SXSW interview: Well Groomed director Rebecca Stern shares her own dog stories


Rebecca Stern, the director of Well Groomed, discusses working with a cadre of dogs, finding joy in the world, and premiering at SXSW.

There’s no better director to talk to than Rebecca Stern, especially if the subject is dogs. As the director of the creative dog grooming documentary Well Groomed, Stern enmeshed herself in a colorful world of scissors, bows, and dog breeds of all kinds. Her documentary will put a smile on your face and that’s her goal.

Stern sat down with Culturess to discuss her documentary’s upcoming premiere at the SXSW film festival, capturing authentic moments, and more.

How did you learn about competitive grooming and translate that into a documentary?

I found out about creative grooming by researching dog communities and cultures in New York because I was obsessed with dogs, as I think a lot of people are. I’ve always owned a lot of pets and been a huge animal lover but I moved to New York City and our apartment didn’t allow them, it wasn’t big enough, and there wasn’t a place in my life where I could take care of one.

So I was looking for ways to become more surrounded by animals and spend more time petting dogs. I had just been learning about documentary filmmaking [as well] and was trying to find a way to pair my two loves together and make something that would be a balm on my soul, which is how I hope the film came out. I ran across an image of creative dog grooming on Google and was instantly captivated because how could you not be? The pictures are astounding and I wanted to know more so I started diving in.

“…It is something the women do because they find enjoyment and passion in it.”

It’s amazing the amount of information you include in the movie, right down to the criticisms against creative grooming.

Dogs are fantastic and I love them, and I love spending time with them, but I really wanted to focus on a human story once I figured out what the topic would be. It was always going to be the women as the main driver of what we were talking about. So I wanted to focus on their artwork and the way they see their dogs, and the way they interact with pets and animals and their own passions.

In terms of the archival section and the questions it brings up, I also wanted to get at that from a perspective that would take their perspective at heart and also question them. Is this okay? Is this something that the dogs like? In five years of filming I didn’t see anything I would find questionable about the way they treated their dogs, about their dogs not wanting to do this. I never saw anything I saw as concerning, although that is a thought that does immediately come up. They take a lot of pride and concern in selecting what kind of dyes they use, and they also coddle and love and dote on their animals so they’re not doing anything to make them feel uncomfortable.

Everything is about education and doing things in the right way so it is something the women do because they find enjoyment and passion in it. They find a creative outlet and a community in all of that. How could you turn all those things down? It’s for fun but they’re making sure it’s fun for them and their animals. Their animals are always their partner in everything they do.

How did you settle on the four women that are featured?

I met Angela [Cumpe] and Adriane [Pope] first. Then I met Cat Opson shortly after because they’re all really big players in both dog grooming and creative dog grooming. I spent a lot of time at these shows and they’re really large parts of the community [so] people kept suggesting, “Oh, you have to talk to them.” When I did, I was like these women are fascinating, they think really hard about what they do, and they were all really good storytellers.

This is my first film so in many ways it was like, “How do I tell a compelling story?” I had to figure that out as well. Having characters that could tell compelling stories was like making the difficulty level slightly easier for me. For Nicole [Beckman], I started talking to her after I finished my short film, also called Well Groomed, that focused on Adriane and Angela.

I wanted to show someone who is just starting out, who is also starting out as a business owner. Talking to the other three I realized they owned businesses and have to work really hard to market those and keep them up and running, hire good employees and do all the things that go into owning small businesses, especially as women. I wanted to see what that was like from the start, and I also wanted to join someone as they first started exploring this niche and kooky artform. Nicole popped out immediately because she was so passionate and earnest, and she’s so kind.

“It’s women doing art and women doing something that pushes the boundaries.”

This movie could have easily devolved into cattiness.

It is just a respectful world so I was capturing what I had available. I’m not a filmmaker that is going to start anything that isn’t true. This is a documentary, not a reality show. Life has some cattiness in it and there’s no getting around it, but by and large people are trying to be nice and respectful to each other.

The other thing is it’s women doing art and women doing something that pushes the boundaries. There are so many representations of women being catty while trying to do something they want to do and I was like, “That really doesn’t reflect my experience of being a woman.” The way I do things and the way I’ve gotten further in my career is by collaboration and support and having networks. All of those things I saw as true in my life and true in theirs.

What was it like working with the dogs daily? Any divas?

They weren’t too diva-esque yet, the dogs. What we actually did is we got a — I’ll have to look up the name of the lens because it’s in my cinematographer’s hands — long-zoom lens that had a more vintage look which also helped with the aesthetics of the film.

That allowed us to be either up close and personal with dogs who were comfortable with it or stand back and really look at the shot with dogs who were more hesitant with the camera because it is something they haven’t seen before.

That became important for the competitions where we didn’t want to be in the way, but we still needed the shot. We thought deeply about how to work with animals while still figuring out how to get everything we wanted. You know the old adage that “your first film should never involve children or animals?” I only heard [that] after I started this so I’m like “okay, great.” I’m doomed.

How did you handle the loss of Adriane’s dog during filming?

My intent with the film was always to make something that was enjoyable. That people could watch at home, or in the theater, or at a film festival and laugh a little, experience a world they wouldn’t otherwise experience, and get joy out of it because what the women get out of doing this artwork is joy. I wanted the audiences’ experience to be the same. But life isn’t always joyful and I wanted to be able to show these women’s true relationship with their dogs.

We were shooting with Adriane the week that happened. Her dog, Logan, had been sick and we had been taking time off the filming schedule in order for her to spend more time with him, but we didn’t expect him to go downhill so fast and neither did she. We were there and she called me up and was like, “This is happening. You can come and bring the camera if you want” because at that point we had been filming together for three years, through my short film and then the feature. She also understood it was an important thing to show.

We went back and forth as to whether or not to show it. I’ve had dogs pass away too, and a lot of cats, it’s a specific kind of grief. They’re your animal and they mean so much to you, but at the same time they’re not like a human relative so how do you take the amount of time away from what you do in order to grieve appropriately?

You see her struggle with that in the film because she didn’t want to go to work but she had to and it’s hard to call people and say that’s the reason why you can’t attend work. I thought it was a poignant moment and I wanted to include it. We had to cut around her and I hugging.

“All four of these women have such an ability to calm dogs down and to understand what the dogs are reacting to…”

Was there anything specific you wanted to include but couldn’t?

Yeah, of course. Documentary filmmaking is an exercise in hours. I made the short film of which we overshot 300-fold because it’s only eight-minutes long. I spent an entire year with them. For the feature film we wanted to condense it into what’s happening in one competition year, mostly because the designs change every year [so] for continuity it was an easier filmed decision. But we still spent 45 or 50 days filming with the women and what you see is 90-minutes, so there’s a lot left out but it’s mostly me on the floor playing with Gucci [Adriane’s dog] or the women grooming in their shops, telling jokes to each other, or quietly thinking about what they want the Maltese to look like this week.

I’m assuming it’s relaxing watching them groom and style the dogs?

It’s soothing. It’s like a spa for dogs, but then you walk out and you’re covered in hair. Even for the dogs who aren’t being creatively groomed, all four of these women have such an ability to calm dogs down and to understand what the dogs are reacting to and to make sure they’re comfortable, because their entire job is based on being able to give dogs really nice haircuts and trim their nails. Most of the dogs they work with are other people’s pets so they have to understand what dogs are thinking at any given moment in time, so it was interesting to watch that.

What’s it like showing this at SXSW?

I’m so excited! I couldn’t think of a better audience than Austin and SXSW to premiere this film. Austin likes to keep it weird and the audience will really respond to this. It’s a great festival.

Are you already looking into your next project?

Next projects are still in the early stages. One of the things I loved about making this film was it is a happy documentary. It’s one that has a lot of joy in it. I produce a lot of documentaries as well and they’re about incredibly important issues that face us today.

While our dogs are also incredibly important and they’re with us everyday, in my next project and future projects I direct, I want to find the stuff that brings us together and brings us happiness because the world can often seem dark.

19 most anticipated films by women in 2019. dark. Next