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Director Annie Silverstein Dives into the Subculture of Black Bull Riders in ‘Bull’

Director Annie Silverstein Dives into the Subculture of Black Bull Riders in ‘Bull’

Bull Movie

Bull showcases the skilled performance of Rob Morgan in a leading role as an aging bull rider. 

The critically acclaimed drama Bull premiered at Cannes and was part of the festival favorites selection at SXSW 2020. Along with Rob Morgan, who you may know from films such as Just Mercy and Mudbound, the film also stars Yolanda Ross (Whitney, The Chi) and newcomer Amber Havard.

Bull tells the story of 14-year-old Kris (Havard), who, after trashing her neighbor’s house in a fit of defiance, seems destined to follow in her mom’s footsteps to the state penitentiary. To make amends, she is forced to help Abe Turner (Morgan), an ex-bull rider scraping by on the Texas rodeo circuit, with errands at home and at his work. While traveling with Abe, Kris discovers her own passion for bull riding. When she sets out to learn the dangerous sport, bad influences lure her back into delinquent ways. Meanwhile, Abe struggles with the aches and pains of growing older and aging out of the only life he has ever known. Together, Kris and Abe forge an unexpected connection, helping each other see new possibilities and hope for the future before it’s too late.

BGN exclusively chatted with director Annie Silverstein about the film and assembling this incredible cast as well as crafting together such a unique story.

The film Bull tells the story of this aging bullfighter, but it also sheds light on the life of Black bull riders.  Can you share with us your experience in researching that subculture?

I met a man while location scouting for my last film in Austin. He shared a bit about his family history, and how he came from a Black rodeo family. At the time I was unaware of the history of African American cowboys – it’s so often left out of American history or cinematic depictions of the West. I became curious and started researching more and this character of Abe started to evolve. My writing partner Johnny McAllister, and creative producer Monique Walton, and I started attending backyard rodeos around Houston, meeting with bullfighters and bull riders who shared their life experiences with us. And we did this for several years. The bull fighters we met, J.W. Rogers, Teaspoon Mitchel, Ray Williams, Jamon Turner, and many others, ended up being our consultants on the film, and many ended up acting in the film and were stunt doubles. We couldn’t have made the film without the community collaboration.

Bull Movie
There’s some significant chemistry between the two leads Rob Morgan and Amber Havard. Were you involved with the casting at all?

Yes. I love casting. So much is brought to life before you even start shooting, in terms of what people you assemble. I always knew I wanted to cast Rob Morgan to play Abe. He’s a great actor and I felt that he has a rawness and naturalism about him that would really work in this world, and the approach we were taking. Rob was interested and luckily he was able to come down for a couple of research trips before we started shooting. We introduced him to the bull fighters who had become our consultants, and he actually got to spend a lot of time hearing their stories, watching them work, they even chased him around with a wheelbarrow to teach him Bull Fighting 101 movements.  And then in terms of Kris, played by Amber Havard. Amber was scouted by our wonderful casting directors Vicky Boone and Chantel Johnson. I knew from the beginning the cast would be a mix of professionals and folks who had never acted before. So we had a really long casting process and non-traditional approach that included open calls in towns across Texas, as well as teams scouting malls, skate parks, and middle schools. Vicky first scouted Amber in a cafeteria at a middle school in Elgin, Texas. Amber had never acted before. But there was something so wonderful about her presence that was apparent right away, and her natural ability. She fit the role. She’s an extremely active listener. This is a character who has so much to contain. And it was important to see that on her face. Just watching Amber listen made me lean in. We think oftentimes, it’s all about how actors deliver their lines. For me, I’m always looking for how actors listen.

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There are so many great scenes in this film and each could tell a story of its own. Is there one scene that resonates with you the most?

It’s hard to choose, but maybe the sequence at Old William Johnson. That’s the first backyard rodeo that Kris attends and sees Abe bull fighting. It was really special to be able to shoot there. J.W. Rogers was the bull fighter who first told us about the backyard rodeos at the Old William Johnson arena, it’s an old arena owned by a man named Joskie Jenkins, and there’s so much history there, so much community. It’s a special place and we had attended rodeos there over the course of several years researching and developing the script. So just to be able to shoot there, with so many of the wonderful people we had come to know, who were now acting in the film, was really beautiful.  

Bull Movie
Did you ride any bulls yourself or mechanical bulls to understand the point of view of the characters you were directing?
[Laughs] During one of the research trips Rob, Monique, the creative producer, and I got on a bull when it was in the chute. We wanted to know what it felt like. But we were, like, don’t open the gate, you know?

Yeah, I don’t blame you. I’d be like, “Yeah, I’m gonna pass on that.” What’s next for you?

I’m starting to develop a second feature set in Texas and also working on TV series, a slow burn character-driven crime drama set in Ireland, where Johnny is from. Bit of a genre switch, which is fun. 

Bull is available today for rent/purchase on all digital and VOD platforms.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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