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Interview: Director Jeremiah Zagar discusses the Spirit Award nominated ‘We the Animals.’

Written by: Fiona Underhill, CC2K Staff Writer

We the Animals was a highlight of Outfest LA last year and it won the US Narrative Feature Grand Jury Prize there. It has now deservedly been nominated for five Film Independent Spirit Awards – Best First Feature, Best Cinematography (Zak Mulligan), Best Editing (Keiko Deguchi, Brian A. Kates, Jeremiah Zagar), Best Supporting Male (Raul Castillo) and One to Watch (Jeremiah Zagar). We the Animals is a tender coming-of-age story of a young boy (Jonah played by Evan Rosado) coping with a violent and frequently absent father and his own burgeoning sexuality. It is beautifully shot and features Jonah’s drawings coming to life through innovative hand-drawn animations. I met with director Jeremiah Zagar in Park City, where he had just stepped off the stage after handing out the end-of-festival awards as a Slamdance juror.

What was it about the book that made you think it could make a good film?

I just loved the book. I read it in a bookstore in Soho called McNally Jackson on Prince Street. And I picked it up off the ‘We Recommend’ table. I read the first page and I was like “What the fuck is this? I love this.” It’s only 130 pages so I just sat in the cafe and read it and I just fell in love and I was like “I want to make this into a movie. I need to make this into a movie.” And I emailed Justin (Torres, author of the book), I bought six copies of the book and I gave it to my family and I gave it to Jeremy (Yaches), my producer and Dan Kitrosser, my screenwriter – a lot of the people that ended up collaborating on the film with me. I met with Justin and he was warm and sweet and we got along really well, we had similar sensibilities. My first film, In a Dream, is similar in terms of the way it deals with family and love and brutality. So, it felt like not only that I knew how to make this kinda movie but that I needed to.

Could you tell me about the casting and the rehearsal process with the kids?

So we cast the movie over a year and a half. We saw a thousand kids. I tried to do it at first, I tried to go out on the street or go to schools but it’s just like a creepy, old, beardy guy hanging out like “hey do you have children?” So our former intern Marlena Skrobe, she ended up becoming our casting director and she would go to schools all over New York and Philadelphia and upstate New York. She would set up these auditions and she would bring the best kids back on video. Then the best kids would come in for callbacks, then we would do focused sessions with those kids with an acting coach named Noelle Gentile. The sessions became a way of watching the kids interact with each other, also weeding out, getting the group smaller and smaller. It wasn’t just that they had to be a great actor, but they had to be a brother, so it was a needle in a haystack. We found Josiah early on, he was 200 something, then we found Isaiah, he was 400 something and then Evan was late 800s. We couldn’t greenlight the movie until we had Evan. We couldn’t do it until we had the main character.

But we didn’t know if Evan could do it because during his auditions, he wouldn’t speak at all. Like, at all. He was so quiet but he had all the expression of the character. So, Dan, he works with kids, he’s a storyteller and a clown – he got Evan to emote, he got him to scream, he told him “be a lion and scream.” Evan had never screamed in his whole life, then suddenly he was screaming. And then the producers were like “OK, we can do it.” Then Noelle rehearsed with them for a very long time and we brought Sheila and Raul in to rehearse with them. The rehearsal process wasn’t like “let’s do a scene over and over again” it was “let’s do the idea of the scene and then we’ll improvise around that” so it was always fresh and they could always do whatever they wanted. So you could see how able they were to be natural and to explore whatever space they were in.

I always wonder how it works when you’re asking so much of these children. I presume you have to be quite close with their parents and build a lot of trust with them? The film has mature themes and there’s some quite difficult things they’re witnessing and dealing with, so how do you build that trust?

Well, it’s about casting the parents primarily. So, we were lucky that the kids we wanted had amazing parents, first and foremost. They were into the script and wanted their kids to be in the movie and were down for this. They’re just brilliant, cool people. So that’s the first thing. With the kids: first – you treat the kids like they’re grown ups, you don’t treat them like they’re kids, you don’t pander to them, it’s their job. So we treated them just like we did with Raul and Sheila. “This is what you have to do today” and they wanted to rise to the occasion, they want to be treated like that, they want to be treated like they have that kind of agency, even though they are young people. Noelle talked a lot about honoring the book. That the book was a record of something very important and transformative that happened to Justin. So, we repeated that it was about honoring what they could do. Then, for the last scene, for instance, Evan prepared for that for 6 months. He did 6 months of scuba diving, it was like being an athlete, they get ready for it, so they know what they’re going to have to do, they’re prepared – it’s a lot like sports. So, if you want to score a touchdown or if you want to win the game, you’ve got to give it everything you’ve got and they understand that, they have that ingrained in them.

The artwork involved in the film is fascinating. The animation is one of the best aspects, but also I’m amazed at the storyboarding process (the fact that you had an artist handpaint the storyboards in watercolors – I would also like to know if they will ever be published in book form). With the animation of the drawings in the journal – why was it so important that you included them in the way that you did?

Yeah – I would really like to publish all the storyboards. The storyboard artist is an architect, famous for drawing cityscapes, he has an instagram: yolahugo (Hugo Barros Costa) and he’s got a bazillion followers and he paints landscapes. So he was in New York and I put an ad out for a storyboard artist. He met me at a park and he was drawing the park exactly as the park and I was like “do you want to draw storyboards for no money?” He was just looking to hang out with people, so he was like “yeah that sounds awesome” and then he moved in with me, he came to Utica, he was just with me all the time. It was beautiful because I was able to translate my vision to him and I wanted them all to be works of art. It was important to me for no reason. I was like; “we should just draw them – storyboards are so ugly now, they’re all digital, the storyboards we do for our commercials look like shit, I want these storyboards to be gorgeous” and he was into it. I think he thought it would take like a 100 hours and it ended up being thousands of hours, but he did it and he loved it. He has a free place to live now when he comes to New York so he did fine.

And then Mark was so also sort of an instagram star, he has a thing called #loveistelepathic and he also does these giant murals. So at first he was just going to design the notebook and then I was like “hey do you want to do some animation, I think we’re going to need some animation” I didn’t know yet, I had done it in my other film and I thought “I’m probably going to need to do that again” and he said “oh yeah I wanna do that!” It’s great when they’re not animators because people who are animators are like “I don’t want to do that, that’s so much work” but if you don’t know how to do animation, you think that sounds easy, when it’s actually insane. So I taught him how to animate, I’d animated for my other films and it’s a simple process, at least hand-drawn animation is. I had this idea of combining this Czech photocopy animation that I loved in college with this film about Picasso where he paints on a piece of glass. What I loved about that was that you could see Picasso painting through the glass, you could see the painting being created and you could see Picasso. I thought why can’t we do that with a piece of paper? You could see the drawing being created through the paper. So we created this transition technique, I sent it to Justin, I sent it to the producers and everybody loved it and then we were off and running. And again, Mark thought it would take a couple of months, but it took a year. But it is what it is, he’s proud of it.

One of your major influences is the British director Ken Loach – what do you love about his work and how does it translate into your own?

All my major influences are British. The first Ken Loach movie I ever saw was My Name is Joe  and I was in the theater, I was 16 or 15 – I was still in High School. I had never seen anybody act like that before. And I had watched all these movies, I was obsessed with movies when I was a kid and I still am but I was a really lonely kid and I watched a lot of movies. But with that movie, I had never seen people in a narrative film feel that real and emote that deeply. There was a moment where Peter Mullan says “you are a piece of my heart” He’s talking to this woman, he’s come out of prison and he’s just in love with this woman, he’s so deeply in love that it’s tearing him apart and it shredded me. I remember just thinking “how do you do this?” After that – what I did with every director, I had this encyclopedia and I would circle all their movies and just kinda go through them. I fell in love with so much of his work.

So when I was making this film, I don’t know if you noticed, but I stole the entire ending of this movie from Kes. I thought of Jonah’s journal as that bird – it was the same relationship, it was this private secret thing that allowed him to be free. When we were making the movie, I couldn’t figure out the ending. I was like “how do the fuck do you end this movie?” And then I was like “I’m just gonna watch Kes – I’m just gonna see how he does it.” So there’s this really simple trope he uses in Kes, where he steals money from the brother and then the brother takes revenge and kills his bird. And I needed an instigator for the brothers to out Jonah and so I just thought “I’ll just do exactly what they did in Kes.” And I did, that’s what we did, we took it completely from Kes. It’s the spirit of the book – exactly what happens in the book, except it has this little plot twist that allows it to feel more of an arc. Kes is a beautiful example because it’s a movie that feels storyless or plotless but it actually has a very clear three-act structure. So I was thinking “how does he do that?” So, yeah, so I just ripped him off. I mostly ripped off him and Lynne Ramsay and that’s how I made this movie. Ramsay is like my superhero.

The upstate New York location is interesting because not many people associate the words New York with poverty. So the fact that you’ve got a rural location where people are poor – was it important to you to show that side, that a lot of people probably aren’t aware of?

Maybe that’s a British thing, but in New York people are poor. In New York, everybody associates New York with tremendous poverty, especially upstate New York. Where we shot is called the rust belt and it’s literally rusting and decaying. Much of it hasn’t changed in twenty years. All the jobs left, similar to the North of England, like Sheffield or somewhere. Except it’s completely rural and super depressed and they have tremendous issues because of that poverty. The book takes place where we shot the movie, about thirty minutes away, so it’s true to the book, primarily everything we did is just an attempt to be true to the book. But the poverty that the family experience is a different kind of poverty than others experience. They’re working class poor, sort of like a Ken Loach movie or a Lynne Ramsay movie, like Ratcatcher or her early shorts, it’s social realism. So Justin kept saying; “there were people in my neighborhood with houses that didn’t have a basement and we weren’t that poor, we had a basement, we had two floors, so it’s a different kind of poverty, we owned our house” and that was really important to him, the specific. The struggles of working class people, what are those struggles? It’s different than the struggles of destitute people.


Another major theme is toxic masculinity, the cycles of violence and the fact that the older brothers in particular seem to be inheriting some of that from their father and projecting it down onto Jonah – why was it important to you to get across that theme?

You carry the burdens of your parents, you carry the burdens and the joys of your ancestors, you carry all of it, you know? What you do with what they carry and what you inherit from them is what’s meaningful. That’s what makes the difference between someone who is able to survive in this world and someone who is not. Jonah is able to survive in this world because he’s able to synthesize and able to digest and able to chronicle what’s going on with his family – with his father and with his mother. He’s able to transcend the toxic masculinity of his father and he’s also able to transcend the impossible craziness of his mother, he’s able to transcend the suffocating normalcy of his brothers’ lives. That’s important, he’s able to do that because he’s chronicling it. He’s watching his brothers inherit their father’s pain and he’s watching them inherit a lot of their father’s burden and he doesn’t want it. It’s not just important that it’s masculinity (and the masculinity is very important) but it should be translatable to all the things – all the shitty things we inherit from our parents, no matter what it is, we inherit these things from our parents and we have to figure out a way to do better. But what the father is going through and what the father does and watching how that’s passed down from generation to generation is vital. If you don’t understand how that’s passed down from generation to generation, you vilify without context, without nuance. And vilification without context or nuance is useless, then it’s false, it’s just paper-thin. You have to understand where that stuff comes from to understand the pain associated with it and why families stay together that are in these situations, you have to understand all of those things in order to understand how it’s passed down.

The mystical elements eg. where Jonah floats up into the sky at the end – what is the significance of that moment and how it’s an inversion of him almost drowning?

When you make a really good film, like any of these really good films at Sundance or Slamdance, every day you are on the verge of drowning. That is what it means to be a creative person. You are struggling with the possibility of drowning all the time, any moment everything could collapse and you could die, the film could die and everything could fall apart. But that’s a very close feeling to flying, you know what I mean? It’s kind of like the right and the left and they come together to form a circle – the right and the left almost touch at some points and it’s like – oh you’re both totally nuts. It’s that same feeling. The difference between flying and drowning is SO close. The difference between Jonah and his brothers is SO close. They drown and he flies. I’m an avid swimmer and there’s nothing that feels like flying more than swimming. One kills you and one makes you soar and I love that duality, I love how close those things are. It’s emblematic of the family. The family lives in deep extremes and what could be more metaphorically extreme than two polar opposite things.

For further coverage of the Film Independent Spirit Awards, read this interview with Ashley Connor – cinematographer of Madeline’s Madeline.