How’s Your Animal Project Going?

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[Day Two of the 36th Starz Denver Film Festival]

It’s difficult making a film about complacency because naturally the ideal end result is shaking that mental hold and getting your mojo back. This requires strong characters and relationships that develop in a way that creates an engaging narrative, even if the pretty people on screen we’re watching are mumbling their way through a journey with a puffy arm chair or going to your friend Richard’s wedding.

Please welcome Canada’s Ingrid Veninger and The Animal Project.

A group of Canadian actors form a small troupe to enhance their craft, but things are getting stale. No risk, no rewards, just a bunch of acting exercises and sexual tension. You know, the usual. Their leader Leo (Aaron Poole) has a dream about a group of people wearing animal costumes against a spacious snowy landscape and thus suggests The Animal Project. With wearing these costumes, they have the opportunity to really break out of their head and get into their emotions, or as Leo puts it, “obliterate” themselves. At first, everyone’s, like, “duuuuumb,” but of course, they come around. And it just so happens to be really great.

As we watch this careful process of people trying to lose their despondency, we’re exposed to a lot of typical indie tropes. The mopey twenty-something, the broken families, the angry gays, naked stuff, etcetera. Because of these typicalities and the dry spirited sad-sack marathon of smoking and eye rubbing, the film starts to lose its speed. Then, like the characters, we accept that that’s not good enough and get into it. Once the troupe actually dives into The Animal Project, the action potentials start firing.

Beside it being a fun film that is pleasant and endearing out of the ilk of the Duplass Brothers and Onur Tukel, the process behind it is also pleasant and endearing out of the ilk of the Duplass’ and Tukel. Veninger hired all of the actors before scripting as a way to write characters that genuinely fit their personalities and temperaments, rather than go the traditional route of shoving an actor into a specified role. It’s kind of genius and worked for the film without a hitch.

She conducted group interviews, asking actors personal questions, like if they fear death or believe in God. (This was recreated in the first scene with Leo, basically Veninger’s surrogate, as the troupe leader/director.) She watched them listen to music to get a barometer on their comfort level and natural self. She sat in silence with them for five minutes, just to feel the result of feeling awkward. Years ago she made a short called The Bunny Project with her son, Jacob Switzer. This short was used in The Animal Project as a film that Leo made with his son Sam, played by… Jacob Switzer, all grown up. Not only was Veninger’s process exhilarating and fresh, but the use of economizing the gold in her own life only added to the already thick layer of reality and genuine texture.

It should also be quickly mentioned that the cinematography isn’t bad, but there are a few shots that are absolutely incredible. Describing them would be a stupid waste, but if there’s a chance you can see this, keep an eye out for the pier at sunset/sunrise shot.

Veninger said during the post-film Q&A that she always thinks each movie she makes will be her last and needs constant reassuring as to why it’s all worth it. That makes sense, but hopefully with The Animal Project, an extremely personal and inspired tale of what it means to be find yourself as an artist, to make films, and to be Canadian, she proves it to herself and makes more movies. For us and for herself.

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