Jeremiah Zagar’s We the Animals features flashes of impressionistic splendor that evoke the seemingly stumbled-upon beauty of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. Where most films talk, this one sings. Zagar’s lyrical invocation of childhood in both its rambunctious joy and exasperating confusion resonates far beyond the context of the film’s hyper-detailed rural setting. We the Animals’s epic-sized sense of intimacy shrinks the chasm between the universal and the personal.
Zagar utilized highly structured means to achieve natural-appearing ends. He storyboarded the entire film before production, a process that commonly yields a finished product with a more meticulous sense of mise-en-scène. While We the Animals feels so effortlessly fluent in the language of cinema, the story’s first tongue was actually a novel by Justin Torres—one that Zagar told me he was “deferential” to and wanted to translate onto the screen.
I sat down with Zagar this week to discuss, among other things, how We the Animals functions in the larger conversation of queer cinema, independent film, and distinctively cinematic adaptations of literature.
When I first saw the film, I was really surprised by the direction it took at the end with Jonah’s sexuality, something that I noticed a little more clearly foreshadowed when I watched the film again. Is there a right way to watch the movie? Should we know that this is a queer story from the outset?
There’s no right way to watch the movie. The work that Justin and I do is very dense and rich with subtext and metaphor. It’s full. Those are the kind of movies I love: You watch it one way one time, and you watch it again the next time and see new things. That’s exciting, I think, for me at least.
The marketing has really leaned into the critical pull-quote referring to We the Animals as “this year’s Moonlight,” but I consider Barry Jenkins’s film to be quite different from yours apart from the matters of class and sexual orientation. Do you think the lack of comparable titles for the film speaks to a larger need to consider a broader spectrum of queer stories?
I think the reviewer compared it to Moonlight because it was a small movie he wanted to be big. The marketing people are using it for that same reason. That being said, there aren’t enough stories about people like Jonah or people like the characters in Moonlight. We as a culture need to speak more frankly about sexuality, race, love—and we need to talk about how complicated and messy the reality of those things are. I’m proud to have We the Animals compared to a movie that does that, and I think our movie does that in a very different way. We’re different than the status quo that’s out there, that’s for sure. And we should be. You should come to the movie wanting a different experience than Mission: Impossible – Fallout...which I liked!
It’s like best picture versus best popular film.
Yeah, we’re gonna win best popular film.
How did filming and documenting your own family in In a Dream help you film the fictional family in We the Animals?
My family lives in extremes. They experience life in extremes, and the family in We the Animals experiences life in extremes. There’s something about my family that I thought was unique to my family. We express love very physically. There’s a lot of touch, a lot of intimacy that’s familial, not necessarily sexual. I think what’s interesting is when those lines blur. In my family, those lines blurred often. My father is a very sexually explicit person, and I grew up being confused by his overt sexuality. When I read Justin’s book, I saw that same confusion in the characters. That excited me. The other thing that excited me was how alive and real it felt. I could take my documentary experience and translate it into a fictional piece because of that.
I was surprised to learn after seeing the film that it’s based on a book because I don’t always associate impressionistic film language with the page.
It’s very impressionistic. But I think more and more auteurs I love are creating unique visions based on novels. Lynne Ramsay’s last film [You Were Never Really Here] was based on a novel and 12 Years a Slave was based on a [memoir]. There are a lot of beautiful films based on novels that are very much their own world. Speaking of Moonlight, it’s based on a play, which is the same kind of thing. It’s very much its own creation. Directors are beginning to realize they can take material that has room for incredible visual and sonic experiences and translate them to the screen, and I think that’s exciting for a lot of us. They don’t have to be literary, they can be experiential.
When I was doing my research, I stumbled across information for an intensive documentary film seminar you hosted and saw that its focus was on interview techniques, getting the answer out of their subjects. Is there any of that you roll over in working with actors to bring out a character?
What I love about the cinematic experience is how intimate it is—intimacy with groups of people, which is kind of an amazing thing. I guess it’s not unlike a weird cult, or a religious experience. You go into church, you have an intimate experience with other people, but with a lot of people around. Part of that is due to a radical honesty that’s happening during those moments. To create that kind of intimacy where you can create that kind of honesty is a different process from making documentaries. But it’s the same ethos. How do you create an environment where people feel like they can be intimate and honest? That’s the core of what I do with both things.
So, you storyboarded everything in We the Animals, even those impressionistic grace notes we see?
Absolutely! The whole movie is storyboarded, and what that allowed us to do was deviate from the storyboard on set. Some of the shots are exactly as how they appeared in the storyboard, and some of them changed organically due to the filmmaking process. When you have things so rigidly constructed, you either kill your film because everyone can’t move within the rigid construction or you free it. Everyone’s so prepared that they’re able to deviate from the proscribed path and come back to it. And that’s how we saw it, as this road map. My DP [Zak Mulligan] would never even look at the storyboards, he would have a shot list. The actors never saw them. Everyone was in different kind of spaces, but we were all preparing in our own way as well as we could.
That’s an interesting dichotomy. How do you prepare the actors to fulfill your plan while also being open to moments of improvisatory brilliance?
With the boys, we would make sure we got everything I needed and wanted—and then we would let [them roam free on set]: “Go ahead and improv the scene. What do you want to say? Say anything you want.” The boys loved that, their moment of improv, and a lot of that stuff is in We the Animals. The “Quack Diddly Oso” scene was a game they played with Dan Kitrosser, the screenwriter, and it just organically became part of the thing. Fun things like that make it really exciting to work with people.
When you’re casting young actors, how do you make sure they can recreate that spark you saw in the casting phase on camera?
We had this incredible acting coach named Noel Gentile who worked with them. She worked with them for a year and a half, so she had a breadth of experience with those boys. She understood how to get them in the zone so that, when I was directing them, they were ready and in the zone.
The story is set in the ’90s, but the film seems so stripped of any period-piece signposts that I found myself wondering if the family’s material poverty meant they just lived decades behind a middle-class family, or if it was actually taking place in a different time. How did you approach time?
We approached the time in two ways. Yes, it was the ’90s, so the markers for the ’90s are material and not literal. It’s not what’s on TV. We’re setting it up with the telephones or the landscape. But really the movie is a memory of a dream. It’s supposed to feel timeless, like you can reach out and touch it. It can immerse you and be whatever you need it to be and wherever you want it to be. And we do that so it feels as close to the viewer as possible.
Throughout your work, you’ve looked at your own family, a decades-old televised trial, and brought a fictional family to life, among other things. Do you want to keep changing things up with each project you take on?
Yes. I love family, so I think that will be a thematic in my work for as long as I live. But I’m very interested in working with form. I’m not interested in making the same movie over and over again. I’m not an auteur, I’m very much a collaborator, someone who loves to direct with people and create with people. I want the stories I continue to tell to be immersive collaborations where everyone is able to bring something exciting to create new things. And I’m able to develop the language of my own filmmaking in the process.
Is there anyone working now that you consider a model for that filmmaking?
Lynne Ramsay is the number-one model for this movie, and her genesis of creation is very much in line with the genesis of the career I’d like to have. But she doesn’t make documentaries, and I still want to make documentaries! I love what Paul Thomas Anderson is doing, how every one of his films is a completely different one. That’s mind-blowing to me and really exciting.