How Did This Get Made? TOP DOG (An Oral History)

Norris' Sidekick has canine mind of his own in film

Part 2: The Dog and Pony Show

Boone: Just like every person can’t be an actor, every dog can’t be an actor. You need to cast an animal that enjoys work and wants to work. You and the animal gotta become one; because it’s easy to train a dog when there’s no one else around. But imagine hiding in the bush, and trying to get the dog to pay attention to the scene (and not you). So you need to cast the right animal. I think it’s probably the same with an acting coach; he’s not gonna spend time on some kid who’s just got no shot of making it.

Peter: I forget what the breed the dog was…French Briard, maybe?

Boone: When you’re casting an animal for a picture, you should cast as close as possible to how the script reads. So we came up with a Briard.

Peter: The dog was fantastic. Although, personally, I found the choice of breed to be a little odd. It doesn’t strike me as a particularly menacing police dog.

Boone: The thing was, it couldn’t be too much of a Benji-looking dog. And it had to have that massive structure, to be a big dog, but it also had to be a comical-looking dog. And a smart-looking dog. So the Briard seemed to fit everything.

Since the dog playing Reno would have such a big workload, two dogs were actually cast to fulfill the role: Digby and Betty. 

Boone: Digby was our face dog; he just had a gorgeous-looking face. In fact, in every PR shot you see of Chuck and the dog, that’s Digby. So he was our lead dog. But Betty did a lot of shots in the movie too. She was real mellow and she was a good dog. Except the problem with Betty was that she had had puppies earlier that year. So she had this one breast that would hang down. And every time, before we shot with her, we’d have to tape it up. We had to give her a boob job every time before we did a shot! So Aaron would be looking through the camera and he’d go “Betty’s boob is hanging out.” And then I’d go up there and tape it up. Poor thing, she just needed some cosmetic surgery that we couldn’t afford at the time.

Peter: As with most pictures, I came on a few days before shooting. And we shot down in San Diego. We had two cutting rooms at the Marriot, which actually turned out to be a pretty plush place to edit.

Boone: We all stayed in the same hotel. The cast and crew. And there was some camaraderie there, certainly, but the thing you have to remember is…you’re putting in 16 hours a day, and you get back to the hotel, you don’t want to see those other people! But, you know, I’m tired. And the dogs have to stay with me. We’d split the dogs up between myself and David [Knight] who’s been working with me for years. He took one and I took one in the room. And even on the weekends, with the animal; it’s not like a piece of equipment you put in the truck and lock the door.

Peter: We would get our dailies shipped in from LA every day and we were cutting on film at that point in time. And I think we had a little screening room somewhere in the hotel and we would sit down with Aaron and we’d take notes on the things he liked and didn’t like and we’d cut them together. And the movie cut together fairly quickly.

Boone: The director of a film can make or break you. And I would say that Aaron very much helped me not fail on that movie.


Peter: Unlike other filmmakers, who shoot a lot and then figure it out later, the Norris brothers are very utilitarian. They know what they want, they go and they shoot what they want and they’ve been doing it forever. And some people may not agree with their taste, but they go in, shoot it and get it. The structure is very laid out. So by the time I get in there, it’s basically: take one is better than take two, and there you go.

Boone: I never felt that Top Dog was going to be a blockbuster. But Chuck has his fans and I thought they’d like him in this particular character.

Peter: One thing I think the film struggled with—with respect to tone—was the sort of crossover between a very real world, dark villain and a happy-go-lucky canine storyline. So I think that there’s sort of a vestige from Chuck’s past where they said “okay, we’ll just take one of the villains out of Chuck’s old movies and plug him into this one.” So the misstep, in my opinion, is this White Supremacist Domestic Terrorist Organization…in a kids movie. That’s where it starts to go wrong.

Tim: Well, there was something that Aaron and I both wanted to say about racism and we hoped that using white supremacists as our bad guys we actually might drag some of that trash into the light of day.

Peter: Yeah, I mean they could have picked bank robbers…jewel thieves…something. But Neo-Nazis? Not so good.

Tim: Further, Aaron and Carlos both have strongly held beliefs about equality for people and hate racism and they both love dogs.

Peter: There were some folks at Live [the distributor] that were not happy with the first cut and I think we toned down the Neo Nazis a bit. But not to such a respect that there’s no big missing chunks I can tell you about.

Tim: It was a story that needed to be told. And Carlos was the perfect guy to tell it. He’s just a wonderful guy with great morals and I never felt that he got enough credit for that.

Peter:  Look, I don’t mean to disparage Chuck too much, but from an editing standpoint we would always sort of say, “When in doubt, cut to the dog!” Because that dog was really solid.

Tim: The dog really was great.

Seth: Everyone loved that dog.

Peter: But, you know, Chuck is Chuck because of his background in martial arts. He may not be Robert DeNiro, but he busts his ass. And he takes his craft seriously to the best of his ability. You know, he has someone there really trying to work with him and get more out of him. He puts the work in to be as good as Chuck can be, and he has an acting coach on the set at all times.

Boone: The other thing is we always have a member of the Humane Society on set. Always. I have that in my contract. We don’t want to harm the dog and we don’t want anyone to have the perception. So like, in the movie, when we threw the dog in the water, we don’t want anyone to think we’re mistreating the dog…though, in that case, it was a fake dog. But you still get letters. How could you let them throw that dog in the water?  When I did the Green Mile and we stomped the mouse, I got thousands of letters. How could you let them stomp the mouse? But we didn’t! I mean, come on people, we created the illusion. It’s a movie! But people believe it. Which, actually, I like. It means that we’re doing a good job. I like it when I get angry letters like that. I’m like a magician and those letters mean that I pulled it off. I want you to get upset. I want you to feel that emotion, because that’s what I’m there to do; make you think I did it.

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