By Kenneth Reynolds
Last year I had the opportunity to meet Monique Walton during the American Film Festival in Poland where she was showcasing her feature producing debut BULL. The film premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival – Un Certain Regard and went on to receive three top awards at the 2019 Deauville American Film Festival, including the Grand Jury prize. In this interview, Monique and I discuss the challenges of scaling up from shorts to features and having to pivot the release strategy for BULL during this chaotic time in the world.
Let’s start with giving me a brief walkthrough of how you got to where you are now.
A brief history of my life.
When I was in undergrad, I took an intro to documentary course taught by the inimitable DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. To complete the course, you had to make a documentary short. I worked with one of my close friends, Andia Winslow, on a project about the Black experience at Yale. STILL BLACK AT YALE was an exploration of identity, being at a predominantly white institution, against the backdrop of the racial tensions that were all over campus while we were there.
That was my first entryway to filmmaking and becoming interested in pursuing it as a career. Before that, I wasn’t really on that path, and frankly, I didn’t see many folks who looked like me making movies. I was studying Latin American studies and my career plan was vague. The experience of making that film sparked something. Going from idea to completion and bringing it out to the world was revealing. We took it to festivals and to college screenings. After college screenings, students would come up to us to say, “You could’ve made the exact same film here. It’s totally the same experience that we have on our campus.”
I felt a connection to people in ways that I hadn’t considered before, and that was exciting. After graduating, I did an internship on a documentary that was in post (Thomas Allen Harris’ TWELVE DISCIPLES OF NELSON MANDELA) before I ran out of money and had to get a job. Then I worked at Nickelodeon producing web content. After a few years, I wanted to learn more about fiction filmmaking, so I applied to graduate school and ended up at University of Texas Austin. I met Annie Silverstein in grad school. I produced her thesis film SKUNK, which had a really great festival run and won at Cannes Cinéfondation, and that eventually led us to our first feature together, BULL.
Why did you choose producing rather than directing?
At UT the grad program is an MFA for directing, and you had to direct four films in order to get the degree. Two short films in your first year, then your pre-thesis film, and finally your thesis film. So I was doing all of that, but I was also producing my friends’ films as well. At first, I was doing it to learn as much as possible about filmmaking, but in the process, I discovered that I liked the collaboration. I liked working with directors to realize the vision. It happened organically, that after producing SKUNK, the collaboration that Annie and I had, felt like something we really wanted to continue to develop beyond film school.
What have you carried with you from your time doing short films that has stayed with you now making features?
Good question. The thing about making shorts in film school is that there are constraints and resources that liberate you to focus on story. So you don’t worry about crew or equipment, you focus on the craft, the creative process, and being rigorous with every decision to stay as true to the vision as you can.
I try to take impulse with me to the feature world because it’s much harder to protect the original idea once you have all of the other competing decisions to make to get the film made. So you have to maintain that sense of freedom to protect the vision by any means.
I read the interview you did with Anne Lai at Sundance and you talked about how you weren’t prepared for the expansion of the size crew on BULL. What other types of scaling up was challenging?
God, there’s too many to mention, honestly. There were many challenges.
With BULL, it was a really ambitious script with many layers to the story. The world of the script was just massive. At its heart it’s an intimate story about these two people forming an unlikely connection, but one of the things that made Annie and Johnny’s script so powerful and compelling to me was that both characters had their own worlds, fleshed out with specificity. There were a lot of supporting roles. There were a number of rodeo scenes that we shot at live rodeos that we had to coordinate around. It was a lot. And our approach was to stay as true to the place and to the community as we could, and to take a naturalistic approach. We did a lot of street casting for many of the main and supporting roles and most of the cast were non professional actors. Every aspect of the film required extensive work within the community. That in and of itself made the production more expansive.
Our original plan was to work with a lean crew to give us flexibility and to keep a small footprint, especially at the live rodeo scenes. But we had to adjust to a bigger team to achieve the scope. For example, since we were at live rodeos capturing bull rides, we needed 3 camera teams on those days to get the shots we needed. Upscaling on location in Houston meant the infrastructure, human resources, people management on the production was more extensive. So we learned through the fire as they say.
Who helped teach you along the way? What resources did you lean on to help you get through?
We got into a number of labs, and we were given mentors at each lab. Annie wrote the script during the San Francisco Film Society screenwriting lab and soon after that, we went to the Austin Film Society Artist Intensive. We attended the Sundance labs – Screenwriting, Directors and Creative Producing Lab. Heather Rae was one of my advisors at the Creative Producing Lab and she expressed interest in the project – she loved the script, understood the vision, and had a background in rodeo to call upon. She eventually came on as a producer. Ryan Zacarias came on board as a producer with experience on past films that was similar to the approach we were aiming for. I was constantly asking them questions and mining experience from their past work as we put the project together.
I want go back to you and Annie’s collaboration. You met in grad school and made SKUNK together. What was it about Annie that brought you together for BULL?
When Annie approached me with SKUNK, I turned her down two or three times because at that point I was overcommitted to other projects and I really needed to graduate. I was a year ahead of her and was also working on my own documentary thesis. But I saw that she had written a really strong screenplay so when she persisted I finally said “I’m in.” There were aspects of the script that were very interesting on the page and I knew that if we could pull it off it would be powerful. But it was a big “if” and that area of the unknown was the creative drive for us. We really clicked as collaborators – we had similar backgrounds in documentary, working with youth, working within the community, and forming a community with the project. I think Annie has a way of telling a story that’s quietly epic. So I knew that working on the feature together was going to be an adventure.
Over the course of making the short we became really close friends. It’s really a wonderful gift to be able to make a film with your friend. There’s a certain level of ease in the creative process.
You two also went into business together, right? Could you tell me a bit about Bluestack?
We live and work in Austin and we needed to support ourselves while in development on the film, so we formed Bluestack to do corporate work, short documentaries, and marketing pieces for nonprofits that were adjacent to our interests in film. We’re always looking for ways to sustain ourselves using the skills that we have and that we’ve learned.
During the process of development and pre-production of BULL, was there ever a point where the sustainable work got in the way of pushing the project forward?
No, I wouldn’t say so. We were always grateful to have the paid work because development is such a difficult thing to fund. We were lucky to receive grants through the Sundance Institute early on. And when we started casting, Cinereach came on board with a grant which was crucial for getting us going. But in terms of paying the bills, we welcomed the corporate work. Once we set our dates and we were pushing forward, we paused the corporate work. Bluestack is a small operation, so we were able to manage that work and schedule it alongside the feature, and we were able to balance it out.
While I was doing research on you, I came across something called Fit Cycle?
My friend/collaborator from undergrad, Andia Winslow along with my close friend Rachel Cepeda, were living in New York and we wanted to create something together that captured the idea of doing fitness anywhere. So we put The Fit Cycle together as a proof of concept and the goal was to inspire people to move. It was really run and gun. Every few years it resurfaces and people reach out to say how much that they liked the videos. I think it’s because we were trying to capture Andia’s playful spirit and it came through.
The reason I really wanted to ask about Fit Cycle is because as producers, we spend so much time taking care of other people we tend to neglect our own health and well-being. What do you do to keep yourself mentally and physically sharp? How do you fight the crafty table? What’s your routine?
Man, I don’t have a strict routine yet during production. I’m sorry to say. When I hear how regimented other producers are, I think “Oh, maybe someday I’ll be that way. But not today.” You’re on your feet constantly, there’s a lot of stress throughout the day and into the night. There’s not much time for self care unless you are disciplined. My goal is to make more time for stillness and meditation in the day when we’re shooting. Whether it’s a walk or a seated meditation, it’s so important to calm all of the voices do a mental reset.
I think mental health is super important, and it’s connected to physical health. But I can’t fight the crafty table. The snacks are a problem for me, especially if they’re good snacks.
I always try to imagine I owe someone money over by the snack table. That’s enough to keep me away.
Just don’t go over there. Oh, God yes. It’s difficult.
With everything going on in the world, what concerns you right now?
A lot has happened since we originally spoke for this interview. Much of what is going on is not new, but now it’s writ large. Coupled with corrupt and immoral leadership that is deliberately creating chaos and stoking the fire. I’m deeply concerned, on a base level, for the health and well-being of my family, friends and community. Now that we’re seeing what appears to be a seismic shift, a collective reckoning, I hope that it transforms us all. This is as much about the pandemic as it is about climate change, politics, and racial equality and justice. We will see how substantial a shift this will create, but I can see work being done to make real, lasting change. I want to be a part of the radical structural change moving forward.
As far as the film industry, the issues of sustainability for indie producers was already there – now it’s amplified because the entire infrastructure is disrupted. Production is a concern because we have to keep the team safe, and the protocols are costly. The distribution landscape is a concern – what does distribution look like now? What do festivals look like now? How do we take our films to market? There’s no “going back to normal.” I’m grappling with it in real time with my projects as everyone else is. Festivals are crucial for generating energy. What format can replace that festival energy? What does it look like for my projects in development and in post? I have many questions but you know, we must adapt – so I’m working to adapt and to shift my approach for producing in our new reality.
We’re lucky that BULL had its premiere at Cannes and that we were able to have that experience in the theater. Many films haven’t gotten the chance to premiere, and that’s heartbreaking.
Could you walk me through how that pivot occurred? One day you have a theatrical plan, you go to bed, and when you wake up the next day there are no theaters.
It was really surreal. As you know, South by Southwest was the first major festival to cancel. Up until that point, I think most people, including myself, wanted to believe that this wasn’t a serious world altering event that we were experiencing. I was going back and forth. On one hand, when I would read about COVID, I was convinced that there was a strong likelihood that the festival would be cancelled, and on the other hand, we were planning a big party for the festival, and events for our release in NY and LA. We had been working with SXSW for months to plan the Texas premiere and had set up a trail ride with the Carson Trail Riders, a Black riding club that was going to accompany us on horseback through downtown Austin to our screening. I was excited for that.
We also had publicists booking press for SXSW and for the theatrical release, which was happening in New York and LA immediately after the festival. Everything was in motion. SXSW canceled and then I believe the following week, the theaters closed, and everything stopped – so there was the shock of all this momentum coming to an abrupt halt. Samuel Goldwyn took a beat and then pivoted to a VOD release for May 1, which was the soonest date that they could secure. I mourned not having a theatrical release, because there’s a lot of emotion tied up in it, you know? Having the ability to share the film in person with the communities involved in making it was really important to us. Honoring everyone, bringing them on stage, etc. Sharing the film with people who didn’t know anything about that community was also important – the communal gathering is cathartic. Part of me wanted to believe that theaters would reopen fully in a few months, but if I was being honest with myself I knew it was much too uncertain. Our film was in the fortunate position of having some momentum and all the reviews that were booked for the original release were rescheduled to support VOD – so although straight to VOD was not our original plan, I am grateful that it’s out in the world.
Last, but a very important question. What’s bringing you a smile these days?
Oh, man, I’ve planted some seedlings, okra and tomatoes and cucumber, and it’s really fun to watch them grow. In my spare time, I’m trying to focus on gardening and doing things around the house – reorganizing projects, clearing closets etc. I would say that the thing that I literally smile about is gardening. These are my zucchini plants, look how much they’ve grown.
Monique Walton is an independent producer of fiction and non fiction films. She produced BULL, directed by Annie Silverstein, which premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival – Un Certain Regard, and went on to receive three top awards at the 2019 Deauville American Film Festival, including the Grand Jury prize. BULL was set for a Texas premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival and is currently being released by Samuel Goldwyn Films and Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions. Other credits include Jesse Klein’s WE’RE STILL TOGETHER and PAHOKEE directed by Ivete Lucas and Patrick Bresnan. Walton has produced numerous short films, including Silverstein’s SKUNK, which won the jury award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival- Cinéfondation. Her films have been supported by Cinereach, The Sundance Institute, San Francisco Film Society, Austin Film Society, The Harnisch Foundation, and Film Independent. Walton is a 2016 Sundance Creative Producing Fellow and Mark Silverman Honoree.