Writer W. Bruce Cameron came to prominence by keeping things simple.
He'd composed a series of essays that comprised his book 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, which inspired a popular sitcom starring the late John Ritter. When it came to an even longer string of books and movies from the perspectives of dogs, Cameron found that seeing the world through an animal's eyes isn't so basic.
"I have to say it was the hardest writing assignment I've ever given myself," Cameron recalls. "I thought at first it would be really easy because a dog is a much more simple creature, we think.
"And then once I started pondering the way dogs must perceive the world, it became pretty complex. There are rules, frankly, that you have to follow, rules like, a dog would never say, 'I decided to wait a few minutes.' A dog doesn't know what a minute is. A dog doesn't have phrases that we could use commonly like, 'I decided to wait until the coast was clear.' A dog wouldn't think of that. The very thing I had to do was hobble myself in terms of things that were very common expressions for me that just would not occur to the canine mind."
If the new direction has been challenging, it has also been rewarding. The former newspaper columnist has written half a dozen canine novels, and the second movie made from the series, A Dog’s Way Home, opens today.
NOT IN THE BLOOD
A Dog’s Way Home concerns Bella, a pooch born in the wild and raised by a feral cat. She wins the heart of an Afghanistan war vet (Ashley Judd) and her medical student son (Jonah Hauer-King). Bella also has to deal with the fact that she has been mistaken for a pit bull, which is a banned breed in Denver, and that the Colorado wilds feature coyotes and cougars who might think of her as prey instead of a friend or pet.
From reading the novel and seeing director Charles Martin Smith's (Dolphin Tale) adaptation of it, it's obvious that Cameron is troubled by how frequently and carelessly the scary label of "pit bull" is applied to canines who pose no danger to people. This doesn't stop innocent animals from being needlessly euthanized.
Bella's pit bull pedigree might pass a 23andMe.com test, but neither she nor Shelby, the dog who plays her in the film, have any history of violence.
"It's just somebody's opinion," Cameron says.
"The designation 'pit bull' is a catchall for a lot of different breeds. A lot of people think, 'Well, I know what a pit bull is. I know one when I see one.' That's certainly not the way the law reads in some jurisdictions. People are surprised that Shelby, the dog who plays Bella in the movie, has some pit bull in her, but that was a deliberate choice I made from the beginning. I wanted to make clear that this catchall breed name that we've come up with can scoop up a lot of different dogs in its net.
"If you're going by breeds alone and not the individual animal, you would fail to breed a vicious animal."
If Bella and Shelby aren't up for fighting, they both have a knack for reading people even if they don't have the vocabulary to deal with human problems such as PTSD, homelessness, LGBT rights and drug addiction. In print and to a lesser extent on screen, A Dog’s Way Home juggles all of these.
"Because she's a dog she doesn't carry connotations. She doesn't necessarily understand that people suffering or living in circumstances that are far from ideal. When Bella is with Axl -- who in the movie is played by Edward James Olmos -- she doesn't really understand that he's living the life of a person who's homeless and living with addiction ... . She just thinks that he's a person, and she recognizes that he loves her, and she tries to be supportive because she's that kind of dog," Cameron says.
"In the end, I'm writing about real dogs. I'm not writing about dogs who can talk to other animals or who can understand human language or thought. That's a different thing than what I set out to do. I loved Snoopy growing up, but this is not Snoopy."
A STAR IS BORN
Bryce Dallas Howard recites the dialogue that Cameron and his wife, Cathryn Michon, wrote, but Shelby dominates the screen. Like the fictional Bella, she has modest origins.
"We met her in Tennessee in Cheatham County. We fell in love with her and felt that she was the dog to be in our movie. She went from living in a landfill to living in an animal shelter to becoming a movie star," Cameron says.
"Shelby could be directed. We could give her instructions, and she had to act a certain way. She was responsive to all the trainers' requests."
Thankfully, she didn't have to face the same predators her fictional counterpart confronted or befriended.
"It was our ethic that even when we had an opportunity for interaction that when we had the 'coyotes,' we had some specifically trained coyote-half breed dogs that did the running. We deliberately made sure that Shelby was not on screen with those coyotes," Cameron says.
"When it comes to interacting with a cougar in the wild, there was no cougar. There was just computer generated graphics, so Shelby had to be trained to interact with green screen characters. It was fascinating."
The author has made Shelby the subject of a new book tied into the movie and has been on tour with her. He called us after visiting a Washington children's hospital with her. The novelist seemed enthusiastic but a little tired from the trip. Michon helped set up the interview and gently reminded him of Olmos' first name. Neither wanted Shelby to experience the same grind.
"All I want to do is play with Shelby," Cameron says. "When I first see Shelby, I'm on my back giving her hugs. We're supposed to be looking left and looking right, and I'm looking at Shelby.
"My pictures probably don't look that great. I approach it just by realizing that Shelby is a working animal, a working dog, but I treat her like she's a dog. I can't help it. I love Shelby. She seems to recognize me, but she's an actress. She could be pretending that she recognizes me, but I prefer to think that she does," he says.
MovieStyle on 01/11/2019
Print Headline: Bruce Cameron envisions life as a dog