My Animal Screenwriter On Tying The Film’s Werewolf Transformation Into The Queer Experience
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My Animal Screenwriter On Tying The Film’s Werewolf Transformation Into The Queer Experience

Warning: SPOILERS for My Animal.

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Summary

  • My Animal is a horror romance film that explores the connection between LGBTQ+ romance and werewolf lore.
  • The film follows the story of Heather, a teenager living with a family curse, and her relationship with ice skater Jonny.
  • The transformation into werewolves in the film is symbolic of the violent growth and self-discovery experienced by young people within the queer community.
  • New horror romance My Animal made its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and is currently available in select theaters. Slated for a digital release on Friday, September 15th, the film follows a teenager who is forced to live with a harrowing family curse that rears its ugly head every full moon. However, once she falls for an ice skater named Jonny, everything Heather has fought to keep hidden is at risk of being exposed.

    My Animal is directed by Jacqueline Castel, with Jae Matthews serving as the screenwriter. Although she has worked on shorts such as The Runner, Rain Dog, and Alice, the film is Matthews’ feature theatrical debut. Bobbi Salvör Menuez (Euphoria), Amandla Stenberg, Heidi von Palleske, Cory Lipman, Charlie & Harrison Halpenny, Joe Apollonio, Scott Thompson, Dean McDermott, and Stephen McHattie make up the main cast.

    RELATED: My Animal Review: Castel’s Debut Is Steamy & Stylistic [Sundance]

    Jae Matthews chats exclusively with Screen Rant about Heather and Jonny’s connection and how the nature of the werewolf transformation relates to the queer experience. Note: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, and the film covered here would not exist without the labor of the writers and actors in both unions.

    Jae Matthews Talks My Animal

    My Animal Still 2

    Screen Rant: What inspired you to tell this story that combined LGBTQ+ romance with werewolf lore?

    Jae Matthews: In 2016, my stepdad died suddenly, and so I had to go home to the house I grew up in and pick up the pieces a little bit and take care of my mom. It was the first time in a long time that I slept in my childhood bedroom for this extended period. I felt like I was just being surrounded by a lot of the angst that I experienced in high school. I grew up in a very small town in upstate New York, and things were coming back in an intense way. The only thing that felt like it would help me maybe rest is if I just wrote it out and wrote what I was feeling.

    Truthfully, the scene that came to me first was when Heather is at the bar, because that’s like my bar that I grew up with in my small town. During this period of time, I was spending a lot of time at the bar, and I was really angry. I really wanted to just transform into a monster and destroy the world that was hurting me so much. A lot of it is just this historical experience that I was trying to translate into a coming of age horror film. Maybe not intentionally, but the horror element of it just seemed so appropriate for what I was going through.

    Heather and Jonny are both teenagers who are struggling in different ways. When you were writing them, what did you feel it was that drew them to one another above everyone else?

    Jae Matthews: I think that both characters are outsiders. The thing about Heather is that character is one that is really just looking for anyone to see her and recognize that she’s a human, and she’s there and present. Jonny, as this new person in town, is providing her that. Obviously, Jonny is also very interested in Heather and who Heather is. I think they’re both very afraid of their own sexuality, and they have this baggage that is common, I think amongst everyone—social conditioning, shame, and who you’re allowed to be attracted to and who you’re not. Clearly, they’re both very attracted to one another. The way it pans out—there’s just too much outside pressure that prevents them from having a healthy, adequate relationship.

    Bouncing off of that, there are many themes present here. You have the mythology, romance, self-acceptance, grief, trauma—was there one element in particular that you felt tied everything together?

    Jae Matthews: I do believe that the horrific nature of the transformation is absolutely tied to the queer experience and coming of age in a place that is not embracing and welcoming. I think that a lot of times when young people are discovering who they are, it is through very violent growth and a place that is maybe not comfortable, whether it’s being rejected from your family or your community, or even from yourself. So that is very related.

    Grief is a blanket that covers you no matter what. I know that a lot of times people want to talk about grief as if it’s a theme, but for me and for these stories, in particular, grief is actually just the setting. These characters, Heather, in particular, lives in grief. Her mom, Patti, lives in grief. It’s hard to manifest that in a visual sense, but I do think through acting, you’re able to experience and relate to that.

    Heather’s mother underwent a serious trauma that made it difficult for her to be a parent. When you were writing Patti, what was going through her head? How does she view this family that she’s found herself a part of?

    Jae Matthews: That character in particular is one that I feel so much empathy and sympathy towards. She’s modeled very loosely after my mother. During the period of writing, when I was home, I was also taking care of her, and she suffered from alcoholism, and that actually generated demented behavior or dementia. I think with Patti, I was trying so hard to put her in this place that’s very honest about addiction, and the ways in which it can really morph your brain and make you an angry person and not a great mom and not a great support system.

    I also wanted to showcase her as this incredibly loving individual who has given her whole life to a family that is very different than she is. The implication there, I don’t know how much it came through, is that she was attacked by Henry. She is meant to have these scars. She loves this man so much, but he can’t help but have this violent tendency. She’s stuck in a scenario where it’s like, what do you do? She already has three kids and her home. I just feel such a strong sense of compassion for Patti because I think we all know what it’s like to be stuck in that way and stuck by love. That leads to drinking and trying to disappear.

    There are a lot of visually stunning scenes, especially the sequences between Heather and Jonny that take place in this infinite-type space. How did that transfer to the screen from what you originally envisioned when you wrote it?

    Jae Matthews: A lot of those scenes are very much Jacqueline’s interpretation of the script. In particular, what I’m recalling is the sex scene is pretty trippy and very stylistic. That is very much Jacqueline’s wheelhouse. Her work is already heavily stylized with that black void and those very atmospheric lights. In the written text, there are some scenes that do require a sense of the void. The one in particular I’m thinking of, and I remember writing the scene, is when they’re on the Zamboni.

    Heather is driving, and Jonny is in her lap, and Jonny is just throwing these roses. That scene is meant to be so big. You get the landscape of the ice rink, but so small that everything else falls away. I think it’s interesting watching the interpretation, because sometimes I was actually like, “I don’t know how they’re going to do this.” And so it’s cool when you see how they do it.

    Did you get a chance to visit the set during filming?

    Jae Matthews: No. I really did want to, but they shot during COVID, way up in northern Ontario. There was a period where I was like, “I’m going to come, I’d like to come. I want to be a part of this. Tell me how to do it,” and it just seemed to get more and more complicated. And then they did have a COVID outbreak, so they had to shut down production for two weeks. So the combination of that, and I am a touring musician, we could never reconcile. Truthfully, my biggest takeaway is that next time I want to make sure I’m on set. I want to be part of it and see it. It’s special to get to be a part of this world.

    My Animal Bobbi Salvör Menuez and Amandla Stenberg Amandla Stenberg and Bobbi Salvör Menuez in My Animal

    We don’t see the characters in wolf form too often. Obviously, there are a lot of complexities that would come along with doing that, but from a creative standpoint, did you feel that actually added to the enigma of this family?

    Jae Matthews: Yeah, because I think it does turn into the question of, “Are they just crazy people, or are they truly beasts?” A kind of dorky reference that I like to have is, I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie Signs, and I’m not like a huge M. Night Shyamalan stan or anything, but to me, that movie was really, really, really effective and really scary, because he doesn’t really show the aliens until I think over halfway through the film. That’s so spooky because you also don’t really know what you have to be afraid of. With My Animal, it’s interesting because I thought you would probably see the transformation.

    It was a Jacqueline decision to leave it out, and I respect that and understand where she’s coming from. In the initial draft, that bar scene is actually the first scene of the film, and then you go back in time and get the whole explanation. So initially, the way it was written, that transformation is there right off of the top. You know kind of what you’re getting into, or at least you get this sense that you are entering into a film that is about a person who transforms and becomes incredibly violent. There’s a lot more violence, I think, written into the script than what was actually put on screen.

    Hockey and ice skating are a big part of the characters’ lives. Are these sports that you have a particular interest in, or did you just feel like it was the right fit for the story?

    Jae Matthews: Truthfully, I grew up in a historic hockey town in upstate New York, so hockey was a huge part of just existing. I’m not athletic or sporty. I never played hockey. I can barely skate. But truthfully, I think that was my personal rebellion because everyone I know skates. Everyone I know is part of hockey culture if not a hockey player. They are a child of a hockey player, or they are a partner of a hockey player. It’s really seeped into the cultural brain of my town. So when I was home, again, in this bedroom, and I’m writing, it was winter, and it just was the season.

    It just felt like a backdrop to everything that was going on. And truly, I love hockey. I don’t really know much about the sport, but I do know in high school, because you would all go to the games, even if you were like me, and an outcast, and goth or whatever, you’d still go. I just really valued the extreme passion that is part of that sport. We’re watching teenage boys literally destroy one another and beat each other with their sticks. I don’t know. I can get into that.

    And this is your first full-length feature, correct?

    Jae Matthews: I’ve written multiple features, and I’ve never put them into the world. So this is interesting in that it was the first one that had ever been optioned, and then greenlit, and then made into a film. I don’t know if I’ve ever before been in a place where I considered myself a screenwriter. I’ve just considered myself someone who wrote scripts. And so now I’m like, “Wow, does this mean I’m a screenwriter?” And maybe it also means I should start writing more and trying to option more.

    Now that you have My Animal under your belt, are there other genres you’re hoping to explore?

    Jae Matthews: I’m a horror. And not even really horror, truthfully. Deep down, I’m a thriller. Life to me is truly about the moments of thrill and elation, and fear, of course, works into that. I’m so fascinated by the way humans can’t help but destroy one another. Whenever I write, I write in that kind of dark world. It’s interesting. When I went to Sundance to see the premiere of My Animal, I brought my twin sister as my guest. I love her, and we’ve been through everything together. It’s amazing.

    My joke about Erica is she’s just very charismatic and very social, and I’m not. I’m a little more solitary. She networked like crazy at Sundance, ended up leaving the festival, and was like, “I’m going to write a script.” And I’m like, “What? Okay.” So Erica wrote a horror comedy, and it’s so funny. Now I’m stoked about this idea that me and my best friend will just be writers together. That was a very cool thing. She can handle the other genres. She’s all about body gore that’s funny. I’m all about body gore that’s not funny.

    About My Animal

    My Animal Still 1

    Bobbi Salvör Menuez (Euphoria) and Amandla Stenberg (Bodies Bodies Bodies) ignite in this genre-bending supernatural love story. Tormented by a hidden family curse, Heather is forced to live a secluded life on the outskirts of a small town. When she falls for the rebellious Jonny, their connection threatens to unravel Heather’s suppressed desires, tempting her to unleash the animal within.

    Check out our My Animal cast interview at Sundance Film Festival, as well as our interview with director Jacqueline Castel.

    My Animal is currently available in select theaters and will arrive on Digital on September 15.

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