Most people grow up with animals in their lives, whether it’s a pet, a neighborhood squirrel, or a trip to the zoo. Filmmakers Kaitlyn Schwalje and Alex Wolf Lewis did a beautiful thing by creating a short film about a pet turtle named Snowy. Snowy is a 25 year-old turtle and for most of those years has lived in a basement of a family’s house near Philadelphia. Filmmaker and DP Alex Wolf Lewis is related to this family, as cousin/nephew. Being a filmmaker, he decided Snowy would be the perfect subject for his first collaboration with partner Kaitlyn Schwalje, a journalist and science nerd. She went to school for Physics and from there got into radio and podcasting. This documentary short is Kaitlyn’s directorial debut. Alex’s family hosted them while they shot “Snowy”.
Talking to both Kaitlyn and Alex, I could see what a great team they are as partners and directors. They are so in sync and are very passionate about the stories of the ordinary and transformative, specifically involving animals. The interview was as uplifting as this short, which is part of the Docs Short Program 1 at Sundance, screening January 28th at 9 AM MST. Buy tickets at tickets.festival.sundance.org
REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you two to “Snowy”?
ALEX WOLF LEWIS: The people you see in the film are my family, that’s my Uncle Larry, Aunt, and those are my cousins. As long as I can remember Snowy has been around. I was always marveling at the fact that this little poor turtle had the will to keep living for so long. It went from my cousin’s bedroom to the kitchen, and then the basement. He just kept getting lower. Not that there is any ill will towards the turtle in that family, but they were busy. My Aunt and Uncle were working, all three of my cousins played sports so they were traveling. I just felt like we had to do something, and that something just happened to be a documentary. Kaitlyn and I were looking for a way to collaborate, and I felt we had a story here.
KAITLYN SCHWALJE: He described to me the story and I was trying to wrap my head around it, that there was this turtle living in a basement. In my imagination there was no tank, it was just a roaming free range turtle living off of cardboard and crumbs. Then I got to join Alex for Thanksgiving at his Aunt and Uncle’s house and see the turtle myself. I have a background in Science Journalism. So I was imagining taking an angle of it being a family comedy, but also really trying to get inside of the turtle’s head. We just went for it from there.
WOLF LEWIS: One of our favorite documentaries would be “American Movie”. We both grew up with “The Office” and “Arrested Development”. The elements were there. And Kaitlyn was there to guide us through story-wise.
MARTIN: Kaitlyn, science being a strong part of your background, how did that play a role into filmmaking?
WOLF LEWIS: Before Kaitlyn answers I want to say that “Snowy” is the first documentary film she’s ever made, and she’s incredible.
MARTIN: Wow, that’s impressive!
SCHWALJE: That’s very sweet Alex. Growing up I always had a fascination with film. I remember making a slasher movie with my cousins and cutting up pieces of fruit roll up to use as gashes. So there was always a love of film and storytelling. But I was definitely a math and science kid. That was a big driver through to my mid-twenties. I studied physics, and like many people who studied physics I was seduced by the romance of space and fascinated by how things work.
Then I started working at the Walt Disney company in their research division doing a lot of work at the soldering table, building prototypes. A lot of precise and tedious labor. But the work we were doing was fascinating. I was in the haptics division, so I was developing prototypes that simulated touch. Like the feeling of an animal heartbeat on your back. I thought it was so cool, this mechanical approximation of a very human sensation and I just wanted to get out of the minutiae of soldering circuit boards, and more into the talking about it. From there I took a lot of turns, but in the end I came full circle back to my love for film and storytelling.
WOLF LEWIS: I did want to chime in, because I feel that Kaitlyn is selling herself short. After Physics, the logical jump for her was to become a radio producer. She was working for The Leonard Lopate Show in New York for a little while. Then she got a degree in Interaction Design at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design where she worked on a lot of science related projects. I think that’s why Kaitlyn can make a movie and she’s incredible because she’s had this research background, and then she has a design background which translates for me as an extreme attention to detail. Then she went to the SALT Institute in Maine where she studied podcasting, and then got into written journalism. She did a story for 99pi, National Geographic and other platforms. So I feel like you missed a couple turns-
SCHWALJE: I mean it’s a lot of left turns. When you make too many left turns at some point it’s like ‘what’s going on here?’. My dad is an engineer from a family of engineers so it was always an acrobatic routine trying to explain my life path to him and convince him that everything was going to connect at the end.
WOLF LEWIS: Do you think that it did?
MARTIN: That’s great. And I love how you bring all of those scientific experts and a psychic into Snowy’s story. Can you talk about that?
SCHWALJE: It started when I got in touch with this woman Dr. Irene Pepperberg. She’s famous for teaching this Parrot named Alex how to talk. A lot of her work is on animal cognition, specifically with parrots. And I knew that I wanted an expert voice to elevate the film. I got in touch with her, she’s super lovely, but she said, “I’m a parrot lady, not a turtle lady. But there is this woman in England who you have to talk to named Dr. Anna Wilkinson who runs the cold blooded cognition lab at the University of Lincoln.” So I called Dr. Wilkinson up and she was very welcoming, as scientists are. I find through interviewing people, scientists are the most generous with their time. It seems in their DNA to educate the public about their specific field of study. I spoke with her and she said, “yeah, come interview me.” I put the phone down, and found Alex sitting outside on our deck, and I asked “Alex, do you want to go to England?.” In Alex fashion he immediately responded, “Hell yeah.”
MARTIN: And how did you meet the psychic?
SCHWALJE: I found her through a Huffington Post article, it was something like “Best Pet Psychics in America”. She was in Jersey City and we just went over and explained the project. We came with photos of Snowy and explained the situation. And she just gave us this incredible reading.
WOLF LEWIS: But we were happy to find out that Snowy loves us.
SCHWALJE: When we went to England to visit Dr. Wilkinson, we made a pit stop in London because I had never visited before. We went to visit the Royal Veterinary College, and they toured us around. We saw skeletons of different turtles, and got to peak into their dissection lab. There were containers full of brains and plastinated horse heads cut in slices, lungs, hearts. It was otherworldly.
WOLF LEWIS: Kaitlyn’s dream vacation.
SCHWALJE: It was a dream.
MARTIN: I want to talk about Uncle Larry, next to Snowy, I feel he is the heart of the film. Can you talk about him and his transformation?
WOLF LEWIS: Everybody in our family was incredibly willing to be on camera. We felt so lucky. And they were hosting us, always trying to feed us. Uncle Larry and the others would always ask, “why are you trying to make this film? Who the hell will watch this?” It was kind of the joke, but not really.
Uncle Larry is a very open minded person in a strange way, so he never took any of this personally. At the end of the day he didn’t really have the bandwidth to think about Snowy more than make sure he was fed, had water, and a clean tank. When you get into a routine in your life it’s easy to keep doing things by rote or by habit. The whole point of the movie was to shake up the family, shake up the situation in a fun loving way. And he was in on the humor of it, but he really did have this revelation. At the end of the movie he says he saw Snowy in a different light. Larry was expressing his gratitude at times. And thanking us for shaking up his routine. He said that he was going to try to take that into different aspects of his life, so he can try to see everything else in a new light.
SCHWALJE: Larry had the best of intentions in being Snowy’s caretaker. But with very little information it was revealed that he wasn’t doing nearly enough to take care of him properly. Our takeaway was that there is always room to better understand people’s life experiences outside your own, whether it’s your mother, your neighbor, or your pet turtle-
WOLF LEWIS: That has been locked in your basement for 25 years.
SCHWALJE: Yeah [laughing].
MARTIN: I loved when Snowy was brought outside roaming around in the grass. Such a freedom.
SCHWALJE: He loved it. He was basically in a persistent state of hibernation, because he didn’t have a heat light in his previous cage. The transformation from him being in his shell for the majority of the day to out and exploring was huge.
WOLF LEWIS: Also, we passed along all of the recommendations that Anna Wilkinson gave us. One of them was that turtles get kind of freaked out by glass cages and there were a bunch of other things that we did based on her recommendations. Mind you when they got Snowy there wasn’t the vast amount of resources that they have now online, that you could just google in how to take care of it. So when they got into their habits of taking care of it they were like, “he’s alive, he’s surviving, I guess we must be doing something right.” But surviving does not mean thriving.
SCHWALJE: That’s the spookiest bit, and kind of the thing that hit home the most for me was that line, survival is not proof that you are doing a good job of taking care of somebody. It’s not proof of happiness or contentment. Sometimes people or creatures are alive simply because they’re survivors.
MARTIN: Talk to me about the women and team behind “Snowy”.
SCHWALJE: We’d love to! Our editors are a German couple (Katharina Stroh and Alexander Heringer), who actually got stuck behind the travel ban when visiting Germany to see their families. So there was a lot of back and forth with zoom. Kata (Katharina) is amazing. She’s infinitely patient, and she and Alex also just independently brought all of these great ideas to the edit.
We have a producer, Rebecca Stern, our guiding force, our lighthouse in stormy weather, who worked with Alex as the director of “Well Groomed”.
WOLF LEWIS: I was the DP.
MARTIN: We covered that film, it’s great! One of our contributing writers interviewed Rebecca Stern.
SCHWALJE: She’s great. Through her we also met our producer Justin Levy. Our executive producers are also this ferocious group of ladies: Meryl Goldsmith, Dana Nachman, and Cheryl Dillard Staurulakis. They’re definitely collaborators in the truest sense of the word.
And Caroline Hadilaksono was our illustrator. Before we found out about Sundance and were deep in quarantine, I wanted to make a bunch of swag around the short, to give me some outlet and something to pour my energy into. We teamed up with Caroline, and made a bunch of temporary tattoos, bags, and posters. She is the design eye for everything we do.
MARTIN: Was it exciting for you to be selected for the festival?
SCHWALJE: It was like a shot of adrenaline to life in quarantine, it jumped us into high gear, and gave us something to live for, when life and Maine weather was otherwise looking pretty bleak.
We looked at the odds of getting in and there was no world in which we thought it was going to happen. We’re super proud of our movie and thought we had something special, but considering all that is happening in the world we didn’t think there would be room for us. So yeah, we were thrilled.
WOLF LEWIS: And the responses we’ve been getting from people have been overwhelming to us. Kind of in the same way that you’re saying, that this film is something we need, or something that the world needs. We are very grateful. I do think that we did try to do that with a thought provoking, unpretentious and intimate story, everything from start to finish. We wanted the film to feel like a cookie that your Grandma baked for you.
MARTIN: Can you tell me anything about this “The Turkey Relocation Project”?
WOLF LEWIS: We’re still figuring out what form “The Turkey Relocation Project” will take. Will it be a short, or a part of a series, or a feature?
SCHWALJE: I can say that we’re super into these animal stories, at the heart of it it’s about looking at how animals and humans share space and resources, and the kind of stories that fall out of that conflict, that compromise. There’s a lot of humor and frustration, but there’s also a lot of ethical considerations around where we draw the line between the human and animal world. And that is something we’re having to constantly contend with as a species. It changes and it’s a constantly evolving thing. We hope that the projects, the ones we have in mind are bringing focus to this.
WOLF LEWIS: In a similar sense we want to spark joy and wonder, and not take too serious of an approach, but also in the same way know that you are left with a good feeling, but also you’re looking at your own life, or even the life of your pet. You’re hopefully looking at the world in a little bit of a different way, and it doesn’t feel too much like a vaccine or a shot.
SCHWALJE: Humor is the sugar that helps the medicine go down.
We also hope to take very ordinary subjects like a neighborhood squirrel for instance and run so far with the idea that we arrive at an unimaginable place. A place of wonder. A previous project I did was on the history of urban squirrels for 99pi. Something I discovered in writing and producing that I’m carrying over is that urban animals can be kind of therapeutic to people, and doing some kind of a social service. Having a pet that doesn’t belong to you, but belongs to all of the residents of the city, it can do wonders for people’s mental health. And it’s kind of an element that I hadn’t really looked at wildlife like that before.
WOLF LEWIS: We’re hoping to adapt that podcast into like an animal series, and “The Turkey Relocation Project” will also fall into that.
MARTIN: Final question, what do you hope people will see in your film?
WOLF LEWIS: I hope that they can try and re-examine elements of their own life, in the same way that Uncle Larry took a hard look at Snowy. And I hope that they can take that sense of wonder and fresh perspective to make the world better or make a relationship that you had better.
And the message would be if you put in the time to understand somebody or you put in the time to try to figure out what somebody actually needs, you might be surprised. It’ll take you down a fun path and next thing you know you’re on a train heading to the University of Lincoln. And then you’re in a room full of numbered tortoises, named Gerald Butler. Follow that path.
SCHWALJE: Follow that path with some openness and humility and there’s all sorts you can discover about people and creatures.
MARTIN: Anything else?
WOLF LEWIS: The one thing we want people to also do is check instagram because Kaitlyn has started this amazing online series with interviews and photos of pet stories. Everybody we know has this incredible story about how something happened to their pet. We want people to send in their stories, and it’s a fun way to engage.
KAITLYN SCHWALJE: The stories are about everything from the deaths of childhood hamsters to vodka loving parrots and a plan to bury a beloved cat in Central Park. Please share, we’d love to hear from you. No story is too small. Find us on instagram @snowy_the_film #housepetstories