[Warning: General spoilers ahead.]
Just in time for Easter weekend, there’s a new family-friendly movie available on demand and streaming. Hero Dog: The Journey Home is a (very) shaggy dog story about Royce (Steve Byers), a blind man on his way home who is guided through the wilderness by an Alaskan Malamute, Chinook, after they survive a boating accident. Chinook (played here by Iikona and then by Houston) was featured in Against the Wild (written and directed by Richard Boddington, who directs this film), which starred Natasha Henstridge as his owner, Susan. She returns in this film, too. Royce is her brother; she’s been taking care of his son, Max (Zackary Arthur) and daughter, Erin (Morgan DiPietrantonio), who end up joining the search for their dad when he goes missing.
Byers is one of our favorites here at TV Goodness, and this week, we caught up by phone to chat about the film. While he has done a few family-safe Hallmark romcoms, this is his first straight up family film, and he was excited to jump into the project. “The movie came along when I was actually working on Workin’ Moms. It was a cute script. It’s not alienating anyone. It’s very inclusive in terms of the age groups. You’re not gonna offend anybody,” he explains.
“I’ve done a lot of work over the years and most of it, I can’t show my kids. I read it and I called my agent pretty much immediately and said, ‘You know, this kind of thing doesn’t come across my desk very often and I want to do it for my girls.’ And it worked out. The timing was perfect, and this fell perfectly into place and we shot up north. That old adage of not working with children and animals didn’t hold true in this one at all. I fell in love with Iikona, who played the hero dog.”
That’s a good thing because he and Iikona have several scenes together on their own, and Chinook is supposed to be Royce’s eyes, watching out for danger and keeping him safe. “It was so rewarding. He was so great and we had a huge bond. There’s a scene in the movie where he really thought I hurt myself and he was very upset that nobody was helping me,” he recalls.
“He came running over as directed and started barking and barking and barking. There’s a small clip that makes it into the film where you can see, if you look really closely, that he actually bites my ears. The crew was there, standing around the corner and he couldn’t believe that no human was coming to help me.”
Last year, Byers guested on Hudson & Rex after having shot Hero Dog, and it was interesting to have the experiences to compare. “[I learned] there are different styles of training. Iikona’s trainer, Nicole Jamieson, had a much more familial bond with the dog. She was assisted by Dennis Epp, another trainer who actually specializes in horses and all sorts of big game. Her commands were very soft and she was more visual and Iikona was very food-motivated,” he explains.
That was worked to good effect throughout the film as Royce finds a bag of jerky on board the boat before they leave it. “Let me tell you, that beef jerky got us through the movie. Iikona heard my Ziploc bag rattle and he was at attention no matter what,” he laughs.
“There’s a scene where we were trying to get Iikona to jump out of the boat into sort of knee-deep water. And his trainer said he wasn’t going to want to do that. And we said, ‘Okay, well, we’ll give it a try,’ and there was no danger to the dog at all. I’m supposed to get into the water and Iikona is supposed to follow. And I thought, ‘I know what’s going to work.’ I just do a little rattle of the Ziploc bag and, ‘Boom’ he went in the water.”
While Byers and Iikona were thick as thieves throughout, a scene with a mountain lion was a bit unsettling. “I was a little intimidated because of course they bring her in with a chain, and she’s quite willing to come, but they have a chain around her. And then we go to shoot and she’s actually attached to sort of a peg that they’ve put pretty deep into the ground with, kind of like an airline cord, she’s restrained, but it’s not the chain that they had,” he points out. “I was really close to her. She was never supposed to be super angry, so I was never in any danger, but when you can smell them, you’re very close.”
Byers has a few scenes with Colin Fox, one of Canada’s most recognizable actors from genre classics like PsI Factor, and he had a ball with him. “Colin’s fantastic. He’s not there for a long time, but luckily, the way it was set up, we were able to have a few dinners together at the place that we were staying,” he recalls. “He tells amazing stories. And honestly I could listen to him for hours. I’d listen to an audiobook from him, for sure. He’s got that majestic voice. It’s awesome.”
Another actor in the film is Canadian John Tench, who plays the officer leading the rescue effort, and it’s fun to see him in a family film, too, because he’s often the heavy. He and Byers actually go back a ways to when they shared representation, and they co-starred together, but never worked at the same time, in Far Cry 5. “He’s usually the biker, but he’s so funny. He’s actually one of the nicest guys,” he says.
While the weather sometimes gave them fits, Byers says the project had some neat moments, too, like piling into a helicopter with the cast and Iikona. “There were so many great things that happened in a situation that was super challenging,” he shares.
“It’s a happy family movie. And I’m proud to have something that anybody can watch. A feel-good escape for a little bit from what’s going on in the world is therapy on its own. I think it’s important to be part of the therapy rather than being part of the noise that’s going on.”
Hero Dog: The Journey Home is now available on demand and streaming on Amazon, YouTube, and iTunes. It’s also available on DVD. In Canada, it’s available on Super Channel Heart and Home. For our previous interview where we talked a little bit about the movie just after it was filmed, click here.
Photos and Video Courtesy of Lionsgate.
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