How Rescue Dogs Helped Me Become the Filmmaker I Am Today

Can You Keep a Secret? director Elise Durán on the special canine companions that have shaped her as a person and as an artist.

Harvey was my first rescue dog, and he was a masterpiece. He was a Corgi mix with a huge head, huge ears, and little flippers for feet. He was kind, wise, funny, deep, sensitive, smart, and stoic. He could read my emotions, and when he stared at me with his soulful eyes, my sadness was lifted. He had a magnificent smile, and his joyful spirit was infectious. His presence in my life had a profound impact on me, and I made it my mission to help as many of his brothers and sisters as I could.

Harvey

Harvey was the inspiration for the first story I filmed in my broadcast journalism class. Beyond being incredibly photogenic, he lit up the room with his warmth and charm. The piece was titled A Day in the Life of Harvey, and it made me fall in love with storytelling.

I was not your typical college student; I was in my early thirties and didn’t have a social circle, which made campus life lonely. But I had Harvey; he was my support system. His love and loyalty gave me an ironclad confidence, and I graduated with honors and a degree in journalism at the age of 33. It was not easy starting my career working under colleagues who were often younger than me, but Harvey was always there to lift my spirits. His love fueled a belief in myself that drove me past my insecurities, and it was that same belief that gave me the confidence to direct my first feature, Can You Keep a Secret?

Elise Durán with all her rescue dogs in 2011. (Photo by Idris + Tony, used here with permission.)

Inevitably, as he grew older, his health deteriorated; at 19 years old, Harvey’s organs started to fail. I lay with him and thanked him for his unconditional love, support and understanding. I thanked him for being my soulmate. I thanked him for believing in me. And then I said goodbye.

Even though Harvey was my rescue dog, he was the one who had rescued me, and the void caused by his death was overwhelming. I had lost my best friend and confidante of nearly two decades, and my heart was shattered. Three years later, though, Toots came into my life. Toots looked, as one friend described her, like a wig with legs. Toots gave my heart a reboot, and we became inseparable.

When I was hired to direct Can You Keep a Secret? and heard that Alexandra Daddario was interested in playing the lead role of Emma, I did my research. Sure, she had done some major movies and had a huge following, but the thing that impressed me the most was the love she had for her rescue dog, Levon. He was all over her social media posts, and her unabashed dedication to him made me like her immediately.

When one of the producers contacted me about meeting with Alex, he told me not to bring Toots, because it might appear unprofessional. I found this notion utterly offensive. Still, I acquiesced and went to the meeting solo.

I got there early and waited awkwardly. I needed Toots; she provided me with a sense of peace in this warped world. Alex was soon making her way to the table, but all I could think about was how having Toots there with me would have made the moment so much more memorable.

(From left) Elise Durán, Toots, Alexandra Daddario, and Norma, a dog they helped rescue from a shelter in Los Angeles.

Just seconds into our meeting, I couldn’t hold back. “I wanted to bring my dog, Toots, but I was told it would be unprofessional,” I said with dismay. She looked at me incredulously. “I wanted to bring Levon, but I thought it would be unprofessional!” We laughed heartily, and that was it; the unbridled love we shared for our rescue dogs had created an instant bond.

That bond resulted in a collaboration that proved seamless and magical. Alex and I shared the same sense of humor, sensitivity, and vision for her character, Emma. Alex is often cast for her beauty, but it’s the least interesting thing about her; she’s a complex woman and natural comedian with tremendous heart. That’s the Emma I wanted and needed for her to portray, not one boxed in by physicality, so I insisted that she wear little to no makeup and revised many aspects of the script, including cutting references to Emma’s desire to be a size 2 and her wish for bigger boobs. Alex and I focused the story on self-love and self-acceptance, and Can You Keep a Secret? lives and breathes in her stunning improvisational skills.

Alexandra Daddario in Elise Durán’s Can You Keep a Secret?

It was also extremely important to me and Alex that the film promote rescue, so Toots was cast as Emma’s rescue dog, while Levon was featured as the smiling dog in the “Adopt Don’t Shop” poster that hangs prominently in Emma’s room.

The friendship Alex and I have formed has extended beyond the film, and we’ve joined forces to help the forgotten dogs languishing in our city shelters. And whenever we venture out together, Toots and Levon are always with us.

As they should be.

Elise Durán’s first fiction feature, Can You Keep a Secret, starring Alexandra Daddario, Tyler Hoechlin and Laverne Cox, is in select theaters from September 13 through Vertical Entertainment. Durán comes from the documentary world and has directed and/or produced projects that include Being Chaz and Finding Sarah for the Oprah Winfrey Network and Small Town Ecstasy for HBO.