In a lively and insightful conversation I spoke with We the Animals Director and Screenwriter Jeremiah Zagar and his screenwriting collaborator Daniel Kitrosser about their new film, which has garnered numerous awards and nominations. We discussed the adaptation process and bringing the novel We the Animals written by Justin Torres to the screen.
About Jeremiah Zagar and Daniel Kitrosser
Born to hippie artists, Jeremiah Zagar (Director/Screenwriter) grew up in South Philly spending most afternoons in a dark movie theater or wandering the aisles of his local TLA video store. Later, on trips home from Emerson College, he started filming his parents, resulting in the documentary, In A Dream, which premiered at the SXSW Film Festival and screened theatrically across the US and in film festivals around the world. It was broadcast on HBO, shortlisted for an Academy Award and received two Emmy nominations, including
Best Documentary.” His next feature-length documentary, Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart, premiered in competition at the Sundance Film Festival and aired on HBO to much fanfare in 2014. Other notable output includes the pilot episode for Showtime’s 7 Deadly Sins, and commercial work for GE Capital, Pedigree and New Balance. We The Animals based on the best-selling novel was selected for the Sundance Directing & Screenwriting Lab fellowships, and debuted at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
Daniel Kitrosser (Screenwriters) is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter, whose plays include The Mumblings, Dead Special Crabs and Tar Baby (Scotman's First Fringe Award, Amnesty International Citation). For the screen, Dan co-wrote We the Animals (dir. Jeremiah Zagar) and was the script consultant on Night Comes On (dir. Jordana Spiro), both premiering at the Sundance Film Festival 2018. He is currently a TimeWarner 150 Fellow for his television series The Move, about West Philly in the 1980s and is the Artistic Director of Writopia Lab's Worldwide Plays Festival, a festival of plays by young playwrights from all across the country now in its 8th year.
ABOUT WE THE ANIMALS
SYNOPSIS: Us three. Us brothers. Us kings, inseparable. Three boys tear through their childhood, in the midst of their young parents’ volatile love that makes and unmakes the family many times over. While Manny and Joel grow into versions of their loving and unpredictable father, Ma seeks to shelter her youngest, Jonah, in the cocoon of home. More sensitive and conscious than his older siblings, Jonah increasingly embraces an imagined world all his own.
Based on the celebrated Justin Torres novel, We the Animals is a visceral coming-of-age story propelled by layered performances from its astounding cast – including three talented, young first-time actors – and stunning animated sequences which bring Jonah’s torn inner world to life. Drawing from his documentary background, director Jeremiah Zagar creates an immersive portrait of working-class family life and brotherhood.
MAKING THE FILM
Shot in the summer of 2016 over a 27-day period, the team returned to the location in February 2017 for another six days of shooting for a very specific purpose. “We wanted to see the boys grow up onscreen,” Zagar says. “I wanted their aging to be literal, not acted, and to observe a true passage of time.” (Inserts for the journal were created a few months later, and additional pickups were filmed in December 2017.)
One of the most unique and most important narrative tools Zagar uses in the film is Jonah’s journal. In a family where complex emotions simply don’t get talked out. Zagar explains: “It’s a device we use to help you understand the private space of this young boy and how he’s processing what he sees. And in this family, in a house that intentionally has no doors – just curtains – there is no privacy. They all live together, they all hear everything. They all feel everything. And even though Jonah desperately wants a private, secret world, the reality of him actually having that is very, very difficult. So, under the bed was our place where he could achieve that private world.”
Their adaptation was, as Zagar states, “a screen translation, not a rewrite of the book. We wanted to remain as true to the book as possible, while making sure it was applicable to the screen.”
There were a few important modifications, the most notable of which was keeping the protagonist at a young age throughout the story, rather than following him until he’s a teenager. The protagonist is also given a name, Jonah, in the film, whereas in the book he is an unnamed narrator, a quiet observer soaking in much more than he can handle. In Torres’s novel, the journal only appears in the last part of the book, when it is discovered by his family. But Zagar and Kitrosser wanted it there to illustrate Jonah’s journey throughout the film. “We wanted to create a device where you understood that Jonah was slowly separating from his family.”
Kouguell: Tell me about your adaptation process and how you worked together.
Kitrosser: In terms of the adapting process it was a lovely experience. Jeremiah was living in a wonderful apartment, and we would read a chapter from the novel and argue it out, trying to find the cinematic way to tell that story and transfer his lyricism into the screenwriting program Final Draft. Then, I would type it and Jeremiah would make lunch. Over lunch we would discuss the writing and take another stab at it. We would focus on each tile of the mosaic individually and then ask, how do we weave that tapestry together?
Zagar: We got the rights to the novel in 2012. We were rewriting straight through the entire process. We had a greenlit script in three years. Dan was on set during the shoot. There were scenes that had to change once we were on set.
Kouguell: Why was that?
Zagar: It was a low-budget film and there were certain constraints that inhibited the script we wrote. For example, combining two scenes because there wasn’t enough time to shoot both. When it was practical, we had to accommodate.
Kouguell: Let’s talk about your collaboration.
Zagar: Dan is the real writer. And a wonderful playwright. I’m a director, and I understand the visual medium a bit better. We would talk each chapter of the book out, and I would talk about the best way to interpret each scene and Dan would write it. And then Justin would edit it with Dan and we would edit back and forth together. Justin was involved every step of the way. Our objective was to stay true to Justin’s work as best as possible.
Kouguell: What were some of your challenges adapting the book to the screen?
Zagar: The time lapse in the book; Jonah grows much older and condensing that time into one year was a big challenge. The ending had to change dramatically, and we wanted to maintain the intentions of the novel.
Kouguell: How did you develop the voice-over narration and the visual animation?
Kitrosser: It was not in the script come shooting. For me, I had to learn the limits what we could do when shooting; we didn’t have access inside Jonah’s head. We had written in flashes of images in his head, but then watching Jeremiah with the editor and animator, they were able to go deeper by adding the animation.
Zagar: There were text cards in the journal. In the edit, it was supposed to be similar to the style of the Tarnation documentary, but that wasn’t working. We didn’t have access to Jonah’s intimate life, we didn’t want to just use voice-over. The animation was the same thing. We wrote in moments that weren’t coming alive to the mind of the audience, so we had to bring them to life for the audience in the editing process. In the editing process, Justin said the animation was really working, and the voiceover was really working, which was really affirming.
Kitrosser: Jeremiah has a lot of collaborators – his editor, cinematographer; his vision is really clear and it’s wonderful to see how these different marriages come together.
Zagar: We love to write together. We love working together. The three of us plan to keep working together as long as possible.
Learn more about the film here.
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