A young woman is transported from the city to the wilderness. She adjusts to her strange neighbors and the chaos of the forest, but a pair of mysterious twin girls taunts her to return home. A narrative short film starring Chase Maguire and Kelly and Lisa Royère, written by Caitlin Doughty.
The Animals was my first attempt at conventional filmmaking and marks an important transition from an experimental video art practice to a more traditional mode of production characteristic of narrative cinema.
With support from 139 Kickstarter backers. World Premiere at Palais de Tokyo, curated by Souvenirs From Earth TV. Online premiere at Portable.tv (when it was still a media company). Featured on IndieWire, Got A Girl Crush, and Director's Notes.
Select Screenings & Press
Visceral and strangely moving, absurdly beautiful,
the best short film you will see all week (or month, or year)
2012 SFE (Souvenirs From Earth) TV Broadcast on Orange S.A., Free, SFR, and Bouygues, FRANCE
2012 SFE (Souvenirs From Earth) TV Broadcast on UnityMedia and Kabel BW, GERMANY
2012 SFE (Souvenirs From Earth) TV Broadcast on TelevisoKabel Eins, AUSTRIA
2012 Interview with Montagne Magazine, FRANCE
2012 Interview with The 22 Magazine, Vol. 3
2012 Podcast Interview with Director's Notes, Episode 257, London, UK
2012 French Institute of Cologne, Cologne, GERMANY
2012 Palais De Tokyo, Paris, FRANCE (World Premiere )
2012 Portable.tv (Online Premiere)
2012 FILE Magazine
2012 Got A Girl Crush Magazine
2012 Kickstarer Projects We Love
2012 Vimeo Curated Kickstarter Page
2012 IndieWire Project of the Day
Featuring Chase McGuire, Kelly Royère, and Lisa Royère
Directed by Angeline Gragasin
Produced by Rachel Wolther
Screenplay by Caitlin Doughty
Cinematography by Meredith Zielke
Gaffer Mario Contini
Edited by Alex MacKenzie
Production Design by Meredith Ries
Costume Design by Abby Walton
Postproduction Sound by Dave Kaduk
Color by Giga Shane
Poster Design by Jordan Marzuki
Full credits on IMDb
What inspired you to make The Animals?
I was inspired by my collaborators, and by the collaborative process. In many ways, the process of making the film was almost more important than the film itself.
In January 2011, Production Designer (and longtime friend and collaborator) Meredith Ries approached me about making a film. She was looking for an excuse to escape to LA for the summer—she’s currently getting her MFA in Scenic Design at Yale—and she thought collaborating on-location would make a great opportunity for a visit. I agreed.
At the time, I had only been living in LA for one month and I was spending a lot of time with Writer Caitlin Doughty, who is also a longtime friend and collaborator. The scripting process was unusual in that the Production Designer had a lot of influence narrative from conception; Caitlin and I agreed that since it was Meredith’s idea to make a movie in the first place, we should write a movie that would appeal to her skills and interests as a designer. For example, Meredith is especially fond of expressing a world by exploring a character’s relationship to food. So we made sure to make food a prominent aspect of the narrative.
Likewise we thought to explore death as a theme, considering Caitlin’s background and interests. In addition to writing, she is also a working Mortician.
The narrative continued to unfold and develop like so—finding different ways of accommodating various collaborators’ strengths, interests, and available resources. This is actually what interested me most of all - the process itself. I learned to enjoy the challenge of preserving as much of the original intention as possible while still moving forward and maximizing our resources. This must sound like a very unglamorous and pragmatic thing to say, but collaboration is about problem-solving. And we were solving the problem of how to make a film.
Why were you interested in exploring the doppelgänger?
I was really intrigued by the idea that there could be another person who is bonded to you, like a non-romantic soulmate, who has an invisible but inexorable influence on your life. Caitlin and I were privately tutoring a pair of identical French twins at the time, and we thought they would be marvelous on camera. So we wrote them into the script.
What was it like working on an almost all female crew? Did you round up a crew of women intentionally, or did it just happen naturally? Do you think it's harder for women in the film industry?
After Meredith, and Caitlin and I started working on the script, Producer Rachel Wolther serendipitously contacted me out of the blue asking to produce a feature if I ever wanted to direct one. I said I didn’t think I was ready for a feature yet, and besides I was already developing this short film idea, would you be interested in producing it instead? And that was how Rachel got involved. I approached Meredith Zielke to DP because we had worked together a few years back on the very first short I had ever directed, and she was such a pleasure to work with, so patient and positive and eager to collaborate even though I was totally inexperienced. And besides I found her work hugely inspiring—Meredith is also a really gifted Director. I knew I wanted Zielke and Rachel on the team because I had witnessed their hard work and dedication firsthand, on past indie film shoots, and I knew I needed that same level of energy on-set if I was going to take the kinds of risks I did in making this film. Costume Designer Abby Walton came on recommendation from Production Designer Meredith Ries—they had worked together previously in the NYC theatre scene. She was the only crew member I hadn’t worked with—hadn’t even met yet—but since I had worked so closely with Ries, and for so long, I was willing to trust her on it. And I’m really glad I did, because Abby is absolutely brilliant and indispensable.
And yes, I do think it is harder for women to earn legitimacy—especially behind the camera—in the film industry. That’s why we have to stick together. Molly Lambert wrote a great article in This Recording that really corroborates my strategy as a woman in a male-dominated industry. One of the things she writes about women is:
You are not enemies because you have a common enemy and the enemy is exclusionism.
It’s an important distinction to make: the enemy isn’t Men. It’s exclusionism. You’ll notice that we had plenty of men on the crew as well—our AD, Camera Op, AC, Gaffer, and Sound Recordist were all men. Also most of our postproduction crew was male. So while I did end up with an all-female executive-level production team, it wasn’t for its own sake, and it wasn’t to the total exclusion of men on the project. It just so happened that the ones who were willing to take the risk with me—from the beginning—were women.
The sound design is incredible. How important was sound for you to convey this unusual reality?
Sound and music are absolutely crucial elements to storytelling. Although I knew this before we started, I had no idea what music or effects I would be using until after we started editing. As the weeks passed, music would trickle in from this way and that, it was a little like playing Tetris... For example, when the Occupy movement was beginning to gain momentum, I went out into the streets to document. I posted the video online to an Occupy forum and the moderator wrote back to me saying he liked my work, and that he was also a musician, and if I ever wanted to use his music in a film I could, and for free. I actually get a lot of emails from musicians offering to license their music in my films, but I rarely take them up on it because I usually have something specific in mind from the beginning. However I did end up using two of this guy’s tracks in the film, so you never know where your material’s going to come from. You just have to be open to accepting it when it does. The film would be a very different film had I never bothered to read that stranger’s email.
I really must credit my Editor, Alex MacKenzie; he put a lot of thought into sound effects, and gave really specific and inspired notes to my Sound Engineer, Dave Kaduk, who likewise put in a lot of hard work at crafting the soundscape of the film. Previously I edited all of my own work because I never thought I could find an editor who is as sensitive as I am to timing and rhythm and musicality, but Alex proved me so very wrong—for which I couldn’t be happier and more grateful.
Can you tell us a bit about the location? What drew you to Topanga?
Topanga used to be an enclave for artists and weirdos—Neil Young and Charles Manson used to live there—but then a bunch of rich people moved in and started building mansions in the hills, and drove all of the weirdos out, except for one old hippie who owns this plot, who built these cabins, and who hauled an Airstream trailer up the side of a mountain to perch at the very apex of a steep and treacherous cliff. Caitlin has a friend who lives there, he rents a cabin on this plot of land that the old bohemian developed in the 60's. We based Clarence's (Tom Gillis) character on him. Clarence's house is the real landlord's real house in real life, with all of his real belongings in it. The only prop in Clarence's cabin was the sandwich. Everything else was real. Shooting there was a no-brainer.
For the forest scene, we shot pickups in Topanga State Park. My favorite part of that location was the rain, which wasn’t in the script.
Was it difficult both directing and starring in the film at once? How did you mangage the balance between being an actor and then switching to being the director?
Yes, very. Acting was the easy part. Before I became a director, I trained for many years as an actor, and so I was confident at playing the character and achieving what I wanted onscreen. Directing actors was also relatively easy, in fact I think it helped that I was on screen with them, considering I was working with mostly untrained actors—with the exception of Silas (Chase McGuire), who has had some screen acting training and experience, but who still didn't share the same vocabulary and techniques I was using on this film, which were mostly derived from theatrical traditions like clown, mask, and mime. It helped that I was able to spend some time training and rehearsing with the actors before the shoot, and that I could lead them onscreen without asking them to break character, without even asking them to look away from their screen partner, because in most cases, their partner was me.
The hard part was directing crew while acting. I couldn't monitor what was being recorded in-frame until after the scene had played and I called for playback. Towards the end of shooting days, I had to stop asking for playback because we were racing against the clock to get all of the shots in before sunset. And for the most part, it worked, except when it didn't. Sometimes there were just too many variables and the one person who needed to be watching the monitor most of all was the one person in the room who was on camera. I had to be in two places at once, but I couldn't. And that's when I had to trust Zielke to think like me and call the shots. That's how I managed: by deferring to my DP.
For me, The Animals is about working as a team to reach the goal without dropping the ball. It's a lot like playing a team sport, except instead of a ball you have a camera!
This interview with Angela McCormack was originally published as "Whatever You Do, Don't Feed The Animals" on the now-defunct Portable.tv (RIP) on April 20, 2012. You can view the original page on the Wayback Machine.
💡 This project relates to The Ecstasy of Decay.