There’s already something liminal about the early-morning weekend press screenings at film festivals, so when I stumbled into a Tribeca showing of Jeremiah Zagar’s “We the Animals” back in April, I was a prime candidate for the film’s surreal and immersive story. In this Sundance premiere based on the eponymous novel by Justin Torres, Zagar employs animation, magical realism, and deliciously grainy celluloid to transform a working-class upbringing into a contemplative fantasy. The film follows Jonah (a stellar Evan Rosado) as he grows up entwined in his raucous brothers’ games, his parents’ abusive dynamic, and his own sexual anxiety.
As we said in our Sundance review, the film is an “assured, confident feature-directing debut” that will “haunt you for days.” It’s rare to see a film these days that feels undeniably fresh—though “We the Animals” clearly draws on some seminal films, its blend of modern and analog sensibilities, coupled with a stellar script and cast, produce a timeless tale of adolescence. I was lucky enough to sit down with Jeremiah Zagar for an engaging discussion about his process, his influences, and our mutual adoration of Lynne Ramsay.
What drew you to “We the Animals” as a novel?
I was in a bookstore, McNally Jackson, and they have a “We Recommend” table. I always like to look at that “We Recommend” table, and I sometimes just read the first page of the book. I opened up the book and I read the first page and I was like, “This is my shit.” I was in a very introspective moment in my life, and I sat there, and I read it just at the cafe, I couldn’t stop reading it. I mean, it’s such an amazing book. And as I was reading it, I was like, “I know how to make this book into a movie. I know how to do this. Like, this is my kinda shit.” And then I bought, like, five copies after I read it, and I gave them to my producer, Jeremy [Yaches], and I gave them to Dan [Kitrosser], who was my co-writer, and I e-mailed Justin. And he has a website, so you can just e-mail him. And then I like, just went for it. And we hung out, and we liked each other, and we optioned it. And his people didn’t necessarily want us, but he wanted us, and we wanted to work the way he wanted to work with us. And that was it.
When you say they didn’t want you, you mean they were hoping for Universal to produce it or something?
I think they were hoping for more money, yeah. But he had gotten some really weird offers, like people who wanted to, like, turn it into “‘Malcolm in the Middle’ meets ‘Breaking Bad.’” Like, some weird shit, some sitcom-y, weird thing that was never gonna happen.
Speaking of that whole adaptation process, your choice to focus specifically on the boys’ childhoods is very interesting. How did you land there?
That’s the really unique, wonderful thing about the novel is that you can imagine them as adults, but you can’t do that in film very easily. I mean, they did it in “Moonlight,” which is the only film I’ve ever seen it work in, but, you know. You have an emotional connection to Evan [Rosado, who plays Jonah]. And we really knew that the whole film was going to rest on your emotional connection to Evan, and as soon as you left Evan it wasn’t gonna work. So we were like, how do you take the emotional content and put it into these years, and how do you have the brothers grow up—which they do in the book—without having them grow up, you know what I mean? That was sort of how we ended up translating the novel to the screen; that was the biggest change. And we did it in a way that I think works. The reason I know it works is because Justin is proud of it. That’s the testament of what we did. And I think you feel the power of transcendence of this young man at a young age, and though you don’t know what’s gonna happen to him or where he’s gonna go, you have hope for him. And that was the key for us.
It’s funny, though, because his adulthood is pretty dour in the novel.
So the difference between the book and the movie is the book ends with him in an institution looking towards the future. It still ends with, “Upright, upright I pray, I swear, I swear, I pray…” you know. So it ends on the same note, but the part just before the end is really brutal. We couldn’t get there. I mean, the film I think is really heavy anyway, but we couldn’t get there with a young man in that way. You would never take a young man to an institution in that way. We tried that. We tried to bring him to an institution, but we couldn’t justify it emotionally. We couldn’t get the parents there. It just didn’t make sense.
His institutionalization in the book is so tied to his anguish over being gay, and I think your decision to distill the character into his childhood brings that turmoil into a very unique place. It’s refreshing, too, because it’s still taboo to depict children as gay. How do you navigate having child actors in some of these incredibly adult situations?
Well, the kids in our movie are incredible. They’re incredible actors, they’re incredible young men, and they have incredible parents. So those things are important. And then we had an acting coach who sort of walked them through every step of that process. And there was a constant desire and emphasis on honoring the spirit of the book and of the script, so because the young men in this movie are so incredible, they sort of internalized that mission as professionally as possible. They weren’t kids when they thought about that stuff. It felt like they were dealing with it as adults. And I think we don’t always give young people the credit that they can listen, understand, and emotionally process really difficult things if we give them the opportunity to rise to the occasion. And that’s really all we did, was give these young men the opportunity to rise to the occasion. And they just did. They just nailed it every single time.
I mean, you have this very immersive fictional experience about family, and your first full-length film, “In a Dream,” was a documentary about your own family. Why does the theme of family speak to you?
You know what’s interesting? When you look at a movie like ”King Lear,” like this giant, political epic, it’s really just about family. Real epics are all about family—family is the most epic theme we have. It has everything. It has love and intrigue and desire and sex and pain and hope and fear. Families are epic. They last forever. When there are kings and queens we call them dynasties, but really they’re just families that go on a long time. I’m interested in families that are not kings and queens. I don’t care about kings and queens! I love the epic nature of what people would otherwise consider small. The epic nature of everyday life. That’s what I loved about the book; Justin got that. He elevated his family to the level of myth, and I just believe in that. That’s what my first film is about, and I just love that.
Are there any other films that inspire you to work in that vein?
The most important film in terms of, stylistically, emotionally, sexually, was a movie called “Ratcatcher” by Lynne Ramsay. You love that movie?
I love her.
Me, too. I think she’s, like, the greatest filmmaker, one of them, alive, for sure. She’s probably the most influential on me.
Class and ethnicity are such an omnipresent force in your movie, along with the anxieties that are produced by those things. Did you come by that naturally, as you were making this sort of gritty, independent film, or did you have to seek it out?
Justin was really involved with every step of the process. A lot of the class things weren’t clear to me in terms of my upbringing. I grew up as, like, a weird artists’ kid in a weird artists’ place where class was kind of an amorphous idea. We were I guess middle class, but we were also transient and weird, whereas Justin’s family was solidly working class. So he walked me through the kind of house that we needed to get. This was kind of an important lesson. So Justin was involved in every step of the process, and I think if I had made the film without him, the film would have been garbage. And I think you have to think about that in terms of representation. When a film is this intimate and this much a part of an author’s life, you as a director, you’re not an author, you’re a translator. I wanted to be as good a translator as I could possibly be, essentially.
In terms of race, I certainly am grappling with my son being mixed, being half-white or half-Jewish and half-black, because my wife is black. We certainly are thinking about what it means for our son to be, as Justin says, “a mutt,” having a cross-cultural identity, and it was very important for me to make the film with that in mind. But, you know, the specifics of being half-white, half-Puerto Rican is very much Justin and Raúl and Sheila’s manifestation, and they did a beautiful job of trying to understand what that means. And then we had a lot of talks with the boys in the movie about what that would mean.
It’s still very palpable, though, which I impressed me. Especially with Sheila Vand—I’m most familiar with her as an Iranian vampire in “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” but her performance as a white woman in your film is so authentic.
That’s a testament to her. She’s an amazing actress. When you have somebody that can become something else as fully as Sheila—she completely immersed herself in a way that I’m still in awe of. And, you know, we saw a lot of people that ethnically were closer to her role, but she was more authentic to the role of Ma than any of them, and I think that’s a testament to how amazing an actress she is. Actually, Ma, the Ma, called Justin on the phone and she was like, “I thought Sheila did an amazing job playing me in the movie.” And Justin was like, “It’s not you! It’s a fictionalized character, Mom,” and she was like, “No! She was me, and she was great!” I think that’s a wonderful testament to what Sheila did.
We’ve talked a lot about influences, and I’m wondering what you drew from or how you decided to manifest the more surreal, childishly imaginative elements of the film.
The animation comes from this Czech photocopy animation where you can actually see the texture of the paper moving, and I really love that quality. You can see the ink moving, you can see the paper moving. The film is shot on film and you can see the grain moving—we shot it and just let the grain go thick—and because the quality of the grain is so tangible and textural, and the idea of the movie was that you could feel like you could reach out and touch it, that was the same ethos of the animation. In terms of the more surreal stuff, that stuff comes from the book and is just kind of elevated by the film visually. It’s in the book, but we’re trying to figure out ways to make it bigger for a visual aesthetic. That was the main aim.
So you read, “I am flying over my neighborhood.” How do you then achieve that on film? I remember seeing that scene and being like, “Wait, how much did they make this movie for?”
Technically, in terms of flying over the neighborhood, that was a tremendously difficult thing to do. In order to do that, we had to strap a camera to a drone and we had to watch the drone from a 50-foot scissor lift.
So they dropped off a 50-foot crane, scissor-lifted us up, and we were on our own. So we were on this 50-foot scissor lift, and when something’s 50 feet up, it sways in the wind and kind of blows back and forth. Which is fucking terrifying, so I couldn’t even stand, I was so scared. I just held on. And these guys at Brooklyn Aerials, they flew the drone off the scissor lift, 50 feet in the air from a grave, up into the air and then 200 feet over treetops to a river in Amsterdam, New York. It was miraculous. I mean, they would land the drone on the scissor lift, which, that drone was so big it could cut you in half, so they had to land this thing that was so big almost in front of them without falling off. I mean, it was insane. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done, and I would never, ever, ever do it again, ever.
That’s amazing because you could have much more easily just explained that moment in voice-over.
Sure. A lot of things could have been average. But we were looking for exceptional. I think Justin’s book is exceptional, and we wanted to honor the book. It ultimately went back to that, always, “How do we make this movie exceptional?” And so I think the ambition of the entire crew was also exceptional. All 40 people on our crew wanted the movie to be amazing. And that’s what makes a movie amazing. It’s not a director wanting a movie to be amazing, it’s everybody involved wanting the movie to be awesome and giving themselves to that movie so that it is awesome.
“We the Animals” is now playing in select theaters. You can watch the trailer below: