“I Have a Problem with that Whole Narrative of Coming from Someplace Bad and Getting Out of It”: Micah Magee on Her Debut Feature, Petting Zoo
Favorably compared by Variety to fellow Texas filmmakers Terrence Malick and Rick Linklater, San Antonio-raised Micah Magee has been based in Europe for over a decade. But despite having made several shorts there, when it came time to direct her first feature her heart returned to the Lone Star state. Petting Zoo, shot in San Antonio and cast primarily with locals with little acting experience, is a deeply felt coming-of-age story that captures what its like to be young in Texas as perhaps no film has before. Based on Magee’s own experiences of teenage pregnancy, Petting Zoo follows Layla (in a breakthrough performance by Devon Keller), a high school senior with little family support who turns down a scholarship to attend the University of Texas when she discovers that she’s pregnant. All this could sound like a typical Sundance indie, but subtle differences show that Magee is at least a continent away from most films dealing with similar material. Observing Layla closely as she negotiates her new situation, Magee imposes no more judgement on the situation than does her character, creating a meditation as much on the mysteries of existence and personality as on the difficulties of teenage pregnancy.
Petting Zoo premiered in the Panorama section of The Berlin Film Festival, and despite winning prizes and being theatrically released in Europe, was little seen in the U.S. until its digital release here this month on platforms including iTunes and Netflix.
Filmmaker: You’re nominated right now for the Association of German Film Critic’s prize for best debut film, yet your film has hardly screened in the U.S. until this release on Netflix and iTunes.
Magee: Petting Zoo didn’t play all that much in the U.S. We had three screenings at SXSW and two screenings at Bend Film Festival. Other than that it hasn’t screened anywhere so I’m really interested to see what people think of it, now that it’s finally available here. In the other places it was distributed people felt like they knew what it was about, that it had something to do with them even though it is very specifically about San Antonio.
Filmmaker: You ended up establishing yourself in Berlin because you are one of the only Americans to have studied film at the Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie Berlin (DFFB). For me, this is a pretty legendary school because of its amazing faculty and free tuition, but I’d never met anyone who went there before you.
Magee: The only other American I know who went there was another guy from Texas actually, named Lawrence Tooley, who finished about five years before I did.
Filmmaker: I remember you complaining about the focus on documentary in the first year, but I thought at the time it was a good thing, because what’s missing in U.S. schools for the most part is any element of documentary in narrative films. And it’s one of the strengths of Petting Zoo.
Magee: Yeah, I appreciate that now. I think the setup of the school is good — the first two years you are tied into classes full-time, two to three weeks each to get into subjects like light or sound or acting — and doing a couple of films, a short documentary and a couple of short fictions. And then after that it’s just master classes by people who come in. While I was there they had the Dardenne Brothers, Bela Tarr, Claire Denis, Agnes Varda and a lot of other inspiring great people. If you are making rent you don’t have to participate, but if you have time you just sign up. Small classes, 10 people, 12 people. That can go on for a few years while you get your first feature together.
Directing in another language and another cultural space is challenging but also a good thing to have tried. I would highly recommend the DFFB for people looking for film schools. The flip side of that is that your crew tends to be formed where you go to school — those tend to be the people you trust and want to work with — so that’s one thing to really think about if you’re considering studying abroad. It might not be as easy to come home and get back into things as it would seem. If you go to school in New York you’ll know people in New York, so if that’s where you want to make films in the long run, it might be a better idea even if it is initially more expensive.
Filmmaker: At least partly for this reason, you and your partner Johan Carlsen are mostly based in Europe but are making films set in the U.S. What are some of the differences between the ways of working in Europe vs. the U.S. that you come up against?
Magee: Right now I am co-writing and producing Johan’s next film, which is actually really fun. I was talking to some people who invest in film and realized that of course it’s different when you work with invested money. I found it really normal that you would want a 40-week edit because you need time for ideas to settle. And they were like: “What?!?” Because they would have wanted the film done faster and the money back sooner.
Filmmaker: Because you took your time with Petting Zoo, right?
Magee: We were in San Antonio for a year, more or less. I think it’s interesting to look at making films slowly. Not so much because of money issues but because we have kids and having that different rhythm in your schedule can affect the way you want to work. Looking at Billy Woodberry and some of those guys, how they were working in the ’80s, they were also doing stuff like just working on the weekends, not trying to ball up the shoot all at once. We weren’t shooting straight through for Petting Zoo — we took some breaks for life things that needed to happen. If you don’t have the same kind of time pressure I think the films do look and feel a little bit different.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the casting. You working with mostly non-actors, who are incredible, especially Devon Keller who plays Layla. She’d never acted before but has won a couple acting awards for this film.
Magee: Devon went to Clark High School like me. I had been doing a lot of street casting there — theater plays and stuff like that. She was in the audience at one of the Clark fashion shows, and there was a raffle, and she won a burrito from Taco Bell. She just slowly ambled up to collect her coupon, and I was like Wow! She’s it! But at the time she wouldn’t even give me her number. She was really unimpressed. When I finally got her to come in to a casting I sat her down, sat her mom down and tried to get them both to realize that it was serious. Because she was very young, 16 at the time, and because she’d never been on screen before there was a bit of hesitation where some of the funding was coming from. They weren’t really sure if she was interesting enough, if it was going to work. I was so happy on the first day we shot because I realized then yes, it totally works. I think in general the best advice I have gotten for casting is just to cast for the person you are most personally invested and interested in. At the end of the day that’s probably going to give you back the most, rather than going for somebody who looks more like what the role is supposed to look like or whatever else. She won three awards for her performance actually. She got an award from Thessaloniki and one from Premiers Plans in Angers and an artistic achievement award from a very small festival in Germany.
Filmmaker: You were casting for three or four months, right?
Magee: We set up a camera every weekend at an art space on South Flores, south of downtown San Antonio and cast everyone who called in. We ran ads in the paper for a few weeks, so people knew about it that way too. I think we saw about 600-700 people that way. Mostly people who had nothing to do with any of the roles but who just thought it would be fun to act. I think we should do that anytime we shoot. It was a great barometer for what was going on in the city, who people were, what people cared about. We found Deztany (who plays the best friend) this way. Deztany’s grandmother came in one weekend and was back the next weekend with six grandchildren and the next weekend with another six grandchildren and Deztany was one of those.
Filmmaker: One of the things that works better than the previous cut I saw in Berlin is the space that I have to relate to the character. The edit works really well for Devon because she’s never having the reaction that I think she should have or that I would have. I am always in a place where I am a little surprised by her and the way that she interacts with people in general is always surprising. It’s very specific, so you’re always engaged with her even on a second by second level, the way that she looks at somebody or answers them. When I realize she’s started to care about the baby it’s kind of a surprise.
Magee: I think it’s kind of a surprise to her, too. Of course, in a way she’s relieved to be “back on track,” but it can be a surprise to feel something when you didn’t know you were feeling anything at all. There’s an idea that you feel something exactly at the time something happens which I am not sure is true. Especially with big feelings, I don’t know if they always happen immediately. People who have different experiences growing up might have different access to how emotional they can be about something anyway.
A lot of what makes that character work and what makes the actress work so well for the role is that she understands being physically and emotionally vulnerable but knows she better not be vulnerable in that position. She kind of reminds me of those dry Western characters that don’t show too much. So, does she care about the baby? For a long time she’s in denial. At some point in time she realizes there was something and kind of tries to figure it out but then she moves on, I suppose.
Filmmaker: I feel that, in that scene that I love where she comes back to her ex-boyfriend’s party house but doesn’t really participate. But it’s also great that it’s not so dramatic. It’s not so important that she goes to college in the end. It will make a difference in her life but in a way she could go or not go.
Magee: Yeah. It is important that the character isn’t pitying herself and being like, “oh this is so bad,” because that is absolutely not how you feel when you are in the situation. You might say later, “Gee, that was pretty shitty.” Or, “Boy, am I glad I am not doing that any more!” But at the time a character like this one for the most part would be looking for the things that are going to make her happy or people she could be interested in. Or who could be interested in her. The character develops a little but it’s not important to show her going through some hardship and then suddenly becoming wise. Maybe there’s a certain amount of focus that happens towards the end. Maybe she wanders a little less and controls life a little more.
The one thing we did have to reshoot was a picture for the end. When we shot we thought, look, there are all these small endings already in the story, it ends and ends and ends for so long. So why not end it on the train, going into Austin. We don’t have to continue shooting in Austin, too. But ending on a train was too open and poetic for what is ultimately a pretty normal story that shouldn’t be ending on such a big expanse, looking out of a window, looking out over the landscape.
Filmmaker: It’s giving her too much possibility?
Magee: It just leaves it too open. Although the film is partly autobiographical — or maybe because [it is] — I did a lot of research and interviews with teen moms and inner city youth when I was preparing, both in New York and also in Texas. During casting I ran into so many people who told me very, very similar experiences. It’s not a special story, it’s actually generic. What I like about her looking exactly like every other college student is that it gives the possibility to people watching that stuff like this probably could happen and probably does happen to almost everyone. If the film ends on the train it seems way too much like the singular story of the person who got away from their bad situation. I have a problem with that whole narrative of coming from someplace bad and getting out if it. This was a reason why the character of Jeanie was important to create. In some ways Jeanie embodies all of the “bad” things that the character of Layla could potentially become but is also the only person who has the strength to help when help is needed. Actually, nobody really gets out of places. They stay with you, right? You don’t just go somewhere else and become a totally different person. As I think a lot of coming-of-age stories tend to pretend.