In the warmhearted family-friendly film “My Dog the Champion,” city girl Madison (Dora Madison Burge of TV’s “Friday Night Lights”) moves into the country with her grandfather (Lance Henriksen) when her military mother is deployed overseas. While spending time with her grandpa, Madison begins to train a very special dog to participate in agility competitions.

On the eve of the Austin Film Festival premiere of “My Dog the Champion,” San Antonio-based directors (and husband and wife team) Kevin and Robin Nations took some time to talk about what makes their film stand out from other dog-centric movies and how Dora Madison Burge literally landed in their lap in the 11th hour.

What was your reaction when you were asked to show your film at AFF without even have submitted it to the festival?

Well funny you ask. Early on, we had decided that we weren’t doing festivals with this film. We knew we would have distribution early so we weren’t going to bother entering anything.  When AFF contacted us, we were thrilled! The same thing happened with the Dallas International Film Festival.  Both DIFF and AFF are putting more emphasis on family films this year. I suppose AFF heard about us and figured we were a good fit. Something we have learned recently is that festivals are not just an avenue to secure distribution, they’re also great for free marketing and public awareness.

When it comes to family dog movies, what makes “My Dog the Champion” stand out from others that have come before?

One of our goals when making family movies is not to talk down to our audience. We feel like we accomplished that with “My Dog the Champion.” Many family dog movies rely on cheesy banter and silliness, but our movie focuses on real conversations and relationships and still captures the child audience.  Of course we have some cute moments in there, but the heart of the film is between Madison, a teenage girl, and her grandfather.

You’re the only filmmakers from San Antonio who are showing at this year’s AFF. Does this concern you at all that there are not enough productions that are festival ready coming out of San Antonio? Would you like to see more San Antonio filmmakers submit their films to festivals in Austin like AFF, Fantastic Fest, and SXSW? Why don’t you think it’s happening?

Honestly, I think it’s a matter of timing. I know there are several productions shooting this year so hopefully they will get their shot in 2014. Also, I think it’s a matter of awareness. For example, Richard Dane Scott, a San Antonio script writer, was a finalist at AFF in 2010 and in 2012 he was invited to be a speaker. This year he spoke on another panel. The guy is blowing up and no one is even talking about him in San Antonio. But they should be. There are other San Antonio filmmakers that people should be talking about: Sam Lerma whose short films have screened all over the country.  Ralph Lopez and Yaké Smith are making amazing films and they will probably be screening their newest one at big fests next year.  San Antonio film is like a train barreling down the track, full speed ahead.

Working with dogs now in your last two films, what have you learned about the animal that maybe you didn’t know before? 

Gosh. We are constantly learning with this. We just recently learned that a great actor dog is 75 percent dog and only 25 percent trainer. They have a talent, like us humans. When the dog doesn’t “have it,” we end up doing take after take trying to get the performance we need.  Just like there is a right or wrong actor for a role, same goes for animals.

Actress Dora Madison Burge is such a charming actress in this film. What was it about her that led you to believe she could carry this film as your central character?

Frackin’ Becky Sproles, man! It doesn’t get any more endearing than that!  I am kidding, but I really loved that show “Friday Night Lights.” After seeing Dora play that role I was a big fan. Funny story, during our casting for “My Dog The Champion,” we had gone through many fantastic auditions and Robin was about to hit “send” on an email that would offer a different actress the role. At that moment, our phone rang and it was Karen Hallford, our casting director with Casting Works L.A.  She said, “Dora Madison Burge wants to read for your lead role.” I immediately thought she was joking.  I told her to stop joking with me and that I was tired and ready to turn in for the night. She said, “No, Kevin I’m serious. She would like to do it tonight if you’re free.”  Twenty minutes later, Robin and I were on FaceTime with Dora. After her read I said, “Uh, yeah. Where do we sign?” Dora was absolutely up to carry this role. She is amazing.

Tell us a little about your next film. What is it about and when do you hope to have it completed? What is the ultimate goal for the new film?

We start shooting our new film, “The Adventures of Pepper and Paula,” November 7.  During the shooting of “My Dog The Champion,” Robin got an email from Pistol Packin Paula, a Wild West performer at Enchanted Springs Ranch in Bourne, Texas.  She had heard that we do inspirational films and knew that her story could be our next awesome family film. At the time we got this email, we were so busy that we blew it off and never got back to her. Months passed and we were kicking around ideas for a new film when Robin remembered the old email. We reread it, went to her website and found that she was right. Paula’s story has the makings of a great family film. So we contacted her, drove out to Enchanted Springs Ranch with our writer, Richard Dane Scott, and the rest is history. We hope to have the film completed by Spring 2014. Our main goal with this film, as with every film, is to run a set where everyone is at their best, feeling appreciated and collaborating as artists to make a fantastic product that audiences will enjoy.  We love to play to families and younger audiences because we hope our movies are instrumental in promoting family time and movie nights. After completing Paula’s story, our next film, slated for Spring 2014, is about another real life San Antonio hero, “Lefty” O’Neal.  The film is called “Dreaming of the Majors.” We’ve set up a website to let everyone know what the movie is about:

When it comes to movie dogs, make your pick: Lassie or Benji. Why?

Benji all the way. The original Benji movie had a lot of heart. It was a “real” story. It was one of Robin’s favorite movies as a child, so much so that she bought a white Maltese and named her “Tiffany.” If you’re a true Benji fan, you’ll remember that Tiffany was Benji’s girlfriend. The pacing of the film was interesting. In some parts you just get to follow Benji around town watching what he does and who he interacts with. I like that. Haven’t you ever wondered what dogs do all day? Where they go? Do they have their normal routines? Am I a geek to be that fascinated with dogs? Maybe.

“My Dog the Champion” screens Saturday, Oct. 26 at 1 p.m. (Alamo Drafthouse Village)

For more Austin Film Festival Coverage, click here. 

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