Cast: Ashley Judd, Jonah HauerKing, Edward James Olmos, Alexandra Shipp, Wes Studi, Bryce Dallas Howard
Director: Charles Martin Smith
Running Time: 97 minutes
Synopsis: A Dog's Way Home chronicles the heartwarming adventure of Bella, a dog who embarks on an epic 400-mile journey home after she is separated from her beloved human, Lucas, an aspiring med student and VA hospital volunteer. Bella touches the lives of many during her unwavering quest; from an orphaned mountain lion cub to a homeless veteran down on his luck, Bella brings joy and comfort to everyone she meets with her unique spirit and faith. Based on the bestselling novel by the beloved author of A Dog's Purpose, A Dog's Way Home is an emotionally charged and uplifting spiritual odyssey that follows one dog's journey home that highlights the power of unconditional love between a dog and her owner.
A Dog's Way Home
Release Date: February 28th, 2019
"We all have really deep needs for connection, belonging, purpose, safety, expression and autonomy," says Ashley Judd, star of the new film A Dog's Way Home. "In the movie, Bella gets to have her family of choice, which we all have the gift of finding in this life. We've got the families into which we are born, and we get to make a chosen family, and that's what happens to Bella. When she gets separated from that family, she's willing to go to extraordinary lengths to be home. It's an epic adventure."
That adventure is based on the bestselling novel by W. Bruce Cameron, who, with his wife, Cathryn Michon, would adapt it into a screenplay. "This story is about true love," says Cameron. "Here's a dog that goes through so many adventures and trials, and it's all about getting back to her person. I think anybody who has had a dog will recognize the unconditional love these animals can give, and will find it in their heart to embrace that message."
There's nothing like the bond between dog and person, adds Michon. "Bella loves many people, but she and her human have a soul bond, and that soul bond is the spiritual story and the heart of this film."
The film stars Ashley Judd, Jonah Hauer-King, Edward James Olmos, Alexandra Shipp, and Wes Studi – all fine actors in their own right – but at the center of the film is the lead role of Bella, the charming and captivating dog whose story this is. Bryce Dallas Howard provides the voice of Bella. "When I met Shelby, the dog who plays Bella, we were instant BFFs," says Howard. "She just instantly felt like a friend. I think that's something you feel whenever you meet any kind of animal, because they're so present, but there really is something special about Shelby. She's a beautiful, sincere, brilliant, super adorable dog."
"I've had pets my whole life," she continues. "When I was very young, one-anda-half years old, I was quiet and serious – I didn't laugh or anything like that. Then my parents adopted a dog, a terrier. And suddenly, from the other room they heard a crazy noise, a belly laugh that sounded like it came from a grown person. And it was me, playing tug-of-war with the dog, at 18 months old. That was the birth of my insane laugh – my first pet."
"Having a relationship with dogs and other animals is one of the most important aspects of my life," says Howard.
"There's nothing like it in the world. Nothing feels more unconditional, or safe, or fun."
Though Howard would provide Bella's voice, the first and most important challenge in producing the movie, says producer Gavin Polone, was casting the role for the on-screen performance. From the beginning, Polone was committed to finding a rescue dog.
"I wanted to advocate for dogs being adopted from shelters," says Polone. "When you buy a dog, you're feeding money into a cycle that leads to more animal death. In the US, there are about four million cats and dogs put to death every year. If you truly care about animals, it's a huge waste and an awful thing. Animals are sentient beings and they are worthy of respect, so I don't think treating them like designer objects – which is really what dog breeding is about – is the right way to go."
Naturally, it was a choice that the film's screenwriters, the husband-and-wife team of W. Bruce Cameron & Cathryn Michon, supported. "It truly was a nationwide search in terms of looking at shelter dogs all over America," says Michon.
"We were looking at photos and videotape of dogs everywhere." After looking online at thousands of dogs in shelters and rescues, the search paid off in Tennessee, at the Cheatham County Animal Control Center, where Bella was cast – Shelby won the part. Later, the production would also rescue Amber, Shelby's stand-in, from another facility, in South Carolina. At the time of filming, Shelby was one-and-a-half years old while Amber was about two-and-ahalf.
"At first, we were inspired by Bruce Cameron's imagination and the character that he put on the cover of his book, and Shelby's photograph spoke a million words. Ultimately, though, you can't just have a great look – you've got to have the heart inside," says Bella Team Lead Trainer Teresa A. Miller. "It was really important to have a dog that had a lot of energy and the physicality to perform the action – climbing and jumping and sliding. But I also was looking for a dog that just had that thing in her eyes, and Shelby has it – you can see the love and heart in her eyes. She's not shy at all and is a really nice, outgoing dog. I think the character Bella and Shelby have a lot of similarities in their personality."
Of course, adopting Shelby was not as simple as a Hollywood animal trainer walking into a shelter and walking out with a dog. The dedicated people at the facility had to ensure that Shelby would be in a good home. "We're a small town in the middle of Tennessee in the middle of nowhere, and we're getting a call from Hollywood?" says facility director T.J. Jordi.
"Not normal on your daily radar. So, like any rescue, we did a lot of research on them to make sure that they were legitimate – we wanted to make sure she was going to be well taken care of. And everything come back glowing for this organisation. Later, when Teresa Miller first came out, I'm standing there holding onto Shelby and saw her interacting very slowly, methodically, with Shelby, and as things progressed, I saw that even if things hadn't worked out for Shelby to be in the movie, Teresa personally would have taken her home regardless."
After taking Shelby to California, she spent considerable time living with Miller and began making a home with the other dogs. "She was just very open and friendly with the dogs – they loved her," says Miller. "Shelby was jumping over my other dogs with these huge ninja kicks – they were wrestling and running around the yard. I think she was happy to have not only the companionship, but also the free range to play. She's a lot of fun – she's a great personality, she's smart and so expressive. She's just got that 'it factor.'"
Once Shelby was acclimated to her new home, Miller began the process of training her to be a film performer. The process she uses, as Miller explains, is quite different from the standard obedience training for dogs.
"It's not 'Sit! Down! Stay!'" she says. "It's not so precise. It always looks like my dogs are the most untrained dogs, because I allow them to behave naturally while I'm cueing them. I might say, "Can you come over here and sit?" And the dog might look at me a little bit and decide, "OK, I think I'll sit." That's where you get the character from, that's where you get the natural action. Little things, like talking in sentences, relaxes the dog, and she's able to do it in a much more natural behavior."
Shelby was gradually introduced to different elements to see how she responded to traffic, different people and situations. "Working with dogs in film," Miller continues, "means not only exposing them to various situations and different atmospheres, but there are also all the distractions that we encounter on set with the equipment and the crew. At any given point, a microphone is being waved in front of their face and they're supposed to watch the actor and not watch the microphone, or the camera is zooming in to them. That all comes with the training that we do to expose her to all that, so she's not just even fazed."
Training a canine film actress also required specialized training. To prepare both Shelby and Amber for the big avalanche scene in the film, Miller and her team began work on the sandy California beaches, burying a favorite treat in the sand. "It could be a piece of chicken, hot dog, a piece of lamb and rice, commercial dog food, or their toy. We found that the food works better than the toy, because they want to grab the toy and run like crazy celebrate and sometimes we need them back quicker. If we have time, then they can run around and celebrate." It turns out that digging was one of those areas where the stand-in surpassed the lead dog. "Amber definitely has specialties, which is what you want in a team," says Miller. "She loves to do fast things, like digging in the sand much more quickly. Shelby's a little bit more relaxed, a little bit more casual and natural for what we do."
The cast, too, were impressed by what the trainers had been able to achieve. "Some of the stunts had been quite elaborately and ambitiously imagined in the script, and Shelby's real-life humans had figured out how to train her in ways that were so rewarding and fun for Shelby," says Judd. "Because she was young and still had all of that puppy energy, she just wanted to play."
The screenwriters, too, were thrilled to see the plot they'd imagined come to life. "We were able to watch the dogs during training, so it was great fun to see what they learned play out during the filming," says Cameron. "Occasionally they'd forget their lines," he jokes, "but for the most part, those dogs are amazing performers."
Miller, who adopted Shelby as her forever home, says that Shelby could well go on to perform again, but that even more fulfilling opportunities await her. "Our company, Paws for Effect, work closely with autistic children and children's hospitals, providing therapy dogs," she says. "Shelby has the ideal personality for it – she's perfect! So we're looking forward to giving kids a break from the hospital."
About The Director
It was during the training period in Los Angeles that director Charles Martin Smith first met Shelby in person, after viewing photos and video footage. Having appeared in and directed a number of films involving animals, including helming the two hit Dolphin Tale movies, Smith admits to being enthralled with the genre.
"I'm probably only director in the business that actually prefers working with kids and animals," says Smith. "I'm fascinated by making movies about animals, nature, and wilderness, and A Dog's Way Home combines them in a way that's very exciting for me. When I was a young man acting in Never Cry Wolf, the director of that film, Carroll Ballard, taught me so much about working in nature and working with animals and understanding how to capture that on film. I try to carry that forward in the films that I make now."
"The thing about animals as opposed to human actors is that animals will always be honest," Smith continues. "You'll never get a false moment out of an animal; there's an innocence and purity about them as characters in film that I find endlessly interesting. Too often when people make films about animals, there's an imposition of what we think they should be onto them. I'm more interested in capturing who they really are. "
When he first met Shelby, Smith was prepared to give the dog some distance if she appeared uncomfortable in any way. As it turns out, that was completely unnecessary. "I couldn't believe it," he recalls. "She just ran right over to me, as if she knew that I was the one that she was supposed to meet. She came right over and was licking me and it was really touching. I was so pleased. I knew that we were going to get along just great. She's a terrific dog."
Smith's unique resume – first as an actor, and later as a director of films featuring animals – inspired confidence in his cast. "Charles Martin Smith, what a gem," says Edward James Olmos. "A really, really kind and giving person makes everybody feel much more relaxed. He'll never show a sense of insecurity or fear that he won't get the shot – you feel confident and move forward with a sense of balance."
"Charles is the best," adds Jonah Hauer-King. "The great thing about Charles' work is that he was an actor before he directed, so he's really an actor's director. He understands that people have their different processes. He's very sympathetic to actors and understands what they need for a scene. It was one of the best experiences that I've had with a director."
A Dog's Way Home
Release Date: February 28th, 2019