the rig out in his bathtub, his whole room was just filled with screens, he had all this equipment and then two little funky cats roaming around. Yeah, he’s awesome.

DL: What would you say was the biggest difference between shooting Cowboys and shooting your first film, Five Days Gone?

AK: Yeah, Five Days Gone has come up a couple times [in interviews]. That movie for me was like my film school, it never go distributed, I made it on such an insane budget, it was done in one location, I acted in it, which I will never ever do again. I learned on that movie all the things I never wanna do again. It was such a gift not to be $200,000 in debt if I had gone to many of the grad programs for film. The most important thing that I learned was that I could make a movie. That movie took me from saying “Oh, I’m an aspiring director” like timidly and being all weird. It’s such a miracle to make anything, like from a logistical perspective…but I know that I’m gonna just get better and better at this the more I do it and I had the confidence to call myself a director after I did that movie, once I went through that.

 But I had very little support with that movie. I think when you’re starting out, you have to convince everyone to trust you. And most people are built to not trust first and it’s only as you’ve built up a body of work, people start being able to look at that and say “Oh, she’s good.” But I think that’s one of the big struggles at the beginning is finding people who believe in you.

DL: You got work with one of my favorite performers on this movie, Ann Dowd. What was it like working with her on the set?

Ann Dowd accepts the award for Supporting Actress In A Drama Series for her work on The Handmaid's Tale.

Anna is one of my favorite actors that I’ve ever worked with. She’s a queen among queens and she’s this incredibly loving generous person. She cares so much about her characters as well as delivering for the vision of the film. I think that just comes from years and years of being a professional and she’s just one of the most open-hearted humans ever. I mean, you have to be vulnerable to be an actor, and she is, but she’s also very opinionated. She held my feet to the fire a number of times on things her characters was doing in a scene. There was just a way in which she pushed on me, she was advocating for herself and her character, but it never felt confrontational, which is  a hard thing to do. I was always excited to engage with her about whatever she was thing about. And she was really supportive all the way and we still email, I just really like her a lot, she’s the best.

DL: Cowboys is a recontextualization of the Western. Are there any other genres you’d be interested in either exploring or subverting?

AK: I’m working on something that’s a period piece now, actually, set in the Renaissance. I’m writing it, that’s all I’m gonna say about it. And I also really love film noir. Those are two things that I really wanna do. For this piece set in the Renaissance, I love research, I love place, I really love digging into…because it just lends so much and everything is weird. [Laughs] There are so many idiosyncrasies when you ground it in a specific time and place…and you also realize, when you dig into research on a movie like [this], how lazy people can get on period pieces, how non-specific it is. Like “We’ll just put ‘em in these clothes and we’ll light it this way!” There’s just all these details about it that are really informative about the place.

DL: That’s great! We don’t have enough movies set in the Renaissance.

AK: Yeah, and especially, this one is from a female perspective and we have some gay characters. And as I started getting into this, I realized all these Renaissance things are from a male perspective even if there is a woman in it, y’know.

DL: What is your all-time favorite Western?

AK: I love Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid. And that’s kind of a soft Western on some level. When I watch the more Western-y genre stuff, I’m less interested in it. I need characters! I need a central relationship to like a movie.

[MILD SPOILER WARNING]

DL: Finally, what led to you pursuing a more realistic ending for Cowboys?

Well, I toyed with it ending darker than what we ended up ending with and it felt like it wasn’t the movie we were making. I left it open and I was gonna give myself the room to do either, the darker ending or the one I ended up with. I mean, it just felt like, you love Steve [Zahn’s] character so much, you know why he does what he does, he love this child, but he also kidnaps his child. [Laughs] Like, that’s the bottom line, and I like, that this father, you know as a viewer, from the beginning, this can’t well. It can’t end with them getting to Canada in like a full happy ending. But it just felt like it made sense for me that this father has to make this sacrifice in order for this child to get to be who he is.

DL: Anna, thank you so much for speaking with us today!

Cowboys is now available on all digital retailers.

This interview has been transcribed from a video interview and has been edited for clarity and length.