'We the Animals' Director Jeremiah Zagar Talks Open Collaboration and the Independent Spirit Awards

The 'We the Animals' director Jeremiah Zagar discusses making the leap from documentaries to feature filmmaking and his film's five Independent Spirit Awards nominations.

We The Animals Jeremiah Zagar
Cinereach

The Independent Spirit Awards have always been the Oscars’ more-stylish younger sibling, but in an underwhelming award season dominated by two contentious Best Picture nominees, the 2019 Independent Spirit Awards feel like the true arbiter of cultural value. Compared to the Academy Awards, these nominations\ feel like a more accurate foreshadowing of the films and filmmakers from 2018 we will still remember in a decade. It’s not a coincidence, then, that We The Animals leads the pack with nominations in five categories, including Best First Feature, Best Supporting Male, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, and the Someone to Watch award. In doing so, Jeremiah Zagar’s dreamlike exploration of domestic violence, sexuality, and teenage insolence has paved the way for a half-dozen impressive careers and cemented Zagar as a filmmaker who can move easily between both documentaries and features.

“The fact that the most nominations went to We The Animals, that means people stood up and took notice,” Zagar explained during a recent phone conversation. If the Oscars are critical to the success of studio-backed art films, then the Independent Spirit Awards are an opportunity for audiences to seek out independent films they might otherwise miss. Zagar’s film certainly fits the bill. Despite finishing as one of the highest-reviewed movies of the year, We the Animals was overlooked by many critics as part of their year-end recaps. The film’s strong showing with Film Independent can help offset that insight. “That’s the idea of awards, right? People notice films that they didn’t notice before,” Zagar suggests. “That’s the dream.”

It’s certainly a dream worth pursuing. Zagar’s film, which is based on the debut book by author Justin Torres, is a hazy look back at a childhood peppered with acts of shocking violence and quiet beauty. We are introduced to Jonah, Joel, and Manny, three siblings coming of age in a poor household in the early ’90s. The boys aren’t preoccupied with the things they don’t have; like most kids, Jonah and his brothers look to each other for entertainment and are as content sleeping on the floor of their father’s place of work as they are exploring the farmsteads around their house. To create a unique dynamic between the three brothers, Zagar and his creative team underwent a lengthy search for talented non-actors who would bring the characters to life. This kept the director firmly within his comfort zone; coming from the world of documentary cinema, Zagar had never worked with professional actors before, a fact he’s quick to own up to.

“I had worked with non-actors before, which made it more easy for me to work with the boys, more organic for me,” Zagar explains. As We the Animals represented a big transition from the world of documentary cinema to narrative filmmaking, Zagar focused on keeping his creative team together to ease the transition. “A lot of the people I worked with on the film are people I’ve worked with on documentary. My producers, Jeremy [Yaches] and Christina [D. King]; my cinematographer Zak [Mulligan]; [Editor Keiko Deguchi], who’s made every single film I’ve done. We’ve done every film together, and she’s intrinsic to the process.”

This large list of collaborators speaks to Zagar’s egalitarian approach as a filmmaker. While some directors may choose to make their feature debut a testament to their talent, Zagar instead describes the shared approach to filmmaking as his favorite thing about the industry. “I love ceding creative ground,” he admits when asked about his collaborative approach. “I love ceding creative ground to Dan [Kitrosser] and to Justin, and to Raúl [Castillo] and Sheila [Vand], and to the boys and to my producers. That’s the beautiful part of making films, right? You’re not the sole creator of the film. You’re part of this living, breathing organism which is moving towards this goal.”

In this case, the goal was to create a tender depiction of a young boy struggling to come to terms with his own sexuality. As the boys get older, Jonah begins to recognize the differences between him and his brothers; he begins to keep a secret journal with his private thoughts, centering on his unformed sexual urges and the confusion created by his parents’ violent relationship. Given the big questions lurking underneath the surface of We the Animals — and the lack of easily digestible outcomes for Jonah and his family — it was important to Zagar that the film hew as close as possible to the original source material. That meant leaning heavily on Torres throughout the process. “He was on the set, and he read every draft of the script,” Zagar says of the book’s author. “He was even in the editing room making sure we got every step of it right, but that was something I desperately wanted, to be sure that we got it right and that we provide no easy answers because I don’t think that there are easy answers.”

No easy answers also meant some pretty challenging material, especially for a group of young boys who were acting professionally for the first time. There is very little editorializing in the film; while Jonah’s childhood is shaped by the sometimes-abusive relationship between his young parents, this becomes a kind of perverse standard of normalcy for the household. For Zagar, this necessitated bringing in the right people to help his young cast navigate a few tricky scenes. “We had this woman named Noelle Gentile, who is an acting coach in Albany, New York and she’s amazing,” Zagar recalls. “She put her heart and soul into this process and worked with the kids through the more difficult scenes, and was on set to help the kids through the more difficult scenes. I think that’s really important for all directors who work with kids to realize is that it’s very helpful to have a person who is experienced in doing that and be there to guide them.

And as for his film’s chances at the upcoming Independent Spirit Awards? Unsurprisingly, Zagar is just happy to share the spotlight with his talented cast and crew. “The moving thing is watching all of these incredible people being recognized for their work, that they deserve,” Zagar notes, admitting that he wishes his young actors and leading actress had been in the conversation for awards as well. Of course, if the success of their feature collaboration is any indication, this will not be the last time we see this particular group of talent come award season.

Matthew is a feature writer for Film School Rejects and a freelance film critic at the Austin Chronicle. His writing can be found at /Film, RogerEbert.com, Playboy, and more.