Benji: Sheltered Animals as Lovable Pets
Q&A with Benji Creator
Q. What is Benji really like offscreen?
A. Well, at home here she's just one of the pets. I won't say she's a diva, but she does get a little bit jealous of the others and likes attention. So when it's time to pack her up and head out to promote the movie, she really gets a kick out of it because she loves the one-on-one time with me. She's just so bright and so very intuitive. Shaggy, on the other hand, is such a doofus that he'll start scratching his ear, forget he's doing it, and growl at his own foot. He's a nutcase, but everybody loves him. He's the one in the movie who'll have you laughing. Benji's the one you'll still have a plush toy of on your bed 30 years from now.
Q. What qualities were you looking for in the new Benji?
A. The eyes are what Benji is all about. When she looks at you with those big brown eyes, it's got to hurt. The next thing is attitude and demeanor. There are dogs, and we have a couple, who are just wag-tail and panting -- you know, "Throw me a ball, pet me on the head, and I'll be happy for life!"
But Benji has to be independent, not fawning. She's got to be secure in herself because so much of what Benji does isn't tricks and stuff like that, but projecting emotions. There's no voice-over, no special effects with talking mouths, and none of the silly stuff Hollywood does with animal movies.
Q. How did you know you'd found the right dog?
A. We looked at hundreds, if not thousands of dogs. We were in every shelter in Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Phoenix, and Dallas. I was in Mississippi looking at one dog I'd heard about when the shelter director walked in with Benji and said, "What do you think of this one? She came here two days ago." He put her on the floor, shut the door, left the room, and after 10 minutes I said, "That's it, we're done." I just thought, Why would somebody abandon this dog? She's so wonderful!
The story of homeless animals is an important one, and it's one of our missions this time. I've always been emotional about the subject. I decided to start an ongoing program where shelters would designate homeless animals as Benji's Buddies, so that when somebody thinks about getting a pet, they'll think about going to a shelter instead of the pet store or a backyard breeder. [Benji's Buddies is a nonprofit group that helps shelters raise money for better facilities and to boost adoption rates by branding all adoptable shelter pets as Benji's Buddies. Camp has donated use of the Benji trademark and copyrights, and the use of Benji herself, to promote the program.]
Q. So how are Benji and Shaggy enjoying the good life in sunny California?
A. We live right in the middle of an avocado valley, and there are trees hanging over our fences. Shaggy loves to go down there and root around for snacks, so he's now about eight pounds over his movie weight. He's on a strict diet, but he's still fat as a pig.
Benji likes the avocados, too, but in a different way. I came out of the editing room one night, and she was lying on the gravel driveway, which she never does. I walked over to her, and she gave me a little growl. I got closer and saw she had an avocado between her front paws -- not eating it, just protecting it, the way she does with our hamsters and the mice our cats catch. I think she went too long without being spayed or something. There's a mama streak going on in Benji. She is one special dog.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, June 2004.