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. Over lunch in 2003, Melanie Anderson, Director of the Animal Protection Program of the Dallas-based Summerlee Foundation, described the work they were supporting in Mexico. 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 requires.
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 believed theirs was a culture that still gathered in bull rings every Sunday afternoon after church and cheered on a bunch of dorks prancing around in sequined 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 shit 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 disappeared. 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 tend to believe it will not only limit the amount of fun the animal can have but will make them gay--the animal, not its owner.
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 Anderson pointed out numerous people and animal defense organizations and their locations throughout much of Mexico. Filming ended up requiring fifteen excursions into Mexico, two trips to Houston, two to Colorado Springs, one to Vacaville, California and one to Rome.
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.
I believe it was largely Michael Moore who figured out how to make docs that deal with very serious issues informative and entertaining, even comedic. Today, a great many people actually pay to see docs rather than having to be paid or subpoenaed.
Coming out of regional and national TV commercial production in which 35mm film cameras 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 24p 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, the crew filmed several illegal puppy mill operations as well as abusive animal control workers and citizens without incident or interruption.
Neither the subject matter nor many of the places we filmed would be pretty. And 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 rather time-consuming software to adjust tonal and other qualities of the imagery later in post.
I do not believe documentary filmmakers should be held to the same standards our brethren in journalism are. Provided the fundamental truth of a shot, scene, sequence and 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.
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.
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. 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.
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 hordes 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.
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.