“I would love to have a movie like that produced here every summer,” says Paul Buckley, who manages the Media Department at Utica City Hall and is affectionately known as the “Film Czar” of Utica. He’s talking about We the Animals, an indie film based on a novel written by Justin Torres in 2011. The story takes place in Upstate New York, where a half-white, half-Puerto Rican trio of brothers “tear their way through childhood,” each uniquely affected by their parents’ volatile marriage. Animals was screened at Sundance Film Festival in late January, where it took home the NEXT Innovator Prize, an award reserved for promising new filmmakers and presented by juror and famous drag queen RuPaul Charles. It has recently been purchased by major film distributor The Orchard, meaning fans of the story will be able to attend screenings all over the country in the coming months.
We the Animals was shot primarily in Utica during the summer of 2016, an effort that brought the 80-member cast and crew up from New York City, some staying for weeks at a time. “It was an economic boom for the area,” says Buckley. “They were renting out houses, coming to restaurants and bars, and they loved the food and people; it brought money into this area; it was a win-win for everybody.” Torres, the author of the novel the film’s based on, was born and raised near Syracuse, so the film’s Producer, Jeremy Taches, says it was a no-brainer for him and his crew to choose Upstate filming locations. Besides shooting in the Utica area, Taches says the crew also filmed in Newport, Lyons Falls, Little Falls and did aerial shots in Amsterdam (about 40 minutes from Saratoga Springs).
Buckley has a background in TV and acts as the producer, director, chairman, writer and “one-man band” behind City Limits, a locally broadcast TV program about the ins and outs of the city of Utica. He handled all things Utica for the We the Animals crew. “Anything they needed in Utica, I could get it,” he tells me. “And if I couldn’t get it, it didn’t exist.” According to Taches, Buckley was nothing short of a godsend: “He helped us find a lot of our locations, with the police and fire department to secure locations and wet the streets and find our location in Lyons Fall. He was just phenomenal throughout; we have a huge debt of gratitude to Paul Buckley and the city of Utica.”
The father figure in We the Animals works in a bottling factory. Buckley helped arrange for Taches and his crew to film at the FX Matt Brewing Company, where Saranac beer is brewed. He also turned Taches and his crew on to Lyons Falls, where they filmed a lake sequence. Buckley says he drove out to the set to make sure the cast and crew were satisfied with the location, only to find everyone swimming in the falls. “The bonding on the crew was phenomenal,” he says. “They all became family.” Perhaps most importantly, Buckley helped facilitate local casting for the film crew, who cast locals as extras and even in some important supporting roles. For all Buckley’s help, the crew found the most important set for the film—the family home of the main characters—on their own. “We literally just drove around for months and months,” Taches tells me. “We took like probably 10-12, three-to-four-day trips where we would just drive around Upstate New York, and on one, we were heading down the highway and tucked off into a corner we saw the outside of this house, and we slammed on our breaks and turned around.” No one was home, so they left a note. When they finally met the family that lived there, they were surprised to find that they matched the family in the story; the mother was white, the father was Puerto Rican, and they were young parents—but with four children instead of three. Taches and the crew went on to rent and film inside the home for 11 weeks.
Locals interested in catching their hometown or nearby regions in an award-winning film should keep an eye out for nearby screenings of We the Animals. (It’s entirely possible that Albany indie stalwart, the Spectrum, will land it.) “We cannot wait to show it Upstate,” Taches tells me. And we can’t wait to watch it!
Below, listen to We the Animals’ Director, Jeremiah Zagar, talk about adapting the book into film screenplay form.