[Editor’s note: The following interview includes spoilers for “Anatomy of a Fall.”]

All dogs deserve to play fetch on the beach. But for Messi, who starred as Snoop in “Anatomy of a Fall,” getting to enjoy Venice Beach — as well as a business class trip to the Oscars nominee luncheon and lots of quality pets from Bradley Cooper and Billie Eilish — is the culmination of months of hard work with his trainer, Laura Martin Contini.

Every time we see a dog in a film, the goal is for them to look like they’re just doing their own doggy thing and responding to the characters in a genuine way; how could dogs not? But each action, from lying down to running after a ball (Messi’s favorite), requires specific preparation so that the canine actor is ready for their closeup.

“Even the simplest things take a lot of work,” Martin Contini told IndieWire. And more complicated actions, like the harrowing moment where Snoop is poisoned, need to be built piece by piece.

Messi and Martin Contini trained every day for two months to handle it in a way that’s probably familiar to any human who’s done a bit of stuntwork. “It had to happen in steps. First, the simple laying down and having his head kind of immobile. [I] started there and then [we worked on] lifting the head and just letting it fall back without resistance,” Martin Contini said. 

But part of what makes a great trainer is an eye for additional details that can convey some sort of emotion from the dog or help make the moment feel more intense. So Martin Contini noticed that one day after playing with a ball, “Messi got tired and laid down and his tongue was hanging out. So I thought, OK, this is what needs to happen [to help show that he’s sick]. And so that was another phase of the training.” 

Another complicated sequence in “Anatomy of a Fall” required Messi to move through the chalet while police investigators catalog evidence and interview Sandra (Sandra Hüller) and Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner) about the death of Samuel (Samuel Theis). Director Justine Triet wanted to take a novel approach to that de rigueur moment of police work and make it more visually interesting by having Snoop be the audience’s guide through it. 

“I didn’t want to look at [Snoop] like an accessory,” Triet told IndieWire on the Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. “He’s a real character. At the same time, he’s kind of a ghost of Samuel and he’s the gaze of Daniel, because Daniel couldn’t see and the dog of course can see, but he can’t talk.”

It’s part of what makes “Anatomy of a Fall” so affecting: Snoop’s soulful blue eyes — Martin Contini contends he was the ugliest of his litter of puppies, which just proves how many different kinds of beautiful there are — can’t give us the definitive answers we crave but hold unspoken love. The one thing that Snoop (and all border collies) can do, however, is run really fast. So when the filmmaking team made adjustments to the plan for that sequence, Martin Contini and Messi also needed to change their approach to make sure Messi and the camera could stay in sync. 

​​“Because the dog was moving quickly through the house, it was hard for me to be giving commands and not be in the shot. So they dressed me in a police uniform so that I could be on camera. I kept saying ‘Slower, slower,’ to the dog,” Martin Contini said. “There was some improvisation that had to go on.”  

Messi lays down in the snow as Snoop in "Anatomy of a Fall"
“Anatomy of a Fall”Screenshot/Neon

Another lovely moment of improv that added an extra emotional beat was at the very end of the film when Snoop lies down with Sandra. Martin Contini gave the commands — again in stages — for Messi to get on the bed, to lie down, and to put his head down on Sandra. Then Martin Contini closed her eyes from just off camera, and Messi responded by closing his; in the film, it reads as a poignant, wordless, natural denouement of weariness and connection between Sandra and Snoop. But it is an acting choice by both Martin Contini and Messi, just as much as anything Hüller does in the courtroom. 

“It’s a true profession. Any time you see a dog or an animal on screen, it’s the result of a long process of preparation, even if the dog is just laying down,” Martin Contini said. “And anytime there’s an animal on set, there’s also a trainer. They’re there looking out for the acting dog’s best interest and welfare, so really, it’s a partnership between the animal and the trainer.”

It’s a partnership that has certainly paid off for Messi and Martin Contini. The Palm Dog winner was, for a long time, a “misunderstood artist,” getting to the final round of casting callbacks for projects but never booking the role “because of his rather particular gaze,” Martin Contini said. “Something in his gaze or his eyes or something. [‘Anatomy of a Fall’] is really the biggest film he’s ever made. He had one chance, and he gave it his all.”

After a rigorous audition process of seven or eight meetings, including direct auditions to see if Messi could work with Machado Graner and Triet, let this be an inspiration to both human and canine actors: “He gets calls now,” Martin Contini said. “Because now he is a star.”

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