As I watched the National Film Board of Canada short film Old Dog, which preceded a documentary screening at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, I did a double take. Or, rather, a double listen. I knew that voice. And the credits confirmed it – former longtime Independent Menschenings columnist Alex Kliner was the voice of the elderly gentleman caring for his elderly dog.
Old Dog was created by writer and director Ann Marie Fleming.
“This film started off as a way of talking about aging, inspired by my namesake, Ann-Marie Fleming, who I often get mixed up with in internet searches,” said Fleming in an interview on nfb.ca. “The other Ann-Marie has a company that makes technologies for aging dogs and also for their humans. I was struck by the compassion she has for these vulnerable animals, helping them navigate the latter stages of their lives, and by how much dogs have to teach human beings.”
“Full disclosure,” Fleming told the Independent, “I made a film about twins and doubles many years ago (It’s Me, Again) and there is another Ann Marie Fleming out there I have been confused with, so it’s not unusual that I would do some sleuthing. When I read Ann-Marie’s interview and mission statement on her website for her company, Dog Quality, which makes technologies for senior dogs, I was really moved by her saying that she felt she was her best self when she was caring for her aging canines.”
So, Fleming contacted her namesake last year, and then approached the NFB, who agreed to produce it, and even suggested she use her “team” to make it: animator Kevin Langdale and composer/sound designer Gordon Durity.
“I went to 100 Mile House to meet Ann-Marie and her old dogs (literally), listen to her stories, see her technologies and get some reference footage for the animation,” said Fleming. “Then I wrote the very simple script and drew a storyboard. Kevin took my designs and made them his own – he definitely improves on them. Then it was recording the voice, cutting together an animatic, doing the animation.
“Gordon and I discussed the vibe I wanted – Dave Brubeck ‘Take 5’ meets ‘Freddy the Freeloader.’ Cool jazz from when our human character would have been in his youth. A few months later and shazam! The film is finished right as we go into a lockdown across the country.”
Fleming listened to many great voices for this film, she said. In her mind, she would think, “Does he sound mature enough? Does he sound like he really has a connection with his dog? Alex didn’t sound like anybody else. (You recognized him immediately, right?) The warmth and vulnerability and humour and care he had was just there.”
Alex was the consummate professional, she added. “I felt he was very generous to me with his performance in this little film. He can say a line a dozen nuanced ways. I love working with actors.”
Alex has been in the industry a long time, and his desire to act goes back even further – to Jewish school, when he just 7 years old, and was asked by the teacher to read the Yiddish poem “Why a Grandmother is the Way She is.”
“And I did the poem, and I got a huge applause – not so much perhaps because of the talent but because I spoke Yiddish so beautifully,” Alex told me. “And I did speak it beautifully, just the way any person who has a first language speaks it beautifully. I liked the applause and I liked doing the poem. I liked the ambience of the whole thing and, at that point, I decided I was going to be an actor. And, 20 years later, at age 27, I became a professional actor, got all my union cards because I was working in the theatre, in a union company.”
Over the years, he has been in theatre, radio, film and television, and he’s worked as both an actor and as a director. A very partial list of people with whom he has shared the screen include Melanie Griffiths, Vince Vaughn, Ellen Burstyn, Ryan Reynolds, Eddie Murphy, William H. Macy, Christopher Plummer, Sylvester Stalone, Jerry Lewis, Laura Linney, Isabella Rosselini, Jack Lemmon, Mariel Hemingway, Valerie Harper, Mandy Patinkin and Robin Williams.
“I worked with them either as an actor or as a background performer who interacted with the actor,” said Alex.
He was Mickey Rooney’s stand-in in Night at the Museum, which is also where he worked with Dick Van Dyke and Ben Stiller, among others.
The audition for Old Dog was an ordinary call, said Alex. While he hasn’t done much by way of voice work, he has done some dubbing of acting parts that didn’t come out properly sound-wise in the filming. The process for Old Dog was similar, he said.
“I just did one line and then the director said, OK, time to do the next line. Sometimes, she would ask me to do it two or three times but never more than three times,” he said. “The whole thing took a little more than an hour.”
In this type of work, while the actor doesn’t see the animation, he said, “You know what she wants, like your attitude toward the dog … and then you bring that attitude or that feeling or emotion to the line. But you do it without seeing the movie and then they sync what I’ve done vocally to the film.”
Alex’s wife, Elaine, works with him in the film industry. “We’re both still working,” said Alex. “It keeps us happy and young.”
Old Dog can be seen at nfb.ca/film/old-dog.