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Giving Authenticity to Environment: 5 Questions for Petting Zoo writer-director Micah Magee

The incredible film Petting Zoo screens Thursday afternoon at the Topher Theatre at ZACH during SXSW, and is not to be missed. This film, perhaps more than any other playing at the festival has the look and feel and authenticity of feeling like Texas. This despite the writer and director Micah Magee going to live and work in Berlin, where the film first screened as a part of Berlinale. Magee was kind enough to speak to us from her hotel room in Austin, and was as down-to-earth and kind as the landscape revealed in her film.

Scene Creek: What is the biggest difficulty to create a micro-budget indie?

Magee: I have three kids and a dog, so we just had to make it work with the family framework. I think I wrote the script a long time ago, I was up waiting tables in upstate New York in Troy and that got us down to Texas, and then luckily one of my former teachers became a producer on this film, and she’s a director as well. Then the Austin Film Society came on board on post-production. And Kickstarter as well is also great.

SC: We are hesitant to call this film autobiographical, but how much of it is based on real life?

Magee: A lot of it was inspired by my own experiences when I was sixteen, going on seventeen, growing up in San Antonio. And a lot of it is a consolidation of research and workshops. I do a lot of workshops with young people that also informed a lot of what was there. I was seventeen and pregnant and I lost the baby. I got frustrated with the way that teen mothers were being portrayed. I wanted to do it a little bit differently.

SC: How much do you use San Antonio in the film?

Magee: You use the environment as a way to support your story and not hide your environment. Instead of trying to build a set, we used our world which was our world as a set. I think that gave a lot of authenticity to the environment, and it also gave our actors the opportunity to really go far because they knew and trusted everyone around them. They learned not to be ashamed to show parts of themselves that they’d have more trouble showing in a bigger production, you know?

SC: We have heard the film compared to Boyhood. What do you think of that assessment?

Magee: Richard Linklater is amazing, and an inspiration for anybody who has made a film in Texas. Not only does he make films, but he helps other people make films by using his celebrity status. He does screenings where shows films that he like, and ticket sales go back into a grant. I’m really grateful for everything he does, and I love his movies, because I like the way he gives people time to say and think and do things in a natural rhythm.

SC: How did you find your lead actress, the remarkable Devon Keller?

We had about a thousand girls that were all interested in acting. Devon Keller, who’s the lead actress, she went to the high school that I went to, and she was at a fashion show and was in the audience. There were like burritos and other things, and when I saw her, I was like “Oh my God, that’s her!” I tried to get her number, and she wouldn’t give it to me. Then I sat her down, and I said “Look, I’m legit!” (laughs) Give me your number, give me your mom’s number, and then we got her into casting. I had the actors spend some time without me, so they’d build some secrets. I like to see people on screen who know something the filmmaker doesn’t.