Interview with Melissa Dowler, director of Adele and Everything After (2017)
By Livia Peterson
Director Melissa Dowler and I connected at Andrea Thompson's Second Annual Milwaukee Women's Film Festival. Despite I was not able to attend Adele and Everything After at the festival, I recently was able to view a screener and you are able to read the review here. Adele and Everything After premieres via Amazon and iTunes on Tuesday, January 31, 2018. Without further ado, Melissa and I discuss the film.
Livia Peterson: Thank you for joining Leave it to Livia. We haven't seen each other since the Milwaukee Women's Film Festival. How are you?
Melissa Dowler: Thanks for inviting me be interviewed, and for sharing the film with your audience. It was nice meeting you at the festival—I love connecting with other women in film and supporting each other. I’m doing great. After more than three years of work, my first feature documentary Adele and Everything After will be released by Gravitas Ventures on VOD platforms like iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and on cable providers like Verizon and DirecTV. It’s a huge milestone, and I’m happy that the film will soon be widely available for people to experience. To find out more, visit here.
Adele and Everything After is a documentary about Marty, a woman with an untreatable heart condition that made her pass out every day and Adele, one of the world’s first cardiac alert service dogs. Adele has a remarkable ability to sense Marty’s condition and stop her from fainting, and the film traces the story of their relationship, including what happens when Adele is ready for retirement and Marty has to face up to not having her loyal companion by her side every day.
LP: Why did you want to make a documentary about service dogs?
MD: While I love dogs and am proud that the film sheds light on service dogs, that wasn’t what attracted me to this story. I was drawn in by the incredible bond between Marty and Adele, and the way their relationship transformed Marty’s life. Because Marty’s heart condition is an “invisible illness”, for years, people in her life didn’t comprehend what she was going through, even as she was passing out every day. When Adele came along, she was able to see and understand Marty’s condition on a level that no one else could; and she helped Marty overcome it. Adele’s love and understanding changed everything for Marty.
When we got into the editing process, we talked a lot about the idea that we weren’t making a service dog movie, but instead, we were telling a love story; about a connection between two beings who were truly soulmates.
LP: How did you find your subjects Marty, Adele, and Hector?
MD: Marty lived across the hall from me in Boston, but my little Yorkshire Terrier was intimidated by Adele, so whenever we bumped into each other in the hall, my dog barked at Adele and I’d get really embarrassed and run off in the other direction. But one day, Marty saw me when I was alone, and asked if my production company could help with a fundraising video for her new service dog.
I asked Marty to come to my studio and tell me more of her story, and that’s when I learned all about the remarkable things Adele was capable of, and also that Marty and Adele were at a challenging point in their relationship: after 9 years of literally constant companionship, Adele was approaching retirement. Marty had to face up to making room in her life, and heart, for a new service dog.
I was fascinated by this story, and wanted to follow it because I believed it would resonate not only with dog lovers, but with anyone who had to come to terms with an important relationship changing. That was in 2014, and little did I know the journey would take us through two years of filming, more than 15 film festivals and now, distribution with Gravitas Ventures!
LP: What were some challenges that you faced during the filmmaking process?
MD: With a fictional film, you have a script, a storyboard, a schedule and know what to expect from the production process. With documentary filmmaking, you have your subject and an idea about the story, but you’re waiting for life to unfold. That can make for a wild and unpredictable ride.
We tried our best to prepare for pivotal moments, but sometimes the best laid plans went awry. For example, we knew Marty was waiting for a call from Canine Partners for Life, the organization that raised Adele, about whether they had a new service dog who could take over as Marty’s 24/7 companion. We wanted to capture this moment, because we knew it was a big deal for Marty, whose greatest fear was not getting a replacement dog in time for Adele’s retirement.
We asked the folks at Canine Partners for Life to warn us when the call was coming so we could be prepared to film it, but somehow that got lost in translation and didn’t happen. I was on the runway at Denver Airport waiting for a flight to take off when I got a call from Marty— she had received the life- changing call from CPL. And I was literally minutes from taking off on a 3-hour flight.
I put in a panicked call to my crew, and managed to tell them what was happening before I had to power down my phone for take-off. I spent the whole flight fretting about what happened, but thankfully my awesome team jumped into action and captured the moment.
Experiences like that make documentary challenging, but also exhilarating, to work on.
LP: As this is your debut feature, what lessons did you learn along the way?
MD: I believe that making a documentary film is transformational for a director; or at least, it was for me. Adele and Everything After is by far the biggest project I’ve taken on. It stretched me as a filmmaker and taught me so much about storytelling, patience and human connection (and dog connection, for that matter, too)
I learned so much, but the biggest lesson was that I had to be my film’s greatest advocate and be relentless in pushing it forward. There’s a lot of great content out there and so much competition for film festival slots, distribution deals, audience attention. Making a film is difficult and yet, it’s only part of the job. You must be willing to do the work to get it out there, which can be demoralizing at times as most filmmakers will hear more “no’s’ than “yes’s” along the way. The key is to shrug off the no’s and keep going until you get to yes.
LP: What are your favorite and least favorite parts of exhibiting your film to the film festival circuit?
MD: I love screening at film festivals! Audiences are typically very engaged and thoughtful, and one of my favorite parts of the experience is the Q&A discussion. It’s interesting to hear what audiences think about the film, and what topics they want to discuss more deeply. The Q&A at The Milwaukee Women’s Film Festival was particularly cool because there were many people in the audience who were knowledgeable about filmmaking, so I had the opportunity to geek out and talk about process and craft, which I love.
My least favorite part is that it can get expensive to attend festivals. Some festivals help filmmakers by providing assistance with travel and accommodation, but smaller festivals aren’t always able to do that. I always want to be there to support my film at a festival, but it can get very expensive. I encourage festival organizers to do what they can to help filmmakers with these expenses through sponsorship, fundraising or sometimes even getting creative and having local residents offer guest rooms free of charge. It can make the difference that allows filmmakers to attend their screenings, and I think that’s meaningful for most festival audiences, who attend because they want a special viewing experience.
LP: What are your future projects?
MD: For the next couple of months, I’m still very focused on supporting Adele and Everything After and getting people to buy or rent it on VOD platforms (preorder here). After that, I’m completing a documentary about how Detroit is reimagining itself after bankruptcy called Restarting the Motor City, a project I’ve been working on since 2015. I’m also co-writing a script with my husband and creative partner for our first fiction feature, a young woman’s coming of age story set in 1990s Britain called Falling in London.
LP: What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?
MD: Don’t aspire to be a filmmaker, become one. With the accessibility of crowdfunding and the relative affordability of equipment, there’s no reason for your film to stay a dream. If you wait for permission, or for the perfect moment, you could be waiting a long time. If you want to make a film, figure out how you can start the process today, even in some small way.
I'd also like to underscore that I hope women take this advice. For a long time, our roles both behind and in front of the camera have been restricted and we’ve been taught that our stories aren’t valuable enough, interesting enough, relevant enough, big enough. That tide is turning, and now is the time for women to feel empowered to become filmmakers and share their unique perspectives with the world.
Thank you for speaking with me, Melissa!