Is Jeremiah Zagar America’s Quirkiest New Auteur? “We the Animals” Screams, “Yes!”
I’m running around City College, trying to find a phone over which I can stage an interview with Jeremiah Zagar. I’m already three minutes late. I’m trembling in my Inkkas. Youngish directorial geniuses are always intimidating to confront. I recall first interviews with Darren Aronofky, François Ozon, and Xavier Dolan. I’m not sure if John Waters fits in here, but why not? These folks hit you over the head with their originality and audaciousness. You sit there looking into their eyes and wonder where it all comes from.
Just watch “Baby Eats Baby,” the live-action/claymation short which Zagar co-directed with Michael Reich in 2004. You need a deep sense of black humor to get through the delicious, high-anxiety-producing visuals of two dads preparing frightful dinners. Only now that I’ve discovered “Baby” is meant as a commentary on American foreign policy during the Bush era can I breathe a little easier.
Two other shorts and a celebrated documentary, In a Dream, chronicle the life of the director’s dad, Isaiah, a renowned mosaic artist whose works decorate over 200 public walls in Philadelphia. His mom, Julia, is no slouch either. Clearly, here’s a highly feisty, highly quotable family unit.
Zagar was also the creative director of “Starved for Attention,” a series of shorts about worldwide childhood malnutrition that was co-produced by Doctors Without Borders. Oddly, there’s also an HBO doc on the trials of Pamela Smart on his resume.
But at the moment, Zagar’s prize-winning adaptation of Justin Torres’s novel of a childhood is why we are speaking. In a rather fine year for film, We the Animals, tops the list. Here’s a peerless work of art that combines sound, animation, music, superb cinematography and nimble editing, plus a terrific cast, in an unexpected manner that recounts the tale of a boy’s tribal adventures with his brothers, a disappearing dad, and a receding mom. Witty and poignant, the finished product interacts with Torres’s prose in a manner that captures and even enhances the must-read novel.
BJ: I’ve just been watching your films.
JZ: Like which ones?
BJ: “Baby Eat Baby,” In a Dream . . .
BJ: I’m glad I hadn’t seen them before I saw We the Animals.
JZ: You saw “Baby Eats Baby”? (Laughs)
JZ: You’re the only who saw “Baby Eats Baby.” Like seven people.
BJ: I’m going to spread the word. Watching that short, one wonders why you didn’t go into the horror genre.
JZ: (Laughs.) My co-director [Michael Reich] did. He’s a horror film maker now. [She’s Allergic to Cats (2016)]. So you can imagine the influence is there.
BJ: In In a Dream, your father says, “All my artwork is a portrait of my life.” If we start putting your films together, is the result sort of a portrait of your life?
JZ: Sure, yeah!
BJ: You and brother Ezekiel both sport beards. Is that because of your dad’s extreme hirsuteness or are you following the beard trend.
JZ: Well, I have had beards since I was 19 years old. I have a weak chin so the beard always helped fill out my face. My brother, he always wore a beard. His came a little bit later when he got into Rastafarianism. I just look better with a beard so that’s what I dealt with. My father also has a very weak chin. So a beard is family compensation.
BJ: Did your mother ever wish she had a daughter. Was there too much testosterone in your house?
JZ: My father wished he had a daughter. My father really wanted me to be a daughter. Yeah, I wasn’t, unfortunately for him. I don’t know if my mother cared. She was a very loving mother. We were very close, my mother and I. She’s the best. She would never tell me if she had wanted a daughter. My father told me many times. (Chuckles.)
BJ: Your father has said that it’s so important to find that person who would help you fulfill your destiny, your dream. “If you are lucky, you will find that dream. If you are lucky that person will find you.” Have you found that person yet?
JZ: Oh, absolutely, and my wife and I both have big dreams. She’s a caterer and a chef with her own company. She works around the clock, and I’m very supportive of her dream. She came and did the catering for our movie. And she let me film the birth of our son and put it in the movie. And she’s been very supportive (He sneezes) of my dream. I know I could not have made We the Animals without her for sure.
BJ: There was talk of you creating an autobiographical movie when you came across the Torres’s novel. Do you relate to Mr. Torres’s route to becoming an artist?
JZ: Yes, very much so. Yes, I mean I think I understood the act of making a book as an act of freeing oneself from the gilded cage of one’s family. I understood that act as one of the important acts of one’s life. And I related to it, you know, as person who’s done the same.
BJ: Your father says he is a sensualist. “I touch shit,” he notes. And then you find out that’s not a metaphor. Is there anything in life you would not portray on film?
I’m interested in not sanitizing life. I don’t see life as something that is clean. I find it messy and complicated and dirty.
JZ: Well, I didn’t have him shit in his hand. (Laughs) Some things you don’t need to see necessarily to feel. I think . . . I’m interested in not sanitizing life. I don’t see life as something that is clean. I find it messy and complicated and dirty. And I think when people try to sanitize love and try to sanitize life and try to sanitize family for that matter, we get a watered-down version of truth. Of emotional truth. And a watered-down version of emotional truth is a useless tool for an artist.
BJ: For the film, you aged the children about three years, which seems only logical. It would have been harder to get three young actors at 7, 8, and 9 to portray these characters. Also, with the subject matter, it might have been harder to enact with younger actors. What that your reasoning for aging them?
JZ: Sort of. We had to sort of find a soft spot. The book is kind of amorphous where the age of the young people lands from chapter to chapter. The only time age is ever really mentioned is in the seven-years-old scene which we changed to the 9-years-old scene. We did that because we needed the boys to be right in the sweet spot of puberty . . . the transformation towards puberty. Because if they were in that sweet spot, some of them could transform, and Jonah [the youngest] was able to not transform. That was really the key. We couldn’t lapse the amount of years that lapsed in the book so we had to figure what was the true transformational moment of these young boys logically if [the story] was going to take place over one year.
BJ: You change the awakening of Jonah as opposed to what happens in the book, and I think you made the right move. It would have broken the whole mood of the film. Were they arguments about how you would do it? Was it always this way in the screenplay?
JZ: Yeah, there was never an argument about it. It was certainly a conversation that Justin and I had with Dan, my co-writer. We all talked about the fact that it was going to be difficult to age the young man to a place where he could have a sexual experience in the back of a bus. That moment for the character in the book takes place somewhere between 15 and 18 years old. It’s an adult move he’s making. A ten year old. An eleven year old. It changes that interaction. So we needed to find something that was a queer coming-out moment for this young boy, or a realization or a sexual moment for this young boy that was relevant for what that kind of a young boy would actually experience.
BJ: Right. Is the coming out supposedly meant as a surprise because in my review, I didn’t really want to bring it up?
JZ: I think you could say, it is a surprise, but you could say there are queer scenes in the movie that are present without giving up [too much]. You can say that in the book there’s a different element to the ending. That’s fine.
BJ: Since I hadn’t read the book at that time, it’s such a surprise, and it’s wonderful to experience that without knowing it’s going to happen.
JZ: That’s the beauty of sexuality of being young. I haven’t seen it so clearly portrayed as it was in Justin’s book. You don’t know what your sexuality is necessarily until you start to explore sexuality, period. There’s a part of your life where sexuality is mixed up much more with brotherly love and familial love than it is with romantic love. And slowly but surely as you begin to change, you begin to awaken your sexual being, and that sexual being is different for everyone. And so really the movie is universal in that way. But what this young boy is experiencing is very different from what his brothers are experiencing. That’s for sure.
BJ: There are moments of magic realism, especially when Jonah flies. And with the animation of the journals. But when you see “Baby Eats Baby” there were seeds of that already there with your mixture of claymation and regular narrative. Is that something you’ve done often?
JZ: Yes. I mean I love animation. I love when it’s done right and integrated correctly. The films of Jan Švankmajer were enormously influential. A lot of Czech animation of that time were really, really meaningful for me when I was young. And I love Roger Rabbit. I can think of being a kid and watching people combine animation and live action. But the truth is that I just really enjoy the magic of cinema. I think that animation always feel like magic. It always feels like cinema. And my world was always comingled with those two things if you think about who my father is, our whole lives were animated.
BJ: Once you make a film like yours, which is so perfect, you find out that Hollywood agents are crawling out after you and you are having studio meetings, and all that. I remember Neil Jordan went out and did his big Hollywood film with DeNiro, which flopped. Are you already getting calls?
I have to pursue stories that are very emotionally, viscerally, and physically my own. That’s simply who I am.
JZ: Sure, yeah. Yes, I’ve had a number of calls from Hollywood agents at the lot. But you know I think what I’ll do are the same kind of stories that I pursued before. I have to pursue stories that are very emotionally, viscerally, and physically my own. That’s simply who I am.
BJ: So have you bought the rights to any other books yet?
JZ: I’m looking at two. One I can’t really talk about yet. More than that I’m interested in working with the same collaborators that I worked with on the other film. Jeremy [Yaches], my producer; Cinereach who made the movie; and Dan [Kitrosser]. We’re all working on a project together. That’s the vital key to me. These are my collaborators for the rest of my life. I’m a very loyal, simple (laughs), dedicated human being, and I love working with the people who love working with me.
BJ: What was Torres’ reaction the first time he saw the finished film?
TZ: Well, it wasn’t like that because he was part of the creation throughout the whole thing. So Justin was there when we shot the movie, and he was there when we wrote the script, and he was there throughout the entire editing process. There’s a lot of different emotions he felt. But I think ultimately what we landed on and what we created together is a film that we’re both very proud of.
BJ: Can you watch the film with objectivity? I guess you can’t.
JZ: No, I can’t. You know, before we went to Sundance, I watched the film 12 times in three days all on a big screen to doublecheck it. Doublecheck it. Doublecheck it. To make sure all the tracks were correct, so I don’t watch the film [any more]. But I have participated in Q and A’s and in audience reactions. And it’s very moving to . . . Like my uncle, he’s a gay man, who’s with my family on and off for my entire life. And he’s one of the closest people in my life. He, my mother, and my father were all at the Sundance premiere next to each other watching the movie. When I came on, they were crying a lot. People were crying a lot. People were moved, but my uncle said, Thank you for making a movie about me.” And my father said, “Thank you for making a movie about me.” And mother said, “Thank you for making a movie about me.” And I thought (laughing), What a good reaction. A movie that could mean so much to so many people.