White Dog (1982) Retrospective

SUMMARY
During the American civil rights movement, white actress Julie Sawyer accidentally runs over a stray White Shepherd dog. After the veterinarian treats him, Julie takes him home while trying to find his owners. A rapist breaks into her house and tries to attack her, but the dog protects her. She decides to adopt him, against the wishes of her boyfriend Roland Graele. Unbeknown to her, the dog was trained by a white racist to attack black people on sight. The dog sneaks out of the house, and kills a black truck driver. Later, Julie takes the dog to work with her, and he mauls a black actress on the set.

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Julie takes the dog to a trainer, Carruthers, who tells her to euthanize the dog. Another dog trainer, Keys, who is black, decides to try to retrain the dog. He dons protective gear and keeps the dog in a large enclosure, taking him out on a chain and exposing himself to the dog each day and making sure he is the only one to feed or care for the dog.

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The dog escapes and kills an elderly black man in a church. Keys recovers him, and opts not to turn him over to authorities to continue the training, over Julie’s protests. He warns her that the training has reached a tipping point, where the dog might be cured or go insane. He believes that curing the dog will discourage white racists from training dogs like this.

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Eventually, the dog becomes friendly towards Keys. Julie confronts the dog’s original owner, who has come to claim him. She angrily tells him the dog has been cured by a black person in front of his grandchildren who knew the dog to be a loving pet. Just as Julie and Keys celebrate their victory, the dog, without warning, turns its attention to Carruthers and attacks him. To save his employer’s life, Keys is forced to shoot and kill the dog.

DEVELOPMENT
White Dog’s roots lie with a 1970 autobiographical novel written by Romain Gary of the same name. The story was purchased for use by Paramount in 1975, with Curtis Hanson selected to write the screenplay and Roman Polanski hired to direct. Before shooting commenced, Polanski was charged with rape and fled the country, leaving the production in limbo. Over a span of six years, the project was given to various writers and producers, who all focused on the stray dog story from Gary’s original work. Gary’s activist wife was replaced in the script with a young, unmarried actress because Paramount wanted to contrast the dog’s random attacks with a loving relationship between the protagonist and the dog. Paramount executives noted that they wanted a “Jaws with paws” and indicated that they wanted any racial elements to be downplayed. In one memo, the company noted: “Given the organic elements of this story, it is imperative that we never overtly address through attitude or statement the issue of racism per se.”

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White Dog by Romain Gary
A fictionalized memoir set in both the United States and France during the 1960s American civil rights movement, White Dog focuses on the events that occur after Gary and his then-wife Jean Seberg, an actress and an activist, adopt a handsome and clearly well-trained German Shepherd dog who comes back to their home with one of their other dogs. At first, the dog, which they name Batka, is an ideal new member of the family: intelligent, devoted, and quickly befriending the couple’s assortment of other animals. To their dismay, they discover that the dog, a former Alabama police dog, was trained to attack black people on sight. Although they are told the dog is too old to be retrained, they take him to a black dog trainer to try. Instead, the man trains the dog to attack white people, including Gary himself. Gary states that he changed the ending of the American version to be more optimistic.

By 1981, Gary’s wife, and then Gary himself, had both committed suicide. At the same time, Hollywood was under threat of strikes by both the Writers’ and Directors’ Guilds. Needing enough films to carry the studio through in case the strikes happened, White Dog was one of 13 films considered to be far enough along to be completable in a short time frame. With a push from Michael Eisner, White Dog was one of seven that Paramount put on a fast track for production. Eisner pushed for the film to be one of the selected ones because of its social message that hate was learned. Producer Jon Davison was less certain and, early on, he questioned how the film was being marketed. Hanson, back on board as the film’s screenwriter, suggested that Samuel Fuller be named the film’s director as he felt Fuller was the only one available with the experience needed to complete the film on such a short schedule and with a low budget, while still doing so responsibly with regard to the sensitive material. Davison agreed after visiting Fuller and seeing Fuller act out how he would shoot the film.

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Shelve the film without letting anyone see it? I was dumbfounded. It’s difficult to express the hurt of having a finished film locked away in a vault, never to be screened for an audience. It’s like someone putting your newborn baby in a goddamned maximum-security prison forever … Moving to France for a while would alleviate some of the pain and doubt that I had to live with because of White Dog. — Sam Fuller

PRODUCTION

A prolific director, novelist and screenplay writer, the former newspaperman has learned (inspired by budgetary restrictions) to reduce the most grandiose and eloquent plotlines into tense, intimate and sweat generating stories.

His House of Bamboo (1955) pitted a lone undercover agent against a Tokyo protection racket; the corruption seen through the eyes of one observer. In Shock Corridor (1963) a reporter investigating an insane asylum got a firsthand glimpse of the world of madness by going undercover and entering the asylum as a patient. When the only per. son who knows his true identity dies, the newspaperman is stranded. In The Big Red One (1980), the World War II experience is graphically viewed by four raw recruits and their world-weary sergeant.

“I like close situations,” Fuller admits. “In this movie, you’ll not only see the incidents through the eyes of the white dog but you’ll actually perceive how the dog thinks. You’ll swear this dog is human. I directed him as if he was a human.”

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As jarring as the premise of White Dog may sound to some moviegoers, the idea is actually not a new one. In fact, the film had languished at Paramount Pictures for over six years prior to Fuller’s involvement.

“I first encountered the White Dog story years ago when it appeared in Life Magazine,” recalls Fuller. “It was a story by Romain Gary, the husband of [actress] Jean Seberg. I knew Romain when he was the French Consul in Los Angeles so I was intrigued.

“Basically, his story was about him discovering a dog on his doorway. He finds out that it’s not an ordinary dog. It’s a racist dog, trained by white bigots to attack blacks. Gary takes the dog to be retrained by a black man named Keys. Keys re-programs the dog to attack only white. That’s the story.

“Basically, it was a symbolic approach by Gary; an attempt to represent his life with Seberg. It touched on their involvement with civil rights and the Black Panther movement.”

After the story’s publication, it was brought to Paramount as a Robert Evans project. Roman Polanski was set to direct. Curtis Hanson was tapped to do the screenplay. As quickly as the excitement for the project had mounted, it faded. Polanski encountered a few legal problems. Subsequently, so did Evans. White Dog hibernated at the studio for quite a few years.

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The slant of Gary’s story, according to Fuller, is what kept the dog at bay for that period of time. “It’s a compounded racist approach,” he states. “It’s not bad enough having a white bastard doing that to a dog, right? You have to compound that idea in a very evil way, a racist way, by having a black man reversing the process.”

Last year, Paramount decided to resurrect the film and asked Roger Corman alumni Jon Davison to produce. Davison was asked to mount the film quickly. A long-time movie buff, Davison immediately thought of Fuller to helm the project. After all, Fuller had done most of his movies under the gun; pressured by time and money and lack of same.

Fuller, however, was a hard fellow to approach at the time. An open, candid conversationalist, prone to phrases such as “ya get it?” “now, listen to this,” “are you following all this,” “can I give you an example?” and “son of a bitchin’,” he was a hot commodity after The Big Red One and already committed to a project. Returning home from location scouting in Buenos Aires, Fuller walked into his living room and found his wife hanging up the phone. “She told me it was a guy named Jon Davison,” Fuller recounts. “He and some executive from Paramount were coming over the next day to pitch a movie to me. I said that was impossible. I was already involved in one.

“They came over the following day and offered me White Dog. I was really excited about it. I arranged for my prior film commitment to be pushed back five months. Eventually it was scrapped.

“There were quite a few problems with White Dog from the outset. We had to re-work it entirely. When we approached the plot, we threw out all the racist elements. The only thing we retained was a white dog that attacked blacks.

“There had been six or seven scripts done over the years. The man who wrote the first script for Polanski turned out to be a friend of mine, Curtis Hanson. As a matter of fact, he came over to The Shack [Fuller’s nickname for his home] when he was doing it and I worked out a few scenes for him. How’s that for goddamn irony?

“More or less, all of Paramount’s script followed Gary’s original story … which was a pretty bad direction for a movie to go. I didn’t want to get involved in a racist film and I certainly didn’t go for all that anti-black crap.

“So Curtis and I wrote the movie together in 10 or 12 days. We tried to finish it before the writers’ strike began. Then, I tried to finish the film before the threatened directors’ strike.

Jon Davison on WHITE DOG

“It’s handled like a thriller,” explains Fuller. “The reason this movie is going to shake a lot of people is that it’s different than most thrillers. Most monster movies have Frankenstein or Dracula or zombies or mushrooms the size of houses that take over a village. I love all those horror films. But most of the monsters are totally fictitious.

“We have a real dog. He’s a constant menace. A constant presence. He’s lethal wherever he goes. And, it’s legitimate. The tension is built-in right from the start. You don’t have to fake anything.”

Part of the impact of the movie, according to Fuller, rests in the fact that the dog is more than a mere canine. “He’s almost human,” he declares. “I treated him as a person. You will actually see this dog think through the reactions shown on his face.

“I’m quite proud of the way that aspect of the film works. I just wish I had a few more weeks to work with the dog. It was hard to establish communications. I didn’t know his language. Ya get me?

“I mean, this isn’t Lassie or Rin-Tin Tin. It’s not about a nice dog that jumps and barks and runs alongside a kid. This dog is a survivor. It does things intentionally. You see that.

“Can I give you an example?” the director asks parenthetically. “When the girl takes the dog to the vet, the dog is stretched out on a table. The girl is explaining the accident to the doctor. “I couldn’t see him. It was too dark. I hit him.’

“When she says ‘hit,’ the dog opens its eyes and, for the first time, sees the girl not four feet away. You have the first encounter between victim and driver. It’s just like you opening your eyes and, being semi-conscious and lying in a gutter, staring at some man standing over you telling someone else “I just accidentally shot this son of a bitch.’ You’re looking right at him and he’s chatting about your life.

“You instinctively feel the jolt the dog experiences in this scene. Originally, we were going to show the dog’s viewpoint with effects. Then, we decided against it. We thought we could handle his perspective more logically and acceptably if we filmed it from his point of view but without any jazzing up.

“For instance, when the dog is in the compound, he’s trying to escape. We handle the scene the way it would be done if it concerned a human planning a jailbreak. The dog chews his way out of the cage. There’s now only an electrified fence separating him from freedom.

“Now, pretend our dog is Bogart or Cagney. In a Bogart film, all the other prisoners would know about the jailbreak in advance. They’d hear the sirens or spot the searchlights and cheer the con on. In our movie, after the dog makes his break, the animals go wild, rooting for him to make it over the fence. Coyotes, wolves, lions, tigers, elephants … they’re all going nuts! ‘One of us not only has gotten out of his cage . . . one of us is going to get over the fence!’

“Now, there are searchlights all over the place. The dog hides under a truck. From his vantage point, he spots a small vehicle, parked next to a larger one, parked next to a bigger truck, parked next to the fence.

“We see the dog’s face. It’s studying the height of each vehicle. We cut back to the cab of the truck. We can almost hear that dog thinking: ‘Goddammit. If I can jump from that onto that onto that, I can clear that sonofabitch fence!’

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“That’s how a human would react. That’s how we make our dog understandable. We cut from his eyes to a vehicle to his eyes to another vehicle and back to his eyes. You can almost hear the wheels turning. I had a hell of a lot of fun structuring those scenes. I mean, this isn’t The Doberman Gang, where the dogs sit up and growl and find purses. This dog is cunning. He kills. He attacks. When he leaps, he flies through the air. You can feel his blind rage, the emotional confusion.”

With action and the characters’ constant fear of an attack of canine munchies now being emphasized, Fuller feels that he’s successfully exorcised the spirit of racism that haunted the original premise.

“If anyone complains about this movie,” he chuckles, “it’ll be the Klan. Black audiences should love Keys. He’s a great character. A wonderful man. He isn’t played as a race. He’s played as a scientist.

“He’s not just an animal trainer but an anthropologist. His parents are anthropologists and their parents as well. He’s part of a family that’s comparable to the Leaky family in archeology. He has a tremendous academic background.

“He’s perfectly content working in this animal compound because, to him, it’s a large laboratory. Each animal is in a test tube as far as he’s concerned. He’s more relaxed and interested in this informal approach than in surrounding himself with textbooks.

“When this black anthropologist encounters this racist dog, it doesn’t mean anything to him personally. He wouldn’t care if the dog attacked whites, browns, pinks or blues. He is interested in dealing with this dog only because it gives him a chance to go inside the dog’s brain without using a knife. It becomes a challenge for him to de-program the animal. Keys knows everything about an animal’s brain. To enact change without operating, without performing a lobotomy, excites him.

“He only loses his scientific composure once during the film after finding one of the dog’s victims. His shell breaks. ‘I would have given anything to put a bullet through that bastard’s brain,’ he blurts to the girl. But he couldn’t conduct his experiment on a dead dog, could he?

“Keys is an interesting character. He realizes that the dog isn’t inherently evil. In fact, the dog is quite docile and loving when not under the influence of its past. Keys wants nothing more than to save the dog. To do that, he has to pit his own will against the animal’s. They’re like two gladiators, fighting within the physical confines of the compound.

“He actually explains a lot of the dog’s personality to the girl who is, at first, confused and, then, repulsed by the dog’s killer instincts. She doesn’t understand what could have made the dog so vicious.

“The scientist explains that, when the dog was a puppy, its first owners hired black drunks or hopheads to beat the hell out of it. All the puppy sees are black hands coming down on it. All it feels is pain. It’s no wonder the full grown dog reacts as it does to blacks.

“The message of this movie is about racism,” Fuller continues. “When someone’s been brought up as a racist from childhood, from their puppyhood, you can’t reason with them. You can’t change their minds, no matter if they’re a man or a woman. You can’t use logic. You might as well be talking to a wall.

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“To change attitudes in this country, you have to reach the racists’ children. You have to reach the would-be racists when they’re young. The moral of the movie is implied but not stated. If you’re going to change people, go for them in their formative years. That’s the only way to defeat racism.”

With or without the moralizing, Fuller believes that White Dog is going to put the bite on thrill-seeking audiences this summer. “It’s unrelenting,” he beams, obviously enthused about the picture. “It’s based on individual and I collective hate and bigotry, violence · and killing. This isn’t Rosemary’s Baby or some outer space thing. This is real.”

In an earlier Variety magazine interview, Fuller stated that viewers would “see a dog slowly go insane and then come back to sanity.” Before filming began, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Black Anti-Defamation Coalition (BADC), and other civil-rights leaders began voicing concerns that the film would spur racial violence. In an editorial in the Los Angeles Times, Robert Price, executive director of the BADC, criticized the studio for producing the film based on a book by a white man and using a primarily white cast and crew, rather than producing the film with African Americans in key positions. He also considered Gary’s work to be a “second-rate novel” and questioned its use when “bookshelves are laden with quality novels by black writers who explore the same social and psychological areas with far more subtlety?”

Fuller, however, was confident in his work and the idea that the film would be strongly anti-racist, particularly with the changes he had made to the original work. The original novel’s hate-filled Muslim black trainer, who had deliberately retrained the dog to attack white people, was converted into the character of Keys, who genuinely wished to cure the animal. Fuller also changed the novel’s original ending into a more pessimistic film ending.

Christa Fuller

When we were getting ready to release the film in theatres, there was something going on behind the scenes that I still don’t understand. The studio called it ‘inappropriate’. This made Sam and I so angry. Sam fought in WW2 to defend democracy and fight Fascism. He won a Silver Star, and a Purple Heart. He fought in every major battle in the War. How they could call the film ‘inappropriate’ or fear the film would be seen as racist is beyond me. The ‘white dog’ is a symbol of racism itself. It’s a beautiful piece of work, and Paul Winfield and Burl Ives did such great jobs. – Christa Fuller (Sam’s Wife)

RELEASE/CONCLUSION
The film was shot in only forty-five days at a cost of $7 million. Five white German Shepherd Dogs played the unnamed central character. After filming commenced, Paramount Pictures brought in two African-American consultants to review and approve the depiction of the black characters: Willis Edwards, vice president of the local NAACP chapter, and David L. Crippens, the vice president and stage manager of the local PBS affiliate. In the end, they walked away with different views of the film. Crippens did not find the film to have any racist connotations, while Edwards found it inflammatory and felt it should not have been made, particularly not during that year, when a series of murders of black children was occurring in Atlanta. The two men provided a write-up of their views for the studio executives, which were passed to Davison along with warnings that the studio feared a film boycott. But Fuller was neither told of these discussions, nor given the notes, until two weeks before filming was slated to conclude. Known for being a staunch integrationist and for his regularly giving black actors non-stereotypical roles, Fuller was furious, finding the studio’s actions insulting. He reportedly had both representatives banned from the set afterwards, though he did integrate some of the suggested changes into the film.

 Paramount was hesitant to release the film out of continuing concerns that the film would be misconstrued. Though no one from the organization had viewed the completed film, the NAACP threatened boycotts. In early 1982, the studio finally held a preview screening in Seattle and later, in August, in Denver, with mixed responses. It was finally released in the US at five Detroit theatres on November 12, 1982 for just one week, with no trailer, no poster and no promotion at all. It did no business and was shelved as uncommercial by Paramount. Dumbfounded and hurt by the film’s shelving, Fuller moved to France and never directed another American film. Later in April 1987, during an interview held in Milan, Fuller stated that Paramount shelved the film also because they feared negative reactions from the KKK.

White Dog (1982) Ennio Morricone

CAST/CREW
Directed
Samuel Fuller

Produced
Jon Davison

Screenplay
Samuel Fuller
Curtis Hanson

Based on
White Dog
by Romain Gary

Kristy McNichol
Paul Winfield
Burl Ives
Jameson Parker
Parley Baer

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
Fangoria#017

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