Interview: “Jeremiah Zagar on “We the Animals”

jeremiah zalgar
Photo by Picasa – © Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Watching a movie is like watching someone’s life. If you care about the characters, you build that necessary connection to accept the fictional character as if they were real. “We the Animals” is based on Justin Torres’ novel, however, whether you’re reading the book or seeing Jeremiah Zagar’s film, it is about someone’s life. Someone who we don’t know. Someone who, I am sure, is living the same life, let’s say, Jonah lives.

“We the Animals” is a coming-of-age story of three boys – Manny, Joel and Jonah who live with their Paps and Ma beyond poverty. While Manny and Joel are slowly turning into a sad version of their father, Jonah shapes a new personality for himself that will slowly enter a conflicting path of his present and possible future, that might be as dark as it is right now. But the young boy wants only one thing – a complete, happy, and fulfilled family. The whole problem is that the family cannot provide what Jonah wants, at least not what lay in his innocent mind.

As a viewer, you may find similarities with “Moonlight”, but to be honest, Jeremiah Zagar’s movie is much better than what you’ve seen anything before. A character-driven piece embarks the viewer along with its protagonist on a transformative journey from which no one comes back the same.

This is why I am proud to present an interview with the co-writer and director of “We the Animals” who provided an insight to his film and his interesting discovery about a little boy, who was in search of his true identity.

MOVIEMOVESME: What made you adapt Justin Torres’ novel into your film?

Jeremiah Zagar:  I read the book at a café in a book store that has a café in New York, and I fell in love with it immediately. I mean it’s the most incredible book, and I could kind of see it playing out in my head, like I could kind of see it already taking place, and so I fell in love and bought the book and called Justin, and gave it to my close collaborators and we all started working together on it.

Yeah, that was kind of it. It happened fast.

MOVIEMOVESME: What was the process behind adapting the book into a screenplay wiith your co-writer, Daniel Kitrosser?

Jeremiah Zagar: Yeah I mean, what we did was we essentially began by just translating the book into screenplay format, and that was all my intentions were first too actually, and then, we realized we had to make some changes in order to make it cinematically explore, like, in order to translate the book to the screen there had to be changes in terms of story from the novel.

So, we started to make those changes, yeah. And you know the primary one was that in the end of the book, Jonah ages tremendously and on screenplay we made sure that Jonah did not because we needed the audience to connect with the actors throughout.

MOVIEMOVESME: Another thing is, We The Animals is about parenthood, discovering yourself, poverty, and also about the meaning of true family, or no matter how bad the situation is, you always try to stick to it. Is there anything that I’m missing, or what do you think “We The Animals” is about?

Jeremiah Zagar: I mean, I think it’s a complex, messy kind of love, you know? That’s what it’s about. It’s about complex, messy, epic nature of family. You know, we all come from these families that experience love that is not exactly like this family but it’s not pure in the way that fantasized love is depicted on the screen it’s very alive and beautiful and like, that’s what it’s about.

MOVIEMOVESME: How did you convince the children considering it has adult concepts? Did you have any challenges with them or perhaps with their parents?

Jeremiah Zagar: We didn’t have any challenges, we didn’t have any great challenges, the parents were wonderful and they were excited about the idea of their kids being in the movie, and then you know, the challenge was just making sure the kids got comfortable doing all the things that they were being asked to do. You know? That was the key.

MOVIEMOVESME: How did you find them then?

Jeremiah Zagar: We canvased out, we saw thousands of kids all over New York city, and they were all you know, they’d never acted before and then in this movie, and we just searched until we found them.

We had an incredible casting director named Marlena Skrobe, and then we had an amazing, we had an amazing acting coach named Noelle Gentile, and she worked with them you know, for about a year and a half to get them into that place where they became you know, who they became.

MOVIEMOVESME: Your film has an interesting structure, can you talk about it?

Jeremiah Zagar: Well, I worked with this amazing editor Keiko Deguchi and we’ve worked on every film together, and, that I’ve done and you know, is structured in a way that allows for sort of a ellipses in time, it sort of, it’s sort of meant to felt to feel like a fever dream, like a timeless fever dream.

So, it was very difficult to get that reality correct, you know? So you know, it took a while. I don’t know it just [inaudible 00:06:04] we edited for about a year, we worked very hard.

MOVIEMOVESME: Where did the idea of including Jonah’s drawings come from since I believe it was not in the book?

Jeremiah Zagar: It’s not, no yeah, it’s not in the book. In the book there’s a journal but it’s not a pictorial journal. So, Justin and I talked about, that was one of the things we talked about in terms of translating it to the screen and we didn’t actually land in the animation ’til about the middle of the edit. First it was just flat drawings. But you know, the really difficult thing is getting into his mind, into his psyche and so the animation became a way to get into his mind, into who he was.

MOVIEMOVESME:  While Jonah was searching for who he is or who he wants to become, we start having some ideas. What did you learn about Jonah as you were helping him to discover himself? What did you discover about him before he did?

Jeremiah Zagar: So, you know, we discovered a lot of things about Jonah. I mean, I think the primary thing that is important is that he’s processing. You know, it’s like, it’s about power. The book and the movie are both about power. You know, it’s like by processing and asking questions about who we are and where we come from, we are able to free ourselves to continue that exploration and without that freedom and without those questions we stay stuck in cycles that are destructive.

MOVIEMOVESME: What will your answer be if somebody asks you, “Jeremiah Zagar, why do you think that I need to go and watch the film?”

Jeremiah Zagar: I mean I think in the times we live in where the world seems to be collapsing and you know crushing in on us, that intimate stories about people that are not like you are the most important ways that we can connect with each other culturally. You know, it’s like, story telling is how we connect, story telling’s how we learn that we are all one people, and I feel like that, in a way the most intimate stories in this are also the most epic and the most important ones to watch these days I think.

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