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When former newspaper journalist John Grogan sat down to write his first book -- a memoir about life with a lovable maniac of a yellow Labrador retriever named Marley -- he never imagined that he was tapping into a national reservoir of affection for crazy dogs. Marley & Me, published in 2005, spent 76 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list -- 23 of them in the number one slot. The film version, starring Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson, opens in theaters on Christmas Day. Ladies' Home Journal recently caught up with the author by phone at his home in rural Pennsylvania.
Ladies' Home Journal: Somehow I feel compelled to tell you about the time our puppy tried to shred my husband's shoe -- while he was still wearing it.
John Grogan: Everybody who has a dog has a story! What's funny is that so many people are clearly proud of how bad their dogs are. [Loud crashing sound interrupts.] Hear that? That's my new puppy, Woodson, picking up his steel bowl and then smashing it onto the floor.
LHJ: Was there something about Marley's absolute joy in being bad that you secretly admired?
JG: Most of us play largely by the rules -- we're responsible employees, spouses, and parents. But I think we all have a little streak in us that says, "Wouldn't it be nice if I could do everything I ever wanted to do without worrying?" Marley didn't care what people thought of him.
LHJ: When did you realize that the story of Marley's free spirit would make a good book? Perhaps the time he dragged that wrought-iron cafe table halfway across a Boca Raton shopping center?
JG: Pretty early in Marley's life I figured out he was good material. I would tell stories about his escapades at dinner parties or at the office, and people would always laugh. But after Marley died of old age, in 2004, I wrote an emotional column about him in The Philadelphia Inquirer. The reaction was so strong -- like 25 times the usual e-mail response -- that it gave me the confidence to see the bigger story. The book isn't just a collection of funny anecdotes about a dog. It's really about the journey we make through life, with our pets at our sides.
LHJ: Have you seen the movie?
JG Not yet, but my wife, Jenny, and I were fortunate enough to be on the sets for several days, both in Florida and Pennsylvania, and it was a lot of fun. I think it's going to be a really charming and beautiful movie. And the trailer is a hoot. The first time we saw it in a movie theater, we screamed.
LHJ: What was it like to see yourself being played by a Hollywood actor?
JG: It was incredibly weird! My first day on the set in Miami I'd just walked up to watch my first scene when I heard Owen Wilson shout, "I'm John Grogan!" My jaw almost hit the ground. And there were a lot of moments when Jenny and I were standing off in the wings, watching them portray us in a very realistic way. It was like an out-of-body experience. Even the house they used in the film is a dead ringer for our house in West Palm Beach.
LHJ: How did Jenny react when she heard she'd be played by Jennifer Aniston?
JG: She absolutely was not complaining!
LHJ: Did either of you get the itch to act yourselves?
JG: Actually, we're both extras in one scene -- the obedience class, where Marley gets kicked out for bad behavior. We didn't have to do much, which is fortunate because neither of us knows a thing about acting.
LHJ: Do you think the film will capture Marley's over-the-top personality?
JG: Absolutely. Right in the middle of a scene Clyde, one of the dogs who played Marley, would leap up and give Owen a big kiss on the face while he was trying to deliver his lines. Or Jen would be holding his leash and all of a sudden she would be pulled off the scene -- just whoosh and she was gone.
LHJ: I understand the cast and crew gave you a very special souvenir.
JG: Yes, our puppy, Woodson, the one you heard upstairs dragging the steel bowl around. He played one of the first Marleys in the movie. Woodson's young, so he's spunky, but already I can see that he is going to be much calmer and more focused than Marley.
LHJ: And you have an older Lab, too?
JG: Gracie. I call her the anti-Marley. I tell her, "Gracie, you're a great dog, but don't expect me to write about you. It would be the world's most boring book."
Marley is actually played by 22 different dogs, reveals the movie's head animal trainer, Mark Forbes.
Why so many? "Puppies grow so fast that we needed 11 of them to film Marley's early life," says Forbes. For the adult Marley, trainers would choose from a pool of dogs depending on the mood of the scene and on which obedience skills it required.
Two dogs in particular -- Clyde and Ziggy -- played Marley at his most incorrigible. To prep them for their roles Forbes and his staff had to break most of the usual dog-training rules. "If they were jumping up, we encouraged it. If they were tearing something up, we encouraged it," Forbes says. "It was a completely different way of training."
As if there weren't enough dogs running around, both Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson brought their pets to the set every day, says director David Frankel. "They're both real dog people. Jen's dog, Norman, and Owen's dog, Garcia, were with us for the whole shoot, hanging out wherever we went."
All the movie dogs were better behaved than the real Marley ever was, but Clyde definitely had some of his spirit, Forbes says. In one scene Marley comes across a big Tupperware container full of dog food. "The script called for Clyde to just chew on it a little bit and leave," Forbes remembers. "But Clyde being Clyde, he started chewing on the container, tipped it over, braced it up against a wall and knocked over a whole bookshelf. We just kept rolling the camera. He finally rips the lid off it. You couldn't have trained him to do it. It was just classic."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, December 2008.