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A Bit of Trivia

Benji was the second animal ever to be inducted into the Animal Actors Hall of Fame (Lassie was first).

71,000,000 people more than half of them adults have watched Benji in movie theaters.

Benji is the only American actor ever banned from England. The British had a six-month quarantine on dogs in place when Camp wanted to shoot, Oh Heavenly Dog there. The film had to be shot in Canada and Paris.

Benji has twice been named the American Guild of Variety Artists' Animal Entertainer of the year.

Benji is partnered with Pets911, the nation's largest web shelter adoption service, to promote the adoption of pets who desperately need homes.

The American Humane Association has reported that because the original Benji was rescued from an animal shelter, more than 1,000,000 dogs have been adopted across the country.

In Benji's second movie, For the Love of Benji, Benji was actually played by a girl and Benji's girlfriend Tiffany, was played by a boy.

The new Benji is also a female. She is a 3 1/2 year-old female mixed-breed terrier.
Read more of Benji's story.


Benji Returns: A Conversation with Film Director Joe Camp

By Belinda Ayers Producer - The dog that America loves to love is back! Benji: Off the Leash opens in several theaters across the country on Friday. The last time audiences saw the adorable animal was in Benji the Hunted in 1987. Joe Camp, the film's director and creator of the original Benji film in 1974, says he released the new film independently as a way to keep control of the movie's content. In a recent interview I talked with Joe about his new film and his passion for cleaning up Hollywood's values and making movies that are safe for families.

I know many Benji fans will be excited to see Benji back in theaters. What made you decide to do another Benji movie?

JOE CAMP: One of the reasons that we wanted to bring Benji back in a really relevant story is because we see the bar being lowered and lowered by the Hollywood studios as to what is appropriate and what is safe in family entertainment. They are throwing in the bodily excretions jokes, the potty humor, the four letter words, the sexual innuendos, and that sort of thing in family pictures now. And you know, we tried for a year to negotiate with Hollywood studios. We had three who wanted to throw money at us and do a Benji movie, but they all wanted absolute control.

I had a conversation with the last one -- this is a young kid, very clean cut, studio executive type -- who said, "No, in a family movie you have to have the poop jokes and the four-letter words because that is what kids want."

And I asked him point blank, "Do you have kids?"

He said, "Yes."

And I said, "Do you give them what they want, or what you think they should have?" And he got very angry. So I said we can't do this, and we cut all three (studios) off at the issue of control.

How is this movie different from the Benji movies that we remember?

JOE CAMP: Well, I think more than anything else, it's more layered and the story is more serious. It is about serious subjects. It involves animal abuse, and even people abuse, but at a very highly layered level so the young kids are not getting the harshness of the story, but the older kids and the parents are getting the understanding of the issue and of what's right and what's wrong.

In one respect it is like all of the Benji movies in that the thematic material is about love, hope, and persistence toward a goal. It's a story about three very unsuspecting heroes that have to stand up and speak to something that is very important - Benji of course being one of them, and a 14 year old boy and an older man -- all of whom come together in this very weird group of folks that ultimately make something very positive happen. It was designed to not only be a great piece of entertainment but to make a difference in the way that we lead our lives out there.

It also has more comedy than any Benji movie, believe it or not with all that serious talk, it is actually a whole lot funnier than any Benji movie has ever been. Benji came out of a shelter in Gulfport, Mississippi, because we wanted everybody to be able to look into those big brown eyes and see the kind of dog they could adopt from a local shelter.

Benji's co-star came out of a shelter in Chicago and is Benji's antithesis in personality. He is just a complete wacko dog, and he became the comic relief. I sat there (during a film shoot) and watched him, and he is the kind of dog that bounds into a room and everyone says, "Oh, I love that dog!" He is also the kind of dog that will set there and scratch himself behind the ear, forget that he's doing it and growl at his own foot! And that's the personality that comes out in the movie. In addition to being on serious subjects and leaving serious messages behind, it's also a lot of fun.

Tell me more about how you met Benji. Why was it important to you that the star of the new Benji movie be adopted from an animal shelter?

BenjiJOE CAMP: The original Benji came out of a shelter, which stimulated the whole shelter issue because the American Humane Society reported that over a million dogs were adopted around the country because the original Benji had come out of a shelter. So this time around we decided this was the thing to do. In the fall of 2001 we struck out, started in Chicago, and started touring shelters and dragging media along with us because we had found that everywhere you mix Benji and media, adoptions go up.

So we began there and we went to Atlanta, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. And we were down (in Gulfport, Mississippi) at a PetSmart meeting this other dog named Jody, when the director of the shelter walked in and said, "What do you think of this one?" And I was in love immediately. I knew we were done.

She was so bright and so intuitive. I took a picture of her ten minutes after meeting her. Just being able to do that with a dog that has been on the streets and put in a shelter and having gone through whatever she went through is remarkable. In fact it's that questioning of why would anybody abandon such a wonderful dog, and how long was she on the streets that really bubbled up the entire story of this movie because it is in effect her story out there on the streets. We had a Christmas script that we were actually pointing toward doing, and then this thing started coming up through the surface and I said, "No, this is what we have to do." So we put that aside and wrote a new screenplay for her.

I can tell you definitely have a heart for animals. Have you always been an animal lover?

JOE CAMP: Well, from the time I was a young kid I've always had a dog at least, and now it has built up to four and two cats and three chickens (laughs)…you know they've just always been a part of my life. I'm not weird about it; they are just part of the family and they are always there. You've seen the thing that goes around the Internet of all the things that dogs are, and if we could be like that we'd be much better people. That's pretty much what you feel if you have them around you all the time. The love that they give is unconditional; it is like God's love in that respect that they are unfettered by the selfishness that we humans put onto it.

You mentioned that Hollywood is continuing to lower the bar as to what elements are appropriate to be included in films that target children and families. What effect is this having on today's youth?

JOE CAMP: So often today the parents are just giving in to the power of the Hollywood media advertising. They spent 22 million dollars on television alone advertising Scooby Doo. Twenty-two million dollars, and that's crammed into three or four weeks before the movie comes out. They've got the kids -- particularly the young kids, who haven't developed the ability to make decisions on their own -- they see it and they see stuff even on television in the commercials that borders on inappropriate, but it's funny. The kids want to go. And the parents don't want to deal with the screaming and the hollering, so they just give in and they go.

In a letter that I've written to parents I use the example of the colander. If you pour liquid through a colander, it doesn't hold any, but it does get wet. But if that liquid happens to be an acid, over time it's going to destroy that colander. It's going to eat it up. And that's what they have been doing with one word at a time and one move to something a little bit worse and a little bit worse, they are lowering that bar to where there is no difference between good and bad.

What they are saying to the kids today is that it is okay to do basically anything you want to do, to use any language you want to use, and before long there is no difference between good and bad.

I know that you are very passionate about seeing the bar raised once again in Hollywood to make movies that will be safe and appropriate for families. And you mentioned a letter that you have written to parents about that. What advice do you have for parents and for people who share this vision? How can we help raise the bar?

JOE CAMP: Hollywood operates on one basis and that is the economic bottom line. Vote with your ticket, and don't go to the movies that you know are inappropriate -- even though they might be wonderful movies. How many times have you walked out of a movie saying, "Boy, that was a wonderful movie, but they didn't have to have this in it, or that in it?"

So vote with your ticket prices for the ones that are good, that do lift up the values, and that bring the bar back up. Don't vote for those who don't.

You know, the individual spoke with Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ and proved once and for all that Hollywood doesn't control everything and that the individual can stand for something. That's what we are asking again. If you care about these values and sending that message to Hollywood, then please go see this movie opening weekend, Aug. 20, because that's the only way we get to stay in the theaters. We don't have a Shrek 2 following us so that we can tell the theater, "If you take us out you won't get Shrek 2." So it's an interesting battle.

But it's a battle that is worth fighting even though it is hard as a parent. And it's hard as an individual. There are movies out there that I want to see, and I know that they are going to be great movies, but I know that they are going be full of junk.

And I've drawn the line. I've said, "No, I'm not going to go. I'm going to the put the money where the mouth is." It's hard sometimes, but it's a battle that is worth fighting and, as representatives of Christ, that is what we should be about. That is what it's about at its very heart and soul.

Read a review of Benji: Off the Leash

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