Writing a screenplay from a dog’s point of view: A Dog’s Purpose

”The most difficult part of writing the novel was keeping it simple. I’m dealing with a dog, and a dog isn’t going to be thinking in complicated metaphors.  A dog is going to be mostly about nouns, much less about adverbs.  Its vocabulary is generally limited to around 40 or 50 words, and I wanted to write from the perspective of a real dog and not a dog that could understand English.”

Based on author W. Bruce Cameron’s beloved best-selling novel, A Dog’s Purpose shares the heartwarming and surprising story of one devoted dog who finds the meaning of his own existence through the lives of the humans he teaches to laugh and love.

Over the course of five decades, a single voice—that of an indefatigable dog—takes us along a riveting and uplifting path that speaks to the heart of anyone who has ever loved an animal.  Although he is reincarnated in the bodies of multiple canines through the years, it is his unbreakable bond with a kindred spirit named Ethan that carries and inspires one dog throughout his journey to find a true purpose for his boy.

“I made two movies about dogs previously—My Life as a Dog and Haichi—so this is my third dog story,” says director Lasse Hallström, who claims it is no accident he was attracted to the material: . ”If you have an interest in outsiders and emotions that seems irrational to humans, you can certainly relate to a dog’s feelings and a dog’s life.”

A Dog’s Purpose is adapted for the screen by Cameron & Cathryn Michon (Muffin Top: A Love Story) and Audrey Wells (Shall We Dance) and Maya Forbes (Infinitely Polar Bear) & Wally Wolodarsky (Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days).

adogspurposetrailer-1-809x538A Joyous Concept: What Is a Dog’s Purpose?

After its publication in 2010, “A Dog’s Purpose” became an enormous hit, finding an audience with animal lovers across the globe who were charmed by its tender, poignant and humorous take on what our animal companions think of us and why they are truly here.  The No. 1-New York Times Best-Selling book spent more than one year on that list and has been translated into 20 languages, and published in 29 different countries worldwide.  It even spawned a sequel, “A Dog’s Journey,” which was published in 2012 and achieved similar acclaim.

The series author, W. Bruce Cameron, is well known as the writer of the best-selling humor tome “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.”  The book was adapted into a hugely popular ABC sitcom, which starred the late John Ritter, and Katey Sagal and introduced the world to The Big Bang Theory’s Kaley Cuoco.

Cameron was moved to write the novel when the woman he was dating lost her dog, and she was having a difficult time processing her grief.  He explains the inspiration: “We were driving up the California coast on the 101 freeway, and I was hurting for her.  Out of nowhere, as if I downloaded it off the Internet, this story came into my head about a dog who doesn’t actually die, but is reborn again and again and again, and develops the sense that there might be some purpose why this is happening.”

The passenger Cameron was consoling was his future wife—as well as one of his fellow A Dog’s Purpose screenwriters—Cathryn Michon.  Michon remembers the day quite fondly: “On our way to the Bay Area, we stopped to get a latte, and when I came back to the car Bruce told me he had a story to tell me…and that it was going to be his next book.  He told this story for 90 minutes straight, and by the end of it I was completely in a puddle I was crying so much.”

For Cameron, watching dogs interact with each other and analyzing their behavior was the most helpful research he did before crafting his novel.  The writer explains: “The most important thing I did in researching the book was not reading about dogs, but going to the dog park and seeing how they behave.  Dogs have a crazy social structure.  Two dogs will be best friends, but when a third dog comes in the dynamic changes instantly.”  He laughs.  “It is 10 times worse than middle school.”

According to the story’s creator, the most difficult part of writing the novel was keeping it simple: “I’m dealing with a dog, and a dog isn’t going to be thinking in complicated metaphors.  A dog is going to be mostly about nouns, much less about adverbs.  Its vocabulary is generally limited to around 40 or 50 words, and I wanted to write from the perspective of a real dog and not a dog that could understand English.”

Producer Gavin Polone read “A Dog’s Purpose” while it was still in galley form, and at the request of Cameron and Michon, he would shepherd it through the development process.  During this time, it drew the attention of Amblin Entertainment.  “We wanted to find a producer to take the book to the next step, and Gavin has such a great reputation for protecting writers, so we sent the book to him,” reveals Cameron.  In their mission to find a champion to take the book to the next step, they needed a director that would have the same goal in mind.

Given Hallström’s track record of inventive filmmaking, and having already directed an Amblin Entertainment (then DreamWorks) film, The 100-Foot Journey, it was a unanimous decision that the filmic version of this story could not be in better hands.  The director claims it is no accident he was attracted to the material: “I made two movies about dogs previously—My Life as a Dog and Haichi—so this is my third dog story.  If you have an interest in outsiders and emotions that seems irrational to humans, you can certainly relate to a dog’s feelings and a dog’s life.”

While Cameron and his fellow script writers had to create rules for our story—in terms of what the dog was thinking and could process—Hallström also had to keep things logical…in what some might say is an illogical notion.

“Ultimately, the one rule we had was that the dog could not speak on camera,” offers Hallström.  “With the narration, the dog’s thoughts have human elements to it, and I have become more and more caught up in the idea of reincarnation because of this film.  But whether the possibility is real or not…who knows.  The point is to be open to the magic that there is something going on in the universe that we cannot yet explain.”

Hallström felt his most important task as director was to ground the actor’s and dog’s performances in reality.  His goal was not to stylize anything nor reach for the comedic aspects.  “I wanted a tone that feels authentic and has a light touch to it, while being rooted in real emotions—of both the dogs and the humans.  It was a fun challenge.”

One of the world’s most renowned directors, LASSE HALLSTRÖM (Directed by) is best known to audiences as the maker of such poignant but resolutely unsentimental films as My Life as a Dog, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and The Cider House Rules. The son of an amateur filmmaker, Hallström was born in Stockholm on June 2, 1946.  He began his professional career in high school when, with the assistance of a group of friends, he made a short film about some schoolmates who had formed a band. In 1975, Hallström made his debut with the romantic drama A Guy and a Gal.  Two years later, he focused his lens on one of Sweden’s most famous exports in ABBA: The Movie.  He subsequently made a number of romantic comedies; but it was not until 1985, with My Life as a Dog, that Hallström had his international breakthrough.  A bona fide art-house hit, My Life as a Dog was the touching and wholly un-patronizing coming-of-age story of a young boy sent to live with relatives when his terminally ill mother can no longer care for him.  The film earned a score of international honors, including the Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globe Awards and a New York Film Critics Circle award.  Hallström received Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.

BRUCE CAMERON (Based on the Novel by/Screenplay by) is a Benchley award winner for humor and was named the 2011 Columnist of the Year by the National Society of newspaper Columnists. He has written for television (8 Simple Rules, based on his book) and co-wrote the feature film Muffin Top: A Love Story, which was released in November 2014. He produced and co-wrote the feature film Cook-Off!, which is in postproduction. His novel “A Dog’s Purpose” spent 52 weeks on The New York Times Best Sellers list.  The sequel, “A Dog’s Journey,” was published in May 2012, and was instantly a The New York Times Best Seller. Cameron has been a guest on Good Morning America, Fox & Friends, The Today Show, Oprah, Anderson Cooper and CBS This Morning. In 2017, “A Dog’s Way Home” will be published in May, the humor book “A Dad’s Purpose” will be published in June and the young readers novel “Molly’s Story” came out in September.

CATHRYN MICHON (Screenplay by) is a screenwriter, actress and feature film director, as well as the author of the best-selling “Grrl Genius” book series.  An alumna of The Second City, she has written for numerous Primetime Emmy Award-winning television series.  She co-wrote, co-directed and stars in the upcoming Lionsgate ensemble feature comedy Cook-Off!, which also stars Wendi McLendon-Covey, Melissa McCarthy and Gary Anthony Williams.  Michon also directed, co-wrote and starred in the award-winning indie film Muffin Top: A Love Story with David Arquette, currently on Netflix.

AUDREY WELLS (Screenplay by) is a screenwriter and film director from San Francisco, California.  She is the writer and director of Under the Tuscan Sun, which starred Diane Lane.  She also wrote and directed Guinevere, which starred Sarah Polley and Stephen Rea, for which she won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival and the jury prize at the Deauville Film Festival.  Wells wrote the original screenplays for The Truth About Cats & Dogs and The Kid.  Other writing credits include George of the Jungle, The Game Plan and the American adaptation of Shall We Dance.  Wells is currently adapting The Hate U Give for director George Tillman Jr. and Fox 2000, and writing an original animated feature screenplay for Oriental DreamWorks.  Wells serves as a visiting professor in the Graduate School of Theater, Film and Television at UCLA.

MAYA FORBES (Screenplay by) began her career writing for The Larry Sanders Show.  She has since written numerous television episodes and feature films. Her television credits include The People vs. O.J. Simpson and her film credits include Monsters vs. Aliens and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days.  All of these she co-wrote with her husband, Wally Wolodarsky. Forbes was named one of Variety’s “10 Directors to Watch” for her directorial debut Infinitely Polar Bear, which starred Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana.  Her latest project The Polka King, written and directed with Wolodarsky, stars Jack Black and will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017.

WALLY WOLODARSKY (Screenplay by) began his career as a writer on The Tracey Ullman Show.  He received a Primetime Emmy Award for his work.  Wolodarsky was an original writer and producer on The Simpsons for the first four seasons, where he won his second Primetime Emmy Award.  He has directed three features and has written several features with his wife Maya Forbes.  The Polka King is the first feature they have written and directed together.