Rebecca Stern tells us about making the creative grooming documentary, Well Groomed, you can read out review here.
How did this film come about? How did the idea originate? What inspired you?
I was motivated to tell this story because of a lot of loves – the love of dogs (and cats!), the love of traveling around the United States, the love of creative people, and of exploring something I had no idea even existed. When I first stumbled into the dog grooming world online, I was captivated by the images. How can you not be? I found them when I was researching dog cultures and communities in New York City in an effort to spend more time with dogs while living in New York City and not being able to own one. Once I saw the images of creatively groomed dogs, I knew I wanted to meet the dogs and the people who do this in person and see what their world looked like for myself.
Then when I got deeper into it, I fell in love with the women, their love for one another and their animals. I was taken in by how much of their hearts they put into what they do, and wanted to show their process and pets in a way that took the same amount of pride in their work as they do. And, I wanted to capture it all in a way that would allow others to feel the same.
How long did it take to make the film?
I started researching for Well Groomed in 2014 with a trip to Tompkins Square Park’s annual dog Halloween fashion show. After the first trip there, I turned to understanding more about dog culture and the people passionate about animals, and quickly found out about creative dog grooming. Over 2015, I traveled around the country to make my short film (also titled Well Groomed).
After a year hiatus from filming for film festivals with the short film, during which I kept in close touch with the groomers, we started on the production of the feature film Well Groomed. Filming Well Groomed actually happened very quickly because I wanted to keep the film’s action within one competition year. We shot close to 40 days and roughly 250 hours of footage between April and November 2017. The edit started in October of 2017, and all the time we saved in production went straight into the editing room. Active editing went from October 2017 through August 2018, with a four-ish month break in the middle for our editor, Katharina Stroh, and myself to work on other projects. I also started working with Dan Deacon, the film’s genius composer in February 2018 – and we worked on setting tone and laying in the tracks for the film until August 2018.
After all this time, the film was finally completely finished in February 2019 — four and a half years after first thinking up the first kernel of the idea.
Was there a something special technically that you utilized in making this film?
We used the FS7 throughout shooting because it was lightweight and easily built up or down. Much to the annoyance of Alexander Lewis, the film’s Director of Photography, I have an aversion to tons of gear, so we kept everything almost too light. We were also filmed in very small places (vans, small back rooms, and homes) with many dogs around so we knew the gear had to be flexible. At Alexander’s suggestion, we also used a vintage Canon 11.5-138mm Lens that allowed us to zoom closely into fur and eyes, or at competitions without spooking the dogs we were filming with. As mentioned in the film, some dogs are much more comfortable with attention than others and we wanted to make sure we could film with all of them no matter their comfort level.
Share a story about filming.
So much of filming Well Groomed happened on long car rides across America, between cities and away from the lives of all the women and the animals traveling. Those drives showed a country of landscapes that are really just beautiful, and filled with many people who are intensely curious, kind and make a lot of (often perfectly bad dad) jokes.
While those long drives largely didn’t make the final cut, they helped me, Alexander Lewis (the film’s Director of Photography) and the women get comfortable with each other and talk about things that didn’t “matter” or that make us all human – love, funny stories, our families, and how we like to escape from our personal worries. We met people who wanted to say hello to the dogs (dogs are great conversation starters!) who also shared their passions and hobbies with us after asking what we were doing. As a first-time director, the value in these conversations wasn’t fully realized until we were in the edit, when I would see why certain moments back in the women’s shops were important, or I could pick out the moment at the competition that perhaps would have escaped me otherwise.
Beyond that, one car trip in particular stands out in the filming of Well Groomed — the drive to the final competition at Hershey. We’d been moving so quickly, and spending so much time with the women that weekend that it was the first time I could pause for a moment and talk with Alexander about how we would block out the filming of the final competition. We spent a good 30 minutes discussing exactly how it would go, getting me comfortable with the angles, and timing everything out — only to have him completely move the camera at the very last moment during the competition! His instincts were spot on — all that planning and if he hadn’t moved fast we wouldn’t have gotten the shot that became one of the most important in the film.
Did the film change from your original idea for the film as you were filming or in post?
Doing the short film really showed me what the world was like, and I had the time to understand when the important moments were likely to happen, and what each of the women were really like. During pre- production, in collaboration with my producers Justin Levy and Matthew C. Mills, we were able to plan the year out down to the number of shoot days based on the competition schedule. In that sense, the film stayed very true to what I had envisioned from the start.
In other ways, it changed course because events in Adriane, Angela, Cat and Nicole’s lives shift and change – and that’s what we were really setting out to capture. As I became closer and closer to them, the film really could become more about what they were thinking than the competition element. I think, because of this, it became all the more interesting.
What were the challenges in making this film?
There were a few challenges to making Well Groomed that stand out beyond the usual challenges of making documentaries (time, money, lack of other resources, access).
The first was that two of the women had participated in reality show pilots before I showed up on the scene, none of which got much further than a few episodes. These experiences gave them their impression of what it was like to work with production crews — but it quickly became clear that the expectations of reality tv producers and a documentary filmmaker are very different. It took a few shoots for it to really sink in for them that I wasn’t looking for anything “over the top” or forced from them, and was definitely not bored by the quieter moments of spending time with dogs, family and friends. I felt that the extreme was already inherent in what they were doing, so there was no reason to have them act unnaturally or create fake drama. Once that was understood, filming went much smoother.
The other was the (unexpected for me) controversy around creative dog grooming. movie was the (unexpected for me) controversy around creative dog grooming. It’s been fascinating because about 50% of the people who see pictures of creative dogs are in awe and laugh, and the other 50% are also in awe but say “poor dog!” The women were understandably frustrated by the negative reactions, and the people asking about safety or embarrassment for the dogs were often commenting only online and therefore hard or impossible to reach. I knew I wanted to cover this in the film in a way that took the concerns and the women’s answers seriously but also stayed true to my goal of making a movie that would let people relax and smile and be along for the ride with the women as they groom. In the end, we used archival materials to show the opposition because the comments so often existed externally to the women’s communities. Then we went back to hear the women’s responses directly from them as the film is so embedded within their lives.
Why did you make this film?
I made this film to find some happiness in my day-to-day, and to add some exploration along the way. So often documentary films are about the things that have pulled us apart, the struggles in life, and the large-scale issues we as the human race need to solve — and those topics are vitally important to highlight, think critically about, and make great and engaging films around. But, that’s not what I wanted to do with Well Groomed.
Instead, I found a group of women who were dedicating themselves to a passion that’s admittedly very niche in order to bring themselves together, to ignore politics and differences in personal backgrounds, to remove themselves from the everyday and to have a little bit of fun. The heartache that goes along with competition, and the low points of life in general had to be embraced to tell that fully, but I wanted Well Groomed to be a bright escape from the everyday.