Meet Anna Kerrigan, a Judge for the Bridge Award for Screenwriting!
Filmmaker Anna Kerrigan, a member of the Judging Panel for the inaugural Bridge Award for Screenwriting, has just released her newest movie. With a background in both theater and film, Anna has insights into all sides of the creative process--and some great advice for how aspiring filmmakers can forge their own paths. Check out her conversation with Bridge Awards Chair Anna O'Donoghue.
Anna O'Donoghue: Anna! Congratulations on your newest project. Thanks for making time to be a part of the Bridge Award--and to talk with us today. So, to start, where are you from, and how did you originally get involved in the arts?
I was raised in Los Angeles in and around the film industry – my dad was a visual effects producer and my mom is a poet. With creatively minded parents, I was always encouraged to make things. My mom was especially supportive of my natural inclination to tell stories. I started with picture books, then short stories, then plays.
What were your early aspirations?
AK: I always wanted to be in film, but as a child I saw no evidence of women in the film industry. When I was still in high school, I interned for a USC film student making her thesis: she was the first female filmmaker I was actually aware of. As I started watching more films and paying attention to the credits, I discovered more female filmmakers and realized it was possible. Wayne’s World is a far cry from any of the work I make now, but it was my absolute favorite movie in elementary school. That classic was directed by a woman: Penelope Spheeris. Now it seems like Hollywood actively hid that information. Jane Campion, Nicole Holofcener, Elaine May, Kim Pierce…all those women, really any woman who directed feature films, was an inspiration regardless of whether or not my work was akin to theirs.
So how did you get your start?
AK: When I moved to New York, I found that the community was tough to break into: I felt like I would be a production assistant forever. I supported myself through odd part time jobs (dogwalking, working at a coffee shop), kept writing plays, got into Williamstown Theater Festival as a directing intern and started building my theater community there. I also took work in production on independent films, Law and Order, a Bollywood movie…really any place where I could see a set firsthand.
What drew you first to theater? What were your early experiences with that form?
AK: My family couldn’t afford to take me to plays, but my best friend’s dad was an actor and he included me in family trips to live theater as a kid. I got more into it in college, where I studied theater and wrote, directed, and produced my first full length play. The Stanford Theater Department exposed me to both really experimental stuff as well as more traditional theater. It was really only then that I started to have the types of unforgettable, immersive experiences you can have watching great live theater. But TV and film are financially accessible to way more people. That’s always been a big factor for me.
Do you feel like your experience writing for the stage informed your filmmaking?
AK: What is great about theater is that the system is built to encourage unique voices. Everyone in Hollywood loves “unique voices” once they’re fully developed, but the system is antithetical to their creation. My background in playwriting, the time I had to develop my voice, build unique worlds, dialogue and characters, have proven to be very helpful. Most of my first drafts read like plays, and then I have to go back in and say, alright, what can I show and not tell?
What were your experiences as a writer/director like?
AK: I never went to film school: too expensive. My first projects were shot on a crappy digital camcorder with no lighting and my friends as actors. Those first projects were pretty terrible – but at least they didn’t cost me much money! You have to make to get better at something. I made a very low budget feature film, which is just okay, but it was significant to me because it was an accomplishment. Even a crappy indie feature is a miracle. After I wrapped that film, I started calling myself a filmmaker instead of saying I was an aspiring one. My work got better once I’d gained that confidence.
Have there been any resources, tools, or inspirational materials that were important to you?
AK: My most useful tool was probably optimistic delusion--a belief in myself and what I had to say. I also work incredibly hard and am honest with myself – or try to be – when something isn’t working. Humility is important. Taking notes is important. Admitting when you don’t know something is important. You learn to trust your instinct and surround yourself with people who enable your best self.
How long does it take you to write a screenplay? What's your process?
AK: Every screenplay is different; I probably end up writing between five to ten drafts of each project. I try to get my first draft – my vomit draft as I call it – done in a month or two. I include every scene I can imagine in this draft. Once I finish the first pass, I let it sit for a week or so and return to it with fresh eyes (and usually marvel at how terrible it is). I start sharing with other people around draft three, once I’ve gotten to a place where I feel like it’s working in some respects but need outside feedback. I have a handful of other writers that I trust who graciously read my drafts.
Any advice for aspiring theatermakers-turned-filmmakers?
AK: It’s going to take time, but you’ve learned skills that make you unique (and often better) than many artists who went right into film. Find your community of film people but hang onto your theater peeps.
Your newest film, Cowboys, was just released! Can you tell us a bit about it, and about the process of making it?
AK: Starring Steve Zahn, Jillian Bell, Ann Dowd and newcomer Sasha Knight, Cowboys is about a charismatic but complicated dad who runs away with his transgender son in order to escape a mom that doesn’t accept his gender identity. There are guns, horses, wilderness and the actors are amazing.
We shot the film in September and October of 2019 in Montana with a very limited budget. The shoot was insane – we had no time and many complicated pieces. But boy, was it fun and an incredible growing experience.
We were able to do most of post production in LA but had to shut down at the very end due to Covid. At that point, we had been accepted into the Tribeca Film Festival so we had to finish a lot of our post either remotely or socially distanced and masked. At Tribeca, Steve Zahn won best actor and I won for Best Screenplay. We had a strange remote festival run and the film is now being distributed on Apple, Amazon, and a number of other on demand spots. It feels really good to have it out there and for people I’ve never met before to be watching it and talking about. I’m getting very sweet messages from strangers and that feels wonderful.
Finally, anything you want to say specifically to artists from the military community?
AK: I want to see the stories that only you can tell. While those are obviously not limited to military-specific stories, I will say that that genre of film needs a makeover. So many films about military service and war, feel derivative of each other. I want to know what it’s really like, warts and all.