For Bay Area filmmakers Dana Nachman and Don Hardy, their latest collaboration, "Pick of the Litter," was a whisker or two different from past films.
For one thing, instead of retelling an event as most documentaries do, this film is told in real time, taking the viewer along on what Hardy called a "roller coaster" of emotions.
For another, Hardy and Nachman had to give their five stars a lot of hugs, and belly rubs.
"Pick of the Litter" follows five Labrador retriever puppies – Potomac, Patriot, Primrose, Poppet, and Phil – from birth through their training to become guide dogs for the blind.
Spoiler alert: Not all of the puppies succeed with the special level of training necessary for guide dogs that must keep their owners out of dangerous situations, even when it means disobeying an order. Of the 800 puppies born each year at the Guide Dogs' headquarters in San Rafael, only 300 graduate and are given to their new owners, chosen from more than 1,000 applicants each year.
Hardy and Nachman had worked with Guide Dogs for the Blind on a few occasions in their role as NBC Bay Area journalists, but the idea to make a documentary came from Nachman's mother.
"My mom is a journalist in New York and she did a series, following the dogs from birth," Nachman says. "So it's stolen from Mom. We're also fans of the competition genre, so it was the perfect opportunity to do both."
The competition is not among the dogs for spots in the program, but in the dogs themselves. Their abilities and talents will determine whether they will eventually wear that special harness and be paired with a blind person. The audience watches as the dogs start their training, and then, as the suspense builds, the fate of each dog is revealed one by one, their names slowly dissolving from the list when they fail to advance through the training.
The film, a Sundance Selects release, begins with stories about how guide dogs have saved lives, including leading a man out of the burning World Trade Center before the collapse and stopping a man from tumbling down a steep stairwell.
We then meet the puppies as they emerge into the world. They are all given names that start with a P, the means by which to keep track of this litter. When the puppies are old enough, they are turned over to puppy raisers for 14 months of basic training.
The dogs are evaluated throughout the process, and if the training falters, they are assigned to new puppy raisers.
All of the dogs get a happy ending, just not always the one expected. Some transfer to other service dog programs, where their talents are better suited. Some become every day pets. Others enter the organization's breeding program.
But even with those happy endings, disappointment is inevitable for the puppy trainers, whether experienced or novice, as they fall in love and then have to give back these pups.
Hardy and Nachman, working with a small crew, followed the dogs for about two years. They encountered plenty of obstacles along the way. Filming took place during one of the Bay Area's wettest winters. Nachman and Hardy had to keep track of five dogs with five different puppy trainers, some of whom changed during the two-year project. And the pace of filming increased during the dogs' final training, with daily shoots for several weeks.
Nachman and Hardy are not new to challenges such as these. The co-founders of KTF Films have a long resume of films. They have written, directed and produced "Witch Hunt;" "The Human Experiment," which was narrated and co-produced by actor Sean Penn; "Love Hate Love;" and "Batkid Begins," the story of a Bay Area boy with cancer, whose dream of being Batkid captured the hearts of a community and nation.
The films, particularly "Batkid," have won awards and acclaim, but Hardy and Nachman say early response to "Litter" is beyond anything they've ever had from audiences.
Chris Benninger, CEO for Guide Dogs for the Blind, has attended several screenings of the film. In each case, she says, the audience has cheered, shouted encouragement to the dogs and cried.
Critics also have been keen on the film, which has scored a 100 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Slate movie critic Marissa Martinelli called it "a movie about dogs that's not really about dogs" but instead about the cadre of volunteers and professionals who guide the puppies from womb to their final destinations.
"For a documentary in which some of the subjects regularly lick the camera," Martinelli wrote, " 'Pick of the Litter' is much more than a puppy parade, educating viewers about what it takes, practically and psychologically, to train a service animal. The wet noses and wagging tails are just a perk."
Bradley Gibson with Film Threat called it an "uncommon near-perfect documentary."
Hardy, who lives in Alameda, jokes that he and Nachman, of Los Altos, are trying to start a social media war for which dog is the most popular. Hardy's favorite is Phil; Nachman has a soft spot for Patriot.
It takes about 250 people, Nachman says, to raise just one dog, and for the most part, each participant doesn't know what happens beyond their role. Small groups handle different aspects. The veterinary technicians who are involved in the births don't know the puppy trainers, who in turn don't know the guide dog center trainers. The film creates a link of all those people to show the complete process.
"They're excited," Hardy says. "They've been working for decades, and it's entrenched in who they are, and now they can point to the film and say 'This is who we are and why we do this.' "
Benninger says the organization is thrilled with the film because it shows the discipline and rigors the dogs experience, while emphasizing how some seemingly harsh decisions are necessary because the lives of their handlers are at stake. Guide Dogs, which receives no government funding, relies on donations and contributions, while providing all services – including dog and veterinary care for the animal's life –for free to the recipients.
"We're very hopeful this will help raise visibility about what Guide Dogs for the Blind is all about," Benninger says, "everything that goes into the training, the arduous process and how much these dogs mean to all the people that their lives touch."