Stop the Dog, and an interview with director Alec Birkbeck

As tonight seems to be all about moral grey-grounds, let's continue the clever mysteries with this bite-sized film about a black lab who is making more trouble than he means to. Or does he have another plan in mind?

By the end of the film, it seems like a simple enough story, until you actually turn it over in your mind a few times and realise there was much more than what immediately met your eye. It's a pretty technical piece. I caught up with director Alec Birkbeck via mailterview to find out how he made it all happen.

Miriam Lee: So, are we really dealing with a case of a well-meaning dog, or is he just evil?

Alec Birkbeck: It's interesting that you ask that question! The original story was about a truly evil dog who deliberately pushed people off the cliff edge -- a reversal of the old adage "a man's best friend." However, after I ran the early storyboards past some people, the feedback was mixed. So I decided to "soften" the story a little to give it some more commercial appeal. It was only after doing some screen-test shooting with Harvey that I realised how I could use his general clumsiness in the story.

ML: Are you the proud owner of Harvey Waggington?

 AB: No, Harvey is owned by my dad's partner, Kate Lindsey. Prior to meeting Harvey, I had planned for local doggy-auditions, but that was problematic! So after hearing that Kate had got a new labrador, I took a camera along to see if he was comfortable with it. He loved it -- in fact he really loved it!

ML: Where'd you get the idea for the film?

AB: Whilst on a previous film shoot in a forest, we had numerous interruptions from people walking with dogs. A couple of the dogs had chased the cast and one cheeky Jack Russell even stole our crew sandwiches! This gave me the idea that I should work out a way to show a dog getting into trouble just by doing what it does naturally. The "people falling off the cliff" scenario was borrowed from the Lassie films and it was used because, having only 2 minutes meant it was crucial for the viewers to understand the familiar concept.

ML: Was there any special training or prep to do with Harvey before shooting?

AB: Harvey was a trained assistance dog who had failed his final exams for being a bit too excitable and
clumsy. This meant he had already had some good voice command training. Most of the shots where he was running were done using two people, both out-of-shot with walkie-talkie radios. We soon realised that Harvey would consistently run from one person to the other - even across long distances! This was a gift for the film as it meant that we could get plenty of wide shots which helped to make the viewer believe that he was having to go further and further to find more people.

We also had to train Harvey to run [at speed] behind the trailer, with me hanging off the back and pointing a camera at him. This activity wasn't without its challenges, not least the safety aspects both for me and Harvey. We had rigged a full body harness to the trailer so that I could be suspended low to the ground. I felt it was crucial for the viewer to get down to his eye level to make the shot work. Unfortunately, Harvey can only do two speeds: standing still or very fast! So in order to get ahead of him and up to his running speed, I had to throw some treats in the opposite direction, then signal to the driver of the car and get settled with the steadicam and camera. It wouldn't take very long for Harvey to get his treat, turn around and run after us! Although the actual clip in the film is quite short, I felt that it was worth it!

ML: What went wrong during the shoot? What went absolutely perfect?

AB: My biggest challenge was getting enough extras to do the scene at the base of the cliff. I originally had
40+ people who agreed to take part, so I organised a coach to pick up most of them from central Leeds. However, only 1 person turned up! Fortunately quite a few people made their own way there, plus I managed to get friends and relatives to help out. I even got the coach driver to take part.

I was very pleased with the horse clips at the end of the film. We only had a 2 hour slot with Jeremy and Louie (the horse), and I was concerned that having the cameras and Harvey around would spook him, thus reducing the chances of getting good close-up shots. This was not the case, and after feeding Louie a few horse treats he was just fine.

ML: Was there a particular reason for having no dialogue and only music?

AB: Yes, this film was centred around Harvey, so dialogue wasn't necessary. Plus, it was a good opportunity to collaborate with some other people to make, record and match the soundtrack to the film.

ML: What's your dream film, or a film you'd really love to make next?

AB: I don't really have a dream film as such, but I love to watch anything science fiction! But my focus for now is to create a number of quirky, original shorts to develop my skills, collaborate with people, and also try to stand out from the crowd. I am currently developing a dark-comedy short set within an elderly care home but with a surprising twist! To date, I have written the draft script, done some concept storyboards and also secured specialist props and furnishings for the one-day shoot.

ML: What's the coolest thing to have happened to you because of being a filmmaker?

AB: When my first narrative-based short film was premièred in a New York cinema and also shown at the Barbican Centre in London, where I was asked by the festival director to stand up in front of a few hundred people and talk about the film!

I am also planning another simple, but none-the-less surprising, 1-minute short with Harvey and his best friend Hector (the dog).... just waiting for some good (dry) weather!

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Alec's got some great stuff so make sure you stay up to the minute, following his website and on twitter, @alecbirkbeck. My thanks again to Alec!

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