Here’s Canine Culture’s exclusive interview with Film director Justin Turcotte and Producer Ben Mallin about their first feature film Unleashed! A Dog Dancing Story.
Unleashed! A Dog Dancing Story follows the two-year journey of an amateur dog-dancing troupe led by an aspiring theatre director Ray Underwood. Their quest: to mount the first-ever dog dancing and indoor kite flying theatrical. All for the love of dancing with dogs.
Where did you grow up?
Ben Mallin: I grew up in Vancouver, BC
Justin Turcotte: I grew up in Red Deer, AB
What made you choose filmmaking over other careers?
BM: As cheesy as it sounds I ‘developed’ (in the loosest sense of the word) a game show idea that manifested itself a dream I had one early morning. I submitted it to some companies and pitched it in LA; I failed to secure a sale but caught the ‘bug.’ I saw a business somewhere in there and if I followed a path, aligned myself with the right people and learned as I go I could do this. Having a business partner at this time to share wins and fails with is the icing on the cake. JT: I started out making skateboard videos with my friends and became interested in shooting other projects after that. I’ve always been very interested in documentary film and how much freedom there is associated with the format, so directing my first feature was a big step.
When did you meet?
BM: Early 2009 on the first short film that I produced and Justin DOP’d (Director of Photography).
Why do you think you had worked so well together on this project?
BM: When Justin first mentioned the premise of the doc to me we would compare it to one of our favourite movies, Best In Show. My gut told me ‘this Justin guy; he’s quality.’ I also felt that the project had commercial appeal, and I was confident with our similar personalities and balanced skill-sets that we could produce the vision together with little drama.
As your first collaboration in filmmaking, why this subject matter?
JT: When I first met the dog dancers, it was in a dingy old barn with a small audience watching a group of very dedicated dancers in elaborate costumes whirl around with their dogs. It was absolutely absurd, but I loved it. I thought there was definitely something there story-wise, and Ben had the same thought when he sat down and watched some of the early footage we had shot. It was just so surreal that it had to be shared with the world.
How has your approach to filmmaking changed?
JT: We’ve learned a lot of lessons, being that this was our first feature project. By the end of the process we had sorted out a lot of the bugs and figured out the things that worked and didn’t work in telling the story. One thing I can tell you is that I hope I never find myself transcribing hours of interview footage ever again, and that coverage of dogs is very important in a project about dog dancing.
BM: My direction was not so much changing, as it was evolving. When I began pursuing this industry I believed that my end all be all was to produce. I learned the variations of producing, how to strategize in business, develop story, implement new media (hesitantly), direction and more. But at this point, from the shows I’ve worked on and the relationship/balanced skill-sets with Justin, I would like to co-direct pictures with him.
Why was it so interesting?
JT: Aside from the obvious interest of dancing dogs? We met a lot of wonderful people, and got to spend time in a world that we knew nothing about. And, in the end isn’t that what documentary filmmaking is all about? We’ve remained in contact with a number of the dancers since shooting the project and will keep in touch with them for a long time to come. And I mean really, who doesn’t love dogs?
What kind of adventures in filmmaking did you have?
JT: There are several, but a few of the best include us drinking in a hotel room in Whistler with the dog dancers watching a preview of their hat dance routine. That and myself putting on a padded suit and being attacked by a very large Malinois (Belgian shepherd) in order to grab a few shots that never ended up making it into the film.
BM: For me, it’s amazing what you can accomplish when dealing with persons around the world when you have no connections to begin with.
How did you approach it?
JT: From the start, the humour of the subject matter is pretty apparent, so we wanted to make sure that we humanized the dancers and let their personalities shine through beyond that. All the way from the tasteful score to the way we photographed the intro sequence like a stylized music video, we wanted to let the subject matter speak for itself and treat it with a lot of respect.
BM: We wanted to make sure we didn’t produce a cheesy movie that had little heart. We had an idea what the story was going to be, but the subplots that we followed evolved into what became the real story. We lucked out to an extent and are proud of the way it turned out.
Would you work with non-professional animals again?
JT: Absolutely. These dogs were consummate professionals.
What was it like to be working with the interviewees on the subject of canine dancing?
JT: The dancers were great interview subjects, as they were able to talk with us in a very tongue in cheek manner about what they do. They know it’s silly, but they’re still extremely passionate about it so it’s a very interesting line to toe. We also liked to incorporate the dogs into the interviews, which was usually a mess to wrangle.
BM: They were open and honest; they invited us in to their lives (sans filter) and would even cook us meals when we interviewed them. This may be the only time we’ll receive homemade chili from a documentary subject, unless we get hired to make a documentary on chili cook offs… Just sayin’, we’re available…
How much ‘drama‘ did you encounter?
JT: The dog dancers were fairly apprehensive about us shooting them for the first few months, so that led to a bit of tension until we smoothed things over. With a group full of powerful personalities and a ton of work to do, drama was inevitable. All I can say is that things came to a head the night of the final performance…
What was the hardest part of getting the feature documentary made?
JT: Not surprisingly, a lot of the difficulties came with trying to obtain legal clearances for music, products, visuals etc. We ended up finding some clever solutions and workarounds, but that part was extremely challenging.
BM: Where do I begin? Transcribing the hours upon hours of on-camera dialogue; our first cut was over 4 hours long… killing scenes and moments that we would love to include but can’t for sake of time. Pulling favours. Breaking promises. Meeting deadlines. Knowing that one-day it will be finished and there will be no excuse for not moving on.
What’s coming next?
BM: In addition to finding an avenue for the inevitable release of Unleashed! we are fortunate enough to be able to explore opportunities in TV, features and beyond. My hope is to create original content, produce and co-direct.
JT: We’re working hard on finding a distribution channel for Unleashed! A Dog Dancing Story. After that, Ben and myself have a few exciting projects in development. We’re definitely keeping busy.
For more information: www.dogdancingmovie.com
Unleashed! World Premiere details: February 13th 8:p.m. Fine Arts Theatre, Denton, TX – www.thinlinefilmfest.com