How an award winning filmmaker found his way to Amsterdam

Jeremiah Zagar
Jeremiah Zagar    

Most film buffs are fulfilled by their role in the film industry as audience members. When Jeremiah Zagar was a young boy, he felt the same. He said, “I’ve been interested in filmmaking since I was a little kid, like 8 years old, but I was interested only in watching films then. I wanted to just watch movies all the time. My parents got me a little booklet so I could go to the movies for really cheap. I think it was like three bucks a movie or something, so I would just go to the movies all the time. And I didn’t realize I wanted to make them until I was about fifteen, and then I just started making them. It’s really the only thing I’ve ever been really good at.”

Zagar’s first feature film, a documentary titled In a Dream, received two Emmy nominations and was short listed for an Academy Award. His second film, another documentary called Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart, screened at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. Zagar is currently in pre-production on his third feature-length film, an adaptation of the New York Times best seller We the Animals, by Justin Torres.

According to the Facebook page for the film, We the Animals tells the story of the brutal yet loving dynamic of a mixed race, working class family, seen through the eyes of the youngest of three sons as he discovers his artistic identity.” When Zagar read the book, the story really resonated with him.

He said, “My family is not so dissimilar from the family in this book, and the experiences of the young man in this novel are not so different from my own. I think it connected with me on a very visceral level. There is a kind of love in this family that’s not shown very often. It’s very specific, and it was something I related to very much.” Ultimately, he felt that it was a story that he wanted to make, so he contacted Justin Torres to discuss the possibility, with Torres readily agreeing.

Zagar co-wrote the script with his friend from high school, Dan Kitrosser. Kitrosser is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter, and songwriter. While Zagar has written scripts before, this is the first full length script that he will actually move forward with. He said, “I’ve written a couple of full length features, but the will power it takes to make a full length narrative feature is enormous.” He went on to say, “The other scripts I wrote were almost practice for something, what this is, which is something much more real.”

This film is a step forward not only for Zagar, but it’s also a step forward for his production company. Zagar co-founded the production company Public Record with his friend, Jeremy Yaches, whom he‘s known since seventh grade. About the project, Yaches said, “From Public Record’s perspective, for us, it is something that we’ve been wanting to do for a long time. We’ve been wanting to make a narrative feature film.”

According to Yaches, “Documentaries are a little bit easier to get off the ground, and they’re a little bit–if you don’t have money and a lot of support and financing–it’s just a little bit easier to get off the ground. And so, for this film we–I think we’ve been building up to being able to make something like this, and the vision for the film, I think for us, is just sort of the next step in where we want to take our company, in where we want to take our careers. It’s something that can hopefully put us into a place where more of these narrative features are possible.”

As Zagar and Yaches began figuring out the logistics of how to shoot the film, they began considering where to shoot it. In the book, the parents of the three boys both work at factories. Keeping in mind that they were looking for older industrial spaces, they decided to film in Troy.

In 2013, Zagar’s father, well-known mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar, was in Troy to do the mosaic mural at Freedom Square. While he was working there, he met Amsterdam resident and artist Tammy Merendo. Isaiah Zagar recently gave a weekend mosaic course in Philadelphia, which Merendo attended. Over that weekend, Merendo heard about Jeremiah’s plans to use Troy as the backdrop for his film, specifically due to the factories and the river there.

Upon hearing this, Merendo told Isaiah that Jeremiah had to come to Amsterdam, which had similar features, and she assured the Zagars that Mayor Ann Thane would be supportive of the project. As it happened, Thane was in town for a conference. When Merendo contacted the mayor to tell her about the project, she quickly came over to meet Isaiah and to persuade him that the film should be shot in Amsterdam. Isaiah was convinced and called Jeremiah to tell him what Amsterdam had to offer.

Zagar heeded the advice of his father and traveled to Amsterdam with Yaches to scout possible locations. Yaches said, “When we came here and we looked around, we were sort of like, ‘Oh this is great. This looks a lot like what we pictured certain parts of the movie to look like’.” Zagar also noted that the demographics in the region would be helpful, saying, “We saw that there was a large Latino population and that we might find young kids to participate.”


On Sunday, Zagar and Yaches hosted auditions for We the Animals at the Creative Connections Art Center on East Main St. in Amsterdam. The auditions were for Latino or multi-racial boys from age eight to 13. “This isn’t the only time we’ll be here,” said Zagar. “If there’s still kids who want to come out and audition, if there’s still kids who want to get in touch, we want to meet them. We want to come back. We’re casting a really wide net, and we plan on auditioning a lot of kids. We’ll be in Troy and surrounding areas.” To that end, auditions were held in Albany the two previous days.

Jonas Barkevitch (age 11), Jeremy Yaches (executive producer), and Keith Barkevitch
Jonas Barkevitch (age 11), Jeremy Yaches
(Executive Producer), and Keith Barkevitch

Just as Zagar is seeking real locations that will fit the feel of his film, he‘s looking for real kids to fill those spaces. “We’re looking for that spark that feels like the characters in the book. So it’s an intangible thing. It’s not like something that’s specific; it’s more like a feeling. I think we’re not looking for anybody with necessarily acting training. We’re not looking for anybody that’s done this before. We’re looking for just young people who are excited and desiring to do something new and different.”

The film is still in the early stages, with filming set to begin next summer. Once the film is fully funded and a production schedule has been made, Zagar says that he will begin making definite plans regarding locations and will be looking for some local crew members. Filming will take about two and half to three months, and Zagar says that a local premiere will be planned when the film comes out, which should be sometime in 2015.

(Photos by Ashley Onyon)

Ashley Onyon

Ashley Onyon is a graduate of the journalism program at SUNY Albany. She has contributed articles to The Mohawk Valley Independent and the annual journal Upstream.