When Alex Wolf Lewis had been thinking about ideas for a documentary, it turned out he needn’t look any further than his Uncle Larry and Aunt Barbara’s house. However, thinking they might not be the most obvious movie stars, the two were even more perplexed when Lewis told them he planned to shine a spotlight on their largely lethargic pet turtle Snowy.
“They were super supportive, but every chance Uncle Larry could get, he’d be like, ‘I just don’t understand why you’re making a movie about me and my turtle,’” laughs Wolf. “‘I don’t know who’s going to want to watch this.’”
He’s likely in store for a surprise, as are audiences with “Snowy,” the delightful documentary short that Lewis has made with Kaitlyn Schwalje with an unexpectedly captivating protagonist. Although Snowy isn’t much for showing much passion, with Uncle Larry losing count of how many years he’s been in the family (the number is somewhere over 25), luring him out of his shell becomes seriously intriguing when Lewis and Schwalje explore what the reptile is feeling as a guest in Larry and Barbara’s home, seemingly content in a quiet spot in the basement but only occasionally engaged with. The combination of Lewis, a talented cinematographer, and the scientific know how of Schwalje, who studied at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, produces and fun and thoughtful investigation into the emotional lives of pets that takes them across the Atlantic and back to Philadelphia where Lewis’ extended family resides, uncovering small expressive gestures with the help of British-based doctor Dr. Anna Wilkinson that might be imperceptible to the average pet owner yet profound.
As serious as the implications of what Lewis and Schwalje find when they start to observe a shift in Snowy’s behavior with Uncle Larry making a few minor adjustments to his living arrangements, the film is an utter joy with the time spent in the company of Lewis’ family and available to stream as part of this year’s all-virtual Sundance Film Festival, a wonderful opportunity to visit a most welcoming household. On the eve of the film’s premiere, Lewis and Schwalje spoke about literally looking within to find such a fascinating subject for a film, the complementary strengths they could bring to bear on it and how much went into seeing Snowy happy.
How did this come about?
Alex Lewis: Basically, everybody you see in the family is my uncle, my aunt, and my cousins and since I was a kid, I would go to their house for holidays or birthdays and this turtle was just the saddest thing I’d ever seen. Year after year, I’d just be like, “How does this thing still have the will to live?” So instead of just directly talking to my uncle, I spoke to Kaitlyn, [since] we make films together, and she’s like, “We’re going to make a film, and we’re going to improve Snowy’s life.” It was like a call to arms.
Kaitlyn Schwalje: Yeah, when he first described the story to me, I imagined this turtle in the basement, living off crumbs and pieces of cardboard. I really didn’t understand what it meant for a turtle to be living in the basement. But he was in a pretty sad state, and from there, it took off.
Alex actually worked on recently on “Well Groomed,” another film about a person’s connection to their pet and a lot of the crew followed you to make this. Was there a spiritual connection there?
Alex Lewis: Yeah, I didn’t grow up with animals, so it’s weird that I find myself working on all these animal movies, but I think it comes out of my desire to try and understand them because I didn’t.
Kaitlyn Schwalje: And I come from a science journalism background, and I’ve done a lot of reporting on animal stories, stories about cats and archeology.
Alex Lewis: And squirrels in the power grid.
Kaitlyn Schwalje: Squirrels crashing NASDAQ. So there’s definitely a theme of wanting to take the science angle towards understanding the animal mind. It was a good mash up between Alex and circumstance and his family, and me just being always generally curious about doing animal stories.
Alex Lewis: And as a philosophy, we want to just make things that make people feel good. We were worried this might not be a good year for that, but I think it actually maybe worked in our favor and Kaitlyn really brought a deeper level to it about really getting inside the turtle’s head.
Was going to England in the plans from the very start?
Kaitlyn Schwalje: Yeah, I have approached it like I would have a written story, just trying to find characters that I thought would be well suited to the film.
Alex Lewis: But just taking it back one step, we were struggling a little bit with how to end the movie.
Kaitlyn Schwalje: There was an element of “Okay, we get the turtle is sad. We want to do something about it.”
Alex Lewis: We even tried to get my uncle to give up the turtle and send it to a sanctuary, but that didn’t go over well.
Kaitlyn Schwalje: Yeah, we had ideas, he was going to post flyers around the neighborhood that said, “Sad turtle. Please adopt me.” Then, I got in touch with this woman named Dr. Irene Pepperberg, a famous animal scientist who studies the cognition of parrots known for teaching this parrot named Alex how to talk and changing people’s perspectives on what animals, specifically parrots, are capable of. And she said, “I might not be the best expert, but there’s a woman in England named Dr. Anna Wilkinson who runs the cold-blooded cognition lab.”
I got in touch with Anna and she loved the idea of the project and she was like, “Would you come here for an interview?”
Alex Lewis: For the purposes of the story, we had to keep it secret from our family so that we could figure also out the final story component of how to convey the information back to them about this weird journey that we had been on, on behalf of Snowy. I swore my grandmother to secrecy, so word wouldn’t get back to the rest of the family.
Could you actually see a change in Snowy’s expressions as a result of getting all this newfound attention?
Alex Lewis: The biggest thing was when we eventually got him a bigger cage. Instead of just being in a shell all day, he’d have the heat lamps…
Kaitlyn Schwalje: He was basically in a state of persistent hibernation, always in a shell because he was cold. So when he got the heat lamp, he completely livened up. He was exploring his cage. We had like a little bath for him. It was a whole different turtle.
Alex Lewis: Maybe the biggest change was Uncle Larry’s perception of the turtle. He has a great line in there where he’s like, “Oh, I used to just go down and feed the turtle. But now it’s like, ‘Wow, Snowy.'”
Kaitlyn Schwalje: He finally recognized Snowy as this sentient creature that might have an inner world that Larry was previously unaware of.
Alex Lewis: And it was never malicious. They had three kids, they were both working, they had a dog at one point. [When they got Snowy], this is before the Internet when you could Google, “How to take care of my box turtle” and three bazillion hits come up.
Kaitlyn Schwalje: Yeah, they’re like “Feed worms. The end.”
I wanted to ask about the earthworm scene when it’s feeding time for Snowy because you’ve now got this big action set-piece in the middle of the movie. Was that actually an entire day of filming?
Kaitlyn Schwalje: No. We had a lot of false starts. There was a lot of attempting to feed Snowy a worm because he’s in the hibernation, so you throw a worm in there and it’s almost like shaking somebody awake and then giving them a steak and being like, “Eat it. This is the only food you’re going to have today.”
Alex Lewis: The other thing was making this movie was just so much fun, so half of the takes would just devolve into hysterical laughter between me and my uncle and Kaitlyn, so that was probably a couple hours of filming.
Kaitlyn Schwalje: Yeah, Snowy versus the worm was definitely a whole dramatic arc.
Alex Lewis: Yeah, that was definitely a fun challenge to try and figure out ways to project emotions onto this four-inch long prehistoric creature.
Was there anything that happened along the way that you might not have expected, but it made it into the film and you really like about it now?
Kaitlyn Schwalje: Yeah. I think the family really understood the sense of humor of the film, so a lot of the laughter was very self-aware and very in line with whatever was happening and [we could incorporate Larry laughing or engaging us in a silly way to highlight the relationship between the people in front of the camera and behind the camera. There’s more intimacy translated there than we had anticipated and we definitely leaned on that.
Alex Lewis: Also, as a documentary filmmaker, you have an inkling of who is going to be good on camera, but I think we were blown away by how much of superstars everybody in my family is. Everybody was just so funny and so down to participate and getting to know my uncle and my family better was just so fun. Then England definitely came out of left field, but we just let ourselves go with where the story would take us.
Kaitlyn Schwalje: Yeah, we improvise a lot in life with each other coming up with silly ideas and “yes, and-ing” each other all the time, so we we’re like, “Yeah, why the hell not go to England and talk to a turtle expert?” No one would expect that.”
Alex Lewis: Then also our editors contributed so much. Actually the shot where we pan down from the Thanksgiving dinner down to the turtle is a composite VFX shot. And the transition from Anna Wilkinson’s from the lab into the television. That was our editors — they were just amazing, and we just had a synergy between all of us. Everybody – including our producers from “Well Groomed” — seemed to understand what we were going for. And it all came together more than we could have hoped.
I wondered about that shot that panned down from the dining room to the basement. Was it interesting looking at all this stuff you had grown up around in cinematic terms?
Alex Lewis: This was maybe one of the harder projects because I had this fear of insulting my family and it getting back to my grandma or my mom and I’d get in trouble. I just didn’t want to insult them anyway, so I was almost too cautious. Usually, I am able to find that balance a little better., but Kaitlyn was always [saying], “No, it’s okay.”
Kaitlyn Schwalje: Yeah. I think we were a good team for that reason. Of course, I don’t mean to insult them [either], but there’s less at stake for me. I had been there twice for Thanksgiving before we filmed, but then going in with cinematography eyes and see what was happening is like walking into a forest and hearing all the little branches break for the first time when before you were just seeing the big picture. We spent a lot of time staring at the neighbor’s dog to see if that could be a character.
Alex Lewis: One of our big inspirations for us for this movie was Chris Smith’s “American Movie,” looking at the suburbs and just appreciating all the little details that you might miss. And some of the stuff we didn’t end up using, but [we were] just getting B-roll around the neighborhood, and especially that last drone shot [in the film], I was just kind of messing around and it fit perfectly, just putting Snowy’s story into the larger context of [knowing] everybody’s got a pet.