‘The Stray’ Director Mitch Davis on Family, Faith and Film

A mysterious mutt comes into the lives of a stressed-out family and helps each member overcome insurmountable odds in the charming new movie, The Stray.

Mitch Davis was an overworked father working as a Hollywood studio executive, and despite considerable career success, his marriage and family were splintering apart.

That was until one day in 1987… a stray dog named Pluto followed his six-year-old son home from school, and bounded into his family’s life at the perfect time. We learn early on from this movie that sometimes help comes from the most unlikely places.

Just in the nick of time, Pluto the Wonder Dog became a treasured member of the Davis family. Not only did he bond with the young children, especially Davis’s oldest son, Christian, as well as play and fetch – the canine helped restore a marriage and repair a broken father-son relationship, while also acting as a guard dog and a guardian angel.

The Stray, which opens around the nation on Friday, Oct. 6, is the true, heart-felt, emotional story of writer/director Davis, (The Other Side of Heaven), that has long been part of the Davis family lore.

Mitch Davis’s youngest son, Parker, who co-wrote the screenplay with his dad, had not yet been born when Pluto the Wonder Dog came into their lives and, literally saved them.

Davis, who earned a Master of Arts in film production from the University of Southern California in 1989, was hired out of school as a creative executive at Disney where he worked on such noteworthy films as Dead Poet’s Society (1989), White Fang (1991), The Rocketeer (1991), and Newsies (1992).

He wrote and co-directed the movie Windrunner, for the Disney Channel, which led to his 2001 Disney-distributed coming-of-age movie, The Other Side of Heaven, which was Anne Hathaway’s first role as a film actress.

In 2007, Davis wrote, and directed Language of the Enemy starring F. Murray Abraham. It is the emotional story of an American Jewish man who visits Jerusalem for the funeral of his father and, while there, meets and falls in love with a Palestinian woman.

In 2015, he made a feature film, Christmas Eve, that stars Sir Patrick Stewart, Cheryl Hines, James Roday, Jon Heder, Max Casella and Julianna Guill as New Yorkers who get stuck inside elevators overnight on Christmas Eve.What all of his movies have in common is a great deal of emotion and heart. The Stray combines the human qualities of two memorable films: Frank Capra’s 1963 Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and Rob Reiner’s 1986 rite-of-passage favorite, Stand by Me.

So how did your latest movie “The Stray” come about? Why did you want to tell this personal story on film?

MITCH DAVIS: My youngest son, Parker, who had not been born at the time of these events, grew up hearing stories about Pluto the Wonder Dog and the lightning bolt. Parker was 22 years old at the time and said he wanted to write a screenplay about the experience.

How did you and your wife, Michelle, feel about that?

MD: We discouraged him, but he wrote it anyway, and I realized it was a pretty amazing story with the potential to make a positive impact on the world. It was his first attempt at screenwriting and it was a very solid script. I re-wrote it a couple times, so we share the writing credit.

How did you view this family lore before?

MD: It was a personal, private and even sort of sacred family story, something we didn’t talk about a lot. This screenplay and movie forced us to see it differently and we are extremely glad that Parker made it happen.

This was a family project all the way?

MD: Yes. My son, Christian, wrote the score and my son Marshal edited the film. My wife, Michelle, was associate producer, and my brother, Mike, acted in it.

What are the life lessons for this movie?

MD: This movie tells the true story of my family when our life was clearly out of control. I was a workaholic studio executive at Disney and was rarely home. My wife was trying to keep our family from falling apart. We knew we needed something. My wife could not believe I could want to add one more stressor when I suggested we get a dog. She said, ‘there is no way am I going to get a dog on purpose, but if a stray shows up, I’ll think about it.’

What happened next?

MD: This mystery dog showed up out of nowhere, literally followed our oldest son home from school and never left. We named him Pluto, and called him the Wonderdog, because we never knew where he came from. We saved his life by feeding him and he saved our lives by showing us how to treat one another better. He helped us realize our lives were out of control, so we decided to move to a less hectic life in Colorado. That’s where Pluto literally saved our lives when we were struck by lightning.

Was it an accident or divine intervention that saved you on that trip?

MD: Let’s just say it didn’t feel like an accident. We see Pluto as an animal angel for the Davis family. He showed up when and where we needed him and did what we needed him to do for us. He looms large in the pantheon of Davis family pets.

What was going on in the Davis family that made you leave California?

MD: There was so much stress at the time. My wife is a very intuitive lady, both spiritually and otherwise. The way we were living our lives was not working for her and our children and for me, even though I didn’t know it. We needed to make a change.

So, you made a major change?

MD: Yes. Our decision to leave Hollywood, and live in the country in Colorado, was to clear our lives and our lungs. We moved from the crowded suburbs and traffic jams to five acres of rolling hills, pine trees and scrub oak. This was such a tremendous change, and a leap of faith for all of us in the family. Then we decided to take a that backpacking trip that didn’t turn out so well.

Please talk about the evolution of the script.

MD: My son, Parker, interviewed everyone in the family, and the two other boys, who were on the backpacking trip and in the tent on the night we were struck by lightning. So, he had a pretty good sense of the dynamics of the situation. I think he captured the essence of the characters and story very well. I just dressed it up a bit.

You have been married 36 years. What is your wife’s reaction to the movie?

MD: She is just really grateful that I cast someone as pretty as Sarah Lancaster to play her in the movie. (He laughed.) But, seriously, my wife and I are just honored by the fact that a movie has been made about us that documents one of the most difficult times in our life when we pulled together instead of pulling apart.

What are the attractions of the movie?

MD: Our story is a happily ever after, which makes it appealing. It also has a little bit of magic in it; animal magic and heavenly magic. When you think about it, our story could have turned out much differently.

Is there a take away from the film?

MD: I hope that people will be reminded of what Pluto the Wonderdog taught us – that what matters most is not things, but relationships with the people and animals we love the most. My family was not the paragon of virtue. We were a real family with real problems, and we worked through them.

What else is a message from the movie?

MD: I believe that God answers us and hears us and with his help we can survive just about anything.

Your other major movie is “The Other Side of Heaven.” So, faith and families are of major importance to you and your work. Please talk about that.

MD: There are so many kinds of families – single parent families, no parent families, dual parent families. Families are by far the most important thing because they are the people who are nearest and dearest to us and they keep society together. As the family goes, so goes society and culture.

What else?

MD: I would say that God loves us and will do the best he can to help us when we ask him in confidence and faith for his grace to attend us.

What is one big message in the movie?

MD: I want people to think about cutting ourselves some slack. All of the biggest stresses in life seem to come at the same time – family, career, financial and marital stress – so at the time we looked at one another and said ‘this is your fault.’ But it wasn’t anyone’s fault; it was just life happening to us. When I look back I am more than thankful that we powered through it. So, with love and gratitude each of us can look back on the fact that we endured.

What is your next film project?

MD: An inspirational sports movie called Coach Tony. This is a true story of a boy born in Dalton, Georgia, with a deformed face, who became a basketball star and a national champion. I affectionately call it “The Blind Side with basketball.” The screenplay is written, but the movie is not yet fully funded.

Are you happy about your children being in show business?

MD: It really depends on how you define happy. As parents’ we always want our children to have it easier than we did. I am proud that they are pursuing their dreams. Our two daughters married practical guys and our three sons went into the movie business. So, we like to say that the women in the family are more pragmatic than the men.

Is it difficult to get a PG-rated movie like this made?

MD: Yes. We moan and groan about pop culture, and there is no question that the movie business is the engine that drives pop culture. But I don’t think we have a right to complain, unless we tell the studio execs that this is the kind of movies we want to see in family entertainment. We need to populate the theater for movies like “The Stray,” and send a message to Hollywood that we are putting our money where our mouths are.

This movie has Frank Capra-esque qualities to it. How do you feel about that?

MD: What a compliment! Yes, director Frank Capra is my hero. He once said that ‘only the morally courageous should be able to speak to their fellow man for two hours in the dark.’ Sometimes we walk around the theater lobby in the 12, 15 or 24-plex searching for something special and not finding it. I just can’t imagine anything more powerful than the privilege of being able to talk to an audience that is willing to suspend its disbelief for and buy whatever it is you are selling for two hours in the dark. If we want to win the culture war, we’ve got to win back the movie house.

It sounds like you are concerned about family entertainment becoming a dinosaur…

MD: There are economic forces at work. Right now, it’s all about Hollywood making movies for the entire planet; so, they have to make movies that play well without subtitles – and frankly sex and violence don’t require subtitles. A lovely romantic comedy like “Sleepless in Seattle” might not make a lot of sense in another country, yet blood and mayhem do. So the movies become less human and more filled with animation, superheroes, and sex and violence, because all of this works well on a global scale.

What can everyone do to support this family-friendly movie?

MD: The movie moves to 600 screens coast to coast on Friday, October 6th. Please encourage everyone to like and share us on Facebook and make the theaters full on opening weekend so that more movies like this get the green light.

Do you have any last thoughts to share about “The Stray” and your family’s story?

MD: Don’t get struck by lightning, but if you do – literally or figuratively – make sure it changes your priorities, and your view of the world.

For information, show times and tickets please go to: http://thestray.movie/
Like the movie on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TheStrayDogMovie/

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