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“I Could See Myself So Clearly in Her Fear”: Writer/Director Ben Petrie on His Rotterdam-Premiering, Dog-Loving Relationship Comedy, The Heirloom

The Heirloom

“A squirmy treatise on sexual insecurity and relationship oneupmanship” is how I described Ben Petrie’s fifth short film Her Friend Adam when profiling the Canadian writer-director-actor for Filmmaker‘s 2016 25 New Faces list. That film starred Petrie and real-life partner Grace Glowicki as a couple whose relationship is unexpectedly destabilized when he spies a suggestive text message on her phone. He admitted at the time that the short was inspired by a “private lash of jealousy” he experienced in a similar moment with Glowicki, and our profile concluded with him working on a screenplay for this forthcoming first feature.

You can time cut directly from that profile to today as Petrie’s longform debut, The Heirloom, premieres Saturday in the Bright Future section at the 2024 International Film Festival Rotterdam. And I mean you can literally time cut between the two, because as The Heirloom begins, Eric (Petrie again playing some version of himself), spends his days at home toiling on a screenplay he’s spent years on. Regarding his relationship with Glowicki’s character, Allie, it’s less likely to erupt due to an errant text message and, as the film reveals, more likely to be challenged by the various existential questions facing artistic couples in their 30s. As a way of forestalling one of those questions — kids or not — Eric agrees to Allie’s plaintive desire to adopt a rescue dog, Milly, from the Dominican Republic. What follows is both a sweetly affecting dog movie (Milly, tail down, adjusting to her new home, is a well-behaved charmer) and a surprising metafictional relationship comedy as Eric decides to toss his screenplay and make a microbudget pandemic picture tracking the couple’s new canine adventure. The toggling between artifice and emotional authenticity depicted within the film is refracted by the couple’s relationship to the picture itself, which draws from their own lives and experience adopting rescue dog Dilly. Below, I speak to Petrie about abandoning that previous project, working with dogs on set and that permeable line between life and art.

Filmmaker: When you wrote to me about this film, you told me that it draws from you and your partner Grace Glowicki’s real lives. Could you tell me more about that, and specifically whether this was a film that drew from your pandemic experience or was made during your pandemic experience? Particularly when it comes to the scenes with your dog Milly, the film has a doc-like feel as it tracks your process of homing the dog and then all of you adjusting to each other.

Petrie: Certain sections are more or less reenactments from our lives. In November of 2020, Grace and I adopted a sweet, traumatized chihuahua named Dilly, and her arrival instantly bewitched me. I found myself regularly sitting down to work on a script, and instead writing down exactly what had occurred earlier that day, beat for beat, as though it were cinema gold. Dilly was so insanely precious… she cast a spell on everything and rendered it gorgeous. I felt like how my mom always describes feeling when she holds a baby – and she is insane for babies.

I started to have a suffocating feeling that Dilly had opened a porthole to a movie which needed to be made immediately or it would slip away. Grace and I worked together in our living room for a couple weeks to understand what story exactly I was feeling so inspired to tell – which turned out to be a story about our relationship, and what adopting Dilly had made me see about my role in it. By March of 2021 we were shooting. We rented an apartment in Toronto, and moved most of our actual furniture into it, and filmed with a small bubble of collaborators in this bizarro-version of our apartment re-enacting a bizarro version of our relationship for 5 weeks.

Filmmaker: We featured you in our 25 New Faces of 2016, and our write-up concludes with you saying that you are working on your first feature script. Likewise, the character you play in the film is a filmmaker who has been working on his own script for five years. I’m assuming that “The Heirloom” is not that script you were referring to back in 2016. So how did The Heirloom wind up being your first feature, and how are whatever creative frustrations you may have felt during the intervening years represented in the picture?

Petrie: Yes… I worked on a script for a long time, which began with authentic inspiration but which was eventually suffocated out by the desire to make something perfect. I gradually applied more and more pressure onto the script, and became pathologically obsessed with the details of the screenplay, as though the syntax of a particular sentence would be make-or-break for the film. Eventually the project died in my arms, though I continued to futz with the corpse.

When we adopted Dilly, and suddenly I became seized with this raw inspiration, it was like being possessed by an angel of inspiration. There was something about the outward physicalization of her anxiety that shone a pristine light on my own inward, encrypted anxieties. I could see myself so clearly in her fear. I wanted to start filmmaking immediately while that light was still revealing things to me.

I abandoned the project I had been obsessing over for years and swung violently in the other direction, diving immediately into pre-production for this new film, with very little understanding of where it was heading. It was a production launched on blind inspiration, and an existential rebellion against the control freak I had become over my creative process.

Filmmaker: There are so many great works about or featuring dogs — films from Umberto D. to Beethoven, books like The Friend and My Dog Tulip. Were any other dog-centric works of art inspirational to you when making The Heirloom?

Petrie: I tried once or two to watch other dog movies but it felt precarious. The inspiration was a pure signal, and I felt that if I changed stations I might not be able to find it again.

Filmmaker: The film introduces a somewhat meta element midway through, as you and Grace’s character decide to make a film about your experience, which prompts the audience to question the point of view of the ensuing scenes. What led you to this decision, and how do you hope the audience responds to the inherent question posed by these scenes?

Petrie: Eventually, as I started working on this film, I noticed it perverting the way I looked at my dog. I also started to notice that the membrane between my life and the movie was permeable on both sides, and that the movie was starting to pollute the life which inspired it. This all became part of a mental space that I became interested in feeding back into the film. My life and the film about it became sort of a human centipede.

During those sections of The Heirloom I hope that viewers connect with the way that our realities are so convincingly shaped by projection.

Filmmaker: What was the process of getting support for this film? And how much support did you need? I noticed that Telefilm Canada is involved. At what stage did they come on board, and what sort of materials did they require in terms of a formal script, etc.?

Petrie: We had received Telefilm financing through their first features micro budget fund, to produce my overworked screenplay – but because of COVID, they basically offered filmmakers a lot of flexibility to re-write their films to adapt to the constraints of the pandemic. So we were in the unique position of being able to pivot 180 degrees and enter pre-production immediately on this new idea. Telefilm provided our base financing, and then I put in a pinch of money on top of that.

Filmmaker: The film ends with a very tough conversation between you and Grace’s character that points to a possible shift in your relationship, and which ends with a fairly devastating line of yours. To circle back to the first question, how much of this dialogue represented conversations you already had, how much was pure invention for the sake of the film, and how much may have been an actual dialogue between you occurring through the filmmaking process?

Petrie: There’s a lot that’s pilfered from reality, plenty that’s embellished, very little that is totally invented. There is a scene in the first section of the film which is a very faithful depiction of every node of a labyrinthian bicker Grace and I had been having about whether or not to get a dog.

Shooting the final scene was very surreal. We hadn’t had our dog long enough for us to be telling a story in retrospect – eventually we were telling it as it happened. By the time we arrived at filming that final conversation, we were dry on retrospect to re-interpret and really had to expose ourselves to the present. That scene was one of the only scenes I wrote down in advance (most were improvised and shaped in the editing room), but it was written the morning of, and drawn heavily from where we had really found ourselves.Our sound recordist, Ian Reynolds, would often tell Grace and I that he felt intrusive for being there during some of the more intimate conversation scenes. But it was never real-time documentary – it was expressive reenactment.

Filmmaker: Finally, how was Milly to work with? As a former dog owner, I noticed the tail-down posture through the first part of the film. And how is she doing today?

Petrie: I am glad you thought that was our dog! I was very worried that working with a “movie dog” would result in an excruciating bastardization of the beauty I wanted to depict… but I also knew we couldn’t actually film with Dilly, because she was too genuinely vulnerable to expose to the machinery of filmmaking… so I conceded that I would try to find a dog to portray a bizarro-Dilly we’d call Milly.

After asking around, my producer Justin came across Cheers and her trainer Helen. In reality, Cheers is a champion competitor in agility competitions. She is an exceptionally confident dog… but with a spindly body and sort of a naturally haunted look. She looks like a shivering skeleton when she’s excited for a treat. She was a total pleasure to work with.

Once we wrapped shooting, Grace and I took Dilly to the park to meet Cheers. I looked over in one direction and saw Dilly crouched behind Grace, shivering and lifting her paw, and in the other direction Cheers was 10 feet in the air catching a frisbee.

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