Interview: Director Rebecca Stern on working with the colourful dogs of Well Groomed and Dan Deacon

Earlier this month at SXSW, I had the chance to sit down with Rebecca Stern, the director of the new film Well Groomed – a surprising documentary about the niche world of competitive dog grooming. Scored by the great Dan Deacon, the film is as engaging as it is entertaining (and garnered four stars from our reviewer). Making her directorial debut for the project, Stern talks about premiering the film at SXSW, comparisons to Christopher Guest’s classic Best in Show and the stellar cinematography that brings the whole documentary together.

You’re here at SXSW where you had the world premiere of the film yesterday. Firstly, talk me through the screening and how it all went.

Yeah, absolutely. I mean it was nerve wracking for sure. This is my first time directing. I’ve been a producer for a while, so I’ve been standing on the sidelines for other films.

We were any of them screened at SXSW?

No. This is my very first one at SXSW. I’ve had Tribeca and other festivals, but this is the first time here. We had the dogs of the film at the premiere with their owners for the step-and-repeat, as well as the Q & A, which was really fun. And it’s just hilarious to watch because people come up and they’re like, “Please, please, can I take a picture of your dog?” And it’s like, “Yeah, like that’s the plan. Come on, it’s South By!”

But yeah, it was really great. It seemed like the crowd had a great reaction, and they laughed at all the points that I was kind of, had my figures crossed hoping that people would. And several people came up afterwards and said that they cried. So, there’s a lot of emotion. And for me at least it was an emotional rollercoaster. So yeah, I was eating a lot of popcorn, but really frantically.

Well, I was at a screening the other night, and there’s a lot of screenings where the Q & A, it becomes a very intoxicated affair, because everyone’s so nervous and … So popcorn is probably the better approach anyway.

Whiskey might be tonight.

Whiskey, oh that’s good. Now you celebrate. So I’d love to know a little bit about how you started to learn about the world of competitive pet grooming.

Yeah. Absolutely. I went to a lot of dog activities in and around New York, ’cause I was interested in spending more time with animals, because I love them very much.

Do you have dogs yourself?

I have one now. I didn’t at the time.

Oh really.

Which was kind of the thing. Well, my family always had tonnes and tonnes of pets. So I had eight cats growing up and a dog and a rat and a bird, and like we had a menagerie. And then I went to school and moved to New York, and was living in the smallest apartment that one can imagine, and could not have any pets in that.

Yeah. Maybe a gerbil.

Yeah, exactly. But gerbils are not great pets. Most of those animals are nocturnal. I wanted to sleep. So I was just kind of looking around for a topic and I met some people, and I met some dog publicists. And then I saw a picture of creative dog grooming and I was instantly hooked, because it’s so visually arresting and intense and extreme, and I had a lot of questions.

So I reached out to the women in the film and I was like, “Hey, can we meet up?” And this was a long time ago. It was four and a half years ago, because I did a short film first. And then I did the feature. And they were kind of like, “Sure, whatever, if you want to come on by, come on by.” And that’s what I did.

And so we bought a plane ticket, I bought a plane ticket to Pasadena, where there’s a show going on, because these shows happen all across the country and all around the world. And that was the closest and nearest one, and the soonest. And kind of just showed up, and was like, “Hi, my name is Rebecca.” And that was, the rest of it just happened.

At what point did you know you were going to be doing a long form piece?

So I made the short and it toured at a lot of festivals. And I had a lot of people kind of asking additional questions. And I also had a lot of additional questions that I didn’t get to really address in the short film, which is only eight and a half minutes. And it was really based around female mentorship, because there’s kind of a mentor/mentee relationship between Angela Kumpe and Adriane Pope, who you meet in the film.

And I was really interested in that at the time, because I was younger and trying to get my feet in the door, and trying to figure out how to even make films, ’cause it’s not what I studied, and I was like, that was really what was calling to me.

But even through the making of it I wished that I had spent more time on understanding the artistic approach, and giving more time to the women. So I kind of explained that and needed to find a way to be able to show it.

So I started making a feature, probably about a year after we made the short film, we skipped one competition a year. And then I also knew that if I was going to make a feature I’d want it to be based around one competition year. So we have had to wait for the start of the next one.

And hopefully get someone who was going to win it?

Yeah, hopefully! No spoilers here though.

We won’t ruin it. The style of the film, I mean it’s impossible not to think of directors like Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven) and Christopher Guest (Best In Show) when watching the film. In terms of how you approached the film, were they in mind at all when making it?

Oh yeah. I mean, it’s just so easy to reference them that it was constantly on the mind. I worked with Alexander Lewis, my cinematographer, really closely, right at the beginning of the film, to develop an artistic style for it. And then we really stuck to a shooting guide while we did it, so that it would look a certain way. And those were two of the films that we did reference for the look of the film.

In terms of kind of the feel of the film, it was really important for me to be taking these women very seriously, because they were taking it very seriously. And it just seems more interesting for me to meet people where they are. And that’s what I tried to do here.

So, it’s very much the real life that’s been shown in many ways, in that it’s dog competitions and they’re very passionate about their dogs. But we take them very seriously and I do and they take it very seriously. So we kind of stuck with that.

In terms of Errol Morris, like that really calls to my soul because he did the exact same thing in his documentary. And also just the framing of that film is just so beautiful.

And I mean Dan Deacon’s score, which has little elements of (frequent Morris collaborator) Philip Glass in there as well, that real rhythmic kind of tone that runs through it. I mean the opening of the film with his music is just so powerful and really takes you in. Talk me a little bit through about working with Dan and the score in Baltimore.

Yeah, absolutely. Working with Dan was so fantastic. We worked really closely together because I wanted a specific music feel for the film, but I’m not a musician in any way, shape or form, and can barely speak about it. I mean how do you speak about music? I kind of wanted it to be more like *tadatada* as opposed to something else.

But I knew that I didn’t want the score to be cutesy, and I also knew that I didn’t want the score to be like documentary droney either, because the film is supposed to be uplifting and happy and enjoying the watch, and something that you can kind of escape into. So we worked together on kind of like setting that tone within in. And Dan was just the perfect person to do it because he really can kind of create something that has an effervescence, but isn’t overly cute.

So, you mentioned the opening of the film. That was a very specific part of the score, so he made a proof of concept for the opening of the film, which we used then in the edit. And then kind of could craft around his music to make that happen. And then he went back and kind of created a new opening after everything else. I think it was the last queue we worked on in the end. So it’s the very first and very last queue, which kind of set the tone of the film. But it was really great.

So the way that we ended up doing it was that we went to Baltimore together, and he got together a whole group of musicians that played, that basically just ripped for five hours together in a Baltimore studio, which was very hip and cool. And then he took all of that music, which was just once you thought about, five musicians for five hours is hundreds of hours of music, and topped it up and created the score in the film. Yeah.

You mentioned, of course, the cinematography in the film, and it is a visually arresting film. And there’s some incredible shots of those dogs as well. The one that’s been used (in this article no less) is a still from end of the film, and against the water and the water crashing around and the pup looking oh-so majestic. Talk me through a little bit about the cinematography of the film and some of the decisions that you’ve made there.

So we wanted to kind of, as I said, take the women as they are, and the world as it was, and explore that. So we spent a long time talking about making the shots really wide, because we wanted to kind of give people the entire world, and allow you to focus where you will, and really direct towards the centre as well. So that’s why we framed interviews very specifically.

And then we also really cared about details. The dogs designs are really based around details, very detailed oriented. They want all those lines to be specific. They have to work really hard on these details so that when you step back it looks like one thing or another. And it’s very central to the way that the women think about their artwork. So you kind of have to marry those two things, which is a little hard.

But I think we ended up balancing it through the edit, and making sure that we kind of took pauses during the production, to be like, is this the look that we wanted? Is it beautiful, do we need to go back, how are we gonna use B-roll, questions like that.

And then there was also the question in cinematography about how to work with animals. I mean the dogs are running around, or they’re on the competition stage and they’re getting groomed, and it’s a very intense moment. But we still needed to get the shots, and they still get to be beautiful. So, we ended up getting very specific lenses that allowed us to zoom in intensely if a dog was uncomfortable with the camera. Or allowed us to kind of be very close with the camera, and still maintain beauty. So yeah, it was great.

That a balance in the film between taking the women in the film seriously, but also recognising it’s all a little silly. How hard was it to strike that tone… because you don’t want an audience that’s just laughing at them.

Right. Because laughing at someone is not that interesting. I mean, it might be gratifying in a mean way, but let’s try to understand each other. And one of the things that I wanted to do in the film. It’s an excellent opportunity to meet people. Documentaries generally are an excellent opportunity to meet people who you otherwise wouldn’t meet. And to expand your horizons a little bit. And this film doesn’t have a social impact element to it either.

So the point of it is to get a little bit of joy, and to meet some people that you wouldn’t otherwise. So a little bit of joy is the important part, right? And then, the other one, you have to balance it. I think the edit really centred on that. How to tell an interesting and compelling story around a competition arc, and then also how to get that very careful balance.

Because I mean, it’s something that they just do for fun. It’s not life changing, it’s not heart breaking. Their businesses get helped by it but they’re not dependent upon it. So it is literally a place to find joy.

And so in the edit, we looked at what the pay off for every scene was. That was really a large way that we did that balancing. It’s like, okay, if this scene is about creating a mini dinosaur on Colby’s leg, right? What’s the payoff of that? Is the payoff that? That’s not very interesting. But is the payoff is you actually get to learn about Kat Opson’s creative process. “Oh, that’s actually kind of interesting. Let’s talk about that.” So you kind of get both. There’s a mini dinosaur on that dog’s leg and also we learn how it got made.

And it is fascinating. It’s also, for me, when you find out that after all this work that the grand prize of the biggest competition is like $2500, and you just, wow, they’re really doing this for just the gratification of that process.

Yeah, I mean I think that there’s niche communities in everything.

Yeah, of course.

And people, I think that people need happiness in their lives and they need to find it some way. I think also that these women are innately creative and they want to be able to express themselves. And they’re dog groomers, and what they’re surrounded by every day is an ample amount of dog hair.

And most of the groomers kind of come to creative grooming because they’ve become so intensely good at regular dog grooming, which also involves artistry and a certain amount of like, keeping lines. It’s like being incredibly world renowned hair dressers. So it’s like, “Oh, well let’s add some colour dye on to this.”

And shave in the face of Johnny Depp! With the film, what’s next, what happens for it after South By?

So we’re going to a lot of film festivals, most of which I can’t talk about. But we’re off to Cleveland next. And I’m actually up for a single screening in Iowa City immediately after South By. And then the rest of it will be announced when it’s announced.

Fantastic. Well hopefully you’ll get to one of the Australian festivals. We’d love to see it.

Oh, I’d love to see it down there!

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Well Groomed screened at SXSW. To find out where it’s screening next, and for more details about the film, head to their official website.

Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.

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