FF2 editor-in-chief Jan Lisa Huttner called filmmaker Lynn Roth in Los Angeles to discuss her new film Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog. Although Shepherd begins right before the Holocaust and contains scenes set in a Nazi labor camp, it is a family-oriented film meant to facilitate discussions across multiple generations. Roth’s focus is on the visceral experience of displacement and inchoate feelings of confusion and loss.
Shepherd opens in theatres (in limited release) on May 28, 2021.
Jan Lisa Huttner: Hi, Lynn. Such a pleasure to speak with you today. Let’s start with a word, okay?
After watching Shepherd, I tried to think of the right word to describe my reaction, and the word that leapt to mind was “poignant.” Then I looked “poignant” up online to make sure I was using it correctly, and I got: “deeply affecting,” and “arouses tenderness and compassion.” Two examples of use were “the innocence in a child’s eyes,” and “a poignant sense of loss.” So, was “poignant” your goal?
Lynn Roth: I hadn’t yet applied it to Shepherd, so I thank you because I love it. A lot of people have said “heartwarming,” and “heart-rendering,” but “poignant” is better. I think I might even use it in some of the press 😉
Jan Lisa Huttner: You earned it, girl. The word “poignant” came to mind because it seemed to combine two of the treads you weave together in Shepherd: seeing the world through the eyes of an innocent and feeling a pervasive sense of loss.
But “poignant” is just a word, of course, and your two main characters—Caleb and Joshua—are both essentially non-verbal characters. Joshua is a kid. Caleb is a dog. So tell me how, as a filmmaker, you were able to capture this word “poignant” so viscerally on screen.
Lynn Roth: What intrigued so much about this story (which is based on a best-selling novel by an Israeli wildlife photographer named Asher Kravitz) is that animals—especially dogs—have brought out emotions in me that I almost never knew existed. A while back, I was sitting with some dog activists at dinner, and one woman said (I think these were her exact words): “I was sad when my husband died. I was really sad. But when my dog died, I was inconsolable.”
That happened at least a decade ago, but I remember it so well that I am quoting it to you now. Dogs bring out such raw emotions in us that I wanted to try to see how we could feel about the Holocaust—and about the doom that was coming—through an animal’s sensibility. For example, when Caleb runs back to “his house.”
Jan Lisa Huttner: Perfect place to start, Lynn. Let me set up the scene.
Joshua is a Jewish kid growing up in Germany in the late 30s and Caleb is his much-loved German Shepherd. Joshua’s family life is comfortable until, bit-by-bit, his “normal” begins to erode as the Nazis impose ever-greater restrictions. No school. No shopping. No non-Jewish employees.
When the “No Pets” order comes, Joshua’s father gives Caleb to a kindly acquaintance who lives in the country. But at the first opportunity, Caleb runs back to the city and…
Lynn Roth: Caleb runs back to his house and he sits in front of that house waiting for his family to come out. Caleb’s POV gives the story an impact I never felt before. Jewish people were taken from their homes, and Aryans moved in right on top of everything. They changed the furniture a little bit. In that scene, I have them put up a cross and take down the Jewish paraphernalia, but I have never felt it as strong as I did with that dog.
Jan Lisa Huttner: The way you filmed this scene, Lynn, watching Caleb outside wanting in, I could actually see the thought bubble. The look on Caleb’s face is so expressive. He’s confused. He doesn’t understand. Caleb is sitting outside staring up at the window. He’s walked this street a million times. He’s looked up at this window a million times. I could actually hear him asking himself: “How can everything could look the same outside, but be so different inside?” It’s a really pivotal scene, so please explain how you constructed it.
Lynn Roth (laughs): I did not want to have a talking dog. I did not want to have a voiceover. Every dog movie in the last, I don’t know, 15 years has been a talking dog movie. I go. I cry. But I didn’t want this film to be that way.
My constant goal was to imagine what Caleb was thinking and to try to convey that. It was a challenge, but a really creative and interesting assignment. I kept the camera lower all the time so the human characters came down more to the dog’s level. But I didn’t want to do it in an exaggerated way.
To feel the dismay, the disorientation, the sadness of sitting in front of that house and not knowing where his family was… I think it is the first time that we’re seeing these things through a dog‘s perspective; and I say this carefully, but it is a different doorway into this subject matter. And for me, as a filmmaker, that was always, always intriguing…
I read as many stories as I could about pets during the Holocaust. Some of them would run after the trucks that were carrying off their owners. Some of them would just keep looking all over the neighborhood for them. They’re dogs, so they seek their owners. They want to be in the company of their owners.
In this particular scene in Shepherd, we shot from behind. So, we aren’t seeing Caleb, we’re seeing what Caleb is seeing. We shot from behind, over the top of Caleb’s head with his ears pointed up. We’re behind Caleb, so we’re also looking up at that apartment window. And that’s how we start the Holocaust part of this movie. We go through that window…
Jan Lisa Huttner: In my notes, as I watched, I wrote
Magical thinking. “If I just wait here long enough out front, my people will come and bring me inside, and everything will be okay.”
So, your own artistry—as a filmmaker—was to use Caleb’s ears as a “V,” forcing our human eyes to focus all of our own powers of concentration on that specific window too?
Lynn Roth: Exactly. I had a trainer in the window dangling something so that I could get the dog’s full attention. So, the real dog was focusing on what the trainer was doing, but I had to give Caleb “motivation.” If I could give a dog motivation, if I understood motivation from a dog’s POV, that would be it…
Jan Lisa Huttner: So how many different dogs did you have on “Team Caleb”?
Lynn Roth: There were actually five dogs that each played something of the hero dog.
Shepherd was shot in Hungary, so the dogs were being trained there while I was here in Los Angeles. I was looking at everything on the computer. I was watching the training. I was looking at the dogs, how they ran, how they did this, and that. And there was one particular dog that everybody liked a lot.
When I got to Budapest, I met the dog. The dog was beautiful, but it wouldn’t make eye contact with me. So, I chose another dog instead. The dog I chose had a very concentrated and fixed gaze. I thought that was very important for the movie.
Jan Lisa Huttner: What was the name of the dog you chose? What was his actual name, the dog with the fixed stare?
Lynn Roth: Stella.
Jan Lisa Huttner: Stella. “Caleb” was a girl?
Lynn Roth (laughing): It was a girl because the truth is I didn’t want too many things jangling and hanging out in the movie… so…
Jan Lisa Huttner (laughing too): Right. Caleb is a big dog and “he” has to do a lot of running, so, yeah, Stella. That makes sense.
Lynn Roth: We had a lot of girl dogs. Each dog had a different specialty. One would be able to growl and attack, another one to swim. Not every dog allows an actor—in this case, the actor who played Joshua—not every dog will allow an actor to put his arms around her and hug tight.
Not every dog will do that, so, for me as the director, there was a lot of: “Okay, Stella doesn’t want to do this. Can you bring in Albert? Can you bring in Gabor? Can you bring in whoever? Bring in another dog.”
At the end of a day… It’s so hard. I’m working with dogs and animals in Hungary in the middle of the night. And when that dog—Stella—would come over and put her head on my knees, it made all right. No actor ever did that. No actor ever came and put her head on my knees.
Jan Lisa Huttner: When you bond with a pet, you don’t have to talk. You don’t have to try to explain anything. You just have to love each other and care for each other. The bond with a pet…
Lynn Roth: Exactly, exactly, it’s a different form of human existence that I think is very deep and heavy and healthy.
I’m calling my dog Lucy. She’s a little teeny rescue. “Here you are. Come here. Meet Jan. Come over here.” She’s so sick of my Zooms. This dog, she just saved my life during the pandemic. “Didn’t you, Lucy?” She hates Zooms. So, yeah, dogs can think. This is what my movie is about. It’s about what this dog—Caleb—is thinking.
Featured Photo: Caleb (played by a remarkable dog named Stella) waits for Joshua and his family to come back home.
Bottom Photo: August Maturo as “Joshua” on the run with Caleb after their escape from a Nazi labor camp.
Photos courtesy of JDOG FILMS. Used with permission. All Rights Reserved.
Learn more about “Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog” on IMDb.
Click HERE to watch the trailer.
© Jan Lisa Huttner (5/27/21)—Special for FF2 Media® LLC