I was recently given the opportunity to speak with Jeremiah Zagar, the director and co-writer of the new film We the Animals. It debuted at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and has been touring the festival circuit ever since, picking up numerous accolades. I first saw this film at the Florida Film Festival in April, and I fell in love with it. It’s a brilliant, human story with a really unique vision. You can read my full review here.
There have been some slight edits to this interview for grammatical or content purposes.
Big Tuna on Film: Mr. Zagar, I want to begin by thanking you for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with me. I also want to congratulate you on the film, which I’ve seen twice now, and is absolutely wonderful. Of course, you won the NEXT Innovator Award at Sundance, which is amazing!
Jeremiah Zagar: Thanks!
BT: The film is based on the novel of the same name by Justin Torres. Could you tell me a little bit about what drew you to the story?
Zagar: I read the book at a bookstore in New York and I had just come back from editing a documentary in Egypt called The Square. I was in the middle of a revolution and was feeling very revolutionary-oriented, and I was thinking about what I was willing to fight for. I think that, when I read the book, I was so moved by its depiction of family. It reminded me so much of my family, and that seemed like something worth fighting for. That really felt like something I cared deeply about. So I called the author, and I bought everybody I knew a book, and I met him, and he said, “Go for it!”
BT: The three lead child actors are extremely talented and give great performances, but they were all surprisingly first-time actors. How did you find them and what was it like working with them?
Zagar: We saw over a thousand kids. We cast for a year and a half. We had an amazing grassroots casting director, Marlena Skrobe, and acting coach, Noelle Gentile, and we sort-of worked together, workshopped with those kids, and really spent time figuring it out. When we saw those young people that are in the movie, they just lit up the screen. I mean, there was no doubt about it. Josiah, I think he was number two-hundred-and-something; Isaiah was number three-hundred-and-something; and Evan was number eight-hundred-and-something. When you saw them, it was undeniable that they could carry a movie, just with their charisma and their faces. Then it was just a matter of coaching them from there.
BT: The film covers some very important and timely themes, such as poverty, sexual identity, and racial identity. What do you hope that audiences can take away from this film?
Zagar: I think that we, as a culture— I speak of “we” as the “we” who will relate to this— are feeling very much “other”. This film explores the nature of “other” and how one processes one’s “otherness” and by processing it, by chronicling it, frees themself. I think that filmmaking and storytelling right now, especially storytelling about communities and people that aren’t usually talked about or seen in media is a political act. Watching and seeing these movies is a political act. When the world seems so daunting, it’s important to find empathy through stories.
BT: In what ways do you hope the audience will connect to the characters and their story?
Zagar: Again, I think we all understand the experience of being an outsider and wanting to be a pack, you know? We also all understand how messy, and complicated, and nuanced love is, and I think we want to see that reflected in the stories that we tell and the stories that we see.
BT: The film offers brutally honest moments, in which we see life exactly how it is, but there are also these amazing, imaginative surreal scenes. What were you trying to express with this?
Zagar: Again, the film is about extremes. It’s about how brutality and love and joy and pain and nuance and magic and reality collide. It’s like one comes from the other. Life is thrilling because it is real, but life is also thrilling because it is imagined. So when you can make those things collide in a visual way in a story, it’s just a really exciting moment. It’s a world that I like to play and live in.
BT: Nature and the outdoors serve as important motifs throughout the film. What were some of the things you were trying to express with these symbols?
Zagar: I think it’s the wildness of humanity. We are wild animals. We are creatures. We live in the natural world, and we want to explore the natural world. A backyard is a jungle; a garden is a jungle, especially when you’re a kid. That feeling of wandering through the woods, feeling the natural world is just so exciting. I remember being a kid, living in West Virginia in the summer and searching for snakes and animals in the woods and looking for fossils and how mythic and epic that felt. That is really something we wanted to capture in the movie.
BT: From the opening scene of the film, sound plays a huge role, whether diegetic sounds, like the boys banging on the table, or the score, which is amazing. How do you think the use of sound impacted your film and its story?
Zagar: It was so important. I mean, Nick Zammuto, who did the score, and Ruy García, who was the sound designer, really brought to life what I was hoping for, which is this really dynamic feeling of a memory of a family who lived in extremes. What happens with memory is that things become incredibly acute. Sounds become incredibly acute, smells become incredibly acute, and images become incredibly acute. They become crystallized and frozen in time, and we wanted to create a score and soundscape that felt that unique and that crystallized.
BT: The film incorporates many drawings and animated sequences. Could you speak a little about those?
Zagar: Yeah, that happened later in the process. So we were about halfway into editing and we realized you weren’t enough in the mind of Jonah. The animations became a way to get into his mind. I had used the same technique in my documentary, In a Dream, with my father, that used his artwork, animated, as a way to explore his psyche. We decided to try it with Jonah, and as soon as we did the test, everybody really felt like it was something special and exciting.
BT: What was your biggest challenge in making the film?
Zagar: Everything was like the most daunting, gigantic, and terrifying challenge I have ever encountered. I literally felt like every day the whole film was just going to fall apart and collapse. It was just a miracle that every day, it didn’t. By the end of shooting, I was like a shell of a human being. I had lost fifteen to twenty pounds and was pale white. Nobody recognized me or could speak to me.
BT: What were some films and/or filmmakers that influenced you while making the film?
Zagar: There were a lot. I mean, Ken Loach is a huge influence, Lynne Ramsay is an influence, Volker Schlöndorff is an influence. So is Mary Ellen Mark and other photographers of that era. Bruce Davidson, Eugene Richards, Brenda Ann Kenneally— all huge, huge influences.
BT: This is your feature narrative debut, and it’s been so well-received. It’s played at these huge festivals like Sundance and Tribeca. How does it feel, as a filmmaker, to get this level of success?
Zagar: To be honest, the most important thing, for me, is that the author is proud of the movie. Everything else is an extension of that. Because we made a film that is true to his vision, it got into those festivals and is receiving this attention, and I’m very proud of that.
BT: Well, those are all of the questions I have! Thank you so much for your time! I know we’ll see more great things from you in the future!
Zagar: Thanks, man. I really appreciate that!
We the Animals opens in select theaters August 17.
At this year's Gasparilla International Film Festival, I saw the short film Gun Fingers, directed by Jesse Keller. It's just over two minutes long, but it was my favorite of the shorts block because it is dense with dark humor. Keller is an independent filmmaker from San Diego, and his feature debut, Blood Will Have Blood, toured the festival circuit before being released on home entertainment last year. Below we discuss the two aforementioned films and go a bit into Keller's favorite films.
Big Tuna on Film: What are some of your favorite films and filmmakers?
Jesse Keller: That's one of those questions you could be there all day. For any movie lover, it's like choosing between your children in a way. But for me, it really depends on what day you ask me. Lately, I've been on a big old film noir kick. I was really getting into Out of the Past, Jacques Tourneur, a filmmaker he directed some films noir; he directed the movie Cat People. Amazon actually has a really decent selection right now of '40s and '50s film noir. You can catch up on stuff like this movie Detour; it's about a guy who accidentally kills someone and then picks up this mysterious woman as he's driving West on the highways. Asphalt Jungle. And of course, one of my favorites of all time, I love Orson Welles, you know, Citizen Kane of course, but also Touch of Evil, Welles's film noir is one of my favorites of all time. And then recently, in terms of recent films, last year, probably my favorite was Phantom Thread. I'm definitely a big Paul Thomas Anderson fan. I liked The Shape of Water a lot last year. I'll go see anything that Richard Linklater does. A lot of stuff.
BT: Could you talk a bit about your inspiration for Blood Will Have Blood?
Keller: In my twenties, I spent a lot of time doing community theatre and smaller theatre productions. I thought I wanted to be an actor for a while. And this movie is largely based on those experiences of working in small-time theaters with other people who really love plays and Shakespeare. I was a part of a little theatre company here in San Diego called the Poor Players that had no money, no budget, but did these really creative productions of Shakespeare, and so it's a little inspired by that. Then, you know, of course, other movies, like tiny little hints of Black Swan are there, with life merging with the work of art. And then also film noir. I kinda consider it a neo-noir in its way.
BT: Blood Will Have Blood wasn't the film's initial title. Could you talk a bit about this title change?
Keller: Yeah, the original title was "Thane of East County", which you know, it's set in the East County part of San Diego and Thane, Macbeth is a Thane in the play, a kind of a Scottish lord, hence the original title, "Thane of East County". We did out film festival run under that title. And then finally, when we hooked up with a distributor, the distributor wanted to change the title. We had been using Blood Will Have Blood as the tagline for our movie because that's a line from Macbeth that really sums up the theme. And our distributor at Summer Hill Films said that Blood Will Have Blood sounded like a better title to him, because it sounds like a cool, dark, horror/thriller type, which I totally agree with, and also because a lot of different venues online, like video on demand and things, are ranked are ranked alphabetically, so it was better to have a B than to have a T. And I loved it, I thought he was right. It was probably a better name than our original name and good for those reasons too.
BT: What is your favorite Shakespeare play and why? I think I know the answer to this one.
Keller: Macbeth. (laughs) Yeah, it's hard. I do love Macbeth for sure. That's another one where it's hard to choose. I love Macbeth, I love Othello. I'm more into the tragedies and some of the histories, too. Again, I could just rattle off like 25 if you let me. Macbeth is great because it's the shortest of the tragedies. It doesn't really have any subplots and B-plots the way some of the others do, and it's just like this tight, bloody film noir thriller. It just starts and kinda rockets towards the conclusion, plot-wise. And you know, I love Shakespeare, and I love the imagery and just the darkness of it. But I also do really love Othello, and in terms of the histories, the Henry IV plays are so great. Bunches of 'em.
BT: So you used many local actors in Blood Will Have Blood. What was the casting process like?
Keller: Yeah, so for the most part, they were all people who had some connection with San Diego. We brought in our two leads, Carr Cavender and Molly Beucher. Molly and Carr came down from LA. Carr had spent a lot of time in San Diego, so he had a lot of connections here. Molly was based in LA. But the way that I got to them in terms of casting was that I started auditioning actors locally in San Diego. Any time I auditioned, say, a woman, I asked her "Hey, do you know any men who would be great for the lead role?", and then vice versa, if I auditioned a man, I would say "Hey, do you know any women who would be great for the roles?" And this was in part so that I'm not saying to an actor, "Hey, do you know anyone who would compete with you for this role?" So I had them put me in contact with anyone they thought would be good in the opposite roles. And I spent quite some time following up on those leads, starting obviously with theater actors because the theater element is important because of the play, but then I just sort-of followed those leads and eventually a connection from a connection from a connection led me to Carr Cavender. He just crashed into the audition, we really sort-of bonded over the Shakespeare, and then Carr put me in touch with Molly, who I believe had been in an acting class with him. Interestingly, Carr Cavender, the lead actor, just wrapped principal photography on another micro-feature that he is producing. He's in the lead role and producing it, with another friend of his directing. You'll be seeing that coming out pretty soon.
BT: You wrote, directed, edited, AND scored the movie. What was this creative process like?
Keller: Well, in large part, that was a budgetary thing. If I had a real budget for this, like a half a million dollars to make this thing, I would have probably hired an editor and a composer. I'm happy with my work on this film. I'm happy with the editing, I'm happy with the score. My real passion is in the writing and crafting of the script and altogether directing it on set and in post. Those are the parts that I really love, but it's out of financial necessity that I couldn't afford to pay someone to edit or to put the score, so I ended up doing those by myself. But, you know, it results in something I have a lot of control over every element. But I'm not someone who wants to control every single bit of everything. I'm a big believer in the collaboration in filmmaking, so I'm open to collaborating when you find good collaborators and have the resources to do so.
BT: So let's talk about Gun Fingers now. What was your inspiration for that film?
Keller: Yeah, well that one was largely that I was working on something else that had people shooting guns in it. Actually, Blood Will Have Blood has some of that. You know, when you're editing, you put the muzzle flash and sound effects so that a not real gun looks like it's shooting and flashes out the front and you hear the bang. And I thought, "Wouldn't it be funny if a guy did gun fingers at the bar and that happened? If his hands turned out to be real guns?" And I kinda had that idea for a little while, but it didn't quite seem interesting enough for me to follow-up to do what is required for me to put even a short production like this together. But then I thought like, "Who would I have play the lead?" My friend Jamar, I though of him because he's always an affable guy, an actor, a good presence on screen, and I thought, "Oh, that kinda makes it a little more interesting. There's something interesting going on if Jamar is the lead in this." So that's where that came from.
BT: Could you share a bit about your filming experience on Gun Fingers? How long did it take and did it pose any challenges?
Keller: Yeah, it was one eight-hour shoot day. We shot at a little bar in a kinda suburban, way out there are in East San Diego here. And as far as the challenges, part of it was that this bar had the LONGEST open hours of any bar I've ever heard of. The bar was open, I believe, from 6am to 2am. So, it was only shut for four hours a day. (laughs) And a lot of times when you want to shoot, for instance in a bar or restaurant, you shoot in the off hours. I have another short that I made that was shot in a bar and we shot it from midnight, when the closed, 'til dawn, so we owned the location. Well, this bar, that wasn't really an option, but we were pretty sure there wouldn't be THAT many people there at 6am, right? So, we show up at 6am and we start our shoot and there are a few people there at 6. It turns out that their clientele, there are a lot of people who show up after graveyard shifts, so they get off work at 6-7 in the morning and then come over and have a few drinks before going to bed all day. That's part of the clientele at this place. By the way, the bar is called the Bancroft. So there were a few people around, but we worked around them and they sat where they weren't in the shot, and everybody was cool with that. But as the day progressed, around noon or 1:00, there was a baseball game or something, and some people started showing up and the bar started to fill up. And so the directions we could shoot without having random other customers in the background became more and more limited. (laughs) And those customers were getting louder, and drunker, and rowdier, so it became harder and harder to tell them, "Oh, hey man, we're about to finish this shoot that we have! Can you please by quiet for a sec?" And people started getting kinda pissed off at us. So that was a challenge. Fortunately for us, the owner was a friend of my production designer, Nick. The owner of the bar was all about helping us out and didn't care at all about going over and literally just saying, "Hey, shut the f**k up! Be quiet, these guys are shooting." So he helped us out a lot.
BT: That's awesome. So do you have any plans to adapt the film into a feature?
Keller: Not into a feature. I'm not even sure what a ten-minute version of this would look like, let alone a ninety-minute version. There might be, there might be that much story there, but it's not at the top of my list. I have had some people say that maybe I oughta make a series of shorts with the same character concept sort-of, and that's rattling around. I kinda feel like it's probably a one-off, though. (laughs)
BT: Are you working on any new projects now?
Keller: Yeah, I've always got five or six things that I'm really thinking about and finding the time to hone in on the appropriate one. I've got some short documentaries, I've got a longer short film that I want to make, maybe a twenty-minute short film that's again sort-of a noir-ish action piece. And I've also got a feature script that I co-wrote with a good friend of mine. We're working on finding financing and talent and directors and whatnot for. There's always a bunch of projects on the burners there.
BT: Well, that's all of my questions! Thank you!
Keller: Yeah! Glad I could talk with you!
Blood Will Have Blood is currently available on Amazon Instant Video for Prime members or is available for rental or purchase. The short film Gun Fingers can be viewed for free here. I encourage you to check both out!
I had the pleasure of speaking with Santiago Rizzo, director and co-writer of the film Quest, which recently showed at the Gasparilla International Film Festival where it won the audience award for Best U.S. Feature. We talked a bit about the film, the true story behind it, and Rizzo's experience as a first-time filmmaker.
Big Tuna on Film: I recently saw your film Quest at the Gasparilla International Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award for Best U.S. Feature. Could you tell me a bit about how the film came to fruition?
Santiago Rizzo: The film is based on a true story. When I was a kid, Tim became my family. He initially wanted to make a book about our story, but I said, "Hey, why don't we do a movie?" So it turned into a screenplay. It was hard, so I regretted it some, but before Tim died, I made a promise to him to make the movie and tell the story, so I did it.
BT: What were some films and/or filmmakers that inspired you while you were making Quest.
Rizzo: I don't consider myself to be a filmmaker, so I didn't really ever go to one movie or filmmaker. I never expected to direct this, but no one would finance it. No one thought there was money in it. The child actor is unknown. Still, I made a promise to Tim and he never broke a promise to me, so I raised the money for the movie and I made it. I will say that one of my favorite directors is Gus Van Sant. I love movies with heart. Like Forrest Gump, that's one of my all time favorites.
BT: Quest has a sometimes heartbreaking, very personal story. Did you ever find it difficult to tell about the struggles you faced in your own childhood?
Rizzo: It was very difficult to make the film, but I'm a firm believer that the truth always rises. It is always important to encounter the truth because that is the only way to heal. It was an extremely difficult process, but that's the point of the film. I want to show people that they need to go into the struggle to find healing.
BT: In Quest, the protagonist Mills has two mentors: Diego (Lakeith Stanfield) and, of course, Tim (Dash Mihok). He learns different things from each. Do you believe that both styles of learning were equally important in your personal development?
Rizzo: I'm glad you caught that. Both characters serve a purpose. Diego is based on Toby Eagle, who was one of my friends in real life. He was shot and killed the same year that Tim died. I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood, but I wasn't black. What I wanted to show with Diego was that abuse is color-bling. It doesn't matter what your gender is, what your sexual orientation is, what color you are: abuse doesn't discriminate. Abuse is abuse. Diego teaches Mills the struggle, and the point of the film is learning how to go into the struggle. On the other hand, Tim teaches Mills integrity. This integrity and honesty that Tim teaches to Mills is what makes him grow.
BT: You had a mentor and friend in Tim who helped you through your difficult childhood and now you have achieved success. How do you think that more people in the world can be like Tim?
Rizzo: I'll let Tim say that for himself. Tim's rules to live by are at the end of the movie and on the website, Quest.film, and the best way to be like him is to follow what he taught. Tim definitely had a strong moral compass and integrity. There are a lot of teachers out there with the same moral compass who help and care for kids. Of course, we don't need to be having people who are going to be taking advantage of kids in the classroom, but more educators need to step out of their fear of getting a lawsuit and help the kids. Anyone who has grown up with love needs to realize that you're privileged, because not everyone has that. Regardless of class, if you had love, that's a privilege.
BT: Quest has been described with phrases such as a "love letter" or a "non-romantic love story" what was your purpose with this and do you think you succeeded?
Rizzo: Well, there's also a documentary called Quest and I don't want the film to be confused with that, so that's where the idea A Love Letter Called Quest comes in. And Tim became my family. He was the most important person in my life. There was never anything romantic between us, but in a way, it was a love story, like a familial love. The movie is honoring Tim and the idea of unconditional love. I also wanted to recognize and honor the teachers who are trying to make a difference in this world. So it's a love letter to them too.
BT: Unfortunately, as we can see in the film, this type of mentorship, in which a teacher takes a student under his or her wing is sometimes frowned upon, as if the teacher is stepping out of place. Why do you think this needs to change?
Rizzo: The conversation really needs to be talked about. Everything has been standardized by fear. We need to be giving love to kids. Kids, especially kids in this type of situation, can read the energy that someone puts off. If a kid sees that you're too afraid to listen, they won't open up because they can't trust you. We need to get people to be less afraid or kids will never open up.
BT: Could you share a bit about your experience as a first-time filmmaker? What were some of the challenges you faced?
Rizzo: I produced and directed the movie, and that's the biggest challenge. No one should ever do both. I learned everything on set. The producer is the one who has to bring the heat, and the director needs to be liked by everyone, so that caused some conflict. I had an unhappy crew at times, but it had to be done.
BT: You utilized multiple visual motifs in Quest, such as slow-motion spray paint. How do you think these helped you develop the meaning?
Rizzo: Well, I don't want to spoil anything major for anyone who hasn't seen the film, but I used lots of symbols. The spray paint represents the spirit of integrity. It's a metaphor for Tim's spirit. Birds represent abuse. The production design has lots of little messages like these, but I don't want to spoil them all so that people will go see the movie.
BT: You have said that child abuse is one of the worst problems in our world, yet people too often ignore it. Over 3 million children are abused each year and it is people like Tim who are working to help victims and survivors. How do you think the film will help spark the change?
Rizzo: People need to judge less. There's always a reason why a child acts out, so people need to stop jumping to conclusions. I think that the movie can really help people understand the signs of abuse: why a child is acting out the way they are acting out. It all starts with awareness.
BT: Are you currently working on any new projects?
Rizzo: I know that my next movie will have the intention of love and will follow a spiritual journey. I have a story I want to tell, but it will take some time for me to work on it.
BT: What are some things that the average person can do to help end this pandemic of child abuse?
Rizzo: It all starts with awareness. If you don't judge a kid when they act out, the kid will open up. You need to provide a healing and healthy space for the kid. That's a good start. All of us can start to recognize our own privilege. When we can do this, we can start to give back. There are also organizations like the Covenant House and Help for Children that devote all of their efforts to the cause. You can see some of these in the movie, so these are places you can help out too.
BT: Thank you so much for your time, Santiago. I greatly appreciate it.
Rizzo: Thank you for hearing me.
Quest is currently touring the festival circuit. You can read my full review here. If you get the chance to see the film at a local festival, it is definitely worth your time to check it out. If you want to help the cause, you can support the film, start the conversation, or contribute or volunteer with one of the aforementioned organizations or another local organization fighting child abuse.
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