In creating their new Netflix docuseries “Dogs,” Glen Zipper and Amy Berg wanted to put something positive into the world at a tumultuous time.
“There is obviously a huge divide in our country right now and there is very little that people on both sides of the aisle agree on [but] dogs are something that everybody can agree on,” Zipper tells Variety. “So we’re just hoping that everybody’s love for dogs is something that can start a conversation.”
As for any documentary, both Zipper and Berg stressed the importance of finding “characters” to follow. Some of theirs just happened to walk on four legs.
“A lot of the stories that we found were more about dogs that did amazing things — sometimes funny things, sometimes cool things — but that wasn’t really the show we were making,” Zipper says. “We were making a show about the bond between human beings and dogs, so what we were trying to do was identify and isolate the stories that spoke the most clearly and definitively about that bond.”
Here, Zipper and Berg talk with Variety about going global in their storytelling and why it was important not to “lead with sadness.”
What came first in casting — finding the dog or finding the human with an interesting story?
Zipper: Our casting agents scoured the world for these stories. They did everything from just searching the internet for stories, sometimes they would do something as granular as looking at local newspapers and talking to people in libraries and local towns and things like that. And usually, the stories — if they were strong enough — were already well-formed. And by that I mean the dog and the human had already been identified together. … The stories had already taken on a life of their own and had already developed a following, even if it was on a local basis.
What went into the decision to travel the world for the show and feature a combination of dogs that are deeply bonded to their humans and dogs that need to find homes and those bonds?
Berg: I had seen an image of a schoolhouse that has I think 800 dogs that had been abandoned in Syria, so when we started talking about casting and what shows we wanted to do, I was already interested in that world. I looked at this show as an opportunity to not only highlight our love for dogs but also to enter worlds where you might not get such easy access through another way into the story — because everyone’s love of dogs unites us, hopefully. I had been traveling the world for other shows I’d been working on over the years and I had run into pretty incredible people that were doing incredible work with dogs, and so the international aspect was really attractive to me. … When [Glen] first brought this story to me, the criteria that he gave me before we even started talking about the individual episodes was he said he wanted this show to be everyone’s favorite show. So we were definitely looking for things that would have a strong payoff in the journey of production.
Zipper: We wanted a diversity of stories. It would have been very easy to have six service dogs stories, but we wanted to find different ways to speak to the bond in different episodes.
Were you actively trying to avoid stories that might have a sad ending?
Zipper: If you go back to the days before I transitioned to being a producer, in my days of being a prosecutor working in animal rescue, one of the first things I discovered when I started volunteering in animal shelters was the worst thing you can do in order to bring people into the shelter was to lead with sadness. You know, “This dog’s not going to make it if you don’t help,” that sort of thing where things are so desperate — because people just don’t want to confront that kind of crushing sadness. So what we would do, we’d dress the dogs up in these “Adopt me” vests and make sure they had a bath and looked great and we’d take them into town where people could engage with them in their own environment. And we used some of that lesson in the making of this show. We wanted to not lead with sadness; we wanted to invite as many people into this tent to celebrate the bond between human beings and dogs. The important messaging of animal welfare and animal population and other issues confronting our beloved pets were best served by bringing people into the tent through compelling stories but not sadness.
Did you have to police this in the editing stage by leaving out some footage you shot that was more sensitive or sadder than you wanted the overall tone to convey?
Berg: Nothing more than just normal storytelling in the editing. We were pretty strong in the casting department, and when you’re making a series as opposed to making a long-form documentary feature, you have a limited amount of days in the edit suite, so you have to be careful about what you’re shooting. So no, there wasn’t much censoring. Our stories played out. Some of them had some surprises…but they played out pretty close to how we hoped they would.
What is an example of something that took you by surprise when you were in production?
Berg: I think the most obvious example would probably be [Episode 5] because it was so far away in Costa Rica and we had seen these beautiful images of 1200 dogs running in the fields together and just the joy of that, but I don’t know that we understood the challenges faced by the rescue group. But then those challenges turned into a really beautiful surprise with the human story of that. … These dogs were such strong characters — they were better than some of the adult characters in our documentaries. We had really strong dogs, and they just kept surprising us in our actions on set.
Zipper: Telling these stories with dogs was also an entryway into telling stories of people and families so even if you’re not a dog lover you could watch this show and really connect with the people. … We just had to situate ourselves to be nimble because it’s hard enough to predict what human beings are going to do, and I think it’s impossible to predict what dogs are going to do. So our directors had to be prepared for the unexpected.
Amy, as a director on a couple of the episodes, did you find your approach to the visual style was different because you had to take into consideration the eye-level and unpredictability of the canine subjects?
Berg: When we were even developing the deck, we had this thing called “Dog World”…getting into the POV of the dog and shooting it sometimes at 60 frames per second and just trying to capture [a] moment from both sides. We did a lot of research into the dog-human bond and we discovered that there’s a study out of Japan that they’ve linked this dog-human gaze to the same hormone that’s released when a mother is nursing her child: oxytocin. And we really wanted to try to capture that bond as best as possible. … So that was really important for each director to understand those visuals and try to capture that when they were out shooting their episodes.
The final two episodes of the season feature dogs that need homes — from a sanctuary in Costa Rica to those rescued by Hearts and Bones in New York. What do you want to do to encourage those around the world to take in dogs like these and develop bonds like the ones featured in the show?
Zipper: We anticipate the show will do a lot of that heavy-lifting itself and our audience will be self-activating. That being said, one of our goals was always to form a community around this show — a family — and once we do have that community we certainly will put them in the right direction.
Berg: Each one of these episodes has a specific organization to point towards and that will be easily accessible for the audiences and we hope that all of those organizations get a lot of support and dogs get rescued.
The organizations “Dogs” will point to are 4 Paws for Ability, Animals Syria/Cat Connect, Ittiturismo Restaurante Mella, Groom Expo West, Territorio de Zaguates and Hearts and Bones.
“Dogs” streams Nov. 16 on Netflix.