commentary a boy and his dog

A Boy And His Dog is an odd duck in the world of post-apocalyptic cinema in that it’s neither pure action nor pure drama. It exists somewhere in between the two extremes with a dark yet playful sense of humor courtesy of Harlan Ellison‘s source novella. It tells the story of a young man (Don Johnson) and his telepathic dog trying to survive in a world devastated by a global five day war. Food, water and companionship are priorities, but sometimes you have to settle for two out of three.

Shout! Factory’s new Blu-ray release includes a sharp HD transfer, a previously-recorded commentary, and a brand new conversation between Ellison and and director L.Q. Jones as they rehash the film’s production and their nearly forty year old disagreements. This is a must-buy for fans of Ellison, misogyny or sci-fi in general.

Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for L.Q. Jones’ A Boy And His Dog.

A Boy And His Dog (1975)

Commentators: L.Q. Jones (director), John Arthur Miller (director of photography), Charles Champlin (critic) 

1. The opening scenes of nuclear explosions weren’t in the original film but were instead added in 1982 in an effort to clarify the film’s post apocalyptic setting. The film itself was mostly shot outside Barstow, CA.

2. Production took five years from pre- to post- in part because Ellison was originally tasked with writing the screenplay. Eventually Jones stepped in and wrote it himself.

3. Jones recalls being constantly impressed by the dog’s performance to the point that when he watches the movie now all he sees is the dog. He says unlike most canine performances you never see Blood look offscreen to his trainer, and it’s because the trainer transferred command directly to Johnson so the dog would always be looking at him.

4. Jones’ agent recommended Johnson for the role.

5. Voice casting involved “over 500 tests of people doing voice overs,” and for a short time it appeared that James Cagney was considering exiting retirement to voice Blood. Jones and company thought about it and had an impressionist come in for samples to see what it would sound like, and they loved it. But it was Cagney talking, not Blood, so they reluctantly sent word back to Cagney’s people that they were passing.

6. Three other studios were interested, but they wanted Don Siegel (Dirty Harry) to direct it. Siegel was excited by the prospect, but he told Jones that he would pass if Jones himself was interested. He was, so he did.

7. One of the other studios wanted to film on elaborate sets instead of outdoor locations. Jones gave it some thought but wisely passed on the idea.

8. The production brought in 50 tons of garbage and junk to make the desert wasteland seem like the end of civilization.

9. Jones recalls how it’s been drilled into him by his Sam Peckinpah and others that “motion pictures are pictures. It ain’t a radio show folks! Do it on the screen.” He would end each day of shooting by watching dailies without sound to ensure his images are telling the story.

10. Jones appears onscreen in one of the film clips the folks are watching at camp.

11. There are over 700 extras in the film.

12. Jones’ script, much like Ellison’s novella, gave time to explaining how exactly Blood can talk, but it was decided early on that it would be in effect saying “I have not done my job properly, and the only way I can convince you is to tell you.” They dropped the entire explanation from the film.

13. Before Jones entered the picture Ellison met with other studios about producing the film, and in one meeting they told him how much they loved it, how much money he’d be getting… and how they’d be animating the dog’s mouth. Ellison left the meeting after telling them where they could shove their money.

14. The film almost received a PG rating, but in a rather unique turn of events Jones actually went down to the MPAA and pointed out the reasons it should receive an R instead. This is the exact opposite of every other director’s experience in all of human history. Jones was concerned that children shouldn’t see the nudity and violence, but after a woman arrived at a screening with her three kids he discovered something interesting. Days after the screening the woman told him that the kids had been playing a game called “Blood Says.”

15. Jones points out the dog’s least favorite scene, one where he was required to wear false teeth to appear more threatening.

16. The film played theaters for close to fourteen years thanks to midnight screenings and drive-ins.

17. Jones essentially self distributed the film including bookings and advertising campaigns. When theaters contacted them to book the movie Jones or his rep would visit the theater, examine the projection booth and screen before agreeing.

18. After production Jones tried to buy the dog as he and Ellison had plans for a female-led follow-up. It fell through.

19. Jones recalls how Ellison refused to visit the set or watch footage from the film until late in post-production. When the credits rolled Ellison came storming up the aisle and Jones expected it to go to “fist city” seeing as he had changed much of the novella in its transition to the screen. Instead, Ellison said simply “That’s the story I wrote.”

20. Apparently George Miller openly admits to making The Road Warrior “the commercial side of A Boy And His Dog.” Jones says “He’s smarter than I am. He made a lot more money.”

21. The bunker scene was filmed at Goldstone Tracking Station, and the location had been used for Ice Station Zebra just months before. Trouble was that production had left the place in disarray so they didn’t want to let Jones and company use it. It took begging, pleading and the presence of a sympathetic General, but they were finally granted access… for two hours only.

22. This was Jason Robards’ first film after his life-threatening car accident three years prior, and Jones praises his performance as well as the man’s career and talent overall.

23. When Jones comments facetiously that he’s good and should be making more money, Champlin volunteers that he received a residual check from his bit in Robert Altman’s The Player for eight cents.

24. When Michael is revealed to be a robot and his back explodes in sparks and small flames, the effects actually burned their way through Hal Baylor’s protective asbestos and he had to go to the hospital.

Best in Commentary

  • Miller: “A photographic effect is worthless if it doesn’t tie right into the story content.”
  • Jones: “Everyone ought to have the chance to buy a house, plant a tree, and direct A Boy And His Dog.”
  • Jones: “We were trying to show total nudity without showing nudity.”

Final Thoughts

Harlan Ellison’s “A Boy And His Dog” remains a classic sci-fi tale, and while L.Q. Jones’ adaptation differs substantially from the text his film is an equally compelling classic of cult cinema. It’s a darkly funny and visually exciting little adventure, and Shout! Factory’s new Blu-ray release gives it the attention it deserves. The picture looks better than we’ve seen before, and in addition to the commentary track there’s an absolutely must-watch interview with both Ellison and Jones in conversation. Ellison is at his cantankerous best, but these two old friends show a shared humor and heart together and their talk is alone worth the price of admission.

Buy A Boy And His Dog on Blu-ray from Amazon.

Check out more commentary commentary in the Commentary Commentary archives


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