Note from Editor Peter Sciretta: I am excited to announce a new feature that will be appearing on /Film from Blake J. Harris, who you might know as the writer of the book Console Wars (a book which we’ve featured on the site), soon to be a motion picture produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Blake’s new feature is a companion to the podcast How Did This Get Made with Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael which focuses on movies so bad they are amazing. Here is Blake’s first column, an oral history of the movie Top Dog.
Chuck Norris + Loveable Pup + Neo-Nazi Terrorists = How Did This Get Made?!?!
Nobody sets out to make a bad movie. But the truth is, it happens all the time. And every time it does, there’s a fun misadventure and cautionary tale lurking somewhere behind the scenes. This is that story for the Chuck Norris anticlassic TOP DOG…
Synopsis: Jake Wilder (Chuck Norris) is reluctantly partnered with a police dog named Reno whose handler has just been murdered. Together, this unlikely duo sets out to take down a crew of ruthless, white supremacist, domestic terrorists.
Tagline: They’re Licensed for Action!
At first glance, Top Dog seems like a misguided, mad-libs-like attempt to resurrect the magic of Turner & Hooch (and the mediocrity of K-9), by swapping out Tom Hanks (and Jim Belushi) for action star Chuck Norris. And, to some degree, that’s exactly what this movie is. But, at the same time, it’s also an admirable effort by a pair of likeable brothers—both stand-up guys, both karate masters—to make a gore-free, high-integrity action film that could be enjoyed by the whole family. Unfortunately though, that’s not quite how things turned out.
Here’s what happened, as told by those who made it happen…
- Tim Grayem Writer (Story)
- Boone Narr Animal Trainer
- Peter Schink Editor
- Seth Willenson Executive Producer
PART 1: Old Dog, New Tricks
Tim: Interestingly enough, the whole idea for Top Dog came about while riding my bike with Aaron Norris. He and I, we started out as neighbors—living in Santa Clarita—then quickly became great friends. We used to get up every morning at 6:00 AM and ride our mountain bikes up this giant hill on Sand Canyon road. And, well, what started out as our morning exercise turned into a daily creative exchange. Keep in mind that I’m a businessman—I ran a company at the time and still do to this day—but as Aaron and I huffed and puffed up that hill we started talking about scenes and dialogue for a buddy cop movie, but with a dog, that could star Aaron’s brother Carlos (that’s Chuck’s real name, and what his friends call him). At first, it was all just playful fun, but Aaron Norris, who is infinitely creative, began to flesh out an actual movie.
Seth: I got approached by Chuck’s brother, Aaron, and his partner, Andy Howard (who had produced a lot of Chuck’s movies through private financing) to ask if I could help out with this movie. So that’s how I got involved; I helped them raise part of the financing and find distribution for the picture. Top Dog, really, was a follow-up on the interest of Chuck Norris to do family films.
Tim: Chuck had just done this great movie Sidekicks, so the idea that Aaron and I were talking about made a ton of sense. And, over time, we realized that we had a great story and we knew that Carlos was a natural with a dog. Plus, most people didn’t know how humorous Carlos could be on film. And, after all, Chuck Norris was “top dog” then, just as he still is now.
Chuck may have been top dog, but initially he didn’t want to do the film. That’s because, just one year earlier, his television show Walker, Texas Ranger had come out on CBS. And with the show being renewed for a second season, he didn’t want to spend his summer hiatus on a film set. “But then I finally read it,” Norris stated in interviews at the time, “and I said: Oh man. This is the funniest thing!” And just like that, he was in.
Tim: Right off the bat, we knew we had a winner.
Seth: I think the idea was well conceived at the time, it was actually a smart conception.
Peter: First of all, Aaron was a sweetheart of a guy. Wonderful to work with. But the Chuck Norris genre has always been, I would say, derivative of something else. And this was really a version K-9 or a version of Turner and Hooch. So they basically, you know, “borrowed” the script to one of those and decided that they would apply it to Chuck. And that’s what it was.
Seth: K-9 and Turner and Hooch? Those were great movies, sure, but that certainly wasn’t something we were consciously aware of while putting the film together.
Peter: From a distance, maybe the idea of Chuck Norris doing a kids movie seems odd, but he had just done Sidekicks and that made a lot of money. So they were trying to take Chuck’s career in a different direction; away from the Delta Forces and more towards things like this.
Seth: Specifically with Top Dog, it really wasn’t that complicated. Chuck wanted to be in this area. Chuck has always been involved with what I would call “Family Heartland” values, so this was a good idea. And there’s a market for these kind of films.
With a vision behind the concept, and the financing coming in to place, Aaron Norris and his colleagues at Tanglewood Entertainment started putting the cast and crew into place.
Peter: I was just one of these strange kids who had a Super 8 camera. I loved making films, loved everything about it, and built my own little editing room in my closest when I was just 9 years old. Later on, I went to Loyola Marymount for film school. And when I graduated, of course, I wanted to be a writer and director. But I looked around and everyone else wanted to be the same thing. So I said: hmmm…I need to do something to distinguish myself. And I had a background in editing so that’s the route I went.
Tim: One of the things that makes Aaron so great is that he doesn’t just know how to find the right people, but he knows how to inspire them as well. What I mean is that after the guy speaks with you, you’re practically floating on air. He knows how to get the best out of people and fill them up with confidence.
Peter: What happened was that Michael Duthie, a great British editor, had made his name cutting the Chuck Norris films back in Chuck Norris’ heyday. I don’t quite remember if Michael had another project, or if he’d done enough Chuck Norris movies but he knew about me from Roy Watt’s [Peter’s mentor]. He knew that I had just done The Chase with Charlie Sheen, and so Michael got in touch with me and said that I’d really like working with the Norris brothers.
Seth: It was a time when the video business [meaning VHS] was becoming very popular and where cable and pay television could have a good impact as well. From a business and economic standpoint, Top Dog was a good investment.
Peter: So I went and met Aaron Norris and he was just a tremendously nice guy. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a meeting before where, at the end, the guy grabs you in a bear hug and lifts you off the ground.
Boone: I got a call from someone over there at Tanglewood Entertaiment. He said: hey, we’re interviewing a few animal trainers to do this movie with Chuck Norris. Would you come down for an interview?” Sure thing! And so I went down there and we just hit it off. In fact, when I walked in to the office, someone there said to me “Hey, you look like you could be one of the Norris brothers.” And Aaron said “Yeah, you could be our brother!” And I’d never thought about it before, but I gotta admit that we did have the same kind of general look.
Tim: He did bear a rather strong resemblance.
Boone: Maybe that’s part of why I was hired, but there’s another part of it too. A lot of people in this business—and I’m sure in yours too—they tell you what you want to hear and not what’s really is going to happen. And I just told them the real ins and outs of working with animals. And the hardest thing about my job is making the dog look like he belongs to the actor and not have him looking at me. To do that, the eye-lines need to be right and I’m gonna need to step on some dialogue to get a cue in. And some actors really don’t like that; having their lines stepped on or not having the eye-line they want. So I wanted to be up front about all of this. Because, you know, I certainly didn’t want to upset Chuck and have him go all Kung Fu on me.
Peter: Boone was a really good guy. I enjoyed working with. And, if I’m not mistaken, he’s become one of the top guys in the animal training profession.
Boone: How did I become an animal trainer? Well, I don’t know that one sets out to do this. But what happened was I had gotten back from Vietnam and a friend of a friend said “what are you gonna do?” And I said I’m going to mellow out before I figure out what to do with myself. He told me that there was this place that trains animals for the motion picture business. I thought: someone actually trains those animals? Before that, the thought had never crossed my mind. Never thought of it, not once. But it sounded interesting so I went up there and they gave me a job cleaning up after the animals; shoveling shit, mostly. And I kind of worked my way from one end of the animals to another. I liked it and I was good at it—and you usually like what you’re good at. I did that for eight years and then I started my own business. And I’ve done my own business for 30 years.
Over that time, Boone Narr has worked on films such as Buddy, The Green Mile and the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy.
Boone: When I started out, I was basically doing exotic animals. Lions, tigers, leopards, bears, elephants and you name it. And I did that for years and years and years. But as time went on, and it became less favorable to have exotic animals in the pictures, I gravitated more towards dogs and cats. But there were a lot of guys who did dogs and cats so I thought: okay, I need to sort of distinguish myself to kick it up a notch. So we kind of became the company where if something wasn’t going right, or it was a difficult movie to do, we were kind of the go-to guys. We built our reputation on that.
And so, with a team now in place, production for Top Dog was ready to begin.