We’ve got yet another interview for a huge winner on the 2023 Sundance Film Festival Midnight line-up, Jacqueline Castel’s directorial debut, My Animal.
The film features a fantastic lead performance from Bobbi Salvör Menuez as Heather, a teen outcast living in a small northern town. When Heather, a hockey goalie, falls for Amandla Stenberg’s figure skater, Johnny, Heather finally starts to embrace her truth, but quickly finds herself up against local conformity, a clash that tests an especially powerful force within her because Heather comes from a family of werewolves.
While celebrating My Animal’s big debut at Sundance, Menuez, Matthews, and Castel took the time to visit the Collider Studio presented by Saratoga Spring Water to recap their journey from script to screen. Hear all about their approach to crafting a werewolf story, the local guardian angel who proved pivotal in making the movie happen, Menuez’s physical transformation for the role of Heather, and loads more. You can catch it all in the video interview at the top of this article or in the transcript below.
And if you’d like to learn more about the Wolf Conservation Center in New York after watching or reading this interview, click here for more information.
Making a first feature is a huge feat. What would you say is the biggest misconception about what it takes to get your first feature a green light? But then also, what's a common piece of advice you heard that actually did help you get My Animal made?
JACQUELINE CASTEL: I think the big thing is just not asking for permission. I think it's just about going out there and finding the other people that want to make something with you. I think a lot of that is cast-driven. For me it's just finding the perfect creative matches, which I felt like I really found with Bobbi, I really found with Amandla, and that was the thing that set the project in motion to really get made. I think that's a big part of it, and I think you just have to find the right people for the role. I just think that sometimes you can get caught into this feedback loop of trying to find people like, ‘Oh, will you make this, will you do this,’ and I think you just have to chart your own course and believe in the project and the material and make it happen.
I think it's a really special thing when we find the right collaborators to do that with, so how did you two find each other and what did you see in each other that signaled to you, this is a person I want to keep working with?
CASTEL: On my end, it's really funny because when I was at Sundance with a short film a few years ago, I met a producer, Todd Brown who's at XYZ Films and now I’m repped there, and he knew about a project that I had and he invited me to pitch that project in Macau, China at a festival there. So I pitched there and then I met my producer, Michael Solomon, who had another interesting project. And so then we kind of kept in touch because he knew that I was Canadian as well as American and French, and so he was like, ‘Oh, maybe we could work on a project together.' And there was one moment when he was like, ‘Oh, I have a script I think you might be interested.’ And I was like, ‘Okay. I'll check it out.’ And he didn't tell me who had written it and then when I got it, I saw Jae’s name on it and I was like, that's so crazy because I was in the music scene, music videos, things like that in New York, and I think there was a passing moment when Jae and I maybe said hi in a greenroom or something, very briefly. And so it was really surreal to see that Jae was also working in film. I just didn't know that aspect of her. And then I read it and I just fell in love with the world and the characters, and then we met up and decided to work together. So that's my side of it. But Jae has a totally different side, too.
JAE MATTHEWS: So I am a musician and I went through a very hard time a couple of years ago and I wrote a script and I sent it to a very good friend of mine, Ali Reza, and I was like, ‘Hey, does this suck?’ And he sent it to Michael Solomon because they work together a lot. And I didn't really know or I didn't really understand what that meant or the consequences of it, but then Michael was like, ‘Hey, have you ever considered optioning this?’ I was like, ‘What is that?’ And then he's like, ‘I'm gonna attach Jac to the option.’ So that's kind of where it all began. We then we officially met at a bar in New York somewhere and just talked and tried to figure out if we had chemistry.
What is something Bobbi did in their audition that made you say, this is our Heather, and they're bringing something to the role that nobody else has?
CASTEL: It’s so funny because when I sent the script over, we didn't do an audition. I was just like, Bobbi. Bobbi’s it. [Laughs] And I watched a lot of Bobbi's movies, a lot of them all in a row. I do lots of heavy research and it just felt right to me. It was in the middle of the pandemic. I think it was May of 2020. Everything felt really crazy and weird, and it’s not like we were gonna be able to meet up or anything even though we were both in New York. So it was just like, ‘Okay, I'll send the script and see with the response is.’ And it was just really immediate, loving the content.
You do a lot of work to try to find the people that you think will be attracted to the material as well. I don't want to go out to an actor who’s just like, ‘Oh, I'll just take anything,’ you know? You want to find those special people that actually personally connect with the material as well. And it was really interesting too, because even before we approached Bobbi, when we were working through some of the screenplay, there is a moment with the shaved head scene and that was almost kind of inspired by — I don't know if I ever told you that, but that was kind of inspired by you, Bobbi, because I had seen those pictures. So your story before you were even involved got into the DNA of the script, so I’m glad that you wanted to do it. [Laughter]
Had you ever been in a situation where you were just sent a script as an offer?
BOBBI SALVÖR MENUEZ: This wasn't the first, but this was definitely one of the most exciting experiences of that. I just immediately was completely in the world. I don't know how fast I read that fucking script, but I got through it and was just like, whoa. I had gone through the world and just immediately fell in love with the characters. The world felt so real and visceral and exciting. There was a little bit of social and cultural overlap with with Jacqueline, just interesting New York weirdo scene and I was a big fan of Boy Harsher. It was just a yes, yes, yes, yes, and I was so excited. And then the first time we all met up in person was the upstate wolf sanctuary.
CASTEL: The Wolf Conservation Center! Which there’s a crazy story behind, too. Early on, before we went out [Bobbi], I started getting really interested in this Wolf Conservation Center and I was like, okay, I'm gonna go visit it and just study wolves and stuff. And you can adopt wolves there. Symbolically you donate money so that they take care of their food and care. And so on Jae's birthday I was like, I’m gonna adopt a wolf under Jae's name and under the project for My Animal. And so I was like, okay, which wolf? And they have this whole roster of wolves, and I picked Diane because that's the goddess of the moon and the goddess of wild animals. And also, I found out later the goddess of tomboys, and I was like, that's super cool! And so I was like, okay, I'm gonna adopt this wolf, and so I adopt Diane and then we go out to Bobbi like nine months later, and I get this little notification from the wolf center. You get little updates or whatever, and it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s your wolf’s birthday!’ When I looked at it, I realized in that moment that the wolf that I had adopted had the same exact birthday as Bobbi and I was like, that's ridiculous! How is that even possible? [Laughs] And so it felt really special.
That makes me so happy!
Bobbi, when you first started preparing, what particular quality of Heather’s were you most excited to bring screen, and then, what is something you discovered about the character the more you got into it and the more you filmed?
MENUEZ: There was so much in the writing to work from, which is just such a gift because that's just not always the case. And also, in conversation with Jac and Jae, they both had a lot of cool, exciting ideas.
I did quite a bit of physical training for the role. I think my personal prep was really about building Heather's inner world and Heather's relationship to her body and the experience of having this body that has this capacity to be scary and change form. We were looking at women wrestlers, women bodybuilders, and kind of like the gender presentation of that experience. I had a trainer who they had suggested, but was already someone I knew from the performance art scene. Another redhead, butch, cool person, whatever. [Laughs]
I was thinking a lot about the psychology of dogs within the wolf conversation and the way in which training is so important for the mental health of dogs, and was thinking about that in terms of Heather's relationship to post-the beginning of her realizing that she's dealing with being a werewolf, once she hits puberty, working with intense physical training to control her body and stay connected to her body and have a relationship with this really complicated body that she's inhabiting in a town that she's not totally accepted within. So that was sort of my early process, and approaching it from a really somatic place. I put on 10 pounds of muscle, which I feel like no one noticed. [Laughs] But I did, so that was cool. I was eating like five meals a day at one point. And then the movie got pushed back a year. [Laughs] You know, that’s how it goes.
The thing that was really exciting to discover on set was learning about Heather through her relationships. It was such a gift that the order of things — the first week we shot all of the one-on-one scenes with Amandla, the Johnny character, and that was just such a nice baseline to build this new part of Heather, this part of Heather that she's discovering about herself through the movie. That was a kind of magic that could only happen there, and on days off me and Amandla would look at the script and talk about what was coming next. We were all just really in it.
I have to highlight Amandla here. What is something you appreciated about Amandla as a scene partner that maybe helped bring something out of your own character that you couldn't have reached without her?
MENUEZ: There were just so many gifts about working with Amandla. They’re such a good friend and she's just such an incredible actor. It’s such a dream to work with someone who you already have trust and comfort with, who you respect, who you know respects you. Also shooting queer intimate scenes with someone who is also a queer person and can relate to those experiences makes it feel so safe. She's just a fucking really good actor, so that helps. And also just really generous. We both would always — I don't know, like little nerdy things like staying for each other's coverage even though …
That’s not a nerdy thing. That’s really important!
MENUEZ: Yeah! Being like, ‘Okay, my turnaround might be a couple minutes less if I don't leave, but this is an important scene and I want to be there for eye-line.’ We just did that for each other. We just kind of held each other through it in a real way that I think was meaningful.
I’d believe it! You can feel the chemistry and the electricity between the two of you leaping off the screen and I feel like you can't achieve that unless you put all that work in behind the scenes as well.
Back to the werewolf thing. I'm a big nerd for lore. I love knowing every little detail so I am curious, have you two mapped out exactly how this curse works? Is it only hereditary, is it transmissible, how can one control it, etc.?
MATTHEWS: I will say once you give your story to a director, they are allowed their own history. But funny fact when I wrote it, it was actually a family of dogs, and my understanding was it was like an outsider family and it existed within this unit only because they carry that trauma with them like that monster. Even any form of transformation can be horrific. But then when we started meeting, I think one of the first things Jac said was, ‘I really think it should be wolves, don’t you think? That is actually where that myth comes from.’ But I know Jac put in a lot of time and math on moon cycles and that becoming an actual part of the film where, in the original draft, it was kind of secondary because, again, they were dogs in the beginning.
CASTEL: I think I was just attracted to the wolf because of it being this very feared creature, this thing that is shunned from society. It's on the outskirts. There's a lot of interesting mythology with it. I really felt this movie felt very much — it was a night movie. It takes place at night, we were doing night shoots, and I wanted to feel this heavy presence [that] this moon was its own character, right? It completely lords over these characters, and if you were in that kind of situation, you would be super aware of that. And I just loved playing with that and playing with the idea of the lighting for it, or how you would have that creep into a scene or how it would just always be present, even if it wasn't really in your face.
I thought there was a lot of really interesting parallels between the wolf and the outsider. It just felt like hand-in-hand to me. And there was also something more dangerous about it, which I liked. But also, what I really fell in love with with Jae’s script was that it was subtle. It was funny because Michael first said it was a werewolf movie, that’s how he pitched it to me, and I was like, 'I don't know,’ when he first said it because you have this association with werewolf movies being very creature-driven and I wanted to do something that was more surreal in its approach.
And we actually shot with real wolves. That's why I went to go to the WCC and stuff, because I thought that was a lot more interesting in a way to explore that and explore this surreal connection of, is it happening? Is it not? Is it just a metaphor for trauma? Is it something beyond that? I thought there was something more interesting about that way of exploring the werewolf myth without being too aggressive about it on the genre side.
Given how successful you are with that, for anyone else out there who is making a werewolf movie, what would you say is one do and one don’t for telling a werewolf story?
CASTEL: There are no rules. I’m not gonna tell anybody how to make them.
That’s the right answer.
CASTEL: I think that they just need to go with what's true to them and what they think is cool. That's all you have to do. Just do the thing you think is cool, and that will show through. That's what matters.
I love that answer.
A little cheesy, but I feel like we don't tell people in this industry ‘good job’ nearly enough. Whether it's an actor or someone behind the scenes, can you each name a time when someone absolutely crushed their work and you want to say ‘good job’ to that person?
MENUEZ: Obviously these two fucking legends. But someone who's not at this table right now, Bryn McCashin our DP was someone who I really felt his dedication and love and his deep respect for all of us on set. He just rode so hard. He was in the woods with us, in the snow, running through the snow. He really brought a lot of dedication to the project in a way that I want to really shout out.
CASTEL: Definitely Bryn and I'll do another example of somebody on the ground in Timmins, Ontario where we shot. There is a guy there, Brian Jones, who I really have to shout out to because he really made everything happen there. He was a retired accountant in his 60s and he got really into the project. He was doing location scouts for me remotely with Zoom. And because this is a small town, he did everybody's taxes, so he knew everybody in town, and so he was like, ‘Oh, do you need this type of vintage car because I know this person and I went to school with them and their mom has this car.’ And it was like every step of the way he knew everybody in town, and we needed somebody like that to be able to really secure cool locations, interesting extras. We had a COVID shutdown and he was taking care of me. He brought me food. He bought me stuff from the store. He really cared about this project in this way that was very touching to me because, I don't know, I live in New York and, you know, sometimes you’re just kind of like, ‘Yeah, whatever, give me this money,’ and you don't necessarily get somebody on the ground who really cares about the project and this is somebody who really actually truly cared. And I don't know if we could have made the movie there without him.
I feel like he needs to work on more projects! That’s incredible.
CASTEL: He really had a good sense of it. He knew exactly what I wanted with location scouting. The photos that he got me were so helpful in pre-production because it was complicated with COVID to be doing as much on the ground as early as I would want to do it. So I had to really rely on people there to be able to share all these photos and stuff because I think on a low budget, you really have to have good locations. Brian Jones, he killed it.
MATTHEWS: It's obvious, but I would have to say Jac, like Bobbi mentioned earlier. There was a period when the film was not gonna happen and producers can do their best, but Jac literally was fighting. I feel like you romanced Paramount, being really far away from the project. But I remember I was about to get on a flight and go on tour and Jac just called me and my option was like a week away from being up, and Jac was like, ‘We're greenlit.’
CASTEL: And one thing I was gonna say about the first question that was posed about this whole process and meeting Jae, what I forgot to say was that I was this huge fan of Boy Harsher, so it was super cool when I got the script because I was like, ‘Oh man, this is crazy,’ because before that, like a year previous to that, I was working on a different screenplay. The whole time I was listening to Boy Harsher. The whole time. And so it's like it somehow manifested into my life. I was writing and listening to Boy Harsher then the writer from Boy Harsher comes and manifests into my life, so that was really cool. I was like, ‘Of course I want to work with Jae.’
Special thanks to our 2023 partners at Sundance including presenting partner Saratoga Spring Water and supporting partners Marbl Toronto, EMFACE, Sommsation, Hendrick’s Gin, Stella Artois, mou, and the all-electric vehicle, Fisker Ocean.