Editor’s Note: The following interview was conducted by Andrea Peek at the recent Austin Film Festival. THE DANCING DOGS OF DOMBROVA is currently screening at the Whistler Film Festival.
I caught fellow Canadians Zach Bernbaum (director) and Katherine Fogler (lead actor, Sarah) in the Driskill Bar at the Oscar-contending Austin Film Festival for a fun-filled interview. What follows is the inspiration for the story and many aspects of the creative process. In summary, THE DANCING DOGS OF DOMBROVA is an absurdist drama that follows an estranged sister Sarah and brother Aaron as they travel to Poland at the request of their dying grandmother to retrieve an item from her past.
What’s the film about? What message does this movie communicate to the world? What does it say about family?
Zach Bernbaum: The film is about an estranged sister brother who travel to Poland at the request of their dying grandmother to bring back the remains of her favourite dog from the 1930s. For me, its inspired by my grandmother, by my bubbie, and her story and her history There is a lot of truth in the movie, the characters grandmother is my grandmother, there are things that resonated with me story wise.
Thematically though, it’s about family but more importantly, in a broader sense, it’s about recovery and re-connection.
About going to the other side of the world with, somebody you don’t get along with, and have, you know, shared pain with and conflict with, and through that experience try to become closer.
It was trying to touch upon those themes. I hope that people who see it, take away the fact that, shit happens and that there are some things outside of your control that form wedges between people and family and siblings and parents. And that there is always a way to move forward. There is always the next try, the next try, and next try. And it may take two or three or four or five or six chances but its worth pushing for that to happen.
Katherine Fogler: Everyones relationship with their family is unique and I think it is such a relatable story for that reason. I have a fabulous relationship with my family, I’m very fortunate. But things can be very up and down. Honestly, Zach said it so well, the value of family, and making mistakes and redemption and forgiveness and moving forward by learning more about their past and coming together. It’s really a nice family story.
Up for a Comedy Vanguard award possibly? A serious topic but also ripe for some comedy?
Fogler: Zack calls it an absurdist drama. So yes, these characters are thrown into an absurd situation of collecting the bones of a dog from the 1930s. And hilarity does ensue. With a cast of incredible characters, who run the gambit from super loud and boisterous, to not saying a single word and communicating so much with only a look, like our incredible driver. We were very lucky, the remaining cast is unbelievable. It was such a treat working with them.
Dispel some movie magic; where was it filmed? And what was the inspiration for the tone of the film and for us cinematography nerds, maybe some of the tools that were used to capture the look of the film?
Bernbaum: The movie was was filmed in Romania. Predominantly in the Transylvanian region. We went to Romania because my cinematographer and co-producer Steven Whitehead, had filmed there multiple times, had connections, and people we could trust.
Was it a co-production?
Bernbaum: No it wasn’t actually. We kind of, we went to Romania, kind of like the wild west. That was the reason, the movie is set in Poland so we needed Eastern Europe, that texture, architecture and atmosphere to get the story across. When I started talking to Steve about the movie, very early in the script development stages, he said have you ever thought about Romania. And I said, of course, I haven’t thought of Romania, tell me more and it evolved from there. In terms of cinematography, we shot scenes with K 35 vintage lenses. Made it look beautiful.
It was a dolly shoot, there is no steady cam. There is one scene that utilizes some hand held but a very structured hand held but otherwise the intention was to keep it very fluid, very composed, very Eastern European kind of framing. So, for me, one we’re going overseas, you know, we need to be prepared. And so, I storyboarded the entire movie, I floor-planned the entire movie. I knew where every actor or character, needed to stand in relation to the camera in relation to the set and scene.
I wanted to make sure that we were capturing interesting frames that strengthen and further the story but would fit the tone, as Katherine mentioned, I call it an absurdist drama. There’s comedy, there’s drama. To me it’s not a dramatic comedy. It’s a dramatic story with absurd and off beat, and kind of cooky elements that these character interact with and so wanted to touch upon these bigger ideas, and more dramatic sensibilities through this absurd lens.
About your creative process, seeing how this is a writers’ festival, can you give us a little bit about your approach to acting or how you get the story on the page?
Bernbaum: I came up with the title of the movie after spending time with my grandmother. It’s a fun title. It was a process of sitting with that title and what is it and finally honing on the synopsis and what these characters represented, who they are, and the types of obstacles that they would encounter. Then I reached out to the Michael Whatling, the writer, who I’ve worked with before over a number of years and he was immediately on board. And he and I developed the story and he wrote the script. I’m a director, producer , I’m not a writer, so working with writers and good writers who know the kind of movie they are trying to write and tell and kind of tone to impart to the audience is important. It was a great creative development process with Michael.
Once Katherine and Doug got involved, they gave really insightful and detailed notes, why is my character doing this? Which helped strengthened and clarified the script. Once we got a script we were happy with we would do read throughs with Katherine and Doug. Even in the development stage they were all instrumental in getting the voices and motivations of the characters across and in a clear and cinematic way.
I’m curious how you approach a script.
Fogler: Getting to be part of that process as an actor is awesome. We’re learning from him and he’s learning from us. Zach was so open to conversations and helping us through any questions we would have which was awesome. And the process of looking at a feature film as an actor is huge, it is very daunting and there’s lot to do. Also, it’s exciting because there is an incredible arc that you get to play. And Sarah is such a rich character, she’s so deep, she has so many layers. Outwardly, she is so easy-going, light and playful but underneath there is all this guilt, darkness and sadness. She’s let down her family so many times. And she does need this trip to Poland in so many ways. She’s also struggling with addiction which required a lot of research. Playing her private moments versus her public moments was a treat as an actor. Again this speaks to Michael, who is an amazing writer.
To break down that character even more what was Sarah’s flaws or biggest fear?
Fogler: I went to this amazing talk yesterday, The Nutshell Technique, it spoke about the difference between situations and stories. I have been thinking about this and I should have spoke to Michael more about Sarah’s flaws. And it can’t be an outward thing. So she’s struggling with addiction. But I think she said to look under that. And in the movie, she talks about being looked down upon, her bubbie never looked down on her, so her flaw which would be insecurity. She always had to be the life of the party. She always had to be this person which is why she went to drinking. So, I’m going to say incredible insecurity would be her flaw.
And her biggest fear?
Fogler: Her biggest fear is that she won’t get forgiveness. That this is going to be her life. That she is going to be alone. That she has lost all chances with her family. Is the incredible thing driving her forward.
Can you share who inspires you in terms of filmmaking?
Bernbaum: Del Toro as a visual storyteller. Sam Mendes, wrote ROAD TO PERDITION and remarkable films he has done.
The list goes on and on and on.
Why make movies, what is your drive?
Bernbaum: My drive is to tell stories. I’m a visual person. Even when learning I need to see it. There is something about the visual medium that I connect with.
What are you most proud of with this project?
Bernbaum: What I am most proud of, it is a very personal movie. Their bubbie is my bubbie, and actually using her in the movie, and having pictures of her and video of her. She is currently 97 years old, she is an incredibly sweet and generous and loving woman and Holocaust Survivor, and with the information told about that in the movie is her actual story.
And being able to share that with people and share her with people. And have people watch the movie and say “the grandmother is so cute”. That’s my grandma. There is something very sweet and, just as a director and filmmaker, the ability to share her with an audience is quite lovely.
This is one of the many movies playing at this year’s Whistler Film Festival. For more showtime information and on the festival itself, point your browser to www.whistlerfilmfestival.com!