Artist interview: documentary filmmaker Eryn Wilson
Dog’s Best Friend is a documentary film that follows the journey of one man and his life's work, to rehabilitate man's best friend, one dog at a time. Filmmaker Eryn Wilson captures the complex relationship that Jacob Leezak has with the dogs in his care using observation and insight. He lets Jacob lead the story about the Canine Behaviour Expert Dog Psychology Centre and has produced a tender and personal film. I caught up with Eryn using the miracle of modern communication technology and began by asking him…
The film has been described as a film about love – the presence and the absence of it. Would you agree? How early in the process did you identify that love would hold the narrative together?
I do agree, however it wasn’t a conscious thing. I got fixed on the idea pretty early on that Jacob my protagonist is saving everyone: Dogs, staff, his wife, you name it! And the more time I spent with Jacob and his wife Jennah, the more I realised the film was equally about them, not just the pups. Yes the presence/absence of love is absolutely there in the film, but that’s wasn’t in the forefront of my mind.
How much did you let Jacob and his Canine Behaviour Expert Dog Psychology Centre guide the narrative and how much did you have an idea of the story that you wanted to tell before you got into production and post-production?
This was my first feature anything! I was pretty green. I approached the filming with a keen genuine interest in the man. And I knew I wanted to celebrate the work he did in working with troubled dogs. A mentor of mine told me to have a plan and hope for magic. And so, I did two master interviews with Jacob onsite. I asked him every conceivable question I had. From there I knew I could use much of what he said as voiceover. I could also explore visually other topics I found interesting. It just so happened that stories like his ex-military background and his wife’s tragic backstory had so many connections and parallels with the dogs and their misfortune, the obvious connections were there for the taking and the film really did come together in the edit. The “love” themes bubbled up in the edit too.
How did you first come across Leezak and identify that there was a film to be made about the Canine Behaviour Expert Dog Psychology Centre?
My mum texted me about “this guy who does amazing work with dogs…” I was looking for my first project to direct. I studied what Jacob was doing. I loved what I saw. I thought “Hell yeah, I’m gonna make a doco!” I emailed him. It was that straight forward. That fast.
You funded this film primarily through crowdfunding, is that right? Why did you decide to go down that road?
I didn’t want to be told NO by any funders. I was aware that might crush my energy and enthusiasm for the project. I also knew deep down that if I could find people out there who loved dogs, they’d give me a buck or two towards making it. Not without a slick Kickstarter campaign though...
[for those of you planning on setting up your own campaign you can take a look at Eryn’s successful Kickstarter campaign here… https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/erynz/dogs-best-friend]
The film is getting a very warm reception from audiences in New Zealand and Australia do you have plans to take it to other countries too?
There are definitely plans to get it out around the world more. Easier said than done though. But I’m chipping away at it constantly. Film distribution is a whole other beast.
What do you think people are responding to in the film?
I think they’re responding to the problem-dogs profiled in the film. Audiences also love Jacob’s pack who help him with rehab. The love themes talked about above, resonate. Also, the simplicity of the film. I’m very much a fly on the wall kinda director. My skill I realise, is in my genuine curiosity and ability in unlocking the people to share a piece of themselves with me.
You recently did a Facebook live session with Leezak and his wife Jennah, how did that go? Do you intend rolling out some more ways to engage directly with your audience?
Yeah, the live thing was great. Jennah is hilarious especially. Such a colourful woman, heart and mind. Engaging with your audience is a bloody hard thing to do I’ve found. In the Facebook world, with algorithms and all that, anything short of paid ad placement is hard. The Facebook page followers know all about it so it’s important to be saying something new. Always got the thinking cap on with that one. Happy to receive any advice or tips!
Did making this film make you question what you thought you knew about dogs?
It certainly confirmed a lot of things. The biggest thing though was as a film maker. Whilst we were looking to capture footage of dogs pre-therapy, with problems. Whenever they arrived at Jacob’s house, they were often unremarkable to film. I realise that just like humans, a dog’s problem is often in its head. That’s when I quickly realised this film couldn’t ONLY be about dogs, and it’s not. And so, I always say, doglovers love the film but it’s not necessary to love dogs to love the film. That’s certainly been the feedback and my experience.
How did you decide who you wanted on your team to make this film?
I have a cameraman friend James, who has never said NO to me, so I knew he’d be in, lol. He’s also a great cameraman and a bloody nice guy to be around. And I recorded the sound. I shouldn’t have but we had no extra money to pay a sound person every time we flew NZ-AUS to shoot. I knew what I was doing but I wouldn’t do it again. It was difficult listening for the sake of hearing the quality of the audio. I needed to be able to concentrate on listening for the sake of content, conversation and connection with my doco subjects. Does that make sense?
If there was one thing you would tell someone to get them off the couch and into a theatre to see the film what would it be?
If you’ve ever had a dog in your life, you’ll love this film. And if you hate dogs, you especially need to see it.
Do you have any documentary projects in the pipeline?
YES!!! I start shooting my next documentary this July, based here in New Zealand. I can’t say what it’s about other than it’s not about animals.
Finally, what advice would you give to a young filmmaker hoping to get into documentary making?
Ask yourself, “What are you genuinely curious about?” Then, just start! Oh, and record professional sound! You can shoot on your phone, whatever you like. An audience will WATCH anything. But we won’t tolerate bad sound. That’s the difference between amateur and professional. But yeah, just get out there and begin.