Rebecca Stern’s production pedigree includes serious and timely documentaries such as “The Bomb” and “Netizens,” but now seated in the director’s chair, she turns over a new leaf to develop a vibrant film about creative dog grooming with “Well Groomed” premiering at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. On the surface, the film is wonderful fluff (pun intended), but scratching just beneath the exterior, we find a story of women expressing their artistic skills, supporting one another, and developing friendships through this fiercely competitive sport.
I recently connected with Stern to discuss the making of “Well Groomed,” and as we discussed her background in production, she readily admitted that she “…never had an intent to become a producer…I always thought that I’d become a lawyer. Both my parents were lawyers and I’ve always had an affinity for language and I enjoy arguing…” A law degree was not in the cards for this Pasadena, CA native. She chuckled, agreeing with Greta Gerwig’s description of the town in “Ladybird,” and shared that while she had a family dog, a Lab Pitt Bull mix, she also had a lot of cats. In fact, these were feral cats. “I’m one of those rare people that go on both sides of the dog versus cat argument.” She continued to reminisce about her childhood, recalling she and her father spending time together gathering and adopting out feral kittens found nearby. But much to her mother’s chagrin, several of the kittens found a home with Stern and said, “That’s the way I grew up. Surrounded by animals and they were always a part of the family.”
Stern, like many of us, had never heard of creative dog grooming or the competitive sport of it. In fact, she joked, her childhood pup didn’t have a whole lot of grooming. “There was no grooming (pause) at all (pause) even though maybe there should have been!” After attending a Halloween dog parade in NYC, she began her research about the entire dog community, grooming, cultures, trends, and then she saw it on the internet—photos of wildly groomed and colorful canines and she had to know more. She had never seen anything like it, and as she said, “It’s pretty hard to have that reaction in this day and age!”
Stern actually began working on “Well Groomed” during her first job as assistant producer for “Cartel Land” directed by Matthew Heineman. As filming in Mexico City took Heineman away from their location in New York City for weeks at a time, Stern said, “I wanted an excuse to spend more time with dogs [and] it was a good way to marry an old passion which is of pets and animals and a new passion of documentary filmmaking.”
Stern was then connected to groomers on Facebook and attended a dog show in Pasadena. As she got to know several groomers and their dogs, she began filming more than 100 hours to create her 8-minute short. While this may seem excessive, Stern found that she had established a relationship with many of the groomers and when it was time to go back to set up production for the feature film, she knew exactly where to focus. In addition to the women she had already gotten to know in this arena, Stern wanted to additionally focus on someone who was just starting out in this field. She found a young artistic entrepreneur named Nicole from Ithaca, NY. With Adriane, Angela, and Cat, all seasoned groomers on the top of their creative game from various parts of the country, and now newcomer Nicole, Stern had the narrative arc to develop “characters” we care about and a story that is immediately engaging.
The women in the film couldn’t be any more different from one another, but they are all connected by their passion and artistry. Stern wanted to show, “How they were using this as a means to fulfill themselves in some way.” While all the women are fiercely competitive, wanting to win the Olympics of Creative Dog Grooming in Hershey, PA, they also support and help one another so they can all do their best. Stern said, “That’s so key.” She continued, “…they spend a lot of time supporting … and nurturing each other…” It’s this friendship and asking the question of what defines art that Stern found to be the goal of the film. While there are some critics of the skill, defining it as cruel to the animals, Stern said, “I never saw anything that I would think is bad for the dog. If anything, they’re incredibly well taken care of.” The film addresses this controversy using “…an archival montage of people asking the questions and their responses which I hope works well.”
I queried about working with kids and animals, two groups filmmakers always caution against and Stern laughed aloud and said, “I wish someone would have told me that adage!” Not every dog liked having a camera or crew there and Stern and her Director of Photography, Alexander W. Lewis had a zoom lens which enabled them to get the shots they needed without being too close to the dogs. “We had this one dog that loved to jump at anything that moved…so we had to film from the other side of the room,” she said with humor.
The final product is visually fun, educational, and affirming as you travel with these four women along their journey to not only compete at the highest level, but to see how their lives change. Stern found great fulfillment in making this film and shared that in her directing work, “I really wanted to find a way to bring more joy into my life and therefore into [viewers’] lives and to be able to smile with them.”
“Well Groomed” premiered at the SXSW Film Festival on Sunday, March 10 and will show on Monday, March 11 at 5 pm and Thursday, March 14 at 2:45 pm. For more information, go to SXSW Schedule