By Jalyn Mayer, January 14, 2020
Rebecca Stern is on the rise. A documentary filmmaker and producer, Stern’s first feature film WELL GROOMED debuted at the South by Southwest festival last year. The critically-acclaimed piece chronicles a year in the visually stunning world of competitive and creative dog grooming and follows the lives of a group of dog lovers whose dedication to transforming their beloved poodles into living sculptures is bold, imaginative and eye-opening.
We got a chance to catch up with the upcoming filmmaker and talk about WELL GROOMED, Greta Gerwig, and her future plans.
The Big Magazine: What inspired you to make this film?
Rebecca Stern: I was inspired to make WELL GROOMED by the women participating in creative dog grooming. I was moved by their passion for the medium and the form, and for their need to express themselves - they made me want to express myself through art. I also wanted to make a documentary film that was focused on a subject that was both fascinating and poised to highlight the happier parts of the human existence - joy, our pets, our art, and our friendships - while still having heft and exploring something the average person knew nothing about.
TBM: Did you have any prior experience with the dog grooming world?
RS: Not even a little. In fact, I still take my dog to get his nails trimmed at the dog groomer because he hates when I do it! Dog grooming is a serious task that takes time and attention to learn. I definitely learned a lot about the proper way to bathe dogs to get them clean, and how to train them to like the bath, but I'll keep depending on the professionals!
TBM: This was your first feature film - how was your experience directing Well Groomed versus producing Tre Maison Dasan?
RS: Directing and producing are surprisingly different tasks! Even after producing several films, I found the task of directing to be a surprise at every turn, and it was often very difficult to turn the producing aspects of my brain off in order to make certain decisions. For instance, if the edit wasn't hitting our internal deadlines, I would start thinking about timelines and structure instead of the creative elements that would allow the edit to go faster. I think directing this will actually make me a better producer - I hope I have a better sense of when a director needs pressure, or needs space now after having experienced it.
TBM: Who do you look up to in the film world?
RS: There are so many people to look up to right now in the film world. Ruth Ann Harnish is a hero of mine for all the work she does in supporting women filmmakers and falling in love with ideas. Greta Gerwig is also a hero for the nuanced and joyful films she brings to life. I want to make films that have joy at the center of them, which can sometimes be hard to find in documentary subjects, and watching Greta's films there's always a spark there that I aspire towards. Then there are all the awesome producers I've gotten the chance to meet or know - who's brains are always thinking up better and bigger things to do!
TBM: Only 8% of directors in 2018 were female. Have you faced any obstacles as a female director?
RS: I'd like to talk to the woman that hasn't faced obstacles! Often the biggest thing I notice in the difference between being female and directing and being male and directing is the extra need for back up in creative and business conversations.
TBM: What did you expect about the creative dog grooming world before making this film? what didn’t you expect?
RS: When I initially found out about creative dog grooming I didn't know what to expect from the world because I had never expected creative dog grooming to be a thing. But what I found was a group of women that had become incredibly dedicated to their craft and their friends. Beyond that, I found a vibrant and bustling world around dog grooming that I had no idea existed. At the Barkleigh Shows it's just such a scene, and one where the dogs are really the prima donnas of the space. So fantastic.
TBM: What draws you to documentary-style filmmaking over other styles?
RS: There's a truth in all really well-told stories, and it carries such power when you know that what you just watched is what really happened. I think I also like the thrill and pace of production - you never know what you're going to get, or what might happen when you're filming a documentary. You have to listen and be on your toes, and commit to the decisions you made because the situation will just never happen again. Then, because it's all happening in such a blur (just like real life) you get to rediscover everything you've just lived inside the editing room and see how to get to the truth of the experience down from several years to just 60-95 minutes.
TBM: Do you consider creative dog grooming an art?
TBM: Any advice for upcoming filmmakers?
RS: My biggest advice is to learn all the producing tasks. Following up, thinking ahead, organizing. Then, find something you're intensely passionate about because making movies is a multi-year endeavor.
TBM: What’s up next for you?
RS: I'm currently producing two feature documentaries and a series of commercials and short films. I have to find that next feature in my soul of course!
We can't wait to see what's next for Rebecca Stern. Well Groomed is available to stream on HBO On Demand, HBO NOW, HBO GO and partners’ streaming platforms. For more information, please visit www.rebeccaastern.com.