Awesome Exclusive Interview with A Boy and His Dog director
Legendary cult classic plays at midnight this Friday and Saturday at the Clay Theater
As the years rolled on, my film geek instincts turned me onto various other movies that play best at midnight. Liquid Sky. Mad Max. But the mother of all midnight movies has to be the 1975 cult classic, A Boy and His Dog. Based on a story by the legendary science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, A Boy and His Dog tells the post-apocalyptic tale of a young man (Don Johnson, a full decade before Miami Vice) and his telepathic talking dog (played by the dog who played Tiger on the Brady Bunch). Together, they roam the apocalyptic wasteland, scavenging for food and sex, until Johnson's character is lured into an elaborate underground world, ruled by the great Jason Robards in clown makeup. And then, the movie gets really weird.
The film was directed by LQ Jones, a wonderful character actor with more than 100 movies and more than 600 television shows on his resume. Jones has been in some fantastic movies made by the greatest Hollywood directors, including Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, Martin Scorsese's Casino, and Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion—but A Boy and His Dog is his only significant directing credit.
When Landmark theatres announced that A Boy and His Dog was scheduled to show on February 29 and March 1 at San Francisco's Clay Theater, and that LQ Jones was going to be there in person AND that LQ Jones was available for interviews, I was all over it. I called Jones at his L.A. office last week to talk about his weird, wonderful movie. Here's what he had to say.
PC: Hi this is Pete Crooks, calling for LQ Jones.
LQ: Well, does he owe you any money?
PC: Um…no, I'm calling about the midnight screening of A Boy and His Dog in San Francisco.
LQ: (Laughs) OK, great. This is LQ Jones.
PC: First off, I always thought that your movie should play as the second half of a double feature with Dr. Strangelove, a movie that ends with a montage of mushroom clouds. Your movie begins with a montage of mushroom clouds.
LQ: Wow, I never thought of that, but you're right. Actually, A Boy and His Dog was always doubled with an animated movie called The Point, which was this elaborate, long-form music video.
PC: A Boy and His Dog is such an odd movie, and its from my very favorite time in film history, the mid-1970s, just before Star Wars and all the blockbuster franchise films. Is there any chance it could have been produced today?
LQ: I doubt it. It was hard enough to release it back then. When we first finished it, I showed it to a friend at a major studio. He looked at it and said, "Its marvelous, we have to have it!" He called the studio boss who was in a chartered plane to New York. He stopped in Kansas City, turned around and came back to watch it the next morning, and said, "It’s the biggest piece of shit I have ever seen in my life."
We showed it to all the major studios, and they would say, "It's marvelous, it's fantastic…what the hell are you going to do with it? You can't sell it."
Eventually we got it out there, and it did OK. Then, we re-released it in 1982 and it did much better. A Boy and His Dog is the only movie, with the exception of Walt Disney's animated movies, to do more business in its re-release than its initial release in the history of the movie business.
PC: I first saw it in about 1993 and it gave me the creeps. I've recommended it to other film buffs for years. When I re-watched it the other night, it creeped me out again, because the characters were talking about nuclear wars that happened in the years 2007 and 2008.
LQ: You've found something that's very incisive.
PC: I have?
LQ: I like to talk to the audience for two or three minutes before showing the movie. I say, 'I hope you like the movie. If you don't, you're screwed, because you're never going to be able to forget it.'
To this day I have never solved what it is about A Boy and His Dog. Usually when the picture is over, people pop up and start laughing and giggling and they walk out. And they've forgotten the movie by the time they reach the popcorn stand.
But, that's not the case with this film. I've found that audiences like to be left alone for 10-20 minutes before they want to talk about the picture. And then they'll talk about it forever.
That's one reason I'm so proud of the film. There a bunch of mistakes in it, just like any picture, but its impact is impressive.
PC: For a small, independent film, you were able to get Jason Robards, who was a big star at the time. I mean, he did All The President's Men soon after this.
LQ: At the time we made A Boy and His Dog, Jason was maybe the best actor in our business. He wasn't the biggest star, but he was perhaps the best actor.
The truth is, Robert Ryan was going to do A Boy and His Dog. We had done Men In War and The Wild Bunch together. He wanted to do it, and I would have been tickled to death if he had. But Bob came down with cancer and he could not do it.
So I talked to Jason and he said send it to me. He was not money driven at all, he was interested in doing good work. He read it and said, 'When do we start?'
PC: OK, let's spin off to the side here. You mentioned Men In War, which was directed by one of my very favorite directors, Anthony Mann. I've never spoken with anyone who worked with Mann, what was he like?
LQ: Oh, Tony was like may people who knew exactly what he wanted—he was tough to work with. Once you got what he was thinking it was OK, but he expected you to know what he was thinking so that was tough at first.
I've been in the business 54 years. I've done 115 movies and between 500-600 TV shoes. Never have I done anything like Men In War. We started on page one, word one, and shot in sequence. The picture was not a financial success, but it’s a great piece of art. It’s a much better picture than it had a right to be, because of Mann.
He was hysterical—he talked in expletives. He talked that way to children. You got used to it after awhile. Once, we were set up for a shot in a canyon and a school bus rolled into the shot. This bus load of 8 year old kids gets out followed by a couple of nuns. We all thought, 'It it is going to HIT THE FAN'
But Tony was so nice and he said, 'Sisters, it's so nice to see the kids are interested in filmmaking.' He talked to the kids for half and hour, told them about the movie and what we were doing. And finally, the kids start walking back to their bus and Tony turns to us and screams, 'Let's get this f--king piece of shit on the road!' The sisters took off running like scalded pups
PC: How did you like Peckinpah?
Loved him. If you look at Sam's movies, they are complicated, but the thing that makes his pictures is his attention to detail. He pays attention to the little details in the writing, casting, props, and the movie eventually takes on a life of its own.
PC: Let's get back to A Boy and His Dog. What was your budget?
LQ: (Laughs). One of the majors was going to do it, and balked when they said it was going to cost $750,000 to build the sets [of the underground]. But I used my own money, and the sets covered 4.5 square miles and cost $29,000. The picture cost only slightly $400,000.
PC: You're going to be at the Clay Theater this weekend to introduce the film. Have you been showing it at midnight screenings all these years?
LQ: Oh, no, I show it every now and then. But I am inordinantly proud of the picture, I want people to see it. And it has always found an audience. When it was re-released in 1982, a theater in Seattle played A Boy and His Dog for a solid year. It played for eight years in Paris in one theater.
PC: It was ahead of its time in the post-apocalyptic genre
LQ: Yes! Look at Road Warrior. I understand [director] George Miller said, 'to make Road Warrior, I took a Boy and His Dog and went commercial.
PC: How did you cast Don Johnson?
LQ: I thought it would take forever to find the dog, but I found the dog quickly. But for the boy, we did over 600 tests with men for the part, before we found Don. It was a tough role—as an actor you don't want to get into a scene with a child or a dog. He had to act with a dog that talked that was smarter than him. There's no doubt in my mind that's the best thing he ever did and he ever will do. I heard he got something like 11 TV pilots from this movie.
PC: And I've heard this wild rumor that James Cagney was going to be the voice of the dog?
LQ: We were getting fairly close to the dub work, and I got the word that Cagney would consider doing the voice of the dog. My heart was turning to blubber just thinking about it. I loved Cagney. Plus, I thought, all I need to do is call Warner Brothers and they'll send me truckloads of money to finish this thing.
But the more I thought about it, the more I thought the audience would sit there thinking, "Oh there's Cagney doing the voice of the dog.' So I went with Tim McIntire, who can do 1,000 voices. He could even do Cagney better than Cagney, so I had him try it with a Cagney voice. But in the end that didn't work. I think it was a better film without Cagney.