Remember when family films weren’t just cartoons? Mitch Davis does.
Fresh out of film school in the late 1980’s, he worked for Walt Disney Studios on such classics as Newsies, White Fang, andThe Rocketeer. He’s seen many changes in Hollywood over the past 30 years, few for the better.
Now, in the tradition of Lassie and Homeward Bound, Davis brings his own family’s harrowing story to the big screen. The Stray is the true tale of how Davis himself was struck by lightning while hiking deep in the backcountry with his son, two young friends and a stray dog whose presence changes their lives.
With the stunning Rocky Mountains as the movie backdrop, The Stray stars Michael Cassidy (Argo) and Sarah Lancaster (Catch Me If You Can) alongside kids who grow in bravery and faith — whether it’s facing down a bully or working to save an adult hit with the full force of nature. The film opens in theaters on October 6.
Father of five children and now grandfather of eight (“with one more on the way!” he adds), Davis shares about how his new film came together… and details of that fateful day where only a prayer kept him from his last breath.
What will people experience when they go see The Stray?
Mitch Davis: This movie tells the true story of my family when my wife and I were in the throes of young parenthood, stressed out, running for our lives — financially and in every other way.
My kids took in a stray dog and saved his life, only for that dog to turn around and save our lives. He saved our family. Then he saved my life literally, when I was struck by lightning on a backpacking trip and he happened to be along with us.
When did you decide this story would make a good movie?
Davis: I actually never thought it would make a good movie, and even fought the idea of it becoming a movie for some time! The credit is due to my youngest son, Parker Davis.
Parker is the only one of our five children who was not alive when these events happened. He grew up hearing the stories of Pluto the Wonder Dog and his dad getting hit by lightning. Two years ago, when he was 22, he came to me and said, “I want to make a movie out of this story.” He’d done little screenwriting at that point.
Though I discouraged his efforts, Parker was persistent and insistent. Six weeks later, he handed me a screenplay that he’d written from page one. Confronted with the reality of a 90-page screenplay in my hands, I had to read it. I suddenly saw something really beautiful and universal in our story that needed to be shared.
I did a couple rewrites after his original draft, but the vision originally came from Parker. This is the first thing he’s written that will have been produced.
Where was The Stray filmed?
Davis: The true story took place in the mountains of Colorado. But we filmed it in the mountains of Utah, partly for financial reasons. We were still in the Rocky Mountains, so we mean no disrespect to Colorado where we loved living.
We had to hike in to some of the locations, carrying all of our camera equipment — batteries, lights, reflector boards, all of it. We put our cast and crew through it!
I kept saying to everybody: This part is going to be worth it. We’re going to fill up our big-screen movie with big mountains! I was really gratified by the crew, because there wasn’t any grumbling really. Once they saw what I was seeing through the lens, they were all glad we did it.
Are there certain films or characters you looked to for inspiration?
Davis: I’m old enough that, as a kid, I grew up watching Lassie on our family’s black-and-white television set. That show was my bread and butter as a kid.
Then I had my own dog. We lived out in the country, and I grew up with mutts — one after another — who were important in my upbringing. I used to run around the hills with my dog, barefoot in the summer. When I got the chance to make a movie about a real dog who had such a big impact on my entire family, I jumped at it.
What’s happened lately to family films is they’ve become almost entirely animation. Hollywood has figured out a way to make animated movies with a lot of double entendres — so kids are laughing their guts out about one thing, and adults are amused by something else. But the humor is often crude and morals sorely lacking.
Thirty years ago, I got into the movie business because I wanted to make films that uplift and encourage families. You don’t see real families in movies anymore, and I believe The Stray fills that void.
Why are scenes of prayer and your family’s faith journey a big part of this film?
Davis: At its core, this movie is about faith. It’s about a man who lost his faith — not through any overt decision, but because of his day-to-day busyness. He’s forced to find his faith, which is what happened to me.
I was raised with faith and taught my family to pray. Yet in my day-to-day living, commuting to work, working 16-hour days, seven days a week, I started to lose track of the things that matter most.
When I got struck by lightning, I felt myself slipping away in a pretty dark, dramatic way. I knew intuitively what I had to do; calling upon God was my only hope.
As the movie depicts, I really struggled to say the words. My wife and other kids were back home praying for me, because they knew we were caught in the storm. Three little boys in the tent with me were praying their guts out. One boy promised God he would never do another bad thing in his entire life if I would just wake up.
The only word I was able to muster was “Father.” As soon as I did that, the darkness fled in fear, I pulled my head up — I was alive. God answered the boys’ prayers. Nothing like a bolt of lightning to get your attention!
When people watch The Stray, what we find is they laugh, they cry, they think and feel stuff. It’s gratifying.
The Stray opens nationwide on October 6; visit the official website to find a theater.
Freelance writer Josh Shepherd covers culture and public policy issues for media outlets including The Stream, The Federalist and Christian Headlines. He previously worked on staff at The Heritage Foundation and Focus on the Family. Josh and his wife live in the Washington D.C. area. Follow @JoshMShepon Twitter.
Photo: Michael Cassidy and Sarah Lancaster star in The Stray, directed by Mitch Davis.
Photo Courtesy: Struck Films LLC
Publication date: September 13, 2017