Out of Her Cage

Micah Magee explores a Texan's teen pregnancy in Petting Zoo

Like the protagonist of her film Petting Zoo, Micah Magee grew up in San Antonio, experienced a teenage pregnancy, and despite significant obstacles, landed in an honors program at the University of Texas, where she earned a double degree in film and Plan II. As a teenager without a car, Magee walked to work every day past a small petting zoo.

Though the zoo doesn't appear in the film outside its title, you can see something of a skittish caged animal in the performance of Devon Keller, the San Antonio native who plays Magee's physically frail yet psychologically iron-clad stand-in.

Shot with a tiny crew and mostly non-actors, this quiet film – Magee's first feature-length – captures San Antonio's stark, sprawling poverty and off-key beauty, but is equally deft with small, deeply internalized moments, like a cat's purr that mimics the underwater throb of an ultrasound. Gritty without being sensationalistic, it's a moving debut from a strong talent.

But Magee's ambitions for her film aren't just artistic: She wants to help pregnant teens, especially in low-income communities, and especially in Texas, get the resources they need, and she believes her film can help. The Chronicle spoke to Magee about filmmaking as a mom, abstinence-only education, and social change.

Petting Zoo

Austin Chronicle: Why was it important to you to share Layla’s story?

Micah Magee: It’s fiction, but it's inspired by my own experience growing up in San Antonio and having been a pregnant teen in that environment, and what comes after. For me, it was important to understand that experience from a different perspective. Part of the process of making the film was doing research with different at-risk youth organizations, doing a lot of storytelling workshops and stuff like that, and hearing the same stories, because that story happens over and over and over and over again, just based on the social and economic structure of being poor in San Antonio, or any other city. It was interesting to hear all these different perspectives, and then create a dramatic structure based on what was common in all these stories. That was the approach.

I think the autobiographical aspect to it was what gave me the stamina to keep writing grants – I wrote 50 or 60 grants – and just to keep going, to power through and finish the film with a low budget. It’s such a long process to make a film, and if you’re trying to do it with three kids and a dog, and working on the side, it just takes ages.

AC: You’ve mentioned in interviews that having three children has changed the way you make films.

MM: This is probably true with everyone and not just mothers, but I think that nowadays, when you’re not as dependent on renting equipment, which costs an insane amount of money, and because you’re not paying for film stock and processing, you have an opportunity for structuring your time on set. Whereas before, you had to minimize the time on set in order to have your crew, which had to be big because you were shooting on film, there for the least amount of time. Our crew was five to eight people. It was good for the acting, because it let people feel they trusted everyone on set. That decision to be in our own time, and let our actors be in their own time, and not to pressure the time so much – I think it’s something that not only mothers but also other filmmakers now are able to do more.

AC: What are some of the specific adjustments you’ve made in the process of making a film?

MM: We didn’t really have money for child care, so I worked my kids into the film so they could just be there. That was one solution.

The second solution is, you don’t have probably the same financial resources as somebody who's either independently wealthy or able to take high-end line producer jobs around the same time as shooting. The solution to that is incorporating your environment into your film. You can have a really high production value if you have a lot of money, but you can also have a really high production value if you don’t try to hide the place where you are, but you show it and use it and incorporate it. San Antonio is a really fantastic city. It’s beautiful and complex. Instead of trying to build that, we went to the real places and incorporated ourselves into the space, and because we were really small, it didn’t really disturb the place, so it didn’t look fake.

And then: scheduling. I’m still struggling with this, but it’s important for me to have time with my kids. So that’s another thing, to make real work hours and not to try to power through working all the time, but to take time off, spend time with them. When they’re at school, then I’m working. Before I had kids, I’d just work nonstop. But I have a lot of friends who don’t have kids and who make films, and I haven’t found that it necessarily has slowed down the process too much, because you learn to schedule yourself differently. Sometimes the “off” time, playing or scooting cars around the carpet, is when you have the ideas that you couldn’t have when you were trying to have them. It is hard, but it’s not impossible.

I would encourage everyone, regardless of if they’re a parent or people who just can’t really see themselves doing something because it seems too big, that if they just approach the film from the story, and look at their own life – you can probably find a solution to it if you’re not trying to copy somebody else’s structure. That structure doesn’t work for everyone. Not that everyone has to reinvent the wheel, but there are better ways of doing things for certain people and certain lives. As a mother or a person with limited resources, if you try to find your own creative solutions to those problems, you might stumble on something which is going to maybe even give you a better result, because it’s a little bit more honest.

AC: I notice the press materials say that Layla is pressured into deciding to keep her baby. In the film the issue is Texas’ parental consent laws, which require unmarried teens to get written permission for an abortion from their parents unless they can obtain a judicial bypass. Is this a restriction you feel strongly about?

MM: That law makes it difficult for any teenager who would like to get an abortion but who has an estranged relationship with their parents. I don’t know many teens who would even know what a judicial bypass is, or how to approach that. I don’t even know many adults who would know how to do that. The film isn’t trying to politicize the issue at all, one way or another. But for that girl in that situation, that was definitely something that made it not possible for her. Also, it’s emotional, you know? If you’re unsure about something, and your parents feel strongly about it, that’s more what makes you decide one thing or another, the feeling that you don’t want to do something wrong. . ...

Those issues vary so much from family to family. But that law makes it so hard for any young girl who doesn’t want to have a baby but is pregnant to find a way. Having grown up in an environment where there are a lot of people who don’t really know how to take care of their kids, and there’s a lot of anger management issues, they don’t treat their children well – I think if you have those kind of laws in place, you must, you must have the kind of infrastructure there to help these young kids be better parents, you know? Otherwise you’ve got these poor young toddlers and babies who are really not being taken care of. I think that’s really irresponsible, to put young people in a position to be taking care of other young people, without giving them the resources to do that. . ...

I’m hoping, with the film, that we’ll get people from both sides of the abortion debate to come together and see what’s missing for young women in that situation, and provide some support. And I also hope the film will get a little more discussion around what percentage of Texas schools teach abstinence-only sex-ed. How can we make it more okay to talk openly about sexuality, and take away some of the shaming of young women who feel sexual early? Because kids having sex is not going to stop. ...

And if a girl does want to have a baby, that’s great! I love having kids. That's fantastic, too. But then, instead of isolating that person and being like, “'Oh my god, she’s not married, is she going to be on food stamps, is she a drain on society?' All those things make a young person feel awful. It makes it really hard for them to ask people for help, because they’re ashamed. Having been in that situation, I would love if people would see each other as all part of one big human fabric, and communicate more, just help and reach out to kids who might not be able to ask for help themselves, instead of prematurely telling them who they are and what they’ve done wrong.

AC: I wanted to ask about the choice to use non-actors, especially in the hospital scene. It's one of the most intense delivery scenes I’ve ever seen, really powerful and affecting. How did you work with the non-actors to prepare for it?

MM: Working with Devon [Keller] and the other non-actors in the film, we spent an enormous amount of time off set with each other. Also them with each other, without me, so that they had an independent relationship, so that they would have their own things going on and I wasn’t telling them what to do all the time.

And then, to be able to find her way into the different experiences that Layla has, Devon had to look for things in her own experience – she’s never been pregnant, or lost a family member, but she’s had a lot of other experiences in her life, so it was looking for those other experiences, to find some way for her to associate those with the scene. She was remembering actually being beaten up once, and that’s how she was able to go into that space. We talked a lot about what a labor is like – the contractions are when she’s remembering being hit.

Doing that kind of work, it’s important to take the time after the scene to come out of it together, so the actor’s not left alone with the memories that come up around it. And just knowing each other, trusting each other, and being there for each other, and for the crew to also all be part of that inner circle, so that there’s not anybody there who’s a stranger.

The other thing that was really important, was that people were not approaching their characters from the outside, or from a stereotype. Nobody was allowed to pity their character or judge their character. Because the actors don’t, and the film tries not to, there’s a possibility for you to empathize with almost everyone in the film. And I think that empathy is the most important aspect if you want to effect social change. If I would like the socio-economic situation to change, then something about the structure needs to change, which is made up of people. That’s what I mean when I talk about social fabric: If you’ve got different parts of that structure able to empathize with each other, then they move a little bit closer together. I really think that does change the structure itself. When people who weren’t able to talk to each other before can find out together what they can do together, then something new will happen, I hope.

Petting Zoo

Visions, North American Premiere
Thursday, March 19, 1:15pm, Topfer

Keep up with all our SXSW Film coverage at austinchronicle.com/sxsw/film.

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