"Your film is not a 'festival' film." That's what an industry insider told Dana Nachman and Don Hardy, co-directors of the documentary Pick of the Litter. Weeks later, it was accepted at the Slamdance Film Festival—in the opening night slot. After it screened there, the film was picked up by IFC Film's Sundance Selects. And nearly ten festivals later, it was recently a finalist for the Audience Award at the 2018 Hot Docs Film Festival.
Nachman and Hardy are the first to admit that their film isn't the edgy, gritty fare many have come to expect of a Slamdance premiere. "We're the counter-culture to their counter-culture," quips Nachman.
Pick of the Litter follows a group of puppies for two years as they undergo training for the most rigorous and demanding career known to canine-kind: being a guide dog. The co-directors follow each dog on its long and arduous journey, which more often than not ends in elimination from the program. But despite the hardships, the dogs—and their multitudinous handlers—persevere, owing to a compelling interspecies bond that predates the dawn of civilization.
No Film School caught up with Nachman and Hardy just after their film was bought at Slamdance to discuss the ins and outs of festival dealmaking, the unique challenges of making a half-dozen dogs your main characters, and more.
"You see huge $100 million movies that tank in the box office. You realize that if that's happening, nobody knows the right answer about how to market films."
No Film School: How did you two meet and get involved with this project in the first place?
Dana Nachman: We were journalists at the NBC station in San Francisco. We worked together there for many years. Over the time, we did a bunch of stories on guide dogs for the blind. They were always so cute and so emotional and so touching. We always knew that there was a bigger story there.
In the meantime, my mom had done a story about a guide dog school in New York. It was a series of stories that did just what we did: follow a litter of puppies from the day they were born to if they made the cut to be guide dogs for the blind. I thought that was such a great structural idea, but it would be even better for a documentary than a newspaper.
NFS: How did you meet your subjects and decide who to follow?
Don Hardy: We didn't know anybody going into it. We just knew the organization. They were incredibly helpful in finding people and allowing us access to be able to tell the story we wanted to tell without much interference at all.
NFS: How long did you shoot for?
Hardy: The puppies were born on June 2nd, 2015, and then we wrapped in March 2017. So two and a half years.
NFS: How did you finance the film?
Nachman: We had one investor for my last movie, Batkid Begins. When we sold that film, he was on board to do the next film if he thought it could be a winner. When we told him about this, he said, "Yeah, I'm in." It couldn't have been easier, thanks to him. We were able to get the entire budget from him, which is crazy.
Hardy: We feel so fortunate to be able to say that.
Nachman: Before those two films that were funded by him, we did three other films that we put on our credit cards.
NFS: When you first started shooting, did you have a plan or preconceived notions?
Nachman: I thought we had such a clear narrative arc. I think we knew exactly how it was going to go in terms of the structure, but I don't think we really had a handle on the particulars. We knew we would start with the birth [of the puppies] and end with a recap of where they all were. Some would get cut along the way. In broad strokes, we knew that for the first two months they were at one place, and they went to people's homes for 12 months, and then we knew that they went back to the place. So in that sense, the narrative structure was all there. The things we didn't know were all the things that would happen in between.
"You essentially have five main characters, and they're all dogs."
Hardy: Within that setup—birth to graduation and then where they are now—there are so many variables. You essentially have five main characters, and they're all dogs. Then it's all the people that come into their lives. Some changes happen. Things came up. We hadn't been through the process before, so we didn't always know what was the most important thing to shoot. We ended up just shooting a lot and trying to figure it out as we went. When we got into editing, we had so many choices about what to cut and what to leave in—what was really the most interesting thing for an audience. We had to compress time and make sure it was the most interesting and thrilling film it can be.
NFS: How much footage did you shoot altogether?
Hardy: 120 days of filming and probably around 300 hours.
NFS: How did you navigate the editing process, then?
Nachman: Don is our editor. I wrote the script. As I was writing it, I did an assembly of the scenes and then would pass them [on to him].
Hardy: Our first assembly of the second half of the film was an hour and 20 minutes along.
Nachman: It took a lot of shaping.
Hardy: A lot of the training is just dogs walking. In the initial cuts, it just wasn't translating that well. People weren't seeing the progress.
Nachman: Or really understanding what [the dogs] were doing. My mom was the first one to watch it, and she was like, "I don't really understand what's good and what's bad." We're like, "Oh, God."
We just wanted to show the process in the clearest way that we could. There was so much to choose from. But the easiest way to do it was to distill it down to the most dramatic parts—the parts where the dogs got cut, the parts where the dogs were failing tests. Those are inherently dramatic. We ended up, I think, cutting out most everything except for the tests and training. The puppy raising, which was a year to a year and a half, was pretty mundane. It was just day to day with dogs.
We did show one scene in Wine Country where one of the dogs was in a limo. That's just funny. So we would choose specific things that were a little different [to show].
Hardy: It was also important to show the different exposures these dogs have. The Wine Country scene is funny, but it's also it shows [the dogs] out in a real environment and, yes, riding in a limo, but that's just to show how dynamic the different situations they get into can be.
'Pick of the Litter'Credit: Sundance SelectsNFS: What kind of relationships did you have with the trainers themselves as subjects?
Nachman: We had a great relationship with all the people. They were all pretty far-flung for us. One was in LA. One was in Washington. One was in the Portland area. Two were in the Bay Area, but not necessarily that close to where we lived. It wasn't like we were hanging out with them all the time, because there was so much traveling around and figuring out what to do.
The constant was the dogs. The dogs would move from place to place. I think we felt more bonded with the dogs than the people, even though we liked the people very much.
Hardy: Yeah, really. All the people come and go, but the dogs were there from the beginning to the end. It's just great. One of them was here for the premiere the other night.
NFS: Coordinating logistics of travel must have been complicated, since your subjects were all over the country. How did you manage?
Nachman: The dogs were all over the map. It was hard to tell what was a big deal and what wasn't. We had to really pick and choose [what to film]. We tried to get across to everybody involved, "Please don't do anything dramatic until we get there! Don't do anything major!"
Hardy: We said, "Just just give us a head's up when something that you deem to be important is happening. Let us decide if we should shoot it or not shoot it."
"I feel very indebted to Slamdance. I think it was a risk for them to take a cute dog movie."
One of the dogs was on the chopping block for several months. We took several trips to see it. Then, it didn't get cut. That's fine—it's better than the dog getting cut when we're not there. You don't want to get a phone call after the fact: "Yeah, that dog is not in the program anymore."
Nachman: That was a big concern to us. Also, what if none of the dogs made it through the program, or what if all of them made it? Those would be two pretty not-great endings. That was a leap of faith.
NFS: What do you think are some good tips for people who want to work together as co-directors?
Nachman: We have different skill sets, which I think really works. Don is really good at shooting at editing, so he almost does it all himself. We had to hire some shooters sometimes, but not often. Then, I'm in charge of the writing. I do a lot of the producing nut and bolts. The logistics.
I think it's easier when it's different. It's not like we want to make every decision together. We sit in our own houses of skills and then work together.
Hardy: I think it's evolved a lot over time. We've basically been working together since 2002, first in TV news, and then the past decade making all of these films. We've grown in our own skills. With this one, it really felt like we could come together and have a lot of confidence in our own abilities. That allows you more freedom to try things.
For new people that are trying co-directing, make sure this is somebody that you want to go into battle with, because there are so many challenges along the way.
'Pick of the Litter'Credit: Sundance Selects
NFS: How was it premiering the film at Slamdance as the opening night film?
Nachman: I feel very indebted to Slamdance. I think it was a risk for them to take a cute dog movie.
I had this epiphany the other night. We were at a filmmaker party, my husband and I. We look up on the wall, and... I don't know if you've seen our poster, but it's five very cute dogs. It just didn't really match here. It's not really a grungy, edgy film. I thought to myself, "Wow, we don't really fit here." But then, I was like, "That's the beauty of a film festival like this—we're counterculture to their counterculture."
I'm a suburban mom of three kids. I don't fit the mold of a lot of indie filmmakers. Sometimes I feel like it's hard to fit in, even though this is my fifth film. Don is not a suburban housewife, but I think it's hard for him, too. Our films are somewhat commercial, not necessarily edgy. When you find a place like Slamdance that champions your work even if you don't 100% fit the mold, that really means a lot. Batkid Begins, in 2015, premiered here, too.
"The people that are buying films this year weren't making the big deals last year."
This is a business. We don't make these films to show our families. We were able to sell this film to IFC. I was able to sell Batkid to New Line Warner Bros out of Slamdance, too. So not only does the festival take a leap of faith on our work and us as filmmakers, but they put us on this pedestal so that we can then do what we need to do, which is sell the films.
Hardy: It wasn't the slam-dunk that it might appear to program this film.
Nachman: We were told right before it got into Slamdance that this wasn't a "film festival" film. Since, then it's gotten into nine or ten festivals, which is pretty silly. I get what the person meant by saying that because I can see how it would be seen that way. But that's fine; our goal isn't to make a "film festival" film. It's to make a film that packs a punch for audiences. But in order to get to audiences...
Hardy: You need the film festival.
NFS: At this point, you've negotiated multiple deals. Do you feel like you're getting a hang of how to navigate the process with buyers?
Hardy: Yes and no. We've been fortunate to work with great sales agents with Submarine Entertainment for all of our films. It helps to have a top sales agent involved.
But the process changes year to year. The people that are buying films this year weren't making the big deals last year. For example, some of the online distribution outlets were paying huge money for films, and they've been very quiet this year. And back in 2015, when Dana had Batkid Begins, I had a film called Theory of Obscurity that went to the SXSW. Those players are doing different things now, too. As much as you think you know something, it changes really fast.
'Pick of the Litter'Credit: Sundance Selects
Nachman: We premiered the film on Friday. Between Friday and Sunday, it was like the business side of film school for 48 hours straight. We were in meetings. It was a lot of questions. I think, at first, it was a little deer in the headlights. Now, it's like, "This is a business." I think the biggest thing I've learned over the years is that I need to ask a lot of questions [when making deals].
NFS: What are some important questions to ask?
Hardy: First and foremost, you want people to really love your film. When you go in there and you're meeting with a potential distributor, they need to almost sell you, too. They need to sell you on the fact that they've seen the film, they like the film, and they have a plan for it.
We were fortunate with this. We had multiple people interested. You talk to all of them and ultimately go with the people who loved not only the film, but love dogs, and have this unique [marketing ideas] so the most people can see it. Because ultimately, that's really what you want: the most eyeballs possible on your work.
"When you go in there and you're meeting with a potential distributor, they need to almost sell you, too."
Nachman: There were five or six organizations in play [to buy this movie]. We just took a lot of meetings, started talking, understanding a lot—first, with the agents alone, and then with the salespeople.
Then, it really came down to what Don said: who loves this film the most. You see huge $100 million movies that tank in the box office. You realize that if that's happening, nobody knows the right answer about how to market films. Really, all you have is a gut feeling on who's going to work the hardest for you and who cares the most. It's hard because you're thrown into these meetings where you've never met these people. You're trying to gauge, "Okay, who seems most authentic here?" Truthfully, we had a lot of good options. In the end, it was that one [distribution company] felt 10% more into than the other.
Hardy: Yeah, and do your homework. I think that's really important, too. Once the players started to emerge, we were online looking through their catalogs, seeing films that might be similar, seeing how had they been released.
Nachman: We were on Box Office Mojo.
Hardy: Yeah, yeah. What the box office had been, how many screens they ended up on, who their partners are. It is a business. You just really have to take it seriously. We've learned that.
I remember with our first film, we were very fortunate to go to the Toronto International Film Festival. It's a huge festival. We were very new to it. We thought, "Well, we made the movie. It's here. Our job is done." But it's so just the beginning. Even after our premiere here at Slamdance the other night, everybody is like, "What a relief; it's all done." I'm like, "No."
Nachman: You don't get it!
Hardy: It's not close to done. It just screened one time here. Now all the other work begins!