Based on the bestselling novel by W. Bruce Cameron, who with his wife, Cathryn Michon, adapted the book into a screenplay, Cameron says this about A Dog’s Way Home: “This story is about true love. 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.”
A Dog’s Way Home (PG) follows the amazing, heartwarming adventure of Bella, a dog who embarks on an epic 400-mile journey home after she is separated from her beloved human, Lucas, who is an aspiring medical student and VA hospital volunteer. Completely out of her comfort zone, Bella touches many disparate lives on their own journeys during hers, which include an orphaned mountain lion cub and a homeless veteran. However, she grows with her new experiences and brings comfort to all she meets.
The movie has some contemporary human themes and serves as a parable or metaphor about life’s journey. This movie features Ashley Judd, Jonah Hauer-King, Edward James Olmos, Alexandra Shipp, and Wes Studi; but at the center of the film is the lead role of Bella, the charming and captivating dog and her story.
T.D. Jakes, CEO of TDJ Enterprises, serves as an executive producer for this movie. As a master communicator, social entrepreneur, and multidimensional business leader, Jakes has more than 40 books in print. These include 2017’s Soar, which delves into the soul of the entrepreneur. As a producer, his nine films have grossed more than $300 million to date, including 2016’s Miracles from Heaven and Faith under Fire for the Lifetime network in 2018.
Dr. Diane Howard, who interviewed T.D. Jakes on the red carpet for the premiere of the movie Miracles from Heaven, has an exclusive, heartfelt interview again with him for A Dog’s Way Home for Sonoma Christian Home. SCH Editor at Large Dr. Diane Howard reports.
SCH: Why were you drawn to this project?
TDJ: I am a dog lover. This story is a profound metaphor. We lose our way and struggle to get home. We get lost and found.
SCH: What do you see as major themes in this movie?
TDJ: A major and relevant theme for today in this movie is about getting out of our comfort zone, relating to all types of people.
SCH: What values does this movie underscore?
TDJ: It underscores the need for love and forgiveness, as well as the need to appreciate the journey and not just the destination. It highlights that we are confused, have a way to go, and are not there yet.
SCH: How does this movie inspire?
TDJ: It inspires the desire for the simple joys of family and home.
SCH: How does it educate?
TDJ: It teaches as Jesus did with parables.
SCH: How does it entertain?
TDJ: Dog lovers understand how entertaining dogs can be and how they can have a medicinal affect, such as with PTSD. We are not meant to be alone.
SCH: How does it edify?
TDJ: It challenges us to understand that we are under construction. We don’t have all the answers. We need to grow.
SCH: How does this movie line up with what you have personally experienced?
TDJ: My dog, Honey, helps me calm my emotions, after I speak for example.
And, as a thought leader, Jakes has commanded stages from the Aspen Institute to the Peter Drucker CEO Forum at Claremont University to the Dallas Festival of Ideas with AT&T Chairman Randall Stephenson. His powers of influence extend to the cover of Time Magazine; as well as commentary offered on CNN, MSNBC, FOX News Channel, and other network programming. His powerful voice can be found in articles in the pages of The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Newsweek, Inc. and Bloomberg/BusinessWEEK.
Jakes is an award-winning humanitarian with ongoing initiatives locally, nationally and around the globe in many arenas: education, healthcare, criminal justice, economic empowerment, disaster preparedness, aid and recovery. On Sundays, Jakes is pastor to more than 30,000 members with more than 22 million online followers and in his new OTT behind the scenes digital platform, “Bishop’s Village.” For more information visit www.tdjakes.com.
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.”
Although 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.
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 Shelby was cast as Bella. Later, the production would also rescue Amber, Shelby’s stand-in, from another facility, in South Carolina.
“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, selecting and 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 make sure 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 organization. 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 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 adjusted to her new home, Miller began the process of training her as a film performer. The process she uses is different from the standard obedience training for dogs.
“It’s not ‘Sit! Down! Stay!’” Miller 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.”
The screenwriters 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, 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.”
Bella Team Lead Trainer Teresa A. Miller also emphasizes the importance of keeping the dogs comfortable and safe. “Our total concern is the safety of the animals on the set, and simulating any of the reactions or behaviors that appear to be a sad-looking or scared-looking dog. Our first priority is the dog, so we’re always going make sure that they’re safe and not put under any necessary duress.”
In addition to the trainers, the production also had two independent animal safety consultants. American Humane monitored the animal action, giving the film its No Animals Were Harmed® designation. Further, Jami LoVullo, an independent safety consultant, on set at all times, closely watched every take.
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