Embarking on an intimate journey that allows people to explores the decisions they can make as they venture into unknown territory can be an equally harrowing and fulfilling experience. That’s especially true for acclaimed documentarian, Jeremiah Zagar, is delving into the world of narrative filmmaking with his feature film co-writing and directional debuts on the new drama, ‘We the Animals.’ His first voyage into crafting a feature powerfully evokes the equal joys and confusions that accompany children’s initial steps into adolescence, and how family relationships can both positively and negatively influence that rite of passage.
Along with Dan Kitrosser, Zagar co-penned the screenplay for ‘We the Animals,’ which is based on the celebrated 2011 novel of the same name by Justin Torres, who made his writing debut with the book. Zagar also co-edited the movie with Keiko Deguchi and Brian A. Kates.
‘We the Animals’ premiered in the NEXT section at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, and was the winner of the NEXT Innovator Award. The drama, which debuted in theaters on August 17, is now available on digital platforms, including iTunes, courtesy of The Orchard.
The movie recently received five Film Independent Spirit Award nominations including Best First Feature; Best Supporting Male – Raúl Castillo; Best Cinematography – Zak Mulligan; Best Editing – Deguchi, Kates and Zagar; and Someone to Watch Award – Zagar. Film Independent will be announcing the Someone to Watch Award winner tomorrow, January 5. The Film Independent Spirit Award ceremony will be broadcast live on Saturday, February 23 at 5:00 pm ET/2:00 pm PT, exclusively on IFC.
‘We the Animals’ follows three close-in-age brothers, including Jonah (Evan Rosado), Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and Manny (Isaiah Kristian), who are yearning for more freedom in their quiet suburban town. Their parents, Ma (Sheila Vand) and Paps (Castillo), met while they were attending high school in Brooklyn. They later moved to Upstate New York, in order to improve their lives and find better employment opportunities and housing. Once settle in their new small, industrial town, where they live in a modest home, Ma began working at the local brewery, while Paps searched for a job, and eventually began working as a security guard.
While Paps thrives off of his bad-boy roots, and his family is impressed with his masculinity, his rebellious side leads to tension between him and his wife. While their two older sons begin to follow in his footsteps, Jonah, who’s the youngest child, is shaped by a number of formative experiences that begin to set him apart from the rest of the men in his family. While contending with all of the recent changes within his family’s dynamics, Jonah begins to understand the realities of the world he’s growing up in, and which path he wants to pursue as he grows older.
Zagar generously took the time recently to talk about making his feature film writing and directorial debuts on ‘We the Animals’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how he was immediately interested in adapting Torres’ novel into a movie as soon as he read it. Zagar also expressed his appreciation that the drama premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, and subsequently screened at several subsequent festivals, to critical and audience acclaim.
The conversation began with Zagar discussing the inspiration in adapting Torres’ novel into a feature film, and what the experience of collaborating with Kitrosseron on the script was like. “It wasn’t so much of a decision as a need” to adapt the book into the movie, the filmmaker admitted. “I had just gotten back from Egypt, where I was editing (director Jehane Noujaim’s 2013 historical documentary,) ‘The Square,’ which was nominated for an Academy Award a year later. The movie’s about the Egyptian revolution, and I was there, so I decided I was revolutionary and was going to stay there. But then all of a sudden, I was back home, because they ran out of money.”
The writer then pondered what he was going to do with his life next “because I was no longer a revolutionary, and was instead confused. I then started thinking about the things that mattered to me. When I was in that space, I went into McNally Jackson bookstore in SoHo, and picked up ‘We the Animals’ off of the We Recommend table. I read the first page and fell in love with it. It felt like a need that I had to turn it into a movie.”
So Zagar then “called Justin up and sent him my first film, (the 2008 documentary,) ‘In a Dream.’ It deals with a lot of the same thematic elements (as ‘We the Animals’). It deals with my family, although my family is different. But the love they express is the same kind of love, which is complicated. I hadn’t seen this type of love on screen in a fictional American movie. So I felt like I wanted to bring this story to the screen.”
That’s when the writer “called my friend Dan and asked him to adapt it with me. I’m not a gay man, but one of the things that was really important to Justin was that since it’s a queer novel, it also be a queer movie. My co-writer Dan is queer, and is a much better writer than me. So we adapted it over the next four years. We were constantly working on it, and sending drafts to Justin. Justin would read them and send us notes, and was very much involved in the process, every step of the way.”
In addition to discussing the experience of co-scribing the script, Zagar also spoke about making his feature film directorial debut on the drama. “The process is about immersion. So working on the script certainly helped me as I moved on to direct. The more i was able to immerse myself in the world that Justin had created on the page, the more I was able to be a better director.
“Directing my first feature was terrifying, but it was also one of the most joyful experiences of my life. It was very familial on set-my wife catered the film, and my son’s it in. We also lived together in tight quarters in Utica, New York,” the filmmaker divulged. “All of that bled into the final product, which is a wild, intimate movie. That’s the kind of movie we wanted to make.”
Like Zagar mentioned, ‘We the Animals’ was shot in Utica. With a majority of the story set in the family’s home, the helmer further explained what the process of finding, and using, the location where he shot the drama was like. “Utica was incredibly open to us filming there, and was incredibly supportive of the film. A lot of that had to do with the film commission there. They would close down highways for us, and opened up their city hall for us, so that we could hold auditions there. Paul Buckley is the head of the film commission there, and he was so helpful. It was vital that we were in a place that felt like the past, and Utica has that quality. ”
Then further delving into the audition process, the helmer explained how he decided to cast the movie. “We saw almost 1,000 young men, and these three were really special right away. They all auditioned at different times during the process. I think Josiah was first, and was in the 200s. Isaiah was second, and was in the 300s or 400s. Evan was last, and was in the 800s.”
Once the actors were cast, “We had an acting coach, Noelle Gentile, work with them. She’s an amazing acting coach and teacher, and helped them get into that space of being astute young actors.”
Zagar also rehearsed with the cast, especially the younger boys, in order to help them create the emotions that drive their characters. “We rehearsed for a year-and-a-half. Once we got to the set, Raúl and Sheila took a very active role in being a part of the boys’ lives. They were also mentors to the boys in many ways. The boys also lived together, which wasn’t always easy. But it provided the backbone for a very cohesive unit.
“Noelle would also walk them the more difficult parts of the story. What she kept coming back to was that we were honoring Justin’s book. Justin was also on the set the whole time, and was part of the casting process. So the boys knew him well. I think that provided a very professional atmosphere that allowed them to excel. Their parents were amazing, too. They were able to walk them through the more difficult parts of the script,” the filmmaker further explained.
The emotions and story of ‘We the Animals’ are driven in part by the movie’s intimate cinematography. Zagar then delved into what the process of collaborating with Mulligan as they created the drama’s overall look was like. “Zak and I had worked together for about ten years before we shot ‘We the Animals.’ We have a shorthand that’s lovely, and a process that allows us to complement each other.”
The director added that he “storyboarded every frame of the movie with (storyboard artist) Hugo Barros Costa, but Zak didn’t look a single one of those storyboards. So I was very aware of what the shots should be, but Zak then had the freedom to interpret those shots however he wanted to, because he had his own shot list. So that was beautiful, because we were able to feed off of each other. We used his intuition and his pre-planning, which was really helpful.”
In addition to working with Mulligan, Zagar has “also worked with the same colorist, Seth Ricart, for the past 10 years. The color in the movie is really important. Having someone who was involved in that process from the very beginning was important. Seth was doing tests with us a year before we shot the movie. That was really vital in creating a distinct look, but it was difficult to achieve,” the filmmaker admitted with a laugh. “But I feel really lucky to have worked with the two of them on not only this movie, but on so many of my other projects.”
One of the key elements of offering insight into Jonah’s coming-of-age journey is through showing the drawings he creates throughout the story. The helmer then spoke about what the process of creating the animation sequences was like for him. He admitted with a laugh that he “didn’t initially think that the movie was going to have any animation. But once we got into the editing room, we were having trouble bringing Johnah’s imagination to life. I had done animation for my first film, ‘In a Dream,’ and it had worked very well in bringing the vision of the artist, who was my father in that case, to the screen. So we thought that we could do the same thing for this film.
“I was working with an illustrator named Mark Samsonovich, who was doing all of the illustrations for Jonah. He was really interested in learning how to animate, so we combined two different ideas into what it became in the film. I showed Mark how to animate, and he spent a year doing it,” Zagar shared. “I think he was really proud of what he had done.”
The filmmaker then delved into the experience of shooting ‘We the Animals’ independently. “I think the only way to make a film like this is independently. You have to have a tremendous amount of freedom and trust from not only the people funding it, but all of the people around you. You have to be unrestricted, which is something independent filmmaking allows. It allows you to the opportunity to experiment with unrestricted thought.
“I had great collaborators in the producers, including Jeremy Yaches, Christina D. King, Paul Mezey and Andrew Goldman. Everyone there was involved in trying to make the most beautiful film possible. They understood that allowing me to have the freedom I needed brought me to a space that allowed this type of film to be born,” Zagar also divulged.
The director also expressed his gratitude for ‘We the Animals’ premiering at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. “That was a wonderful experience. The movie was part of the Sundance Lab; it went through the Directors, Producers and Writers Labs. During that process, I really became enamored with what an amazing place Sundance is. So when we got into, and premiered at, the festival, it was an incredible culmination of a journey that led to the film’s success.”
Zagar added that “screening it there with the cast, and everyone feeling that tremendous warmth, was pretty beautiful. But it was also overwhelming, because you don’t know if you’re going to get good reviews, or what the reception would be,” he admitted.
The filmmaker added that “we were lucky to get the reception we got, not only at Sundance, but everywhere we went. I think (the) Deauville (American Film Festival, which is a yearly festival that’s devoted to American movies and takes place in Deauville, France) was a really powerful to me, because my wife is French. Also winning (the Outstanding American Narrative Feature award) at Outfest (Los Angeles) was also really meaningful. At every festival we took the film to, we engaged with audiences who were moved by it, which was overwhelming for me, because we didn’t expect it.”
After ‘We the Animals’ played on the film festival circuit, Zagar then explained why he thinks having the subsequent dual theatrical and digital distribution is beneficial for independent movies. “I think without the cinema release, this film would have been lost completely. I don’t think it plays nearly as well on a small screen as in a theater, but it still plays, and I think everyone should rent it!,” the helmer stated with a laugh. “But the movie was shot on film, and it was it meant to be seen on a big screen. You’re meant to seen the grain, and be immersed in the sound.”
Zagar lastly admitted that “We played in the Dolby Theatre in San Francisco, and I could only watch it for 10 minutes. It scared the sh*t out of me because it was so amazing! The seats shake, which added to the theatrical experience. That’s the dream for all of us filmmakers from my era. Watching films in the theater is how I fell in love with cinema.”