March 20, 2014

From University Assignment to Viral Hit: the Touching Story of a Young Boy & His Dog

I have a confession to make. I am not, nor am ever likely to be a dog lover. OK, I know most of you are about to click away in disgust but stick with me for just a moment. My dislike of man's best friend may be lifelong, but it stood not one wag of a tail's chance of surviving the gut punch of feelings I experienced watching the deeply emotional bond captured in Jonna McIver's kindred spirits documentary A Boy and His Dog. The film depicts the transformative relationship between a rescue dog called Haatchi and Owen Howkins, a boy suffering from the rare genetic disorder Schwartz Jampel Syndrome.

See just how far a little bit of three-legged love can go after the jump:

You don't need me to tell you that the days of the documentary being seen as a prescriptive imparter of facts with little in the way of entertainment value or filmmaking finesse are long behind us. With narrative techniques in play such as Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line's (then) unconventional use of reconstruction (a technique which saw it unfairly disqualified from the Oscar documentary race), and more recently The Act of Killing's gruelling and powerful mass murder perpetrators' re-staging of their acts of genocide across film genres, it can be easy to forget that a documentary which 'tells it straight' can still have the power to touch you deep at the emotional core -- which is exactly what Jonna McIver's A Boy and His Dog does.

We asked Jonna to take us behind the scenes of his film that has, judging by the 2.6 million+ YouTube views it has accumulated in a month, touched so many:

NFS: What’s your background as a filmmaker? Is A Boy and His Dog your first foray into documentary filmmaking?

JM: I first started making films when I was about 14 years old. I used to hang around the local skate park or in the woods with my friends, making short videos filmed on a mobile phone or point and shoot camera. Since then I've been getting more and more into it, and now I'm making stuff I can proudly put out there. After sixth form I went to university and studied for a BA in film and TV production, specializing in documentary filmmaking. I spent a year at Nanyang Tech University in Singapore and there I learnt a great deal. I'd made a handful of shorts docs before, but A Boy and His Dog is my latest, and the one I'm most proud of so far.

NFS: A Boy and His Dog was created as part of your documentary filmmaking course at the University of Hertfordshire. Were you tasked to create a particular type of film or was it more of an open brief?

JM: The only boundaries that our course gave us was that it had to be factual, and it had to be 10 minutes in length. That is all. It was very open. We each had to pitch our ideas to the class and the best ideas, voted for by the students, got made. My idea was actually a film about crazy dog lovers. It was only when trying to cast this that we stumbled across Owen and Haatchi.

NFS: How did you go about earning the trust of Owen and his family for the film?

JM: Just before Xmas last year, my group and I were trying to research and cast crazy dog lovers, dog boutiques, dog hotels, and on a random blog, Carl Frazer-Lunn [Camera & Editor] found, in the middle of a large feed was a local newspaper article from Southampton which told Owen and Haatchi's story. He sent it to me and automatically I said, "Forget the other idea, this story is too good not to tell." It was perfect and needed to be told to everyone. I then hunted the family down and contacted them via Facebook. I explained how I myself was a dog lover and gave them a rough outline of how we saw the film going. The family, always willing to help people out, said "Yes, come down to have a chat and we'll see what we can do." So that's what we did. Carl, Jodie Tierney [Assistant Director & Sound], and myself went down to see them and automatically hit it off and started planning the doc to be filmed in late February 2013.

NFS: At what stage did it become apparent that the story wasn’t about how Owen and his family dealt with his condition, but rather about this intimate relationship between a young boy and his rescue dog?

JM: Bearing in mind I am a dog lover and always wanted to make a documentary on dogs, it was the story of the rescue dog that hooked us. After getting to know Owen, and hearing about how he was pre-Haatchi, it was clear that this 3 legged dog was the hero. I spoke to the family a lot when we weren't filming, not only to build a great relationship with them, but because they told stories so well and it was a pleasure to listen. When filming came around, it was like we had rehearsed and it all just came pouring out.

NFS: Before A Boy and His Dog, Friends For Life created the portrait piece Owen & Haatchi Crufts 2013. How did that short act as a marker of what you wanted to do or avoid with your film?

JM: We started filming with the family in mid-late February last year, before they were nominated for Crufts. We had concluded filming by the time Crufts came around. After looking through the rushes it was clear that we didn't have an ending. I was worried at the time but then Friends for Life came along and gave us a fairytale ending. The portrait piece that Crufts did used similar shots to ours but both productions are completely independent of each other and it is pure coincidence.

NFS: How planned out was the production and what was your equipment setup?

JM: Pre-production meant a lot of thinking and planning as always. I wrote pages of notes over a few weeks that I then formed into a set of about a dozen questions to ask in a master interview. I gave Carl instructions to film everything whilst we were in the house. People always said working with kids and animals was hard and we were trying to do both at the same time. Luckily for us, the bond between Owen and Haatchi is so good that every shot of them together was good and made your heart melt. As mentioned before, we spent a lot of time with the family, getting to know them and gaining their trust and respect. I think that is important or else we would have gotten a very plain, flat-line interview with no emotion or feeling.

We used a super basic set up but just tried our best to do everything to a high standard. We filmed everything on a Panasonic AF-101 with some stunning Carl Zeiss prime lenses. We lit the interviews with a simple 3 point lighting set up, using Dedo's, and recorded sound using a shotgun mic, straight into a Zoom H4N recorder. For a few shots we used a slider, but we were careful not to overuse it as I think that's the key. We shot for about 4 half days in total and then spent a whole day at Crufts with the family in March.

a boy and his dog 02

NFS: There’s no denying that Owen lives with a tragic condition, but the strength of A Boy and His Dog is that whilst acknowledging that hardship, it more conveys the healing joy of his relationship with Haatchi. How challenging was it to strike the correct tone from the raw footage once you were in post?

JM: We knew we had an incredible story right from the off but it still meant that we had to work out how to tell it in the correct way. We did a rough cut and although the elements were there, it wasn't right at all. We changed parts around and then suddenly it clicked into place. We found that it was more emotive to have Owen telling Haatchi's story and that we had to keep the reveal of Haatchi and the relationship until part way through the story. We began by explaining Owen's troubles and then brought Haatchi the hero into the frame. The story gets more and more optimistic and then finishes on a high when the pair win Friends for Life at Crufts.

NFS: A Boy and His Dog premiered online at the same time as Wendy Holden’s book Haatchi & Little B was released. Was that a coordinated release strategy?

JM: We finished the film in May last year and in the same week we finished, the family told us about the book deal. By this point we were incredibly close with them and wanted to help them out as best we could. We had always agreed with them from the off that the film would only be exhibited where they were happy for it to be. We spoke about it and realized it would be cool to release it at the same time as the book. Even though they are two separate things, they could help each other out and it would be a great situation for everyone. Little did we know it would get this much attention. Whilst Wendy was writing the book, I had a few phone calls with her talking to me about the family, painting pictures of events that she wasn't there for and things. We sent her over some footage which showed the incredible relationships, too, specifically an emotional Owen and Colleen at Sara Abbotts painting studio.

a boy and his dog 01

NFS: To say the film has done well since its online debut is underselling things quite a bit. What do you hope people take away from the film? Do you have a particular call to action in mind?

JM: From day one, the aim of the film has always been to bring Owen's condition, Schwarts Jampel Syndrome, to a wider audience, and also to showcase how incredible rescue dogs can be. The whole thing is strung together by love and friendship so I hope people take that away.

NFS: Are you sticking with documentaries for your next film or do you have something else in mind?

JM: I will definitely be sticking with documentary filmmaking in the near future. I love real life, true stories. I think for my next project I'm going to try to bring aspects of drama into it, maybe some reconstructions -- but we'll see what story I find first.

***

Our thanks to Jonna for speaking to us.

What did you think of Haatchi & Owen's story? Was the clean approach of Jonna's documentary style effective at conveying the pair's relationship? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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Your Comment

8 Comments

Beautiful little story :0)

March 20, 2014 at 8:26AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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It looks sweet and all but I wish they picked another title as there's already a fairly well known film (and a series of stories) by that name.

March 20, 2014 at 8:32AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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DLD

Maybe it's the reality TV effect, but I feel it's easier for a beginning director to find success with the Doc format. Congratulations to Jonna McIver.

March 20, 2014 at 9:02AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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moebius22

As a University of Hertfordshire alum it is nice to see good productions from my university.
I watched this when it came in the alum newsletter, very nice and heartwarming.

March 20, 2014 at 9:53AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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This is great

March 20, 2014 at 10:46AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Anoop Gopinath

great job!

March 21, 2014 at 11:17AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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If you hate dogs, you also hate ill people. This makes you a racist pig.

March 21, 2014 at 11:52AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Natt

There's something to be said for that connection between humans and canines. It's not something that can be observed directly, but we know it's there by the effects it produces. Like gravity. This short doc exposes that connection well.

Now, I'm no film maker, I don't even pretend to be one. I can only imagine all the frustration that would go into trying to tell a story in such a visual medium. But this quote struck me: "We did a rough cut and although the elements were there, it wasn’t right at all. We changed parts around and then suddenly it clicked into place."

That gives some hope, that if you tinker around with the elements, things will fall into place. It's a creative process, after all. Thanks for the reminder of that.

March 21, 2014 at 3:34PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Rob Jaworski