Exclusive Interview with Brean Cunningham and Doug Seirup of 'Dogs On The Inside'
Dogs On The Inside follows the relationships between neglected and abused dogs from a rescue shelter in Mississippi and minimum security inmates at a Massachusetts correction facility.
The documentary follows the dogs as they are rescued from the streets of Mississippi and then put through a program called Don’t Throw Us Away in which the dogs are paired with inmates. The inmates and their furry friends soon develop a special bond with each other as both man and man’s best friend realize they can heal from their battered pasts as they learn to love again and work together towards a better life.
The documentary, which Ecorazzi has reviewed, comes from filmmakers Brean Cunningham and Douglas Seirup. In 2011, the pair founded Expect Miracles Productions after successfully working together on Doug’s doc directorial debut, “Expect Miracles,” a story out of central Appalachia about a family in need and a group of people ready to help. Through their production company, the pair is dedicated to projects that impact others and bring about positive change.
Ecorazzi had the pleasure of speaking with both Brean and Doug about their experience with working on Dogs On The Inside.
What inspired you to tackle this subject?
Brean: We love dogs, is the simple answer. To go a little further, looking at the landscape of the films that were out there, we saw that some documentaries were sending out a negative message and kind of making you feel ineffectual. So we wanted to put something out there that was on the opposite end of the spectrum that was positive and made you think you could do something after you saw it. So whether you watched it at home or at the theatre, you’d say, “Oh, cool. That’s a great story. How can I get involved?” In regards to dogs, that was a wide topic but we narrowed it down when we found this program, Don’t Throw Us Away, that really was a unique way of showing the human-animal bond and to hold people’s attention while giving them good messages of having dogs in your life.
Why did you want to pursue the particular topic of rescue dogs initially?
Brean: We kind of discovered it by accident. We knew about it. We’ve seen the commercials on TV and think, “Oh, this is terrible what’s going on with dogs across the country and the world.” But once we discovered this program, we really educated ourselves further about, how many dogs are euthanized? How many dogs are sitting in shelters? And then when we went down to Mississippi, we saw it first hand and it’s very real. Those big numbers are really hard to comprehend. 2.7 million dogs are put down a year. And when you see ten dogs on the streets full of mange and starving, it’s heart-wrenching.
What was it like to film in Mississippi and witness those abandoned dogs?
Doug: Filming in Mississippi was eye-opening. The animal overpopulation situation…I had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. Driving in the car around Mississippi, there’d be these dogs running around through the streets, through the woods, everywhere. What was amazing about it, on a positive note, was that the [animal rescuers] we worked with, David, Mary and Connie, they were just on the front lines during their spare time. They have full-time jobs but they do this on the side because they know they are making a difference. And it was amazing to work with them and to capture them on film. We could put a face to them and recognize them for all the good that they’re doing. They’re helping these dogs find their forever homes.
How vital do you think rescue shelters are for pet adoption?
Brean: I think they’re vital to the welfare of dogs and cats. Without them, I suppose you’d have a lot of inhumane treatment of animals who are going to be suffering unnecessarily, not getting attention, lots of neglect and abuse. There’s a darker element to it. But what Doug mentioned earlier, there are a lot of people who are taking their time and their energy to give dogs a better life. I think it’s kind of incomprehensible how many great souls are out there, across the country, who are taking the time to not give up. They can’t do everything. David said in the film, “You can’t do everything,” but you can’t be sitting around and shaking your head. We want their work to be recognized through this film because it’s hugely important.
What were some of the challenges that you faced in order to get the film made?
Doug: One of the main challenges of making this film was the prison only gave us three days to film so we had to use our time wisely, to say the least. So we spread that out over the course of a few months so we could capture the transformation of both the dogs and the inmates. From the time when [the dogs] first arrived at the prison to when they were adopted by their families at the end of the film.
I was surprised and touched about how much empathy the prisoners could have for the dogs and really not for themselves. What most surprised you while filming that you didn’t expect?
Doug: I think one of the things that I was most surprised about was when Brean and I went to the prison without cameras to meet the guys and the dogs there, and just while walking on the grounds and within the first thirty minutes of meeting the guys, the bond that the dogs and the inmates shared with each other was so apparent. I could feel it. That’s what really drove us and got us excited about making this film. We knew we had a story to tell. Almost like a moral and social responsibility. This program is extremely beneficial and making a difference.
Brean: I agree with everything that Doug said. And you mentioned about the empathy that the inmates had for the dogs and that’s true. I think there’s this innocence with dogs, just like children, you just want to love them unconditionally and I think that’s part of the reason why the bond was so instantaneous. Another thing that surprised us was how prison sort of dissolved for us. We never forgot where we were, and we were reminded repeatedly, but these guys had done their time and had reformed and rehabilitated and got it, so the last thing they wanted to do was screw up. So how that carried over was that a lot of guys have these turf wars and didn’t get along, but that too dissolved for the betterment of the dogs. It was like divorced parents working who need to work together for the sake of the child. I think we saw that [the prisoners] were like, “Listen, let’s put our petty differences aside and work together to get dogs to trust humans again so they can find a good home.”
Do you feel these prisoners were genuinely aided in their rehabilitation by the dogs?
Brean: They definitely were. Candido, for one. Absolutely. Transformed is a really strong word and you could say that, and I think he would agree. And on maybe a lesser level than that, a lot more healed. From caring for another creature, and I think when you introduce that to these guys, when they come back into society, they’re going to be more patient, more caring, they’re going to feel like they connected with something. And we saw it. I think there was a definite change in these men.
Doug: Yeah, I agree. These dogs, they just gave them a sense of purpose. To get through their time and to do the best they can with the time they had and it really made them better. The dogs made them better.
Why do you feel the program, Don’t Throw Us Away, is so important? Why should other prisons adopt it?
Doug: I think the program is so important because it’s helping. It’s helping everyone involved. The animal overpopulation, there’s a surplus of dogs, and if they can be fostered at a prison, these men and women can be for caring for them, providing for them and nurturing them before their forever home. That’s just remarkable. It’s just doing better for society.
Brean: I think it’s a progressive program. There’s a couple throughout the country. We would argue that tough love isn’t as effective as love. And if we’re really serious about rehabilitating men and women in our prison system and giving them a second chance then the dogs in prison in this capacity is a no brainer. It’s really good for both people and dogs.
Do you know what happened to any of the inmates or the dogs after the shoot?
Brean: We do. We kept in touch with Candido. He’s watched the film and is very supportive. He’s doing well. We kept in touch with the other dogs. Sadie, we were able to film an update for her. That’s going to be apart of the DVD extras, as well as an update on Candido. We’re going to give viewers a chance to reconnect with them. We got in touch with Rob, who loved Sadie, and he seems to be doing really well.
What is your favorite moment in the film?
Brean: Good question.
Doug: Yeah, really. Where to begin. For me, I would say its when Candido starts to get emotional when he discussing his past. I remember it was one of the first interviews we filmed on the first day. And right away, it had us hooked. Everything he said, he’s a big teddy bear, and everything he said, he gave us these amazing lines to work with, and as a filmmaker, that’s gold. But at the same time you can feel it, and it’s all genuine and that’s what makes it so heartfelt. And getting to know all of the guys and whatnot, it provided such a sense of pride for making this film. But that scene in particular is something we’ll always remember for a good reason.
Brean: My answer would be Candido also, but, in a different moment. When he’s washing Byram [his dog] on graduation day and that’s a quiet, tender moment and he reveals he’s got parole and he called his parents and they were happy for him. And what was cool about it is he seemed happier for Byram for getting out than himself. There’s a mutual affection for each other. He saw the parallels between Byram and himself and that’s one of the themes we wanted to convey while making this film.
What do you want the audience to take away after viewing your film?
Doug: I want people to know they themselves can make a difference. The actions they can choose to take, whether it’s volunteering your time at a rescue shelter, adopting a dog, just anything can turn into action. That’s one of the main reasons why we made this film. So average people can feel that they can take action and make a difference.
Brean: From a human being perspective, I want people to see the wonder of dogs and the magic of the human and animal connection and consider getting a dog for themselves because they can change your lives in many ways. As a filmmaker, I want people to know there are many different stories out there. Stories of hope, stories that can inspire you and we intend to keep putting those out there.
Would you be interested in making another documentary about another animal issue or topic?
Doug: Oh, absolutely. It’s fun. It’s fun to tell a popular story and work with animals. It’s kind of a dream job. And knowing that you’re helping with animals in need, that’s just goes a long way. It’s incredibly rewarding.
Brean: I agree with everything Doug said. And there’s another great animal film that came out called “Virunga” and I think doing a piece on conservation and protecting animals would be super important to me and compelling. I think it’s needed. I think when you love something, you save it. And if you’re aware of what’s going on, if you’re aware of these dogs and shelters, of these dogs who are homeless and starving, if you’re aware, you’ll do something about it. But if you’re not, then why would you be compelled to even care? I think animals are in Doug’s and my D.N.A. We love them and I think we’ll definitely be on the lookout for the next story.
Dogs On The Inside is available Feb. 10 on digital VOD (iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Instant Video, Vudu), in addition to dogsontheinside.com. It will then be released on DVD on Feb. 24.