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.

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 ...

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