Film's Best Friend
Mensa moviemaker discovers the gravitas of canine thespians
In acting school I was often warned to avoid working with dogs or kids. Both are generally regarded as unpredictable scene-stealers. Now that I’ve written, produced, co-directed, and starred in my first feature film, The Year of the Dog — a poignant story about two strays, an alcoholic struggling to maintain sobriety, and a rescue dog with an unusual athletic gift — I look at my smaller, younger collaborators differently.
I shared most of my screen time with an adorable Siberian husky rescue named Caleb, who made clear to me that dogs are just freer than most people. Because of their ability to live truthfully and spontaneously moment by moment, they will tend to reveal, through contrast, the stiffness of over-rehearsed performances. Now I feel actors should actively seek out scenes with dogs and kids to hone their ability to emotionally attune.
The road to teaming up with Caleb was circuitous and began when I reached out to Jon Van Dyke, a veteran exotic and domestic animal trainer with more than 35 years’ experience who specializes in positive reinforcement. I asked him for help to find a very special husky to play Yup’ik, our lead dog character in the film. Jon turned to Cathy and Gregg Pittman, owners of the Palmdale, Calif.-based Performing Animal Troupe. The Pittmans introduced Jon to Caleb, a 9-month old, pure-bred husky who had bounced between the pound and foster homes for six months before a shelter put him up for adoption. Jon didn’t mind one bit that foster homes described Caleb as being “too much dog” and “too energetic” because, as he told me then, Jon finds those qualities make for some of the best acting dogs. He believes all animals are perfect and shared with me: “The key is understanding them, their quirks and personalities, and then allowing those to shine.” Caleb could barely sit when Jon met him, but he was melt-your-heart cute. And he’s a good dude who loves positive reinforcement and has this free spirit about him. Jon told me Caleb was our guy. I agreed.
Together we figured out some of the key script elements Caleb would need to know — sit, come, fetch, speak — and Jon made a game out of drilling those. As a dog owner most of my life, I relished the chance to work alongside Caleb and, in retrospect, marveled at how free and full of life our little husky was in scene after scene. Caleb was Robin Williams-quick. He just did what he wanted, and somehow his improvisations almost always worked in the scene. When audiences see the film, they’ll have no clue that Caleb and I didn’t spend a lifetime working together. And that is a testament to his charm and Jon’s amazing work with him.
I think Caleb’s story exemplifies a central theme of the film: how finding purpose and making connections can heal. We had this gorgeous and loving dog who had something special in him that so many others missed. All those things that others saw as his imperfections — his high energy, his playfulness, his stubbornness — are precisely the traits that made him able to carry so much of this film.
I beam with pride when I look back on Caleb’s scene-stealing performance and newfound stardom. I still can’t believe he was a rescue with only six weeks of training. He was one of the most precious, charismatic, and confident actors I’ve seen, dog or human. He’s like Frank Sinatra with his blue eyes and confident strut. I just hope fame won’t change him — ha!
All those things that others saw as his imperfections — his high energy, his playfulness, his stubbornness — are precisely the traits that made him able to carry so much of this film.
To be sure, I learned so much from him about being present, not just in a scene but in life. For that and a surfeit of other reasons, I think I’ll always be an actor who loves to work with animals.
Today, Caleb enjoys the Southern California lifestyle as a family member of the Pittmans’ Performing Animal Troupe, where he hangs out with 60 other animals, plays with his boxer buddy, Butch, and shoots Petco commercials.
Owing largely to Caleb’s wonderful performance, our film landed a theatrical release, opening in 100 theaters nationwide on Feb. 24 — no small feat for an indie film in the post-Covid era. Brandon Smith, president of the film’s Montana-based distribution company Nova Vento Entertainment, told me, “According to our accounting, The Year of the Dog’s debut will be one of the widest theatrical releases for a drama of this budget in the past decade.”
In addition to Caleb, our movie features an accomplished cast of film and television actors, including two prominent Indigenous actors: Jon Proudstar (a veteran of 43 films and short-listed for Emmy consideration for his performance as Leon in Reservation Dogs) and Lakota actor Michael Spears (Dances with Wolves, 1923, and Reservation Dogs); an incredible group of veterans in both cast and crew roles, including Army veteran Darwin Lumbattis, Navy veteran Jeff Medley, and Air Force veteran Don Andrews; as well as a glorious array of canines from Montana, Colorado, and as far away as Michigan.