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Lawrence and meg kasdan wrote one of my favorite movies: Grand Canyon, a 1991 film about six people who find their lives intersecting in Los Angeles. Like other movies directed and written by Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat, The Big Chill, The Accidental Tourist), it contains a number of remarkable lines of dialogue. One, spoken by Steve Martin, stands out. “That’s part of your problem … you haven’t seen enough movies. All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies.”
One of life’s riddles about dogs is answered in the new movie Darling Companion, also co-written by the Kasdans. The riddle is this: how do dogs remind us of our own humanity? The film also shows how dogs bring us closer to one another.
The movie tells the tale of a longtime married couple who look just fine on the outside. Dr. Joseph Winter (Kevin Kline) and his wife Beth (Diane Keaton) have it all, including a gorgeous second home in the Colorado Rockies. But under the surface we see that, obsessed by his career as a surgeon, Winter is rarely fully present for their lives. The movie truly begins when Beth’s emptiness is accidently filled by a rescued dog named Freeway.
As Meg Kasdan says, “We thought of Dr. Winter as a distracted person, in this case, by his career. Their relationship was beginning to fray from it.” Lawrence adds, “We really wanted to make it about paying attention, being present. It doesn’t matter if it’s a wife, husband or anyone else … not paying attention is a metaphor.” And not paying attention is exactly what happens when Beth’s beloved Freeway runs off into the woods and gets lost. This is based on a true story from an episode in the Kasdans’ 40-year marriage.
The couple spoke to me from their office in Los Angeles; it was a breezy conversation among three complete dog fans. As soon as I told them I believe dogs take us to our higher selves, they knew we would connect on this film … and share the joy and gratitude dogs bring to our lives. Lawrence believes that “the world changes when you love a dog, or a pet of any kind. You have a sensitivity you didn’t have before. You identify at the vet with others … you see the worry, the comfort, the control. It all opens a whole new world.” Meg, a true partner in doggie love, goes on. “We spend a lot of time with three dogs. We have our own rescue mutt — a Cattle Dog/Shepherd mix, Mack — and our son’s two dogs. We all walk together in the woods … they give us the best, fullest way to experience wilderness.”
They had their dog-centered story to tell, but how would they find just the right dog to take center stage? Lawrence realized that there’s no casting couch when looking for a dog star in a movie. “With this movie, I knew a trainer would be as important as finding the right D.P. or actor. We needed a great dog and a great trainer.” After interviewing many trainers with dogs, Meg said they were thrilled with the work done by Steve Solomon and Sarah Cole and their dog Kasey, a mixed breed with Collie and German Shepherd in his background. Lawrence looked for the quality in a dog that he most cherishes in an actor: “the ability to be in repose … to listen. Kasey can just sit or lie down and be contented to be there. He also looked so right; he is a rescue dog playing a rescue dog … He had nicks and scratches.”
With a few welcome exceptions like The Artist, Beginners or Our Idiot Brother, dogs in movies too often are exploited, reduced to props used for cruel laughter or a character’s neglect or abuse. Darling Companion not only keeps the dog love sweet and soulful, it drives both the plot and the characters. According to Lawrence, “The search in the film for the dog is a metaphor for people searching for their own connections to each other.” In the movie, Russ (Richard Jenkins) and Penny (Dianne Wiest) have found each other later in life, while the younger characters (played by Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass) are beginning the search for caring and commitment. They all are searching for the dog and for each other.
Carmen (Ayelet Zurer) is on a discovery of self, forming and listening to her intuitive visions. Meg Kasdan found Carmen’s perceptions in their real-life story when they lost Mack for a number of days after he freaked out on a mountain trail. As Meg remembers, “we had allowed a friend to watch over Mack and they were on a walk together. A mountain-bike rider whizzed by and our dog just took off after it; suddenly, he was nowhere to be found. We conducted a massive search as you see in the film, though we’ve taken artistic and a few comic liberties. Through it all with Mack, we had a friend who kept up our spirits with the certain knowledge that the dog was all right, providing clues she somehow knew as to where he was going. When we finally found him by the river, Mack had lost seven pounds and was filthy, but he was absolutely fine.” Lawrence believes that “this search was a good catalyst about relationships, a way to fight to reach a place of what is, hopefully, inner contentment.”
Contentment, satisfying conclusions, kindness of heart and joyful simplicity are not seen in mainstream Hollywood movies these days. Lawrence knows it too well. “It’s hard to make any movie about people anymore, anything that isn’t an action-comic-book piece or extremely dumb comedies. You know, the kind of movies we loved are hard to get made. I was 14 when I saw Lawrence of Arabia and it changed my life. That was it for me. It had everything: personal details mixed with gigantic story and sweep. It made me want to make movies and tell stories that way.” Meg “flipped out” when she saw Some Like It Hot, noticing not only the warmth and wacky fun, but Marilyn Monroe’s heartfelt performance. The three of us agreed that movies have changed our lives. And that dogs enrich, inspire and connect us to each other. In fact, my dogs, Duke and Ella, are staring at me as I write this. Lawrence and Meg told me they wrote the screenplay with three dogs surrounding them.
Dogs: they are indeed our darling companions. sonyclassics.com/darlingcompanion 
Images © Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.