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    Texas | Animals | "They Shoe Horses, Don't They?"

    Smithville's Dexter

    From Underdog to Best of (Picture) Show

    by Ted R. Krueger
    We found Dexter when he was about 6 months old near the Texas coast. He was lying in the rain next to a Coke machine at an apartment complex. He had reportedly been hanging around there for 2 weeks with the residents occasionally feeding him scraps of food. He was very malnourished and had a ring of missing fur around his neck as if he had been tied up prior to his arrival at the complex. The apartment manager said that he was going to have to call the pound to come pick him up. I could tell he was a heeler-mix (we already had a heeler-mix at home) and I talked my wife Terri into taking him home with us, fearing that he would not get out of the pound alive considering his ugly condition. On the way home, I gave him the name "Dexter". It just seemed to fit.
    Dexter, the family dog in Tree of Life
    Photo by Ted R. Krueger
    After his arrival at our home, we noticed that while playing with our other dog, Coty, he was uncoordinated and could not run any distance before tripping over his own feet and rolling. Our next door neighbor is a veterinarian, and she determined that he was a 6 month old heeler/catahoula mix. Dexter was given the usual set of shots and started on a nutritious diet. We live on three and a half acres on the Colorado River and have plenty of room for the dogs to run but no fence. So, Dexter would have to be a house dog, which we soon realized he had never been. He didn't just pee in one spot; he left trails of urine all over the house. He tore up everything that he could find and broke a 90 year-old concrete planter that my great-grandfather made. It didn't take me long to decide that I had made a bad choice (my wife made me clean up after him since I was the one who talked her into bringing him home). At that point, we were calling him "Dexter the Destroyer". He was a nightmare. I was ready to bind him up in a tote-sack and throw him in the river, but I credit Terri for reminding me of our commitment to him and riding out the storm of his misbehavior.

    Six months later, his appearance had much improved; he was house trained (but still destroying) and was able to run nearly as fast as our other dog. That was about the time that Adena Lewis called asking us to bring our dogs to a casting call for the movie "The Tree of Life" that was soon to be filmed in Smithville. The director, Terrence Malick, wanted the "hero dog" (to be called "Shep" in the movie) to be an untrained dog. The casting call was basically word of mouth locally to the Smithville area and Adena was worried that no one would show up. We were supposed to go out of town that day but decided to take Dexter and Coty to help out Adena. However, a large number of dogs and their owners did show up for the event. Crew members took still photos and videos of the dogs. Our dogs did exactly what I thought they would. Coty barked constantly at the other dogs and Dexter yanked Terri around, invading the personal space of everyone. When we got into our car to leave, we were convinced that the whole thing was a total disaster.

    I was genuinely surprised a week later when I received a call from a crew member who told me that Malick saw the photos and videos and was very interested in our dogs. We went back to the 2nd casting call with a reduced number of dogs in attendance. This time, a crew member approached me and told me that Dexter was number one on director Malick's list, I assume based on his unusual looks. Malick and producer Sarah Green introduced themselves to us and personally met Dexter and Coty as well as the other dogs brought back for the casting call. Dexter was involved in a total of 5 casting calls, each time with a reduced number of dogs being considered.

    On the 4th casting call, there were only four dogs including Dexter and Coty. Each dog was taken into a fenced back yard away from their masters. The three child actors cast for the movie were in the back yard to play with each dog individually to see how they interacted with the kids. Coty sat at the gate looking out at us as if she were saying "get me out of here". The other two dogs reacted in much the same way. However, Dexter acted as if the kids were his own. He romped and played with the boys the entire time he was with them.

    Later that afternoon, I received a call from a crew member requesting that Dexter come back one more time. When Terri and I arrived, we walked with Dexter on leash down the street to the "hero house" and noticed that there werenít any other dogs around. We stopped in front of the sidewalk leading to the house and Terri noticed that Brad Pitt was standing on the sidewalk approximately six feet away. The three child actors and Brad Pitt began tossing a nerf football. Malick and his producers were sitting at a picnic table in the yard and requested that Dexter be released. Dexter eagerly ran into the game while they played "keep away from Dexter." Dexter was running to get the ball and leaping high into the air trying to intercept it. At one point, his front paws came so close to Brad Pitt's face that Terri and I audibly gasped at the same time. When the ball was dropped, Dexter would snatch it up and take off running with the three boys chasing him. All of the cast and crew that were in attendance were laughing and enjoying the show that Dexter and the actors were putting on.

    As for Terri and I, the whole scene was surreal. Here we are with our dog in this small town front yard with A-list actors and a famous director. As Terri was putting the leash back on Dexter, Brad Pitt came up behind him and began giving him a vigorous massage from the tail up to his neck. We were informed that Dexter had been chosen for the part of "Shep" and we were told that he would probably work 12 to 18 days. He actually worked 31 days. Since I had just taken early retirement, I was able to take Dexter to the movie set every day. Often, Terri would accompany me or substitute in my absence since she still had a full-time job. That was an opportunity that we've never had or probably never again have to see first hand and in person how a movie is made. Dexter was known by name to everyone on the crew. Terri and I were relegated to "Dexter's Mom" or "Dexter's Dad." After about 4 weeks of filming, Malick asked me how I would feel if they changed the name of the family dog in the movie from "Shep" to "Dexter." I heartily approved.

    Following a scene one day, Brad Pitt walked up to me and told me that Dexter was the best movie dog that he'd ever seen. I looked at him to see if he was joking. He explained that Dexter was a natural and that most trained animals lose a lot of their natural spontaneity following their master's direction on the set. There was a scene one day in which Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are strolling down the lane walking arm in arm with the camera behind them. Dexter runs into the scene just in front of them and hikes his leg on a mail-box post. Natural dog.

    Production Designer Jack Fisk (nominated for an Academy Award for There Will Be Blood in 2008) told me that Dexter was the most natural dog that he had ever worked with. I told him what Brad Pitt told me and he agreed. He said that Dexter does not get distracted by the presence of the crew, or look at the camera when he is in a scene. When he's turned loose from his leash, it was almost as if he knew where he was supposed to be in relation to the camera.

    In one scene, Malick told me to let Dexter off his leash as he wanted him to run around in the background while the camera was on Jessica Chastain and another actress lying on a blanket in the grass, talking. As the scene was being filmed, Dexter ran around for a while and then circled back and came up behind Terrence who was sitting in his directorís chair. Dexter spied Malick's large tumbler of ice tea next to him on the ground and began noisily lapping it up before knocking it over. The scene was stopped.

    Malick's attitude regarding Dexter's performance or non-performance was great. He knew the value of Dexter's impulsiveness in getting something extra on film that wasn't expected and Dexter had a number of those. However, there were also times when Dexter really did not want to perform and Terrence was accepting when those "primadonna moments" occurred. Malick wanted an untrained dog and if he performed, he performed and if he didn't, he didn't worry about it.

    Sound Mixer Kirk Francis (received an Academy Award for The Bourne Ultimatum in 2008) loved Dexter and would send cell phone photos of him to his wife in Seattle. Francis was pretty salty and liked to joke around. He made me daily offers to buy Dexter for $30. Of course, he offered Terri $50!
    Terri Krueger and Dexter, SmithvilleTX
    Terri Krueger and Dexter
    Photo by Ted R. Krueger
    With the long awaited release of The Tree of Life, Dexter is nearly three years older. With every month that passes I am eagerly waiting to see the finished product, keeping in mind the miles of film that has to be cut and hoping at the same time that Dexter gets his moment. Dexter is now the best friend and protector of my little two-year-old granddaughter. The cool thing about being in a movie is that it gives the actor a bit of immortality. Seventy-five years from now, my granddaughter may show a movie to her grandchildren with a dog romping and playing with some little boys. She could tell them "that was my dog." Being hopelessly sentimental, that was my motivation. I once told a crew member that if the truth was known, I would have allowed Dexter to be used for free just so I could see him playing on the silver screen. He told me with a straight face, "You might want to keep that under your hat."

    © Ted R. Krueger
    "They Shoe Horses, Don't They?"
    March 13, 2011 column
    Related Topics:
    Texas Animal Stories | Smithville, Texas | Texas |
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    This page last modified: March 13, 2011