Gavin Polone on 'A Dog's Purpose' Outcry, What Really Happened and Who's to Blame
The film's producer (and a THR columnist) explains the controversial video showing alleged on-set abuse, the precautions that were taken, the failure of a watchdog group and PETA's role in sensationalizing the scandal to serve its own cause.
Like you, I’m sure, I was appalled when I saw the video, shot on the set of A Dog’s Purpose in Winnipeg in October 2015, of a dog trainer trying to coerce a frightened German Shepard into a pool. Unlike you, the terrible feeling engendered by that video was heightened for me because I am the producer of that film and because much of my identity is fused with the belief that I am a lover and defender of animals and their welfare.
I have participated in, helped pay for and written in this publication about animal welfare causes. My will is set up so that all I have shall be donated to charities benefiting animals when I die. I am a vegan who has fewer close friends than most and no relatives with whom I speak regularly. The most consistent and closest relationships I’ve had throughout my life have been with animals.
Love of animals defines my existence, and that love is what drove me to struggle for years to get Bruce Cameron’s brilliant and widely cherished novel about the bond between a person and a dog made into a movie. In part, my feelings about animals were formed as a child by films like Sounder and Born Free and TV shows like Lassie. I wanted to promote the feelings I developed for animals by making a meaningful movie about the same. So now, the idea that I’m connected to an accusation of the abuse of a dog is, to understate it, painful.
When the fog cleared from my brain, I knew I had to find out how this happened, who was responsible and what my part in all this may have been. Though I was in Los Angeles when the scene in question was shot, I was on the set of the film for about 70 percent of the 11-week production and witnessed the animal trainers, from a company called Birds and Animals Unlimited, handling the animals daily. Not once did I perceive any animal caused any discomfort or put in danger — and I am very aware what a distressed dog or cat is like. I live alone with a dog and two cats (and earlier in my life shared my home with as many as four dogs and five cats) and am very sensitive to their emotions. Seeing that distraught dog in the video did not comport with what I had observed in the prior weeks of production.
As soon as the video was displayed on TMZ, PETA called for a boycott of the movie and I began receiving messages on Twitter that ranged from polite questions about what happened to harsh anger. I wasn’t surprised nor resistant to this messaging, as I have also called for boycotts against those whom I felt are doing wrong to animals.
I spoke to Holly Bario, the president of production at Amblin Partners, the film’s studio. She told me they were investigating how this could happen and would hold those responsible to account: what I wanted to hear. Cynically, I could say that the executives at the studio were looking to protect their asset, and that is true, but I also know they are all dog lovers and caring people, and I believe they were genuinely concerned about the welfare of all the animals on the movie.
Last Thursday, I went to Amblin's office and watched all the film shot on the day in question, as well as saw video from the trainers and still photographs. As with the TMZ video that you saw, two things were evident: 1) the dog handler tries to force the dog, for 35 to 40 seconds, into the water when, clearly, he didn’t want to go in; and 2) in a separate take filmed sometime later, the dog did go into the water, on his own, and, at the end, his head is submerged for about 4 seconds. These two things are absolutely INEXCUSABLE and should NEVER have happened. The dog trainer should have stopped trying to get the dog to go in the water as soon as the dog seemed uncomfortable, and the trainers should have had support under the dog as soon as he came to the side of the pool and/or had less turbulence in the water so he never would have gone under. The American Humane Association (AHA) representative who is paid by the production to “ensure the safety and humane treatment of animal actors,” as its website states, should have also intervened immediately on both of those parts of the filming. So should have whomever was running the set. Those individuals should be held accountable and never used again by that studio or its affiliates.
I also hold myself accountable because, even though I was not present, I knew and had written about how ineffective AHA has been over the years. Its monitors have been present when bad things have happened to animals on sets, not offering enough protection to stop those events and displaying no real protest after they occurred. Though AHA is the standard guarantor of animal safety on all studio productions and I was not consulted when they nor the dog trainers were hired, I should have fought with the studio to come up with alternatives to serve those functions. I didn’t, and there is nothing to mitigate my inaction. I’m deeply sorry about that.
BUT, without excusing myself and others, there is more to this story that I think should be known.
In footage of the rehearsal for the scene, you can see the dog not only unafraid of the water but desperate to jump in. In fact, he had to be held back by the trainer from going in too soon (the dog was trained to retrieve a toy sewed into the hoodie of the stunt woman and give the illusion that he was pulling her to safety). The dog did the scene in rehearsal without problem, though it was from the left side of the pool, not the right side, which is where the dog is in the TMZ video. Also, in the rehearsal footage, it’s clear that there is a safety diver and a trainer in the pool to protect the dog in case of a problem, as well as two trainers, a stunt coordinator and a safety officer on the deck, and that there are platforms built into the pool where the dog can swim to and stand, if need be. The pool was heated to between 80 and 85 degrees, causing it to steam.
Before the first real take, the handlers were asked to change the start point of the dog from the left side, where he had rehearsed, to the right side. That, evidentially, is what caused him to be spooked. When the dog didn’t want to do the scene from the new position, they cut, though not soon enough, and then went back to the original position. The dog was comfortable and went in on his own and they shot the scene. The TMZ video only shows the unfinished take of when the dog was on the right side. What is clear from viewing all the footage was that the dog was NEVER forced into the water.
From a front angle, when they shot the scene, you can see that there is a calmer path in the artificial water turbulence for the dog to move through. This is not visible in the TMZ video. You can also see, at the end of the scene, the dog going underwater for four seconds, which never should have happened, and then the diver and handlers lifting the dog out of the pool. The dog then shook off and trotted around the pool, unharmed and unfazed. They only did one take of the full scene and then ended for the day. TMZ’s edited version gives the impression that the dog was thrown in and eventually drowned, since the two parts seem to be connected. You never see him pulled out and OK. This is highly misleading.
Further, I saw video shot last Thursday morning of the dog and I’m happy to say that Hercules is obviously quite well.
Another thing I would ask you to consider: Why did the person who edited it to seem like the two clips were connected and not let you see the dog was alright and never in mortal danger? Also, why did the person who shot it hold on to the video for a year and three months before releasing it? If he wanted to protect animals, wouldn’t he want whoever did wrong stopped from doing the same on other productions immediately? Of course, waiting until eight days before the movie's Jan. 27 release date, when the studio was spending money creating awareness of the film, would yield a bigger sale to TMZ, which is known to pay for newsworthy video. I can only believe that desire for personal profit explains why the shooter of the video did as he did.
Lastly, I hope you’ll think about PETA and its actions in all of this. As I’ve said, it has called for a boycott of the movie and, unlike any other major animal welfare group, has been fomenting negative publicity around these events with great energy. Not only have they been circulating the TMZ video, which portrays an inaccurate picture of what happened, but they have included a clip from our trailer where you see the dog jumping into a treacherous rushing wall of water. But THAT ISN’T A REAL DOG, it is a computer-generated dog leaping into the water. Isn’t that the definition of "fake news"? In another post, they show a German Shepherd in a dismal steel cage, which isn’t our dog. Again, misleading.
I have met people at PETA in the past and, unlike many other animal rights supporters, have hoped to cultivate a relationship with them. In fact, I spoke to them several years ago about the need for a better, more independent organization than AHA to police the treatment of animals on movie and TV sets and offered to help set that up. They were not interested. After this story broke, I exchanged emails with Lisa Lange, a senior vp at PETA. In response to my suggesting again that we should focus on replacing AHA, she countered that the group isn't in favor of better protection for animals on sets but rather "to remove them entirely." She went on to urge me to never use any animals in movies or television again. When PETA means "any," it means no cats or dogs. Zero animals, ever. That is its position.
Like Lisa, I do believe that wild animals should never be used on sets. During the early script development of A Dog’s Purpose, I demanded that a scene with a bear be excised for that very reason. Computer generated imagery (CGI) has effectively replaced the use of wild animals on occasion, most notably in big-budget films like the new Planet of the Apes movies and The Revenant. But even in those films, some or several real animals were also used. The idea of making a more contained movie like A Dog’s Purpose with all CGI animals is impossible, as the cost would be astronomical to replace every animal in the movie. For example, the digital dog that I mentioned above cost $41,075. Extrapolate that across the whole movie, where most of the scenes have at least one dog in them and many have more, plus other animals in other scenes in the background. I would estimate that it would balloon the budget by a factor of four or five to more than $110 million, making the project economically unviable.
PETA’s position is obviously extreme and one that would never yield results. But that has been its metier for many years. For example, in 2008, PETA sent a letter to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream suggesting that it stop using cow’s milk to make its product and instead use human breast milk. It has protested various video game makers for cruelty toward digital animals in their video games. It has posted articles on its website suggesting that dairy products cause autism. More troubling, PETA has been against the growing “no-kill” movement to spare the lives of unwanted pets in shelters by advocating for and facilitating pet adoption. No-kill has vastly reduced the number of euthanized animals in cities around the country. Conversely, according to The Washington Post, at a shelter in Virginia, owned by PETA, the euthanasia rate was 80 percent and in some years the rate has been as high as 90 percent (the rate in Los Angeles city shelters, thanks in large part to The Best Friends Animal Society’s “No Kill LA” program, has dropped by 66 percent to about 16 percent). That Post article contained a quote from another senior vp of PETA, who explained that "there are many fates worse than euthanasia.”
That PETA has an impossible agenda and that someone probably tried to make money by making my film look bad, does not excuse the mistakes made 15 months ago, irrespective of the fact that the dog in question was unharmed.
But what is to be done about the mistakes made on that day in October of 2015 on the production of A Dog’s Purpose? I say that we build a better method of protecting animals on sets through a better animal-protective service. PETA says the film should be boycotted and no dogs ever be used in movies or TV. I would ask that if a teacher were to hit a student in class, should the whole school be closed and all the children left without an education? This is a movie that is intended to reinforce the idea that animals are sentient and we should love and protect them, just like the movies and TV shows I saw as a kid made me understand. You probably have similar touchstones that relate to your feelings about animals, too. So, isn’t there worth in A Dog’s Purpose, and movies like it, from an animal welfare perspective?
Wouldn’t it be better to fix the problems that led to this unfortunate and anomalous event and ignore the manipulated media and half-truths disseminated by those with either financial or extremist agendas? I swear to you, whether I make another dime on this movie or not has no effect on my life. But if studios stop backing films like A Dog’s Purpose because they fear being attacked by groups like PETA, and kids who are now the age I was when I formed my understanding that animals are deserving of love and protection can’t see those movies, it will absolutely have a negative effect on animal welfare in the future.
Polone is a producer and a frequent contributor to The Hollywood Reporter.