The moving story of a woman with a broken heart and the service dog who saves her life.
Interview with Director/Producer Melissa Dowler
Congratulations! Why did you make your film?
Do you find the stories that you’re supposed to tell, or do they find you? In this case, it was a little of both.
My subject, Marty, lived across the hall from me. I saw her around with her service dog, Adele, but one day she asked me a question: could my company, Long Haul Films, help her with a fundraising video, as she needed to raise money to get a new service dog?
Intrigued, I asked her to tell me her story. That’s when I learned why Marty had a service dog: she has an untreatable heart condition called vasovagal syncope and for years, that condition not only went undiagnosed, but it caused her to pass out every day. She described her life before Adele: going out to run an errand or pick her son up from school only to wake up in the back of an ambulance.
The worst thing for Marty was that because her illness is “invisible,” nobody understood what she was experiencing. It was only when she got Adele, one of the world’s first cardiac alert service dogs, that she found another being who completely understood her illness. Adele could sense when Marty’s heart was getting weak, and warn her to slow down or sit before she fainted. She saw right to Marty’s heart and accepted it just as it was, a little bit broken.
When Marty approached me, Adele was about to retire after nine years by her side all day, every day. Marty was frightened of letting go of that bond. She was terrified that a new dog might not understand her the way Adele did, and feared going back to how sick and helpless she felt before Adele came along.
I knew right away that I wanted to make a documentary about Marty’s life-changing partnership with Adele and the process of opening her heart to a successor dog. As time went on, I realized that what drew me to this story was that I grew up with women in my family who struggled with invisible illnesses, and through documenting Marty’s struggles, I processed my own feelings about illness and independence; and about what strength looks like for different people.
Imagine I’m a member of the audience. Why should I watch this film?
If the events happening in our country and around the world show us anything, it’s that we have an empathy problem. Our technology-fueled lifestyles are making us increasingly isolated, and we find ourselves cut-off from connecting with people who have different life experiences.
In this world, I believe films— and especially documentary films— are more relevant than ever. Adele and Everything After is an intimate and authentic look into a life. It was filmed over the course of three years, and it follows Marty through moments of triumph, and also through challenging lows. For the audience, it’s a window into a real life and, most importantly, a film about a woman with an illness; a segment of society that is often ignored, minimized and misunderstood. Marty puts a relatable human face on to a story of overcoming the challenges of an invisible illness, and audience members will see the world a little differently when they experience it through her eyes.
This is also a film for dog lovers, and anyone who has ever had a special bond with a dog will resonate deeply with the relationship between Marty and Adele. Audiences are amazed to learn more about service dogs and what they’re capable of: from detecting seizures to helping with the laundry and household chores. The film is a window into the incredible abilities of these highly skilled dogs.
How do personal and universal themes work in your film?
The connection between Marty and Adele is amazing to behold, and as we worked on the final edit of the movie, we realized that it wasn’t a film about service dogs, it was a film about a transformational relationship. Marty and Adele’s story is a true love story; about a bond that goes all the way to the heart. Anyone who understands that kind of bond, whether it’s with a beloved pet or another person, will resonate with the themes of this movie.
It’s also about something we all have to learn how to do at some point in life, which is letting go. The original title of the film was Letting Go of Adele, and that’s because the film documents Marty as she comes to terms with the thing she most fears: no longer having Adele by her side as her service dog. Yet, the most compelling and resonant thing about the film is what Marty learned through the process of letting go: that the most difficult and painful challenges of our lives are also the experiences that teach us how strong we are.
We have a lot of movie tropes about what heroes look like. Marty is not your traditional hero, and yet she is a tireless fighter for her own health and independence. Marty could have accepted her fate, but instead she demanded to be seen, to be heard, to be taken seriously. For so many women, Marty is a real role model: someone whose strength, bravery and perseverance is quiet, but so effective.
How have the script and film evolved over the course of their development?
In documentary, you have to accept that whatever you think your story is when you start out, it will become something different along the way.
There was no better example of this for me than the trip we took to Dallas, Texas, to film Marty where she grew up. I'd had trouble getting Marty to open up in interviews, and I had a vision for how the trip was going to go. I expected that Marty’s oldest friends and closest family would reveal juicy insights about her struggles.
But as I filmed with them, it was clear that Marty’s friends didn’t have much to say about her struggles. They brushed off questions about how sick she’d been as a child, and had almost no insight into what she’d gone through as a young woman who fainted regularly, suffered multiple concussions and spent her days in and out of the hospital.
I started to panic: I had flown to Texas and had nothing to show for it. After several months of production, I didn't think we had a film.
We planned to interview Marty the last morning of the trip. She wasn’t feeling well and asked if we could sit on the floor in the living room. I looked at Megan, the camera operator, and she gave me a nod. Marty let Adele out of her harness, and she rolled around on her back in delight. The mood felt different: somehow more intimate than any other time we’d filmed.
Marty told us what it was like to be a sick child in Texas, where women hid their pain behind bright lipstick and big hair. She spoke of the loneliness that came from spending so much time convalescing. The interviews I'd conducted with her parents and friends — the ones I'd thought were a disaster — had revealed something big: for decades, Marty tried to hide her illness. It was only when Adele came along that another being saw and accepted her for who she was. And that allowed Marty to accept herself.
As a filmmaker, my deepest moments of doubt about the film ended up leading to my main character’s greatest revelations. It taught me a documentary filmmaking lesson I’ll never forget: that your story doesn’t always evolve in the way you expect or according to the timetable you plan. But if you give it the space to unfold, it will reveal its truth to you.
What type of feedback have you received so far?
We’ve shown the film at more than 15 festivals and special screenings around the country, and talked about its themes to people in cities and towns from all different walks of life.
By far, the piece of feedback that touched me the most came during the film’s world premiere at the Cleveland International Film Festival. A man attended the film with his daughter, a young woman who has vasovagal syncope, just like Marty, and recently got a service dog to help her regain the independence she lost to ongoing fainting spells. This Father pulled me aside after the screening, and with tears in his eyes, told me that he had struggled to understand his daughter’s illness, and had wondered if there was a way she could push herself harder and get past it.
Seeing Marty’s experience on screen opened his eyes to his own daughter’s experience, and it legitimized her struggle. He said that he would never again doubt or diminish her illness. Knowing that the film had this kind of impact on a family relationship made me feel so validated, and my hope is that the movie will continue to connect with people on this level.
Has the feedback surprised or challenged your point of view?
The most surprising feedback I heard was that we had to make the film “less emotional”. I was told that I could show Marty crying once or twice, but any more than that would be too much for audiences. This surprised me, because as a viewer, if a movie makes me cry, I’m grateful that it’s taken me on such a powerful emotional journey.
I wondered if someone would tell the director of a horror movie that he shouldn’t have so many scary scenes, or the director of a comedy that there were too many laughs (“it’s a great film, but could you make it a little less funny?”). The feedback made me think back to other times in my professional life, when I’d been told to be less emotional, as if being in touch with difficult feelings is something to hide.
Of course, I understand that not everyone wants to go to the movies and feel sad. But the opposite is true, as well. Sometimes, a comedy feels all wrong. I made a movie about a woman’s painful and ultimately life-affirming journey. Of course there are tears. There’s so much content out there, and it’s hard to find your audience when you have a small budget. You need a strong sense of what your movie is about, who it’s for and why they want to watch it.
Ultimately, I believed that the type of person who wants to see this movie will also appreciate the fact that it will touch their heart, and inspire them to shed a tear as they think about the meaningful relationships that have impacted their own lives.
What are you looking to achieve by having your film more visible on www.wearemovingstories.com?
Films made my women tend to get smaller distribution deals, less exposure and less favorable reviews in the male-dominated media world. I respect We Are Moving Stories and its commitment to featuring films by and about women, and I believe that this film, which is about a woman and which has a female director and majority female crew, will be exactly the kind of movie that will appeal to readers of the site, and which could fly under the radar of other publications.
This movie has a mission: I promised Marty that if she let me and my crew follow her for three years during the toughest time of her life, that I would do everything I could to get the movie out to the widest possible audience. Marty’s hope for the movie is that it helps other people struggling with invisible illnesses, and those who might not even realize that a service dog could help them. I hope that people who read this story will click on over to iTunes and rent or buy the movie and spread the word about it.
Who do you need to come on board (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists) to amplify this film’s message?
This is my debut feature documentary, made on a micro-budget and thanks to a lot of passion, commitment and hard work from the team who believed we had a great story and came to care about Marty and Adele and their journey. The reception that the film has received far exceeded our dreams for it, including becoming an Official Selection at more than 15 festivals and winning awards at 5 different festivals, including Best Documentary at Long Beach Indie International and the Audience Award for Best Film at NorthwestFest in Edmonton, Canada.
We were thrilled that the film was picked up for distribution by Gravitas Ventures, who saw its world premiere and believed that it would connect with audiences.
So that’s what we need right now: people to watch this film on iTunes and Amazon, write reviews about how much they enjoyed it, post on social media to get their friends to do the same and generally help us get the movie in front of more people across North America.
What type of impact and/or reception would you like this film to have?
We believe this is an emotional, informational, entertaining and ultimately uplifting film. It’s about a transformational relationship and it’s been a transformational journey to make it. Now, we hope for as many people as possible to see it, connect with it and learn from it. And we’d love if the movie inspires more people to support Canine Partners for Life. It's the non-profit organization featured in the film, where Adele was bred and trained. Their selfless work really does change lives.
What’s a key question that will help spark a debate or begin a conversation about this film?
Can you imagine what it would be like to have a mysterious heart condition that caused you to faint every day, multiple times a day, without any warning?
What are the key creatives developing or working on now?
Adele and Everything After was brought into the world by husband and wife filmmaking team Melissa Dowler and Tom Dowler. Next up, they’re completing a documentary called Restarting the Motor City, about how Detroit is reinventing itself for the 21st century. Following that, the team will write, produce and direct a narrative feature film about a young woman’s coming of age in late 1990s London.
Interview: January 2018
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Adele and Everything After
The moving story of a woman with a broken heart and the service dog who saves her life.
Length: 86 minutes
Director: Melissa Dowler
Producer: Melissa Dowler and Tom Dowler
About the writer, director and producer:
Director Melissa Dowler’s mission as a filmmaker is to share more women’s stories. Her award-winning work focuses on ordinary people experiencing extraordinary transformation.
Producer and Director of Photography Tom Dowler is co-founder of Long Haul Films. A multi-talented filmmaker, his work has screened in theaters, on television and digital platforms.
Marty: a wife, mother and artist struggling with a heart condition that makes her pass out every day
Adele: One of the world’s first cardiac alert service dogs
Dr. Januzzi: Cardiac specialist who diagnoses Marty’s rare condition
Darlene Sullivan: Founder and Executive Director of Canine Partners for Life, the non-profit where Adele was trained
Looking for: People to watch the film and spread the word about its message
Social media handles:
Where can I see it in the coming months? The film is available to pre-order now on iTunes (adelemovie.com/itunes) and can be rented or purchased on Amazon from January 30th, 2018 as well as available on a host of other channels. Visit adeleandeverythingafter.com for more information.