Jeremiah Zagar's 'We the Animals' is a lyrical coming-of-age ballad of disillusionment and self-discovery.
A child is an identity in progress. With so much of the adult world obscured from view, youngsters can piece together merely a patchwork of reality, and what is created during that process is arguably as formative as their genetic code. This is especially true for children who feel "different" or who grow up in complicated family situations—such as is the case with Jonah (Evan Rosado), the protagonist of Jeremiah Zagar's We the Animals.
A ten-year-old half-white, half-Puerto Rican boy growing up in rural upstate New York, Jonah is the youngest of three. His raucous older brothers, Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel), exude all the hallmarks of bourgeoning masculinity; Jonah, meanwhile, is quiet, sensitive, artistic, and likely queer. We peer into his subjectivity through hand-drawn animations that flit, flash, rip, and explode across the screen with a fervor that Jonah is unable to express in his daily life. All around him, storms are always brewing. Jonah's parents (Raul Castillo and Sheila Vand) are hot-headed; one minute to the next, a loving family dinner can turn into a scene of domestic abuse. His siblings taunt, exclude, and support him in equal measure. One day there's food on the table; the next, they're scrounging the neighborhood for scraps, like pack animals.
Zagar captures Jonah's volatile environment in expressionist, lyrical scenes crafted with the fabric of memory. The camera, often handheld, remains at a child's height, evoking a sense of unmoored discovery. Like the experience of childhood itself, scenes bleed into each other—a patchwork of a reality half-understood, but deeply felt.
No Film School sat down with Zagar to discuss why he decided to shoot the film on 16mm, how he created a space of "radical intimacy" for his actors, why he storyboarded every single image in the film—hand-painted—and more.
No Film School: When did you first encounter Justin Torres's novel?
Jeremiah Zagar: I was at [the bookstore] McNally Jackson. You know how they have that "We Recommend" pile? I picked it up and read the first page and was like, "I want to read this right now." I bought it and took it across the street to a cafe and read it. I actually bought five more copies after I read it. It's only 130 pages.
NFS: Someone called it pithy, which I liked.
Zagar: It's 130 pages, but there are giant pages that are kind of empty. It's more like reading a long article. You can read it in three hours if you want. It's poetry.
Then, I gave it to my producers and my co-writer Dan Kitrosser. I emailed Justin and we met for drinks and I told him I wanted to make it. We liked each other. That was the beginning.
NFS: When you were reading it for the first time, what kind of images or emotions came to the fore for you?
Zagar: I really felt like I could see the movie playing out in my head. When I read [the book], I was like, "Oh, I know how to make this movie." I could hear it, too—all these sounds, banging, these kinds of exploding heartbeats.
I was really taken by the way it portrayed family love. It didn't shy away from sexuality and brutality. I loved the way it treated the grays of love—that it wasn't black and white, and the characters weren't rendered in simple ways. They were complicated and nuanced in a way that I hadn't read before or hadn't seen on screen before. It felt necessary; somehow, urgent. It was so intimate.
"We wanted the images in the movie to feel like you could take them off the wall and frame them."
NFS: One of the most compelling elements of the film is watching how the family interacts kind of like its own little country. There are times of war, times of peace.
Zagar: Totally, that's a great way to say it.
NFS: They have their own little world. It's a very dynamic relationship. It takes a particularly talented group of actors to pull that off. How did you cast everyone— particularly, the boys?
Zagar: We cast the boys first. Well, I should say we tried to cast the boys first. We did a search throughout New York. We had an amazing grassroots casting director named Marlena Skrobe, who was our intern and then became the casting director. She went to every school and every parade and approached people on the street. I tried to do that, and people would just be like, "Who is this creepy old man?" But she does that and she's so inviting and lovely.
So we would get groups of young people together. She would film them all and then the callbacks. She'd bring in the best young people and we would start to work together and see how it went.
We first cast Josiah. He was number 200-and-something. Then, we got Isiah—he was in the 300s, I think. Ultimately, we couldn't shoot when we wanted to shoot because we couldn't find Jonah.
Zagar: Eventually, we found Evan. He was number 800-and-something. We didn't know if he was the right person yet because he was so shy and so reserved, but he really grabbed the screen.
The thing about all of these young men—and Raúl [Castillo] and Sheila [Vand]—is that they grab the screen. You put the camera on them and there's something just so captivating about them.
Over time, and working with Noelle Gentile, who was the acting coach, Evan started to loosen up and started to gain a tremendous amount of confidence and poise and power. Over the course of filming and over the course of that next year, he really came into his own [as an actor].
NFS: You kind of had to take a leap of faith casting Evan.
Zagar: Yeah, with all of them. I think you're always taking a leap of faith. You're all leaping together; they sort of had to take a leap of faith with me because who knew if I could do this, either? No one knows [if we can pull it off]. You just say, "I want to be at war with you. Let's just go for it."
NFS: Once you had cast everyone, how did you work with them to kind of create the intimate family dynamic?
Zagar: You first had to have actors that were willing to go to that place of intimacy. The brothers were willing to do it, slowly but surely. I knew Raúl was the right dude because he came to my house and did a scene in the bathtub with my kid. He was just down for that kind of intimacy right away. And I was like, "That's the kind of guy I can work with." Because I [had] never worked with actors before. And Sheila, the same thing—she had this tremendous passion. She really just understood the character and was down for anything, and you felt it. We all came from that same place, and that was the most important thing.
"They started to become this pack of actors. Not just a family, but a pack of actors, practicing a craft."
Then, Raúl and Sheila lived in the same house together, like a couple, during the shoot. The boys all lived in the same room together, like brothers. They all slept together for the entire shoot—for the whole summer. They were there for three months. But they had worked together for a year and a half before that, so they were [already] really close. [In reality,] they did everything like brothers. They fought like brothers and screamed like bothers. They were really a family in that way.
I think what led to the intimacy of the brothers was that the boys were able to watch Raúl and Sheila act and get into character. They started to become this pack of actors. Not just a family, but a pack of actors, practicing a craft. They were so, so close.
NFS: That's interesting to hear because you can see the parallel version of that pack mentality process playing out onscreen with the kids watching the parents. They are so hyper-attuned to every little tension that arises. So much of what's captivating about watching these kids is when they're watching their parents. They're able to read the feelings, like anger and betrayal, but they're only half-understanding the situation and coming to their own conclusions.
Zagar: Totally. I think a lot of parallels started to take place on set. I don't know what the rules of the universe are, but a lot of the things that were happening in the movie were happening in mirrored ways within the production. The house we filmed in was a mixed family: a Puerto Rican man and a white woman with four kids. We randomly found them in the middle of Trump country. Little things like that would click and you'd just be like, "Whoa!"
NFS: How did you incorporate the magical realism elements into the film in a way that felt organic?
Zagar: What I love about the book is that every magical realism thing is not magically real, it's real. It's just actually happening. [Jonah] is actually flying out of that grave. He is actually underwater. The conception was, all these things are actually happening. So I never treated anything as a flashback or as a dream. Things needed to be grounded in reality. They couldn't look fantastic; they had to just be fantastic.
"I'm always disappointed whenever I'm watching a movie on digital, no matter how beautiful it is."
NFS: How did you conceive of the animation, which features so prominently in the film?
Zagar: In the middle of the editorial process, we realized that we weren't enough inside Jonah's head. The book was all told in first-person, so you could be really intimate with the author. He is not an active member of the family; he's a watcher. You get inside this chronicler's mind. At first, we couldn't do it.
Then, we employed the animation, and it worked immediately. The illustrator was Mark Sepsonovich. The animation is based on this Czech photocopy animation that I love, where you can actually see the texture of the paper moving. We wanted something that mirrored the film grain. Film grain has its own texture, and the paper was going to be a whole other medium that had its own texture. There was silver halide from Kodak, and there was paper texture from the mill.
Mark started to develop a technique around that with live drawing. We started to create this hybrid animated world that could flow in an out of live-action.
NFS: How did you decide to shoot in 16 mm?
Zagar: We always wanted to shoot in 16 for a number of reasons. One, because I love going to the theater and seeing movies on film. I just love it. I loved it ever since I was a kid. I'm always disappointed whenever I'm watching a movie on digital, no matter how beautiful it is. Even if it's The Revenant, I'm always a little sad that it's not film.
So that's why we shot on film, on a basic level. But we also wanted the film to feel like a memory. I think format dictates time period. When we think about the 1920s, we see them in black and white and everything's kind of moving a little faster than normal because it was filmed at 16 frames per second. When we think about the '70s, everything is technicolor and big and bright. Now, we think of things in digital. Memories kind of crystallize digitally; it's this super, crisp, hyper-real thing.
NFS: Almost like H.D.
Zagar: H.D. memory! Yeah, exactly. But my memory of the '90s is much more associated with the films I watched in the '90s, especially the documentaries of that era. We wanted it to have that same feeling. Streetwise was a huge reference. Ratcatcher was a reference. That's the most influential film for this film. Kes was a reference. Turtles Can Fly and Tin Drum, too.
"We made storyboards for every single image in the movie. They're all hand-painted and they were all really specific."
NFS: The cinematography also reflects the experience of memory. You focus in on very specific images, like the way someone flips their hair, or the way somebody stands by themselves in the corner of a room while the sunlight filters through blinds. The film is full of very evocative, nostalgic images.
Zagar: The film is very influenced by documentary photography of the '80s and '90s. So, people like Eugene Richards and Brenda Ann Kenneally and Bruce Davidson. We wanted the images in the movie to feel like you could take them off the wall and frame them. We made storyboards for every single image in the movie. They're all hand-painted and they were all really specific. We wanted to create indelible images, in the way that memory works, where you think back and the image evokes an emotion.
NFS: Did you bring anything else with you from your experience in documentary filmmaking? Specifically, in relation to working with people, or the way that you operated on set?
Zagar: The primary ethos of the documentaries I make is a radical sense of intimacy. I want to create what I call a campfire environment—like when you're at a campfire, and everybody just suddenly says things they wouldn't normally say. I believe in creating that kind of space.
That's actually one of the first things we actually did together [as a cast]—we all got together and spent a night at the house and we built a campfire and sat around it. It was super intense and I think it created this kind of pack, like the family itself—this really warm, safe pack of people that could be radically intimate with each other. That was vital.
NFS: As a director, do you bring yourself into that mix? Or do you kind of facilitate the environment and let the actors interact in that intimate way?
Zagar: Both. I think it depends on the scene. If the scene needed me to step away, then I would step away. But if the scene needed me to be in there, I would be in there.
Another thing that I believe in—only because I don't know how else to do it— is that everything the actors did, I felt like I had to do, too. If they were willing to do it, I would do it. The same goes for the DP and any of the crew. I wasn't going to put anybody in a situation I wasn't willing to do with them. Sometimes, if Evan was in the [mud pit], I was going to be in the pit with him. If we were going to be in the lake all day, I was going to be on the lake directing with them. But, of course, if it was a scene in the bed, I wasn't going to be in the bed with them.
NFS: This is your first narrative feature. What were some logistical challenges that you encountered that you maybe didn't foresee?
Zagar: Everything. Everything was a tremendous challenge. I really felt that every day, the whole movie would collapse. It always felt so tenuous and difficult and painful. Every day, you encountered some crazy thing that you didn't think was possible, and the only reason you're able to get through it is because you're all in it together, wanting to make it work.
I realized the difference between documentary and narrative is that in documentary, if the day doesn't work, you're not fucked. But in narrative, if a day doesn't work, you're fucked. That's the reality.
NFS: How do you deal with that kind of stress?
Zagar: I just ignore it. I try to just ignore the fact that it's true. Every day I would worry in the morning, like, "Oh, my God, are we gong to get [what we need] today?" And then I'll be like, "All right, just get in it." And what happens, happens.
NFS: And somehow it always happens.
Zagar: Sometimes. The truth is, not always! We did a couple of reshoots. We built that into the schedule. I don't know how directors think they can always get it right on the first try. I very much wanted to create a space where I could fix my mistakes.
NFS: Going into your next narrative feature, what do you think you're armed with now that you didn't have going into production?
Zagar: I think that I have a better sense of story than I did before. I spent a lot of time editing this movie. Keiko [Deguchi, the editor] and I spent a year and a half cutting. I think next time, it will be shorter. This was a very malleable story and I think the next film I make won't be as malleable. It will be a much more clearly, concretely structured story.
NFS: Well, that's kind of the beauty of it, too—I'm sure that's how the book reads.
Zagar: Yes. We the Animals is completely malleable. It's memory. It's tangential. You're creating connections. That's one of the things that makes it exciting, but also challenging to edit.