Rebecca Stern, director of the much-talked-about SXSW film “Well Groomed,” has married her love of animals and her passion, skills, and knowledge of filmmaking to create a visually entertaining film with a compelling underlying narrative arc. Featuring four women who compete in the arena of creative dog grooming, Stern brings us into this relatively unknown world and tells a story of art and friendship.
I recently spoke with Stern, just prior to the festival, and here’s what she had to say. This interview has been edited for clarity and space.
PAMELA POWELL: You went from producing very serious films such as “the bomb” (2016) and “Netizens” (2018) to “Well Groomed” (2019). How did you end up here?
REBECCA STERN: I never had an intent to become a producer, in any capacity; I always thought that I’d become a lawyer. When I graduated school, I moved to NY for a summer and I expected to move right back to CA, But I met the director Matt Heineman while I was in NY. He needed an assistant and so I signed up [and] became his production coordinator on “Cartel Land” (2015). I actually started “Well Groomed” around the same time [as] he was off filming in Mexico City three or four weeks at a time. I wanted to know more about what production was like and I wanted an excuse to spend more time with dogs. It was a good way to marry an old passion which is of pets and animals and a new passion of documentary filmmaking.
POWELL: I’ve never heard of creative and competitive dog grooming until your film!
STERN: I had never heard of it either. I went out to the dog fashion show in Manhattan [and began] doing research into dog cultures and dog trends, into dog care. I only had a lab pit mix in my past so there was no grooming…at all… (laughs) even though maybe there should have been! I quickly found out much more about dog grooming and then ran across the pictures of creative dog grooming online. I thought, “…the pictures are so vibrant and I’d never seen anything like that before.” It’s pretty hard to have that reaction in this day and age.
I met a couple dog publicists who put me in touch on Facebook with Adrian and Angela and Cat who are all in the film, and went out to the dog show in Pasadena in February, in 2015. I made a short film, I think it was eight minutes. I think we filmed one hundred hours for that eight minutes! It was great because it allowed me to get to know them really well. When we went back to do the production for the feature film, I knew exactly what I wanted to focus on… someone who was just starting out in the field as well. As you can see from the film, Adrian, Angela, and Cat are all on the top of their game. I met Nicole [and] she was just so earnest and happy and eager to learn more about this community, to get more involved in it; to find a place where she could express herself even though she was incredibly busy with her new business. Her story is one that’s really close to my heart because it’s one of also starting a new business, which I feel like it’s often separate from being an artist. She had a lot of challenges around that, and ones that are pretty universal for people who are starting out, especially young people who are doing so.
POWELL: The women have a unique dynamic, perhaps more aligned with only women, to not only compete with one another, but support each other as well.
STERN: That’s so key! Angela and Cat have participated in pilots for reality shows before filming with me and they would always complain because they felt like they were being asked to be pitted against each other. In actuality they spend a lot of time supporting and nurturing each other and answering a lot of questions. One of the things to take out of the film is having friends and getting to know people. I did a very specific focus on that aspect, of their friendships and of the competitions. It isn’t one where they’re trying to push people down, but one where they’re [lifting] people up.
POWELL: What did you take away from the film?
STERN: The film for me and as a young filmmaker is [answering the question] what is art? … and I was really intrigued by this community of women that was so outside NY or LA or Chicago being artsy, and just the fact that they were getting enjoyment out of it. Shouldn’t you just be able to smile and find joy? I really resonated with that.
Documentary filmmaking is great at highlighting very big and important issues and a lot of my producing work did that, but [in] my directing work I really wanted to find a way to bring more joy into my life and therefore more joy into people who are watching [the film] and to be able to smile with them.