Joe Camp, who created the Benji franchise back in 1974, brings the beloved little pup back to the big screen this week with Benji Off the Leash!, opening in limited theaters this Friday. The new film reunites its title character with familiar audiences and introduces Benji to a new generation of filmgoers. Camp, 65, wants to give parents an alternative to the kind of "family entertainment" that Hollywood generally produces, and to that end, he has fought for creative control of his films in an effort to release movies that are fun and safe for all ages. Between stops on the new Benji film's busy press tour, Camp spoke to us about the struggles of independent film work, passion and faith in filmmaking, and (of course) the stars of his newest movie—Benji and a new sidekick, Shaggy.

Joe Camp and Benji

Joe Camp and Benji

Benji's been missing from the big screen a long time. Why's he been gone so long?

Joe Camp: The last picture [Benji the Hunted] was in 1987. In 1989, my wife Caroline had a major stroke. She came back to about 97 percent, but it changed a whole lot of priorities in our lives. We wound up putting the Benji rights into a partnership so that we could focus more on each other, and we had the best nine years of our life before she died in 1997. [Camp has since remarried, and has three step-children.]

The partnership went south almost from the beginning. It was supposed to be responsible for generating deals, and then we would step in and produce movies. The year after Caroline died, I wound up trying to get the rights sorted out, which caused 4½ years of litigation.

Once you got that sorted out, what happened next?

Camp: In 2001, we searched animal shelters for the new Benji, because the original [in 1974's Benji] had come from an animal shelter—and had caused over one million adoptions, according the American Humane Society.

Then we spent a year negotiating with three different Hollywood studios. And all three of the negotiations began and ended at the same spot—with the issue of control. So at the end of that year, 2002, we hit the road to go out and raise the money independently.

What do you want this new Benji film to accomplish?

Camp: I want to make a positive difference in the lives of kids and adults alike, and in the lives of homeless animals. And I would like to think that we can stir enough passion in folks to send a message to Hollywood—just like Mel Gibson did with The Passion—to say that the people do not have to be controlled by what Hollywood thinks everybody wants, that they can and will make decisions of their own. And Hollywood has to listen to those kinds of messages because their bottom line is economic. If people will stand up and speak with their money—what they won't spend it for, and what they will, whether it's television and movies or whatever—that's a message that Hollywood has to hear.

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We heard you put up your own money to make the new Benji film to keep the content Christian. Is that true?

Camp: That's not totally true. The private investors have invested both in the movie and in the distribution process. I have just over $1 million in the picture myself, but the rest of it has all been put up by private investors, all of whom share the vision and the passion that we have for making not only good family entertainment, but keeping it safe and appropriate for the kids.

You just mentioned Mel Gibson, who also put up a lot of his own money to make The Passion. Is this new film your passion—something you just had to do?

Camp: My passion is involving people emotionally and leaving them with things that can make a difference in their life for the better. I'm not a "filmmaker" whose life is film. I am somebody who probably should have been a singer or a pastor. I really have a strong passion right now to counter where media is taking our country.

How does your faith affect your filmmaking?

Camp: Without the faith, and without knowing that God is in control and that he is going to do with this what he wants, I'd be a basket case. So that's the key. God continues to amaze me because of the way he directs things, even when folks aren't listening. It's a constant reminder to me that I perhaps sometimes should pay more attention.

The Benji website said test market audiences overwhelmingly loved the film.

Camp: Everywhere we go, the people love this. Adults love this, which is very important because adults are the ones who are, supposedly, in control of kids' lives. And so it's important to me that they get the message of this movie, too. We've had a lot of good response to Benji movies in the past, but never anything quite like this both from an audience standpoint and from a critical standpoint, because Benji movies have never been big favorites with the critics. At best I'd say we probably split even.

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I hear Benji's sidekick, Shaggy (who plays "Lizard Tongue" in the movie), is from Chicago, not far from our offices. How did Benji and Shaggy work together?

Shaggy as 'Lizard Tongue'

Shaggy as 'Lizard Tongue'

Camp: They were great. They both live with us now. And the biggest problem that we have is they like to play and Shaggy has a very coarse coat, and Benji has a very fine coat. When Shaggy gets a hold of her, she just turns into one big, huge mat. And believe me, we discourage the kind of roughhouse play that they like to do, but they do it anyway. And we have two other dogs, two cats, and three chickens, and so it's something of a zoo at our house.

What are some of the challenges of working with animals for a movie?

Camp: I've been doing it for a long, long time—working with the emotions of dogs and so forth. The biggest challenges came from other circumstances—like heat. We were shooting in Utah, and they had the hottest summer in the history of Utah—a long string of days over 110 degrees. It was just ridiculous. And we're sitting there trying to keep Benji's tongue in her mouth so she can act.

We understand you're very involved with shelters and homeless pets.

Camp: We've had several benefits for shelters around the country where we go in and do a screening of the movie. They then bank the money from the screening to benefit the shelter. We have formed the Benji's Buddies Foundation that we will be devoting time to, after the movie. The Foundation will focus heavily on branding dogs in shelters as "Benji's Buddies." What we find is every time we put Benji and media together, adoptions go up. The problem is when you go away, they're right back down. Benji's home shelter in Mississippi had the biggest month in its history right after she was adopted. In fact, they emptied the entire shelter. So, what we want to do, through corporate sponsorship, is develop programs with a continuing message going out to folks; so that when that spontaneous moment happens, they will think of the shelter first rather than last.

When you first pitched the Benji idea more than 30 years ago, it wasn't that well received, but you made it successful anyway. How have you dealt with the criticism?

Camp: I think that's pretty much the story in all of the Benji films: Don't give up. And if you believe strongly enough in what you're trying to do, and you have a strong and faithful belief in God and believe that this is what he wants you to do, then you'll find a way. When you come up against a wall, you've got to find a way. You've got to dig under it, go around it, go over it, start chipping away at it so you can get rid of the bricks, something. You don't just walk away.

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Is Benji in store for more adventures?

Camp: That all depends on August 20th. We beg, we plead, we ask, we cajole people to get out there on that first weekend, because we as independents don't have a Shrek 2 that we can hold over the exhibitors' heads. We have to do well the first weekend, or it will be gone before word-of-mouth has a chance to build up.

Is Joe Camp in store for more adventures?

Camp: I wanted to meet Steven Curtis Chapman, because he wrote a lyric when he was 15 that said [paraphrased], "When Jesus comes back, I just want him to be able to say to me well done." And I said, "I want to know what was going on in his life at 15 years old that gave him that kind of spiritual maturity." And down at the CBA [Christian Booksellers Association] convention, I was fortunate enough to meet him and talk for a little bit. And we've talked a couple of times since. And when we're through with this movie, I'm going to go sit down with him in Nashville and spend a couple of hours just talking and digging and see where it pans out. I'm really excited about that as well.

Well, let us know if anything pans out. Anything else you'd like to add?

Camp: Yes: August 20. August 20. August 20.

For more on the new Benji movie, click here. For more on Joe Camp and Benji's history, click here.