Sometimes one dog can change everything
It’s a story so many of us can relate to—working too hard, trying to balance a job and a family (and oftentimes getting it wrong) and, for dog people, finding the dog you rescued has, in fact, actually saved you. All of this is at the heart of a new movie, based on a remarkable true story, called The Stray. We had the good fortune to meet with the movie’s charismatic co-writer and director, Mitch Davis, whose real life experiences inspired the film. We sat down with him to ask him what’s it’s like to relive a really important period of your life and about the dog that quite literally saved his life.
When Mitch’s youngest son came to him with the idea to turn their family story into a movie, he was dead set against it. “My initial reaction was no,” Mitch says. “When he handed a draft to me, the truth is, it took over two weeks to even pick it up because I didn’t want to disappoint him.”
Mitch happens to be the writer and co-director behind movies such as Disney’s Windrunner and The Other Side of Heaven, so he knows what makes a good movie. But he was reluctant. “This story has been in our family for 25 years,” Mitch says. “And it’s always sort of been a sacred story, you know. We didn’t go to the newspapers. It was an emotional, poignant experience for all of us, including the other two boys not in our family. We just laid low and kept it to ourselves. But when I finally did read the draft script, it was so beautifully rendered that I saw the movie. There’s this common humanity—we were a family in crisis and this dog showed up from out of nowhere and set about solving our problems. When I figured that out, I realized it really is universal.”
“The tag line I’ve started to think about,” Mitch continues, “is when you save a stray dog, the life you save might actually be your own. And in my case that was psychologically true and physically true.”
Convinced, Mitch set about making The Stray, a family movie at heart and from the ground up. Mitch is the co-writer—along with his youngest son—as well as the director, and subject of the movie, “which is really kind a strange circle of responsibilities,” he notes. His oldest son composed the score of the movie and his third son was the editor. “It’s a real family affair,” Mitch says with pride.
Certainly casting takes on new weight when it’s your own family members that are being represented. “I had really strict instructions from my wife that whoever played her had to be really beautiful,” Mitch laughs. They cast Sarah Lancaster from the TV series Chuck, Everwood, and Saved by the Bell. “I really feel like she inhabited my wife’s beautiful maternal soul. She gave the movie a real sense of family.”
Mitch’s son who wrote the script had a lot of suggestions on the actor front. “He kept sending me suggestions of really ugly comedians to play me and I was like, Parker, are you trying to tell me something?,” Mitch laughs. “And he said, ‘Dad, you’ve got this goofy side and I want the goofy to come out in film.’ And I’m like, yeah, not that goofy!”
They ended up casting Michael Cassidy, who had just gotten off of Batman vs Superman, to play Mitch, a decision everyone was really happy with. “I just love what he brought to the role,” Mitch says. “Both Sarah and Michael have small young families and they both love their families and highly prioritize them and they both brought that sense to the movie.”
And it all really happened. “The lightening strike is by far the most dramatic thing that’s ever happened to me, obviously. It burnt a hole in my shirt. I still have the shirt. It hit me literally right in the heart. No question I would have died if Pluto had not been in the tent—the doctors later told me there’s no question he saved my life and probably some of the boys as well.”
Pluto is not only the real star of the movie but the inspiration behind it. “This movie is special to me because I feel a real debt to my dog,” Mitch states simply. “It was a chapter in my family’s life that was kind of magical. Really, everything in the movie is true. I was working too hard—at Disney studios as a Junior Executive— and just didn’t have time to breathe, didn’t have enough money to make rent, and didn’t have enough time to be any kind of father or husband. And I suggested to my wife one day, you know I think we should get a dog. My wife just laughed. She said, ‘the last thing in the world I need is another mouth to feed! Over my dead body are we getting a dog.’ But then she stopped and said, ‘but, you know, I read an article the other day that said the best way to get a dog is to get a stray; it’s kind of like living together before you get married—you don’t have any firm commitment to each other you get to try each other out.’ So she said, ‘if a stray dog shows up, I’ll consider getting a dog—but there’s no way I’m getting one on purpose.’ And I’ll be darned if within a week, this stray dog, Pluto, showed up at our house—followed our oldest son home from school. And that was it. Pluto was an angel in our family’s life. He showed up during a really stressful time and just performed a lot of kindnesses for all of us, really.”
As one can imagine, it was heavy watching key moments from the past reenacted.
“At times I got very emotional,” Mitch admits. “It’s been almost 30 years and I still just get really choked up thinking about how much we just loved that dog and felt indebted to him because we all knew he had saved our lives. Searching through those family videos you see at the end of the film and coming across some of those gems, it just reminded me of how hectic but also how wonderful that time was.”
As for the message he'd like everyone to take away from the movie?
“Get one,” he laughs, referring to dogs. “I’m a big fan. I would strongly advocate for adopting a stray—I think sometimes dogs seem to know that you’ve rescued them, that you’ve saved them from a sad fate. And Pluto seemed to treat us that way. He was just a fellow traveler and he was always grateful that we gave him a home and we're so grateful to him for the things he brought us.”
The Stray opens in theatres across the US October 6th.