Portlander's Dog Film Breaks the Internet's Heart

What happens when you make a personal film about you and your dog, and the whole world falls in love with it? We found out from Portlander Ben Moon, whose short film Denali is now a viral phenomenon.

By Fiona McCann June 16, 2015

When Portlander Ben Moon made a short film about losing a longtime companion, his dog Denali, he hoped he’d touch a chord with a few people. In the week since it’s been publicly available, it’s been seen over eight million times. We caught up with the photographer and filmmaker whose story has become a viral phenomenon.

Denali from FELT SOUL MEDIA on Vimeo.

How did the film come about?

Courtesy Ben Moon

Originally the film was supposed to be something else, and it kind of evolved. . . [Director of Photography] Skip Armstrong saw the bond between Denali and I. When he mentioned that [should form the basis of the film] I had another talk with Denali. I said “Hey, I know I said it was OK to go but will you stick around for a bit?”

Denali stuck around and many of the scenes were filmed in January of last year, just before he died. But finding the right way to tell the story, even with all the footage, took some time.
Some of the earlier edits didn’t serve the bond Denali and I had enough, and I wasn’t ready to put it out there the way it was. So we kind of had to trash a few edits and start over a couple of times.

 Then filmmaker Ben Knight got involved.
I spent the whole holidays this past winter diging through five years of slide film and all my old archives, when I first started traveling with Denali, and gave Ben a few hundred images that best represented the journey. And my mom found some photos of me in the hospital with Denali. Between the story, the photos and the footage we had, he really crafted the piece into something that was quite magical. I knew he had the sensitivity and sensibility to make it. I knew he wouldn’t make it cheesy. I trusted him completely.

Courtesy Ben Moon

Still, it was a surprise to Moon to find out that the narrator was going to be his dog.
He didn’t tell me that he was telling it from Denali’s perspective, and up to that point I still expected to be the narrator and to be telling my story. I kept saying ‘I’ve done a bunch of microphone tests, just let me know when you want me to read something.’

Then Moon received the first cut …
I got the link and I was watching it, and at first when he was talking about the Whole Foods parking lot and things smelling like balls, I thought ‘This is not going to work for me.’ Then the next line dropped and it all fell into place, and from then on I was a blubbering mess.

He’s not the only one who’s had to pull out a hankie watching this movie. But given how much of his personal story it reveals—including his own battle with colorectal cancer—was he concerned about putting so much of himself into the public domain?
I was quite nervous. It was quite a vulnerable feeling. I am a fairly private person—I’m really open with my friends but at the end of my teens I was excruciatingly shy. But I just turned forty and this feels like ‘OK, here we go! I’m ready to share this.’ I was hoping I could always be a resource to anyone who has gone through cancer, but I’ve never shared it in such a public forum. It was definitely quite a raw and vulnerable feeling when it first went out there.

Courtesy Ben Moon

The film, which had already been shown at the 5Point Film Festival —where it won the Best of Festival and People’s Choice awards—and the Telluride Mountain Film Festival, only got its public release last week, and has already clocked up over eight million views on Vimeo. Was he surprised?
I expected a few responses. Not the explosion and the madness and  having interviews on the Today Show! To have it resonate like this was really a shock to me.

Courtesy Ben Moon

Though the film’s star is Moon’s longtime canine companion—Denali and Moon spent close to 15 years together—the Oregon landscape plays a major supporting role, with Smith Rock featuring in the opening segment.
I think [Oregon] does play a huge part in the film and it has played a huge part in my life. There’s a unique quality to the landscape here. I’m glad it was able to resonate in the film because it was a character in a lot of ways.

Still, there’s no upstaging Denali, the part husky, part pit bull who “narrates” the story of his end of life. What would he make of the film’s success?
He was so good at making friends, and I met a lot of my friends through him. .. I’d be camping somewhere and he’d just run up and meet people. He was able to make friends really well and I feel like now he’s making millions of friends and it makes me really happy.

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