Director’s Statement from Stacey M. Zipfel

One of the things I both love and hate about documentary filmmaking is the fluidity of stories. The process, unlike scripted material or perhaps a documentary on a historical subject, has no rules. Sure, I made an outline and had an idea of the road I wanted to take and the vehicle I wanted to travel in….and then I promptly threw it in the air as the stories took on a life of their own. My Friend: Standing Strong certainly tested my ability to think on my feet and adapt – and when I wasn’t pulling my hair out, I was loving every stressful second of it. 

We knew from the onset, we had a challenge by the subject matter alone. How do we tell stories and relay desperately needed medical information about a subject with a high mortality rate AND treatments that scare the daylights out of people…without making the audience want to jump off the nearest bridge? My idea was to hit it head on in the cold open by letting the viewer into the heart of the doctor that has to give the diagnosis daily and showing the confusion and heartbreak of the pet owner that has to hear it. Yes, we say terminal disease right out of the gate. I decided to make the film every bit as much of Dr. Avenelle Turner’s journey as is the dogs we follow.  

Best filed under the heading “The best laid plans…” we began production. While conducting our first round of interviews at Cornell, I got my first glimpse into the wild ride our stories would become. Cancer was not only messing with these beautiful dogs and families, it felt as if it was trying to stop me from educating owners about its secrets. Schedules changed, surgery dates changed, prognosis changed…and in the midst of it I decided to embrace it all. Quite often Terry, our EP and eventual 2nd Unit Director, was running out with a GoPro to capture an impromptu oncology appointment. Now I am a firm believer that if a shoot goes awry, more often than not, something better than what was planned shakes out. I actually believe adversity in life, and in this case filmmaking, is a gift. I just had to ride the wave. Those “oh no” moments without fancy equipment added so much life to the film…so again, adversity gave way to giving a deeper soul to the project. 

About 2 months prior to production, CLEAR began a community outreach experiment, which is affectionately called a “Canine Cancer Pop Up Talk.” At these events, Dr. Avenelle “Avey” Turner gives a very informal lecture on the facts and fiction about canine cancer. Dr. Turner brilliantly removes the scary from the c-word. I decided a Pop-Up Talk would be the perfect way to transition stories and information while breaking up talking heads that can (let’s face it) become boring. I wanted to be sure to let Dr. Turner be herself because she is so engaging. Avey is not an actor, so I wanted her to be as comfortable as one can possibly be with camera’s pointed at them. I was not going to stop and start, I was not going to interrupt once the Pop Up began – we had one stationary camera and one b-cam for coverage, so our little crew had to get right. We shot several talking points that we needed prior to the audience attending to have in the can and then when the actual talk began, I just let her go. One very long hour and half take. I think she did a great job.  

I was against using a voice over professional to narrate. In truth, I didn’t want narration at all, but as our stories twisted and turned, it eventually became needed. So, lemonade from lemons, poor Dr. Turner was recruited for VO duties. I just made sure it was written as Dr. Turner telling her story and in her voice. I tend to write flowery and wordy, for lack of a better term. I really listened to the way Avey spoke and did my best to write the small bit of narration, as she would naturally say what was in my head. Again, she knocked it out of the park. 

I can say without hesitation that this project was the best team I have ever had the pleasure of working with. We all collaborated, there were no egos…and there is a piece of each of us in My Friend: Standing Strong.