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My Animal director on making a perfect 2023 horror movie and meditating with David Lynch

With entrancing synths and vivid red lights, Jacqueline Castel’s My Animal feels like an ’80s-inspired music video. And in her feature directorial debut, Castel uses this distinct style to inject a fresh, queer love story into the werewolf genre.

Heather (Nocturnal Animals’ Bobbi Salvör Menuez) is an outcast who aspires to be a hockey goalie in her small town. When she meets Jonny (The Acolyte’s Amandla Stenberg), a confident, but tormented figure skater, a friendship turns into sexual attraction as the two women grow closer with each meeting. However, Heather is hiding a huge secret — she’s a werewolf — which forces her to battle her “animal” within.

My Animal premiered at the Sundance Film Festival as part of its acclaimed Midnights Section. Before the premiere, Castel spoke with Digital Trends about the inspiration behind My Animal, the challenges of selling a head-scratching script, and her collaborations with Jim Jarmusch, John Carpenter, and David Lynch.

A woman pulls her hair in My Animal.
Byrn McCashin / Paramount Global

Note: This interview was conducted in January 2023. It has been edited for length and clarity. 

Digital Trends: Congratulations on the film’s debut at Sundance. Does this feel like the end of a long journey, or is it just getting started?

Jacqueline Castel: Ah, I don’t know. I mean it’s hard for me to tell. I was doing post up until the very end. [laughs] I think we got our DCP [Digital Cinema Package] generated last Wednesday, and I was doing a QC [Quality Control] on it, so it feels like a whirlwind. I’m still kind of in that weird mode of like, OK, I’m transitioning out of being in a dark room for weeks on end to now coming to the more social aspect of talking about the movie.

It’s a bizarre shift, so I don’t know. I feel like I’m probably still in the middle somewhere of the whole process. I don’t think it will really hit me that the movie is done until I see it with an audience at the premiere. Then I’ll be like, “oh, OK. Oh, I did it.”

This is real now.

I know, exactly, right? It’s sort of a surreal process in a way, especially when you’re under these deadlines. You basically are like, “Oh, we got it in? OK.” Then you just have to go on hyperdrive trying to finish.

My Animal is quite a few genres combined into one. It’s a family drama, a teen romance, and a werewolf story. Where did the film start? What genre were you looking to explore?

Well, the screenplay was written by Jae Matthews. When I first read the script via our producer, Michael [Solomon], I definitely saw there was a really strong family drama and love story present. There were these aspects of the genre, and when I came on board, I was like, “Look, Jae. We should really explore this really cool metaphor. Let’s really push the genre components of it.” So, it was just us working together for about a year before we took it out to cast to really find that right balance.

It’s like some weird nightmare to shop out a script like this because no one knows what to do with it because they’re like, “Well, it’s this, and it’s that, and it’s this. How do you define it?” These are the types of films that I always love, but they’re the ones that are really hard to sell, like in a marketplace, because people are head-scratching.

But I really love threading that line, playing between genres, and using genre to explore deeper societal issues or topics. It was this smashing together of all these different elements, and hopefully, it’s effective. We’ll see when people see it. [laughs]

Two girls on the poster for My Animal.
Byrn McCashin / Paramount Global

I read that Bobbi and Amandla were your first choices when you began casting. Which role did you cast first? What characteristics were you looking for in each actor?

I wanted to build the entire movie around Heather because it really is Heather’s story. So it was very important to me that I find the right actor to play Heather. There was a heavy research stage. Bobbi was on my list for a very long time, and I just kept going back to Bobbi, like there’s something about this actor. There’s something really compelling.

There were a lot of other factors, like strange and interesting synchronicities, that occurred. When the project first started and before we started going out to cast, for Jae’s birthday one year, I symbolically adopted a wolf at this center in upstate New York. I adopted this wolf called Diane because that’s the name of the Roman goddess of the hunt, wolves, wild animals, and the moon. I’m like, “OK, this is the wolf I’m going to adopt.”

Right as I approached Bobbi nine months later, I got a notification that it was Diane’s birthday, and I realized at that moment, the wolf that I had adopted had the same birthday as Bobbi. I was like, “I don’t know. This is like totally aligned.” This is the person I’m supposed to cast. Then Bobbi got the script and immediately was like, “I love this project. I want to do it.” It was pretty instantaneous.

Amandla was simultaneously my top pick. When Bobbi and I had our first conversation, I remember Bobbi was like, “Oh, who are you thinking about for Jonny?” And I was like, “Well, I would love to cast Amandla Stenberg.” Bobbi’s eyes lit up, and [she] was like, “Well, we know each other.” And I was like, “Oh, really?” We did a formal approach to Amandla’s team while having Bobbi on the sidelines like, “Yo, you gotta do this movie.”

It was really nice to have that mutual support because I felt that there would be a personal connection for those actors with the material. They both knew each other from the queer scene in New York and L.A., and were really outspoken about those topics. I felt like they really agreed with what I was looking for in these characters. You can inject people’s own narratives into a movie. I think that that makes it more powerful. You build it from the inside out. It’s a power source.

Two girls look at each other in red light in My Animal.
Byrn McCashin / Paramount Global

How is your wolf doing today?

Doing well. Diane is doing well. And actually, after that point, I adopted not only Diane, but one of Diane’s sisters, so now I have a pack of wolves I’m in charge of. [laughs]

An actual wolfpack.

Yes. For real. They are living in upstate New York. [laughs]

A big part of this movie is the score and the music. All of the synths match this ominous, psychedelic feeling, especially in the scenes with Bobbi and Amandla. It feels like a music video, and I know you have a background in that. Take me through the importance of the musical selections for this film and how you settled on this type of theme.

Yeah, I think that music is always very central to the work I do. I love listening to music when I’m writing. I love listening to music when I’m developing projects. It all aligned really well. It was very funny. I was working on another movie, and I was listening to a lot of Boy Harsher. It was all the time while I was writing this other screenplay. Then a few months later, when I got the screenplay from Jae, it was really funny to me because I was like, “Oh, this [Jae] is the singer from Boy Harsher. That’s so funny.”

So it was baked in early on in the project where we just knew … that Gus, who is the other half of Boy Harsher, was going to be doing the score for the movie. That was baked in from the beginning, which is really cool because then you’re just sort of listening to that music, and it’s seeping into the way that you approach the project.

That helped me a lot as a director because when I listen to music, I see scenes that I want to create. I think that’s why I was attracted to music videos,because I felt really connected to the music scene from a really young age. That was where I built a lot of my community when I was a teenager. Then you just kind of keep going through that in life. It’s fun to work on music videos because you get to explore a lot of different visual styles and ideas in a short period of time. You don’t have to be too committed to any one thing. You can try things and experiment, and then you bring those techniques to your filmmaking later.

A woman walks down a snowy hill.
Byrn McCashin / Paramount Global

You’ve collaborated with a lot of filmmakers, such as Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, and John Carpenter. That’s a murderers’ row right there. I’m sure you could probably spend hours talking about things you might have learned or picked up for them, but I’m going to ask you to do it quickly if you can.

Oh, man. Yeah, it’s different for each director, right? Everybody has their own kind of way in which they work and collaborate together. The first that I worked with was with Jim. We worked together on a music video. I directed a music video for one of his musical projects. He’s always done a lot of music stuff. Around the time of Only Lovers Left Alive, he was working with lutist Jozef van Wissem, who was doing a score for that film.

We were around the same circles in the music scene via Sacred Bones Records, which is run by a really good friend of mine, Caleb Braaten. Jim and I basically got connected through Caleb. He was like, “You guys should work together.” Then Jim saw my stuff and was like, “I’d love to do something together if you love the treatment that I put together.” We ended up shooting together. He’s been a really amazing presence, a very supportive person. A cool, kind of mature figure for me.

Working with John was wild. Basically, he was creating an album from his own music that wasn’t tied to any film. He had never done that before, so I was again scheming with Caleb, and I was like, “Why don’t we pitch a short film that could be connected with the new music or whatever? Kind of reverse-engineer it.” He really liked that idea, so I wrote a script and sent it to John, and he wrote back 24 hours later with just one word that said, “Yes.”

That’s perfect.

I think that I was on a plane on Halloween one week later to go shoot with him because he had this narrow window of time that I could work with him. I had to basically jump on the plane and go shoot that segment with him. Then, I had to figure out how to shoot the rest of the film that would match whatever we shot. I wasn’t prepped for the rest of the film to happen, and the rest of the short didn’t shoot for another two months. But when that opportunity calls, you just get on a plane. [laughs]

Two girls sit in the backseat of a car.
Byrn McCashin / Paramount Global

I totally agree.

So that was pretty wild and fun. With David, again, it was through music channels, and through that project that I did with John. I needed to do sound design on it. I became friends with Dean Hurley. He was also the sound designer of My Animal. We’ve been working together for years, and for a long time, he was managing David’s entire sound studio. Basically, he’s like, “Hey. Why don’t we do the sound design and the final mix at David’s place?” So I was at David Lynch’s house finishing the sound, which was pretty surreal. David would come in and be like, “Hey guys!” [laughs]

It was a pretty, pretty cool experience. After that, I got incorporated into that world and became friends with David’s son, Austin, and he was like, “Hey, let’s work on a project together with my dad for TM, transcendental meditation.” I was asked to portray the visuals of what it looks and feels like to do TM. I got involved in that, and then it just continued and grew into a relationship. I feel very lucky.

It’s weird because, with the conversation on music, everything stemmed from music, which was not traditional, I guess. It led me to all these collaborators, which led to films. There’s never one specific path. There are so many different ways to go about things. Through music, I found film.

My Animal is in select theaters on September 8 before being released on digital on September 15.

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