Jazz Tangcay talks to Glen Zipper about how working for an animal shelter helped him discover happiness and changed his life.
An elegant, engaging and cinematic verite documentary series celebrating the deep emotional bonds between people and their beloved four-legged best friends. From Syria to Costa Rica to New York, the series tracks six incredible stories each proving that the unconditional love one feels for their dog. The story is a universal one.
Glen Zipper developed Dogs and the series can be found on Netflix. A chance encounter changed his life forever, and I caught up with him to learn about why this show brings a viewer happiness and understands that very important bond between man and their best friend.
Where did the idea of Dogs spring from?
Before I was a producer, I had been actually a criminal prosecutor on the East Coast. One day coming home from work, I crossed paths with a stray pit bull puppy on the streets of Jersey City which took me to an animal shelter. I’d never been in an animal shelter in my life, and I had a very skewed sense of how animal shelters operate. I thought the fact that the dog had made it to the animal shelter meant the dog was going to be OK. They were all lovely people, but they had a math problem and they were overpopulated and it was a case where one dog comes in, another one has to go out and they said, “Unfortunately after three days, we’re going to have to euthanize this puppy.” I brought this dog here and it wasn’t going to make it and that was a Friday, by the next Monday I had started volunteering at the animal shelter.
I had spent six months working there before I woke up one morning with this feeling that I couldn’t identify, so I made a few phone calls and people helped me understand that this feeling that I couldn’t identify was in fact happiness. I said to myself that I needed to feel this way for the rest of my life. I couldn’t do that at the animal shelter, and what I needed to do was tell stories. So, I packed my things up, came to LA and started my producing career. It was off to the races from there.
If it wasn’t for my intersection with that puppy on the streets of Jersey City, I wouldn’t be on the phone with you. When I found some measure of success, I’d always been trying to cultivate some story about dogs and trying to find the right project to tell these stories at a premium level.
No offense to Animal Planet or dog shows, but I wanted to produce the show that I wanted to see which is the show that could live alongside Chef’s Table on Netflix, but have it be about Dogs and to have it be character driven and have it happen in real-time. I wanted it to be similar to Undefeated which we were fortunate enough to win the Oscar for and it was true verité storytelling, and Netflix felt the same way about it. We were off to the races.
I loved watching the happiness in the show, especially in this world that we live in. The stories are just that – happy. How did you find them?
An elegant, engaging and cinematic verite documentary series celebrating the deep emotional bonds between people and their beloved four-legged best friends. The series tracks six incredible stories from across the globe including Syria, Japan, Costa Rica, Italy and the US—each proving that the unconditional love one feels for their dog is a beautiful universal truth. With episodes helmed by critically acclaimed directors including: Academy Award-nominated Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil), Academy Award-winning Roger Ross Williams (Life Animated, Music by Prudence), Academy Award-nominated Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp, One of Us), Emmy Award-winning Richard Hankin (The Jinx) and Academy Award-winners T.J. Martin and Daniel Lindsay (Undefeated), Dogs takes us on an inspirational journey exploring the remarkable, perhaps even magical qualities that have given these animals such a special place in all of our hearts.
There are story casting agents in the documentary universe. We had Francine Dauw and she owns Aberrant Creative and she was our partner helping us to cast those stories. She looked under every stone. I don’t think there’s any strategy that she didn’t try. whether it was searching the internet, or calling every community and asking the librarian about great dog stories. She’d go to local newspapers, and she would go to internet forums. She wasn’t just looking for the low hanging fruit of a story on CNN. She came back with forty or so stories which we had to whittle down to six, and that was a really difficult journey for us to go on because there are many more that we would have told, but we wanted to go with the best of the best.
They are such beautiful stories. I loved episode 2 and of course Costa Rica which both have stunning photography.
That’s the quintessential essence of that show, the access, and the immersion. That’s credit to Amy Berg who is the producing partner and the director of Bravo, Zeus.”Territorio de Zaguates was directed by Daniel Lindsay and T. J. Martin who also did Undefeated. What they do is they fully commit themselves and their lives. It’s a lesson that I’ve learned from them and have applied ever since. With documentaries, you’re lucky if your film has one truly magical moment. Dan and T.J captured about three of them for Undefeated and they said, “Well, we just had to never stop filming. We had the camera on our shoulders even when we had reason to believe anything was ever going to happen.”When you do that, it pays dividends, and then, there’s always the fringe benefit that if you’re always there with the camera on your shoulders, eventually the subjects become desensitized start behaving differently and they don’t even see them anymore as if the camera isn’t even there.
How do you keep the story happy and not show anything depressing, but keep it so fulfilling?
Despite the fact that there wasn’t much tragedy or sadness in the show, it became a talking point that Dogs is so sad, I don’t want to watch it. It’s untrue, it became a meme. People kept posting a gif on Twitter of David (Cross) crying in the shower. That’s absolutely not what this show is. When we were casting the stories, we were looking for ones that had the potential to be inspiring and to be hope-filled. We wanted to make it, that if you cried, they were tears of joy. These stories are unfolding in real-time, so there’s no guarantee, but we definitely pointe dour compass in the direction of stories that would have the prevailing emotional context of happiness.
The reason that was so important to Amy and me in making the show, it wasn’t that I wanted to avoid sadness, it was just based on a lesson when I worked in animal shelters and another animal charity. If you confront people with sadness about these animals, they’re not going to want to engage. We had people who wanted to adopt animals, but they wouldn’t come to the shelter because they thought it was too sad. We figured out that if you take the animals and take them to the community. So, if we were in NY, we’d take them to Central Park. If it was in LA, we’d take them to Larchmont Blvd and would bring the dogs to the people so they didn’t have to confront that sadness. Once you bring the animals to the people, then they can engage with the animals and help the animals and we can start a conversation. The same holds true for the show, there are some difficult subjects that we confront in the show. They’re presented in a context where it’s not overwhelmingly sad, but we’re still able to do good because we’re able to have a conversation.
What was the decision to make it into a series?
There are so many different types of stories we wanted to tell. At the core of each story is the relationship between human beings and dogs and how we as humans rescue these animals, but also how they rescue us. We also wanted to show many different versions of that. not just the different characters, but different demographics and different geographies and different types of people. There was also the opportunity to work with so many amazing filmmakers. We were so fortunate to have all these people come into our tent, collaborate with them and to see them do their thing, it was so awesome.