Whenever there is a film where a troubled central character connects with a canine companion that helps him with his problems, any viewer who's seen their fair share of movies may suspect that said dog may not make it all the way to the end. To hear it from Gonzaga graduate Rob Grabow, the writer, director, producer and star of the upcoming film The Year of the Dog, the fate of his character's furry friend is always what he is asked about when discussing his work.
"I get that question so much," the 41-year-old Grabow says with a chuckle over the phone. "What I will say without giving away big spoilers is if people are worried about the dog dying, I think they will feel good about the ending."
The Year of the Dog tells the story of Matt (Grabow), a recovering alcoholic who, after spending 48 hours in the drunk tank, begins a stay at the house of his sponsor, where he hopes to stay sober for a month so he can visit his ailing mother in hospice. It is in the course of this dramatic rocky road to recovery that he meets the energetic Alaskan husky Yup'ik, whom he decides to take in despite already having his hands full taking care of himself. The canine pal opens up a new world for Matt, helping him discover what it will take to slowly climb his way up from rock bottom.
It has been a long road for Gabow to get to the point where people could actually see The Year of the Dog for themselves on the big screen, as they can in hundreds of communities across the country this weekend — including the Village Centre Cinemas Wandermere in Spokane. After initially studying finance as an undergrad at GU and graduating in 2005, he enrolled in grad school at Columbia and studied international affairs. Once his studies were complete, he moved to Seattle and got bit by the performance bug in 2013 after taking his first acting class.
"That was my first exposure, and I was pretty hooked," Grabow says.
The next stop was to go to the Actor's Studio Drama School at Pace University in New York, which helped him form creative connections that he would tap into as he set out to make his debut feature film. Though he had taken on smaller scale projects in the past, the leap to a much bigger production proved to be a different challenge entirely.
"I did one short film before this to see if I could do it, to see if I could get my head around a film production," Grabow says. "I thought a feature would just be like a big short, and it is a completely different beast. Hundreds of people involved, a lot of moving pieces, and by far the hardest professional thing I've ever done."
In the movie, Grabow's Matt forms this bond with the Alaskan husky that helps him find a new community and purpose for his life while he gets clean. It is a restrained, low-budget affair whose story is one that the filmmaker says comes from a personal place.
"When I wrote the film, I was going through a pretty rough patch. Addiction and alcoholism weren't my personal vices, but I know what it's like to feel alone and to be in a lot of emotional pain," Grabow says. "I was trying to explore the theme of connection and give some voice to difficult things from my own life. I think that's what anyone — be it a writer, or an actor, or a comic — we're all trying to give voice to parts of our own experiences."
Bringing this to life was a sprint for Grabow and his team as he says they "shot about 140 scenes in 19 days" in Montana. Getting a wide release was then another matter entirely, but he says they got lucky when it counted.
"Normally with independent films, you go to film festivals and then, if you get some good breaks, you can get digital distribution. But theatrical distribution is super rare," Grabow says. "The big thing that happened was we got very lucky in being allowed to have test screenings at commercial theaters in Montana, thanks to our distributor. We opened at number one in eight of the nine of those theaters against studio films. I think that that's kind of what gave our distributor a sense of confidence that it could do OK with a lot wider release. It was a combo of luck and everyone was just working really, really hard on all kinds of fronts with the film."
Grabow's canine co-star, Caleb, was also working hard, though he did occasionally need some rest during the shoot.
"We had a stunt double dog because there are some scenes where he is pulling the sled in the film, and Caleb didn't like to pull. So we had a double dog that was a really experienced pull dog that absolutely loved it," Grabow says. "But other than that, it was just Caleb."
The Year of the Dog's release is also something Grabow hopes connects people to each other in a thematic and tangible sense.
"We're partnering with local animal shelters in every community where we're opening the film, so that includes the Spokane Humane Society, and we're donating a percentage of what we take home. It's a good reminder that all dogs have value and all human beings have value." ♦
The Year of the Dog screens at the Village Centre Cinemas Wandermere beginning Feb. 24.