Must-See Documentary “Snowy” to Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival

Every November, co-Directors and filmmaking couple Alex Wolf Lewis and Kaitlyn Schwalje celebrate Thanksgiving at Alex’s Aunt and Uncle’s house just outside of Philadelphia. And every November they marvel at the fact that the family’s 4-inch-long pet turtle, Snowy, is still alive.

Snowy has lived an isolated life in the family basement for the past 10+ years with minimal sunlight and no companionship other than that of his primary caretaker, Uncle Larry.

Alex and Kaitlyn’s short documentary “Snowy” is selected to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival 2021. The documentary is both an investigation into animal happiness and an intervention to improve one turtle’s life.

Viewers can expect interviews with Snowy’s veterinarian, the Wolf family, a reptile expert, an animal psychic, and more.

Snowy’s story is a stand-in for the unexamined lives of our house pets such as goldfish, lizards, and guinea pigs.

ABOUT THE DIRECTORS:

Kaitlyn Schwalje is a science journalist and documentary director based in Portland, Maine. She studied physics before pivoting to storytelling. Her work about her disaster-obsessed father, tsunamis, city squirrels, and how archaeology saved the cat appear in Atlas Obscura, National Geographic, and others. Director credits include Snowy (2021 Sundance Film Festival) and The Turkey Relocation Project, currently in production.

Alex Wolf Lewis is a director and DP based in NYC and Portland, Maine. He has traveled the world shooting for Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, Well Groomed, Netflix, CNN, and A&E, among others. Directing credits include Single Room Occupancy (2016 Seattle International Film Festival), Hildegarde’s Piano, and Snowy (2021 Sundance Film Festival).

Congratulations Kaitlyn and Alex for having your Documentary Film “Snowy” selected to showcase and premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival!

What was your first reaction when you found out your film was selected?

Kaitlyn: It’s as close as we’ll come to the feeling Harry Potter had when he got into Hogwarts, minus Hagrid and the invitation letter flying out of the chimney.

Our first reaction was disbelief, complete and utter disbelief. Followed by a close re-reading of the email to double-check it wasn’t a friend playing a cruel trick on us. Then lots of screaming, nausea, and phone calls to our team and family.

What inspired you to become a Filmmaker?

Kaitlyn Schwalje (Director “Snowy”)

Kaitlyn: I made films as a kid. A slasher movie with my cousins starring the family pet rat. A chaotic adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird that featured a ham costume and lighting a miniature house on fire.

After college, I devoured every documentary film I could find. Films off the beaten path about plastic surgery nightmares, dubious cancer treatments, and eccentrics. Then the 7 Up Series absolutely blew my mind. After studying physics, I stayed on the math and science track for a while longer but always worked to fold my interests back in through the lens of storytelling.

A few left turns later, after engineering, design school, and public radio, I landed in journalism and my path back to filmmaking was clear.

Alexander Lewis (Director “Snowy”)

Alex: I had always had a fascination with cameras and camera technology. My best friend growing up (Luciano Vignola, our incredible Emmy award-winning sound designer) and I would spend hours and hours inside B&H (the camera superstore in NYC) dreaming of when we could get our hands on gear like that.

On the weekends we would make short films with my dad’s DV camcorder. Two films sealed the deal for me: the BTS featurette on the Lord of the Rings DVD that showed Peter Jackson scouting the snowy peaks of New Zealand with an army of helicopters and The Life Aquatic by Wes Anderson.

I dreamed of flying around the world with a close-knit team wearing matching tracksuits. We’ve finally got the team, and are only missing the tracksuits now.

Describe your Directing style in 3 words?

Both: Do hyphenated chains of words count? Taking-the-ordinary-and-making-it-extraordinary. (Surely there’s a French or German word for this.)

What are you hoping those who watch take from the film?

Alex: It’s easy to take life for granted. It’s even easier to fall into habits and lose sight of the fact that we’re surrounded by incredible people, each a human-shaped time capsule full of story and experience.

Kaitlyn: We hope audiences are motivated to find a Snowy in their own lives. Even more, we hope they realize that there’s always room to better understand life experiences outside our own, whether it’s your grandmother, neighbor, or your pet turtle.

What do you think is the future of the film industry?

Kaitlyn: In some ways, I think the barriers to entry are lowering. You can film on a cell phone and get a beautiful picture. Kids are now growing up steeped in technology and visual storytelling.

As a result, they’re gathering filmmaking skills younger and younger. I hope this means more diversity behind the camera across all aspects of life. I do wonder if we’ll see future filmmaking prodigies in the way we’ve seen musical and mathematical prodigies of the past. 15-year-olds directing Netflix series. I have faith in the youth despite their obsession with TikTok. Or is it Tik Tok? :)

What are 3 of your favorite movies of all time?

Kaitlyn:

Delicatessen

3-Iron

The Up Series

Alex:

American Movie

The Act of Killing

Nacho Libre

How has filmmaking made an impact on your life?

BTS on set with Alex (Provided Photo)

Alex: Just as making Snowy took us to unexpected places and allowed us to meet and forge relationships with unexpected people, filmmaking has had a similar impact on our lives. The world is a big ball of potential. All these strangers are sitting in their homes, unaware of each other but eager to connect. It’s incredible the lives we all have access to if we just reach out.

Kaitlyn: We’ve been doing more of knocking on the neighbors’ doors to say hi and emailing people whose work and stories we admire. Filmmaking like journalism grants you a license to explore. Or rather we all have the license to explore, but filmmaking just reminds you of the fact.

What was one of the most memorable experiences on the set of “Snowy”?

Kaitlyn: Uncle Larry has the most contagious laughter. That kind of deep belly laughter where all the muscles in your face seize up.

It took time for us to all get it together. The majority of the first day of filming was ruined by this hysterical laughter.

What were some obstacles during your filmmaking journey that resulted in triumph?

BTS on set with Kaitlyn (Provided Photo)

Kaitlyn: If we really wanted to get inside Snowy’s head, chatting with an animal psychic wasn’t going to cut it. We needed a scientist to tell us the limits of our knowledge of the reptilian mind. We wondered: Do they dream? Can they recognize human faces? Do they have a capacity for happiness?

I was initially in touch with Dr. Irene Pepperberg, a renowned scientist known for her work studying animal cognition in parrots. Dr. Pepperberg pointed us in the direction of The Cold-Blooded Cognition Lab run by Dr. Anna Wilkinson over in the UK at the University of Lincoln. And after connecting with Dr. Wilkinson, we knew we had to visit.

Alex: Kaitlyn is more of the dreamer. I was onboard immediately but knew it wouldn’t be easy.

Sure enough, a two-person crew, 6 enormous pelican cases, and a train ride devolved into a scene of us furiously chucking pelicans off the train to make our connection and Kaitlyn almost losing a toenail.

Next time I would opt for renting a car, but we were making the movie on a shoestring budget.

Kaitlyn: It was worth it. The lab was magical. There was an entire room devoted to Dr. Wilkinson’s research turtles.

Wood chips lined the floor, escaped crickets chirped from the corners of the room, and maybe 20 turtles or so with numbered shells roamed around munching on yams and leafy greens.

Why should Sundance attendees watch this film?

Both: Animals are hilarious and adorable. And turtles in particular are blank slates for us to attribute personalities and vivid inner worlds. They’re also these vehicles through which to consider bigger human problems.

The luxury of them being animals is that there’s less at stake. Snowy has the benefit of getting you to think without completely shredding your heart. In these heavy and painful times, we hope Snowy will be a joyful, revitalizing watch.

Who would you like to thank for their involvement in the film?

Both: We’d like to thank our incredible team. Our editors Katharina Stroh and Alexander Heringer of Superteamfancy brought fresh ideas and the film wouldn’t have been the same without them.

Rebecca Stern and Justin Levy, our tireless producers, guided us and continue to guide us on a daily basis through territories that are uncharted for us. Executive Producers Meryl Goldsmith, Dana Nachman, and Cheryl Dillard Staurulakis are all a combination of guardian angels and forces to be reckoned with.

Filipp Kotsishevskiy, our colorist and VFX artist, went above and beyond, working on his days off and in between way better-paying jobs. Luciano Vignola, sound designer extraordinaire and Alex’s childhood friend, has such a well-tuned ear that the film is basically done on the first go-round.

Adam Segal of the 2050 Publicity Group, is a fierce advocate of our short, pushing hard for as many people to see Snowy as possible. Lastly, thank you to the Harnisch Foundation, Cheryl Klauss, and of course, our families, on and off-screen.

What advice would you have for anyone who aspires to become a Filmmaker?

Both: Don’t be discouraged by a first draft. Everyone’s first draft is terrible. The trick is to keep pushing. Don’t hinge the success of your work on how it’s received.

Enjoy the process. Make stuff you know could be better but is a blast to make. The more you make the better you’ll get. Involve your friends. Involve your community. Make costumes. Experiment. Light stuff on fire. Make some trouble.

Any story idea or subject that gets you excited is worth your time. Look for stories in your own life. You often don’t have to go far to find a story, you just have to see what’s in front of you in a new light.

Snowy (Provided Photo)

Keep up-to-date with Snowy, Kaitlyn, and Alex:

Website: www.snowythefilm.com

Instagram: @snowy_the_film

Sundance “Snowy” info HERE.

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Visionary Minds Public Relations and Media Blog

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Tammy Reese is an award winning actress and writer. She currently serves on the Communications Committee for New York Women In Film and Television.

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