Ahead of the NYC premiere of his latest short film MBFF (Man’s Best Friend Forever), I sat down with writer/director and friend of REELYDOPE Tony Ducret to discuss the complexities of telling a story through a dog’s perspective, pitbull euthanasia, USC’s Peter Stark Producing Program, and career advice for those starting out in entertainment.
The thing that makes Man’s Best Friend Forever unique is the POV of the shots, which are from a dog’s perspective for a continuous 16 minutes. How did you and your DP, Salvador Bolivar, film the shots?
Sal and I worked together initially to think about getting convincing dog POV. We were initially thinking about some sort of steady cam. They have this mini-steady cam with rigs, but then we realized that the floating perspective without actual gait wouldn’t give you the realism of watching a dog walk around, so we had to figure out another way. We ended up taking a camera that was light enough basically top mount and added an arm of the C-stand, and Sal basically learned how to operate the camera at knee level. He’s amazing.
How did your sound designer, Ugo Derouard, navigate mixing sound from the perspective of a dog? Were there any considerations to take into account? If so, what were they?
Ugo had to record a large selection of dog sounds, and then, being the genius sound designer that he is, he had to choose some and place them in such a way that they mirrored whatever emotional state Oscar [the dog/protagonist] was supposed to be in at the time. It’s a very tedious and artful process. It really does takes a very experienced, artistic ear to create what Oscar emotes. And when I hear the film, I feel like I’m listening to a dog get hacked, or that is in pain, or be aggressive, and those things sell to me.
What was it like filming with Rocky (Oscar)? What was his disposition like? Was he good at taking direction? And, how’d you find him?
We had an ASPCA worker, Victoria Wells, who rehabs dogs that get rescued. She’s in touch with that community and knew about Rocky, who’s this incredible, award-winning dog who wins every sort of agility competition. He and his owner Richard are really in tune. So one, Rocky is the sweetest dog ever and is so smart. It’s almost like when you’re photographing him he knows what expression you want him to make. In terms of taking direction, with Richard there he’d do whatever you needed him to do.
You’ll see these amazing videos of him jumping over things, and you’ll see him walking on balance beams and going up and under obstacles. He’s just really an amazing dog.
Another interesting casting choice was Zazie Beetz from Donald Glover’s new “breakout” show, Atlanta. How did you end up getting her on board with the film?
I have a great consistent working relationship with my casting director, Jennifer Peralta-Ajemian, who’s worked for some big time casting directors and opened up her own office a few years ago. She read the script, she liked it, and put the breakdowns out and we went out for SAG actors and the best ones we could get. The script attracted top-level up and coming actors.
For Zazie in the Ivana role, we knew from the way it was shot it was a lot about faces, and connecting with faces. And we wanted to feel warmth and attraction in the frame. And she [Ivana] is written as an actress-model in the script, so we were looking for those kinds of actresses. We didn’t really have an archetype in mind, but whoever we got we wanted them to feel warm and authentic. We also wanted them to sell the last scene, which has complex emotion there and Zazie is just an amazing actress. She’s really in control of her skills and in control of her choices. She’s a lovely actress and I saw it immediately, Jen saw it immediately, and my EP [Nii-Ama Akuete] saw it immediately.
We were going back and forth between her and another girl, and after we just realized it was a win-win especially with all the close-ups and being able to give affection right in the frame. I mean we’re not the only ones who saw her gift, because I saw the P&A and I like Childish Gambino so I turn on the show and she’s in the first scene! And it’s like I’m going to see Zazie in other places; there’s just no way she’s not going to blow in a significant way. Plus, once you’ve been on a show like that all the casting directors will see you and you’ll see her.
And when did you film MBFF?
Literally a year ago, August 14th through the 18th of 2015.
What was the impetus for making this film? Did you ever work in an animal shelter or adopt a rescue dog?
No, I just love dogs and had some dogs when I grew up. The idea for the film came from my EP, Nii-Ama Akuete, who was walking in the park and saw a woman with a dog in what he thought was a sketchy neighborhood. For him he thought it was interesting because he wanted to know what happens if something happens. Will that dog be able to protect her? Just that image of her in that neighborhood, with her only protection being that dog was something that resonated with him.
Obviously, he knows I make movies and he told me, “I have this movie idea for you” and it was interesting. He mentioned it 2 years prior and I was about to go to school, and he was like, “If you make this before you go, if you write it, I’ll fund it.” And you know when a filmmaker hears that, you’re like “I got the script!”
Well, it was an outline first and he liked the outline. Then it was a script. He liked the script. Once he saw the script and I went through it with the casting director Jen, who was also instrumental in the process, we did it. We just had to figure out the POV thing, which were during conversations with Sal, and it just came together.
While I was writing it did occur to me that there was this space where there are a ton of dogs in shelters and people won’t give them a chance because they want puppies or want to know chain of titles for dogs. That makes it tough. After spending time at the shelters and spending time with Linda Vetrano, who runs the shelter we shot at, I realized this piece could be a conversation starter for this problem and that added an extra layer of beauty for this project. Then it became less about making a film and more about creating something that could inspire change.
What are your goals for the film apart from the obvious, which is for viewers to consider animal adoption?
In fact, that happened to Nii-Ama who walked away from the film wanting to get a rescue dog. If that’s an outgrowth of the project’s existence then great. Another goal is just getting people to see cinema.
Posh Pets Rescue is a producer on the film. Since “producer” is a nebulous term, what part did they play in the making of the film? And, do they have any plans to distribute the film or use it in their marketing campaigns?
Yeah, it’s a conversation that Linda and I need to have. This film didn’t have a huge budget, but having access to a shelter, having the animals around and filming while they’re working, all the sign offs and permissions are very complicated and expensive conversations to have if you don’t have partners. So the producer credit for Posh Pets is because we made them a partner, because they allowed us into their facilities so we could make the film in a way that felt honest. And the message of the film fits with their message.
One stat shows that pitbulls account for 40% of the 1.2 million dogs that are euthanized annually? Is this why you choose a pitbull for your lead, or were there other considerations? If so, what were they?
I didn’t know that stat but I do know that pitbulls have an anecdotal reputation. Rocky’s not the first one, but I know other pitbulls that are incredibly sweet and are very intelligent and loyal. I think pitbulls get a bad reputation because they can be trained in whatever way you want to train them and they can be conditioned in whatever way you want to condition them. Because of their build and potential for aggression there are people who condition them in a very negative way. And you know I’m always a fan of supporting the underdog. If there’s anything I can do to help add a layer to the perception of this dog which I love. In fact, I’ll get one right out of school. They’re one of my favorite dogs. People recoil at the sight of pitbulls and I just think that’s sad. It’s one of those things where I just don’t like being prejudged.
You’re coming back to the Harlem International Film Festival after your previous short, I Can Smoke? screened at the festival. What’s it like being back as a veteran?
It’s really warm and familiar, and it’s an honor to know that you’re making work and still being legitimately recognized. I actually did a couple of other smaller things which I submitted to them, and they picked this one and this was the one I thought was best. So, it was like they really like this film and it’s really cool because we’re building this relationship.
In my mind I’ll continue to support the Harlem International Film Festival. It’s a nice festival and the venue is great. They’re doing it at MIST Harlem this year and it’s a well-organized, legit international festival. It’s an excuse to come back to my neighborhood, and even though I have homework I need to do today we’re going to celebrate!
A recovering film publicist and producer, Olivia originally hails from Boston but craved a warmer climate so she made the move to NYC. She enjoys conversations with creative minds over coffee or cocktails and her fair share of foreign films. In her spare time she likes to travel, attend comedy shows, and attempt to stick with yoga for longer than a week. You can read her every thought @_livoutloud or her musings at www.liv-outloud.com.