December 15, 2018

About a dog, lost and found

My 7-year-old son’s room is covered with posters from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” The Empire Strikes Back” and other “Star Wars” films, and I myself have enjoyed the zeitgeist-y films “The Big Chill,” “Grand Canyon” and the “Accidental Tourist.”  So I was eager to meet Lawrence Kasden, the filmmaker who has written and/or directed those movies, along with his wife, Meg, Kasden’s co-screenwriter on “Big Chill” and “Grand Canyon,” at the Four Seasons hotel recently. 

I found their latest collaboration, “Darling Companion,” to be charming (although the reviews have not been so good); I’m a sucker for dogs and dog lovers so I wanted to find out the true story that inspired the film, which Meg describes as the tale of “a woman [Diane Keaton] who loves her dog more than her husband [Kevin Kline] – and then he loses the dog.”

Actually the idea for the movie began some years before the Kasdens adopted their now-geriatric pooch, Mac, who is a cattle dog mixed breed, judging from the photograph Larry proudly shows me on his iPhone.

About 15 years ago, the Kasdens didn’t have a dog, but they loved taking care of the mutt that had been adopted by their son, filmmaker Jake Kasden (“Bad Teacher,” “Orange County”).  “This dog, named Denver, came into our lives right at a time when things were very emotional and tumultuous,” Meg said.  “Our younger son, Jon, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease at the same time that Jake went away to make his first movie…Jon is now 32 and in good health [he’s also a filmmaker], but at the time he had to go through almost a year of chemo and it was rough. And we had that dog because Jake was away and for some reason she just was a tonic at that moment.”

“The experience of walking a dog in the Colorado mountains, after we decided to get a place there, has been very spiritually and psychologically significant for us,” Larry added.

After Jake adopted a second dog – this one named “Steve Rosenbaum” – the Kasdens eventually decided to adopt a stray of their own; one day seven years ago Meg received a photograph of a rescue dog and told Larry they had to go see him right away, because he was scheduled to be euthenized.  The dog looked sad but “irresistible,” Larry said.

So they went to see him and adopted Mac the next day; “We were empty nesters, we fell in love with him and he became a shared responsibility,” Meg said.

Then, one fall day when the family was up at their vacation home in the Rockies, a friend took Mac for a hike while the Kasdens attended a wedding.  Due to his abusive past, Mac was still skittish in certain situations, notably around men wearing hats, but this time it was a mountain biker who frightened him so badly that he ran off into the woods.  The woman followed him, calling his name, but to no avail; night fell and when he did not return home the next morning, the Kasdens panicked.

Over the next three weeks—during thunderstorms and even an early snow—the couple and their friends mounted an all-out search for Mac, enlisting the help of the local radio station, the sheriff, and posting his picture all over town.  The Kasdens hiked all day long in the woods, calling out Mac’s name, but there was no sign of the dog.

In the middle of the search, a friend confided to Meg that she believed she had psychic abilities:  “She’d actually say, ‘Try 9:30 p.m. between the church and the ice cream parlor,’ and we’d rush over there,” Larry said.  “We’d been so discouraged, that that did keep us going.”

On the thirteenth day, after yet another search in the woods, the Kasdens acknowledged that Mac was not coming home.  “We said, ‘We have to deal with this, we’ve done everything we can and Mac’s not coming back,’” Meg said.  “It was a very sad moment for us, but we went back home to L.A.”

Almost immediately after their return, Larry went out for a bike ride – and received a startling telephone call.  “Guess who’s sitting next to me?” the Kasdan’s friend said from Colorado.  Someone had spotted Mac playing with her dogs down by a river and the Kasdens’ friend had rushed over to pick him up.

“Mac had lost about 7 pounds, which is roughly 15 percent of his body weight, and he was filthy,” Larry said.  “He looked like he hadn’t been fed or touched in three weeks.”

“But he was OK,” Meg quickly added.

People were so rapt whenever Meg told the story that the Kasdens eventually decided to turn it into a movie; “Darling Companion” revolves around a couple, unlike the Kasdens, who are suffering a post-midlife crisis, as well as the kinds of companionships experienced by their assorted friends and relatives. 

The Kasdens see the ensemble film as the third in a trilogy that began with “The Big Chill” (1983) and continued with “Grand Canyon” (1991), both of which also deal with groups of friends, the Kasdens’ contemporaries, who come together and grow apart.

While Meg grew up in a Jewish community in Detroit, Larry was raised in small towns in West Virginia where he felt “other” as the only Jew in his circle of friends.  “People would say “I Jewed him down’ or ‘kike’ but they didn’t know the power that had over me,” he recalled.  “At those moments I felt, ‘These are my best friends and they didn’t understand that I didn’t want to be alienated like that;’ I didn’t want my people to be considered undesirable, or that they should be equated with cheapness or swindling.

“Every person who considers himself an artist, without being inflated about it, will tell you they’ve felt like an outsider during their childhood experiences, because that creates a kind of lonliness….You live in your head and think, ‘I’m going to make something that no one else can have any impact on, and I’m going to present it to this world that doesn’t “get” me.’”

Life at home was tumultuous; Kasden’s parents fought.  “We didn’t have a sense of a family that would take care of you,” he said.  “And I was looking for another family.”

He met Meg when both were juniors at the University of Michigan in the late 1960s; they were married in a humanistic Jewish ceremony near Detroit 40 years ago.

During the early years of their marriage, Larry worked in advertising as he struggled to become a screenwriter; his screenplay of “The Bodyguard” was rejected 57 times before it became a blockbuster starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner in 1992.  After his script for “Continental Divide” became a hot commodity, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas came calling;” they wanted Kasden to write a film that would ultimately become “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

“I had still been working in advertising just a month before, and then suddenly I had sold two scripts and here’s Steven Spielberg,” Kasden recalled.  “He and George told me our hero has a whip, he wears a fedora and a leather jacket, and he’s chasing the lost Ark of the Covenant, and that was it,” he recalled of the premise.

After “Raiders,” Kasden would go on to write a total of 11 feature films, most of which he directed; “The Big Chill” came about, 10 years after the Kasdens finished college, when their contemporaries “had gone out into the world and found we weren’t the center of everything,” Larry said.  “A lot of people had trouble finding their work or something they wanted to do that was nearly as meaningful as college [in the late 1960s].  The real world is always a shock process, and the movie is about that – coming into the real world, and then 10 years later when some people are still unsettled, some are really successful and others are really struggling.”

“Grand Canyon” was born when the Kasdens’ two sons were 16 and 11, respectively; it was an age “that added to our hyper vigilance about what could happen and how Los Angeles had changed,” Larry said.  The Grand Canyon became the central metaphor for the divide among Angelinos due to socioeconomic and racial differences.

Kasden hasn’t made a film since his last two movies, “Mumford” and “Dreamcatcher,” didn’t do so well critically, although he’s been busy writing and developing other projects.  “Darling Companion” is his first independent feature film and his first produced film in eight years.

There are two other shaggy dog stories associated with the movie; the collie mix who plays Freeway, the hero dog, was once himself a rescue found wandering in the desert with a rope embedded into his neck.  The other story concerns Meg’s sister, who rescued a bleeding dog she found in the snow on a freeway outside Detroit; that is how Keaton’s character rescues the hero dog, who is named Freeway, in “Darling Companion.”

Now Mac is 14 and his walks with the Kasdens have slowed to a crawl.  But he is as cherished as ever.  “I had loved this dog from the time we got him and I was not prepared for how I felt when we lost him,” Larry said.