Jeremiah Zagar’s Top10
Philadelphia native Jeremiah Zagar’s first feature-length film, the documentary In a Dream (2008), premiered at the SXSW Film Festival and screened theatrically across the U.S. and in film festivals around the world. It was broadcast on HBO, shortlisted for an Academy Award, and received two Emmy nominations, including for best documentary. His next documentary, Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart, premiered in competition at the Sundance Film Festival and aired on HBO in 2014. We the Animals, his first narrative feature, is based on the best-selling novel by Justin Torres and premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the NEXT Innovator Award.
Lynne Ramsay is the best. Ratcatcher is by far the most influential film in my life. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched it. The Criterion DVD is great because three of her shorts are on it, and they’re just mind-blowing. What first knocked me out about her was not only the way she dealt with naturalism and nonactors but also the way she made me aware of the film frame. In her short Gasman, she cut people’s faces out of the frame so that you would see them slowly emerge as characters—she created human beings out of pieces and fragments. It completely changed the way I thought about framing. I gave Ratcatcher to every single close collaborator on We the Animals.
When I was a kid I saw My Name Is Joe in the theater. I’d never seen anybody act like Peter Mullan before and I’d never seen a movie like that, period. Watching Mullan in that movie I was just like, how do you do that? How do you get actors to do that? After that I watched every Ken Loach movie I could. Kes is one of my favorite movies ever. The plot of We the Animals is very smiliar to Kes; we follow the same formula. In fact, the entire last third of our movie is completely ripped off from the end of Kes and follows almost beat by beat the storytelling of that film.
Guillermo del Toro
I saw Pan’s Labyrinth when it played at the New York Film Festival, and it was a euphoric experience. That movie was just the best. I watched it four or five times in the theater. One time I was in Mexico with my family and I was wandering around the streets and saw that it was playing at a theater and I went in. I don’t speak very good Spanish, but the movie worked so well without me knowing what anybody was saying because the visual storytelling is so incredible. We watched it a lot as a reference on We the Animals.
The Tin Drum
I saw it at BAM in Brooklyn when they were doing a Schlöndorff retrospective, and I didn’t previously know much of his work but then got super obsessed with him. What’s cool about him is that his films are all totally different. The Tin Drum is a crazy epic story told through the perspective of this young boy, and the voice-over is incredible and takes you through his experience. A lot of people think the voice-over in We the Animals is a reference to Malick, but we’re actually referencing The Tin Drum. What I love about this movie and Ratcatcher is that they show an understanding of childhood sexuality, which you only really see in European films. The other thing that’s really important about The Tin Drum is the color palette. It has this incredibly vibrant, almost Technicolor palette. I showed the film to my DP and everybody that we worked with.
My next film is a noir, so I noticed that you had a neonoir theme on FilmStruck and recently watched Mona Lisa. It fucking knocked me out! I think it’s one of the best noirs ever. It’s like Melville meets Ken Loach, which is my dream. Watching it, I was like, “They’ve already done it. They did it. It’s everything I wanted to do!” Bob Hoskins is out of control. It’s one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen. The way this movie begins is so mind-bogglingly amazing that as soon as it starts you feel like you want to watch it forever. So I’ve been watching it over and over, and I think it shows you the breadth of Neil Jordan. This guy does everything and it’s really cool to see.
I love Time Bandits, and it obviously fits into the kids’-adventure-fantasy stuff that I’m into. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was actually the first film I ever saw in a theater when I was eight years old, and I was euphoric. After that I rented every Terry Gilliam movie. In Time Bandits, he mixes animation and live action, which is an important aesthetic element in the movies I make. When I was twenty I had a short at the London Film Festival, and I was there with my friend so we were traveling from party to party, drinking and eating, because we didn’t have any money. At one party we saw Terry Gilliam, and I started talking to this woman about seeing Baron Munchausen and how it made me want to make movies, and she said, “Well, my husband is Terry Gilliam, you should go say hello to him.” So I went over to him and said, “I just need you to know that I’m here because you made me want to make movies,” and he said, “I’m so sorry.”
I saw it when I was a young man in Philadelphia, and I became obsessed with R. Crumb. He reminded me a lot of my father—especially in the way he dealt with the weirdness of sexuality. And he was kind of depraved. Crumb is this beautiful portrait of this man teetering on the edge of madness, but Zwigoff makes him so sympathetic. Maryse Alberti does beautiful camera work that makes you feel like you’re in this guy’s world in a way that’s so intimate and lovely. After I saw it I spent all of my bar mitzvah money on Crumb comics, which was disappointing for my mother.
The Cranes Are Flying
This movie seemed to come out of nowhere. I didn’t even know it existed until I saw it at BAM, and I remember walking out of the theater thinking this is the best movie ever. I love giant, epic films with incredible black-and-white cinematography. There’s one scene in the film that I literally show to everyone I ever make a movie with. It’s shot through a fence, when Tatiana Samoilova is running, and the camera moves past the fence super quickly, and it speeds up with the pace of her running. It has this effect where it makes your heart race in a way that’s insane. The other thing about that movie is that it’s an epic told from a woman’s point of view, which you rarely see. It’s just one of the greatest movies of all time.
I love Hopscotch and dream of making a movie like it. It’s just full of fun and double crosses. Ronald Neame is very unsung as a director, but he made the coolest movies. He worked a lot with David Lean, so I think it’s interesting to look at Lean, who did these giant epics, and Neame, who was way more experimental and wild in choosing the kinds of movies he was going to make. Hopscotch is basically a perfect film, and Walter Matthau is unreal in it. You watch him and you think, that’s what American actors should have been and should always be. Hopscotch has that heist-noir and cat-and-mouse thing going on, but it’s also bright and goofy and funny and hits a tone that’s so unique and clear.
Y tu mamá también
I saw this when I was in college, and there were a lot of things about it that made me swoon. I watched it over and over again. I couldn’t stop. It does this incredible thing where it stops the narrative, like Godard would, to comment on the story from an omniscient perspective. But where Godard does it in a really cold way, Cuarón does it with such warmth. It made me feel like you could do anything; you could stop your movie and do wild shit and still be incredibly emotionally engaging. The movie also depicts sexuality in a way that I’d never seen before. Long before our culture became obsessed with sexual fluidity and where people fall on the Kinsey scale, this movie said that it was just a reality that the intimacy between friends can also be sexual, that it’s not so cut and dry. It’s about the depth of a friendship, and it was just a revelation for me. That moment when the two men kiss was like, woah, that’s right and that’s real. And the cinematography is insane and showed how you can make beautiful images with so little. It’s a simple road movie about friends, but it’s so gorgeous. Why aren’t we elevating simple stories to the level of epics? Cuarón does that. All his movies are epics, no matter how small or big they are.