Austin-based Monique Walton produced the 2014 short film Skunk (written and directed by Annie Silverstein), which won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival’s Cinéfondation and screened at festivals worldwide. She has produced numerous short films and documentaries and leads youth media workshops for students of color in Austin. Walton was selected for the 2016 Sundance Creative Producing Lab and was named the Mark Silverman Honoree for her upcoming feature Bull, about a wayward Houston teen’s run-in with her neighbor, an aging bullfighter who’s seen his best days in the arena. She sat down with Anne Lai, the director of Sundance Institute’s Creative Producing Program, to discuss the ins and outs of producing the project, from financing to casting non-actors and working with close friends.
AL: Tell us about how you became involved in this film, and what excited you about the material and also made you believe in your director? What was your own personal connection to needing to tell this story?
MW: I got involved with Annie Silverstein, the director, early on. Annie and I initially met at the University of Texas graduate program and are both based in Austin, Texas. We worked together on her thesis short film, Skunk. And through the process of making that film and taking it out to festivals around the world, we developed this way of working. We understood each other as far as the types of movies we wanted to work on and what was interesting to us in the process. A lot of it had to do with our backgrounds in documentary and how much we liked working with youth, which is what we did on Skunk. So when she started writing Bull and started talking about it, I was extremely drawn to it because I knew what it would entail as far as the immersive process. I knew that Annie was really into researching the project and going out into the community to talk to people as part of making the film. And the film largely takes place in the black rodeo community in Texas. I knew that I was going to be going to a lot of rodeos, which would be a lot of fun, and that we were going to meet a lot of people from communities I wouldn’t otherwise meet. And that was part of the draw early on—a whole new world experience—and the story itself, a story of outsiders connecting in an unlikely way. I felt if we were able to pull off this story, it would allow people to empathize with these folks in a way that they normally would not.
How did you choose your producing partners, and how did you build your dynamic, your sharing of duties and information, and build a collaboration?
Once we [Annie, co-writer Johnny MacAllister, and I] realized the scope of the movie, we knew that we wanted to have other producers with experience on the team. [They] had to do everything from working with actors, working in the community, and tackling everything—it was going to be a lot of work. I don’t have a producing partner per se, so I knew I would have to find someone. What was really helpful was that I attended the [Sundance Institute] Creative Producing Lab in 2016, and there I met Heather Rae, who was an advisor there that year. Through that experience, we talked about the film, she really connected to the film, and we found a connection to make the film together. Heather is extremely experienced and also has a really strong commitment to being a creative producer and protecting the director’s vision. So I found that she would be a great match. Our other producer, Ryan Zacarias, we met in Austin while he was living there through Holly Herrick, who is the head of the Austin Film Society. He had been recommended to us by a number of people as someone who makes films in a style that we were interested in—using non-actors, working in underrepresented communities. We became friends pretty quickly, and he came on board around summer of 2017 to help tackle the movie we were making. He is also very much a creative producer who protects the director’s vision, willing to do things or think about things in unorthodox ways, and help us tackle some of the big challenges of the movie. We were going after a cast that was mostly a non-actor cast. And we also had a few actors—it was a mix. … We were working with kids, working with animals, and working in the rodeo community.
The part of the experience I definitely didn’t know much about was financing. That was something [Heather and Ryan] were able to really help us figure out. As far as establishing a dynamic, in the beginning there were a lot of calls we were having where we were just trying to work through the different puzzle pieces. Through those discussions, we would determine who was the best person to tackle certain things. For example, if it had to do with following up with a certain potential financing partner that one of us had a relationship with, they would do it. If there was key crew we were trying to bring on, it was who had the best relationship with that person. All three of us were on the ground—that was a divide-and-conquer situation. A lot of times, it was situational, but I think that we kept each other in the loop on pretty much everything. It wasn’t like anyone worked in an isolated bubble on any one thing. We were all tackling the problems and, depending on the issue, we would determine the best person to handle it.
What was your approach to finding financing, and what were the questions you had going through it? In addition to the script, did you feel there were other materials shared that made a difference in pushing interest to commitment?
The biggest question we had, and it was similar to bringing on additional producers, was how to find the right match—how to find someone who understood the vision of the film, who we were, and understood what our process was. To help us protect the vision. And my main question was, How do you find that out? What kind of questions can you ask? How many conversations can you have before it becomes inappropriate? How long and and extensive can the vetting process be? I think that a huge stepping stone in our whole journey for finding financing was attending [Sundance Institute’s] Catalyst Women. It forced us to get all of our ducks in a row, get our budget finalized, put together a lookbook—really build the pitch to something that could be easily discussed with people first being introduced to the project. We did that in a really compressed time period, and then we had all of these materials to present to people.
Something that was really helpful was putting together the lookbook. Up until that point we had a lookbook we had done internally; in preparation for Catalyst, we did a thorough pass on it—the language and images. We brought on a graphic designer to clean it up and make it look more official. And then a big part that was helpful about putting together a pitch was that it was not just about the material, it was about who we were and what we wanted to share about our process as filmmakers and how we came to the story. That is just as much part of what we wanted people to be interested in—as much as the film itself. It was a lookbook, the short film Skunk, we had a budget, and we had a financial plan.
Did you have specific questions in vetting your potential financiers?
I’m not sure if there were key questions—because we had a very specific idea, like one of our lead actors was going to be a complete discovery and was not going to have any experience (the teenager). We were committed to a lot of cast not being established actors, so there were certain conversations where companies would say up front that they needed actors, and that was a requirement. One of the other things we really wanted was a longer shooting schedule. When we would say that up front, it would open up a conversation about why we wanted that. And we could determine if the financier was open to figuring out how to make that work.
We started to realize that we had to lean into it. It was so important to us and … you don’t want to start to find out three or four conversations in that they’re not really interested in that. It was always kind of awkward so soon, but it was really helpful to get the conversation going.
As you went into production on the film, what did you not anticipate would be difficult? Conversely, what worried you going into it, but then turned out to be great?
Going back to the early months or weeks, one of the things I thought was that the film’s shape as far as crew would be pretty small and intimate. And I started to realize that the scope of the film really expanded really quickly, and the number of people we had on the crew expanded. It kind of took me by surprise, to be honest. It was that suddenly we needed these extra crew members and all these vehicles. It was difficult to adapt to it, because I was used to working in a smaller way. Suddenly there was a lot more logistics to figure out. That was something I didn’t anticipate happening because I didn’t fully have the experience of working with full complete departments. Being introduced to that and what it meant and why it was necessary for our project was a big adjustment. It just felt like the machine suddenly got way bigger. But the scope of the movie was big, so it took the shape that it had to take. It was a surprise and it created more tasks and responsibilities to keep track of, and more people to communicate with. It was something I wasn’t prepping for ahead of time.
I thought that everything was going to be tough. But the thing that I always thought would be a really big challenge was the big cast who had never acted before. I figured there would be a lot of challenges that come along with that and potential resistance to what we were going to do. Scenes that were shot outside over the summer, and challenges being in an environment that they weren’t used to. It ultimately wasn’t an issue. Everyone we were able to cast—because of our amazing casting directors, Vicky Boone and Chantelle Johnson—they were just great people. It was really great to work with them.
What was your most rewarding moment on set? What was your toughest moment on set as a producer?
I’m not sure because we’re still shooting; we have a 2 day pickup shoot on a 40 day shoot. [But ] just seeing a transformation of the actors over the summer was really rewarding to see. It was a lot of time to spend with them, and to really see them perform was rewarding.
Our main professional actor was Rob Morgan, who played one of the leads. And in supporting roles we had Yolanda Ross and Troy Hogan. Rob was a lot of the times working with non-actors. That was by design, and it was interesting to see how that worked on set.
This is a question I think I would only ask female producers, so with that caveat … What was your uniform on set? Or, if more appropriate, what’s the one thing you need to have with you on set going through the day, aside from your smartphone? You were shooting a lot of exterior, in a very hot summer in Texas.
I think it depended on the day. At the top of the summer, I bought a few linen tank tops—and I’ll just wear these different-colored tank tops every day. And I generally wore jeans. Sorry to say it, I had to wear cargo pants a lot, too. On rodeo days, I always wore cowboy boots. Since it was so hot, it became about what could I wear that won’t be a mess by the end of the day. I just rolled with the linen as much as possible. On rodeo days, you can’t show up there without boots on. [I wore] either a cowboy hat and the cheapest sunglasses I could find because I would definitely lose them.
In looking back, what is the one piece of advice you’d give yourself going into making this film?
The main takeaway I’m feeling now is to lean into the more difficult conversations. That’s really the only way to move forward. You can’t make any major changes without having really hard conversations with the producers or the director or the crew. Don’t shy away from that because those are the kinds of conversations that will improve the movie.
What’s it like to make a really ambitious first film with a first time director that you’re also really close friends with?
One of the things that we really valued about the experience was that we got to live right next to each other. We got to take really early morning walks and talk before the day started. The fact that we were close—certain things were so nice and magical about that experience. … Being close also means we know a lot more about what’s mentally and emotionally going on with each other. That can be good but it can be hard, because we ultimately need to keep working. [But] it can be emotionally rewarding to work with someone you’re really close to and love, especially when you’re spending so much time together.