'We The Animals' Becomes A Film, And The Author Approves Jeremiah Zagar's first fiction feature adapts Justin Torres' debut novel. "I didn't want it to be, like, poverty porn or like a Lifetime domestic violence film," Torres says. "And he got that."
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'We The Animals' Becomes A Film, And The Author Approves

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'We The Animals' Becomes A Film, And The Author Approves

'We The Animals' Becomes A Film, And The Author Approves

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Writers often have ambivalent feelings when their books are adapted for film. Sure there might be fame and fortune with a movie, but they loathe giving up control. Some have famously hated the final adaptation. But debut novelist Justin Torres loves the film based on his book "We The Animals." That's because Torres worked closely with director Jeremiah Zagar. NPR's Lynn Neary spoke with them about the collaboration.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Jeremiah Zagar is a documentary filmmaker, but he always wanted to direct a narrative feature film. For a long time, he just couldn't find the right story.

JEREMIAH ZAGAR: And then when I found Justin's book, I knew it was the right one for me to tell. And I knew I could tell it.

NEARY: There was already some interest in the book from other filmmakers, but Justin Torres was worried about the way the material would be handled until he met Zagar.

JUSTIN TORRES: I didn't want it to be like poverty porn or like a Lifetime domestic violence film (laughter), and he got that.

NEARY: The novel is based on Torres' childhood in upstate New York. His parents - his dad is Puerto Rican, his mother, white - moved there from the city to raise their three boys. In both the book and the film, the parents have a passionate love for each other and their children. But the passion sometimes turns violent. Zagar says he instinctively understood this complex family dynamic.

ZAGAR: You know, it dealt with familial love in a way that I had never seen onscreen before and in a way that was very close to the way my family dealt with love. There was an intimacy and a brutality and a messiness and a joy that were all kind of wrapped together.

NEARY: While the parents struggled to earn a living - he has trouble holding down a job, she works in a factory - the three boys race through life in a pack with a wild, manic energy.


EVAN ROSADO: (As Jonah) Look at us (taps fingers) when we were brothers (taps fingers). We wanted more.

NEARY: The three young boys who play the brothers had never acted before. Zagar says they worked with him for months before shooting to prepare them for their roles. Zagar drew on his own roots as a filmmaker to create a sense of realism on the screen.

ZAGAR: I decided we should just make it as if we were making a documentary. So everybody lived together. You know, the boys all slept in the same room. And, you know, the parents lived together. And we did sleepovers at the house together. And we created an environment that felt as real as possible.

NEARY: The conventional wisdom in the film business, says Zagar, is that authors should not be around when a film of their book is being made. But he wanted Torres on the set. Torres was not only watching his book being made into a film, he was also watching another fictional transformation of his life. And while there are scenes of joy and exuberance, there are also some tough moments.

TORRES: There was one time where the makeup artist was kind of painting a bruise onto one of the boys. And it had just been so long since I'd seen a little boy with a bruise on his face, but it was something very familiar to me. And that was hard. That was hard.

NEARY: At one point, the boys encounter their father after he's had a fight with their mother.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Is she hurt?

RAUL CASTILLO: (As Paps) She just needed some - her wisdom teeth taken out. The dentist was punching on her a little. That's how they loosen up the teeth before they rip them out. The dentist says she'll be better by tomorrow.

NEARY: As he took part in making the film, Torres realized that some things that worked on the stage didn't work when translated into a visual medium.

TORRES: In the book, the father is violent with the mother, but he's also violent with the kids sometimes. But in the film, we shot a scene, and it didn't make it into the film because you just - you kind of couldn't forgive the father after seeing that. And it was very important that you at least understand the father, that at least your compassion extends to his world and his frustration and that you're not - you don't dismiss him as a monster.

NEARY: After that fight, the father leaves home for a while, and the mother takes to her bed. The youngest son, Jonah, who is based on Torres himself, climbs into bed with her and reminds her that it's his birthday.


SHEILA VAND: (As Ma) Promise me you'll stay 9 forever.

EVAN: (As Jonah) How?

VAND: (As Ma) Simple - you're not 10. You're 9+1. Next year, you'll be 9+2 - like that forever.

EVAN: (As Jonah) Why?

VAND: (As Ma) Because when they ask you how old you are, you'll be telling them that no matter how old you are, you are your Ma's baby boy.

NEARY: Jonah keeps a journal, which he writes in after everyone has gone to sleep. He also draws pictures, which are animated in the film - fanciful images that float across the screen. Jonah, says Zagar, is harboring a secret that makes him different from his brothers.

ZAGAR: He knows he's different. And, you know, not only does he know that he's different sexually, but he processes the world differently. He's translating the story of the family that's in his journal. And in the processing of what his family is going through, he's able to free himself from, you know, the gilded cage that they've sort of created.

NEARY: "We The Animals" does feel very real, says Justin Torres. But at the same time, he thinks there's something magical about it. A tough reality has been turned into a lyrical work of art, which is just what he had aimed for in his book. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.


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