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Tribeca Takes: George LaVoo on A Dog Year

A Dog Year, starring Jeff Bridges and some special pooches, will premiere on HBO on Thursday, September 3. Director George LaVoo shares the research he did—and the secrets he learned—about working with a cast of canines.

"Dogs do speak. They speak to us in our dreams."
While I was preparing to direct A Dog Year, based on the autobiography by Jon Katz, for HBO Films, I ran across that quote in a book of essays on the relationship between human beings and dogs. It struck a chord. Even though Devon, the dog in A Dog Year, is a regular canine, and no animatronics, doggie voice-overs, or special effects are used in the film, his role is to impart some worldly advice and wisdom to his confused and broken human companion. Surprisingly—or not—without any words, Devon gets his message across.
Naturally, the next question is: Are the humans listening to what the dogs are telling us?
The theme of dogs learning from humans, instead of the other way around, is not only the core of the movie, but I found it was also one of the keys to working with our dog "actors." (We had seven trained dogs, all standing in for Devon.)

The human actor who agreed to take on the tricky task of playing opposite a notoriously scene-stealing dog is the great Jeff Bridges. I couldn't be luckier.

You've probably heard the famous and oft-repeated dictum in Hollywood: "Never work with children or dogs." There's good reason for the caution. Moviemaking is an expensive endeavor that requires a lot of money to be spent in a highly controlled way over a very short period of time. Accountants, line producers, and production executives sitting behind desks have a hard time believing dogs won't wreak havoc on the pre-approved script and schedule.
Hmmm. I had never directed a dog movie before. Or any movie. I had been the producer and co-writer of Real Women Have Curves. And audiences seemed to respond well to that... but now dogs?! I decided to speak to some other directors who had worked with dogs. Wayne Wang, the director of many acclaimed indie and studio movies, including the box office hit Because of Winn-Dixie, was working in a nearby office and was kind enough to speak to me. When I told him I was going to direct a movie with a dog as a leading character, he was amazed that I wanted to quiz him for advice. "Why didn't I think of that?" He shook his head. "I didn't ask anyone for advice. I showed up on the set and it was a disaster. I don't know why I didn't do research!" He was laughing as he said it. Anyway, things worked out for him when the studio graciously gave him extra shooting days. But I was getting worried.
    My Dog Skip    Umberto D.

Next I spoke to Jay Russell, who directed an exceptionally well-acted box office sleeper called My Dog Skip. He had come in on schedule and on budget. Jay gave me a lot of time on the phone and said everything he learned about successfully working with dogs on the set he learned from his über dog trainer: Mathilde de Cagny. His advice: Get Mathilde de Cagny.
Ms. de Cagny was a bit mysterious and difficult to locate—fitting, given her special ability to conjure up magic with dogs—but with help from HBO, we tracked her down and sent her my script. I breathed a big sigh of relief when she called to say it was one of the most realistic depictions of a relationship between a human and a dog she had ever read. She was on board. HBO was ready for us to get started immediately, and my lessons in working with dogs began.
A Dog Year, as I mentioned already, is a true story. In his bestselling book, Jon Katz bares his soul. He writes with self-deprecating humor about his struggles with a dead-end life, depression, a troubled marriage, and a homeless "dog from hell" named Devon.  
Devon is not just any dog breed. He's a border collie. Known for their intelligence and a wild wolf temperament, these dogs are famously used in herding sheep. But they can make unstable pets unless they are given a lot of attention and space to run. If a border collie is beaten and locked in a dog crate for weeks, like Devon was by a previous owner, the dog can turn psychotic.
My goal was to tell Jon and Devon's story in a realistic—non-Disney—style. I like simple, honest storytelling. My inspiration was the neo-realist canon of Vittorio de Sica, director of The Bicycle Thief and 1952's Umberto D. (a classic about the struggles of a poverty stricken old man and his only companion, a little dog).
Some of the surprising things I learned about working with dogs in the movie:
—After a three-month process to cast our lead dog (named Ryder), we cast additional dogs who were trained to do specific tricks. For example, one dog was a female and lighter, so she could be picked up easily by Jeff, who was suffering from a bad back. Another dog was by nature more nervous than usual: he had a twitch in his eyes. This dog was deeply loved by the training team, and immediately after filming he was adopted by a loving caretaker.  
—After our seven dogs from all over the country were cast, we then hired a "dog colorist" to dye the dogs’ fur so that in the final movie all the dogs look like one dog. We even had dog contact lenses so all the dogs’ eyes would be the same color!
—None of the dogs had any "movie experience." We needed five months of training to get them up to speed.
—Many of the dog stunts were storyboarded like an action movie. The dogs were trained on mock-ups of the set and put through their paces like Olympic athletes. (By the way, dogs love this kind of "work." It's playtime for them.)
—Finally, the most effective way to get a dog to do something when all else fails? Food. Naturally.
Mathilde de Cagny is a fierce animal rights advocate. The health and safety of the dogs was her primary concern at all times. This is where trust comes into play. Trust is one of the themes in the story, and it's the lynchpin of the relationship between the dog, the trainer, me, the crew, and the actors. There are moments in the movie where Jeff Bridges has to yell in anger at the dog.  The emotional explosions show Jon Katz's fatal character flaw—his shame at his own failures—projected at the dog and others around him. If a person were to yell at a dog like that in real life, the dog would crumble. Trust, if it were to be gained again, would have to be rebuilt slowly. We had to do multiple takes, and there was no way we could risk our dogs fearing Jeff. If they did, we wouldn't be able to do the multiple takes necessary, and we wouldn't have a movie. So Mathilde showed Jeff a way to play with the dog and "act" as if it was rough. From the right camera angle it looks as if Jeff is yelling directly at the dog. But he isn't; to the dog it's only a game.
You might say the dogs in the movie led Jeff to discover a new way to "act" anger. Jeff was amazed at this process. He said he had "done it all" already and was looking for new challenges. After making more than sixty movies, he had learned something new, and that's exactly what Devon did for the real Jon Katz. In the end, it's a bittersweet and necessary revelation for Mr. Katz. The dog—a kind of shaman priest—leads his humans to new understanding. And without any words at all.

George LaVoo makes his directorial debut with A Dog Year. He previously wrote and produced HBO Films' Real Women Have Curves (winner of the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award), and wrote and executive produced Frisk (selected for the Sundance, Toronto, and Berlin film festivals).

A Dog Year debuts on HBO on Thursday, September 3. Set your DVR.

Watch the trailer:




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