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Exclusive Interview: “MY ANIMAL” director Jacqueline Castel on casting, connecting and running with the wolves

Friday, September 15, 2023 | Interviews


After a decade as an award-winning creator of short films, including a collaboration with David Lynch, Jacqueline Castel has made her striking feature debut with MY ANIMAL. With the movie making its debut on digital platforms today, we present the second part of our interview with Castel, which began here.

MY ANIMAL, which was written by Jae Matthews and world-premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, is a lycanthropic romance in which Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez) is an outsider in her small wintry town. Restricted from joining the local hockey team, she also has to be imprisoned in her bedroom every full moon, as she undergoes a lupine transformation–a condition inherited from her father Henry (Stephen McHattie). BODIES BODIES BODIES’ Amandla Stenberg also stars as a more outgoing skater with whom Heather begins an intense relationship, though Heather’s secret leads to some unfortunate complications. Suffused in stark atmosphere and powered by a pair of impassioned performances, MY ANIMAL is a deeply personal entry in the werewolf genre–one that features real wolves.

Did you discover Jae Matthews’ script, or did you work with her from the beginning?

I had been pitching out another film project, and Todd Brown invited me to do a pitch at the Macau International Film Festival in China. I met my producer Michael Solomon there; he was also pitching a film, and we liked each other’s projects. So we ended up keeping in touch, and he reached out a little while later and said, “Hey, I have this screenplay that was passed to me by another producer, and I think you might be really good for it.” He sent it to me, and when I saw it was written by Jae Matthews, I thought it was really funny because I’d met Jae before in the music world, when I was doing videos and around that scene in New York. Then I read the script and really connected with it, and felt there was a lot of potential there.

So Jae and I met up in New York and talked through the story, and we decided to work together, because we knew the screenplay still needed some revisions to get to the right place for production. For about a year, we went back and forth on the screenplay, getting it to the right place and developing the core themes of the story and the characters and the world.

What was it about the script that you connected to?

There are so many parallels, so many things that have happened in my life that I felt deeply connected to this story. Jae and I talked about the experiences of being on sets, when her stepfather had a heart attack and my father had a heart attack while we were each on different productions, and how that connected us. I had a younger brother like the family in the script did, and I related to this idea of first love, and the cycles in a family that bring you to the place of who your first love is, and how intense that feeling can be. And feeling like an outsider; I was very disconnected when I was young, and felt kind of like an island, and I’m really attracted to outsider stories. I just connected with all of it, to those early attractions you feel that you’re unsure of or don’t know how to navigate, or that are outside the realm of what society tells you you’re supposed to have in a relationship. That’s why I wanted to take it on, because you invest years of your life in a film, and you’ve got to be connected to it.

The hockey subplot makes the film kind of unique–and I think this is the first horror film where someone wears a goalie mask because they’re actually playing hockey. Was that in the original script, or was that added during your development process with Matthews?

[Laughs] The hockey subplot was already there; it was always the way Heather and Jonny met. It’s also an interesting kind of ecosystem, and a sort of metaphor for society. It’s a place where Heather aspires to be on the ice, but she’s on the sidelines, and she’s attempting to meet her goals in this kind of psychological space. And then somebody enters into that space, and completely opens up her world in a radical new way.

Can you talk about the casting, particularly finding the right two leads?

I did a lot of research into who I would be casting. Originally, the project was put together as a Quebec/Belgium co-production, so I was on the hunt for the perfect cast who also had European passports! Interestingly enough, in my studio space in Brooklyn where I’ve shot a lot of interviews, on the first floor of the building, there is an Icelandic artist, and as Bobbi came into my sphere, I found out they have an Icelandic mom, and then I discovered this article saying that Bobbi’s mom and this artist were friends. I was like, “Hey, does Bobbi have an Icelandic passport? I really like Bobbi, it would be so cool to cast them.” I started to feel that Bobbi was the one, and then I reached out and they really connected with the material, and said, “This is exactly the kind of project I want to do.”

My top pick for Jonny was always Amandla Stenberg, and when I met up with Bobbi, she was like, “Well, we’re friends. We already know each other from New York and LA.” That was pretty incredible, and when we formally approached Amandla, Bobbi was there on the sidelines saying, “You should do this project,” which was very helpful in getting it to come together. Their responses to the script were swift and immediate, which was exciting because that doesn’t always happen.

Stephen McHattie plays against type here; he doesn’t usually portray nurturing, sympathetic characters, so what led to his casting?

Well, that’s exactly why I wanted to cast him, because I wanted to get a really cool character actor for that role. Henry is also a wolf, and I wanted somebody who had some grit to him, but I also thought it would be interesting to take someone like Stephen McHattie and do something unexpected, where you could be really touched by him as a father. When I sent him the script, he was excited and said, “OK, yeah, let’s do this project.” And after that, I stumbled across this Reddit thread where people were looking through his entire catalog on IMDb and saying, “Wouldn’t it be so crazy if he played a nurturing dad?” And I was like, “Yes! [Laughs] I’m gonna give that to you!”

How did you find Charles F. Halpenny and Harrison W. Halpenny (pictured with Castel at the Fantasia festival), those twins with the crazy hair who play Heather’s younger brothers?

They’re pretty cool, right? We just did this major search; that was one of the first things I got on top of, because I knew it would be very hard to find identical twins who could act and who looked like they were part of this family. My casting director put out a huge call for twins. Going into it, we were like, “Oh, do we do talent agencies, do we reach out to groups that have been created for parents of multiples?” We were going all over the place trying to find people. Then they showed up in a casting video, and I thought, “Oh man, I’m going to cast them based on how they look alone!” I was worried, “What if they’re not good?” [Laughs] I wasn’t totally sure until I went to Toronto to meet them; I was adamant about seeing those kids in particular. It was hard at the time, because there were all these restrictions with the unions and COVID, and they wanted me to do it all on-line. But I said, “No, I have to see these kids in person.” And as soon as I worked with them, as soon as I started giving them direction, they totally took to it, and I knew I could work with them. They had such a good attitude, they were so sweet, and their mom was so supportive, and I knew these were the right kids. They have an incredible look, and the way they just fell into my lap was unbelievable.

How did you find the great wintry locations?

I knew we were going to be shooting in Northern Ontario, because that was how part of our financing came together. So I did a tour of all these different cities, and I fell in love with Timmins, which is one of the northernmost cities in Ontario, so it’s pretty isolated. It’s a big mining town, and a really interesting, transient, strange place covered with snow. I loved the architecture, I loved the people there, I loved that everything felt kind of lost in time, and I thought it had a special quality to it. So despite my protesting producers, who thought I was a maniac for wanting to shoot in this weird small town, I told them, “No, we’re going to shoot in Timmins.” They relented, and we shot there, and I just fell in love with the place. It had all of the locations I needed.

For example, it was hard finding the arena, because I was very specific about the colors in the movie, and there was not a single other arena in Northern Ontario that had red as its predominant color–which I thought was really strange, because it was Canada, and I was like, why aren’t there more red arenas? But they were all in the complete opposite direction of where I wanted to take the movie’s palette, and I knew I’d be fighting that the whole time. So when I found this perfect, quaint 1970s arena that had these bright, poppy reds, I was like, this is the space.

And also, there was a guy on the ground there named Brian Jones, who became a kind of associate producer on the project and a scout. He had no experience in the film industry, but he came on board and was so full-on; he was like, “Here’s a picture of this, and here’s a picture of that.” Having that support on a local level, knowing that someone was always trying to find the things we needed, made me feel comforted, because I didn’t necessarily get that feeling from the people I was meeting in the other cities.

How was the experience of working with the real wolves?

That was really fun. At the start, I went to the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, New York and did a lot of research with them, just hanging out with wolves and doing a little field trip with Jae and Bobbi. I wanted to connect with them as animals, because they’re such beautiful and majestic creatures, so incredibly intelligent, and it’s unfathomable to me that people hunt them and want to erase them from the face of the planet. It was shocking to hear about the numbers, and how little they’re protected, and right now they’re not listed as an endangered species in the United States, and there’s been a lot of poaching and hunting of them, because they attack livestock; it’s a purely financial conversation, basically. I also hung out with some wolves at another education center outside of Los Angeles, and then when we were shooting, we had this incredible wolf wrangler, Andrew Simpson, who has property in Alberta. A lot of big shows go to him specifically to work with his wolves; GAME OF THRONES has shot there. He really cares about his wolves, and he’s the leading wrangler of them in the world for the film industry. He has 40 wolves on his property, all different types.

So we filmed with him as a splinter unit, and it was during a full wolf moon, which is the first full moon of the year in January. We shot in the middle of this crazy snowstorm; we had all these grand ambitions for what we wanted to shoot with the wolves, but then they got whittled down because we got caught in this insane blizzard, and we only had about five people on that crew, so it was really tough. That was my entry point for MY ANIMAL, which was pretty intense, but Andrew was amazing, and it felt really good for him to be involved with this project.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and in addition to his work for RUE MORGUE, he has been a longtime writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. He has also written for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM, MOVIEMAKER and others. He is the author of the AD NAUSEAM books (1984 Publishing) and THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press), and he has contributed documentaries, featurettes and liner notes to numerous Blu-rays, including the award-winning feature-length doc TWISTED TALE: THE UNMAKING OF "SPOOKIES" (Vinegar Syndrome).