The Real Star of This Week’s ‘High Maintenance’: A Dog

Oct 1, 2016 2:30 am ET

Warning: This post contains spoilers about episode 3 of “High Maintenance.”

Friday night’s episode of “High Maintenance” was about a lot of things—moving to New York for the first time, feeling both isolated and excited by the city, falling in love. But mostly it was about a dog.

Critics have singled out the third episode of the HBO series as one of its best, and a share of the credit goes to a gray poodle mix with a wet mouth and soulful eyes. The first few minutes are almost entirely wordless as the camera tracks Gatsby the dog when he moves with his owner from the suburban Midwest to Queens. People blur into the background at waist level. Dialogue is heard only in muffled fragments.

In New York, Gatsby quickly falls in love with a dog walker named Beth, played by the Australian actress Yael Stone (“Orange Is the New Black”). Gatsby watches her hands as she explains to his owner that she had a religious experience in Brazil that made her believe: “I am a dog.” Hers is the first human face to appear in sharp focus as she greets Gatsby. He pines for her, defends her, even fantasizes about her.

The strange task of telling a love story from a dog’s point of view fell partly to Dagmar Weaver-Madsen, the episode’s director of photography. To prepare for the shoot, Weaver-Madsen watched classic dog movies like “Beethoven” and “Turner & Hooch,” but she knew she didn’t want wide-angle, doggie-cam shots that tell audiences exactly where the animal is looking. Going for something more subtle, she keeps Gatsby in the frame while viewers watch the action over his shoulder and often see exactly what he sees.

Since there was little dialogue to worry about interrupting in several scenes, two or three animal trainers could stand on the sidelines and call directions to the dog, whose real name is Bowdie. They used special commands, squeaky toys and treats. “Just listening to the audio, sometimes all you hear is ‘Bowdie, Bowdie, Bowdie, Bowdie, peanut butter, peanut butter, peanut butter, peanut butter,’” said Weaver-Madsen.

In a dream sequence, Gatsby’s human crush appears dancing on the grass near a bridge in a white flowing dress, a scene inspired by the videos that accompany karaoke lyrics—videos bathed in a golden light that are both ethereal and cheesy. “That’s his idea of a date with her,” Weaver-Madsen said.

When it came time for Gatsby to look overcome with love, a trainer held a bowl of his dog food just off camera and, voila: Drool. At other points, Stone dabbed peanut butter on her body off camera to achieve a similar effect.

Still, there is a limited vocabulary when it comes to expressing dog emotions. When Gatsby is excited to greet Beth, the viewer is led to believe he’s had a small accident. "Aww, you’re a peester meester,” she tells him sweetly.

“Not every dog can be a star,” said Bill Berloni, the dog’s owner and a longtime animal trainer for stage and screen. He calls Bowdie one of only five dogs in his 40-year career who is “almost part-human.”

In 2012, Berloni’s wife saw an online adoption ad for Bowdie, then an 85-pound puppy named Dusky who kept knocking over the children in his Salt Lake City home. The Berlonis were looking for a big shaggy dog to play the lead in a musical they were creating based on the children’s book, “Because of Winn-Dixie.” Berloni flew out to meet the mutt. “I recognized that he was way smarter than his owners,” he said. He brought the poodle mix to the couple’s Connecticut farm and renamed him using the first letters in the musical’s title. Bowdie, who played Nana on NBC’s “Peter Pan Live!,” will appear in a pre-Broadway tryout of “Because of Winn-Dixie” at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival this winter. (Berloni calls the musical, with a score by Duncan Sheik, the first live-theater piece starring a dog.)

While many special dog effects in “High Maintenance” were achieved with editing, Bowdie did have a habit of looking just where the show’s creators needed him to look, even when not directed, Berloni said.

“There are times you say to yourself, ‘I didn’t train him to do that—how did he do that?’” he said. “He could come up to anybody and just melt you. People say he acts like a person in a dog suit.”

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