“Even Before It’s a Vision, It’s a Need”: Director Jeremiah Zagar Talks the Creative Process and his New We the Animals
“I will do everything you do.” Filmmaker Jeremiah Zagar (In a Dream) dubs that his motto, his ethos, while on set. And when you watch his simultaneously epic and beautifully specific film We the Animals, it will come as no surprise that Zagar created for his collaborators such a collaborative, safe space for taking risks. Premiering at Sundance Film Festival this year where it won the NEXT Innovator award, it’s the first narrative feature for Zagar. His documentarian’s eye combined with his ability to draw vulnerable and vibrant performances from his cast creates sparkling portrait of three young boys discovering themselves against the backdrop of a volatile home life in upstate New York.
“I really thought of it as a translation of the book, not as an adaptation,” Zagar says, explaining that he was immediately drawn to Justin Torres’ 2011 novel by the same name. Sticking closely to the book’s story, the film centers its gaze on young Jonah (Evan Rosado) and his two brothers Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel) as they edge toward their teenage years. Jonah, the cub of the pack, is nearing 10, and scribbles a spectrum of his emotions into a private notebook. With gentle animation from artist Mark Samsonovich, the sketches give us a keyhole into Jonah’s conscious — his budding crush on a neighboring boy and continual family frustrations. Zagar describes being drawn to the opening line of the book — “We wanted more” — and it’s this feeling of youthful longing that transforms the film’s otherwise raw depiction of blue-collar America into a kind of mythological reality. While Jonah and his brothers have the world ahead of them, and are on their own imaginative odyssey, their parents, Ma (Sheila Vand) and Paps (Raúl Castillo), can barely feed them at times. Trauma and the cyclical nature of familial poverty is a dark undertone to the film, which Zagar is constantly aware, of as he pushes forward his ultimately hopeful narrative. We want more for them, too.
Filmmaker had a chance to sit down with Zagar in New York City and dig in to how he crafted such a specific vision — and what “vision” even means these days. Dissecting how he approached each element to the film — the design, cinematography and performance — he continually emphasized his appreciation of collaboration. A film so rooted in characters’ needs — for love, acceptance, brotherhood — Zagar said for him, “beyond desire, a need” was what drew him to make this particular story. “And then, you know, it’s a process, and you have to love the process.”
Filmmaker: It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film that engaged me so immediately. You’ve said when you picked up the book, you experienced a similar feeling. What about that first page grabbed you?
Zagar: Well, it starts off with “We wanted more” — that’s the opening line on the first page. I think it got on this “25 Best Opening Lines Ever” kind of list or something. The whole first page is incredible. Justin is really a genius. The book is written like prose-poems, these little vignettes that tell moments in this young boy’s life, that are like scenes. And they’re easy to read, the language isn’t complicated. It’s very staccato, it’s rhythmic and it felt editorial, almost, when I read it. And I was like, I know how to make this movie! I really felt, when I read the first page, I was seeing it in my head, you know what I mean? It was right away. So then I just sat and read the whole book.
Filmmaker: What’s interesting too is this the book is autobiographical for Justin, and your past films, like In A Dream are also somewhat autobiographical. Do you think another part of this was you being drawn to telling those types of stories — and about families?
Zagar: Sure; well one thing I would say is that it’s semi-autobiographical. It’s fictionalized autobiography. It’s re-imagined life, which is similar what In A Dream is actually, as a documentary. It’s also re-imagined, it’s hyper stylized and it’s contextualized in a different space and time than the actual events. It’s not vérité, like We The Animals is not vérité. But what I was drawn to is that re-imagining of life. I really loved that. This is what the mundanity of life is, and this is like the mythology of life. Life is boring, but [Torres] took life and turned it into myth. He took the boring and made it poetry, you know what I mean?
Filmmaker: I said to a friend last night that We the Animals feels coming-of-age but in this mythological, ancient Greek storytelling type way.
Zagar:I think what I love about the book and what we tried to do with the movie is it’s a very small, contained film, but the scope of it is epic. The emotions are epic. The experiences are epic. It’s all extremes. Everybody’s living within extremes [yet] it’s not kings and queens and presidents and political people. All of us see our lives as epic, or should. It’s like when you have a child. I had a child recently, and he’s in the movie actually — that’s his birth. When he pops out! And it was so unbelievable, so much more unbelievable than an election, or an explosion, or anything I see on television; it was so much bigger for me. So if you can allow the audience to experience what is personally epic for these people, they can relate to that.
Filmmaker: How did you communicate that when you sat down with Justin and said, “I read your book. I want to make it into a movie and I have these epic ideas.”
Zagar: I really just wanted to make the book exactly as the book was written. I was like, “I know how to do that. I don’t see why we have to change anything.” I just thought it was an amazing book, and I really thought of it as a translation of the book, not as an adaptation. I think often people look at a book and it’s 1,000 pages and they say, “What are we going to do?” But the book was really short, and it already read like a movie, almost. So I said, “We’re just going to get a family, put them in a house, and we’ll just make them do your lines and make them do other shit and we’ll see what happens.” And he said, “I love that.” I think, you know, we speak the same language.
Filmmaker: I want to talk about this word “vision,” which is tossed around frequently when discussing independent film or, really, any work of art. I think it can be a dangerous word, because it evokes this future idea; it doesn’t feel actionable. I think a lot of young filmmakers think, “What is my vision?” I’m curious what the word “vision” means to you and then how you actualized it?
Zagar: It’s a lot of things, I don’t think it’s clear, you know what I mean? I think that, even before it’s a vision, I would say, it’s a need.
Filmmaker: That’s cool.
Zagar: You don’t get paid to do this stuff. We don’t make any money off this movie really — I mean, I haven’t, or barely any. I certainly spent more than I made. So it’s about need, right? As a human being, I need to make something. And then when there’s something that you understand how to make, and that need can be manifest. I thought, I need to make this book into a movie. Beyond desire — this I need to do. And then, you know, it’s a process, and you have to love the process. And the process allows for the vision to expand. As you go through the process, you create an experience that is imagined for yourself, and one day that you can dream about and realize in your day-today life and write about and picture. The joy of filmmaking is the actualization of those visions. So like with the storyboard process — we storyboarded the whole movie. I hired an architect, actually, and he came in and drew every frame of the movie.
Filmmaker: An architect?
Zagar: I put an ad up in schools around New York and on Craigslist, and this architect [Hugo Barros Costa] responded, and he was a sketch artist. He would go to New York and draw. He’s a Portuguese guy from Spain, and he became a close friend of mine, and he just lived with me and would storyboard all day, and we would just storyboard and hang out. And that’s a manifestation of the vision. So it’s like, I have this idea, this is what this should look like, and then he’s able to take that stuff and turn it into reality.
Filmmaker: I find myself saying to other filmmaker friends a lot — aim higher than you’re aiming! People think, oh, I could never afford a storyboard artist. So then hire an architect, put ads up around schools. I think that if you’re passionate and you have an idea and a vision, there’s somebody out there who’s stoked to be a part of that.
Zagar: That’s right. And I think it’s also about how you treat those people. And are those people collaborators? Are you doing this together? I think he understood what we were making and got excited about not only the friendship that was manifesting itself in New York but the idea that he’s part of a creative process, and now he’s storyboarding other people’s movies!
Filmmaker: I’ve met this guy — at Sundance! I follow him on Instagram!
Zagar: Yeah, everybody follows him on Instagram! He’s a wonderful dude, right, and now he comes and stays with me in New York, and I’m gonna go and stay with him in Spain, and we’re friends.
Filmmaker: That is sweet for multiple reasons.
Zagar: Yeah, it’s the same thing with my DP [Zak Mulligan] and my colorist [Seth Ricart], and with Nick [Zammuto], who did the score. All of those relationships have been gestating for years before, and it’s all a part of realizing the vision as you say. Nick and I would talk about how the soundtrack should be and what it should sound like.
Filmmaker: I wonder what your references were, because I was thinking about that. It’s like, an ’80s vibe — I got a little nostalgia in there.
Zagar: Tonally, he was really into Aphex Twin’s first album. But you know, The Books, the band that he was in before, and Zammuto, the band that he’s in now, are really about creating new sounds. So he said, “Let’s make a template of sounds that take those instruments or those things that you know from the early ’90s or late ’80s, and let’s just make them into new sounds and we’ll use them, coupled with sounds that are actually in the movie. Let’s take the banging of plates and spoons, and explode them. What does it mean when you take those sounds and put them through a synthesizer and blow them up?” And that was really the idea.
Filmmaker: That’s fascinating. So it was also narratively motivated. As you were saying, to these young boys, the journey is this epic thing, and those sounds are epic, too. Tell me about working with Zak.
Zagar: We shoot a lot of commercials together. And he won Sundance years ago for a movie called Obselidia, and he’s a great DP. I like working with Zak for a lot of reasons. One, because he’s down for the process, he’s into getting his hands dirty. He’s also excited about natural light and not lighting shit in a way that’s really fun for me.The reference for the movie was all this ’80s documentary photography, ’90s documentary photography, and he knew that stuff and was into it. He was just down, and he lives down the street, and we would just sit in his apartment and shot list. He was into the collaboration. He was into hashing it out together, and that’s a joy.
Filmmaker: I’ve got to know more about the nitty-gritty of how you worked with your actors.
Zagar: We did a lot of casting, so, you know, Scorsese says 90% of acting is casting, or whatever. So we did a lot of that, we spent a year and a half casting. And the other thing is, I had an amazing acting coach, who was on board from the very beginning, like a year and a half before we started filming. And she worked with the kids, and she taught them to act, this woman named Noelle Gentile.
Filmmaker: For a year and a half? How do you afford that? Are they just game?
Zagar: She was game for it. I mean, we would pay her I think a very minimal fee to come down and work with the kids every week, but like, it was really minimal. And the kids? That’s part of the thing. Are you gonna find kids that are down for that? And they were, and their parents — they have amazing parents. They’re just great people, and they were excited about their kids being in a movie, a really tough movie. With Raúl and Sheila, they taught me a lot. They have a process that I don’t know about, it’s a mystery to me.
Filmmaker: Tell me about some of the things that they taught you — as well as the kids.
Zagar: The kids are, you know, magic. Working with the kids was much closer to my experience too. As a documentary filmmaker, they were heightened versions of themselves, which is very similar to what you’re trying to do in a documentary. And I’d also been working with them for a year and a half so we knew each other so well, and I feel so much a part of their lives. In some ways they taught me to trust my instincts. They were like, “We’re great, do you trust us?” And I said, “I totally trust you!”
Filmmaker: That’s hilarious.
Zagar: And then Raúl and Sheila, you know, they taught me about process. They have needs and processes in terms of wardrobe, in terms of listening to music beforehand, in terms of privacy, in terms of specificity, in terms of encouragement and trust that I just didn’t know about. I would watch them prepare for a scene, and be like, “Oh!” I didn’t imagine it would be like that, you need your space, you need your time, you need your thing, you need to be isolated, you need to talk about this, but you don’t want to talk about that. You know, it taught me to be respectful. If I get to make another film again, I very much want it to be a collaboration with the actors, because they’re in many ways co-authors of the role, and you want to figure out basically how to help them be as good as possible.
Filmmaker: But I do wonder because this is a tough film — you have a child lying in a shallow grave — you’re a collaborator, but you’re still the director and you’re the person that everyone looks to for energy and the tone of the day. How did you handle some of those harder scenes to shoot?
Zagar: I think one of the things you have to do as a director is you have to do everything they do. That was sort of my ethos.
Filmmaker: Did you lay in the shallow grave?
Zagar: I did. I was in the grave with Evan. I spent the day in the grave with him, and I was covered in mud too, and I think that made him comfortable. And when they were in the lake all day, I was in the lake all day with them. That was sort of my ethos. If you have to do something hard, I will do it with you. I will never put you in a situation that’s so scary that I wouldn’t do it. I will do everything you do.
Filmmaker: That’s really nice…there’s a lot of talk of directors not doing that, like recently too.
Zagar: Right, and I think that’s the thing. That’s a good litmus test. Am I as down as you? If you’re down to do this, I’ve got to be down to do this. I loved that participation. I loved swimming next to Raúl and Sheila and Evan, as they swim on to the middle of the lake.
Filmmaker: I wonder, because I do feel like the film is so well done, was there anything missing? Anything glaring to you you’d want to go back and re-visit? On an indie set, it’s hard to pull off a film, let alone one that’s so specific in every department.
Zagar: The truth is that the first cut of the movie was terrible. The first cut of every movie I’ve ever made is terrible. It almost makes you sick how bad it is. My first documentary took four or five years to edit. And the second one took a year and half, and this one took a year. So, there’s time that we spend, and we’re throwing out all the shit that doesn’t work. And the idea is to leave you with only the best stuff, and the best stuff to tell the story. Sometimes you have to lose stuff that’s great. And, you have to lose it because it makes the film better.
Filmmaker: And I do have to ask, because the film deals with trauma and being queer, violence, the way women are treated, what have people’s responses been, and how do you feel a film like this can contribute to the discussions that are going on around those topics?
Zagar: The screenings are overwhelming; nobody at the end of the screening talks to me about their feelings. People will come up crying and they’ll hug me, but we don’t get into intense conversations, usually because I’m being whisked off to an interview. It’s not like I’m having lots of conversations with audiences. And you may have conversations with audiences in terms of Q&A but they’re not interpersonal, you’re not digging into what the movie did for that person. But I’ll tell you, what we’re trying to do with the movie is the same thing that the book did for me. It said, “this is a family that exists and they may remind you of your family, and you should feel this nuanced portrait of this family that is dealing with abuse and dealing with sexuality, and dealing with things in a very real way and a very nuanced way that is not black or white. That is not good or bad.” There is abuse in our movie, but it’s not demonized in a way it is in other movies, because that’s too easy. It’s easy to say that abusive men are monsters and demons and dismiss them as that. But it’s just not true. Abusive men are able to be abusive because they’re not only evil, you know what I mean?
Filmmaker: And you see the cycle. At the end of the film, I thought, these little boys are going to fall in the steps of their father, that cycle, which is not often talked about either. Because people just write off evil people. I think more people are acknowledging trauma and how it plays out in to some of those narratives.
Zagar: I think one of the things that’s true for Justin, and true for me — by re-imagining our own lives we’ve freed ourselves from a lot of the cycles that our parents were subject to. And I think the movie is trying to say that. It’s trying to say that by understanding who you are, and re-imagining who you are, and re-imagining the lives of those around you, you can contextualize your own life, and that’s meaningful, and there’s a freedom in that.