“Well Groomed” is a new DOGumentaty that will debut in December exclusively on HBO. Director Rebecca Stern spent one year in the world of competitive dog grooming; vibrant, creative, spectacular and slightly eccentric, it is a world in which dog lovers are dedicated to transforming their beloved pooches—mostly poodles—into living sculptures. The show takes viewers into this glittery subculture of Americana, and tells an extraordinary tale of pets, families, friendships and the glory of creativity through a bright prism of color.
The show was based on a 60-minute film that gained a cult following last year due to its mix of memorable canine and human characters. The show is a platform that provides an extended and in-depth view of this industry.
Recently Director Rebecca Stern discussed the project via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for documentaries and why did you decide to focus on the world of dog grooming?
Rebecca Stern (RS): I never planned to be a filmmaker. It wasn’t until I moved to New York and met documentary filmmakers that I even really understood that this was a career people could have. Once I began working within filmmaking, however, I fell in love with it – the fast-paced nature, the creativity, the problem-solving and storytelling. It was a similar story to how I chose to focus on dog grooming – I’d always had a lot of pets growing up and am a huge animal lover, but didn’t know very much about how these animals were groomed (I’d always had Labs, who likely should have been groomed I know now…). But I was looking for a way to learn more about filmmaking and also find a story that I could have a little fun with along the way. Dogs seemed like the perfect fit! And then I saw a picture of creative dog grooming and instantly had to know more.
MM: How did you find your way into the documentary industry?
RS: After moving to New York City, I’d initially tried to work in publishing, but found that I would need to be an intern for several years and I just couldn’t afford to do that. So, I was looking for any job that might keep me in the city for longer. I got a job working with a documentary filmmaking on his film that was just about to premiere in theaters. I ended up working with him for about a year and a half through the production of his next film and through the process learned a little about all the phases of distribution and production. I was fascinated, and after that I looked for more jobs in the industry and eventually became an independent producer.
MM: How did you find the people to feature in “Well Groomed”?
RS: Once I learned about creative dog grooming, I realized there must be an entire world around grooming dogs. It was like an “ah-ha” moment. So, I connected with the cinematographer Samantha Panger (who shot my short film by the same name) and we went to our first Barkleigh Productions show in Pasadena, CA called GroomExpoWest. There, I met quite a few creative dog groomers, including Adriane Pope, Angela Kumpe, and Cat Opson. It wasn’t until about three years later that I met Nicole Beckman, also at a dog show.
MM: What were some of the craziest and/or most memorable things you saw/heard during filming?
RS: Filming is always crazy so there’s too many to choose! We giggled a lot while making “Well Groomed” – in fact joy is the very essence of the film. One of the most memorial was filming Cat Opson’s poodle, Kobe, on the cliffs of California. It’s the image that many use for the film. We had to climb onto the rocks and get as close to the waves as possible to really capture the was the dinosaurs on Kobe looked against the almost pre-historic cliff faces. Alexander Lewis, the feature film’s cinematographer almost fell into the ocean with the camera (which we were renting and definitely couldn’t afford). Meanwhile, there were crowds of people watching us and the tide was coming in. I was so glad when it was over and everyone was safely on dry land, but the image is totally worth it.
MM: How long did it take to film and how did you secure the locations and the distributor?
RS: The film took roughly four and a half years between the short film and the feature film. For the feature, we filmed it over seven months and then edited over another seven months. Documentaries take a really long time to make… after so much work, I’m thrilled we found a home with HBO Sports!
MM: What’s your favorite part of the documentary and why?
RS: That’s like choosing your favorite child. I love different parts in each and every scene, but I especially love the moments where we just get to sit with the grooming in the competition scenes. It builds anticipation but the montages also key into how peaceful and soothing the grooming can be for the groomers and the poodles.
MM: What other films have you made and what are they about?
RS: “Well Groomed” is the first film I directed. It’s been a really wild ride and as a first-time female director, and pretty stoked to have gotten the film made (huge props to my fellow producers in doing so). I’m also a documentary producer, and have been involved in the production of films that have gone onto Netflix and PBS, and been distributed internationally.
MM: What are your ultimate career goals and what other topics might you cover via a documentary in the future?
RS: You know, I’m still figuring that out! I’ll let you know when I know.
MM: What new projects are coming up for you soon?
RS: I’m currently producing two feature documentary films and a short documentary. All are in various stages of production but they range in topics from urban development to a pet turtle.
MM: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
RS: Please watch “Well Groomed” on HBO! It premieres on December 17th at 9pm. You can see the official trailer below.