Zak Mulligan On "We The Animals" Success

Zak Mulligan On "We The Animals" Success

V spoke with the DP of "We the Animals" about his approach to visuals, working with young actors, and how he feels about the film's positive reception.

V spoke with the DP of "We the Animals" about his approach to visuals, working with young actors, and how he feels about the film's positive reception.

Text: MATHIAS ROSENZWEIG

It comes as no surprise that the film adaptation of the New York Times bestselling novel, We the Animals, has received overwhelmingly positive reviews since its release on Friday. Based on Justin Torres's debut fictional novel, director Jeremiah Zagar presents the life of Jonah, a young, queer boy growing up in a volatile home. Filmed as though we are viewing Jonah's life through his own eyes, Director of Photography Zak Mulligan highlights the vulnerability of the main character as he attempts to make sense of the concept of masculinity, his sexuality, and the violence in his family. Arguably the most powerful scenes, shot on 16mm film, are when we witness Jonah escape from the chaos of his own life to hide underneath his bed and draw in a secret notebook. An intimate look into a tangled adolescence, longtime friends and collaborators Mulligan and Zagar created a cinematic masterpiece with We the Animals. 

In honor of the massive success of the movieV sat down with Cinematographer Zak Mulligan to explore his approach to creating powerful visuals, his relationship with Jeremiah Zagar, and how the intimacy between cast members was translated on film.

How did you get involved in working on the film? Was there somebody else who you’ve worked with before?

Jeremiah Zagar, the director of We The Animals, and I have worked together for years. We’ve done documentary and commercial projects, and I think it was kind of a natural thing to work together on this.

If you guys have known each other for a couple of years, you’ve always worked on different genres together. I’m curious about how the relationship has grown. As two creatives, you guys are constantly evolving and changing your style. But it seems like apparently you two still mesh really well. 

Yeah, so I’ve known Jeremiah for over a decade.

Wow.

I couldn’t tell you exactly when we met, but we’ve been in the mix in New York for quite a while. And I think we just had so many friends in common that worked in film that it was kind of inevitable that we met up. And then we started working together. I just think that we both shared a lot of similar tastes aesthetically. Also, Jeremiah is a very collaborative person to work with, so we got along on that level too.

I had not heard of the book before. Had you heard of it before?

The book was a New York Times Best Seller and Jeremiah happened to randomly find it on a bookshelf and then read it right there in the bookstore. He just fell in love with it. I had never heard of it. When Jeremiah told me he was adapting this book and that he wanted me to work on it with him, I actually avoided reading the book because I wanted to make the adaptation. I didn’t want to be influenced by the novel itself. So I hadn’t read it up to the time that we shot the film.

Wow. Have you read it now?

I have a copy Justin Torres, the author, gave me. So yeah, I’ve enjoyed the book since.

From what I’ve read, I also know that the author is really happy with the way the film turned out. But it’s an interesting choice to not want to read the book, because when there’s film adaptations of books, there’s so many people who will be like “It didn’t live up to the book. It was so different from the book”. Like people have these obsessions with making them as similar as possible. It’s interesting to approach it from where you don’t necessarily want to do that.

This is why, when I’m figuring out how to construct a scene or photograph a scene, my bible is the script. That’s the document I’m referring to. That’s the document you're creating. And I just didn’t want any sort of tension to come between that document and the book, because those are the choices that Dan Kitrosser and Jeremiah made in writing the script. They were making all these choices in that adaptation; what they wanted to talk about, what kind of images they wanted to show. And I just thought those decisions had already been made. I’d rather stay faithful to what’s on the page in the script.

Yeah, I mean that does make sense. In terms of the photography and the aesthetics of the film, it’s all so incredibly intimate to a point where it was obviously a decision that you made. I just wonder how that feeling of intimacy carries over into the actual making of the movie. I was also reading that they really did live together, all the boys and the parents. It seemed like even just the making of this was a really intimate, special thing that happens to be mirrored in the film. I’m making an assumption, but is this true?

I think there was a lot of effort to create that feeling of intimacy on several fronts. The decision of having the boys live together was about wanting to make them feel like brothers and we wanted that interaction in the way they acted around each other to have that bit of realism. The film itself was made with a small crew, so that was kind of intimate. We were all living in Upstate New York, in Utica, so everyone was separate from their lives in New York City. We were all cloistered and living together. More than any other film I’ve worked on, the crew really became a family. A lot of the crew got tattoos after the shoot that said “We the Animals”, so a lot of love. On a more technical level, creative decisions we made like using wide lenses and hand holding the camera created a feeling of closeness. For example, we usually keep the camera at Jonah’s eye level, so we’re always seeing the world from his perspective. I was also using a lot of wide lenses close to the subject. So what that meant is that we were physically close to the subject. As they move, the camera follows them. So in that way, there’s this feeling of intimacy created with the photography.

I feel like also in the story, there’s so many subcontexts. There are a lot of things going on. In the film, it touches on things gently. I can see it being difficult when you’re figuring out the aesthetics of a preexisting book of how much do we want to blow up this one part, this theme that’s going on? It’s a really well-rounded story. And I just feel like, visually, that could be hard to represent.  How do you keep it balanced? Because I feel like you did.

I shotlist everything I do with the director. That’s really my time to sit with the script and figure out the kind of visual language we want to use, what we want to cover, what we don’t want to cover. That’s a pretty lengthy process that goes on through location scouting and up to shooting. I go and do light studies and photograph the locations. Eventually, I get to this place where I’ve gone through the script so much that when the day comes to actually film the scene, I often don’t even refer to those notes. That preparation frees me up to just watch the blocking, the rehearsals with the kids, and react to what they’re doing. Sometimes you just get this whole other idea and go for it. So we do a lot of preparation to get into a place where you can really operate intuitively on set.

This sounds like it was a lot. And I know other people working on the set, it’s similar, but there’s some things that can and can’t be changed. It sounds like you have a lot of flexibility, where you can plan things out and at the very moment be like "Actually, I want to trash that. I want to try something completely different ".

Yeah, exactly. I think it’s important to be flexible like that because if you don’t bend, you’re going to break. When you’re on a film set, it’s kind of controlled chaos. There’s a lot of things happening. Someone getting food poisoning two days ago could cause you to not get a shot of a scene you wanted to get. Like the butterfly effect, there's just so many things that could happen that are completely out of your control. You have to just be ready to go with whatever happens.

Speaking of chaos, for this film, have you worked with a lot of kids before? What was it like working with them? I read the kids hadn’t acted before, so I think it was all really new to them.

Yeah, so they street cast the kids. I think there were about 1000 kids over the course of a couple years. It just took a long time to find these kids that were a fit for the roles. Jeremiah was looking for kids that were just like the characters themselves, so it wouldn’t be this huge stretch to play these characters. I’ve worked with kids in the past. A lot of the kids I’ve worked with had acting experience. It gets a little tricky to train a child in acting because I think that sometimes there’s this kind of performance that creeps in. And you can feel that it’s not authentic. But with these kids, everything was just totally raw, totally real. They did have an acting coach who helped with channeling emotions, showing them how to get in touch with certain feelings that they might not be in touch with at the moment that they need access to.

How long were you guys actually filming for?

We filmed for, I think 36 days or so, over the course of one summer. And then we went back that winter and did another 5-6 days. We also did a lot of little studio days here and there. We went Upstate a couple times for pickups of Jonah, just to get some different looks we needed of him. We also made a little studio space and recreated under Jonah’s bed, and did a bunch of stuff with Jonah drawing.

Can you tell me a little bit, I know it’s generally been really positive, about the reception and the feedback you’ve been getting? Whether it’s critics or just friends, what were people telling you about this movie that you made?

Whenever you make a film, you never really know how it’s going to be received. I’ve worked on projects that I felt sure would find an audience, but then fell into obscurity. So this response has been amazing and far exceeded anyone’s expectations. So much so that We The Animals is getting a wider release than originally planned.

Credits: Images Via Zak Mulligan. We The Animals Directed by Jeremiah Zagar; Produced by Jeremy Yaches, Christina D. King, Andrew Goldman, Paul Mezey; Screenplay by Jeremiah Zagar, Dan Kitrosser; Cinematography by Zak Mulligan; Starring Sheila Vand, Raúl Castillo, Evan Rosado, Josiah Gabriel, Isaiah Kristian; Based on We the Animals by Justin Torres

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