‘DOG*WALK’s’ Kristin Peterson on directing small subjects and keeping the fun in film

“‘Never work with animals or children,’ sounded like a challenge. I was feeling brave.”

Claudia Lasiowski and Tabitha McKay arrive on a neighbor’s front steps with an offer to walk her dog for the questionable price of $20. All proceeds go to helping fight spina bifida, or so they claim. In actuality, the girls spend much of their time rocking out in their garage. The dog is returned, cash is pocketed, and the grownups are none the wiser.

The services provided in DOG*WALK are most definitely for a good cause, but it’s not because of its two troublemaking girls. Director Kristin Peterson mixes relatively innocent shenanigans with punk rock gusto and an in-your-face jukebox soundtrack for a short film that clowns on the adults in the room while keeping them in on the joke. After screening her film at the Milwaukee Film Festival’s “Milwaukee Show” and then the Central Wisconsin Film Festival earlier this month, I asked Peterson about writing with the darkly comedic Jon Phillips and directing two of cinema’s most notoriously challenging subjects:

I’ve read good things about this year’s “Milwaukee Show,” which seems like it’s been a gamble at past festivals. Were you in the audience for DOG*WALK? What was the reaction like?

Kristin: I was in the audience with the majority of my crew and two of our three actresses. The room was very receptive! It’s always reassuring to hear an audience laugh where I wrote jokes, and it’s equally reassuring to hear the audience laugh where I had not expected laughter!

The festival’s director Jonathan Jackson invited the cast and crew up for questions. I was anxious beforehand about what questions he would ask because we had screened the short at a Works in Progress event in May where he and two other local filmmakers led a discussion and critique. The editor and I worked with their advice and submitted a final edit to the festival. I had no idea what else he had to comment on.

Dogs and kids have difficult reputations on movie sets. You chose to work with both.

Kristin: My first step in the process was making a list of my assets. I don’t have many resources (high-quality camera, lights, $) and it is increasingly difficult after graduation to gain cheap/free access to filmmaking resources. I was sort of in the film program at UW-Milwaukee, so my assets were my experience with children and animals, my parents’ home, and the set of very talented pals I had the pleasure of going to school with. For many years I was a play therapist for children with disabilities, a babysitter, and generally just the one that made the kids laugh at family gatherings. I am also a big fan of dogs. That W.C. Fields’ quote, “Never work with animals or children,” sounded like a challenge. I was feeling brave. I said, boldly, “If anyone can, I can.”

Of course there was some crying, and the two shooting days went very long, 12 – 14 hours. But the girls were great and their mothers were on set to help regulate them. The girls also flirted with our grips, so there was some entertainment. My mother did much to keep them entertained.

As for the dog, his name is Chewie, and he is the best dog on the planet. But there was one challenge. I had wrote in the script that the dog would be led into the kennel and there were a set of shots were planned for this. But I had not anticipated Chewie wouldn’t go into the kennel. The owner and our crew tried to throw ham into it, but he wouldn’t go in. So our cinematographer and the two grips just placed him in there. He forgave us quickly.

DOG*WALK uses a lot of music to shift its tone, and I love the choices you’ve made, especially the metal riffs that bookend the girls’ doorstep pitches. Were you aiming for a disjointed feeling?

Kristin: After programming for the Beloit Film Festival for two-ish years and seeing what could be up to thousands of shorts, I wanted to make a film that would keep even a weary programmer’s attention. So I went for a story that could serve a fun and unexpected juxtaposition: the hard, heavy music against the the soft, little faces of girls. But the music is not just juxtaposition. It emphasizes the diabolical decision for the girls to, essentially, kidnap a neighbor’s dog. Plus, punk and metal are fun, and I was not in the business of making an un-fun film.

This was a collaboration between, among your cast and crew, you and Jon Phillips. I’m familiar with Jon’s work, which in my opinion can have a warped, darkly comedic sensibility to it. Did you find a middle ground in your respective approaches or was it a unified effort from the beginning?

Kristin: Jon and I have written together for many years and we have gotten to know each others’ aesthetics and sensibilities. Our storytelling and humor are very compatible, albeit very different. I lean toward exuberance, visual jokes and unexpected characters. Jon definitely plays with warped comedy more than I do. Currently, we’re working on a half-hour sketch comedy show. With my playfulness and his sordid characters, it will be a lot of fun.

The story for the short comes from an anecdote from my childhood. At a cafe, I told Jon about it after complaining about how many independent films fall short of entertaining an audience. We took our notebooks out, wrote an outline and produced a short film the next month. It was at that cafe that I decided on the aesthetics and the short’s gimmicks. It was a great and unexpected day.

DOG*WALK was also accepted into this year’s Central Wisconsin Film Festival. Where else can people see this in the near future?

Kristin: We got news it will be screening at the LA International Children’s Film Festival on Dec 12. I have also submitted the short to over 40 festivals, a number of which are focused on children’s media.

What are your plans next?

Kristin: Besides sketch comedy with Jon, I am in pre-production for a short film about a stand-up comedian’s walk home on New Years’ Eve’s Eve. I’m also working on a screenplay for a feature that I intend to produce in a couple of years, and I am in the midst of directing a documentary about the challenges of volunteer firefighting in Wisconsin. Currently, I’m co-producing Jon Phillips’ short Needlepoint, due to start filming this winter.