I have repeatedly been told by my editors in the past that, please, for the love of all things grammatical and creative, refrain from tiring your petty vocabulary with the burden of a word that is “quirky”. Quirky means nothing! Quirky is unimaginative! Quirky is useless! Scrub quirky from your dictionary! Why use quirky when you could use “idiosyncratic,” or “peculiar,” instead! Well please please please let me have what I want and deem this absolutely exceptional short film, The Animals, with its every scene swathed in the kind of natural light that dreams are literally made of and the kind of black humour that any film maker would do horrible, disgusting things to achieve; with its girls and their matted hair and their jabberings in French… please let me say that The Animals is quirky, okay?
Director Angeline Gragasin created The Animals with an all female executive level production team: something that is oddly and sadly a rarity in the industry. Along with Gargasin (also lead actress) was Caitlin Doughty (writer) Rachel Wolther (producer), Meredith Zielke (DP), Meredith Ries (Production designer) and Abby Walton (Costume designer). Together they have successfully and triumphantly created a short film that I so yearn for; cinematically surreal yet not unsatisfyingly short, a well written script, engaging concept complimented with this mystifying, elongated and hypnotising question mark that underlies the whole film and draws you in and challenges you to keep watching and figure out this perfectly quirky narrative. I want to tell you what this film is about in one of those fantastically well rounded sentences that sums up its style and intent, but for the life of me: describing The Animals would be like trying to describe the depth and beauty of a Rothko to someone totally unfamiliar with his work. Gragasin’s film is visceral and strangely moving in this uncomfortable, jarring kind of way, it’s absurdly beautiful in its execution and it’s the best short film you will see all week (or month, or year). Undeniably, though, after watching this film you may feel a little inquisitive, a little lost. Luckily we picked the brains and spoke to this wonder director cum actress cum total badass, Angeline Gragasin. Enjoy.
Portable: What was it like working on an almost all female crew? did you round up a crew of women intentionally to make the film or did it just happen naturally? Do you tink it’s harder for women to make a name for themselves than it is for men in the film industry?
Angeline Gragasin: After Meredith, 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.
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.
P: Why were you interested in exploring the doppelgänger concept?
Angeline Gragasin: 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.
P: The sound design in The Animals was incredible (extremely well chosen tracks, the exaggerated foley sounds like when one of the characters was eating a sandwich…) how important was sound for you to convey this unusual reality in The Animals?
Angeline Gragasin: 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.
P: Can you tell us a bit about Topanga where you shot on location? It’s a fittingly creepy landscape and adds a lot of depth to the film, what drew you there?
Angeline Gragasin: 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.
P: 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?
Angeline Gragasin: 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!