Rebecca Stern’s documentary, Well Groomed, chronicles a year in the visually stunning world of competitive and creative dog grooming. Debuting on HBO this month, the film follows the lives of a group of dog lovers whose dedication to transforming their beloved poodles into living sculptures is bold, imaginative and eye-opening.
In this interview with Close-up Culture, Stern tells us about her experience entering this subculture of flamboyant canines and passionate artists.
Q: I hadn’t heard about creative dog grooming competitions until I saw the trailer for ‘Well Groomed’. When did you first encounter this subculture?
A: I first encountered creative dog grooming when I was researching dog trends and groups in New York City about five years ago. I had just started working in documentary film, and I was looking for a fun, uplifting, hopefully easy to produce short film based where I lived. I had gone to a few dog fashion shows around the city, and met some dog publicists but didn’t find anything that fully pulled me in. Then, I saw a picture of creative dog grooming and I instantly had so many questions – first among them was how it was possible that I didn’t know this was a thing. After that, I reached out to a few of the groomers, and the rest just kind of went.
Q: What was your first impression of creative dog grooming and how did that change through the process of making this documentary?
A: My first impression of creative dog grooming really was one of curiosity. I just didn’t know anything about it. Over the process of making the documentary I found an art form that was deeper than I imagined, and a community of women that was much more tightly knit than I could have expected.
Q: Can you talk about the type of the people who are drawn to this subculture? Did you notice a common driving force behind their interest in creative dog grooming?
A: The people that I met were intensely creative dog groomers. Almost everyone who does creative dog grooming is a woman, and most of them aren’t from large cities. I think they all want to be able to express themselves but also need to continue keeping their small businesses successful. They are also INTENSE pet lovers, so I think they want to spend more time with their own pets instead of other people’s (not that they don’t like their client’s dogs too!).
Q: What are the relationships like between the creative groomers and their dogs?
A: The dogs are fully devoted to the women – and also so well trained that I was (am) very jealous given how poorly trained my little puppy is. The dogs look forward to any time spent with the women and the women spend an intense amount of time and energy on their dogs. For instance, Adriane and Gucci are never more than a few feet from each other when Adriane isn’t working – it’s actually pretty funny because if you see Gucci you know for sure that Adriane isn’t far away. And Adriane bought Gucci multiple tuxedos for the film’s premiere at SXSW because she wanted to make sure Gucci put his best foot forward for all his adoring fans (he’s really the cutest).
Q: As a creative person, could you identify with these creative dog groomers in any way?
A: Basically all the ways. When I first met Adriane and Angela I was completely taken by Angela’s mentorship of Adriane and their close friendship and advice. It was something I felt I needed in my filmmaking at the time, and I learned about how to ask questions of a creative collaborator really by watching them work. Then, when we came back to make the feature film, I saw the way the women accepted inspiration from all things in their life, played with experimentation within their designs, and took their craft seriously. All these things became integral to the edit of the film and made the movie better than it could have been.
Q: ‘Well Groomed’ has been acquired by HBO Sports. What does it mean to have the film on this platform?
A: It means so much! How many first time female directors get their film on HBO? I’m floored.
Q: You worked on Matthew Heineman’s ‘Cartel Land’ a few years ago. I think it’s one of the most powerful documentaries of the decade. What are your memories of working on that film?
A: I think it is too. I worked with Matt on the production as a coordinator, so I only saw so much of the action, but Matt took me down to Arizona with him on one shoot and that was really amazing. Not only did I learn a lot watching him and Matt Porwoll work together (they are both cinematographers so they would take turns doing sound and shooting) but it was great to learn more about verite-style filmmaking. Working on the film was definitely hard, but well worth it.
Q: Why were you originally drawn to documentary filmmaking and what has it brought to your life?
A: I never really thought that I would be a documentary filmmaker. I moved to New York City after college thinking that I would live in the city for a summer and then maybe take the LSATs and figure it out from there. But, once I learned about documentaries I got the bug and kept doing it. There’s something about constantly being surrounded by passionate people – either the people you’re filming with or the people of the crew – that really appeals to me. It’s a great way to live, even if it’s not a great way to pay rent!
Q: What are your hopes for the future?
A: Well, right now I’m producing three other films. I’m looking forward to continue producing and directing. I’d like to direct a few commercials and make films with network or streaming partners. Of course, people can keep up with the future of Well Groomed on Facebook and Instagram (@wellgroomedmovie),