Without hesitation, director Jeremiah Zagar explains the delicate process of dramatizing a ten-year-old’s queer sexual awakening: it’s a combination of non-exploitative material (adapted from Justin Torres’ novel We the Animals) and collaboration with the parents of child actors. The queer storyline is so integrated with the film’s other important elements that some critics relegate Jonah’s (Evan Rosado) awakening to subtext. But Torres was adamant that, with his adaptation, Zagar make queerness the hermeneutic through which Jonah would see and interpret his world in upstate New York.
We spoke with Zagar about We the Animals, the economic struggles leading to Paps (Raúl Castillo) and Ma’s (Sheila Vand) physical and emotional abuse, the film being greenlit based on casting first-time performer Evan Rosado, and collaborating with the parents of child actors to bring this young, explosive family to the screen.
Will you talk about the baby boy used for Jonah’s birth?
Jeremiah Zagar: That’s my son. I had about an hour of footage. In the footage he’s born then there’s a lot of stuff like being in like in the incubator and there’s a lot more stuff between me and my wife that’s not going to make it into the movie. [Laughs.] I always knew that I wanted that to be part of the movie. My wife got pregnant right after the Sundance Labs and I knew that we’re going to make the movie no matter what. So my producers, who I’ve worked with since I was thirteen years old–Jeremy Yaches and his wife Christina King is also one of our producers–they brought me the camera in the morning when she went into labor. And so I had this camera. I was able to shoot it. I shot the whole birth. That was one of the first things I sent Cinereach to show them the kind of movie I intended to make.
There’s this line where Paps goes, “I’m never going to escape this. Nobody. Not us, not them.” When he says that line, I thought I know how to think about this film. It’s a coming of age story but it’s also a story about class without being overt.
That’s what’s so beautiful about what Justin Torres did and that’s what I really loved about his book; that he dealt with race and class without prescribing solutions or explaining the problems. He said this is the world we live in and this is how it exists and this is the emotional ramifications of that world and that world is real for these people. You can understand it in their context but you can put it in your context too. It’s not that they are apart from you and I think a lot of times when you talk about race class we talk about it as other. And I think what’s so beautiful about Justin’s book and what we tried to convey in the movie was the universal feelings associated you know with those things and that was really important to me.
I think you can probably link almost all of Ma and Paps’ behavior back to their economic struggles. Paps is physically abusive, but Ma is emotionally abusive.
We tried to convey the nuance of abuse in the movie. I think abuse gets framed very much in black and white terms. It’s either abusers are evil and awful and people that don’t abuse others are good. But the truth is we’re all a little bit abusive, we’re all a little bit evil, we’re all a little bit good. The reason abuse perpetuates is because the people are not only abusive. If they were only abusive they wouldn’t stay in those relationships, they wouldn’t continue. So it doesn’t make sense. I think we carry with us—all human beings—a lot of pain. What we do with that pain is different for all of us.
The people I know who did the most brutal things to other people were also the most charming and wonderful, you know what I mean? They were also the people who did the most wonderful things. It’s sort of how they could get away with it. I think that one was to compensate for the other. These are these are very flawed and real people. They’re full characters, they’re three-dimensional characters and they’re not good and they’re not bad and there’s just so much gray and everyone in this story. And that’s why I related to it. It reminded me of my family who some might consider abusive. [Laughs.] But I never saw it in that light. I saw the difficulties that my family went through as part of the nuance of what made me who I am and that’s all.
How did you get the parents of non-actor kids to trust you?
A lot of that’s about the parents. Like a lot of that’s about the kind of people that we found. I sort of feel like it was a miracle. We found the most open-minded, wonderful parents that came along with these kids. We cast for the kids and we got these incredible parents. I think they were so open to the script and so open to the experience. I was constantly worried that it would be impossible to get parents who would let their children be in a movie like this, but then we found these very artistically minded, very beautiful people. I think it’s a testament to their children who the parents are. Their children are incredible and they’re not only incredible actors, they’re incredible people and I think the parents created that and they are the same.
How did you tastefully depict a ten-year-old’s emerging sexuality?
It was a long process. One of the first things Justin did is he sat down and said, “I want to make sure this is a movie about queer awakening, that we have that in there. It’s not just a movie about childhood.” Now, in the book it’s very unclear that the character is queer. Not until the very end of the book when he ages about ten years. And in our case we were never going to do that because we wanted you to live in the face and in the eyes of this young boy. So we had to figure out a way to create that queer reality for this young boy throughout the film. We had to figure out when to begin it. There are moments and hints of it in the book so we used those hints and sort of made them bigger. That was the Dustin character in the book, but he was a very small part of the book and we made him a little bigger. And the pornography is definitely in the book, but we made the ramifications of that pornography with the artwork larger. In those ways we tried to bring his queer awakening a little earlier.
Will you talk about the grave and flying imagery in the film?
That’s all in the book. The lake scene is almost as written. Almost exactly as written; down to the birds in the sky and the and the hands in the water. The flying out of the grave scene is something we added, we would do this intermittently throughout film. We would take pieces of the novel and sort of ‘cinema-ized’ them, translate them visually. It was like how do we take what’s written and make it a more explosive visual image. And so that’s where the flight came from, but there’s this constant push and pull in the book between drowning and flying and how close those two things are actually. I was saying this to an audience the other day, it’s that when you make a film, if you’re not willing to drown then you can never fly. The film has to be so on the brink of being terrible for it to be any good, you know what I mean? You have to be risking so much in order to transcend. And that’s what this young boy’s life is and the drowning and the flying is the metaphor we chose to express it.
I would describe Jonah as a truth teller, and he’s punished in myriad ways for telling it.
That’s very astute. That’s very true. And it’s sort of like one of the things that the book is that the movie is not is the book is a testament to that idea. It’s like this person who has seen these things then translates it to the world and derives meaning from it. Because the movie is not a written document it doesn’t have that same quality. However, the fact that you got that from the movie means we succeeded.
What did you see in Evan Rosado that told you he could show these emotions, tell these truths?
I think it’s very interesting because we saw a thousand kids and I think that the camera is what doesn’t lie. The camera tells you what you’re seeing and if that person can actually achieve what you believe they can achieve. So in his screen test, even in his first screen test, you could see that the camera didn’t want to let go of him. All three of the boys had that quality where the camera and Raúl Castillo and Sheila Vand, too. I saw a hundred actresses for Ma, I saw you know not as many for Paps because we sort of knew Raúl would be right from the beginning. They all have that quality where they grab the screen and hold the screen and that’s a quality that can’t be trained. You can’t teach that it’s just innate. So Evan has that, he has that maybe more than everybody else. He has that quality. But we didn’t actually know that he could definitely achieve the range of emotions that he needed to express. But we brought in an acting coach named Noelle Gentile who works with kids and Daniel Kitrosser, my co-writer, also works with kids and they were able to bring it out in him. They were able to show us what he was capable of. And once we knew what he was capable of we knew that we were one-hundred percent. That’s when we greenlit the film. We didn’t greenlight the film until we had Jonah. I think we cast for a year and a half before we were able to green light up based on him.
What was it like working with Raúl Castillo and Sheila Vand on your first fiction movie?
Raúl and Sheila taught me so much about acting. I’m not an actor’s director yet, I’m a documentary filmmaker who’s ventured into this world. But what Raúl and Sheila did is they immersed himself in the novel first of all and then immerse himself in the script and then the character and they fell in love with that. When you make a movie like this you don’t do it for the money because there is no money. So a lot of it is based on the love of the material. I can’t speak for Raúl, but what I liked about having him in the role is it was so different from the character he played on Looking. It was so different from any of the characters he played before. He has this quality which was important,of being likable despite his faults. He’s just a wonderful guy and you just love him and you love him on screen and in person and you know in real life he’s just a wonderful person.
Was making this movie unusually difficult?
I mean, most of filmmaking is a horrible experience… for me at least. I think some people revel in the experience. I have a deep need to make movies, but I find the process incredibly difficult. I’m not saying that difficulty doesn’t give me meaning. It does. And I derive a tremendous amount of pride from going through those difficulties. But if I went through all the tremendous disasters we experience on this film… I think it’s Scorsese who said if your rough cut or your assembly doesn’t make you want to vomit then you failed. [Laughs.] Every bit of the filmmaking process–because you’re putting so much of your own self, life and heart into it–is very, very painful. You’re putting in a tremendous amount of money and your whole life on the line to do this thing and it all could depend on somebody not wanting to do it with you. Or someone getting sick or something collapsing. All of that stress, it’s just a very hard experience. [Laughs.]
It’s rewarding because you’re able to take something that’s in your mind and put it on the screen and you’re able to watch it transform and you’re able to bring something to life and there’s nothing better. There’s nothing better than that.
We the Animals is now in limited release.