Q&A with director of DAWGTOWN animated movie – George Foreman announced for cast
by Patch O'Furr
Dogpatch Press interview series: Artists, animation directors, DJ’s and event organizers, superfans, and more…
Here’s a Q&A with Justin Murphy, director and producer of Dawgtown. It’s an ambitious 2D animated, indie feature film in pre-production. I’m excited to grill him about it, especially with this week’s big announcement that George Foreman has joined the cast as voice actor.
The movie synopsis promises action: “As a competitor in the most well funded pit-fighting organization in the world, a young Pitbull leads a revolt in a dangerous break for freedom.”
Justin’s award-winning production record promises action, too. Here’s part 1 for his thoughts on movie making, “talking animals”, and more. Part 2 is here.
ON HIS BACKGROUND:
Justin established his skills as an indie comics artist, and produced two original musicals for the stage. He’s won awards for a graphic novel about the Civil War, and a rock opera about Lucifer’s revolt in Heaven. He presents a comprehensive force: dedication to produce, range from social interest to mythic story, and talent to apply for designing and storyboarding. It bodes well for the movie.
Your past project, the graphic novel Cleburne, showed well-read, deep research about the Civil War, focusing on unlikely underdogs. It was proposed as a movie. What led you to switch to literal underdogs for this movie?
I’ve always been drawn to those type of stories. ‘Lord of the Rings’, ‘Braveheart’ and ‘First Blood’ are three of my favorites. In the first film you have one little Hobbit who’s given the responsibility to destroy the Ring of Power, in the second, a Scotsman commoner takes on the military might of the England, and in the third, a troubled Vietnam Vet is hunted by the police and the National Guard. Survival stories are very important, because they remind us all that even the underdog can win if he or she is tenacious and resourceful. Everyone loves a good underdog story because the odds are stacked heavily against the hero. You want to see how (or if) they overcome it.
TALKING ANIMALS AND FILM MAKING INFLUENCES:
“I’ve always liked films that use animation in a subversive way to tell allegories about tyranny and freedom.” – Interview With Justin Murphy
Justin recently took time for blog writing about his animation tastes. He includes quite a few “talking animals” movies, and a sense for value in movies apart from the norm: indies, flawed or underrated ones, and depth or darkness that took chances beyond broad-market safety. Watership Down is cited, and elsewhere, Dawgtown is compared to “Gladiator meets Animal Farm.”
Dawgtown’s animal characters aren’t fully anthropomorphized into comedic talking-animal cartoons. It looks more like a “Balto” or “Watership Down”, where behavior sets the animal world apart from the human world, so they don’t just tell a story as stand-ins for humans. Will it show behavior that could only be acted by dogs? Are there any memorable movie scenes you can cite as influences?
Funny you mentioned ‘Watership Down’ because that is my favorite animated movie of all time. ‘Dawgtown’ is similar in that it is somewhat realistic and dramatic, so I can’t have dogs dancing around to pop songs or walking on hind-legs like people. There’s a place for that in animation, but we have enough of it, so much so that the medium has almost become that entirely. Imagine if live action only produced children’s comedies. That is, in a sense, what has happened to feature animation in the US. I understand the economics of it. People love to laugh, and laughs equal big money. Just look at the original trailer for ‘Frozen’. It was full of gags and told very little in terms of what the movie was about. It actually turned me off to wanting to see it. After I saw it, I kept thinking, why weren’t some of these great scenes in the trailer instead of all those goofy scenes with Olaf? Well, because the 5-year-olds love Olaf. Marketing promoted the humor to the masses rather than the story, and it worked. Don’t get me wrong, I love humor too(I even published a humor comic in 2010 called ‘Holidaze) but there is nothing like a film that leaves you stunned in your seat while you absorb what you just saw. I remember how I felt after watching ‘Schindler’s List’ or ‘The Shawshank Redemption’. Those weren’t just movies, those were experiences.
As for dog behavior, I will throw the occasional scratching the back of the ear and nudging the food dish. These are endearing traits that all dog owners recognize.
In regards to memorable scenes, as a kid I always loved how the dog in ‘Watership Down’ stops to pee in the bushes, before moving on to hunt down General Woundwort’s posse of Nazi bunnies. To me, the fact that a cartoon showed a dog urinating was bold, and it had a Ralph Bakshi-type rebelliousness to it. Disney would never have done something like that!
ON HIS EDUCATION:
After earning a BFA in Studio Art, Justin began developing Dawgtown as a thesis for MFA Illustration at Academy of Art University, in San Francisco.
Can I ask about starting this as an MFA thesis project? Did the study prepare you for the unpredictable, entrepeneurial world of indie film making?
I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was 17. I even joined the work program in high school by starting my own company and publishing indie comics, and I’ve raised a lot of money over the years for various projects, so I went into with the goal of making the film independently from the start. So many students it seems are conditioned to believe that their goal should be a land a good job, without ever being told that they have the option to ‘create’ not only a job, but something that belongs to them. What the Thesis Project did was give me access to some great instruction at AAU that helped guide me in the design direction I decided to take with the film. It was like I had a team of art directors to help me. I didn’t always agree with every suggestion, but the process was invaluable for correcting some of my own weaknesses as an artist and finding a voice.
Were there gaps between the course work, and the real world application for it?
The course on Professional Practices for Illustrators did a good job of talking about freelancing and branding yourself and your work. The biggest gap is the one everyone wants to know about, ‘how do you raise money?’ Of course, there is no correct answer to that question. I’ve learned from experience that people invest in me as much as they invest in my projects. Relationships are important and passion is infectious. Of course, you have to have a worthy idea, but I never go into anything without a strategy for how my investors can make their money back, and hopefully a profit. Artists have to become business-minded to do this type of thing. You have to know how to ‘sell the art’.
DAWGTOWN’S REALISM AND THEME
“I’ve been researching this subject for years,” says director Justin Murphy, “and talking with various rescue organizations. In order to protect their anonymity, I cannot name them, but they’ve been involved in some high-profile rescues, including busting up Michael Vick’s operation.” – AAU article, September 2013
How did you first approach the challenge of writing a convincingly researched story about dog fighting? Has life brought you in direct contact with it? Did you earn access to non-public info from the sources you talked to?
The idea came to me about seven years ago, when I began working on my Graphic Novel ‘Cleburne’. I can’t point to a reason why, and I have no personal connection to the subject, but I did have years to research it, and to write the screenplay. Of course, I love animals, especially dogs, so that played some part in it as well. Yes about my sources- but I can’t name them publicly.
For subtext, you call it “security verses freedom”. Has it been affected by big news after you started, such as reporting about the NSA?
Yes. It’s troubling that the average American citizen, who says they believe in freedom, has failed to recognize that our leaders (the past two Presidents especially) have been violating the Bill of Rights and the Constitution in ways that have forever changed our society. We can now be spied on and even thrown in prison indefinitely, without trail or representation, and it’s all in the name of keeping us safe. If Edward Snowden has taught us anything it’s that we, the American people, are now considered the enemy, and by the very government that is supposed to represent us. How ironic and frightening. Of course this is nothing completely new. Both Lincoln (a Republican) and FDR (a Democrat) violated the rights of American citizens; Lincoln by imprisoning Southern sympathizers, and FDR by relocating Japanese Americans to concentration camps. When a President can suspend our rights for any reason, then we have no rights, and that my friends is called tyranny. This is a serious topic, and one that could fill an entire interview, so I’ll sum it up by quoting Ben Franklin when he said, “those willing to trade security for freedom will lose both and deserve neither.” In ‘Dawgtown’ some of the dogs have lived under the oppressive system for so long that they have come to accept it. It takes Max to come in from the outside and show them that they have all been deceived. Disguised slavery is much more diabolical because the slave actually believes they are free.
IN PART 2: The big casting announcement.