The natural beauty of Montana has long been a source of inspiration for artists. One of the state’s latest converts is Los Angeles-based filmmaker Anna Kerrigan, whose new film “Cowboys” was inspired by the beauty and mystery she has experienced in Big Sky Country.
Director Kerrigan has a background in independent film, digital storytelling and theater. Her credits include “Hot Seat,” which she wrote and directed, along with “The Chances,” a digital series, written by and starring two deaf actors, that premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Her Gotham-nominated digital series “The Impossibilities” (2015), a comedy that she wrote and directed, follows the interwoven storylines of a magician and a daffy lesbian yogi.
Kerrigan has also written and directed shorts for Funny Or Die, Amazon, and Refinery29. She develops theater projects with productions and development at Second Stage, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Ensemble Studio Theater, Naked Angels and SPACE at Ryder Farm. A graduate of Stanford University with a BA in Drama,. Kerrigan has lived and worked in New York City for ten years.
Her new film was shot in northwestern Montana, in the Flathead Valley and the Flathead National Forest near Glacier Park.
“The Montana Film Office gave us a Big Sky Grant to film in Montana,” Kerrigan explains, “but the majority of our budget was financed by Limelight [Dylan Sellers and Chris Parker]. I want to thank the people of Montana for being so supportive of the film. The Montana Film Office is doing a great job.”
“Cowboys” stars Steve Zahn, Jillian Bell and Anna Dowd in an emotional rollercoaster exploring parenting, relationships and LGBTQ rights. The film, which was slated to have its world premiere at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, before the event was postponed, is a story of being on the run in rural Montana.
In the film, a mentally-ill father and his transgender son attempt to escape bigotry, making it all the way to the Canadian border. The heart and soul of the film may be the story of this pair, but it can also be felt in the cinematic beauty of Montana’s wilderness.
When asked why she chose Montana as a filming location, Kerrigan explains that she specifically wrote the film with the valley around Glacier Park in mind. She fell in love with the state when she visited Montana as a child with her best friend’s family who had a home on Flathead Lake.
“I formed a deep bond with the place,” Kerrigan says. “I always found a lot of adventure in Montana as a kid. It attracts people who want to be close to extreme nature. It has this sort of pioneer spirit. I was hungry for adventure.
“I remember various sunrises, breathtaking moments of natural beauty. I wrote this movie for the part of the world where we were making it. I love Glacier Park so much.”
She started writing the film in California in the spring of 2014. “I wrote the film during a kind of dark time, and I think returning to Montana as a backdrop was comforting for me,”
Kerrigan admits. “I didn’t actually know what the script was about when I started, I just knew it was about a son and a father on a trip on a horse and it organically revealed itself to me.”
The film, she says, also expresses a kind of internalized conflict she has with Montana. “It’s not monolithic in its socio-cultural beliefs, but it’s predominantly white and feels pretty dominantly heterosexual,” she explains. “I encountered more pioneer types in the part of Montana where we shot… There’s a general distrust of ‘the government’ in some places but there is also an ‘Alt Right’ presence there; I mean, Richard Spencer lived there.
“But at the same time, there is a liberal community. There was a whole drag show in a local motorcycle bar that was a huge success. So it’s as complicated there as it is in most places. Though I didn’t set about with a clear agenda, the film presents this part of Montana in a more complicated way through the viewpoints of the central characters.
“On an even more universal level, I think that 'Cowboys' examines how difficult parenting can be, especially when you have a kid who is different, and I think that that’s something a lot of people can relate to."
Shooting in the Treasure State
In addition to discovering a great filming location, Kerrigan says Montana’s welcoming and friendly people helped to make the whole process easier by working to go beyond the concept of a setting or backdrop for a film.
“The Montana Film Office was amazing to work with. They set up a location scout for dinner my first night in Missoula with a handful of adults in the transgender community, one of whom is a therapist for transgender kids in the state. The state is so big that most of her calls are over the phone. She was great to talk to about the experience of being a trans kid in Montana and also looked at the script for me.”
Some of the challenges Kerrigan and her crew had to experience while filming in Montana were in the wilderness. She says they had to make sure it was safe to film for the crew and cast by crafting shots close to parking lots. Even though they found some amazing locations to shoot, some of the hikes were just too far from the lots. During a river scene, the help of a local rafting company became invaluable. Kerrigan says they created a safe space for the actors and were able to preserve the expensive camera equipment when filming.
Interestingly, some challenges came from local shooting locations, businesses in the area that were reluctant to allow filming once they learned about the theme of the movie.
“Because of the content of the film — that it centers on a transgender kid — we were initially cagey about what the film was about. Before we shot I’m pretty sure all the location owners were aware of the content of the film. We did lose one location due to subject matter [a diner] and it was kind of a bummer because I thought it was the type of place I’d want to support,” she recalls.
The film also features local background actors from Montana, adding to the authentic look and feel of the film. “We had an amazing local casting director, Casey Pobran from the Rocky Mountain Agency. She did a great job finding people who were unique-looking and who gave the film a specific vibe that I wanted to show,” Kerrigan says. “Shooting in Montana lent so much production value for our budget level for our non-union film. Beyond the obvious gorgeous scenery, people were really friendly and accommodating to what we could afford,” she adds.
Return to Montana
Throughout her youth visiting Montana, the filmmaker says she had friends on both sides of the political spectrum. While some people might have been liberal, some of the people she became friends with were homophobic and racist in the predominantly-white state.
“I think that in general we live in such divisive times. The reality is that people are complicated,” says Kerrigan. “Just because you are in Montana it doesn’t mean you are not accepting of transgender. If you’ve never met a transgender person it is easier to have a preconception about those people and judge them.
“I believe everyone is too complicated to write off and neatly categorize. I’ve been good friends with a woman in Montana for the last 22 years who used to be the caretaker of my best friend’s house and yes, she did vote for Trump, but her two best friends are lesbians and she used to be pro-life and now she’s changed her mind… She was really into the idea of my movie even though she voted for a president that has turned his back on rights for transgender people and the rest of the LGBTQ community.”
“See?” Kerrigan remarks, “It’s complicated.”
What Happens Next?
In regards to being back in Montana, Anna Kerrigan is determined to continue working here. “I want to film in Montana again, absolutely. The film commissioner of Montana is actively working on promoting the people within Montana. I think you will see more and more people shooting in here. I love Montana and I will be back. I’ve started envisioning my next Montana movie.”
Since we are currently in COVID-19 times and under social distancing, the film has not been shown in front of a live audience here. People are able to see it only at home, on their private screens. As the Tribeca Film Festival, where the film was going to be debuted, was postponed, Kerrigan says it’s been disappointing for her not to have a live audience see the film and gauge viewers’ reactions.
“It is weird to have that physical experience taken away. I want to see them live, and nothing replaces that. People are having an intimate personal experience and reality is this is how people film view these days. People are having private experiences.”
The future remains uncertain for many films and for filmmakers like Kerrigan. “It is all very unclear. This period of time will make artists come back to the market. They will reconnect more with the subjects, and we will see more authentic storytelling. This is giving people the chance to reconnect with what is important to them.”
Kerrigan also says they were lucky that the coronavirus did not affect the actual filming but only the post-production of the film. “Even the distribution plans are difficult to make now, when we don’t understand how long the world will be afraid.
“I don’t want to go to a theater, and I am a filmmaker,” she concludes. “It is stressful.”
For more information about "Cowboys" and to see the official trailer, visit the official Samual Goldwyn site for the movie here.