White Dog's roots lie with a 1970 autobiographical novel written by Romain Gary of the same name. The story was purchased for use by Paramount in 1975, with Curtis Hanson selected to write the screenplay and Roman Polanski hired to direct. Before shooting commenced, Polanski was charged with statutory rape and fled the country, leaving the production in limbo. Over a span of six years, the project was given to various writers and producers, who all focused on the stray dog story from Gary's original work. Gary's activist wife was replaced in the script with a young, unmarried actress because Paramount wanted to contrast the dog's random attacks with a loving relationship between the protagonist and the dog. Paramount executives noted that they wanted a "Jaws with paws" and indicated that they wanted any racial elements to be downplayed. In one memo, the company noted: "Given the organic elements of this story, it is imperative that we never overtly address through attitude or statement the issue of racism per se".
By 1981, Gary's wife and then Gary himself had committed suicide. At the same time, Hollywood was under threat of strikes by both the writer and director guilds. Needing enough films to carry the studio through in case the strikes happened, White Dog was one of thirteen films considered to be far enough along to be completable in a short time frame. With a push from Michael Eisner, White Dog was one of seven that Paramount put on a fast track for production. Eisner pushed for the film to be one of the selected ones because of its social message that hate was learned. Producer Jon Davison was less certain and questioned the film's marketing early on. Hanson, back on board as the film's screenwriter, suggested Samuel Fuller be named the film's director as he felt Fuller was the only one available with the experience needed to complete the film on such a short schedule and with a low budget, while still doing so responsibly with regard to the sensitive material. Davison agreed after visiting Fuller and seeing Fuller act out how he would shoot the film.
Fuller readily agreed, having focused much of his career on racial issues. Already familiar with the novel and with the concept of "white dogs", he was tasked with "reconceptualizing" the film to have the conflict depicted in the book occur within the dog rather than the people. In an earlier Variety magazine interview, Fuller stated that viewers would "see a dog slowly go insane and then come back to sanity". Before filming began, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Black Anti-Defamation Coalition (BADC), and other civil-rights leaders began voicing concerns that the film would spur racial violence. In an editorial in the Los Angeles Times, Robert Price, executive director of the BADC, criticized the studio for producing the film based on a book by a white man and using a primarily white cast and crew, rather than producing the film with African Americans in key positions. He also considered Gary's work to be a "second-rate novel" and questioned its use when "book shelves are laden with quality novels by black writers who explore the same social and psychological areas with far more subtlety?"
Fuller was confident in his work and the idea that the film would be strongly antiracist, particular with the changes he had made to the original work. The novel's hate-filled Muslim black trainer, who deliberately retrained the dog to attack white people, was converted into the character of Keys, who genuinely wished to cure the animal. Fuller also changed the novel's original ending into a more pessimistic film ending. The film was shot in only forty-five days at a cost of $7 million. Five white German Shepherd Dogs played the unnamed central character.
"Shelve the film without letting anyone see it? I was dumbfounded. It’s difficult to express the hurt of having a finished film locked away in a vault, never to be screened for an audience. It’s like someone putting your newborn baby in a goddamned maximum-security prison forever ... Moving to France for a while would alleviate some of the pain and doubt that I had to live with because of White Dog."—White Dog: Sam Fuller Unmuzzled, Samuel Fuller, as quoted by J Hoberman, Criterion Collection
After filming commenced Paramount Pictures brought in two African-American consultants to review and approve the depiction of the black characters: Willis Edwards, vice president of the local NAACP chapter and David L. Crippens, the vice president and stage manager of the local PBS affiliate. In the end, they walked away with different views of the film. Crippens did not find the film to have any racist connotations, while Edwards found it inflammatory and felt it should not have been made, particularly during that year when a series of murders of black children was occurring in Atlanta. The two men provided a write-up of their views for the studio executives, which were passed to Davison along with warnings that the studio feared a film boycott. Fuller was not told of these discussions nor given the notes until two weeks before filming was slated to conclude. Known for being a staunch integrationist and for his regularly giving black actors non-stereotypical roles, Fuller was furious, finding the studio's actions insulting. He reportedly had both representatives banned from the set afterwards, though he did integrate some of the suggested changes into the film.
The film was completed in 1981, but Paramount was hesitant to release the film out of continuing concerns that the film would be misconstrued. Though no one from the organization had viewed the completed film, the NAACP threatened boycotts. In early 1982, the studio finally held preview screenings in Seattle, Washington and Denver, Colorado, with mixed responses. That fall, another test run was held in Detroit, Illinois which resulted in praise from critics but little public interest. The film was finally left unreleased, with Paramount feeling it did not have enough earnings potential to go against the threatened boycotts and possible bad publicity. Dumbfounded and hurt by the film's shelving, Fuller moved to France, and never directed another American film.
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