When you think of RICHARD GERE, the first thing that comes to mind is his string of memorable performances in iconic films like “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” (1977), “American Gigolo” (1980), “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982), “Pretty Woman” (1990), and of course his Golden Globe® winning role in the Oscar® winning musical “Chicago” (2002). In all of them, he was paired with a memorable leading lady like Julia Roberts, Diane Lane or Debra Winger. But in his latest movie, his riveting co-star happens to be a dog. Gere produced and stars in the beautiful film, “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale,” which played to sizeable box office returns overseas, however, Richard, his co-stars Joan Allen and Jason Alexander, and director Lasse Hallstrom waited on a U.S. theatrical window, but none came, leaving the stars wishing that Hollywood was at least as loyal as this film’s subject matter. Just as every dog has his day, however, the film based on a true, legendary Japanese story of canine loyalty is finally having its day in America. “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale,” has its U.S. Television Premiere exclusively on Hallmark Channel on Sunday, September 26 (9p.m. ET/PT, 8C). And Gere is thrilled to have a film of which he’s so justifiably proud at last made available to American audiences. The following profile is available for all press uses, with photos, from Crown Features Syndicate™.
RICHARD GERE: THIS TIME, YOU WILL ‘CRY FOR REAL’
Crown Features Syndicate™
Sometimes, great films slip through the cracks. It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while a movie that deserves to enchant audiences on the big screen never quite makes it there. This film’s story has a happy ending, because Hallmark Channel has wrested away the rights to air “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale,” which it will do in an exclusive U.S. Television Premiere, Sunday, September 26 (9 p.m. ET/PT, 8c).
Hallmark Channel appears a perfect fit for the legacy of the Richard Gere project which is winning widespread praise for its uncommon warmth and authenticity, its capacity to be touching, affecting and tender. It is a tearjerker all the same, attested to by Hallmark when it delivered the film packaged with boxes of Kleenex’s and a card, “This time, you will cry for real!” And, you will.
It seems on its face to have been a highly improbable motion picture marriage of story and star in the first place: Gere, an American movie icon whose career has spanned more than 35 years, agreeing to headline and produce a big screen feature based on the moving true tale of a Japanese university professor and the remarkable faithfulness of his Akita dog. You wouldn’t expect that the guy whose film roles include “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” “Days of Heaven,” “American Gigolo,” “An Officer and a Gentleman,” “Pretty Woman,” “Primal Fear” and “Chicago” to be drawn to a modest dog movie.
But Gere has never been a guy to follow anyone’s predicted path. He’s very much his own man, as anyone who has seen his dedication to Buddhism and the teachings of the Dalai Lama in Tibet could tell you.
So it was that Gere became involved with “Hachi,” adapted from a story of canine love and loyalty that’s long been a revered piece of the lore and culture of Japan. It co-stars Emmy and Academy Award nominee Joan Allen (“Georgie O’Keefe,” “The Contender”) and Emmy nominee and “Seinfeld” alum Jason Alexander.
How did this project – actually an Americanized remake of the film “Hachi-ko” that was released in Japan in 1987 – come to Gere’s attention in the first place? We’ll let him tell the story that began with his agent sending him the film’s script.
“Reading it captivated me immediately,” Gere recalled in a telephone interview this summer. “It was very emotional and tense, even though I’d never heard of the story before that. My first thought was, I don’t know if I want to act in this, but I certainly want to make it and help it along.
“It was a visceral response for me from the beginning. When you have that kind of bond with an animal, it’s in the realm of poetry. I started to weep like a baby.”
Once Gere committed to the project, he set out to Americanize what had been very much a Japanese story. He hired an American screenwriter and changed many of the essential story elements to make it resonate with filmgoers in the U.S. And he attracted renowned director Lasse Hallstrom, the Oscar® nominated Swedish filmmaker whose movies include 1985’s “My Life as a Dog” (speaking of dogs), 1993’s “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” and 1999’s “The Cider House Rules.”
The essential story on which the film is based surrounds an Akita dog named Hachiko, born in Odate, Japan in 1923 and adopted as a puppy by Dr. Hidesaburo Ueno, a professor at Tokyo University. For two years, dog and master had a routine. Hachiko would follow Dr. Ueno to the train station when he left for work each morning and meet him back at the station when the professor returned from work each day. Then one day in 1925, the doctor died suddenly at school of a cerebral hemorrhage. Hachiko waited in vain for a master who would never come.
But that’s merely the beginning of the story rather than the end, because Hachiko would return to the same train station the next day, and the day after that…every day for more than 10 years to patiently wait for the train. In 1934, a statue was erected to Hachiko at the entrance to the Shibuyu Station (Hachi attended the dedication). A few years later, the statue was melted down as part of Japan’s national effort to convert metals for WWII, but in 1948, a bronze monument was rededicated and placed permanently at the entrance of the Shibuyu Station where Hachiko waited so loyally for Professor Ueno.
In “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale,” Gere portrays the professor, who in the Americanized version of the story works at a college in the United States and lives in New England. But the essential story elements are similar, depicting the special relationship between man and dog that Gere believes transcends eras and borders.
“The bare bones of the story are exactly the same,” Gere says.
“I was determined in our telling of it, however, that this story not be at all Disney-ized, which with a story this moving would have been very tempting to do. That’s one of the reasons I approached Lasse Hallstrom. He’s not afraid to be very simple in his technique. He’s kind of fearless that way, in simply allowing a story to evolve on its own, have its own rhythm, its own time, and its own emotions.
“I don’t know that the movie could have been made without Lasse’s commitment to let the story be true to itself. You know, dog showing up to train station day after day after day is not an action picture. It is, however, so heartfelt and true to facts that people who see the film have the same emotional response I had reading the story – they cry for real.”
While shooting “Hachi” in Rhode Island, Gere was active in conveying that it was important “to express the world view of a real dog, not just make it a human being with a dog suit on,” he explains.
“We didn’t want the dog to perform cute tricks for the camera, either. We wanted the beauty and emotion of the piece all to come out naturally without forcing anything. We wound up capturing something between me and the dogs who play Hachi that was organic and real.”
That meant using three adult Akita dogs and three puppies to portray different periods in the legendary canine’s life. And Gere describes how he and the dog would sometimes play and bond for 45 minutes or an hour straight on the set while keeping the digital camera rolling “in the hope of generating just a few seconds of usable film – but something that was real.”
Gere points out that when you’re working with dogs, a great deal of patience is necessary because they have their own timetable and way of doing things. “That’s especially true of Akitas, which are particularly tough to train” he says.
“They only do something because they want to. You can’t really buy them with food. And in this movie, I was definitely second-class.” He good-naturedly gripes that the “Hachi” crew would spend 12 hours filming with the dog and then maybe 10 minutes to shooting his segments, making the actor wonder who really had top billing.
“I felt like what we ultimately wound up with in shooting this film was touching and unique,” Gere believes, “and that was validated when we showed a 10-minute clip of the film at a Japan Society fundraiser in Boston. A friend of mine happens to run that organization. So there we are. Probably a third to half of the people in the house are Japanese. We start to show this little compilation and immediately everyone who’s Japanese in the room started weeping. This meant the world to me because Hachiko is revered in Japan.
“And the same thing happened the first time the dog showed up. It was hugely powerful.”
So it was that a Hollywood heavyweight whose leading ladies have included such superstars as Julia Roberts, Diane Lane, Debra Winger and Julie Christie hooked up with man’s best friend to create heartrending cinema. Still, Gere and his co-stars waited for word of a U.S. theatrical window from Sony Pictures Entertainment, but none was forthcoming.
“It was a very disconcerting thing,” Gere admits, “and something I don’t fully understand to this day. The movie was a huge success everywhere it played, in festivals, throughout Europe, in Japan, in Latin America. You’ll have to ask Sony what they based their decision on.
“But I can tell you this: we’re all pretty thrilled that Hallmark Channel stepped up to put this movie on television so it can be seen by everyone. I’m happy ‘Hachi’ ended up at Hallmark, in part because Hallmark Channel is a place whose audience is attuned to emotions. That’s a really good fit for a movie like this one.”
He adds that the film has received positive and enthusiastic reviews everywhere it plays and expects the same with Hallmark viewers, leaving him believing that “Hachi” will ultimately “wind up being more appreciated in the years to come. You just have to accept that’s what happens sometimes.”
Gere calls the film “a labor of love” on the part of everyone involved and assigns part of the credit to the pure love people have for animals, dogs in particular. He cites the example of a website dedicated solely to monitoring the behavior of Akita puppies.
“It’s just a camera trained on these little pups, capturing how they eat and sleep and pant and play and gnaw on each other,” Gere explains. “We’re talking about six little puppies. And it had tens of millions of people flocking to watch. It’s almost like a primal attraction we all have to dogs. I hope we were able to do that justice with our little movie.”