We the Animals Director Jeremiah Zagar Discovered His First Narrative Feature in a Bookstore and Shot it on 16mm

Walking through SoHo’s McNally Jackson bookstore back in 2012, director Jeremiah Zagar came across a novel that would dictate the major part of the next six years of his life.

The culprit, We the Animals, by Puerto Rican-American author Justin Torres, was displayed on the “We Recommend” pile—a detail he found humorous after discovering Torres had worked at that very establishment in the past.

Transfixed by its ravishing first page, Zagar sat down at the bookshop’s café and devoured the whole tome, cover to cover in one sitting. Its writing was so textured and corporeal, he could immediately imagine what it would look and sound like as a film. “I could see the movie playing out in my head when I read it. I could feel it sonically, and I could feel it visually,” he told MovieMaker over the phone.

Torres’ semi-autobiographical and rapturous debut follows three rowdy brothers growing up in 1980s New York with two emotionally unstable parents. Nine-year-old Jonah, the vulnerable hero of the pack, is becoming aware of his sexual orientation which creates unspoken distance with his once-inseparable siblings.

Out the door after buying five copies, Zagar shared his precious new discovery with producer Jeremy Yaches, co-founder of their production company Public Record, and Daniel Kitrosser, who would become his co-writer on this venture. Torres met the earnest filmmaker and was convinced that Zagar’s comprehension of the piece and rationale on how to transmute into cinema were accurate. He agreed to let Zagar make it but was very specific that the movie needed to be a queer film.

Evan Rosado stars in We the Animals. Image courtesy of The Orchard.

A straight man himself, Zagar was determined to preserve the LGBT essence of the story by  actively involving Torres in the adaptation process. Though initially reluctant, the novelist ultimately obliged. Daniel Kitrosser, the screenplay’s co-writer, is a talented gay playwright who aside from skillfully improving the quality of the text, also ensured its spirit remained true to the source material. “[Dan] is an unbelievably talented writer, and I’m just a mediocre writer. Together we created something good, I think,” Zagar candidly noted.

In 2014, with a handful of drafts under their belt, Zagar and Kitrosser attended the prestigious Sundance Screenwriters Lab, where they met with advisors who provided perspective and sounds critiques to aid the project’s evolution. “What they did at the Lab was poke holes in the structure, especially in the third act—that’s really what changed.”

Near the end of the novel, a large time jump transports the protagonist’s childhood to his adolescence; on screen, however, they wanted to keep the same performer throughout which meant he couldn’t age. The solution was, as Zagar explained, “creating a third act that was true to the book emotionally, but was different literally.” About 10 drafts later, and with the added help of producing partners Cinereach, they were finally satisfied with the result.

Predominantly working in documentary prior to this project, and even if he’d occasionally tried his hand at fiction scripts before, We the Animals felt like the first time Zagar had found something worthy of his complete devotion. “I was so concerned with failure, I did everything I could not to fail,” he said about how meticulously he approached every step of the process: from rigorously storyboarding and shot-listing every frame, to finding the exact house for the story to exist, and even working on the score long before anything was filmed.

Evan Rosado and Sheila Vand star in We the Animals

Among those initial strides, one of the most decisive was Zagar’s interest in casting non-professionals to play young siblings Jonah, Joel, and Manny. Over the course of two years, a team headed by Marlena Skrobe scoured New York City and Philadelphia (Zagar’s hometown) using a grassroots casting approach to targeting Latino neighborhoods. They saw 1,000 kids, and after multiple callbacks, meetings, and chemistry tests, the production settled on Evan Rosado, Josiah Gabriel, and Isaiah Kristian.

Because of his documentary background, Zagar understood it was possible to work with untrained young people to create really incredible moments. “All the films that were references for the movie had non-actors or young men who became actors through the process: The 400 Blows, Kes, Ratcatcher, or Turtles Can Fly,” he explained. “That’s the kind of realism we were looking for.”

On set, the filmmaker relied on acting coach Noelle Gentile and Kitrosser, who had experience working with children, to guide the newcomers through their first encounter with moviemaking. For Zagar, this was an equally unfamiliar task. His cast was inexperienced, and so was he at directing them, so the dynamic was fair. “They didn’t know that I had never directed actors before, and I didn’t care that they’d never acted before. We were neophytes doing it together.”

His adult cast members, Raúl Castillo (HBO’s Looking) and Sheila Vand (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), who played the boys’ parents, were generous in sharing their more seasoned abilities with their young co-stars. Both, according to Zagar, were able to tap into a level of intimacy that was dangerous and exciting.

Raúl Castillo’s father character leaves home in the middle of the night to the surprise of his children Evan Rosado, Isaiah Kristian, and Josiah Gabriel.

In order to forge a believable family unit, the cast endured plenty of sleepovers in the house where the movie was shot. Bonding time spent together or sometimes deliberately apart, was pivotal to generating opportunities for them to explore the familial relationship they were depicting. Their accommodations during shooting reflected the characters circumstances as a family breaking apart. Sheila and Raúl lived together away from the boys. In a separate property, the three youths shared the same room and lived like true brothers.

Shot over 32 days in Utica, New York, divided between Summer 2016 and February 2017, the production took a six-month hiatus to allow for the final winter sequences. This break also allowed them to get a rough cut of the scenes together, so they could know if reshoots were needed. Additionally, those months gave the boys some time to age a little and look slightly older on camera without the use of any effects.

To accurately evoke Justin Torres’ timeless tone, Zagar opted to shoot on 16mm film. “We wanted to make a film that felt timeless. [We the Animals] is really a memory of a dream, and we wanted to achieve that quality,” said the director. He is grateful that Kodak still exists and wants film to survive, but most of all, Zagar adores the tangible nature of grain and he pushed to have as much of it as possible. “We wanted the audience to feel like they could reach out and touch the screen.” For Zagar, using film changes the environment on set, given that a precious material is running through the camera. Everybody is much more focused because the stakes are higher.

Beyond the nostalgic aesthetic they achieved, Zagar and his cinematographer Zak Mulligan wanted to imbue the images with visceral energy similar to that in Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s City of God. With that in mind, Mulligan, utilized a modified version of the Movi M15, a camera stabilization system, which enabled them to run with the kids and let them be free without too many technical blocking requirements.

Jonah [Evan Rosado] has a passion for art and journaling that is kept secret from the rest of his family.

Two other notable storytelling devices that complement the live-action frames are the use of voice-over narration and the inclusion of hand-drawn animated segments. These emerged during the post-production stage as avenues into the protagonist’s subconscious. Jonah, a passive observer, doesn’t verbalize his frustrations and aspirations, thus Zagar decided to let viewers hear his voice so that they understood what his motivations were.“He had to tell you that he was telling you the story,” he noted. Similarly, the animation aimed to show how his drawings were informing his life and his thought process. In tandem, they enhance the multilayered portrait of a fascinating protagonist.

All of these components were later coated in Nick Zammuto’s one-of-a-kind music for which he repurposed a lot of same elements that were present in the movie. He transformed sounds of plates banging, footsteps, screams, kids banging on a table with forks and knives, ceiling fans, TV, and the radio, into a marvelous soundscape intricately connected with the story at hand. Zagar credits Zammuto’s immediate connection to the novel to the fact that Zammuto himself is the father of three young men of similar ages to Jonah and company. MM

We the Animals opened in theaters on August 17, 2018, courtesy of The Orchard. All images courtesy of The Orchard.

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