Last week RT had the pleasure of visiting Western movie legend LQ Jones in his Hollywood home, shooting the breeze for a leisurely few hours in the subterranean office beneath his house. Out back, somewhere within the sweeping canyon below, Jones grows his own tomatoes — or as he calls them, his “tomaters.” With a soft Southern twang and an unusual openness about him, Jones sounds like a gentleman cowboy — not surprising, if you’ve seen any of his supporting roles in classic Westerns like Hang ‘Em High, Lone Wolf McQuade, or the five films he did for Sam Peckinpah: Ride the High Country, Major Dundee, The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
With such a career connection to the guns n’ ponies genre, Jones — who changed his name from Justus McQueen to that of the character he played in Battle Cry, his first film — may have surprised some when in 1975 he wrote and directed the science fiction film A Boy and His Dog. Based on Harlan Ellison’s novella of the same name, Boy tells the story of Vic (a baby-faced Don Johnson, on the brink of Miami Vice stardom), a teenage loner fighting for survival in the barren wastelands of post-apocalyptic America. Vic’s only companion, a telepathic dog named Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire), helps him search out the only two necessities a young man needs in the wake of nuclear destruction: food and sex. But when Vic follows a young woman into an underground society where the old world traditions are still enforced, he finds the people below ground are just as sinister as those above.
LQ Jones shared with us stories of making A Boy and His Dog over three decades ago, what it was like to work with directing legends like Peckinpah and Martin Scorsese, and how he finds Hollywood is different these days. And while he may be biased, but he’s not alone in finding similarities between his film and George Miller’s Mad Max series, which followed Boy four years later.
Catch the re-release of LQ Jones’ 1975 cult classic A Boy and His Dog (in a brand new print!) this Friday, February 8, at midnight at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles, where LQ Jones will introduce the film, answer questions, and meet fans. For more information, check out the Nuart website.
What do most people call you?
LQ Jones: It’s one of those strange things. I know what you call me from where I knew you. I had one nickname in college, one in high school, one in Nicaragua, one here. In high school it was Mac; in college it was DoDo. In Nicaragua it was Senior Jefe. Here it’s LQ. But you can call me anything that pleases you.
Ok, I’ll stick with LQ. You can call me Jen. Do many people call you Justus?
LQ: Only if I owe ’em money.
You’ve had that name for a while.
LQ: Since ’54. Why in the hell would you change your name from Justus McQueen to LQ Jones? It doesn’t make any sense! But the studio wanted to do it, and I said as long as you make the checks out, what do I care?
But when I did Battle Cry, the author of it was doing quite well. He was very famous, because it was the second best-selling book of World War II. We got to be fairly good friends, and I said the studio wants to change the name – why don’t I change it, and as soon as they start using it and as soon as they do, let’s sue them! He said, “That’s a marvelous idea!” So I changed my name and he went off and wrote Exodus, and I never heard from him again.
Let’s talk about A Boy and His Dog!
LQ: A Boy and His Dog has been chosen by a lot of critics as the best science fiction picture ever made. Well, that’s BS. But it’s a lot better than having them say it’s the worst motion picture ever made. But first of all, it won the Hugo. A Boy and His Dog, other than Disney [movies], is the only motion picture ever made to go out two times, worldwide, successfully. One [release] was in ’75; one was in ’82. Now we’re gonna go back out again.
You’ve seen the picture — how did you see it?
LQ: You did not see it. A Boy and His Dog used scope. And we used scope like no picture has ever used it before or since. [On DVD] you’re not seeing it all, because to put it into the format for television, and eventually DVD, you have to do what they call pan and scan. So you’re losing a quarter of the picture!
There are a lot of details one notices more on second viewing…
LQ: I almost got too smart for myself. Because I did not want a picture like today, they tell you A) what you’re seeing, B) What you saw, and C) why you liked it. I don’t like that — I like to put it on the screen, and if you liked it, super. If you don’t like it? Super. I don’t care. Because everything that’s there I wanted you to see.
People are not sure, but it is a very intricately designed little picture. Doesn’t look like it, looks like you shot it out of a garage. But it’s very carefully scripted and shot; in the beginning, if you missed something, you’re dead. In the end, if you missed something, you’re dead. I’ve seen it in front of audiences as small as one person; I’ve seen it with an audience as big as 14,000 people — in an outdoor football stadium. And I found out, the problem with it is, people did not see and understand enough of it the first time. And on average, it takes about four times to see the picture, to see everything. Probably on average, and I’m very happy with this, half of the people adore it. Half of the people detest it. And I don’t care whether it’s either one for you because if I can make you mad, then I’ve earned your money. If I can titillate you, then I’ve earned your money.
The world in which Vic and Blood live is very male-dominated; above ground, women are hunted for sex, below ground they are subjugated (as is everyone else) by a warped, Puritanical society. How did women react?
LQ: It’s very strange because many ladies when we first came out in 1975 got upset. But why would you get upset? I bought a story, and I was very true to the story. Now we’ve always wanted to go back and do another picture, but I don’t want to redo A Boy and His Dog. We want to redo it about a girl named Spike. And she’s twice as tough as Vic is. So we wanted to go back and do the girl’s side. So what if the dog ate the boy? [Ladies said] Oh, that’s ok. Well that’s crap! That was in the ”70s. In the ’80s it was starting to change, just a little. By now it’s changed where I think probably women will either like it as much as men do or will hate it as much as men do.
But I guess the thing I’m happiest with is when I talk to people, the most said thing is that it’s so real. I said, you’re telling me that I’m dealing with the year 2024, I have a talking dog, and before your very eyes humans have become animals and animals become human and it’s because it’s so real you like it!
Where are you from?
I’m from the Bay Area.
LQ: I thought so! Isn’t that strange – we are very popular in San Francisco; we’re not as popular here [in Los Angeles]. Because people in San Francisco like science fiction more. Go even farther north, to Seattle — they adore it even more! To this point, it played in the Varsity Theater, which was the biggest theater at that time; we played the Varsity for twelve months in a row. It did humungous business. Unbelievable!
You should take it to Canada!
LQ: We did extraordinarily well in Canada, but oddly enough partially because of a lady. It was the most popular local TV show in — what was it? Huge city in Canada. I went on, and we sat down, and the opening salvo from her was, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most vulgar picture I have ever seen in my life.” Now if she had just said that, and shut up, it would have been fine. But she didn’t; she kept going for twenty minutes. And I didn’t have to say much; when she’d wind down, I’d goose her and up she’d go again! We finally got through with the show, and I said, “I’d like to thank you for selling my picture. Every time you called the picture vulgar, you were selling tickets!”
But I ask you, you’ve seen it — what’s vulgar in the picture?
Well, there’s nudity.
LQ: For what? About three seconds. Tasteful, is it not?
And there’s the machine that Vic is hooked up to in Topeka. A machine that sucks out…baby making fluids from Don Johnson would seem to be a bit risqué to show onscreen.
LQ: Well, consider that all we’re showing is a machine operating. But I’ve never thought about it…would that be risqué? It probably was [back then] but notice, unless you’re paying very close attention you don’t know what’s happening. He’s just hooked to a machine. Now, if you have watched the picture, you should know exactly what they’re doing. But I haven’t said it, have I?
I very much like that you don’t explain things overtly.
LQ: Aha! See, that’s what I liked to do with the picture. But I almost went too far; I almost didn’t explain enough. Because in the 1970s, when it came out, people were more used to being told by television what they were watching, and why they were watching it. So we were breaking precedent. They still do it. But I’m very proud of the fact that you have to figure it out.
You have over 500 acting credits to your name, yet only four directing. Was the transition difficult, or a bit unnatural?
LQ: Writing and acting is so totally different from directing. So totally different from producing. Like Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters the world has ever seen; he said, “I can’t teach anybody!” I do it because I know what I’m doing, and I can’t impart that to you. Same thing is true about pictures. An actor can act — most of the time, very few of them can act period — but that gets in the way of sitting down in a dark room and writing eight hours a day. I hate writing, but if I don’t have any choice — like when I was doing Boy — I went out and worked as an actor for 8, 10, 12 hours a day, then I’d come in and get business out of the way and start writing about one o’clock in the morning.
Is that why you haven’t written and directed many more things?
LQ: Acting is my living, what I clearly enjoy. But nothing has come along that I wanted to spend the time and money and energy on. I say it, and I truly believe it — everyone should build a house, plant a tree, and direct A Boy and His Dog. Because it is totally imagination that is at work, and you’re only limited by what you think.
I directed another picture, years before that — cost $20,000 for the whole thing — The Devil’s Bedroom, which sounds provocative. They used to book it around in the circuit, you know the one I’m talking about! People would go and be sitting there watching it, trying to figure out what the hell is this picture doing there!
Since that time I have looked high and low…I really would like to direct, but I have not found anything I want to spend the time, and the energy, and the heartbreak, in making.
What would it take for you to direct again?
LQ: I don’t know! But if we did Spike, and it was a good story…I’ve got one that I will eventually do, called Gold Medal. It’s about an irresponsible guy and a lovely lady, they’re divorced, because he can’t grow up. It’s a reasonably expensive picture and I’ll do it, but I’ve been offered many pictures — for more money than I had to make A Boy and His Dog, just for me! And I look at it and say…eh, what do I want to waste my time for? All they’re interested in is money. Hey folks, I like money myself, but that’s all they care about. We worked five years on A Boy and His Dog. I sat down and figured it out — the last year, I averaged 22 hours a day, seven days a week, twelve months out of the year, working on the picture.
You realize there are very few good pictures. And when you see one, it’s a miracle. That any picture is ever made is a miracle, but the fact that it works out is miraculous. God really has his hand on you. Because every day you make about a thousand decisions, any one of which will kill you if it does not work. The picture will die. And you do that for five weeks. So the odds are that you’re going to make a terrible picture. You have so many chances to be wrong, and only one to be right — so when it happens, it’s a marvel.
Speaking of marvels, one of the main characters in your film, Blood, is a dog. And the dog actor playing him is quite a presence.
LQ: It’s the most brilliant performance by an animal. People talk about Rin Tin Tin, or Benji…but they were doing tricks. Watch A Boy and His Dog — there’s something that very few people are aware of, that is brilliant when you look at it. Did you notice the dog? How many times did he look for his trainer? None!
Didn’t he once figure out he wasn’t supposed to be wagging his tail, and stop?
LQ: Now that doesn’t sound like much, does it…but how would a dog determine to stop wagging his tail? Because I said stop wagging your damn tail!
One, the dog’s brilliant. He understood about 50-60 words. His real name is Tiger. What we did before we got started, we took him out to the park and he worked for months. And we transferred command from [the trainer] to the boy [Don Johnson]. Now if you watch the picture, sometime you’ll notice the boy’s mouth is moving, and you hear nothing — he’s giving the dog a command. He’s telling the dog, sit, stand, move, roll, and the dog listens to him and will do it. I talked with him exactly like another actor.
And he understood you?
LQ: Jason Robards, at the time probably the best actor in our business, Jason’s in the picture. So he asked about something and I said listen, “If you pay attention to Blood, and you hit your marks, and you say your lines like Blood, I’ll make a star out of you.” And he knew exactly what I was talking about.
I’ll take you one step further, to the scene [where Vic] says we may never see each other again, they are truly parting. And if you see it on the big screen, the goddamn dog cries. Tears ran down his fur! I’ve been acting for fifty some-odd years, and I have a tough time crying on cue. When I cut the shot, I looked around and half the crew was in tears.
What happened to Tiger, the dog?
LQ: I tried to buy him, and they said we’re making too much money with him. I said I’ll give you enough, to where it’s worth your while. I just wanted to retire him. I said I’ll make you a guarantee, I will not be your competition, I will not let him work in anything unless I do another Boy and His Dog. But nope, they didn’t want to do it. At that point in time he was maybe seven. He was dead by the time he was nine. But I would have loved to have had him for just those two years.
Did you go to his funeral?
LQ: Oh, good heavens yes. I sat down and cried like a baby for three days. It was like I had lost a member of my family. I was not the same for two or three weeks.
That’s the kind of thing that makes me wonder about reincarnation…
LQ: There was an activity to have him put up for best supporting Oscar. And it finally died down, but when you stop and think about it, he is truly magnificent as an actor. That he happens to be on four legs is totally immaterial. He understood the material he was working with, and he did things to fit it. Reincarnation, I don’t believe it for a second. With the damn dog, I believe it. I’m just sorry he didn’t get nominated for an Oscar.
How old was Don Johnson in the movie?
LQ: At that point in time — he looks like, does he not, 17, 18? — he was twenty-seven, I think. He’s one of those people that looks very young. It’s the best thing Don has ever done. And I’ve told him that.
What was his career like before A Boy and His Dog?
LQ: He did three big pictures, each one of them worse than the previous one. People probably don’t know it, but he had tried to do six or seven pilots that he couldn’t get. After he started doing A Boy and His Dog, he got eleven pilot offers. And the only good one was Miami Vice. So it got him Miami Vice; the dog was responsible for it. And Don’s smart enough to know that. He wouldn’t tell it to you or anybody else but me, and I’m not even sure he’d tell it to me, but the dog forced him to be a hell of an actor.
Sounds like you got pretty lucky with Tiger.
LQ: You don’t realize that if something had happened to the dog, you know who the replacement was for Blood? Me. Because no other dog we know — we looked at 600 of them — none of them can do it. And if something happens to the dog, we can’t postpone it too long, don’t have that much money. So we had the wardrobe for me to do the dog’s part. Look at it, it’s a sidekick. That’s what he is. And I could have replaced him with just myself, a human being. Of course, it would have been different, but the story would have been the same.
At what point did you realize this had become a cult film?
LQ: I don’t really think about it then, or now, but I knew when I made it I had a choice; have you ever seen a picture that was more suited for pornography than A Boy and His Dog? Look what’s available in [this world]: women, rapes, fights, riots, the whole thing. It’s perfect for that kind of an XXX picture. But I had to fight for an R-rating. Even then; today it’s a PG! But I determined that I was going to make it the way Harlan [Ellison] wrote it, which is not going to make it a real popular picture. Now, I can make it a popular picture, and I’ll make a lot of money. You ever see a picture called The Road Warrior? The guy that directed that, I’ve forgotten his name —
LQ: Who? Right. George Miller, they asked him “How did you come up with this?” and he said “It’s very easy. I watched A Boy and His Dog and then went commercial.” He didn’t make any bones about it!
Have you ever met him?
LQ: I should. Never have. That’s what I’ve been told, I’ve never seen the [quote] but a number of people have told me that’s what he said.
How did working with directors like Sam Peckinpah and Raoul Walsh influence you as a director?
LQ: Most of the time I worked two or three or four times with the same director…out of the let’s say 500 movies that I’ve done, I’ve worked for maybe 150 directors — guesswork. Of the 150, five of them were directors; the rest of them were very competent craftsmen. Only 5 were directors.
LQ: I can’t say. I still have to face them! That being the case…when I worked with Sam [Peckinpah], I would pick up things Sam did, either positively or negatively. I mean I might see something that Sam did and say, “God I hope I don’t do that,” when I’m directing. Then I went through all five of my people, and of course I picked up something from this one, and something from that one…but you don’t think about that. My crew — I’m not just giving them lip service– I tell my crew when we’re shooting, “Hey, I’m one person; I can do good things and I can do bad things. Help me, if you see something that needs to be done, tell me.” My crew from the beginning is included.
That’s nice — having a collaborative effort all around.
LQ: Peckinpah’s real talent — and they didn’t give him credit for it — was being able to keep a crew and cast around him that understood how he worked. And they could tell him — you don’t tell him outright, because he won’t take it — but you can back into it, and he’ll listen. And then it’s a little better. A picture is made that way, but you have to be very careful, because you don’t want a committee saying yes; you want one person.
But most directors won’t do that, they do just the opposite. Yet I was doing [Casino] with Scorsese and he said, “Hey, why don’t you rewrite that scene for me?” I said, “You bet – you’re the producer, you’re the director, you wrote the screenplay, and you want me to change it? Oh, I’m rushing right home to do that!” But no, because — and this is a huge director – he said, “I understand the mob; I understand Chicago; there I don’t need any help. But I don’t know what happens in the West. Help me.” So I said OK and I rewrote the scene, I wrote it three times. So he had a choice of three different ways. And he read them and said, “That’s the one I like,” and he threw the others away. That’s the one we shot. But it takes a man who’s really huge to say, “Rewrite my screenplay.”
But you have to be able to read [them]; like with Peckinpah, you couldn’t say, “Look…” You had to go the other way. “Sam, remember the stuff we talked about the other day? That’s right and I was wrong. You were right.” It totally changed from what he’s got in mind. But now he changes it because he likes it better. But for a second, would he tell anybody you helped? Nah. But that’s just the way he was.
Do you see a lot of movies these days?
LQ: No, not many anymore. I go to the Director’s Guild…for years, they kept me a seat at the back row, and then would put up a pot figuring out how long I was gonna last.
You walk out of a lot of movies?
LQ: Yeah, I walked out of so many, and I didn’t want to disturb anybody else. So they put me on the back row. A lot of times I was gone in three to five minutes. That doesn’t mean they don’t have talent; the kids today have as much talent as anybody ever had. But they don’t have the chance…talent’s a muscle, it’s not just something you’re given or that you can turn off and on. If you don’t use it, it atrophies. Look at me — 500 pictures. 500 times I’ve been there. Most kids today are extraordinarily lucky if they can stay in the business for three years and do ten pictures. They don’t have a chance. They really don’t have a chance to develop their talent. And it shows, to me. We’ve moved away from ensemble casts; now it’s the star. Then we had the star, too, but a smart star went out of his way to pick great character actors to fill it and help him. And now they don’t do it. I don’t care for the writing, particularly; I think the directing is aimless. But that’s not fair, because I haven’t seen every show. I haven’t seen every actor.
The other day at the SAG Awards, Josh Brolin gave an unusually irreverent speech about how the studio system does not work.
LQ: It ceased working probably thirty years ago. And if we’re not careful, it will get to a point to where we don’t need the business. To me it needs a mayor, it needs a Warner, it needs a Cohen. They were thieves, thugs, miscreants, but God somehow gave them an understanding of the big screen. For their time — they would die in it today, of course. But then, they understood it. And once we lost those people, we sagged into what we’re into now — committees and attorneys, attorneys own and control our business. And they’re much smarter than we are about making money. But they don’t need good pictures to make money.
God, if you think about it, we did Mask of Zorro for $90 million. When I started in the business, the budget for the entire output of Hollywood wasn’t half that much, and we put it into one picture! Who makes the rules? How can one person say, that’s the money we’re gonna spend, and that’s how we’re going to spend it.
Do you think that the old school studio heads cared more about making good movies?
LQ: No, no, they didn’t care about good movies; they cared about a lot of money. And their theory was, and I sat with them and listened to them, was “we’re gonna make this picture.” But the committee says, “It’s gonna lose money!” And they said “That’s right. It is going to lose money. But we need to educate people that this is what a picture can do. So we’ll make it, and we’ll eat the loss. But five years down the line, we’ll play to these same kids that saw this picture, but didn’t quite understand it. But now we know how to get to them, so we are guaranteeing an audience.”
Today, since a producer probably produces three pictures in his lifetime and he’s gone, what does he care about what’s happening? I don’t mean he’s a terrible person, but he’s worried about today and tomorrow, not three or four years from now. But that’s what Warner did, because he had to keep business going. And now, eventually — and you’ll pardon my language — you’re gonna get tired of tits, and cars running through walls!
Well, some people will not get tired of that.
LQ: Some people will not. But see, that’s who we’re making pictures for. Remember, back in the old days, you made pictures for the family. Now you make it for a splinter group. Look at the Lion King. What was the income from the Lion King? 4 Billion dollars? And the most significant picture we’ve had in the last thirty years not making a tenth of that. But they don’t have the guts to go out and do what the Lion King did, which was to go back to the family audience. Whether you’re six or six hundred, you’ll enjoy the picture. Now we do splinter groups. And we have a shot at reasonably guaranteed income. Or, reasonably guaranteed failure. Because only so many people are going to go see it. Why don’t we go for the mass audience again? I guess because we’re gutless.
In all honesty, I say to myself, if I’m going to invest $100-150 million, am I going to take the chance that I’m going to lose it? Probably not. I can sit there and tell you that I will, but that’s BS. I did with A Boy and His Dog; if Boy had gone down the tube I was bankrupt. Because most of it was my money. But that’s ok, because I saw what I wanted and I took my swing. If I missed, at least I had the use of the hog.
Would you have benefited from the backing of a studio and its resources when you made A Boy and His Dog?
LQ: The last time [studios] talked to me about Boy, they wanted a budget of $80 million. $400,000 — they spend more than that for paper clips! Would I have made a better picture with more money? The answer is, guaranteed not. Because we had to think, what will work? And you had to take a gamble, and that’s where the fun comes in.
So what’s life like these days?
LQ: Eh…working on bankruptcy! Like I say, build a house, plant a tree, and direct A Boy and His Dog. But I work wherever I can; the last one I did was A Prairie Home Companion, ’cause I wanted to work with Bob [Altman] and the cast. We had a ball. Nobody was being paid much money, and we did what we wanted to do, and it was just fun.
But they sent me a script a month ago, from a major: three of the biggest comics in the business, I had the lead…and I almost didn’t get past the first page. Because it was an offer I read to page 30, and I finally said I can’t take any more. I called the agent and said “Tell them thank you very much, I appreciate the thought.” A ton of money, and I just said I can’t make it. I would never be able to face my children if I sat in public and talked like that.
So you put a lot of thought into choosing your roles.
LQ: Oh yeah. I’m independently poor; I can do what I want to do. I don’t do television – I did that one because they asked, as a favor. Super. But I love to work! If you’d let me alone I’d work 52 weeks out of the year, acting.
But it was the vocabulary — first of all, the script was no good. I would have turned it down for that. But the other was the words. I was telling my agent, I couldn’t talk like that to him if it was only the two of us in a men’s gymnasium, and we could whisper. But I could not say those words in public — no, I will not say those words in public. Normally now when I get a script, I look at it; if there are a lot of curse words in it, I go through and take 95 percent of them out. But this one, there was an expletive every other word. Wasn’t one or two a page, it was twenty a page. I couldn’t understand, it didn’t help the story any. And it didn’t turn me on.
But somebody give me a decent script, or say hey it’s not right yet, but let’s go to work on it and maybe we can do something. I don’t care about the money, I just care about the fun that goes with it. And it is still fun; if it weren’t, I’d go raise onions.
As a veteran of so many Westerns, have you seen the neo Westerns of the last year — 3:10 to Yuma, Assassination of Jesse James, No Country for Old Men?
LQ: I’ve not seen them, but I want to; and yet I didn’t like 3:10 to Yuma as an original picture, because it’s a dull picture. I understand [the new one] is not, and I want to see it for that reason. I don’t like the Westerns we do, generally. Because almost all the Westerns we do, you could just as well put them in a Mercedes and shoot a stockbroker. It’d be the same thing.
The thing that bothers me about Westerns, on which I’m a fair expert ’cause I’ve done about three hundred of them…a Western is a very simple morality play. The good and the bad should be fairly evident, and you have to let them work it out. But it must stay simple; if it gets complicated, if you need words to explain what you’re looking at on the screen, it’s not working. A Boy and His Dog, as we put it together, I could sit and watch it with no sound and know exactly what was happening on the screen, which is what it should do, which Westerns used to do. But then we said wouldn’t it be fun if they started getting intellectual? They are not intellectual pictures. They are very simple people, simple truths done simply. Not simplistic; but simple, and there’s a difference.
What’s your favorite movie that you’ve done?
LQ: There’s only one picture that I didn’t have fun on. But truly the favorite will be the next one that I do. Everyone always says, “Oh, The Wild Bunch!” The Wild Bunch is not a good picture — it’s a good happening, but it’s not a good picture. If you want to see a good picture that Sam directed, go see Ride the High Country. Ride the High Country is a brilliant picture! Or The Ballad of Cable Hogue. The Iron Cross — much better. But The Wild Bunch stands out by itself.