November 4, 2021 7:00 AM EDT

Filmmakers Kaitlyn Schwalje and Alex Wolf Lewis decided to make a movie about Snowy the pet turtle after spending Thanksgiving with him one year. Their short documentary is both an investigation into animal happiness and an intervention to improve one turtle’s life.

Snowy is a comedy. But there also seems to be a deeper message?

Alex: It’s easy to take life for granted. It’s even easier to fall into habits and lose sight of the fact that we’re surrounded by incredible people, each a human-shaped time capsule full of story and experience. We’d hoped that Snowy, an insignificant little thing on the order of life forms, could be an accessible way to realize that there’s always room to better understand life experiences outside our own, whether it’s your grandmother, neighbor, or a pet turtle.

Kaitlyn: There’s also something to takeaway from Uncle Larry’s character that we haven’t fully teased out ourselves. Without having all the information, Larry thought he was doing right by Snowy. On the one hand, he fed Snowy well-balanced meals and diligently cleaned his tank. But Snowy was living out his days in a cold dark basement without much warmth or sunlight. For a cold blooded animal, this was far from an ideal habitat. Maybe the moral is that it’s easy to convince ourselves we’re doing right by someone or something, but when more information presents itself we realize what we’re offering is woefully inadequate.

Alex: When working together or coming up with ideas, Kaitlyn and I very much subscribe to the philosophy of YES…AND. We riff and sometimes it gets weird. We even floated the idea of opening the film with Larry reading from a cue card in broken French, “I am the owner of a small pet turtle. I am being forced to read this against my will…” While all ideas are worth trying, not all ideas are good. Our families share a dry and morbid sense of humor which feels like home to us. Uncle Larry and everyone on that side of the family is hilarious. Going to Thanksgiving with them is like watching a Comedy Central roast. Last year, Uncle Larry passed out from laughing too hard.

Kaitlyn: For Snowy, this story is a tragedy, maybe even a horror film. For the audience and for us, it’s a comedy. There’s humor in this contrast.

How did the pandemic factor into the making of Snowy?

Kaitlyn: We wrapped production just before lockdown. Our editors Katharina Stroh and Alexander Heringer (originally from Germany) were back home for a visit and got stuck behind the travel ban. As a result, we ended up doing all of post-production remotely. There were too many zoom calls to count and lots of stretching video conferencing technology to its limits.

Our coloring sessions happened in the middle of winter, at the height of the first outbreak when we were still bleaching our groceries in the bathtub. Filipp Kotsishevskiy, our colorist, set up a monitor on his porch and blacked out the windows with trash bags while we communicated over speaker phone.

Alex: We didn’t intend to make a movie about being in lockdown, but the film helped us make it through that first scary year of the pandemic by keeping us distracted. Snowy the turtle was a source of strength, a kindred spirit. If he could make it through being stuck in a tank for 25 years, we figured we could make it through lockdown.

Why do turtles have such a cult-like following? Who are your favorite pop culture turtles?

Alex: What’s the deal with turtles? The legion of turtle fans out there is still a mystery to us. Maybe it’s their calm disposition that’s refreshing to be around? They really are the anti-dog of house pets. We dug deep into the memory banks to answer this one. In a very particular order: Filburt (Rocko’s Modern Life), Grand Master Oogway (Kung Fu Panda), Bowser, Squirtle, Leonardo (TMNT), and Franklin. Surely, there’s a Jeopardy! question hidden in this fictional turtle question…

What’s the most surprising bit of science you learned making this film?

Kaitlyn: We were shocked to learn just how aware turtles are of their environment. They were a misunderstood species for decades because scientists originally tested them in cold conditions. Turtles don’t do much of anything when they’re cold and the conclusion from these experiments was that turtles are sluggish and mostly unresponsive. Dr. Anna Wilkinson, our turtle expert, corrected these misconceptions. She told us that Snowy is able to recognize Uncle Larry’s face and his voice. As you can imagine, Larry was thrilled to hear this. Turtles can even store memory for at least 18 months and possibly much longer.

Alex: Dr. Wilkinson also recounted an amazing story of a female bearded dragon found in a box in the woods. She was missing a big chunk of her tail. For the first couple years of the study, every time a male student with a Northern English accent would talk around the animal, she would get really upset, suggesting the ability to connect a voice to a person and a negative experience.

Do you have pets currently? Any from your childhood that you’d like to tell us about?

Kaitlyn: I was definitely working through some bad house pet karma making Snowy. As a kid, I had a terrible track record of keeping small animals alive. There was Budweiser the bullfrog that suffocated in a plastic bag before I could get him home from the pet store. Unfed sea monkeys, fish killed by a malfunctioning tank filter and a bunch of newts that escaped and I suspect were eaten by my dog. If you weren’t a dog or a human, my childhood home was a house of horrors. They were really defying the odds if they lived to see a birthday. So this story about Snowy was my opportunity for redemption.

Alex: We don’t have any pets currently, but we had a memorable one not so long ago. Three years ago, our roommate was finishing his PhD in neuroscience on topics of memory. When a batch of rats arrived at his lab, he found one rat was particularly uncooperative. Less motivated by reward and resistant to training, this rat would be euthanized and experiments would continue with one less participant. Instead of killing the rat, our roommate forged his death certificate and smuggled him home in a motorcycle helmet. We had three years with the rat we named Noam Chomp-sky or Fifi depending on who you ask. We built him country houses out of cardboard, fed him Fruit Loops and gave him free range of the house. He was litter-trained but we do still have holes in our clothes from him sneaking into the laundry basket.

Can you now tell a tortoise from a turtle?

Kaitlyn: The answer to this depends on what side of the Atlantic you’re on. Americans often say turtle to mean tortoise while Brits say tortoise to include turtles and tortoises. I’m realizing as I type that we haven’t clarified anything. To play it safe, say turtle. All turtles are tortoises but not all tortoises are turtles.

Snowy made its world premiere at Sundance in 2021. The film is a Critics’ Choice Award Nominee for Best Short Documentary and included among the 2021 Doc NYC Short List Shorts

-Justine Simons


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