“I had about 3,000 friends of mine say I was insane to take this on as a first-time directing effort,” said John Hoffman of his debut feature, “Good Boy!” Hoffman and his human star, twelve-year old Liam Aiken, were in Dallas to discuss the movie, in which a lonely boy bonds with a dog that turns out to be a super-intelligent agent from a planet dominated by canines. And to add to the whimsy, the kid and his new pet can converse.
The problem, Hoffman explained, wasn’t the script, which he’d written himself. He’d been approached by the Jim Henson company to adapt a radio play called “The Dog From Outer Space,” but as a new dog owner himself, he had definite ideas about the arc the story should take, and he kept little of the original apart from the premise. Hoffman chose to fashion a script that was basically about the growing attachment between a pet and its owner, drawing on his own experience. “At the end of it there was the discovery of these profound feelings of protectiveness and how much a feeling of friendship and love and loyalty exists within that relationship. And so that whole journey is exactly the journey I hope audiences sort of go through as they watch the movie,” he said.
But there was a difficulty, in that Hoffman intended the picture to be a live-action piece using real animals and an absolute minimum of visual trickery, and all on a very modest $17 million budget. “No movie, certainly, with talking animals of the length of this one had been made for less than $60 [million],” he noted. “That was the main hurdle in dealing with this movie as a live-action movie–to convince people we thought it could be done (a) only with real dogs and (b) at a nice, trim budget. But MGM, for whatever reason, took the leap…They let us make the movie that I wanted to make.”
Hoffman observed that the involvement of the Henson company in the production might lead some to suspect that the dogs are manufactured effects, but he emphasized that simply wasn’t so. “Outside of one shot, when the dog is flying, which I couldn’t get a real dog to do, it’s all real dogs. There’s no puppetry, no animatronics anywhere…That posed a challenge all its own. But luckily we had amazing trainers…I felt I was waking up and going to Vegas every day…but nine times out of ten they did it. It’s almost like the dogs were the most disciplined people on the set.”
Young Aiken agreed. “You see them work, and they’re always spot-on, which is incredible,” he said. “They’re so keyed in on their trainers, staring at them. It’s fun to watch them work.”
Aiken interacted, indeed conversed, constantly with not just one dog but five of them through the course of the picture. But of course he was delivering all the lines to mute canines, whose mouths would later be animated and whose voices would later be added by the likes of Matthew Broderick, Delta Burke, Brittany Murphy, Donald Faison and Carl Reiner. How hard was it for him to work this way? “Fortunately, there was someone off screen who was saying the lines. It was kind of difficult , it takes a little getting used to, but once you get used to it, it was fun,” he said. Hoffman recalled that often Aiken would be performing while the trainers were urging on the animals to the proper reactions, often very noisily. “They did have me personally miked,” Aiken said. “So the personal mike didn’t pick up the other sounds.” That minimized the need for later dialogue looping.
Hoffman was as enthusiastic in his praise for Aiken as he was for the dogs and their trainers. “It was kind of amazing, the focus he was able to keep at the age of twelve,” he said. “Of all the lucky things that happened, I’ve always said the luckiest moment was when Liam signed on. Because we needed this twelve-year old boy to carry the movie, obviously, but also to be a genuine person that you related to.”
And does Liam have a dog? “I got one at the end of the film, on the last day of the production. I got a mini-greyhound from the production company as a present,” he said with a smile.