Mitch Davis’ ‘The Stray’ brings filmmaker’s family together
Utah-made movie showing nationally
Filmmaker Mitch Davis — known for his films “Christmas Eve,” starring Patrick Stewart, “Language of the Enemy” with F. Murray Abraham and the Mormon missionary tale “Other Side of Heaven” featuring Anne Hathaway — was used to telling other people’s stories.
That changed with his latest film, “The Stray,” which was filmed at Park City Film Studios, Heber and Sundance, opened nationwide Wednesday.
The film is based on the true story of how a stray dog named Pluto saved the Davis family 25 years ago.
“We were a young family struggling to make everything work,” Mitch said. “We had everything: financial stress, career stress, kid stress. But we were a family in the time of dysfunction and crisis.”
The big reason was because Mitch, portrayed by Michael Cassidy, said he was a workaholic who neglected his marriage and family.
“During this time, this dog wandered into our lives, and we ended up adopting him,” Mitch said. “He saved our family by going about healing relationships and emotions, and he also ended up saving our lives when we got struck by lightning during a backpacking trip.”
The idea to make the film originated with the youngest Davis sibling, Parker, who is a budding filmmaker himself.
“A couple of years ago, Parker, who was the only of our five children who wasn’t living when the events occurred, came to us and told us he wanted to interview us,” Mitch said. “He grew up hearing the story and told us he wanted to write a screenplay about Pluto and the lightning bolt.”
At first, Mitch and his wife Michelle, who ended up as associate producer of the film, tried to talk Parker out of the idea.
“We didn’t think it was a good movie idea, but he disobeyed us and wrote the script anyway,” Michelle said. “When we read it, we all realized there was something cool about it and decided to make a film.”
Although he decided to make the film, Mitch still had reservations.
“It was a little unnerving to realize that my character was the jerk in the movie,” Mitch said, laughing. “I was the one who had to redeem himself, and at first, that was a little abrupt.”
Michelle said her husband tried to soften up the character.
“I think his feeling were hurt,” she said with a laugh.
Mitch confessed that he did try some rewrites.
We were a young family struggling to make everything work. We had everything: financial stress, career stress, kid stress. But we were a family in the time of dysfunction and crisis.”
“Michelle kept booting it back to me and said that the role wasn’t a big enough jerk,” he said. “It did take several drafts for me to admit myself that I was as absent as much as I was.”
Actor Michael Cassidy, who played Jimmy Olsen in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” portrays Mitch’s character in “The Stray.”
“I was super concerned when I got the script and saw the name of the guy I was going to play was also the name of the guy who was making the movie,” Cassidy said. “Often what happens as an actor, you don’t know you’re doing something from the filmmaker’s life until he says, ‘Don’t put the fork down like that’ or something. But Mitch and Michelle didn’t hide the fact that this was about their lives, so I had a lot of questions for them from the beginning.”
Cassidy wanted to know what was expected of him, because he knew his limitations as an actor.
“I just knew I was going to sort of do me and see what happened,” he said. “That said, I also felt very connected to being the bad guy, because I know what it’s like to say something and see the expression on your child’s face and know you messed up. But I also know what it’s like to be connected to a woman who knows what to do to move forward.”
The actor also knew he had to trust the filmmaker.
“Even though I’m in most of the movie, I’m in Mitch’s movie,” Cassidy said. “It wasn’t that I was playing him, but that he’s the guy making the movie.
“That was pretty tricky, because not only do I have to pay attention to what we’re doing technically, I also had to trust that he would going to put together the character that he wanted.”
“The Stray” was shot last summer entirely at the Park City Film Studios, Heber and Sundance, even though the story takes place in both California and Colorado.
Mitch felt Cassidy and his co-star Sarah Lancaster portrayed him and Michelle correctly.
“We trusted them to get the characters and the relationship right,” Mitch said. “It was sometimes emotional and sometimes fun to watch them reenact these periods in our lives. “When you are in the middle and living that hectic life, you don’t have time to observe what you’re doing, so for us to looking at a scene that took place 30 years ago and see how hard it was, you finally see the beauty.”
Working with the dog was a new experience for both Cassidy and Mitch.
“One of the things that happened in my personal life was that my dog got sick while I was shooting this film,” Cassidy said. “That was super heavy, so every time I touched the dog on set, I felt like I was touching my own dog. But that was a gift, and I think it ultimately informed the movie in a totally and cathartic way.”
Mitch said the first day was like a baptism of fire.
“The saying goes that you never direct dogs or kids and this film has both in big roles,” he said with another laugh. “It was my first experience with both in a big way, and there were times that the dog didn’t do what he was supposed to do. Sometimes the kids didn’t do the right things, either.”
That’s when Mitch realized he could do a rewrite and go with it.
“I would say we go 90 percent of the stuff we wanted, and the other 10 percent didn’t work out,” he said. “So we went in a different direction.”
Mitch credited animal trainer Brandice Brown for getting the dog to respond to the script.
“She was amazing,” Mitch said. “At times she was like a contortion artist, because in scenes when the dad is driving down a mountain road, she was curled up in a fetal position on the floorboards petting the dog to make sure he howled on cue.”
Cassidy, who loves to hike, camp and backpack, enjoyed filming in Utah.
“I had never shot in Utah before, and my only regret is that I didn’t have more time to enjoy it,” he said. “I wanted to move to Heber. I told my wife when she came to visit that we could live there.”
That was even after Cassidy got caught in a lightning storm while hiking Guardsman Pass during a break in filming.
“I was on the ridge and hiking to the peak and this storm comes out of nowhere,” Cassidy said. “I crouched near the small trees, near the big trees on my tiptoes so I wasn’t not grounded, and I thought, ‘If this was the way I’m going to go, fair enough.’”
“The Stray” opened Wednesday and is being released nationwide, which is atypical for a regionally made film.
“Films that are made in Utah are shown here in the state in 15 theaters and more theaters will pick it up if there is demand,” said publicist Michelle Moore. “I can’t think of a film like this in the past six years that has had this type of distribution.” “
That puts a lot of pressure on us,” Mitch said. “We hope people will go see the film.”
Michelle said the film was a labor of love for the Davis family.
Not only did the Davis’ youngest son write it, their middle son, Marshall, edited it and colored it, and their oldest son, Christian, composed the music.
“What’s great is we’re all still talking with each other,” she said, laughing. “I feel grateful to Michael and Sarah for telling the story the way they did. This is very different from other films Mitch has completed.
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Park City Summit County Arts Council will host Art on the Trails, an event that will celebrate local performing artists.