By Rebecca Green
You may have seen the fantastic behind-the-scenes video, How to Make WE THE ANIMALS in 60 Seconds, but we all know it takes more than 60 seconds to sum up the making of a movie. This week, producers Christina D. King and Jeremy Yaches give us the details on how they took WE THE ANIMALS from book to script to screen, in more than 60 seconds.
Rebecca: I’ve read a lot of pieces about how WE THE ANIMALS was made in terms of production, working with the kids and the visual effects, but I want to talk about how the movie came about, starting with the fact that it’s based on a novel from 2012. Producers are often daunted by the idea of going after a book because most of us, myself included, don’t have development money, but there is such a rich world to explore in adapting material. I’m curious to know how you found the book and made it happen?
Jeremy: Jeremiah stumbled upon the book in the bookstore McNally Jackson. It was on a shelf in the staff pick section and funnily enough, the author of the book, Justin Torres, happened to have worked at that same bookstore prior to writing the book. It’s a really short book and Jeremiah read the whole thing in the store.
He gave a copy of the book to me and one to Dan Kitrosser who ended up adapting it with him. Jeremiah reached out to Justin directly. They met up and they talked. I read the book and I thought it was great and I also immediately understood why Jeremiah was interested in it. Jeremiah and I had worked together on the documentary IN A DREAM, which was his first feature and was released by HBO. There’s a lot of the themes in WE THE ANIMALS that are similar to IN A DREAM. Even though WE THE ANIMALS is about a young Latino boy who is discovering his sexuality, it’s also about the birth of an artist or an artist coming into his own. It’s also heavily about a family. IN A DREAM is about Jeremiah’s own family and about his father who is an artist and who’s somebody who has been through a lot of mental anguish.
Jeremiah met with Justin and that went well so I reached out to Justin’s agents and we started a very long process of talking about optioning the book. I know it is daunting for producers to do that, especially because you do have to pay for an option. The way that we were able to do it was that we have a company together, Jeremiah and I, where we do commercials and branded content. We had a little bit of money that we could use for development.
One of the things that was great about Justin and his agents is that they realized that we were small. They had been talking with some other much, much, much larger players, but those players weren’t as focused on the creative pitch as we were. We optioned the book for not much money and negotiated a reasonable deal considering we knew that this was going to be a million dollar or less movie.
Rebecca: I have two books I’m developing right now and I think the thing for producers to remember is that the most important element is having a vision for what you want the book to become, even if you don’t yet have a director, you have to have your own vision as a producer. Yes, you’re the underdog, but if you can come up with a strong take and strategy, a lot of times that does win out when there’s other bigger players at the table.
Jeremy: I agree. Jeremiah and Justin are two peas in a pod and connected really early. Jeremiah was a white, Jewish kid who grew up in downtown Philadelphia. Justin grew up in upstate New York with a completely different lifestyle, but they had a really strong emotional connection right from the start.
Jeremiah’s pitch to Justin was, “If you want, you can be involved every step of the way. We will give you approval of the script, you can be on set, you can watch cuts. I would never want somebody to make my story without my input.” Justin was appreciative of that and was really easy to work with and was very collaborative.
Christina: I was really surprised at how much Justin didn’t get overly precious or worked up about the fact that somebody was carrying his story. He also trusted that the process of making a film was very different than writing a book. Once he trusted Jeremiah and connected with him on a personal level, he let the process happen.
Jeremy: As a producer when Jeremiah said, “I want to give Justin approvals,” I of course thought about all the bad things that could come along with that. We questioned if doing that made sense or if it would be a huge mistake, but in the end, ultimately it made sense because this is Justin’s story. We had to make sure that he was happy with it.
Rebecca: Moving on to how you guys put the movie together. The most common genre for indie films is coming-of age-stories, but they are also the most problematic due to casting. Did you guys think about that when you were reading the book and the challenges that it would present?
Christina: In really early development, I don’t think that was a consideration. For better or for worse, we were not terribly strategic. We weren’t sure who would finance it, we just knew we wanted to make it.
Jeremy: In terms of casting, the one consideration we did talk about is that in the book, the timeframe spans a lot more time than in the movie. In the book, the main character goes from about six to 16. We knew that it was going to be incredibly difficult just to find the right three boys to play the brothers, let alone finding multiple pairs of those three boys at different ages. So, very early in the scripting phase, we consolidated the time frame into just one or two years and we picked the mid-point, so the kids are 10, 11, 12 instead of starting at six and ending at 16.
Christina: We got very, very lucky in that Cinereach financed the project. They have a very unique business model where they can take on projects that aren’t cast dependent. They have a different mandate, unlike your average for-profit production company. So there was never any pressure from them other than to make a great film. If I imagine this movie with a standard production company, the cast would have been so different.
Jeremy: We did have meetings with other financiers. We found people who said they would look at the script and then we didn’t hear from them for a month. It was a lot of people with minimal to moderate interest, but Cinereach was steady throughout. They ended up giving us development funding to do the casting and refine the script. Once both were locked in, they approved the full budget.
Rebecca: The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year, what was that experience and what were the expectations going into the festival?
Jeremy: A lot of our Sundance preparation was colored by the fact that we were desperately trying to finish the film. We were working on the movie up until minutes before the premiere. With this film, a lot of elements came together in post late in the process. Everything was done the hard way. Just finishing the movie was a tremendous amount of stress, long hours and hard work and that affected our ability to go to Sundance with expectations about finding distribution.
Everybody knew that this was not exactly the most commercial movie. As for expectations, I was at the point where I didn’t even know what the movie was. I think Jeremiah felt similarly. We were working so hard to finish the film that we had lost perspective on what the movie even was. Whether it was good, whether people were going to like it. I had no idea what it was anymore because we had been editing it for years. It had gone through so many iterations. I’d watched the movie hundreds of times. It was like watching mush by the end. I had no idea how it was going to be received. My expectations going in were honestly, “God, I hope people like this. I hope it goes okay.”
Rebecca: Do you feel like you rushed into Sundance?
Christina: No, not at all. It doesn’t matter if we had three more years of post. Jeremiah’s a hunter-gatherer filmmaker and would have taken however much time there possibly was down to the last minute.
Rebecca: You had the good fortune of premiering at Sundance, but I want to talk about what happens when you don’t get into Sundance. The Sundance Institute has a great resource called 34 Years of Sundance Film Festival, which shows that 20 years ago, there was a 7.4% percent chance your film would be accepted into the festival and in 2018, the chance was only 1.4%. Yet despite the numbers, most of us say that premiering at Sundance is our strategy to get our film out into the world. Do you guys have thoughts going into your next project in terms of making a plan in the case that you don’t get accepted again?
Christina: If you step back just from a numbers game, and you look at how many slots there are at Sundance, and then you look at the number of well-known filmmakers who are going to be finishing a film that year, and subtract that from the open spots, then look at the number of films that are being tracked… You’re right, we need to be thinking differently because of the number of slots that are open for Sundance is not actually the number of slots open for Sundance, you know what I mean?
Rebecca: With 3,901 features submitted to Sundance this year, should producers be thinking about these statistics when taking on a project or should we put up blinders because we just have to tell the story? How much weight should we put on distribution early on in the process?
Jeremy: That’s a really good question. Each film is so much work, the process isn’t always pleasant, and you make no money. You do have to think about, most importantly, do I want to upend my life for this story? Do I want to do something incredibly difficult for this project? And then you have to ask, are people actually going to be able to see the film? You have to be thinking about that, because if the answer is not adamantly yes, then it’s just not worth it.
You really have to feel like there is the potential for the film to be successful creatively and economically, because it’s just not going to be worth the intense amount of time and effort and energy that goes into making it but again, sometimes you just don’t know. Sometimes it’s just a leap of faith.
Rebecca: WE THE ANIMALS is being released by The Orchard and I’ve seen some great behind-the-scenes footage, especially the piece How to Make WE THE ANIMALS in 60 Seconds that I think is fantastic. I’m curious to know, was that your idea or did The Orchard put that together? In my experience, behind-the-scenes footage is something that we all throw out the window at a certain point because we don’t have the time, money or resources to pull it off. Yet in having the footage, there is a lot that you can do with it to engage an audience.
Jeremy: It was not The Orchard, it was all Cinereach really. Cinereach was great about making sure there was always somebody on set to shoot BTS video and photos while we were filming. We didn’t necessarily have the bandwidth for that on our end. They additively hired somebody to handle it all.
We did capture a lot of it ourselves in the casting process. You’re videotaping your casting sessions anyway and we also did a lot of callbacks and camera tests that we taped.
When we finished the film, Jeremiah was really interested in putting together some video content and Cinereach gave us a little bit of money to hire a team to make it happen. We gave the final assets to The Orchard and they worked with the publicity team to find interesting places to premiere all of these assets and we posted them on social media. The assets will also be featured in home video distribution as well. We created eight promotional pieces with a budget of about a thousand dollars per video.
Rebecca: Do you think in the future where you don’t have Cinereach to step in and supplement, you would budget for behind-the-scenes footage and the resources to create these assets?
Jeremy: Jeremiah and I have our company with incredibly talented staff and collaborators who made it happen. Jeremiah put in a lot of work himself as well. We just did it because we wanted to help the film. If a distributor isn’t going to do it, we’d find a way to do it ourselves. To a certain extent, you do want to think about at least having the assets so that in the future you’re able to create this stuff later. For us it was less about having the money, it was more about whether or not we had the energy to make it happen.
Rebecca: That’s what I’m asking. Going forward, do you think you would consider making these assets a line item in your budget to make sure that you have the ability to do these things so that you don’t go broke while distributing your film?
Jeremy: That’s such a hard question because what ends up happening is that there’s never enough money even to just make the movie. Having a line item for distribution materials and having a line item for your festival premiere – in my experience, making the movie for the amount of money that you have is challenging enough.
What was helpful was that we had a real contingency in the sense that the contingency wasn’t just extra money we could spend during production or post. We could only touch it in extenuating circumstances. Our budget was our budget and the contingency was not money that we could dip into whenever we needed it. Because of that, we did not spend very much of our contingency when we made the movie and that therefore left money for these other things that happened down the line.
Rebecca: I totally get that you never have enough money, but I feel that producers need to start advocating for these line items with financiers and making sure they realize that down the road, when these items are needed, I’m not going to be able to work for three months for free to make it all happen. We need to set better parameters for ourselves for the things that we know inevitably are going to be asked of us to do.
Jeremy: You bringing this up shows your experience over us because we just haven’t had as many experiences as you have. We’ve had this amazing Cinereach experience and we’ve done some documentary work. You bringing this up and us not really having an amazing answer, it might just be the fact that we haven’t been through this as much as you have.
Christina: The question is still applicable and apt because in a documentary that I directed for ITVS, we’re in exactly the same situation where none of the promotion or traveling to festivals was budgeted, but it’s still a full-time job. For indie films, the idea that your work is done once you’ve got a distributor – it’s just not true. You will always and forever remain your film’s biggest advocate.
Rebecca: Right. Part of the conversation I’m having with producers is that I think that we’re all doing ourselves a disservice by always doing whatever it takes, at any cost. On one hand, it’s a quality we need to have to get these movies made, but it is a quality that is starting to work against us because the expectation is that we’ll do whatever is needed, regardless of whether or not we’re getting paid for our time, knowledge and resources.
Jeremy: I have a question for you about that, because I agree with you, but I feel like what you’re talking about is basically making movies more expensive to produce because you have to pay the producer and the crew closer to a more livable wage, and then the total price of the movie goes up. What do we do about people not actually going to see indie movies? What I’m noticing with WE THE ANIMALS, and with some of my friends movies, is that people don’t really see these movies outside of NY and LA. The movies don’t make that much money. Why would a financier spend more money when the risk is just so high?
Rebecca: That’s a good point to bring up. I think it starts with how we talk about the money we do have. Directors always say, ‘the money needs to go on the screen,’ but what goes ‘on screen’ can be augured in many different ways, not just in camera gear and more shooting days. With another 30k, sure, I can give you more days, but if we put that 30k into a marketing and distribution contingency, here’s what we can do to make sure that people actually see the film you are putting your blood, sweat and tears into. As producers, we have to take it into our own hands to explain to our directors and financiers how best to spend the money in a responsible way for the entire process, not just making the film.
Christina: I do think that there’s a big difference between how we make movies at the beginning of our careers compared to how we’ll make our next few films. I think that some of this is personal growth as a producer and learning from our experiences.
Rebecca: True though no one wants to end up with a movie no one sees regardless of where they are in their career. And that ties into the last question I want to ask you both which is how are you building a career?
Christina: I’m definitely a little stressed out about that at the moment. I would love to take the success of WE THE ANIMALS and jump straight into getting traction for other projects and be developing material, but I haven’t been able to do that because WE THE ANIMALS was an exceptionally long edit due to our shooting schedule. I was also finishing an ITVS film at the same time so all my energy was put toward finishing these two films. Both films are out in release right now, but I can’t really partake in the success of either of them because the immediate need is to get a job that pays.
Jeremy: I think for myself and Jeremiah, being partners, we have found a decent foothold to use the film’s success to help talk about some of our other projects that we want to do together, but we’re not at the point where we know which of these projects are actually going to get off the ground.
Christina: That’s true. You have some runway, I’m still a freelancer.
Jeremy: I don’t like to think of myself as an independent producer, I think I’m more of a small business owner with Jeremiah. I’m not really comfortable selling myself. I don’t really sell myself, I sell my company. That makes it easier for me. I just feel like I’m trying to step my company up for its next phase, its next project. I don’t really think about setting myself up.
Christina: That makes sense. Producers are born hype-men/women.
One thing that I wish I would have thought about and will definitely do in the future is to realize that part of the schedule should involve some sort of afterglow – that time after your film is released when you should strike in terms of what you’re going to be working on next.
I had two passion projects right on top of each other and had engineered myself into a corner where that afterglow has to be a rent payer. I have to use this time to work jobs that pay the bills rather than pitching my next project.
Rebecca: I like the phrase ‘afterglow’ and that shouldn’t just be about your next project, it should also include time to celebrate and enjoy having your film out in the world. That is a really important part of the process that most producers don’t get to experience, but is essential in keeping you motivated and inspired to do it all over again. I hope you both find the time to celebrate your success in creating a beautiful and moving film.
WE THE ANIMALS hits VOD on November 13 and available on DVD/Blu-Ray November 20. Pre-order now!
A member of the Seminole Tribe of Oklahoma, Christina D. King’s work spans broadcast news, commercials, documentary, film, and television with a focus on human rights issues, civic engagement through storytelling, and democratizing filmmaker opportunities for minority voices.
King most recently debuted the narrative feature film WE THE ANIMALS at Sundance 2018 to critical success. The film was awarded the NEXT Innovator Award. Her directorial debut about the mothers and daughters of the American Indian Movement, WARRIOR WOMEN (ITVS), is currently showing at film festivals across the globe.
King’s other producing credits include THIS MAY BE THE LAST TIME (Sundance 2014), which explores the origins of Native Mvskogee worship songs in Oklahoma, as well as the POV documentary UP HEARTBREAK HILL. Other production credits include Ric Burns and Chris Eyre’s, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: TECUMSEH’S VISION, as well as Michael Moore’s CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY, PUSHING THE ELEPHANT (Independent Lens), ELECTION DAY (POV), SIX BY SONDHEIM (HBO), FUR: AN IMAGINARY PORTRAIT OF DIANE ARBUS, CHE, and SEVEN DEADLY SINS (Showtime).
In 2014 King became a Time Warner Native Producing Fellow through the Sundance Institute.
Jeremy Yaches is the executive producer and co-founder of Public Record, a production company that specializes in film, TV, branded content, and commercials.
His most recent film, WE THE ANIMALS, won the Next Innovator Award at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, and was a NY Times Critic’s Pick upon its release in theaters this August. His documentary work includes IN A DREAM, which screened all over the world and was broadcast on HBO, as well as the Netflix original VOYEUR, which premiered at the 2017 New York Film Festival.
Jeremy also produced the pilot for 7 DEADLY SINS on Showtime, and he executive produced the forthcoming SIDELINED for A&E Indie Films/Lifetime. He is a Sundance producing lab fellow, a recent convert to decaf coffee, and is at his happiest when helping good people to create their best work.