In His Own Words: Rob Grabow on The Year of the Dog
Montana-based films tend to have a raw truth best conveyed by local talent. This is demonstrated in the new indie film, The Year of the Dog, a production by Rob Grabow. Rob and I sat down at a coffee shop in Bozeman to discuss his journey to the silver screen and the long-awaited release of his work. Filmed locally, The Year of the Dog takes its audience into the depths of alcoholism, recovery, vulnerability, friendship, and the value of community. Besides writing, producing, and directing the film, Rob Grabow also plays the lead role of Matt, a recovering alcoholic who forms an unlikely bond with a rescued Husky named Yup’ik.
Morgan Stuart: How were you first introduced into the film world?
Rob Grabow: At 16, I was hired as a stand-in for Ethan Hawke, as well as a specially trained extra, for a film called Snow Falling on Cedars filmed in Port Townsend, Washington. I loved this experience. I loved acting, but I was scared of being in front of people, so I ended up putting acting to the side. Later, while studying at Gonzaga University in the early 2000s, I did some commercials and had a few small movie roles. It wasn’t until 2011, when I graduated from Columbia University and moved back to Seattle, that I decided to take acting classes. I loved it, but at the same time I was horrified, learning quickly that to act well required the ability to become vulnerable. This level of vulnerability only happens if you are willing to take a deep dive into your own emotional psyche, so I applied to the MFA Acting program at the Actor’s Studio Drama School in New York, where I then studied for the next two years.
MS: What grounds you as an artist in the film industry?
RG: In art, ideally, I think people are trying to serve. Historically, art is where we have gone to have difficult conversations: Who are we? Why are we here? What is the point of our life? How do we deal with relationships? How do we reconcile these complicated issues? An important skill developed in acting training is the ability to attune yourself, at a visceral level, to the other person’s emotions. For a scene to go well, actors have to be connected to their own physical and emotional internal experiences. Art has become commodified in a lot of ways; it’s less about the message and more about making money. Ideally, though, art is supposed to be a place where we engage in these bigger questions. I think anyone doing art, or anyone who gives a shit about the world in any way, is going to have that be the focus of what they do. For me, what I am doing has to be connected to something else that matters.
MS: You’ve mentioned that you moved a lot as a child — how did that affect your childhood, and who you are today?
RG: At times it was very difficult. As a child, I didn’t feel like I had an anchor. I was having to intuitively chameleonize myself; I would get to a new place and I would have to feel out the social dynamics of the situation without having to think about it. As a kid and a young adult in high school and college, I feel I missed out a little bit on being able to be a full version of myself in relationship to other people. I didn’t have people that really knew me throughout my life, as my relationships were more like, ‘Hey, I’m here for a year.’ I could put on a happy face and make friends, but at the same time I was never fully being myself. This is a reason acting school was so important to me. It allowed me to get back in touch with a clear sense of who I was in relationship with other people.
MS: What has been the biggest challenge in your career?
RG: The last two years I have been buried in this film and so “in the task,” so focused. The Year of the Dog has by far been the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. It has been fire after fire after fire. For two years, every week there was some borderline catastrophic event that could derail the entire project… we lost our director halfway through production, that was a big one. Another challenge I found was that in the film world, generally speaking, you have the artists who tend to relate to the world in very general terms, in a very “feeling” kind of way, and then you have the people on the technical side who are very task focused and not necessarily living an embodied, emotional kind of relationship with the world. It has been difficult for me, navigating the film side with the production side, as well as all the different personality types involved in this project. I’m also new to all of this, so the learning curve is very steep.
MS: Whose careers do you look up to?
RG: Jonathan Majors. I am mildly obsessed with him as an artist. He’s crazy talented. Vocally, he can do anything; acting-wise, he can play 5000 characters, no problem. Also, Jeff Bridges is just an amazing human. In The Year of the Dog I play a recovering alcoholic trying to find sobriety, and his role in Crazy Heart was one of the best portrayals of that type of role that I have ever seen. It’s something I watched quite a few times in preparation for my role as Matt. I played it completely different of course — Bridges is in his own league, inspiring.
MS: How are you feeling while you await the release of The Year of the Dog?
RG: Terrified. I have put so much into this film—a lot of people have, leaving me with a sense of obligation. I really care how the film lands with people, but its success ultimately boils down to box office numbers.
MS: The Year of the Dog was primarily filmed in Paradise Valley, Livingston, and Bozeman, and the cast appears heavily weighted with Montana-based actors. Was this always your intention, or did it just come together this way?
RG: Both. I would have preferred that, and it worked out. For example, Aaron Finley, a Bozeman High graduate who works on Broadway, was in town because of Covid. We connected at a local gym, and he agreed to do the film. Michael Spears, who’s in Reservation Dogs and 1883, was also available to work because of all the Covid shutdowns. Cat Lofgren, who plays Matt’s Mom in the film, is from Bozeman, as well as Logan Hanley, our youngest actor. We also had a lot of local crew: Michael Peterson, Co-Director; Heather Hanley, Co-Producer; George Potter, Director of Photography; Ashley Moore, Script Supervisor; Scott Sterling, Colorist; William “Lake” Springstead, Sound Mixer; Erika Share, Assistant Camera, and Andy Thie, Grip.
MS: How was it to direct and act alongside Michael Spears and John Proudstar?
RG: Michael Spears is a very experienced, talented actor. He has been in movies since a very early age—I believe he was 13 when he was cast in Dances With Wolves. John Proudstar sent in an audition tape playing a role in this AA scene that’s in the film. I’ve never seen a better-acted scene than what I saw in his audition tape. I was completely floored. I had a sense that these guys could meet all the emotional ranges and also command the space around them, and just be extremely present. They both also worked very well with the entire cast and crew. I learned so much from them on so many levels about what it means to attune and perceive someone else. They were both very professional on set, always positive and nice. I myself was still in this place where I felt I had to be more stereotypical; serious and totally in my role. Michael, though, he could just turn it on and off. I learned a lot from both of them that I will apply to my next film.
MS: What do you hope the audience takes away from The Year of the Dog?
RG: I hope that people who are struggling emotionally with addiction in any way feel like their experience is truthfully reflected back to them. I also want the film to be a reminder that we all have a lot of stuff going on in our life; people are experiencing pain in many different ways, and I hope this film is a reminder that we can relate to each other from that place.
The Year of the Dog hit select theaters on February 24, 2023. Montana locations include Anaconda’s Washoe Theatre, Missoula’s Roxy Theater, and Conrad’s Orpheum Theatre. For further information please visit www.theyearofthedogmovie.com.
A later showing and cast Q&A session will be held on April 29 at the Gallatin Gateway Community Center, sponsored by the Historic Preservation Board of Gallatin Gateway. See www.historicgallatingateway.com or www.gallatingatewaycommunitycenter.com for details.
Morgan Stuart lives on a small farm in Gallatin Gateway with her husband and three children. When she’s not busy enjoying the outdoors with her family and friends, Morgan enjoys volunteering in the Gallatin community as a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate for children in the foster care system), Secretary for the Historic Preservation Board of Gallatin Gateway, substitute teacher, and 4-H co-leader.