Qs for LQ: Director Jones speaks about the making of a cult film, "A Boy and his Dog," playing Landmark's Clay Fri/29 and Sat/1.

L.Q. Jones Talks Dogs and Cult Movies

Miriam Wolf February 24, 2008

The list of talking dog movies is a long and storied one, from Homeward Bound to Snow Dogs. But one stands head and forelocks above the others: A Boy and His Dog.

First released in 1975, the film takes place after nuclear war has destroyed the planet. The barren post-apocalyptic landscape boasts the usual packs of half-feral men chasing down unlucky women and fighting over the meager supply of food. Vic (a young pre-*Miami Vice* Don Johnson) is more of a loner; his only companion is a dog. Luckily, Blood not only talks, but is by far the smarter and more erudite of the two; he’s crucial to the boy’s survival. He also sniffs out women for Vic to scratch his post-nuclear itch with. They’re the best of friends, until Vic meets Quilla June.

Quilla June falls for Vic and asks him to come with her to her home in a “civilized” society that exists underground. But doing that means leaving Blood behind. Can either one survive without the other?

Veteran actor L.Q. Jones had appeared in scores of films, but had only directed one other before tackling A Boy and His Dog, which was originally a short story by Harlan Ellison. He ended up making one of the most enduring (and coherent) cult films of the era. A brand new print of the film screens Friday, Feb. 29, and Saturday, March 1, at midnight at the Clay Theatre. L.Q. Jones will be on hand for both screenings.

SF360 spoke with the affable and loquacious director about the film, its legacy, and working with the best damn dog actor in show business.

SF360.org: Why is A Boy and His Dog getting a re-release right now?

L.Q. Jones: I need the money! Not many people know this, but other than the pictures made by Walt Disney, the only film able to go out more than one time in the theater is A Boy and His Dog. [It] came out in 1975 and it never went off of the screen. We decided to do another campaign in 1982. It’s been sitting on the shelf. Cause I wanted to wait and go back and make a new print of it. I just waited and waited and then I waited too long. We were losing the negative. The film was sliding off the negative. So we either had to go back and do the work or lose the picture. Of course you don’t lose it completely but everything shifts—the colors, the soundtrack. Because the film is in Techniscope, what you have do is you put it on the bench and reshoot every frame of the picture. And after we did this, I said a-ha! Let’s go back out there and see how this works again. So that’s why we’re doin’ releases.

A Boy and His Dog is a film I’m inordinately proud of. I wrote it, directed it, and really helped to produce it. I love Vic and Blood. I love their relationship and to me it’s great fun to watch them watch them work in front of an audience. I think they’re one of the classic pairs in film, and I’m sorry I wrote and directed (the film) because it sounds phoney when I say this, but to me it’s great fun to watch them work in front of an audience again.

Some of the critics always said ‘hey it’s very simple, it’s kind of a stupid picture.’ Well it certainly is simple; that’s the way we wanted to shoot it. Stupid it is not. It is very layered. For instance, think about the beginning. It is totally different from normal ways you would see the characters presented. You see the boy and the dog and they are playing like boys and dogs always do. They’re laughing, they’re rolling, and then problems raise their ugly head. And a voice kicks in and says, ‘You gotta watch A, B, C and D.’ ‘Do not do A, B and C.’ ‘Don’t get caught up in this.’ And in listening to it you hear authority, concern, direction, love, instruction. All of these things are present. And then, and only then, you find out they’re attached to a dog. Not I’ve already gotcha in my pocket because you have accepted the voice. The voice of authority, patience, love—and now it’s comin’ out of a dog! Now if we had done it backwards, would it have worked? No. And the ending is even more complicated.

The reason I want people to see it—other than I’ll make a fortune—is that I have found out over the years that when you see the picture, you’ll remember it—good or bad. And I don’t care which it is, as long as you remember it. And then I have found which is most pleasing to me is that many many people who see it want their children to see it later on. It’s like I tell people when they see the film ‘God I hope you liked this picture. Because if you don’t, you’re in a world of ca-ca because you’re not going to forget it. It’s going to stick with you and you ain’t gonna be happy, so I hope you like it.’ But by the same token, I don’t care whether people like it because as long as I get them to look at it and feel something. If I can make people detest the picture I’m happy, because they’re detesting something. A Boy and His Dog is prophetic in one respect because if we don’t get our heads out folks, that’s where we’re headed. And it’s not gonna be nearly as much fun as it looks in A Boy and His Dog. So shape up. Help people. Stop being greedy. Do your thing to help.

SF360.org: Can you talk a little more about the relationship between Vic and Blood?

Jones: If you had to peg the story, what would you say it is? Is it a western? Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? To me, it is a love story. When I say that, people look at me and say, ‘What kind of a nut are you?’ but that’s what it is.

Blood must, and he does, act as many things. He is a father, he is a mother, he is a teacher, he is an instructor, he is a military man. He is a buddy. All of these things somewhere in the picture come out.

The relationship between the boy and his dog, it is never spoken of. You must get it from what I show you, and oddly enough, what I don’t show you. A Boy and His Dog is probably 50 years ahead of its time in the way information is given to you and not given to you.

SF360.org: A Boy and His Dog seems to be at least partly about the dangers of civilization and conformity, a theme that ran through many films of the 1970s. Do you see any contemporary moviemakers who explore this theme?

Jones: Back when I made the film, the world was going down the tubes. When two powers stand just one button away from Armageddon, somebody’s got to do something. And nobody seemed to be particularly interested in doing something, other than building bomb shelters. I said okay, the best way to teach people is to entertain them. And that’s what I was going for. I’m not aware of any pictures today that are like it. The focus today seems to be shifting. We seem to be going to more big pictures and fewer pictures. But if you want a truthful answer I don’t much care for the films they do today, so I mainly just stay home and sulk.

SF360.org: Speaking of Armageddon, what is it about post-apocalyptic visions that captures our imagination?

Jones: When I first decided to do this picture, I went to UCLA and I asked the professors, ‘What’s gonna happen if atomic war really hits us?’ And everyone went through likely different scenarios. What went through almost all the different arguments is that if the atomic war starts, the bombs will arrive within a split second of each other from both sides. If it does that, there is a grave danger of the earth’s spin being interrupted for a blink of an eye, for a microsecond. And if that happens things are going to start to move. Especially the oceans. They’re going to rush over the land; there will be tsunamis beyond belief. Who knows how many hundreds of miles the water will go inland. But the waters will also going to go back to the sea. And when they do, what are they going to leave? Mud. Mud was my key word. So I said okay how can I… I’m making a small-budget picture. Miniscule. How can I compete with On the Beach? And mud was the word that worked for me, because mud will cover everything. In the beginning of the film, how much grass did you see? Not one blade. How many trees? None. Now I’ve taken you completely out of your world because you’re not used to being in a place where you don’t see grass or trees.

One of the things I’ll take a bow for is that the thing most often said about A Boy and His Dog is that it is so real. Now there’s a statement for you folks! I’m taking you to the year 2024 and the main character is a talking dog. You’re telling me that’s real?

SF360.org: How did you make the transition from actor to writer and director?

Jones: I started out acting. I was acting when I was 30 minutes old, I guess. Actors are born. You don’t make ‘em; you can’t learn it. You either have the gift or you don’t, and I was lucky, the old man smiled on me and I found a way to do it. … I love acting. If you let me alone, that’s what I’ll do. But, you learn in this business after a very short time that if you really want to be creative, you must write, produce, and direct. Because my job as an actor is to please the director, that’s what I’m there to do. Hopefully to help the picture, too. But I’m basically there to help the director and the producer’s vision. So I put my own company together and whenever I get mad enough and tired of the crap others are making, I go off and make a picture.

SF360.org: How did you end up writing the script instead of Harlan Ellison, who wrote the original story?

Jones: I’ve been friends with Harlan ever since we did this picture. We can’t get along, but we’re friends. Nobody works with Harlan. That’s just the way he is. But that is mostly good from my point of view because most of the pictures today are made by committee. And committees made the camel so you know they can’t be trusted. So my hat is off to Harlan because he does work by himself. And so do I. Now let’s put Harlan in focus. He had made a deal on a different picture and it was in the contract that they were not to change any of the dialogue in the piece. Well, the director had the temerity to change one line and Harlan got so furious he tried to throw him out the window. The fact that they were on the seventh floor did not deter him. That’s the way Harlan feels.

When I made the deal with Harlan, [I did not have the script yet.] So I asked him how long it would take. He said ‘no trouble at all; this is my favorite story. Three weeks, four weeks.’ Super! So I go off on a picture and I come back 10 weeks later and I say, ‘Where is the script?’ Well he didn’t have a script. ‘What do you mean you don’t have a script?’ ‘Well, my mother died.’ He said he could wrap it up in another two weeks. Four, five, six weeks later I come back and still no script. He said, ‘Well, my mother died.’ His mother died three times during the writing of this script. Finally I came up with my ultimate threat: ‘Harlan, if you can’t write it, I have no money left. I’m the only one I can afford to have write it.’ … I wrote it. It took me a year to write it because I had to work as an actor during the day. I would come home about four or five, go to bed for a few hours, then get up and write.

SF360.org: What about working with Tiger, the dog in A Boy and His Dog?

Jones: If you have seen the picture, you have seen the greatest performance by an animal ever recorded on film. And that will ever be recorded on film. There was a movement afoot for awhile to nominate the dog for an Oscar.

I have seen the picture 500 times—when you work on it, that’s what happens—I stopped looking at the people a long time ago and just watched the dog. He has never failed to show me something new. He should have been nominated for best supporting actor. What else can I say about him?

He never ever in the motion picture looked to his handler for training. That in itself is phenomenal. Truly pheonomal. I’ve made pictures with cows, horses, chicken, fish, octopi. They all look at their trainers. But not this dog. I am so enamoured of this dog. He was brilliant.

SF360.org: A Boy and His Dog has a grim view of relations between the sexes. How did women react to the film when it came out? How about today?

Jones: Darlin’, they really raked me over the coals in the ’70s, and in the ’80s. They were not happy with that aspect of the picture. For the first couple of weeks, I would make excuses. Then I asked them what would happen if the roles were reversed 180 degrees and the story was about a girl and her dog. They said well, that would be fine. Well, up yours!

Now oddly enough women seem to react more favorably.

SF360.org: Maybe that’s because they see that Quilla June is actually a strong character.

Jones: Yes. Other than the dog she is by far the strongest character. Look who she’s bumping up against. She’s trying to get people to do what she wants. But for some reason, the ladies didn’t see that back then. They just saw the ending. Now I’m trying to say take a look again. This is a rotten person. She’s rotten whether she’s male, female, or neuter! We’ve got to have a bad guy here folks, and in this case, she happens to be female.

The thing about the picture is, right before your very eyes, without makeup. I change an animal into a human being and human beings into animals. That’s what Quilla June is, that’s what the committee is. That’s what Vic is. And the dog is trying to change that. He’s trying to educate him. He’s trying to make him think.