Staff Pick Premiere: the real-life urban legend “DOGWALKER”

Some stories are too good not to retell. When I hear a tale that seems stranger than fiction, I usually cannot resist sharing it with my friends and family. Although, with each retelling, one piece of essential truth seems to get lost: the identity of the actual protagonist. Beginning a story with “My coworker’s sister’s college roommate’s aunt’s bridge partner’s daughter” loses its zest. So, for convenience sake and for the sake of the story, the truth gets amended to, “This happened to a friend,” and before you know it, an urban legend is born. Filmmakers many times shape a well-known story for a new audience, so what better place to find stories than urban legends themselves? Kim Sherman did just that with her incredible short “DOGWALKER,” which is this week’s Staff Pick Premiere. This short, that won awards at festivals like Sundance and stars the terrific Sarah Hagan (Freaks and Geeks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Keith Poulson (Somebody Up There Likes Me, Listen Up Phillip) i. So please enjoy the film and read the interview with Kim, which includes an origin story that is almost as adventurous as the film itself.

Vimeo: When I first watched your film, my initial reaction was “This happened to my cousin’s friend!” Then, I learned that it was an urban legend, and that my cousin had probably lied to me. How’d you first hear the story? What made you want to bring it to life through film?

Kim Sherman: Oh no! Don’t feel bad. I think a lot of people’s cousins have made the same claim. I first heard the story in Columbia, Missouri in 2012, from friends visiting from Omaha, Nebraska. They set the story up as “The Craziest Story” they’d ever heard, and after their retelling, I agreed it was the craziest/best/funniest story. I did immediately think it would make a great short film. It was so complete in a small package. I asked them to please introduce me to the friend that had told them the story, so I could meet their friend’s friend, and ask for permission to tell the story in a film.

So did you ever find the origin of the story?

I did. This is the part where I always feel like I need to keep names out of the film’s origin story. Every road leads to all of us looking like chumps. Or maybe just me.

I asked my visiting friends to introduce me to their source for the story. They tried to set it up, but he eventually confessed that he didn’t actually know the woman — that he had heard it from a friend, but that claim also led to a dead end. Somehow, after all of that, I didn’t suspect it was an urban legend.

The internet only led to more retellings from people who swear the story happened to their friend’s friend. It was all over the country and in various parts of the world. But I never found any official documents, cases, or news that pointed to a legitimate source. I started sketching out my ideas for a short after that.

Years later, when I was on the ground prepping the film in Chicago, an acquaintance reached out to ask about the film (he’d seen news of our partnership with Fractured Atlas , our gracious fiscal sponsor). He also wanted to know more about the story, and how I came up with the idea. So I told him the urban legend and my adaptations to the story for film, and he quickly sent me a link to a short film he had made, which followed the same story.

I was so mortified. Our approaches were so different, so it was not at all a worry of repetition, but it was more that I really did want to find the dog walker and have her permission before making her story into a film. We talked more about his process and how it was meant to be a documentary, but his producer could never get the woman (the original dog walker) to agree to be on camera, so they were forced to adapt it for fiction. He wished me luck though, and we agreed the films were not at all the same, but he hadn’t realized how prominent the story was. I did ask him to try and connect me to his producer and the “OG” dog walker. I told him about my own efforts to find her, and that I would not want to proceed if it was something she did not feel comfortable with. But when he tried to connect us, he started to realize that maybe his producer had not actually found the woman, and that the reason she never agreed to be on camera was because she didn’t exist.

Darn, so the case went cold! The film touches nicely on the topic of trusting strangers. There’s that great moment at the end where the man is sleeping on the dog walker’s shoulder and even after her crazy day, she’s okay with it. Did you have any formative experiences that you wanted to include in this film?

Personally, I used my own social anxiety to figure this out. I’ll have long stretches when I feel the need to lock myself away from other people, or keep my circles very small and specific. This is ultimately helpful for me (selfish), but always results in emerging with my interpersonal skills short-circuiting for about a day. I’ll find it especially difficult to interact with strangers and just people I pass on the street. I thought about what it would be like if I decided not to force myself to leave my small boundaries. What if I emerged after years of purposeful isolation, and I walked around with my nerves on the outside, somewhat incapable of really reading other people. I wanted the lead character to start in this place.

When we first meet her, we see her with a wall up, so we can hold off showing her warmth until she’s around the dog.

With the last shot, I wanted to reverse the opening scene. So we see her as an observer in the beginning, not really engaging with others, but she’s a more involved/functioning part of the world in the end. She’s meant to be less afraid of her world and comforted by the absurdity of everything that just happened. It was important in imagining the end of this story that she have the same realization we all do about what the man will discover when he opens the suitcase. My hope was that the story would continue to play out for the audience, even after the film was done, as it did for me when I first heard it. And mostly, I didn’t want her to feel sorry for herself. She takes care of herself with humor instead of more fear. This has been an important lesson for me too.

The performances from both Sarah and Keith are fantastic. How did you link up with them on this project?

They were great, and I hope I can work with them again soon. I’ve known them both a while and really admired them as people. I had seen Sarah play the geek in a few roles, but in reality she is one of the most confident and vibrant people I have ever met. She doesn’t know a stranger, and has an incredibly good natured sarcasm to her. I knew she would bring balance to the lead, and give us someone to root for.

Sarah and I knew each other from festivals. She was touring around with Clay Jeter’s Jess + Moss at the same time I was touring around with Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine. We actually met while sitting at a table in Wroslaw, Poland, with other attendees at a festival. She kept staring at me while whispering and giggling to Clay — very convenient for my social anxiety. It turned out she just thought I bore a resemblance to Kristen Wiig, which is so flattering, but it was the best set up to cover my own legit fangirl nerves from meeting her.

I met Keith around the same time, outside of his SXSW premiere of Somone Up There Likes Me. He’s so friendly and generous, and he’s exceptional when it comes to listening to people, which makes everyone warm to him immediately. I thought his compassionate ear could play well in this. I couldn’t think of a better match for Sarah in this. I kept thinking of him every time I would sit down to work on this dynamic. With that character, I imagined someone relaxed, who patiently watched for opportunities, rather than premeditating their crimes. I also wanted him to play the character in concurrence with this idea of Sarah’s character not being able to properly read people, giving him an in. I liked the idea that perhaps all the signs of treachery are there, but she is so vulnerable that she can’t see them. Like every romantic comedy ever.

In both cases, I felt comfortable around these people, very quickly. I was nervous about directing, and wanted to work with people that I knew would be open and honest with me. They both gave me so much of their time, and I can’t ever thank them enough.

I love how music plays into the tone of the film. Ominous at the start, frantic in the house and then calming and jovial when the guy is helping the dog walker. Did you play around with a few options? Who did you work with for the score?

Thank you, yes, I wanted to make sure to use music to keep this from lifting up too far into meet-cute territory. I needed the music to help balance the two tones, the dark and the comedy. I was so lucky to work with Mark Degli Antoni for much of the score, who really understood that balance. We talked about the weight of the music, and how it should reflect the lead character’s inner turmoil. Much of the film doesn’t have any dialogue, so music was this great companion for the lead character.

What did you learn shooting this film? Any interesting experiences during production?

I am typically a producer, so this was my first chance to direct after many years of guiding projects for other people. At first, it was a little difficult to separate my producer self from this and focus on directing. But I did have two great producers during production. Dalila Droege and Kho Wong kept things moving all around us.

I originally set this in New York, but being from the Midwest, I quickly changed the location to Chicago. This was partly practical (shooting in NY subways is daunting and I didn’t know the place as well), but I also loved the idea of using the Chicago raised train system. The L provided a perfect story setting, forcing the lead character to struggle up hill in the first part of the story, rather than the end. This gave us room to see the characters bond, and for things to get easier in the journey, literally, as they come together.

The dog that played Bernie was fantastic, and I am now a firm believer in pets at work. She was a sweet old golden retriever, brought to us by Betty Smith, and played dead with chilling accuracy. We cleared the room, for performance for her and for Sarah to break down. But just off camera, Betty would whisper sweetly to Mattie, and the dog would patiently lie still. We had delays for so many other reasons, but never because of Mattie the Dog. My DP, Jack Caswell, came up with so many great ways to compose around Mattie’s breath, too, and still make the audience feel vulnerable with the lead character. That said, I could have sworn Mattie knew how to hold her breath a few times.

I was sick during production, with a pretty persistent cough and fever, so I was taking cold medicine pretty often. I was so careful to avoid things that would tweak me out too much, though. On the last day of filming, I ran out of my usual medicine, so our producers sent our Production Coordinator to pick up a new batch. When he came back, there was a miscommunication in the amount I was given, and he accidentally dosed me. I had never been high off of cold medicine before, so I didn’t recognize it when it first kicked in, but just before we had to do our big single shot of the frantic phone call in the big house, I was definitely accidentally robotripping. I told my producer just after I started seeing light tracers. I did try to play it really cool otherwise. Everything was fine, but I did make the team push through a dozen takes or so. I always wonder if my brief psychedelic state contributes to that scene in any way.

That’s insane! The film elicits a real shocking response. I personally shouted in the theater, “Woah!” What was it like taking this film to all the festivals? Any favorite moments?

I had been to festivals with films that I produced before this, but this was so different. It was incredible to hear an entire theater of people have the exact same response, and to hear everyone catch their breath at the same time. I’ve been proud of films before, but writing and directing something, and hearing a theater full of people enjoying that film together is a truly magical thing. I’ve really enjoyed Q&A’s with the film too, because it is based on an urban legend, and it’s great to hear other people share their versions of the story. I’m so excited for it to be out there more widely!

I also hear you came away with some awards from Sundance. What was it like being a part of that festival? Has it opened any doors?

Yes, Women in Film/Women at Sundance really took me under their wings during the fest. I won the Women in Film/ Women at Sundance Short Film prize, a grant from Kodak, a grant from Technicolor, and a grant from Entertainment Partners. All with the purpose of going towards my next film. There are some incredible photos of me from the event, literally surrounded by giant checks. My new boss was in attendance, and had let me take time to bring the film to Sundance, so a month into our time together I was able to make likely one of the best impressions of my lifetime.

Sundance has always been good to me. They supported me as a Creative Producing Fellow, through their Labs, as well as through their Women’s Initiative Mentorship Program. I’ve been to the festival as a Producer with features, which is an honor but there is so much pressure on everyone in that situation. It’s high stress for the vulnerable directors showing their work, and for the producers trying to insure the film finds a good audience, and sales that will give the film life beyond the festival. So I think after experiencing all of that, being at the festival as a director with a short film felt like a breeze. I did have the occasional anxiety dream in which no one laughed at the jokes, people were angry and offended by the ending, my actors were embarrassed and everyone hated me as a result. The reality was almost my entire cast and crew managed to make it make it to the festival, and I was surrounded by nothing but love from the team. We were celebrated at brunches, and people laughed and hollered at the film, which is beyond our hopes for this whole thing.

I should mention that Sarah came with her then new puppy, Billie. Billie was 3 weeks into a cast for a broken leg, and toured around the festival with the cast and hoodie. Sarah always travels with Billie, and her injury made that even more crucial. The festival did create credentials for the little dog, who also attended our screenings, and became a mascot of sorts for our team. So we stayed with our entire cast and crew in one 2 bedroom hotel room, in Park City, with a dog with a broken leg. It was the farthest from fancy, but it was the best Sundance experience I’ve ever had.

I’ve had a lot of meetings since then, and have met some great people that were interested in me as a director, suddenly. I felt like I was taking such a huge chance in shifting my career to direct, but having the film play at Sundance was more than I had hoped for, and made my leap feel legitimate. It also felt great to tell the cast, crew, and all of our supporters that all their time and energy would be recognized in that way.

What are you working on in now?

I am getting ready to direct a short written by and starring Allison Miller, who starred in my film “Ghosting” for Ray-Ban. This will reunite me with Tom Obed and Jack Caswell, who were the Production Designer and Director of Photography (respectively) for DOGWALKER and GHOSTING. I’ve written a feature script that we’ll set in motion next year. And I work as a Production Executive at Stage 13 — A Time/Warner Digital Network.

Well, we can’t wait to see them. Thanks Kim!

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Originally published at Vimeo.com.

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