We the Animals Director Jeremiah Zagar on Why Familial Love Is More Interesting Than Romantic Love

Photo: The Orchard

Movies about families — and the selfish and selfless ways we love people we’ve spent our whole lives knowing — are the stories Jeremiah Zagar wants to tell the most. We the Animals, his first feature, takes place almost entirely inside one home in upstate New York, and follows the family that inhabits it: Two passionate, destructive parents (Raúl Castillo and Sheila Vand), and their three gregarious sons. Jonah, the youngest, is sensitive and pensive, retreating to a crawl space under his bed to draw manic, vivid illustrations of his family’s love and strife. He’s turning 10 — or “9 plus one,” according to his mother, who wants him to stay family’s the baby forever — and starting to see the desires of his parents, his brothers, and himself more clearly.

We the Animals is adapted from the Justin Torres novel of the same name. When Zagar pitched Torres on his vision for the adaption, he said the author was skeptical of someone turning his story of family, brotherhood, and queerness into something too Hollywood. “I showed him my movie, a documentary called In a Dream. It’s about my crazy family,” Zagar says. “[Justin] saw that, and I was like, See, I have a similar experience. I’ve also chronicled the messy love of my family. I believe in that shit.” With Torres’s blessing, Zagar adapted the novel into a lively — and, at times, devastating — coming-of-age story. Jonah’s parents split up and get back together, and he slips away to watch porn with a local boy a few years older, trying to make sense of his life and its changes. “Romantic love is beautiful,” Zagar says, “but ultimately, not as interesting as when it becomes familial love.” Zagar told Vulture about adapting the novel, working with child actors, and why the Moonlight comparisons don’t bother him.

How did you get your hands on Justin’s novel? Who gave it to you, or when did you come across it?
I was in this bookstore. I had just come back from Egypt. I was editing a movie called The Square, a movie about the revolution. I decided that I was a revolutionary, that I’d fight the Egyptian revolution with all these other revolutionaries. We were all living in a house together. And then I came home, and I realized I wasn’t an Egyptian revolutionary.

So I was in a bookstore, thinking about these things — it was one of those moments where you’re thinking about what matters to you in life, and what’s important to you. At that moment I picked up We the Animals, and I read the first page, and it just grabbed me. Suddenly I was realized, Oh, I love stories. I can fight for stories. I believe in stories. This is my fight, somehow. I just started reading this book and immediately wanted to make this into a movie. No one’s ever seen this family on screen, and this is a family like my family. This is complicated, messy love like our messy love, I get this. So I bought five copies. And I gave some to my producers, and I gave another to my co-writer Dan [Kitrosser]. Then I called Justin, and he met me.

What was that first conversation with Justin like?
He was very skeptical at first. He brought a friend of his, kind of as a bodyguard, just in case I was a super-creep or something. But we vibed. He’s such an intelligent, emotionally astute, wonderful dude. Right away, it was clear that we understood each other, clear that I wanted to make the kind of film that he wanted to see made of his book. Other people had wanted to option the book, and they’d told him crazy shit they wanted to do with it — sitcoms or weird Hollywood-y things. He also didn’t want it to sit on some producer’s shelf for the rest of its life. He wanted somebody who actually really wanted to make it into a movie.

How did you do shoot this very intimate, sort of spiritual vision? What was the day-to-day of creating that intimate environment?
First of all, we shot in one house, primarily. We spent a couple nights in that house as a group. But then when the boys would go home, they would live together as brothers. They slept all in the same room. Raúl and Sheila shared a house, too. It was as familial as we could make it within the confines of what’s kosher. And that might have even been a little overstepping.

In addition to that, when we were on set, we always allowed for moments of improvisation. The film was very rigidly scripted and storyboarded and shot listed. But what that allowed for was efficiency and then freedom. Because we knew the exact shots we wanted, we could allow for the freedom of deviating from those shots [in another take]. For example: the boys usually had about three takes in them, and every fourth take was an improv take. It allowed them to say whatever they wanted, go off script, and do crazy things. Some of those crazy things that made it into the movie [are] tiny moments that make the movie feel alive.

What moment of improv are you proudest of?
There are some crazy moments, like the Quack Diddly Oso scene, which is a beautiful moment, where the boys are playing that game. That’s a game that Dan, my screenwriter, taught them. They would play on set as a warm-up. One day we filmed it, and it was so funny and honest. They kind of start humping each other, pretending to do weird sexy dances. It’s this wonderful boyish, alive thing that’s just what they did.

What’s the secret to directing kids and getting these unique and individual performances out of each of them?
I don’t know if there’s a secret. My secret to directing — ‘cause I don’t really know how [to direct] — is casting. I relied heavily on my cast. I felt like I cast the right kids, which means I cast the right kids’ parents, who understood the material and feel comfortable explaining it to their kids as well. I cast two actors who were incredibly passionate and dedicated, and willing to work with young people — Sheila and Raúl were just down for it.

I also had an acting coach on set at all times, this woman named Noelle Gentile. She worked with the kids through the casting process, too. She was with them for a year before we even started filming. [By the time we began] they had a process down with her that allowed me to concentrate on my stuff and work intimately with them.

The scene that really moved me was when the boys see their dad cry and have to process that. He’s just been fired, and their truck is being towed. I know In a Dream deals with your own relationship with your father, and I’m wondering if you think this movie’s understanding of fatherhood and generational inheritance builds on your documentary.
I think they do parallel. I really want to make movies about tangible, complicated love, and I think the epitome of love is family love. There’s something about familial love that’s just mythic. Epic. I love how contained familial love is, and how at the same time, it’s so iconic and so much more epic than political movies, or thrillers.

I’d like to talk about filming some of the more sexual scenes. Evan, as Jonah, is the youngest brother, and he’s beginning to consider his sexuality and what he’s curious about: He’s watching porn with an older boy, drawing these really sexual sketches, watching his parents kiss deeply. How did you keep those scenes authentic with a child actor?
So there’s two rules: One rule is I will do anything you’re gonna do, and I’m never gonna make you do something you don’t wanna do. That was a primary rule with all the actors, right off the bat. We were never gonna push you into a situation. I hear about these directors who manipulate their actors. That’s so messed up and disturbing. You’re asking these people to honor the character and to honor this book, to take their own life experiences and translate them to another human being. That’s a tremendously difficult and emotionally painful process, I think. What I wanted to do as a director was create a safe space for them to be able to do that.

[The child actors] are never seeing the things you see. That’s all the magic of editing. We’re just telling them ideas of what’s in those scenes, not even really saying it. So if they’re watching the pornography in the movie, they’re not actually watching pornography on set. They’re just hearing me say funny things that they can react to. Or if they’re watching the parents in sexual positions, they’re not actually watching them, that’s just shot reverse shot.

There is a scene where two young boys who kiss, which — I don’t know if two boys their age have ever done that in a movie in America. There were long conversations about what that kiss would mean and why that kiss was important, and that it was acting. It was about them feeling confident in their craft and becoming professionals, in a way. They were like, Oh, this isn’t me. This is this boy, and this story means something, so I’m gonna do this.

Tell me more about that kiss and the conversations around it. Were you, on set, considering how novel the shot of these two boys kissing would be?
I was, until I saw Moonlight, and then I was like, Ah, man! I mean, Moonlight was so amazing for me. It is such an incredible movie. It’s an American movie that’s pushing the bounds for young people and their sexuality. But I think it was also freeing for me, because I was like, Oh, we can do this in a different way, and we are doing this in a different way.

In order to do that kiss, it was really just getting right back to the ethos of the whole movie. This movie is about honoring this book, and this book is a book that has changed tons of people’s lives, and is very specific and very clear. We just have to do the best we can to honor that. When the boys understood that, it was clear for everybody.

IndieWire called We the Animals “this year’s Moonlight.” It was a really positive review, but I wondered if that comparison bothered you, or how it made you feel.
No, I don’t mind at all. Literally, it’s not a comparable movie: stylistically and physically, they have very little to do with each other. What that reviewer was doing, I think, was elevating the movie. We made a very small, intimate movie that is independently financed and independently made — it’s dangerous, crazy filmmaking. What Moonlight proved is that kind of movie can reach wide audiences. I like the comparison in that way.

The sexuality in [We the Animals], and the thematics, are not really as applicable. I’m not talking about the queerness of it, I’m talking about the way [We the Animals] deals with childhood understanding of sexuality. Moonlight did that in a way similar to what we were trying to do, But in every other way, our film is completely different. They’re both small, intimate movies that feel epic and big and should reach wider audiences.

Since we’re talking about intimate movies reaching popularity, what did you think about the Oscars adding a popular film category?
I think it’s stupid. I lost faith in the Oscars years ago. When I was a kid, I used to love the Oscars. I wasn’t allowed to watch TV as [a] kid, but the only time my mother would let me watch was when it was the Oscars. It was so epic. Maybe when James Franco hosted, or something, it fell apart for me. I was like, What are these? This is ridiculous. That’s not to say I wouldn’t go, but it doesn’t have that mythology.

What’s cool about the Oscars is sort of the same reason it’s cool when the Eagles win the Super Bowl. It’s cool when a little movie, or something small that’s unexpected, can achieve heights that you never expected. That the Oscars gives a platform for that is thrilling for me, beyond the pretty dresses and the beautiful people. That you can be a Moonlight and win an Oscar is cool. And when you have a category like popular whatever film category, and a film like Moonlight gets less attention, that erodes that mythology.

I read an interview with you out of Sundance, where you said you’d watch footage of your son’s birth every day while you were editing and making this movie. Why?
He’s in the movie. That’s his birth. We were cutting it into the movie at different places. You can also see my wife, but you see her foot. My wife catered the film, so she was on set every day, and she was very intimately part of the process. She’s the best.

And my son — there is nothing more epic and mythic than the birth of your child. And there’s nothing more universally thrilling. That moment exemplifies the ethos of the movie: Let’s make it real, let’s make it alive. When I would watch that footage, I always get really emotional, because it’s my kid. But also, it’s what grounds the movie in a reality, and a poetry in a reality, that’s very blood-oriented.

We the Animals Director Jeremiah Zagar on Familial Love