The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Q&A | ‘Underdog’ filmmakers discuss their process

‘Underdog’ filmmakers Tommy Hyde and Aaron Woolf discuss the directorial debut and their decade-long process. The documentary will be screened at FilmScene on February 26.
Isabella Tisdale
Filmmaker Aaron Woolf speaks to a crowd during a Q&A after a viewing of “Underdog” at Filmscene on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024. (Isabella Tisdale/The Daily Iowan)

Tommy Hyde’s directorial debut “Underdog” is an independently financed documentary following the story of Doug Butler, a Vermont dairy farmer chasing his dog-mushing dreams in Alaska.

Filmed over the course of a decade, the documentary seeks to portray Doug’s intimate and emotional story with a unique documentary vérité style. Hyde is currently taking his film across the U.S., arriving in Iowa City at FilmScene on Feb. 26.

Hyde and producer Aaron Woolf spoke with The Daily Iowan about the film.

The Daily Iowan: Why did this project require a ten-year shoot and what was that process like?

Hyde: Two big reasons: Number one, I had never really held a camera or made any movies until I met Doug, so it took a long time to figure out how to capture content that was [both] compelling and usable. So a good four years of that was just bringing a camera over and learning very slowly. The other reason is that you start blending into the wallpaper at a certain point. Doug and his family, to much credit to them, grew to trust me with their story and began confiding in me things Doug hadn’t told anyone but his dogs. His family would feel free to interact as they would if I wasn’t there. 

How did you choose where you would screen this film and why was Iowa City chosen?

Aaron Woolf: This film is entitled “Underdog.” The main character is a true underdog and the film itself is kind of an underdog. It’s less and less normal for a documentary to find a theatrical release. If you’re going to be a documentary that gets a theatrical release, you know, it better be about Jimi Hendrix, Taylor Swift, or Tom Brady. The fact that this is about a dairy farmer in Vermont is an underdog situation.

Hyde: It’s also like a second home for us with this other project we’ve been working on in Iowa. We spent a lot of time in West Des Moines working on another project and it’s just become a second home. One of our collaborators is out in Iowa City; so many of the themes that are felt in the film will resonate with that audience.

Woolf: We know some of the founders of FilmScene in Iowa City and have never gotten to show a film there so this is like an incredible treat. And it’s kind of a coming home for me and Tommy who is also an honorary Iowan now.

What was it like taking on the roles of director, editor, and cinematographer for your film?

Hyde: Not recommended more than once. It was done mostly out of necessity and lack of budget but was also a great learning experience. And, as Aaron has told me so many times over the years, you need to be editing while you’re filming and you need to be fundraising while you’re editing. To have all of those skills overlapping simultaneously made me a better editor, cinematographer, director, and fundraiser. I was able to find [my] style in that process, too.

How would you say your experience directing is different from your experience as a cinematographer?

Hyde: They bleed into each other. I think so often in my tiny documentary career, you’re taking off one hat and putting on another. I would say there is a lot of crossover with cinematography and directing. I guess the only difference is that a director is a bit more like the glue between how something is filmed and how it’s edited.

Aaron Woolf: It’s funny; when I left Iowa, I went to work in Hollywood and worked on fiction sets. I was a union electrician and assistant cameraperson, and the roles were so regimented. If you touch a prop — even if it’s to get it out of the way — you’ve violated some code. In nonfiction filmmaking, which is what I’ve done for 30 years since then, as Tommy was saying, it’s not really like you wear one hat and put on another. It’s more like you just turn the hat a little bit. I think nonfiction is the kind of work that involves all hands on deck.

How do you go about taking a completed film and touring the festival circuit? 

Woolf: The festival circuit is different for every project and it’s always really surprising to me which festivals gravitate towards which projects. The most notable thing about all the festival experiences is that a lot of what we do is solitary. Whether it’s fundraising, shooting, or editing; we interact with each other but we don’t interact with anybody else. This project took 10 years to put together. The series that Tommy and I are working on in Iowa is equally long– 10, 12 years in the making– and that’s a long time to not interact with other people. So the most notable thing about festivals is you get to be with other people who’ve also been in dark editing rooms for months and months. The most delightful thing is to show your film to an audience, but it’s equally delightful to be with other filmmakers because it’s such a shared experience. Our skin is so pale from having been in the cave so it’s nice to be out with each other.

How have you found the experience of sharing your directorial debut with the world?

Hyde: I think that coming off the creative island and connecting with folks in the community, it feels a little like that Diana Ross song, “I’m Coming Out.” It’s so nice to sit in a room and listen to people laugh at a moment that was funny to me five years ago but I had forgotten was funny. Then, being able to connect with folks on the festival circuit, the distribution scene, and other filmmakers working on their own cool weird thing — it’s nice not to feel so siloed working on just one project. As a first feature for me, it’s been a fabulous learning experience. It’s just been a huge learning environment for me so I’m just grateful that I’ve been getting to ride the wave through the theatrical release and the upcoming digital release.

Why did you decide on the vérité style of documentary filmmaking?

Hyde: It just kind of happened naturally. There was a moment I remember when I was convinced I had unlocked a new form of documentary film. Then, of course, I discovered that this is a really long and beautiful tradition. I have to give most of the credit to Doug because he would never sit for an interview, and he would always just include me in whatever he was doing so it happened rather organically and naturally. It was one of those beautiful moments where the material informed the approach; letting the subject and the material dictate how you’re going to approach it. You could just put a camera on Doug and he would roll.

Woolf: Documentary has come through a very rich period; lots of forms of nonfiction storytelling have been explored. Everything from animation documentaries to documentary musicals. But vérité for me continues to be in some ways the most elegant expression of the nonfiction medium. And vérité I think is kind of a misnomer because I don’t think that any one of those forms of storytelling or subgenres of documentary are any more truthful than any other. But the style developed by vérité filmmakers in the 60s is artful. It’s almost like the Renaissance art of documentary, so it’s been a great honor to collaborate with Tommy on this one.

Hyde: And Doug is our “David.”

Underdog’ is screening at FilmScene at The Chauncy at 7:00 P.M., on Feb. 26

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About the Contributors
Grant Darnell, Arts Reporter
Grant Darnell is a second year student at the University of Iowa double majoring in English and Creative Writing and Screenwriting Arts. He is currently an Arts Reporter for the Daily Iowan.
Isabella Tisdale
Isabella Tisdale, Photojournalist
Isabella Tisdale is a photojournalist for The Daily Iowan and is a senior at West High school. In her free time, she stage manages for the theater program at West High. She plans to double major in political science and journalism.