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   April 14, 2010

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A Man and His Film

L.Q. Jones returns to KC with his cautionary tale, A Boy and His Dog

by Dan Lybarger

LQ Jones
Actor L.Q. Jones and director of A Boy and His Dog
At 82, character actor L.Q. Jones has a lot to be proud of. Even if his name doesn’t sound familiar, it’s a safe bet that he’s been in the movie theater with you or on your TV. The tall Texas-born actor with the craggy voice and a bushy moustache has been in The Wild Bunch, Casino, Gunsmoke, Hell is for Heroes, Rawhide and even the movie version of A Prairie Home Companion, directed by Kansas City’s own Robert Altman.

He’s collaborated with everyone from Elvis Presley to Marlon Brando to Meryl Streep to Martin Scorsese to Charlton Heston to Clint Eastwood to Sir Anthony Hopkins to Antonio Banderas.

Because he’s best known for starring in a long string of television and movie westerns, it initially seems odd that Jones is in his own words “inordinately proud” of having written and directed a 1975 science fiction film that has stayed in theaters like gum under the seats. This is despite the fact that Boy and His Dog has been on video and “Netflixable.”

The film received the 1976 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation at the 34th World Science Fiction Convention-Mid America. Jones came to Kansas City to promote the film when it originally opened and will be returning to Cowtown with a new 35mm print on Saturday, 7 p.m., at the Tivoli Theater as part of KC FilmFest. Tickets are available at www.kcjubilee.org.

True vision

If Jones seems an unlikely custodian of science fiction writer Harlan Ellison’s vision of a world where the surface of the earth is a vast wasteland because of World War IV, a few minutes on the phone will let you know the source of the film’s droll, sardonic humor.

While setting up an interview, I told Jones I was looking forward to our conversation. He replied, “You may not think so after we’re through.” Before we eventually talked, he politely told his other caller, “Let me lie to this gentleman, and give me a buzz back in a couple of hours.”

When I informed him that I viewed the film online before the interview, he sounded almost sorry and said, “I can’t blow smoke at you because you’ve seen it. I can lie, but you’ll catch me at it.”

When I talked with him about the film’s print, I found out I hadn’t seen the movie properly. On VHS, the film was presented in pan and scan, which means that nearly a quarter of the picture was removed in order for the movie to fit on a standard television. Through much of the film, a pre-Miami Vice Don Johnson is wandering through the frame with only a dog for company, and the sense of loneliness gets lost in the narrower format.

Even on DVD or Blu-Ray, there are some subtle shots that need the big screen treatment. According to Jones, the opportunity to catch A Boy and His Dog on a theatrical screen was almost lost. “They said, you need to put (the movie on stock) where the negative will last 50 years,” he recalls. “Of course, it cost an arm and a leg, but that’s what we wanted to do, so we took it up. Then, of course, they came back and said, ‘Well, we do have a little problem. It doesn’t last 50 years. It’s barely lasted 30.’

“The picture was sliding off the negative. We were losing our picture. When I say losing it, I don’t mean it was totally falling off of the print. But everything was changing. Blues were going to greens. Greens were going to pinks. And everything’s shifting, which is bad for us.”

The restoration was additionally hampered by the fact that the film was shot in a process known as Technoscope, which was initially cheaper than 35 mm film because it took up half as much space. Unfortunately, the machines necessary to print the negatives aren’t readily available so the film had to be restored one frame at a time. This meant the restoration and the new prints took nearly three to four months to complete. Jones says, “When we got through, you have a product just like you shot the picture yesterday.”

Not your typical dog story

Part of the reason the film required restoration is that Jones and Ellison’s story is tricky and requires a clear image to be properly understood. To say the film is out of the mainstream is an understatement. After a prologue of nuclear warheads exploding (which was added in 1982), we hear a couple of voices talking as a scruffy, battered young man named Vic (Johnson) crawls along the ground along a seemingly endless desert. We hear both Johnson’s familiar nasal drawl with a deeper, unfamiliar voice.

Tiger and Vic (Don Johnson) in A Boy and His Dog

Jones says, “We start with the bottom of a shoe. The voice to most people is friendly, courteous, reverent. It’s a father speaking. It’s a brother, a mother. It’s a military man. It’s a professor that’s talking. It’s got all those timbres. And it starts telling you things your eye sees. You go, ‘Ah. It’s the truth. It knows what it’s talking about. It knows what it’s doing.’

“Incidentally, the voice is coming from a dog.”

The animal in question is Blood, played by Tiger, the dog who starred in The Brady Bunch. He has the disembodied voice of Tim McIntire, who also provided some of the film’s music. Blood, through reasons that are only alluded to in the film, can communicate telepathically with Vic and is smarter, more compassionate and more perceptive than any human being left in the world.

“You realize the only smart human thing in the picture is the dog. All the rest of the things have become animals,” says Jones. “Believe it or not, I’m trying to get you to think. If we don’t get our head out of our fanny, what’s on the screen in A Boy and His Dog is going to happen. That’s the way the world’s going to end up if we don’t stop being so damn greedy and beating up on each other.”

This especially applies to the uncouth Vic, who seeks out women for sex when he’s not scrounging for food. Johnson was an unusually brave performer because he played second fiddle to Tiger. Jones recalls Tiger may indeed have been as bright as the character he was playing.

“No matter how brilliant, you can’t teach any animal sequential tricks. You can teach them to do one, maybe even two, but that’s it,” Jones says. “I said, ‘Tiger, god dammit, you’re on the wrong side of the boiler. I can’t see you. I’m talking to the dog. I’m not talking to the trainer. The dog stays glued to (Johnson’s knee). He stays with him. When Don stops, the dog stops, the way an actor should.”

The dog then proceeds to change positions and bursts into tears on cue in a single take. “Now think about that, sports fans. There are eight tricks in a row. I can’t teach a human actor to do that, and the dog did it in one take,” says Jones. “I accused (trainer) Joe Hornok of reading him the script every night because the damn dog knew what to do that day,” Jones says.

Local vibe

Although the film was shot in California, some of the film’s success can be tied to some intended and unintended local ties. Johnson was a born in Flat Creek, MO, grew up in Kansas and went to college at KU. According to Jones, Johnson was seen as a promising talent during the mid-‘70s, even if he wasn’t a household name yet.

“He was doing big pictures, but he wasn’t making an imprint. I talked to a little over 500 people for the male and female (Susanne Benton) leads in the picture. I worked on that for, good heaven, a year and a half to see if I had the right person. In watching Don work, I knew he could do it, and he does a marvelous job. The old adage is don’t ever work with dogs. Nobody’s even saying don’t work with talking dogs, but he did, and he made it work,” says Jones.

Another local connection isn’t immediately obvious. Later in the film, Vic is lured into a subterranean community that seems like a nightmarish parody of small-town life before the nuclear war. The bizarre community resembles Silver Dollar City on crack, only without any willing tourists. Ellison and Jones named it “Topeka.”

As a native of Kansas’ capital, I had to ask him why he and Ellison chose that name for the dystopia, he first quips, “No. Google. You’re now Google.”

“I really don’t. I tried to stay as close to what Harlan what was doing in the book. I’m used to the name. I’ve been there. I know what the people are like. It’s comfortable, Middle America. I said, ‘Hey, it’ll work.’ I’ve asked Harlan. You can talk to Harlan about things like this. Eventually, you realize he doesn’t know what he’s saying anyway.”

According to Jones, Kansas City was where he faced the most puzzling question about his five-year labor of love with A Boy and His Dog. When a radio host asked him why he made it and wouldn’t accept what Jones told him, the director mulled the question for months.

“The real, real answer is they told me I could not do it. That made me so mad that made me say, ‘By God, I’ll show you,’ he says.

While most films or television shows might employ dozens of animals to play a single character. A Boy and His Dog was entirely dependent on Tiger.

“Do you know what we were going to do if the dog didn’t work or if the dog got sick?” Jones asks. He then answers, “Me. I had makeup. I had wardrobe. I was going to be the dog, as a character, not as a dog, of course.”

“We’ve got one dog. His stand-in was a stuffed toy. If he steps on nail or a piece of glass, we’re done. We’ve got 52 tons of crap to build our sets: everything broken, rusty wires, crap, junk from hospitals. If something happens to the dog, I put on the stuff, and I become a human character. That’s losing 99 percent of what’s making it work. But that’s better than not getting the picture done at all. From listening to everybody, they told me it couldn’t be done.”

He laughs, “They were right. I couldn’t do it.

Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@efilmcritic.com.


 

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