By Lois Alter Mark
One of the biggest stars of the summer blockbuster season visited San Diego last week to promote his upcoming movie, turning heads and attracting crowds as he sauntered down the streets. Although he didn't sign any autographs, he'd never be considered a diva, posing good-naturedly for photos and requesting only an occasional drink of water and a treat.
George, a 140-pound Great Dane who stands 36 inches tall at the shoulders (don't even ask how tall he is when you take those ears into account!), makes his big-screen debut in the title role in "Marmaduke," opening Friday around San Diego. We got an exclusive opportunity to meet the 2-year-old and his trainers, Tasha Zamsky and Tom Gunderson, outside the W Hotel, where George stood and listened as we got the inside scoop on the making of this new celebrity.
LAM (Lois Alter Mark):
Marmaduke is so beloved around the world as a comic strip character. How difficult was it to find a dog to play such an icon, and what specific personality traits were you looking for?
TG (Tom Gunderson):
There are two words I think of for Marmaduke: control and quirkiness. George definitely has both of those. And when I first heard Owen Wilson voice him, I thought, "Spot-on. Great casting."
TZ (Tasha Zamsky):
We knew we'd have our work cut out for us, especially because this script was very bold for a dog. Marmaduke is in 90 percent of the shots, and there are a lot of action scenes. We were so lucky to find George, who's so mellow and his brother, Spirit, who's more high-energy. They were the perfect balance and, because they're littermates, they match each other face-wise and size-wise.
It's nice to have multiple dogs so you can capitalize on each one's individual personality. Spirit did scenes like stealing the grilled cheese sandwich, and George did more of the faces and talking. Whenever you see Marmaduke just walking and talking with the other dogs, that's George.
Were there specific behaviors or scenes — like stealing the grilled cheese — that were particularly challenging?
You think those are going to be the hard scenes, and they turn out to be much easier than just getting the dogs to stare into the camera for hours on end.
How did you get them to do that? Food?
Yes, George loves chicken, steak and beef so it was almost all food-related. We also gave a lot of praise and tried to keep him comfortable and confident. If it's not a good experience, animals just shut down and stop participating.
I heard [animal coordinator and head trainer] Michael Alexander came up with something called "meat glasses." Can you tell us about those?
I just happen to have a pair here. They're very stylish and all the rage in L.A. I think they're coming to San Diego next! You just take a pair of cheap sunglasses, preferably with no frame on the bottom so they're as low profile to the dog as possible, and pop out the lenses. You see this little metal dowel sticking out over the nose? You use it like a bait stick, putting a small piece of meat on it, so the dog just stares at that spot. It's literally like dangling a carrot. (Seeing that George is interested.) Would you like a demonstration? (George sits and stares at the meat, and when he's demonstrated the correct behavior, Tom rewards him with it.)