Movie News & Reviews

Meet the Shawnee Mission East alum behind a pack of beloved dog books and movies

A Dog’s Way Home (Official Trailer)

A dog travels 400 miles in search of her owner.
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A dog travels 400 miles in search of her owner.

When author W. Bruce Cameron travels the country with the star of his latest movie, he doesn’t worry she’ll hog the spotlight.

“Shelby never grabs the microphone,” says Cameron. That’s not because his leading lady is lacking an ego, but more because she’s lacking opposable thumbs.

The pair are promoting “A Dog’s Way Home,” a family adventure co-written by Cameron, who grew up in Prairie Village. It opens Friday.

“A solo author tour doesn’t generate a lot of crowds. But touring with Shelby, on the other hand, you can’t keep the crowd back. They are enthralled with her,” he says of the mixed-breed rescue pup. “Few of the questions are about the writing process. They’re more like, ‘What did Shelby do when she saw a squirrel?’”

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W. Bruce Cameron and Shelby, the star of “A Dog’s Way Home,” are touring the country to promote the movie. . Sony Pictures

Cameron and Shelby will head to KC to attend a sold-out screening Thursday of “A Dog’s Way Home” at AMC Town Center. The event is hosted by Rainy Day Books. They’ll also appear from noon to 1 p.m. Thursday for a meet and greet at Bar K Dog Bar, 501 Berkley Parkway.

His cinematic follow-up to 2017’s “A Dog’s Purpose” is told from the perspective of inquisitive puppy Bella (voiced by Bryce Dallas Howard), who is separated from her owner (Jonah Hauer-King) and embarks on a 400-mile journey to find a way back.

“It’s really about this unbreakable bond between our canine family members and their people,” says Cameron, a 1974 graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School. “That bond forms this invisible leash of love that will guide a dog back home if she or he is lost. And it’s about the reverse; it’s about how we feel when we’re separated.”

Although set in Colorado, the film was shot in Vancouver, Canada.

“I’ve never taken a snowmobile to work before,” Cameron says, laughing.

“It was the craziest thing. They’d take us up the side of a mountain, shove us in a tent, hand us this thing they said was a heater that looked like something from the second World War and made more noise than heat, and we were sitting there shivering and watching the monitors. And, yet, I had a blast. I got to hang out with the dog in beautiful terrain.”

The feature is directed by former “American Graffiti” actor Charles Martin Smith and also stars Ashley Judd, Alexandra Shipp and Edward James Olmos.

A humor columnist turned prolific author, Cameron built a career that necessitated little collaboration. But as countless writers have discovered, Hollywood is not very receptive to someone’s lone artistic vision.

“As a novelist, I’m sailing solo,” he says.

“While it’s true I have editors, and my wife applies a fine eye to every draft, it’s still really my work. When it comes time to do an adaptation, you find out that the kitchen is absolutely crowded with chefs. They’re all throwing stuff into the soup, some of which is terrible. They’re dumping in motor oil and toothbrushes and Ebola virus. You just have to strain that stuff back out and stay focused on telling a good story in an entertaining way.”

After ABC adapted his 2001 best-seller “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter” into a series, Cameron insisted he become part of the creative process on all future projects. Together with his wife, Cathryn Michon, he penned the screenplay to both “A Dog’s Purpose” and “A Dog’s Way Home” (and to the upcoming “A Dog’s Journey,” which comes out in May and stars Dennis Quaid and the voice of Josh Gad).

He doesn’t have eight simple rules for being a writer in Hollywood. Just one rule: “Develop a thick skin.”

That thickness helped him greatly two years ago when controversy surrounded the release of “A Dog’s Purpose.”

A video purportedly showing animal cruelty on the set of the film was leaked to TMZ. But a third-party investigation concluded the tape was deliberately edited to be misleading, and then was presented within days of the movie’s premiere, rousing concerns over the motivation behind the deed.

According to a statement by the American Humane Society, “the findings of the independent investigation confirm that no animals were harmed in those scenes and numerous preventative safety measures were in place.”

Still the movie was a hit, grossing more than $200 million worldwide.

Did Cameron ever find out who distributed that video? Or why?

“We all have a strong conviction, but it lacks the standard of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ I don’t think anyone has gone on the record. But most people on Facebook and social media will tell you who did it,” he says.

As such, myriad precautions were taken during the “Dog’s Way Home” shoot to prevent similar accusations.

“Everybody on set had three numbers they could call anonymously to report anything that bothered them. We had two separate animal welfare organizations on set watching the dogs. Then the only person who could call ‘cut’ besides the director were the animal people,” he recalls. “If Shelby looked like she was getting cold, the trainers could say, ‘We’re going to take a break.’”

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“A Dog’s Way Home” is told from the perspective of Bella (played by a dog named Shelby), with a voice provided by Bryce Dallas Howard. James Dittiger Columbia Pictures

Cameron and Shelby began their cross-country tour on Monday in Washington, D.C. The author was elated to be able to include his hometown in the itinerary. (Note: This will be Shelby’s first time visiting KC.)

“I have several people coming to the showing that I literally know from grade school,” says Cameron, whose own pooch, Tucker, met Shelby at an adoption event last week.

“I love going to Rainy Day Books. It’s one of my favorite bookstores in the whole world. I always take a drive through the Shawnee Mission area because it invokes in me memories of growing up in Kansas City. What a great place to grow up. People are so friendly.”

Occasionally, a specific memory from his childhood makes it onto the page of one of his dozen-plus novels. He cites “A Dog’s Purpose,” in which protagonist Ethan meets Bella for the first time, saying it mirrors a similar experience when he was the same age in Prairie Village.

“(Bruce) has such an empathetic insight into the spirit of dogs and their relationship with humans,” says Vivien Jennings, founder of Rainy Day Books and self-proclaimed “cat person.” “He connects the reader so well to that perspective that even people who are not necessarily ‘dog lovers’ are moved and more connected to dogs.”

Cameron’s earliest professional foray into journalism didn’t involve any canines.

“When I was 16 years old, the first short story I ever sent anywhere, I sent to Star Magazine, a Sunday supplement in The Kansas City Star. And they bought it! The story was called ‘Therapy.’ I was interviewed by the editor, whose name was Mr. (Howard) Turtle. I got my picture in the paper. It was a big deal. I got paid $50,” he says.

The tale was a post-Vietnam allegory about two conscientious objectors locked in a room who get in a fight.

However, his second story he ever sold concerned … guess what?

“This was about a dog named Mitzi,” he remembers. It was a tale of an elderly woman who continues to call her pet without realizing it has died.

“It’s a real downer,” he admits. “That’s before I realized the best dog stories were the ones where the dogs don’t die in the end.”

Cameron also confesses his best stories provoke a particular reaction.

“It’s when people tell me, ‘I look at my dog in a different way,’” he says. “I believe they’re telling me they think of their dog now as having a deeper palette of thoughts and emotions than they had contemplated before. That may mean they treat their dog better, with more respect and kindness and love. Ultimately, that’s what I want.”

Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
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