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Jeremiah Zagar on his Sundance-Winning Film 'We the Animals'

August 17, 2018

Though Jeremiah Zagar’s adaptation of Justin Torres’ We the Animals made its debut only months ago at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, critics are already praising it.

 At the festival, the film earned the NEXT Innovator Award and this month marked the worldwide release of its trailer, which teases out the ethereal tones of the world and characters of Torres’ novel. Some critics have drawn comparisons between the film and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and others have declared it’s this year’s Moonlight.

 We spoke with Zagar about his inspirations, We the Animals and the lessons he picked up during the process of making the film. Here’s what he had to say:

 Final Draft: The trailer looks amazing and it’s been garnering a lot of buzz. What’s that been like for you?

 Jeremiah Zagar: It’s cool. [Laughs] You love to see people responding well to what the movie is … To know that there are people out there that are excited about the moving is thrilling.

 FD: The film has been praised for capturing the tone and feel of the source material so well. What was the process of adapting the material like for you?

Jeremiah Zagar: We never thought of it as an adaption, we thought of it as a translation.

 There’s a current wisdom that you should keep the author at arm’s length when you make an adaption of a book — we took the opposite approach.

 The book is so personal and so brilliant and I just thought, ‘we’re not making this movie without keeping the author as involved as we can.’ He was there for every step of the process; from screenwriting to editorial, he was on set every day. He was my counsel.

 We were making the movie and I would be able to say, ‘what do you think of this? How does this work? Is this accurate? Does this feel real? Does this feel right?’ I think that’s reflected in the film. What you see in the movie is a translation of the book; it is the best we could do to honor that book. That was always the goal; the fact that people are feeling and seeing that makes me feel very proud.

 FD: Some major themes of the story are identity and in that context, people [being] tied to their environments. What was it like setting the film in upstate New York? What impact does the film’s environment have on the narrative and characters?

 Jeremiah Zagar: We tried our best to give the actors an experience that was as much like the real experience of the characters as possible. We shot the movie 30 minutes from where Justin [Torres] grew up. We found a house that was very specifically like the kind of house we wanted — we searched for a year and a half — and we found a community that had an aesthetic sense that was of the past.

 Utica, New York still has buildings and murals; it has this Rust Belt feeling that is vital to the feeling of the book. There is this decay and isolation that surrounds these people. They’re also the only brown people in a white world, and [being] the only city people in a country world was vital.

 FD: How do you feel about comparisons between We the Animals and The Tree of Life and Moonlight? Were there conversations with cinematographer Zak Mulligan or the production design department about capturing the essence of those films or did that sort of manifest on its own?

 Jeremiah Zagar: Well, it’s an honor to be compared to the movies — they’re like two of the greatest movies ever — but Moonlight came out while we were in the middle of editing so it was never a reference for us. Of course, when I saw the movie I felt that it was a masterpiece and I was like, ‘what am I doing?’ … I feel honored to be compared to it.

 In terms of Terrence Malick, I don’t think there’s a director alive that isn’t influenced by Malick. However, he wasn’t the direct reference for the movie.

 Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher — that’s the biggest influence on the film, stylistically. Films of Ken Loach, Kes is a huge influence on the film, Volker Schlöndorff. Visually, the references that Zak [Mulligan] and I talked about were films shot on 16mm film that were very, very colorful; The Tin Drum was very much a textual reference for us. Turtles Can Fly is another one. All of these modern filmmakers are influenced by Terrence Malick’s films so if [We the Animals] feels like it was influenced by Malick, part of that is because a lot of our references are influenced by Malick.

 We were also very influenced by documentary photography. The photography of Mary Ellen Mark, Eugene Richards, Bruce Davidson; that was a huge part of our reference. The wide-lens close up that documentary photography captures was really important to us.

 FD: What’s a dream project for you?

 Jeremiah Zagar: I have lots of dreams! Every time you make a film, your dream has to get bigger. I’m working on a film with [We the Animals co-writer] Dan Kitrosser and Raúl Castillo, and TV shows with Justin [Torres] … Bigger and more expansive stories. Stories that are maybe more possible for me to make now. I’m very excited about that.

 FD: What advice would you have for aspiring filmmakers and writers?

 Jeremiah Zagar: Don’t do it. [Laughs] No, I’ll tell you a story: When I was 21 or 22, I had a film in the London Film Festival. My producer and I were jumping from party to party, trying to eat and drink for free. We snuck into this party before it started and began to drink heavily and all these people came in. It turned out to be an after party for this Quay Brothers’ movie and one of the executive producers was Terry Gilliam, whose films are a huge influence on me. I was so excited that I was sitting next to this woman just talking about how much I would love to meet Terry Gilliam, and she goes, ‘oh, he’s my husband. I’ll introduce you!’ So she ushered my producer and I up to Terry — I was really, really tipsy at that point — and I was hugging him and talking to him and I leaned over and said, ‘I want you to know that you made me want to make movies.’ He just looked at me and said, ‘I’m so sorry.’

 You have to really need to do this thing in order to do it because it’s so difficult and it’s so painful … That’s just sort of the way it is.

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