Looking back over my 35 years in this line of work, Companions to None was the longest running, most complicated and emotionally difficult project I ever took on. Had I known in mid 2003 what I know today, I might have paid little attention to Melanie Lambert, Director of the Animal Protection Division of the Dallas-based Summerlee Foundation, describe the work they were supporting in Mexico. I'm glad I did pay attention. She also posited the idea of making a documentary film about the companion animal overpopulation and abuse crisis there and the struggle to overcome it. It was her hope that a major documentary film, broadcast in Mexico and elsewhere, would help spark a fundamental change in the way Mexicans view animals, raise their awareness of the importance and benefits of sterilizing their pets and define what responsible pet ownership means.
At that time, I was doubtful a film or anything else could make a difference in Mexico regarding how they viewed and treated animals. I then believed this was a culture that still gathered in the Colosseum (bull ring) every Sunday afternoon after church and cheered on a bunch of dorks prancing around in sequined, condom-tight ballet costumes tormenting and stabbing bulls to death. How could a society that considered the ritualized torture of animals an art form be persuaded to ever give a damn about the welfare of mere dogs and cats?
However, as I learned more about the extent and severity of Mexico's pet overpopulation and abuse crisis and of the many dedicated people fighting to make life better for these luckless animals, my cynicism waned. I also discovered that bullfighting in Mexico had been in decline for decades because of a worsening economy, and that a rapidly increasing number of Mexicans were sickened by the bloody brutality of it. In fact, I was told that about the only Mexicans still getting off on it were the wealthy; most of whom still refuse to have their pets sterilized, especially male pets. They believe it will not only limit the amount of fun the animal can have but will make them (the animal) gay.
What really moved me to want to do the film was reading Ruth Icazebaleta's heartrending short story, "Diary of an Abandoned Dog," which depicts the sad, short life of a dog born in a loving home, eventually thrown out, run over and killed; a scenario shared by millions of abandoned dogs and cats in Mexico if not first caught and later brutally killed in a Mexican dog pound.
With funding by the Summerlee Foundation in place, I set out to make what would become essentially a foreign language film, and I didn't speak the language. Of the 60 interviews I filmed over the course of the production--some sit down, others spontaneous man-on-the-street, about 35 were with Spanish-speaking men and women. Though an interpreter was present during all interviews to both ask my questions and relate the responses to me, I'm certain being unable to ask instantaneous follow-up questions limited my ability to draw out a given Spanish-speaking person's more deeply held thoughts and feelings in many cases. Nevertheless, I ended up with over 500 single-spaced pages of transcribed and translated commentary.
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK
Having studied and witnessed Mexico's companion animal overpopulation and abuse crisis for several years, Melanie Lambert pointed out numerous people and animal defense organizations and their locations throughout much of Mexico. She also provided a lot of background material on the extent and nature of the crisis and how the Mexican government and animal defense groups were dealing with it. After mulling over that information and mining the Internet, I had a pretty good idea of the story to be told and the extent of filming it would require. It ended up requiring fifteen excursions into Mexico, two trips to Houston, two to Colorado Springs, one to Vacaville, California and one to Rome, Italy.
The story as I envisioned it would have two parts, each part covering a number of related issues. Part 1 would include a brief history of dogs (and to a lesser extent cats) in Mexico, why their numbers became and remain critically excessive and the consequences they suffer as a result. It would include an examination of their role in the culture and how it views and treats them, the human health issues the situation causes and the methods used by city, state and federal government agencies to deal with the problem.
Part 2 would take a look at what Mexican and American animal welfare/defense workers and organizations are doing to solve the problem, the various methods and philosophies they apply, the nature, extent and sources of the resistance they face, their relationship with government officials, what if any progress they've made and what the future might be.
HOW TO SHOOT IT
While they usually examined relevant, worthwhile topics, I had sat (or slept) through numerous observational documentaries over the years that were cinematically little more than illustrated lectures. Companions to None would be an observational doc. My greatest fear was that I would make a film during which viewers slapping their faces to stay awake was mistaken for applause, or that when it was over the audience would rise in thunderous ovation because it was over.
Oliver Stone, a producer, writer and director whose intellect, talent and body of work I greatly admire, made a doc titled Persona non Grata that aired on HBO in 2003. Because he never got the interview, the film ended up being about Stone's desperate attempt to get an interview with Yassar Arafat during a particularly violent moment in the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Though critics generally panned the hell out of the film, I thought it was stylistically an inspired piece of documentary filmmaking. He apparently violated any number of documentary filmmaking rules held sacred by many documentary purists, perhaps some of the same folks bothered by Michael Moore's approach. As an aside, I believe it was largely Moore who figured out how to make docs that deal with very serious issues informative and entertaining, even comedic. Now, a great many people actually pay to see docs rather than having to be paid or subpoenaed.
Though I did not want to ape Stone's style and approach in Persona non Grata, I thought certain aspects of it might well serve my film, in particular his use of three or four roving, visible-to-the-audience cameras covering sit-down interviews and other activities. In my view, this style not only gave you a strong sense of immediacy, but you sensed the pressure and frustration he and his crew were feeling throughout the film. Multiple cameras trained on the same person also enable cutting to other angles to punctuate a particularly important word or phrase or expression.
The budget for Companions to None did not allow for such extravagance considering the scores of interviews I needed for the film. So I went with only two cameras: one on sticks, one roving and both on the interviewee on almost every sit-down interview.
Having come out of regional and national TV commercial production in which 35mm camera systems are the norm, and later with BetaSP cameras for corporate-sponsored documentaries, I was reluctant to even consider using one of those toy-sized DV cameras for this project. How could anything that tiny produce a broadcast-quality image? Nevertheless, I shot some tests with Panasonic's little DVX100 camcorder. I was stunned by the image quality it produced and decided to go with it. Filming at 24fps progressive would help provide the look I wanted. Unlike large and heavy film or BetaSP cameras, it would not bring attention to itself or to the crew. That was critically important, because we would need to film in places where we would not want to be noticed. In fact, with that camera and dressed like tourists, we filmed several illegal puppy mill operations as well as abusive animal control workers and citizens without incident or interruption.
Since stray dogs, alone or in packs, are almost constantly on the move, the camera's light weight and maneuverability enabled excellent coverage of these restless, wary animals at their eye level. I cringe every time I see motion footage or a still of a dog or cat shot with the camera looking down on them. Unless dramatically or otherwise justified, it's a sorry, amateurish angle.
Neither the subject matter nor the things and places we filmed would be pretty. The last thing I wanted was a pretty film. While Mexico features many breathtakingly beautiful places both natural and constructed, most of the areas in which this story takes place would not be mistaken for Beverly Hills. Lacking the resolution, latitude and color depth of film, HD or even BetaSP, the unfiltered image quality produced by the DVX100 still had the slick, sanitary look of videotaped news footage or soap operas. Shooting at 24P helped reduce those qualities but not completely eliminate them. The only practical solution was to use some lens filtration and rather expensive, time-consuming software to "dirty up" the imagery later in post.
Just as many of those in college in the late 60s/early 70s believed in Better Living Through Chemistry, filmmakers of all stripes today believe in Better Imagery Through Software. In addition to basic color, brightness and contrast corrections, every shot in Companions to None had its tonal and other qualities altered to give it a more Mexican atmosphere, though not to the extent Steven Soderberg did in his film, Traffic. This added a great deal of time to the postproduction process, and I don't care.
I'm a bit of a contrarian regarding image and sound manipulation in documentaries. I do not believe that documentary filmmakers should be held to the same standards our brethren in journalism are. I know of no rule that says the imagery and sound in documentary films cannot be manipulated to enhance a shot's impact or a scene's mood if the filmmaker so chooses. Provided the fundamental truth of a shot, scene, sequence and an entire film remains intact, documentary filmmakers should be free to do whatever they can to make their work more visually and audibly compelling. I certainly tried with this film.
Other than for most sit-down interviews, 99% of the filming was accomplished handheld. This was as much a necessity as a creative choice. Having little to no control over what or where we were filming, there was simply no time to put the camera(s) on sticks and get the shot. Nervous, frightened and alert street dogs - like illegal immigrants in the U.S. - have an aversion to cameras near or pointed at them. Even when filming in "antirrabicos" (Mexican dog pounds) where there was some degree of control in that the dogs were in cages, shooting handheld was the only practical choice.
With the exception of the dog-catching and spay-neuter clinic sequences, I used only one camera/camera operator (myself). Typically a creative and logistical choice, I find it quicker and the results more to my liking to operate the camera, as I typically did shooting TV spots. The downside: I don't later have anyone to blame for my mistakes.
Though not all, Companions to None deals with some very ugly stuff. So, how does one who cannot bear to see or hear an animal being mistreated or in pain film and later edit such horrific material? You (try to) disconnect your sensibilities and concentrate on filming and cutting it as best you can. Even though during the filming the desire was there to intervene and use a baseball bat on the person causing the suffering and/or death of innocent creatures, I had to keep in mind that the result of this work would in the future help spare many thousands of animals from a similar fate. That said, all of the godawful things I witnessed will stay with me forever.
Making documentaries is all about research, discovery, getting access to and filming places, things and people relevant to the subject matter and the story to be told. They are largely created and given life in the editing room; a dimly lit place whose purpose is not unlike that of Dr. Frankenstein's lab. More often than not, the result is an equally flawed monster.
The postproduction process for Companions to None was monumentally complex, time and labor intensive. Pouring over 500 pages of English and Spanish interviews and choosing comments to flesh out a complicated story outline took over a month. Going back into the original camera footage to find and digitize those comments took almost two months. The English comments were easy to find, select and digitize. The Spanish comments were not. Many Spanish-speaking people do not speak in sentences. They speak in paragraphs. If not for my two bilingual assistant editors, Dubelza Buitrón and Andrea Bey, I would still be trying to pinpoint and digitize the exact phrases I had selected in the translated transcripts.
In his or her first venture into long-form fiction or non-fiction filmmaking, rarely does a director with a background in TV commercial production not let the editing get in the way of the story. I can't stand to watch my first few corporate-sponsored docs, because I cut them like a TV spot. Michael Bay's Armageddon is almost impossible to watch and be engaged by, because he once claimed that not one shot in the film is on the screen more than 2 seconds. As editor of Companions to None, I did my best not to get in the way of the story, yet keep it moving as quickly as possible.
Prior to this project, my general perception of Mexico and Mexicans was unduly influenced by quick round-trip visits to a lively area in Nuevo Laredo during my late teens; a rite of passage of sorts for young gringos growing up in San Antonio, Texas. Border towns like Nuevo Laredo, Juarez or Tijuana are hardly representative of Mexico's interior, yet many Americans believe them to be. What they do share with the rest of Mexico are the hoards of starving, disease-ridden stray dogs and cats roaming their streets and alleys.
Filming in many of Mexico's historically and culturally rich villages and cities, I met and worked with some of the most polite, generous and personable men and women anywhere. With few exceptions, the crews I hired in various Mexican cities were competent, hardworking professionals.
The dedicated, tireless men and women (mostly women) involved in animal defense work in Mexico provided valuable information and access to themselves and their activities. One of the interview questions I asked of those involved in animal work in Mexico was, "Knowing that what you are doing is not going to make any appreciable difference in the foreseeable future, what keeps you going?" The response most often heard was, "If I can help alleviate the pain and suffering of just one animal, then it's worth it."
As any documentary filmmaker might conclude, every project is a wonderful and terrible journey filled with pleasant and unpleasant discoveries. They are essentially an exhilarating, stressful, frustrating, satisfying, chaotic and sometimes dangerous search for the truth, that when presented will have a positive impact on viewers, their culture and perhaps the world. At least we hope so. Four years is an exceptionally long time to spend non-stop on a single film. But if Companions to None helps even a few folks better understand how important it is we take better care of not only our most loyal companions, but all non-human life, it was worth it. That said, quite a lot of time must pass before I shoot another doc that involves barking dogs or people speaking in a language I don't understand.