The Executioner: By the Neck By David Cairns
Designing for del Toro By Eric Skillman
Samuel Fuller wrote this extraordinary “interview” piece shortly after White Dog was completed. It appeared in issue 19 of the journal Framework in 1982, with this introduction: “The director of Paramount’s White Dog interviewed the title actor of the movie not at the Hollywood Brown Derby but at the Wildlife WayStation, an hour’s drive from Los Angeles, where most of the picture was shot. Samuel Fuller felt that the location site would inspire the big white shepherd to rekindle memories of the making of the film. The conversation was held in front of a lion in a cage. No bars. The wire barrier made the dog uncomfortable.” Signed: “S.F.”
SF: He doesn’t make me nervous.
Dog: His eyes are not on you.
SF: Let’s move over to that Bengal tiger.
Dog: No. He’s religiously unpredictable. I’ll take my chances with the lion. Now what’s this about?
SF: You’ve heard of Black Beauty.
Dog: Every animal knows the horse that told his story first-person for children.
SF: And you know that Rin Tin Tin, Strongheart, and Lassie made an unpredictable bite in films.
SF: I thought it would be just as unpredictable to get a dog’s critique of the movie we worked on.
Dog: Why me?
SF: You played the title role.
Dog: Who’d want to hear my bark?
SF: Who wouldn’t want to hear it?
Dog: Is that a machine recording our conversation?
Dog: Is there a hidden camera stashed behind that gorilla?
Dog: Or behind that grizzly?
SF: No, this is not an Abscam caper.
Dog: What do you get out of this interview with me?
Dog: And what do I get?
SF: The same.
Dog: I can’t eat publicity.
SF: How about this bone? Go on, smell it.
Dog: To me the whole world is a smell.
SF: Then dig in.
SF: Why not?
Dog: Too scared to make a move.
SF: It’s not going to eat you.
Dog: But that goddamn lion’s ready to eat me. He’ll sure as hell crash through that wire cage if I go for the bone.
SF: No, he won’t. He was just fed.
Dog: How do you know?
SF: Martine Dawson told me.
Dog: I’ll buy anything she says. Remarkable woman, that Martine. She had her husband build Wildlife out of junk scraps, and now she’s taking in more and more wild animals.
SF: She told me they’re sick or mentally unbalanced.
Dog: They told me she tops Saint Francis of Assisi. Mind if I eat during the interview?
SF: Movie stars do.
Dog: I’m no movie star.
SF: You will be when people see your performance. How’s the bone?
Dog: The taste of a cigar, the succulence of escargot, and the crunch of a bone—that’s the test of the palate. This porterhouse bone is of extraordinary quality. Let’s get on with the interview.
SF: How did you feel when you were up for the role?
SF: Because it was your first acting job?
Dog: That was not acting! I’m an attack dog. Given the attack signal, I did what I was trained to do. Attack.
SF: Like the white dog?
Dog: I’m an attack dog, not a racist dog! I attack cat burglars, muggers, and other such noble examples of what your society has created. The dog in your film attacks blacks! One more insult and I’ll run you out of this compound with that porterhouse whacking your ass!
SF: I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were that temperamental.
Dog: Temperament has nothing to do with ignorant disrespect.
SF: Forgive me.
Dog: You are forgiven.
SF: You don’t mind if I compliment you on the way you handled the breakout scene from the compound, do you?
Dog: I can’t take all the bows. Every animal rooted for me because they knew the plot of the film and understood that scene.
SF: They understood that scene, you say?
Dog: I told them I was Cagney or Bogart making a prison break. I was not to blame. I committed no crime knowingly. I was framed by a human bastard. I had to bust out, and when Bogart did it the other cons shouted, made loud noises, banged cups against bars or dishes on tables, rooting for Bogart. So the animals got into the spirit of the scene. That earsplitting babble of elephants, grizzly bears, lions, tigers, coyotes, wolves, wildcats, apes was legitimate pandemonium. When they cheered for me to leap over that electrified fence, their cacophony was absolute realism.
SF: How familiar were you with the absolute realism of a white dog?
Dog: Before we made the movie?
Dog: I was a year old when I learned that a “white dog” meant a dog conditioned by a white man to attack blacks.
SF: Have you ever shared a bone with such a dog?
Dog: No, never met one, but I knew a cute hound bitch that fell for one. He had a yen for her and she was in heat.
SF: What did she tell you about him?
Dog: That he was reared by a two-legged, Bible-spouting white bigot to hate blacks.
SF: When was this?
Dog: I told you, when I was a year old.
SF: Pardon me, I meant where was this?
Dog: Not far from here. He came with a family in a motor home from the East. They parked in a trailer near the hound bitch.
SF: How would she know he’s a racist dog?
Dog: She saw him attack a black man. Later the dog explained that he was brainwashed as a puppy.
SF: What was her reaction?
SF: And yours?
SF: Enough to attack that two-legged bigot?
SF: Did you?
Dog: No, he left before I could find him. Very lucky for him, too.
SF: You mean lucky for you.
Dog: For me?
SF: You’d have been shot if you had attacked him.
Dog: Me shot for giving that bastard a taste of my fangs?
SF: That’s right.
Dog: What the hell are you talking about? Why shoot me? He’s the bastard who made that dog into a racist.
SF: How the hell could you have proven that?
Dog: I guess you’re right.
SF: I know I’m right.
Dog: Your laws are rigged, you know that.
Dog: Doesn’t your world make you want to vomit?
SF: Sometimes. Is it true that a dog lives in a black-and-white world? No other color?
Dog: Yes, but our world doesn’t know the meaning of prejudice. If I had my way, I’d make hog meat out of all racists . . . but then . . . why poison the pigs?
SF: Are you familiar with Alexander Pope’s “On the Collar of a Dog”?
Dog: Yes, something about a dog at Kew.
SF: On the collar of a lost dog were the words: “I am his Highness’ dog at Kew; Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?”
Dog: Hits the nail on the head, doesn’t it?
Dog: It would hit harder if bigots wore a dog collar reading: “I’m a sonofabitch racist, it’s true; Pray to God and become one too.”
SF: What’s the matter? You’ve stopped working on that bone.
Dog: I thought the lion was getting too close.
SF: Just pacing . . . How taxing was it to play that part?
Dog: Drained me mightily. Lost my appetite. Often threw up. Had nightmares of how horrifying if I had been conditioned to grow up hating and attacking blacks. I even explored the idea of such a poor dog helped by a psychoanalyst.
SF: Are there any for dogs?
Dog: Some of my rich friends visit headshrinkers.
SF: Will blacks like the movie?
SF: And bigots?
Dog: They’ll denounce it.
Dog: Because you show them naked for what they are. They’ll call it un-American, socialistic, communistic, liberal crap—anything to muzzle an outcry on film against a disease created by man. I’ve never met an animal bigot. Never. Can you imagine horses lynching a zebra because of its stripes? Or a lion attacking an ape because of religion? When we have rabies, you humans call us mad dogs. Hell, rabies is an infectious virus disease of our central nervous system. We didn’t create it or nurture it. We don’t raise puppies to believe that rabies is the right way to exist. We don’t raise cubs to hate the color of another animal’s hide. A rabid dog is as helpless as the white dog in the movie, but in all canine history there is no record of an adult dog conditioning a puppy to have rabies. Man, you people boast, is the highest form of animal. Nonsense! Man is capable of hatred. Animals are not, never were, never will be. Man, with all your scientific brilliance, is a very primitive species, billions of years behind the nature of all animals.
SF: Why will the blacks like the movie?
Dog: Because the character Paul Winfield plays is not only one of stature but the challenge that confronts him is reality, and agonizing reality at that. You were right making him an anthropologist and animal behavior expert. His academic background, his parents university professors teaching and writing books on anthropology, his wild-animal farm used as his own laboratory, his training of dangerous beasts, his physical contact with them instead of learning it from books, his determination to recondition the brain of the dog and cut out that imbedded hate without using a knife, his courage to be his own guinea pig in the exasperating experiment and face that dog alone in the big arena—all that will be liked by the blacks. Winfield is a man dedicated to his work, and he played it as a scientist. Not a black scientist, but a scientist. And that portrayal sets him apart from other characters played by blacks. Only once, and only for one brief moment, does he lose his scientific cool. In fury he says of the dog that has just attacked a black man, “I wanted to put a bullet in that bastard’s brain . . .” When Kristy McNichol angrily says, “Why the hell didn’t you?” Winfield instantly reverts to the scientist that he is and says, “Because there’s still a chance I can cure that dog.”
SF: I had no idea I’d get that kind of reaction from you.
Dog: Not just mine. Also my friends. When I told the dogs I know I was in the movie, they were impressed. Then when I began to tell them the story, some of them, just a few wise guys, misinterpreted the plot just to hear the sound of their own barks—but those barks were too hollow a device to attract attention. Anyway, when I finished the plot, they all loved it. Speaking about the plot, did you write the original story?
SF: No, Romain Gary, the French author, wrote the story of White Dog, which appeared years ago in its entirety in the old Life magazine, even got the cover of the dog. A hell of an unusual story, beautifully written. Actually an autobiography of Gary’s life with his wife, actress Jean Seberg, it was an allegory dealing with their love story, their domestic situation involving Black Panthers. She took her life. Later, he killed himself.
Dog: Did you know him?
SF: Yes, when he was French consul in Los Angeles, years ago. Back in the late fifties.
Dog: Is his story the one you made into a movie?
SF: No. Only his character of the racist dog was used. The people were changed, the plot changed. There were about seven or eight scripts on the project. It was with Paramount for quite a few years. I was asked to make the film by Don Simpson and Jon Davison when they came up to my house. I told them I objected to Gary’s handling of the black man in his story. It was not my cup of fighting racists.
Dog: What did you object to?
SF: Gary’s story was about a dog that one day appeared at Gary’s door. A lost dog. Gary took him in, grew fond of him, discovered to his horror that it was a racist dog, took him to a white man to be reconditioned, but a black worker got hold of the animal and retrained him to attack whites—making it a “black dog.” It’s horrible enough that a white racist made a dog into a bigot, but having a black retrain it to attack whites compounds that horror. To me, such a story is a racist story against blacks, and I’d never make that kind of film. The film that was made is antiracist, and if I were black I’d love it, and if I were a racist I’d hate it.
Dog: Then what happened?
SF: I came up with the character of the black anthropologist and a new story line and a different ending, and Paramount went for it. Curtis Hanson, a friend of mine, wrote the shooting script with me. Ironically, Curtis worked on the very first script years ago for Robert Evans. Roman Polanski was to direct it. There were many scripts, and several directors on it, over the years, but evidently Paramount didn’t give the green light to shoot, because the studio obviously and instinctively did not approve any of the scripts until they heard my approach.
Dog: If Gary were alive would he like the film?
SF: I’m sure he would. He was a French flier in World War II, a highly talented and sensitive man who wrote The Company of Men and Roots of Heaven. He was a humane man, and the story of White Dog he wrote was actually the mechanics of his own troubled love and passion. The Black Panthers became a catalyst of doom in his story. It was his own personal outcry. He could never write anything racist, but because of the ambiguous factors in his personal life with Jean Seberg, his black—to me personally—was a despicable character the way portrayed. Yes, I’m sure if Gary were alive he’d like the film, because I knew him and knew his virtues about humanity and his theme about life. To prove this, the last credit card of the movie reads: “Dedicated to Romain Gary.” I asked for that card, and Paramount okayed the request.
Dog: I see . . . Now I understand you more than before. You saw a chance to rip off the KKK skin and expose to what inhuman depths a racist sinks when he creates a white dog.
SF: Right. In Frankenstein, the monster’s crimes were great, but the greater crime was Dr. Frankenstein’s, for having created the monster.
Dog: That is the core of the movie.
SF: Did your friends understand that the way you do?
Dog: Yes, they agreed how dangerous and difficult it was to recondition a dog, especially an old one, and to teach him new tricks.
SF: What else did they understand?
Dog: That if Winfield succeeded in his experiment to recondition the brain of the dog, it would mean any other white dog could be cured, and that would mean all the time, money, and hatred spent by those bastards on creating such an animal would be for nothing. It would prove that such a successful experiment would be one giant step against racism.
SF: How did the end of the movie hit you?
Dog: Paralyzed me.
SF: Because of that shot they gave you to appear dead?
Dog: Hell, no. That wore off quickly. It was harmless. What paralyzed me was that last moment that all scientists fear . . . Winfield was 99 percent successful, but that 1 percent was the biggest obstacle to overcome. So close to victory, and yet that 1 percent meant defeat. A true scientist, Winfield knew he never could be 100 percent right. And in the final test confrontation with the dog in the arena, that 1 percent in the dog’s diseased brain boomeranged, and what the dog did will always make me momentarily paralyzed until I die.
SF: That boomerang of the brain was to show the danger of tampering with a sick and tortured brain. Do you think that Winfield should have performed a lobotomy on the dog?
Dog: No, that would be the easy way out. A lobotomy would make the dog a vegetable. But a lobotomy should be performed on the man who trained the dog.
SF: Are there many white dogs?
Dog: Fortunately, no . . . at least not enough to make a legal stir. Why don’t you people do something about a parent conditioning a white infant? Why not a law against the suckling of an infant on bigotry? Why not life imprisonment or execution for anyone caught raising a child with hate for the color of skin not white? Or hate for another religion? Make that law and in a couple of generations there’d be no racism and no white dogs.
SF: You talk my language.
Dog: By the way, how did you know I can talk?
SF: Last night, when I dropped in to visit you, you were talking in your sleep.
Dog: I see.
SF: That’s how I could direct you as a human being, even though you never spoke to me during the shooting. After all, I wasn’t shooting a Lassie story. You were the Jekyll-Hyde character, and you had to react with expressions, and your eyes had to speak, and they did.
SF: What do you mean, wrong?
Dog: Dr. Jekyll made himself into a monster. In the film, a man made the dog into a monster.
SF: You’re right, it makes dog sense. I stand corrected. How was it to work with Kristy McNichol?
Dog: Like everyone, I fell in love with her, but for an eighteen-year-old actress to handle those transitions the way she did, I also fell in love with her extraordinary talent. No matter from what angle Bruce Surtees photographed her, she was not only lovely to look at but she portrayed the emotionally confused girl with chilling impact—and without a word. I don’t know any other girl her age who could have come across with such sensitivity, such humor, such awakening to the horror of racism, such anger, such heartbreak, such—
SF: Why are you leaving? You haven’t finished!
Dog: That goddamn lion is about to bust through his cage—now! And I’ve got to stay in one piece if I plan to be in another movie!