UPDATE: Sony Pictures Classics is giving one lucky Dogster reader a chance to win an autographed poster for the movie. Read to the end to find out how to enter the contest!
In their new movie, Darling Companion (opening Friday, April 20 in New York and Los Angeles and across the U.S. later), director-writer-producer Lawrence Kasdan and his wife, writer-producer Meg Kasdan, successfully dramatize a phenomenon known to many Dogster readers: the astonishing power of one stray dog to galvanize a family and teach us a thing or two about love. Diane Keaton stars as Beth, the wife of a successful surgeon, Joseph (Kevin Kline). The couple’s grown daughters have left the nest, and one afternoon while driving on the freeway, Beth spies a stray, injured, shaggy dog. She pulls over, rescues him, and names him … Freeway.
After working his way under the skin of every family member he meets — including the thickest-skinned of them all, Kline’s “We’re Not Keeping Him” Joseph — Freeway gets lost while out on an off-leash walk. It’s a case of art imitating life, for the same exact thing happened to the Kasdans when their adopted mutt, Mac, went missing in the Rockies.
“This movie began the day my wife Meg and I rescued a mutt named Mac from the South Central shelter in Los Angeles on Easter Sunday, seven years ago,” Kasdan says. “He looked like he was saying, ‘Come and get me, save me!’ After taking that dog into our lives and affections, two years later he was lost during an outing in the Rockies. We’d left him in the care of a friend to go attend a wedding, and he was frightened by a bicyclist out on the trail. We spent three weeks searching, calling his name up and down mountain trails, enlisting our friends and family. The whole town was on the lookout. Just at the moment when we had given up hope, a stranger who had seen our flyers found Mac playing with her dogs by the river. Mac was dirty and thin, but uninjured. Friends and searchers around town and across the country celebrated his recovery.”
What was it like to relive that harrowing experience? “I was frankly shocked at how upset [Mac’s disappearance] made me,” Lawrence recalls. “I’d never bonded that way with a dog before, and I couldn’t believe we would just lose him.” After Mac was missing for 10 days, Meg says, “We became really discouraged. Then a friend of mine said, ‘I think he’s okay. He’s still alive, and you have to keep searching for him. You can’t give up.'” (There’s a similar moment in the film, when a “psychic friend” urges the family not to give up hope, and her telepathic leads have everybody running hither and yon.) “Hearing Meg’s friend say, ‘You can’t give up hope’ restoked our hope,” Lawrence says. “It made us relentless.”
Spoiler alert: As in real life, the story has a happy ending. There are absolutely no shades of Old Yeller anywhere in this movie. And you thought only Lassie could come home!
Would it be more believable if the movie ended sadly, and Freeway was never seen again? No, the Kasdans insist. Since that’s not how it happened, why impose an artificial ending on a great, inspiring dog tale? “Our story had a happy ending,” Lawrence says, then states the message of the film: “It’s only the moment you give up, that there’s no hope.”
Amen. When it comes to dogs, truth really is stranger than fiction. And some true stories just happen to have much better endings than some fictitious ones, such as the tragic Old Yeller, which traumatized generations of moviegoers, the Kasdans included.
The making of Darling Companion also has a hard-to-believe aspect, as well. Rounding out the all-star cast are Dianne Wiest as Joseph’s sister, Penny; Mark Duplass as Penny’s son, Bryan; Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss as Beth and Joseph’s daughter, and Sam Shepard as Sheriff Morris. “The incredible cast and crew who agreed to work with us signed on because they responded strongly to the story,” Lawrence says. “We were able to attract people whose work we’d admired forever. We converged on Utah to shoot our movie with a limited budget and a tight schedule, helped along by some very remarkable dogs and their equally remarkable trainers. Darling Companion became one of the most gratifying filmmaking experiences I’ve ever had.” That’s high praise from the man who’s famous for directing The Big Chill and The Accidental Tourist. “The whole crew had dogs,” Meg says, “and they all gave us pictures of themselves with their dogs.”
As for the “remarkable dogs” in the cast, two mutts play Freeway: Kasey and his understudy, Kuma.
It so happens that every one of the Kasdans’ own beloved dogs has been a mutt. Asked whether mixed-breeds have a special star quality, Lawrence replies, “I think they have character, some toughness. My image of purebreds is that they’ve had a much more plushy upbringing than rescue dogs.” Then there’s the irresistible perk of hybrid vigor, which mutts are renowned for. As Meg points out, “The mixed-breeds we’ve had all lived really long lives.” Exhibit A: Mac is now a hale and hearty pup of fourteen.
Just as directing legend Alfred Hitchcock liked giving himself walk-on parts in his movies, you can spot the Kasdans — Lawrence, Meg, and Mac — in Darling Companion, passing Kevin Kline and canine actor Kasey while out walking on the trail. Asked to compare Kasey to a star from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Kasdan doesn’t hesitate: “He’s a lot like Joel McCrea: Very winning, not pushy or aggressive, sweet yet funny.” As for his own family member, Mac, “He’s more like Lee Marvin: a little battered and obviously from a tougher background.”
The filmmakers also give a tip of the hat to the Disney classic Lady and the Tramp by including an animated dream sequence. “We had enormous curiosity about two things,” Lawrence says. “What was Mac’s life like in the seven years before we found him? And what happened in those three weeks? He’s never said a word to us!” Adds Meg, “The most agonizing part was not knowing what Mac was going through out there, and was he suffering?” Trust us, the dream sequence perfectly captures the angst of the bereft dog owner.
So, what’s it like working with canine actors? Do human actors perform differently in the company of dogs? “It opens everybody’s heart,” Meg says. Her husband agrees: “There’s something about having animals on a set — it softens the atmosphere and everyone behaves better. It’s very easy on a movie set to think that what’s happening there is the most important thing in the world. But a dog gives you a different perspective. You’re part of a much bigger picture.”
Competition details: To win a poster for Darling Companion — signed by Kevin Kline, Lawrence Kasdan, Meg Kasdan, and Kasey the dog — please leave a comment below telling us about why you’d like to see the movie, or whether your dog has had a similar story to Freeway’s. We’ll select the winning entry using Random.org on Wednesday, April 25, at noon Pacific and notify the winner via e-mail. Good luck!