Growing up in Evergreen, Colorado, some of filmmaker and photographer Luke Gilford’s most vivid childhood memories are of being at the rodeo with his father, who was a member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Leaving the rural Southwest for New York City and Los Angeles, Gilford only returned to the rodeo arenas of his youth in 2016 when he discovered the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA). The organization stages queer events in those very same arenas, but makes them inclusive spaces for LGBTQ+ folks, allies, and all those who typically feel unwelcome at traditional rodeos, while also offering community resources.
As both a participant and an observer on the queer rodeo circuit, Gilford began taking portraits of many of the riders whom he encountered as well as interviewing them about their lives. He also wrote about his own experience of a year spent living on a queer-run farm in Tennessee. All of which led to his stunning photography book, National Anthem, published in 2020.
It was during his time at queer rodeos and on queer ranches that Gilford penned his debut screenplay, also entitled National Anthem, which he went on direct last year. The dreamy, emotionally potent, and visually breathtaking film—which received its world premiere at SXSW, before going on to play the 48th Toronto International Film Festival and this month’s NewFest’s 35th annual New York LGBTQ+ Film Festival—stars Charlie Plummer as isolated 21-year-old construction worker, Dylan, who shares a trailer with his alcoholic mother and younger brother in New Mexico. His world expands when he’s hired as a cowboy on a queer ranch, where he is warmly embraced by the chosen family of rodeo performers who live there, including the free-spirted Sky (Eve Lindley), whom Dylan is immediately captivated by. The cast also features Rene Rosado, Mason Alexander Park, and Robyn Lively, while the film’s eclectic soundtrack includes two original songs by Grammy-nominated queer musician Perfume Genius.
During the 2023 Toronto Film Festival, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Luke Gilford and Charlie Plummer about their own first queer rodeo experiences, their collaboration on the film, and the LGBTQ+ culture that’s had the biggest impact on them.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Luke, we see Dylan experience his first queer rodeo in a beautiful sequence in the film and I wondered if you could take us back to your own first rodeo experiences, both mainstream and queer.
Luke Gilford: “All of my earliest memories as a kid are of being at the rodeo with my family. There’s a photo of me as a tiny baby with a giant sign next to me that says, ‘Welcome Rodeo Fans’ taken in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I remember the sunsets; the adrenaline; the blood; the dirt; the rhinestones; the hairspray; and the rodeo clowns. It’s a child’s dream to have that kind of sensory overload. Then as I grew older, I realized how homophobic that world could be, so I stayed away from it.”
“In 2016, I went to my very first queer rodeo and there was this electric charge of belonging. I’m from Colorado, and there were so many people there who have similar backgrounds growing up queer all throughout the Southwest, coming together. It’s about these outsiders creating a safe space for each other and if you show up, you’re family. That was something really beautiful that I’d never experienced before.”
Were you surprised to find that there are so many queer people living in pretty isolated, rural areas?
Luke: “Yeah, it was surprising, but it makes a lot of sense because there are queer people everywhere. So many queer people come from rural places and either don’t have the means or the desire to live in a city. It was beautiful to see them all coming together in this one place. The arenas that the queer rodeos take place in are the mainstream rodeo arenas, so to see queer people taking over these spaces that normally exclude them, and taking that power back, was so beautiful and empowering and inspiring to see. It was thrilling.”
“For so many people, queer spaces in cities are so often about numbing the pain with sex and drugs and there’s something so wholesome about a queer rodeo. It’s so family friendly and it’s in the daytime, it’s outdoors, and there are animals and kids around. It’s very heartwarming to see that and to be reminded that that’s even a possibility. We sort of forget that in the city. That’s also an element that really inspired me; that there’s this whole other way to come together.”
Charlie, what made you want to get involved in the film when you first heard about it?
Charlie Plummer: “Luke and I did a photo shoot together when I was 18 and that experience had stuck in my mind for a long time because I loved those photos. When I got this script I was blown away that he’d written it. I hadn’t seen National Anthem the photography book, so the script was my introduction to the photography and to that world. Around two months later, we were at my first gay rodeo together and it was really emotional because it was actually one of the first since Covid. For so many of the people there it was their first time back with each other in years and you could really feel how meaningful that was.”
“We were there at the beginning of the day, so we got to watch all these people wash in and we felt this incredible energy around them. Nobody really knew that we were shooting a film, or really cared, and when we did talk about it they were incredibly supportive and excited about it. It was so special to be in an atmosphere that’s entirely built on love and belonging. There’s such artistry there, whether it’s the athleticism of the rodeo or the artistry of drag performances. I really encourage anyone to go to a gay rodeo if they can because it’s such a dream to be in the midst of.”
“It was so special that we actually got to shoot during that first weekend and some of that footage made it into the film. Oftentimes, you’ll rehearse something so much and you’ll got an idea stuck in your head about doing it a certain way, but in this case we just showed up and allowed it to happen. In the sequence where Dylan goes to the gay rodeo for the first time there’s this montage of imagery that’s washing over him and that was very truthful to my own experience. It means so much to me that that’s in the film in that way.”
Luke, how important was it for you to shoot in the real locations and to include members of the queer rodeo community in the film?
Luke: “That wasn’t something that was even a conversation, it was just so important to me to include the real people because that’s where the whole inspiration comes from. There was a seamless melding of our process with the real community and that was always our intention. That’s also something that I really love about Charlie, he was so respectful and protective of that idea and so open to collaborating with people with such different levels of experience—or no experience at all—in front of the camera. I had to pull him away from drag queens and other folks at the rodeo when it was time to shoot because he was connecting with them so much. He’s so warm and loving and so supportive. I wouldn’t be surprised if he starts going to rodeos on his own without me.”
Charlie: “Of course I’ll text you first!”
Speaking of drag, Charlie, there’s a gorgeous sequence where you’re in drag as Dylan. What was that experience like? Had you ever done drag before?
Charlie: “No, but I had respected the art form from afar for years. Reading the script, that aspect was immediately so exciting to me, but as an actor I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is going to push me so much and hopefully going to expand my abilities.’ But I also thought, ‘If I’m not good, it’s going to look awful and I’m going to let myself down.’
“Another big thing about it for me was that my little brother in real life—not just my character’s brother in the film—is a huge drag fanatic. He’s obsessed with drag! Independent film and drag are his two loves. So this film was a big love letter to him and with that sequence in particular, I really wanted him to be proud of it. It meant a lot to me that it was already there in the script and that the connection between these two brothers didn’t have to be expressed, it was just there in their dynamic.”
“I had been rehearsing that drag performance scene for weeks and had this whole choreography planned out for it, but when we started shooting I was messing stuff up on the first two takes. I was playing guitar and then the string popped so I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is such a mess!’ Then Luke brought me outside, and I’ll never forget this, he was massaging me and going, ‘It’s okay, just breathe’. I was really not doing well and not connected into myself, and Luke said, ‘I want you to forget everything and just connect into your body. That’s all I want you to do. Don’t think about what’s right, just connect into your body.'”
“I had flown my little brother out that day to be there for that shoot. So after that conversation with Luke I was able to come back out and throw the choreography away. We did something that felt much more natural to who Dylan is and where he is in that moment. It was really special that my brother got to be there and he was somewhat complimentary about it. I think he’s still holding some compliments back!”
Has he got a favourite drag queen who he was comparing you to?
Charlie: “His favourite is always changing, but my all-time favourite is Alyssa Edwards.”
I love all your scenes with Eve Lindley, who is fantastic in the film as Sky, what was it like to create that onscreen relationship with her?
Charlie: “It was really special. Eve was so open and Luke afforded us time at the beginning of the shoot to go on some dates together. We were actually in costume when we went out, but we weren’t in character, so that gave us a chance to connect and speak as ourselves. There was a feeling of closeness between us and I thought that was important because of their dynamic and the intimacy that they share. We had these rehearsals where Eve and I discovered that the characters’ physical connection was the best way to see that dynamic grow and develop. As much as the words were part of that, so much of it was expressed through touch. In their first meeting, all of the tiny moments of touch that they experience are so significant.”
“Such a big part of the story for Dylan is him learning to feel safe with touch in ways that he never has before. That was really meaningful to me and I was grateful that Eve and I found that naturally and that we were able to move with that throughout the story. The final scene, which was actually the last scene that we shot, was a real catharsis for both of us with those characters and that goodbye felt very genuine. Luke and I felt it was so important to get right and for it to feel truthful, and not like a movie moment. Hats off to Eve because she brought so much to that character and I was so grateful for her partnership.”
It really felt like she was living and breathing the character.
Charlie: “Exactly, she’s from New York like me and the person she arrived as was very much a New Yorker, but within two weeks of preproduction she had the big hair and was saying ‘y’all’. It was really wonderful to witness. Luke and I had a moment where we were both like, ‘Oh, she’s there!'”
Luke: “It was very early Spring when we started and she got a tan and worked on a ranch. She still wears cowboy boots around now and has got into the lifestyle. It was so beautiful to witness someone really embody a character and connect so deeply with the spirit of a character.”
The film is visually stunning, with those vibrant colours that contrast with the landscape so beautifully. What were your guiding principles for the look of the film?
Luke: “Katelin Arizmendi was our brilliant cinematographer. She’s a dear friend and a genius. I absolutely love her and we had such an amazing time working together. This is my debut feature, but she’s done this a few times before so she knew what she was doing. She told me that we wouldn’t have enough time to do all the prep work that we needed to during preproduction, so she flew herself to LA beforehand so that the two of us could spend a couple of weeks prepping. We shot the whole film in 17 days, which is not a lot of time, so we had to be intentional about every single shot. We planned out how we wanted to approach each shot so that we weren’t on set trying to figure it out.”
“Even before we had our locations, we had an idea of how we wanted to shoot. So there is a lot in the movie that we got in one or two takes because she and I knew what we needed to do and we went in and did it. Our official preproduction time began at that first rodeo, but by then she and I already had a language for the film. We had decided that we wanted these very saturated reds and blues and that we didn’t want to do that deserty look with faded out colours that we’ve seen so much of. We wanted to really bring a life force into the film. She and I were united in terms of the textures that we wanted to bring in. There was a lot of thought and love that went into the look and feel of the film.”
Finally, what’s your favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture, or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
Charlie: “It’s something that was actually a big reference for this film, or at least for my character in some ways, and it has been a huge reference for me as an actor and as an artist ever since I first saw it: Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho. It’s one of my favourite films and River Phoenix’s performance in that film in particular is maybe my favourite performance of all time. That character and the vulnerability that he has and the strength that he possesses in that vulnerability was a guiding light for this process and this character for both of us. It was such a gift because it’s a movie that I have been such a deep, deep, deep fan of for such a long time and I had always wanted to find a project that I could align my passion for that story and that character with and to find kind of a synchronicity with. When I read National Anthem I brought up My Own Private Idaho the first time that we talked and Luke said, ‘Oh my God, yes, that is totally it!”
Luke: “That was something that immediately made me know that it had to be Charlie, because there was a such an organic collaboration between us from that very first conversation and we were building on each other’s ideas in this really beautiful way.”
Luke: “In terms of LGBTQ+ culture and people it’s impossible for me to choose one because the list is endless, but something that comes to mind in this moment that we haven’t talked about yet is music. Music is a huge influence for me and something that deeply inspires me. I listened to a lot of music while I was writing the script and we were so blessed to have Perfume Genius make music for the film. He’s one of my favourite artists and it was such a dream collaboration. He watched the film and then wrote two original songs for it. I cried when I first listened to them and I’m so excited for the world to hear them. His voice became this thread throughout the film. He’s so inspiring to me as an artist.”
By James Kleinmann
National Anthem received its International Premiere at the 48th Toronto International Film Festival and will receive its New York premiere at NewFest’s 35th annual New York LGBTQ+ Film Festival on Tuesday, October 17th, 2023.