Meeting with Nancy Reagan inspired dog film

Filmmaker's 'First Dog' stars ex-first lady's former pooch

Bryan Michael Stoller with Little Bear and Nancy Reagan
With family films taking a bite out of the boxoffice, Bryan Michael Stoller hopes Little Bear, a 28-pound Queensland heeler, can follow in the paw prints of Marley, Marmaduke and the Beverly Hills Chihuahua.

Most movies starring a dog, like "Beethoven," use 10 or more look-alike animals. In Stoller's "First Dog," about a foster kid who returns the president's lost dog to the White House, Little Bear is the solo star. He did his own stunts and even barked for postproduction looping.

"I have a credit in the movie as his acting coach, not as a trainer," said Stoller, who directed, produced, wrote and edited the movie, which was made for less than $3 million and screens Tuesday night for the first time for distributors and backers.

As a movie, TV and commercials director and author of "Filmmaking for Dummies," Stoller first sniffed out his star in 2003 at a Studio City coffee shop. He admired a puppy a young woman was holding and was told the dog needed a good home.

A few weeks after Stoller adopted Little Bear, the woman called to say the dog's "Aunt Nancy and Aunt Patti" wanted to meet him. That turned out to be former first lady Nancy Reagan and daughter Patti Davis. So Stoller and Little Bear spent an afternoon in Bel-Air, where Reagan explained that the puppy had not gotten along with Davis' cats and was a handful at a time when Ronald Reagan was bed-ridden.

"Nancy just couldn't put up with a little puppy," Stoller recalled, "because he was pretty wild."

Little Bear became Stoller's pet, a registered therapy dog who visits hospitals and provided the inspiration for his script, completed in 2008.

The pic was shot last fall on location in California and Washington, where Stoller received permission from the Secret Service to shoot outside the White House. Eric Roberts, who had been in one of Stoller's earlier films, agreed to play the president, with his wife Eliza Roberts as the first lady.

For the boy who journeys with the dog, Stoller auditioned 300 actors before sniffing out 10-year-old John-Paul Howard, based on an audition tape sent from Alabama by his mother.

Dolly Parton, whom Stoller has known for a decade, couldn't accept an acting role but did write several songs. So did Willie Nelson's daughter Paula, who does have a role in the movie. One song, "Day to Day Love," is a duet with her dad.

To keep down costs, much of the movie was shot at Sobrato High School near San Jose with the assistance of teacher Gary Harmon and his filmmaking class. The kids worked with such professionals as director of photography Bruce Alan Greene and co-producer Alexander Yurchikov, doing everything from acting as PAs to second ADs to script supervisors.

Props from Warner Bros. TV's "The West Wing" became part of a full-scale version of the Oval Office that students built on a school stage.

On the set, Little Bear was a pro, Stoller said: "I would tell him, 'Go to your mark,' and he would go to his mark. I'd say 'Go slower,' and he would go slowly. There was no animal trainer, no clicks like they usually do with a dog."

However, there was a problem during a scene in Washington in which Little Bear was to steal a hot dog from a vendor. Each time he would grab the meat and race across the park, with the crew in pursuit. After eating, the dog would trot back for the next scene.

"We were only able to do five takes," Stoller said. "Because after five takes, he wasn't hungry anymore."