Spoilers ahead for High Maintenance's "Grandpa" episode.
Friday night's episode of High Maintenance is different from the rest of the series, and most anything else on TV. For one, unlike the shorter run times it's stuck to so far, “Grandpa” takes up the full length of the show's 30-minute real estate. More to the point, it's told from the perspective of a dog named Gatsby.
In the episode, Gatsby — who goes in by Bowdie in real life — falls hard for his dog walker, Beth, played by Orange Is the New Black's Yael Stone. At turns funny, sweet, and heartbreaking, the most impressive thing about “Grandpa” is how they shot it, and got Bowdie (a mix between a standard poodle and another, unknown large breed) to do not only do what they wanted him to from moment to moment, but to do it with such pathos. Vulture hopped on the phone with High Maintenance's DP Dagmar Weaver-Madsen to talk about why Gatsby’s ending is a commentary on real love, avoiding the "doggie cam" aesthetic, and how a trainer crawled on the floor to get Bowdie to do what she wanted.
First things first: How did you cast Gatsby?
So basically Bill Berloni, he's an amazing dog trainer. In New York he's done a lot of the big productions like Peter Pan Live. They reached out to him to find out, does he have any dogs that can do this very special role? Immediately, one came to mind, which was Bowdie.
So then we got to meet Bowdie and see how he was and make sure he was the right guy for the job. Immediately everyone was like, take him. As a DP I was concerned with how we were going to make the audience members really feel what this silent character is going through without really going into POV because we never do straight POVs on High Maintenance. We sort of lean towards POV, but we don't go into someone's POV. If you look back at all the great dog movies of the '80s like Beethoven and Turner & Hooch and Homeward Bound, there's always these wide-angle, low POV shots that let you see what the dog is seeing and then cut back to the dog. We didn't want to do that wide-angle, doggie-cam look, but we still wanted people to identify with the dog and feel what he was feeling, so we tried to come up with a new style where we were shooting from behind the dog — the dog is in the frame, so you're referencing his POV. You're in the same line of sight as him, but it's not a straight POV. With the exception of some certain details of Beth, who he falls in love with, we were like, well, dog vision probably isn't that great, so that's another reason why I was turned off by the doggie-cam shots.
There's something very palpable about it.
We also wanted to do these steady-cam shots with the dog. You're really present with the dog — he's the focus. We were worried if we didn't have the right dog it would become a nightmare very fast. Luckily, Bowdie was like ... by take three he always knew the entire routine of what we needed him to do, and then we would start doing these special things that were even more interesting. It was almost as if he became psychic with [creators] Ben [Sinclair] and Katja [Blichfeld]. They would be sitting at the monitor with me and we'd be like, Oh, it would be so great if he could turn his head right now. And then he would do it. We would all be like, Oh my gosh, we're like synced up with the dog.
That's what was so amazing is there are some scenes where you, for example, see him at the window and his owner calls out to him, but he doesn't move. Were certain things more difficult than others in terms of getting him to do what you wanted?
Yes. Certain things were more difficult than others, and Bowdie is definitely a people-person dog. One of the things that was actually quite difficult was getting him to have his head out the window and looking around New York City, which when you think of dogs, you just think, yeah, they love to stick their heads out the window. But he's very clued into people, so we had to mount the camera on the side of the car and have the trainer leaning [out of the window] over the camera and calling to him. It takes so many people to get a dog to do a routine. There's a trainer that's talking to him. There's a trainer at the end of wherever he was going to go. There's a trainer hidden where he needs to turn and look. Each of them was giving him a command — sometimes it was a silent command and sometimes it's a vocal command. A lot of times on set we were hearing everybody go, Bowdie, Bowdie, Bowdie, Bowdie in a high voice or cookie, cookie, cookie, cookie, peanut butter, peanut butter.
That's so funny. I would love to see the cut that has everything outside the frame.
Yeah, and it would be great for you to see the rehearsal takes, which we didn't roll on, but I wish we had. Theresa, one of the amazing dog trainers, when we would do rehearsals with the actors she would go around pretending to be the dog, like crawl around where the dog would be. It's pretty charming.
Did Bowdie get along well with Yael Stone?
It was really instant chemistry, which is something that everyone was concerned about. She's amazing and the dog is really amazing, and it was pretty realistically love at first sight. I was just going to say, I forgot to give a shout-out to Mike Wilson, our steady-cam guy. He was so wonderful and brought such good energy to set, which was really important, especially when you're working with an animal. They're very affected by the energy around them. Everyone was trying to keep it a calm and positive space. Beyond being technically excellent, he just brought such a positive attitude to the experience.
What were your conversations like with Ben and Katja in terms of how you would use the camera to get across what was going on in the dog's head and what his personality is?
We wanted to make sure we weren't showing anyone's face until we see Beth's face for the first time and really let that be isolated and make that moment special. It also makes Bowdie more like the main character whereas if you have humans, you would have gotten distracted watching them and then you'd be like, Oh, I'm watching the dog too. But because we isolate and force you to see just him for quite a lot of it, the audience bonds with him and his experience first. Another thing we talked about visually was, Ben and Katja and I love karaoke. We were like, When he's fantasizing about this woman, what should it look like? [We decided to] give a nod to some of those amazing and terrible '80s karaoke videos.
There’s also a bit of a Kate Bush feel to it.
Yeah! And Kate Bush, there’s a nod there also to Stevie Nicks. I think it's really cool that his idea of romance is cheesy, sweet, romantic music videos. He's such a gentleman. He's dreaming about her dancing, and yeah, he's going to smell her butt, but that's what dogs do and they can't hide.
What was it like shooting that scene?
That one was both extremely fun and silly because her outfit is amazing. I was really happy from a technical standpoint because we were using Super Baltars, which is beautiful vintage glass, and it brings this warm, creamy feeling to them. The part that was challenging is any time you take Bowdie off leash in a public place, there has to be a lot of people around, so if he sees a squirrel or something and goes running, we'll be able to get him and not have him go running off, or heaven forbid hurt the squirrel. Outside the shots there's an army of people standing, making sure he won't just run off into the park. There were a lot of squirrels in that park.
Were any squirrels hurt?
No squirrels were harmed in the making of the episode. It was really also fun filming the squirrels. We put those in to show the difference of the two parks, from Queens to when he gets into Manhattan. I sent my steady-cam guy, Mike, off to go shoot squirrel footage on a steady cam, which seemed overkill, but it was fun. He was like, “I've never been asked to go chase squirrels with expensive amazing gear,” and we're like, “Well now you are.”
How did you decide to film the shots that aren't of Bowdie, but from his perspective, and what his eyes are drawn to?
I was thinking what are the details you notice about someone that you really love or that you're paying attention to because you might have a crush on them. Dogs have a really good sense of hearing and smell. Those are both things that are really hard to capture visually, but we thought by going in macro on certain details or long lens in isolating details, that might cause people to feel a little bit more that you're experiencing the sound of Beth’s voice when she's on the phone with Ben, or that you're seeing the coat chain dangling. Those details are the same way someone sees details of someone they're in love with.
When he's being walked home and Beth is for the first time ignoring him and she's on the phone with Ben, he's really clued into her mouth, and the shot is framed more for that — it's not framed the normal way you would film someone talking on the phone. It's a little lower angle and a little closer, cropping in on that, so you really are paying attention to her lips and the sound that she's making. It's the little details about someone you're interested in, and when they're gone, that you might recall and think about.
In terms of his owner — I noticed that he has a Trump sign in his front yard. What did you want to get across about the owner and what type of person he is?
So he lives with his owner, Chase. They're in the Midwest, kind of conservative, and the guy doesn't necessarily have time and energy to have a dog like Bowdie. He loves him, but he doesn't think about him the same way. He's not his partner.
He's not a villain ...
No, he's just a normal person that doesn't realize how much emotional intelligence the animal probably has. At the same time, when he gets really sad in the episode, Bowdie is there to comfort him on the couch. Bowdie doesn't hold anything against him. He just needs to live a different life, and he realizes that. I love, personally, that he's leaving this kind of guy to go live with a really interesting woman both times.
The scene that affected me the most in this episode is, after the owner fires Beth, he puts Gatsby in a cage during the day, while he's at work. I imagine that must have been sad to shoot.
So sad. It was so sad, but then we would call “cut” and Bowdie would pop his head up like, Did I do a good job, guys? He's just looking around so cute and we're like, Oh we've got to get him out of the cage. He's just really happy to know he did a good job. It was a little easier for us to film it than it is for people to watch it I think.
When he doesn't come out when the doors open, are people telling him to wait?
Mm-hmm, so it’s a little bit of movie magic. Basically someone hand-motioning, asking him to come, but they're actually saying, Stay, stay, Bowdie, stay.
There are certain moments when Beth is sent away, and you can hear Gatsby whimpering. Are those sound effects that are added in or you actually did get a response from him?
Our sound guy, Demetri, is pretty amazing, and I know he did a lot of additional recording of Bowdie, so even if it's not from that exact moment, which I think that it is, it is from Bowdie another time.
How long did these episodes take to shoot, and was it much longer than your average episode?
I think it was just a week, but I'm not totally sure. It was pretty normal, but we were obviously trying to do a lot of stuff, and everyone was like, This is a lot of stuff to do with a dog. But luckily we got the best dog in the world.
You talked about the most difficult thing just getting his head of the window. Was there other stuff where he just responded more naturally to?
Well he just loves [Yael], so any time she wanted him to go to her, that was easy. That was so easy. He wanted to be around her. He wanted to jump up with her. That was probably the easiest, the chemistry between the two leads. It's not in his nature to be rough or mean, he's really calm, so when we had to have him bark at certain people, we had to try to add a little bit. He's just a very calm dog. It made everybody on the crew want to have a dog, and to specifically have that dog. Probably the hardest thing for everyone was not touching him. When you see an amazing dog like that you want to pet them and talk to them, and you're not allowed because he's a working dog and he needs to concentrate. The same way you wouldn't go up to an actor and just be talking to them. It was so hard.
I can't even imagine.
He's got these amazing eyes that look like human eyes. They're really special. My favorite thing was when we finally wrapped I got to hug the dog. I was like finally.
Was there a feeling that you were going for in terms of how we should be empathizing with this dog?
Really we wanted what we want for every character in High Maintenance, which is to portray them honestly and authentically. There are good moments and there are bad moments, but especially with Gatsby, we wanted the audience to go on the same emotional journey he was on, which is, he has such a love of life, and then you move to the big city and you think there's all these possibilities. Then maybe it doesn't work out the way you think it's going to, and then eventually you find how you fit into that city. I think a lot of people, when they move to New York, experience that. We definitely never wanted anyone to feel like, Oh we're watching a dog. Instead they're like, Oh I feel the same way this dog feels. I'm completely empathizing and putting myself in his shoes.
The other reason I think Ben and Katja were drawn to this story was, you see these giant dogs in New York and you're like, Where do they live and what is the story behind those people?
I often think about dogs too in New York, and it can feel a little cruel if you don't have the space. Was there a sense of trying to get that across, like, maybe this is not an easy life if you're inside all day as a dog?
Yeah, definitely. You can feel when we get out of the apartment there's all the movement. There's all the beautiful trees and light going into the trees, and you feel like you're connected with everything and you can feel him light up. The camera is moving and everything is very dynamic. When we're inside the house there's still some movement, but it's a lot more still. The camera is more still. You feel more contained within these walls. The question is also like, when you see gutter punks on the street with a dog, and you're like, Oh my god, that poor dog, but actually, they're with their person 24 hours a day. They're out around outside. Obviously, the weather conditions —we're portraying the best season, so it's more complicated than that — but there are so many sides to each thing.
When he chooses, too — like, here's the girl I have a crush on, but here's my real love. Another interesting thing — he has his fantasy of looking at Beth drinking from the water fountain, and at the end, he is looking at his new lady drinking water. But she gives him some water first, and then he's watching her and it's just a straight realistic shot. So it's kind of that difference between your first crush on someone or the first person you're with — you're never going to end up with them, but it's so amazing and silly and fun. And then it's one of your later loves, where you can see them exactly as they are and you still feel that way about them. It's a lot to put into two images, and maybe people don't get that, but that was the idea — that conscious feeling of, he didn't need a dream sequence for this girl.
I hadn't thought about that, but you definitely get that feeling. And the fact that Beth doesn't recognize him — your first crush isn't thinking about you the way you are.
Yeah, and I feel like that happens a lot in relationships — one person is still invested and built it up in their head that it’s more than it could ever be, and that's usually the imbalance that causes it to be a problem. And then it's when you find someone around that you have the same intensity with, then it works out.
This interview has been edited and condensed.