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Barbarella Has a Howling Good Time Chatting with MY ANIMAL’s director Jacqueline Castel

Hey, friends! Barbarella here. While MY ANIMAL falls under the horror category, the only truly horrific thing about it is that it’s about teenagers. Heh-heh. All joking aside, Jacqueline Castel’s feature debut takes the tale of an awkward outsider and ramps it up into something far more artistic than your average coming-of-age fare. Both the sound design and visual elements offer plenty to plunge the viewer into the character’s mindset, making one almost feel how she feels. Starring Bobbi Salvör Menuez and Amandla Stenberg, MY ANIMAL is currently available on digital. I had the opportunity to speak with Jacqueline Castel about MY ANIMAL. Check it out. 

Bobbi Salvör Menuez as Heather in the horror/romantic film, MY ANIMAL, a Paramount Global Content Distribution release. Photo courtesy of Director of Photography Byrn McCashin. Barbara:  The scene where they were doing the donuts in the baseball field, how long did that take to shoot?

Jacqueline:  There’s a whole story with that. I always just loved that scene in the screenplay and was like, “I can’t wait to shoot that.” We were shooting in Timmons, Ontario, which is nine hours north of Toronto. The snow levels were nuts, like really high, like over my head. I’d never really seen snow like that before. We had already scouted this baseball field that we wanted to use, but then when we got to location, there had been a lot more snow, because it was a couple months later. We were getting pushback. It was like, “Well, we don’t know if we can get the snow out of here.” There was also the concern that the field had a raised pitching mound, and they were worried that we wouldn’t know where it was, so it could make the car spin out or be dangerous. Long story short, everybody was like, “No, you can’t shoot this. It’s not gonna happen.” I fought so hard. My DP, me, and our associate producer, who was our local, on-the-ground-in-Timmons fixer, Ryan Jones, just searched everywhere for an alternative field, and we found one, which is the one in the movie. That was one we were able to get plowed, just in the nick of time, like hours before we were supposed to show up on set. 

Then, after this whole to-do of “It’s never going to happen; it’s going to be too complicated,” we shot it so fast. It was so easy, and there were no problems. Everybody said it was one of the most fun days they had had on set. I think, because of all the fear, there was all this excessive preparation, and that way, it actually ended up being really smooth when we shot it.  We flew through that shoot. 

(L-R) Bobbi Salvör Menuez as Heather and Amandla Stenberg as Jonny in the horror/romantic film, MY ANIMAL, a Paramount Global Content Distribution release. Photo courtesy of Director of Photography Byrn McCashin.

It was really fun because we had this amazing stunt driver, Stephanie. She had red hair and looked kind of like Heather. We had our AC, this woman Lyndsey, our 2nd AC. She was sitting in the front seat so they could be the two going around, and they were just doing these donuts. We kept them mic’d up because the car was mic’d, and we could just hear them laughing. They were having such a good time, and I was like, “Yeah this is pretty cool.” I’m quite proud on a technical level of that scene because it was actually really difficult to execute, and everybody told me I couldn’t do it, and I really like proving people wrong.

Barbara: I really appreciated the sound design in this movie. Would you talk a little bit about that? 

Jacqueline: Yes. Sound is really, really important to me. It’s half your movie, and so I’m always thinking a lot about sound. I’m thinking about how sound influences a viewer, or even what kinds of decibel noises can impact somebody in the way that they feel when they’re watching a movie in a theater. There is something so psychological and interesting about sound. 

I brought on my sound designer, Dean Hurley, who I’ve worked with on a few different short films and other types of small projects. He ran David Lynch’s sound studio for over ten years. We met there. We were doing the sound design for a short film of mine in David‘s studio, and basically after that experience, I was like there’s no one I’m ever going to work with besides Dean because he’s incredible. We see eye to eye on things. As soon as I could, as soon as I felt the edit was in a close enough place, I was sending him the reels of the movie, and he was working on sound design. He’d be like, “How do you like this? How do you feel about this?” and we would just be kind of going back-and-forth.

Even when we were in the final sound mix, we would have set ups where we didn’t have the right kind of foley for this scene, so he would set up a microphone that could directly go into the board where I would like make a specific noise with my jacket, because it needed to be more specific, or I would do breathing a lot for characters, because I wanted to heighten the sense of feeling like you’re in somebody’s skin, like you’re there with them. There were a lot of things like that that I would be doing. There’s a lot of my breath work in the movie. That stuff is really important; it’s part of the psychological space of a film. The music syncs, the score, and the sound design were always going to be really important to me from the get-go.

Bobbi Salvör Menuez as Heather in the horror/romantic film, MY ANIMAL a Paramount Global Content Distribution release. Photo courtesy of Director of Photography Byrn McCashin. Barbara: When you were talking to your sound designer, were you giving pretty clear instructions on what you wanted or just letting him play with it and then giving feedback? 

Jacqueline: I like to give my creative partners a pass at it to see what kind of stuff they’re going to surprise me with or cool things that they’ll bring to the process, and then we’ll go in and shape it and define it and hone it in. You’re really just getting into the essence of what feels right. It’s very instinctual. It’s very animalistic, right? 

Barbara: There are some really beautiful visual elements in this. What kinds of conversations did you have with your cinematographer regarding the shooting? 

Jacqueline: We talked a lot extensively. I have a background as a cinematographer. I’ve shot a lot of my own projects, so for this it was kind of this very nerve-racking thing for me because I was like “Oh, I have to give over the reins to somebody on my biggest project.” So we talked a lot. To prep the movie, my DP Bryn McCashin was in Vancouver, but we were on Zooms every day for like eight to twelve hours going over our shot list, going over references, going over ideas for things and talking through the sort of philosophy of the picture and the imagery. There’s a whole kind of arc in the movie, and we were talking about that in the context of almost like moon cycles and emotional states the characters are in, and so there will be these moments of the film that are very kind of grim, and then you’ll have these very heightened emotional states that will go into these more spectacular color tones, or they’ll go into a more dreamy state. That’s purposeful to kind of mirror the subjective experience of the lead character, Heather, and her experience of diving into emotional state whether that be love or whether that be anger, really just allowing the viewer to always constantly be with Heather emotionally.

(L-R) Amandla Stenberg as Jonny and Bobbi Salvör Menuez as Heather in the horror/romantic film, MY ANIMAL, a Paramount Global Content Distribution release. Photo courtesy of Director of Photography Byrn McCashin. Barbara: Could you share a story of something that happened on set that best describes what it was like working with your cast? 

Jacqueline: We had a Covid shut down during the movie for two weeks where we thought the whole movie was going to fall apart, and everybody had to be locked away in their hotel rooms. Bobbi and Amandla made a song, and that’s the end song of the movie, which is called “Wicked Animal." All the lyrics are about the movie and about the relationship of the two characters, so they made that song together. On the first day back from our Covid shut down, they were like “Come up to the hotel, come up to the hotel,” and they played the song for me, and they showed me the lyrics. That was a really beautiful moment for me where I was like we’re all coming together to make this happen, and to build something beautiful and architect it and put it into the DNA of the film in every way that we can. That song really grounded me, and it really helped me get through some really tough times on production when I just didn’t think that we were going to see it through. It’s funny, because there are two different versions of the song: there’s the one that’s in the film now that Amandla made some adjustments to, but the original version of it, anytime I listen to it, it just brings me back so intensely to the feeling of being in a hotel room in Timmons, Ontario in the middle of winter. It just anchored me during a really tough moment so that was something that just meant so much to me. It felt like this beautiful offering that my cast gave to me, which is reflective of all the ways in which they gave for this project.

Barbara: I feel like in general people are pretty hard on themselves. How hard are you on yourself? 

Jacqueline:  Oh, I’m brutal. I don’t think there’s anybody that could say anything that’s worse than what I say to myself. I think that’s just part of my creative process. I definitely push myself to be the best that I can be and to put the project in the best place that it can be, and it’s hard because sometimes you also have to acknowledge that there’s a lot of obstacles in your way, and there’s a lot of things that you could never have anticipated that you just have to roll with the punches and see where it’s going to take you. It’s this weird push-pull where I think a lot of people are like, "You need to chill out and not be so hard on yourself," but I have a hard time separating from that because my goal is to always bring my absolute best to any situation, so yeah, I think it’s hard. I think that’s part of creating anything, you know, but yeah, I am particularly brutal on myself. You know, whatever. Reviews or people talking about the movie, nobody’s gonna say anything that I haven’t thought myself.

Jacqueline Castel, director of the horror/romantic film, MY ANIMAL a Paramount Global Content Distribution release. Photo courtesy of Photographer Brian Jones.Barbara: Of what are you most proud with this film?

Jacqueline: I feel like I’ll probably need more time and reflection before I am really able to hone in on it, but I am really proud that given this very difficult set of circumstances that I was able to see it through, and I was able to lead my team, and I always kept saying to myself “a calm sea doesn’t makes a good sailor,” so I feel like in this process, I’ve become a good sailor and really come to understand the vast array of things that can happen, and that sense of confidence and self-trust that you earn in really having to go hard and see what you’re made of, basically. I feel very proud of my own transformation and my own feeling a lot more confident in my abilities to see impossible situations through.

MY ANIMAL is now playing on digital. Check out the trailer!

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