My Animal director Jacqueline Castel and writer Jae Matthews joined us to chat about meeting John Waters at Sundance while skipping school and coming full circle with a Sundance premiere and the perfect double feature to pair with their queer werewolf coming-of-age story. The story focuses on teenage Heather, tormented by a hidden family curse, Heather lives in seclusion on the outskirts of a small town. When she falls for the rebellious Jonny, their connection threatens to unravel Heather's suppressed desires, tempting her to unleash the animal within. Jacqueline is a seasoned cinematographer, and Jae is one half of the music duo Boy Harsher which oddly enough, Jacqueline happened to be listening to a lot of when Jae's script came in. You can watch our full interview with Jac and Jae right here, and read more below.
This is a feature directorial debut and a feature writing theatrical debut for you, Jae, so both of you are making your big screen debuts. Congratulations! And you came in hot right out of the gate with the Sundance premiere. How has the reception been for you?
JC: Well, I mean, obviously, it's incredible and really exciting. And I think, I always talk about how Sundance in particular is rooted in some other stuff for me, beyond it just being the name of Sundance. When I was in high school, I was living in Reno, Nevada, and we had friends of the family who lived in Park City, and they volunteered for the festival. When they knew I was getting into film, they asked, do you want to just come over? It's one state over and crash with us and see movies. And I was like, yes.
And year after year, I was skipping my high school finals to go to Sundance, and all my teachers were super pissed at me. And I would go there, and I'd wait in lines. I would just sit there completely by myself. I'd go up to directors that I really admired. I remember seeing John Waters once outside smoking a cigarette.
JC: I went up to him and I was like, "I totally love you." And I think he thought that was really entertaining or something, because I was fifteen at the time. That's the festival that I feel like really set me on my path as a film director. And so it was really important to me, being able to return to that festival to premiere my film there. I was very, very nervous, but I think it hit me, maybe the second screening. We were screening at the Egyptian, and that's the real classic Sundance theater. So I think that's when it hit me more that it actually happened. But I think, before that you're just lost in the adrenaline of making sure you have everything done in time and all of that. It's like your emotions are all over the place. I felt completely insane when that premier happened.
I'm going to go ahead and say to your high school teachers, I think it paid off skipping finals and going to Sundance instead, I think it worked out for you. Jae, how has this reception been for you?
JM: Cool. Yeah, totally crazy, unexpected, I'd say.
Unexpected, in a good sort of way, I'm guessing.
JM: No, absolutely. Yeah, sorry, that comes from, I think we were talking about this in the last interview, I wasn't part of production, so it feels like we were drafting and then the movie got made and I was like, I hope it's all coming together. And then I watched it for the first time at Sundance. It was a full-circle type of thing.
Is that nerve-racking? I am guessing that you had full trust in Jacqueline to take your baby and make this thing. What is that experience like when you're going to watch it for the first time and you don't really know what it's going to be?
JM: It's definitely a wild experience, for sure. And we were in the premier premiere at Sundance, was in a theater that was beautiful and it had excellent sound and visuals, but it wasn't proper, and there was no popcorn or even wine. So I definitely was, all of my coping mechanisms, like emotionally eating or drinking wine, were not available to me whatsoever.
We're lucky because the actual release premiere is at the Alamo Drafthouse. Alamo's shtick is giving you all the wine you want and a hamburger too if you need it.
We get a lot of male protagonists in this subgenre of the werewolf coming-of-age allegory. Not a ton of werewolf girls in the mix. And I have always been a champion for more werewolf girl movies. Jae, why do you think that is? Why do we center these stories on dude werewolves so often?
JM: Well, I'm no werewolf historian, but I would assume it has to do with masculinity. There is some channel between a transformation into a beast that is inherently masculine, or at least that's the feeling or the social conditioning we have, because I don't know if I really agree with that, but yeah, like Beauty and the Beast. But yeah, and I guess when you think about all the werewolf classics, you are thinking about this dopey dude who accidentally gets bit and he has to deal with a new life. And I think our film is very different in that is actually something that is in you, and it's in you, and it's going to come out no matter what. And I think that's a very special analogy to just Heather's character and what they're going through.
Jacqueline, is that part of what drew you to this? The werewolf aspect of it and the fact that it's not the familiar guy getting bitten by a werewolf and having to deal with that backstory?
JC: Our producer, Michael Solomon, when he first came to me with this project, he didn't tell me too much about it. He was just like, I think that you might like it. It's a werewolf movie. And the thing that was really funny is that I initially balked. I was like, I don't think I'm going to like this. That was my first impression. And then I got the script, and I saw that Jae had written it and was familiar with her music, and I was like, okay, I feel like this is going to be something really different. And then I read it and I fell in love with the characters and the world and the relationships.
It's such an interesting way of exploring this kind of premise. And I think that a lot of times there is this, just based on my own reaction to it, I think there's definitely a knee-jerk response to what you expect for a werewolf film. And I think that's something that's really intriguing to me, is breaking free from that a little bit. Because I think that if you think about other types of genres, vampires have been done in so many different ways. It could go in a super gory direction or it could go in the direction of The Hunger.
You have so many different ways that it's interpreted, and I don't feel like that's happened as much. I mean, it has, there are examples of it, but not to the same degree with werewolf mythology or the telling on screen. And I think just because there's a big hurdle sometimes maybe with just this hangup on what the transformation has to be or whatever [inaudible] is the forefront, is the creature aspect of it. And that's why I just really liked this.
I remember one of the things I really responded to in the script was just that Heather was locking herself up every night in bed. And I remember just loving that detail. It was small and it was subtle and it said so much, but it wasn't really in your face. And I don't know, I came in with expectations of what I thought it was going to be and then left it was a completely different experience than that. And then I was like, okay, this is like, we should talk about it basically from there.
I feel like you just described the audience experience in a way too. You hear, okay, werewolf movie, and you go in not quite sure what you're getting, and then like you, you're like, "Oh, okay, I see."
JC: And I think for that reason too, it's like people are going to love it or they're going to hate it. There are going to be people going in with a set expectation and being disappointed that that's not fulfilled in some ways. And then there's going to be people that are like, oh, wow, this is so different and really refreshing. I'm sure it's going to have a range of responses.
Be open to it, gang. That's what I'm going to say. So let's say you're going to program a double feature with My Animal and something else. What do you choose to pair it with? Jae, what would your pick be?
JM: That's a fun question. I actually haven't really thought of it. I guess you could go pretty standard and do Ginger Snaps. You could really lean into the female werewolf. If I went to the movie theater, I would probably love to go see My Animal and The Hunger, 35-millimeter print let's make that. I think that might be my double feature, but I still will think about it too.
That's a solid bill. I would go to that.
JC: Yeah, I mean, there's so many different directions. I mean, in terms of the different angles of the film, I could see they're also being a double screening with Pumping Iron too, just to go in a completely different direction, and that could be really fun. Or other reference points were Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me or Out Of The Blue where you've got this drama element or whatever that's also kind of in the narrative. I don't know, I feel like there's a lot of ways it could go depending on what you want. But actually, I've been thinking about doing a screening series later in the year where there are a few different films that get selected that play alongside the movie. So this is great. This is a pre-draft.
Brainstorm. My money's on Pumping Iron. Jae, what were some of your influences when you were writing this? Did you think about The Hunger? Was that something that was in your peripheral at all when you were creating this?
JM: No. Probably even at that time, I had not even seen The Hunger. I wrote this in 2016, 2017, I can't remember. But I feel like there's no way to answer this without sounding a little pretentious or something. But no, I didn't actually bring any influences in. And that's part of the reason why I do love screenwriting. It's the writing craft that I lean the most into because you have a program that's essentially formatting for you, so you can just do whatever you want. Obviously, films have had an impact on what I want to write about and how I put stories together.
But My Animal was something that I wrote in a really sad period of life and just was, I feel like I was really exorcizing some of my past and some trauma that I carry around. And so it was just about getting it out there and this benefit of having a program that will be like, oh, well, what character name? You know what I mean? I guess, in terms of films that when it was done and I was envisioning it, that also is strange too, because I never got to that point with this script. I didn't really think it was going to be produced into a movie. So I just was like, all right, that's done. Move on.
You're just writing it for the purpose of catharsis almost, and then would just what, set it on your desk and it's done, and luckily it found its way off of your desk into the world?
JM: Yeah, that's, I mean, truthfully how it happened. It's funny, when the producers contacted me, it was also years after I'd written it. And first I was like, how did you read this? And then I still was disbelieving, I couldn't believe that they wanted to produce it or make it in a film. So it's cool. It's lucky.
Jacqueline, were there any references that popped into your head when you read it? Or did you, in your language of creating it, did you guys go back and forth, did you have any kind of touchpoints as reference?
JC: I mean, I think, the first time that I read anything, I'm purely reading for the emotional residency. It's got to really connect with me. I was connecting with the relationships, a lot with the mother-daughter relationship, a lot with the older sister, and younger brother relationship. Just the whole family dynamic really connected with me quite a lot, and the early explorations of relationships and the confusion surrounding that. I think that's where I first have to touch base.
You can have reference points and stuff, but I feel like it's only going to take you to a certain point, and that's not really where I start with, but it is something that of course is going to permeate into the work somehow. But there'll be literature, for example, that will inspire me. Music is actually a really big inspiration for me.
The thing that's really funny, and Jae, I don't even know if I've even told you this before, but before I was working on this project, I was co-writing this erotic thriller with Sasha Gray, and I remember when I was writing that, I was blasting Boy Harsher really loud. This was before I got the script, any of that stuff. But I was just a fan and I was playing it so loud and just writing. So it was really funny then that the script came to me. I don't know, it's funny how that stuff can manifest or something like that. There was actually one point when I was writing something and I went out to Joshua Tree and I specifically got this house that was really isolated so that I wouldn't have anybody give me any hell about how loud it was, because in New York City we're so on top of each other. But I feel like I just get into really intense emotional spaces when I'm crafting and music helps you maybe get to that really extreme place that maybe you feel like you need to feel to figure out how something is going to connect to one space, to another space, if that makes sense.
Is there anything you want to add before we head out?
JC: No, I mean, I think I'm just excited for us to be in theaters for people to have the opportunity to see it as it is intended with full sound while we're on the topic of sound. So yeah, I'm excited for people to be able to check it out this week in theaters at Alamo Drafthouse.
With popcorn and wine.
JC: Yes, as intended exactly.
My Animal is now in select theaters and on digital September 15th.