Dana Nachman and Don Hardy

Documentary filmmakers
Dana Nachman and Don Hardy

Music Credits: “Foreric: Piano Study” composed and performed by Todd Barton from the ep Metascapes, courtesy of Valley Productions, 2005

Dana Nachman: You know, I think we all feel this human-canine connection, all of us who have dogs and how much that could touch your life, and does touch my life, and I know Don’s life. So taking that relationship into the theatre and watching and then seeing how extraordinary this relationship could be between the dog and the visually impaired person I think is amazing. But it also is a personal story to anybody who’s ever loved a dog or a cat.

Jo Reed: That is Dana Nachman she is co-director with Don Hardy of the prize-winning documentary Pick of the Litter and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. As a long-time dog-lover, it was a no-brainer that I would choose to see Pick of the Litter at AFI’s 2018 documentary film festival. The litter in question is one of Labrador retrievers that are bred by Guide Dogs for the Blind or GBD for the specific purpose of becoming service animals. Filmmakers Dana Nachman and Don Hardy decided to follow a litter through the two year process: from birth to their graduation and assignment to a person who’s visually impaired…assuming the dogs make the cut. Not all of them will make it through the rigorous training. And we’re with them every step of the way. We watch the pups grow from their time with puppy raisers, who are selfless people like foster parents caring for the young dogs only to give them back to GDB after a year for the dog’s more intensive training. There we see how a guide dog is trained, what’s expected of him or her, the extraordinary skill of the trainer and the dog, and the life-changing difference these dogs will make in the lives of visually-impaired people. This is the fourth documentary Dana Nachman and Don Hardy have co-directed together and when I spoke with them, I wanted to know how they chose the topic.

Don Hardy: Guide Dogs for the Blind is an organization we’ve known about for a while. In our previous career as journalists we worked here in the San Francisco Bay area and did a couple of short stories on the organization that’s based in Marin County. So it was, you know, close to where we were working, and so we’d go up there and cover them. We’re big dog people, so we loved what they did, and we thought back then, and this is in 2003, 2004 era, we thought they’d make for a good documentary, but we weren’t there in our careers yet and didn’t quite know how to do it, I guess, and then when we went out on our own to make documentaries it was a project that was forgotten about a little bit. It was just one of those ideas that gets left in the dust. Until we were at a film festival with another project and the idea came up and it was something that Dana’s mom who’s a print journalist in the New York area had done a similar series about this, following a group of puppies, and we’re like, “Wow. That could be a great way to crack the code on this and make an interesting documentary.”

Jo Reed: Do you mind just walking us very quickly through all the steps these dogs have to go through before they become certified as Guide Dogs for the Blind?

Dana Nachman: Sure. They’re born at Guide Dogs for the Blind campus, and they get held and petted every day and loved by volunteers. What a hard volunteer job that is. They stay there for about two months then they go out to puppy raiser families and they stay there for about 12 to 16 months, where they learn all the fundamentals of dog training, sit, stay, and much beyond that. These are the best-behaved dogs you’ve ever seen, and then they go back to the Guide Dogs for the Blind campus where they get trained for eight to 10 weeks, and each week they’re cut if they don’t perform well, and then they have two extra weeks where they’re matched with visually impaired or blind people and then they go off to meet with their people and they get trained together for a time. I think-- was it a couple weeks? And then if all goes well, they graduate.

Jo Reed: Dogs who don’t make the cut or are career changed, as GDB calls it, are either adopted or most likely sent to other organizations as service dogs because GDP is very particular in the way it trains its dogs. You demonstrate this and the importance of it in the prologue to the film. Tell me about the prologue.

Dana Nachman: Sure, so we set up the film with about a minute of testimonials from visually impaired and blind people about how their dogs save their lives

*Film excerpt from Pick of the Litter *

Dana Nachman: That’s the end result. All of these things, these cute dogs are going to be born in a second, and you’re going to see these fluffballs, but in the end, they hold people’s lives in their hands and people, a lot of people, have told me they cry at the first minute, and I was like, “Okay, good.” Then I gotcha’.

Don Hardy: It’s working if you’re crying in the prologue.

Jo Reed: I did. But, I also thought it was really smart, because it sets out, “This is what’s at stake.”

Dana Nachman: That was our total intention because that is the most amazing thing and I think the thing that got both Don and I when we, you know, even when we didn’t know the word, but these dogs, they study this, dogs study, they train in this concept called intelligent disobedience. They are trained to obey pretty much 100 percent of the time until maybe in their careers there will be one moment where they have to disobey their owner. So the owner, the blind person, will say, “Go forward, go left, go right, halt” because they’ve done a lot of mobility training. They know where they are going they just need someone to help them get them there, a dog to get them there. So, there might be one time in their lives or several times in their lives where they are disoriented and they’re going to walk into a train track or they’re going to walk across a street when they shouldn’t and this dog has to know that very second to disobey, and that’s what really sets these dogs apart from any other dog, and we wanted to …

Don Hardy: Show those stakes right off the bat.

Jo Reed: You chose to follow one litter of dogs basically from birth to graduation, fingers crossed that they make it.

Dana Nachman: Yes, we did it all.

Jo Reed: That was a risk. Because--

Dana Nachman: Oh, God, yeah.

Jo Reed: Suppose nobody graduated. I mean, suppose all the dogs got cut. Then where would you have been?

Dana Nachman: We’re just-- we’re kind of idiotic. Like, we don’t know what we were doing.

Jo Reed: Did you have a Plan B?

Dana Nachman: Well, I think we told ourselves that it would be fine because they would go off to other organizations if they didn’t make the cut at Guide Dogs, and we were equally worried, I think, that none would make it and all of them would make it. Because what if they were all perfect? That would be kind of a boring 90 minutes. So we were worried in general, but we kind of just tried to keep that at bay and continue on. There were a couple sleepless nights but... All in all it was okay.

Don Hardy: Yeah. I mean, I guess in a perfect world we would’ve watched the whole process for one round with a litter of puppies and then probably gone back and determined, “Well, we need to follow three litters from the beginning and figure out the one with the best chance for success,” but we didn’t do that. We actually asked them for a litter that would maybe be born in August or September. And it turned out our litter was born in June, which was an incredibly inconvenient time for us but...

Dana Nachman: We had two movies coming out in June of 2015, and they said, you know, “We have this perfect litter we think is going to be great. Can you come up on Tuesday?” and we’re like, “All right,” and we scrambled a bit. We scrambled and did it.

Jo Reed: You had made other films and then you had talked about this idea that you had been kicking around for a while. How did you even begin? How did you approach the organization and then choose the appropriate subjects?

Dana Nachman: I started the research and I reached out. We live in the San Francisco Bay area and we wanted it to be as local as possible, so we reached out to I think three or four service dog organizations. We had worked with Guide Dogs for the Blind before but we were just trying to kind of canvass around and see what the different options were, and in the end we did choose Guide Dogs for the Blind because they had a great infrastructure. It was kind of chaotic to plan this two years of shooting. You know, we have puppies. They’re all going to different places, they’re all doing different things. It’s like having five main characters who can’t speak for themselves or make their own decisions, and we needed an organization that was going to have a good infrastructure, and so that’s why we chose Guide Dogs for the Blind.

Jo Reed: And did they then introduce you to puppy raisers and to possible recipients for the dogs?

Don Hardy: Yeah. They did a lot to help us get this thing going, and probably the greatest of which was trust right off the beginning, and they’d seen our previous work and they gave us amazing access, and that’s truly what makes, I think, makes this documentary so special is we show it from beginning to end, and they do a lot of planning along the way and look at what dogs could be paired with what people and there’s a waiting list of people waiting for dogs, so all through it they helped us find the right puppy raisers and then ultimately find the right visually impaired people that would work well with our dogs that make it that far to get to the point of being paired. So, it ended up being a lot of communication with them and them being very willing to just allow us in and, yeah, I can’t thank them enough for that.

Dana Nachman: The access was unbelievable, and I mean, they did casting really for us, which was amazing. They were very good casting agents and it was the first time that they ever participated in a film, so they did a great job on that. They found the right puppy raisers, they found the right people to get the dogs in the end, and we, you know, we were so happy.

Don Hardy: Even the right litter from the very beginning. They really thought it through, and they can look at the history of the mom and the dad and their success rates and, yeah, I think we got very lucky.

Jo Reed: Those dogs have so many human helpers along the way. And that also meant that all of those people had to let you in as well. Was there any-- pushback is the wrong word because I don’t quite mean anything that strong, but boundaries set by either GDB or any of the raisers? Because you were actually in their homes.

Dana Nachman: Yeah. I assume, and actually, we’ve never asked them this. We should ask them. They only brought people to us that were okay with being filmed, so we did not have any pushback. I mean, we had to do a lot of hand holding, like, “Hey, when something happens we need to know about it before it happens,” but that happens with any documentary where you have to explain that we really need to be there when things are authentically being decided rather than after the fact, and that happens I think in most of the films that we’ve worked on. It just takes some training on what documentary filmmaking needs, you know, but I’m sure they got frustrated with us. I mean, we are annoying. It was the rainiest season ever in San Francisco Bay area and we had to walk around in the rain a lot and ask them to do it longer and more. So I’m sure it was frustrating but they all treated us very nicely.

Don Hardy: Yeah, I think everybody along the way believed so deeply in the mission of Guide Dogs for the Blind that here comes these couple of goofballs with cameras that want to try to tell that story, and they embraced it, “Finally somebody’s going to be able to show on film what I’ve been saying all along,” and they’re going to, “We’re going to, be able to say, ‘See, look. I’m not nuts for standing out in the rain with my dog,’” And for the, yeah, bringing these little puppies in and then having to give them back, you know, and going through all of those emotions. So I think everybody just embraced it for that reason.

Jo Reed: Right. It’s a passion project for everybody.

Dana Nachman: Right.

Don Hardy: Yeah.

Jo Reed: Now, other than filming a litter from birth to graduation, did you have any other plans about how you were going to shape the story?

Dana Nachman: Not really. It was such an interesting or easy kind of narrative structure. I think our biggest challenge was how to pare it down. So we way overshot. I mean, we shot 120 days at, like, four hours a day.

Jo Reed: I mean, how do you turn the camera off on a puppy?

Don Hardy: Well, yeah, and you don’t know, especially when they get back for the main training back at the Guide Dog’s campus. You don’t know when those little moments are going to occur when a dog either does really great or does something wrong. So you just have to keep shooting, and there were a lot of moments where we were, you know, talking on the phone as we were making the drive up there for another day of shooting. We were wondering like, “When do we stop? When are we done shooting?” But I think you just have to go through that process and document it all.

Jo Reed: Did the puppy raisers all live in the Bay area?

Dana Nachman: No, unfortunately they did not, and we-- that was something we did not anticipate. We thought that all of them would be in the Bay area, and then it turned out that I think Guide Dogs wanted to showcase that they go all over the West Coast, which we did not anticipate. So one of the dogs was in Seattle area, one was in Portland, one was in L.A., and two were in the Bay area.

Jo Reed: Oh. That was a lot of logistics, and of course you wanted to be there when a raiser got a phone call about whether their puppy was going to make the cut.

Dana Nachman: Yes. It made it somewhat difficult, and the funniest part was-- we don’t want to give away too many spoilers-- but one of the dogs who was in another city, who shall remain nameless, was constantly on the verge of being cut, and so we were like, “How many more times? He better get cut this time,” because we kept going up there, you know thinking he’s going to be cut and then one of us would go and then the other one would be like, “Wait, did it happen?” and it’d be like, “Nope.”

Jo Reed: Did you interact at all with the dogs?

Dana Nachman: Well, Don has a favorite dog and I have a favorite dog.

Jo Reed: And I have a favorite dog.

Dana Nachman: Oh, we always ask people. Which is yours?

Jo Reed: Phil.

Don Hardy: Team Phil all the way.

Dana Nachman: That’s Don. Oh, so we like to have a fight on social media, if you want to join our fight. So, I’m Team Patriot personally.

Jo Reed: You know, I could go back and forth, but it was Phil, and then I really like Primrose a lot.

Dana Nachman: She’s so pretty, yeah.

Don Hardy: Yeah. Primrose’s puppy raiser is outside of Seattle, and I made that trip a lot, and just spent great time with them. They’re a wonderful family, and seeing Primrose grow and, yeah, she is a very, very sweet dog, and then Phil, of course. How do you not like a dog named Phil?

Jo Reed: Exactly.

Don Hardy: But they were all, you know, five wonderful dogs that we bonded with. We were there right from the beginning with them and they certainly knew us through, and still do, and we, you know, we’ve been out screening the film a bit and a few of the dogs have come to screenings, and so we get to catch up and then we stay in touch with the people that have them now as well and do our check-ins.

Jo Reed: Yeah. I was also going to ask you about your interaction with the human subjects as opposed to the canine ones.

Dana Nachman: You know, I think one thing that makes our films a little different is that we do a lot of the work so it’s generally me with a camera, or this one Dana and I both had cameras in our hands a lot. But it’s really just the two of us for a lot of the filming so the people get to know us well and the dogs get to know us well.

Jo Reed: Now, how did you two begin working together?

Don Hardy: It was fate.

Dana Nachman: We started working-- our very first thing we did was a story in the news about female firefighters’ training, for NBC, and we just got assigned-- I was a special projects producer and they would just assign me different camera people every day and we got assigned. Was it your first day of work or...

Don Hardy: No. But I think you kind of had this other guy named Brad locked down and Brad called in sick, so I got thrown into the big leagues. And we went out and filmed it and just kind of bonded that day.

Dana Nachman: Yeah, and started talking about documentaries, you know, because I had a very coveted job where I did special projects, so I did longer form, and I think I had just been assigned my first documentary on the Bay area victims of 9/11. This was 2002, and so Don’s like, “Oh. I’ve always wanted to make documentaries.” Like, “Okay. Well, let’s do it,” and so that was our first project, and then we did three others, I think, for television before we went independent. And now we’ve done, what, we’re on our sixth and seven features.

Jo Reed: Tell me what made you take the leap to documentary filmmaking. Obviously it had to be a decision you really, really thought out.

Don Hardy: To get rich and famous, of course.

Jo Reed: Yeah. Well, obviously. Other than the obvious one.

Dana Nachman: We quit at different times. So our first two films, independent films, we did while we still had our day jobs at NBC, and that just seemed practical, so we did them on our credit cards. We did them with our vacation days. So, that was just more practical, like, having the day job, having the insurance, while we kind of saw if it was viable. We’re never sure if it’s really viable. But over time, something kind of had to give. We had full-time jobs. We were making feature films. I had three kids, you know, so we had to just decide, and so Don I think left before I did, maybe a year or two.

Don Hardy: Yeah. I left when we were deep in editing on our first feature, Witch Hunt. I just couldn’t do both. I had a friend who offered me a part-time gig doing videos for a water district and that gave me an opportunity to leave NBC and be able to edit the film and after that just kept going.

Jo Reed: Now, how do you two divide up the work?

Dana Nachman: It’s kind of morphed a little bit over the years.

Don Hardy: Yeah, definitely.

Dana Nachman: But it started out that-- because my job was as a producer and Don’s was as a shooter/editor at NBC, so we followed those lines for a long time, and still mostly do. But as technology’s changed, when I used to write the film, I used to write it on paper. Now I write the films as, like, a first very rough shot edit in Premiere, so that it just skips a step for Don, and so that’s changed a little bit, but so I’ll put together a very rudimentary edit and then he makes it look beautiful.

Don Hardy: Yeah, and then generally Dana does more of the setup, like, the first couple of rounds of calls, while maybe I do more on the post-production side and it just, it’s found its way over the years, and as the films continue to grow and more people come into the mix here and there, the roles don’t change all that much.

Dana Nachman: They don’t. I think the only difference now is we’re not so set in our roles that we could, like, I excel at parts of it and Don excels at parts of it, but we can kind of cover each other now more than probably we could’ve at first.

Jo Reed: How long was the first cut of the film? Because editing that had to have been a bear.

Dana Nachman: I don’t remember exactly how long the first cut was. We’re pretty, like, because of our news background, we’re pretty judicious with editing, but I do remember that the first cut of-- that I did, before I gave it to Don, of the training section, which is the last two months, was, if I remember correctly, 90 minutes.

Don Hardy: Yeah.

Dana Nachman: And the whole film itself now is 80 minutes, so it was just the worst. Like, 90 minutes, and then my mom watched a little of it. She’s like, “I don’t really understand what’s happening.” Like, it just wasn’t very good.

Don Hardy: Yeah. We also brought in an editor, like, a supervising editor on this, a guy named Doug Blush, who’s worked on a million different documentaries over the years and when we thought we had a good-- I think it was like a 95-minute cut-- and we sent it to Doug and his first response was like, “It’s pretty good, but take 10 minutes out of it,” and we were aghast. One note I remember from Doug that always makes me laugh is the training stuff, when we go back to the main campus there that Dana mentioned, like, the first cut that she did was 90 minutes and probably as it-- late in the movie it was probably 45, 50 minutes, I would say. When we sent it to Doug he’s like, “Yeah. So about the training. At a certain point, man, it’s just dogs walking.” And that just really made me laugh. Like, “No. You’re not catching the subtlety of the dog looking in this direction or doing this.” He’s like, “No. It’s just dogs walking.” So it really made us truncate that to just get it down to the best moments, and I think it was a smart decision.

Jo Reed: Let’s get down to the other nitty-gritty. How did you finance this film?

Dana Nachman: We were lucky enough to have one investor, who’s an executive producer of ours. He invested in the film before this, Batkid Begins, and that sold and made him some money, and so he wanted to do it again. We got very lucky.

Don Hardy: Yeah, very fortunate place to having somebody that just believes in you and in your work and is willing to help you get it done quickly, as quickly as you can.

Jo Reed: So Dana and Don, you imagine the film. In this case you got funding for the film. You shoot the film, you edit the film, you put the film together and re-put it together, and you have a finished product, but then the fun begins. You have to get the film distributed.

Dana Nachman: It’s stressful.

Don Hardy: Yeah, it’s funny to hear you say that. Because a lot of people think when you make it, when you’re done, it’s like, “Well, it’s done,” and it’s not even close to done. That’s when the other job begins.

Dana Nachman: Yeah.

Jo Reed: And I’d like you both to talk about that other job. So what’s the next step then?

Dana Nachman: So, the way we’ve done it in all of our films, which maybe one day in the future we won’t have to do it this way, but is we go to film festivals, or we try,

Jo Reed: Oh, so many people do. Yeah.

Dana Nachman: Knock on wood, we’ve been fortunate enough to get our, all of our films, to premiere at good festivals, but that’s very stressful. I mean, really, really stressful, so we, this year, got our-- last year, got it into the Slamdance Film Festival, and it got bought within 48 hours of it premiering there, so that is the absolute best-case scenario and it’s not lost on us about how great that was.

Don Hardy: Yeah. How fortunate we are and just grateful to a festival like Slamdance for taking us, for believing in us and giving us the opening night slot and, you know, it just was a great place for us to be, and, you know, Slamdance, I don’t-- how much the listeners know about it, but Slamdance runs concurrently with Sundance, so the entire independent film world is descending on Park City, Utah, at the same time, and Slamdance, if you can get the distributors to walk up the hill is what they say, because it all happens in one hotel there. You have a good chance of selling your film and really, we’ve always tried to approach this as a business. Yes, we want to tell great stories that connect with audiences, but if you can’t get people to see it, then, we don’t make movies just to show them to friends and family.

Dana Nachman: Our moms really like them though.

Don Hardy: Yeah. My mom thinks I’m the best filmmaker ever. But we want audiences to see them and that means film festivals give you a great opportunity to get your work out there. So, we’ve had a great festival run. We’ve won a bunch of audience awards, and that all helps. I mean, as Dana mentioned, we were fortunate to sell, like, right out of the gate to IFC Films, so a big shout out for IFC Films.

Dana Nachman: Whoop!

Don Hardy: And them believing in us and believing in the power of documentary films in theatres. And that’s where we’re headed on August 31st in New York and L.A. and then goes out from there. It’s great to have a well-regarded company like IFC who believes in us and wants to get the film out there to as many people as possible. It’s just a super-cool time.

Dana Nachman: They keep sending us shots of their dogs with Pick of the Litter bandanas on them all. This is what we get in our in-box every day.

Jo Reed: And my final question is what do you want people to take away from this film when they see it?

Dana Nachman: I think a few things. First, I think the thing that touches me most is, you know, I think we all feel this human-canine connection, all of us who have dogs, and how much that could touch your life and does touch my life, and I know Don’s life.

Jo Reed: And my life.

Dana Nachman: Yeah, and I think just, you know, taking that relationship into the theatre and watching this and then seeing how extraordinary this relationship could be between the dog and the visually impaired person I think is amazing. But it also is a personal story to anybody who’s ever loved a dog or a cat, and I love that.

Don Hardy: Yeah. I certainly would agree with that, and just maybe, you know, as people walk down the street and you see guide dogs in training or guide dogs that are on the job working with a visually impaired person, realize what a special animal that is and what a special bond they have with their person and just acknowledge it. I know a lot of people say the dogs aren’t having fun. I mean, these dogs are well-loved dogs. They are not just transportation devices. They are part of the family for these folks, and yeah, just think about that when you see them on the street.

Jo Reed: That was Dana Nachman and Don Hardy. They co-directed the documentary Pick of the Litter—the film opens in New York and LA on August 31 and begins running nation-wide in September. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcasts and you can leave us a rating on Apple—because it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Documentary filmmakers Dana Nachman and Don Hardy have co-directed the award-winning film Pick of the Litter. The litter in question are five Labrador Retrievers bred by Guide dogs for the Blind (or GBD) for the specific purpose of becoming service animals. The film follows a litter of puppies from birth to their graduation and assignment to a person who’s visually impaired…that is if the dog makes the cut. Not every pooch is cut out for the rigorous training in which intelligence and perspicacity is valued as much as experience…which also makes for risky documentary filmmaking. When Dana and Don began, they had no idea if any of the dogs would pass muster. Tune in and listen to Dana and Don share their experiences of centering a film on five principal subjects who can’t speak for themselves.