There’s a piece of widely held wisdom about independent films: If you want to produce one cheaply, don’t cast children or animals. They are, it has been said, hard to control — they don’t do what you want when you want it, wasting valuable shooting days, money, and the patience-slash-goodwill of their human collaborators, who, because this is independent film, could probably be doing just about anything else with their time, and for more money.
That's the main reason Bob Byington’s 7 Chinese Brothers, out now on VOD and in limited release, is so surprising. The other is that it’s a charming, eccentric, and lovely portrait of an affable alcoholic attempting to regain some control over what passes for his life, and that’s a hard movie to make without veering into either the saccharine or insincere, which 7 Chinese Brothers never does.
But mainly, it’s because of Arrow.
While Jason Schwartzman can most conventionally be identified as the star of Byington’s film, Arrow — full name: Arrow Joel Schwartzman — is, in many ways, its driving personality, the active ingredient. He is a 9-year-old French bulldog, and as his name suggests, he’s Schwartzman’s pet in real life as well as the fictional pet owned by Schwartzman’s fictional man, Larry. And the influence that Arrow has on 7 Chinese Brothers, with his laconic, practical grace, can't be overstated — it's tonal, metaphorical, and literally mechanical.
“The scenes where Larry is just walking around the house talking to Arrow and Arrow is listening to him, you couldn’t have done that with another animal, because every other dog I’ve basically met in my life, they move,” Schwartzman told me. “Arrow really is a bit more of an anchor. He’ll sit there and just watch you.”
7 Chinese Brothers is a highlight reel of Arrow’s impressive sedentariness. Much of the film is spent watching Larry, in various states of confusion and frustration and denial and intoxication and goofy eccentric angst, recite monologues at a rooted Arrow, who studies Larry like a therapist. In Byington’s original script, the dog was meant to be more of a dervish, an energetic and aggressive dog-dog, but when Byington met Arrow, he was quick to realize the opportunity provided by an animal already bonded to his star.
“When he’s going into a new room and is excited about new people, he’s running around, but if he determines that not a lot is going to change, he’ll just sit down,” Schwartzman said. “And when I say sit down, I mean lay down. We kind of made the movie around him in a way: When you have a dog that is more of a trained animal that can hit marks and things, people will try to use that to your advantage. With ours it was the opposite: We’d go into the room, Arrow would kiss everybody, say good-morning, then he’d say, I guess that’s it, and he’d be down.”
“While we were setting up shots, Arrow would be looking around and getting a feel for the space, and once he had settled in we would do our blocking based on where he had settled,” Byington said. “We’d move him around a little bit, but he seemed to know what we were doing. He sort of took umbrage at being told what to do. He’s like, Look, I’m giving you gold here, I don’t need your feedback, I don’t need your input on my performance.”
Byington photographed Arrow at his level, close to the ground, resulting in a number of lovely, peculiar shots located in Arrow’s world. Having screen-tested him the same way you would any actor, Byington made the decision to mostly avoid shooting him from above. The effect is the creation of an almost multitiered film, split between the perspectives of Arrow and Larry; Arrow’s presence as both a dog and major character makes the movie deeper and weirder than it would have been otherwise.
Of course, Jason Schwartzman being Jason Schwartzman, Arrow’s a bit of a known quantity: If you Google “Arrow Schwartzman,” you’ll have any number of pictures to choose from. But Schwartzman wasn’t worried about Arrow’s status as his real-life dog affecting his character or performance.
“There were definitely times where I had to leave a room or be kind of sad and not acknowledge him, and that was a little weird,” Schwartzman said. “But I think that Larry loves Arrow and I love Arrow, so it wasn’t like he was playing a golden retriever.”
A golden retriever can be Arrow’s next challenge: His performance is so good, so interesting and weird, that you want to see more of him. It’s one of the better cinematic canine presences I’ve ever seen, largely because it’s so unique, so benign, and unhurried. In the film, Arrow’s a testament to the multiple dimensions of life, the elements not always represented onscreen: the dogs, the treasured things, the environment and landscape. However, calling it a performance is a bit of a strange instinct: The dog isn’t actually performing, after all. Dogs can’t act. Right?
“We kind of felt like Arrow knew what was going on, that he knew we were making a movie,” Byington said. “We’d been shooting for a little while, and there’s just something about what Arrow was doing and when he would look at the camera and when he wouldn’t. Jason has a real high opinion of Arrow’s intelligence.”