'Air Bud' Came Out 20 Years Ago, So We Tracked Down the Director and Made Him Explain Everything

Air Bud
Buddy, a Golden Retriever who enjoyed a successful career as a dog actor, starred in the beloved 1997 film 'Air Bud.' Warner Bros. Pictures

In a distant epoch recognized by historians as "the nineties," millions of American children were delighted and charmed by a surprisingly stirring film about a dog who played basketball.

Either that, or it was just a mass hallucination we all experienced in between episodes of Doug and clips from the Clinton impeachment hearing.

The movie was Air Bud, the dog was a talented Golden Retriever named Buddy gifted with the genuine ability to shoot hoops, and the director—well, what do you do with your career after directing a movie like Air Bud?

"I'm about to make another dog movie, crazily enough," the film's director, Charles Martin Smith, says. "Isn't that crazy? It's by the same author that did A Dog's Purpose. It's pretty funny how the world turns."

This month marks the 20th anniversary of Air Bud, so we tracked down Smith and asked for the inside story of how a low-budget flick about a basketball-playing dog blossomed into an unlikely Disney classic—or how it even got made in the first place. Here's what he told us.

How on earth did you get chosen to direct a movie about a dog who plays basketball?
It was a strange story. I was living in Canada. I emigrated there in the early '80s. I was both acting and directing. I was acting in a film being produced in Canada, a cop movie. I got to know the producers, particularly Bill Vince and his brother Robert Vince. [Bill] knew I was a director and he said, "We've got this movie about a dog that plays basketball. Would you be interested in looking at it and maybe directing it?"

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I read the script, and I passed. I didn't want to do it. I thought it sounded silly. A dog playing basketball? But Bill and I remained friends. I was directing Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Bill kept checking in and seeing how I was doing. I started thinking about the dog playing basketball. I went back to Bill and said, "If you let me work on this and turn it from a gimmick movie into a really honest story of a boy and his dog, with no CGI, nothing fake and we emphasize the boy and his dog, I would be willing to do it."

I worked with [the screenwriters] and we completely revamped the script to make it more of an honest boy-and-his-dog relationship movie. We made the film for a very low budget. What really made it work for me was this dog really did the trick of making baskets. The dog had no idea he was making a basket, of course. I thought, well, [let's] make it like a circus dog that does this trick, and the trick is what takes the dog away from the boy. The boy doesn't love the dog because he can do this trick. The boy just loves the dog and the trick ends up coming in between them.

Are you a dog lover?
I'm not a huge dog lover, no. I've never really owned dogs. I find animals fascinating to make movies about. They're always honest. You always get an honest performance out of an animal. They have an innocence and a purity that human characters don't have.

When you first met Buddy, the dog in the movie, how did that meeting go?
It went great. [Dog owner/trainer] Kevin DiCicco had found Buddy as a stray. Kevin was playing basketball in his front yard, and Buddy, like most Goldens, was really obsessed with playing with a ball. Apparently when Kevin was dribbling his basketball, the dog kept trying to grab it. But the ball was too big to get his mouth around, so the ball would squirt away. Kevin thought, "If I lob it to him on an arc with my back to the basket and he jumps up and tries to bite it, maybe he'll knock it into the basket." The secret was in the way he stood and the way he threw the ball to the dog.

I met them outside the production company's offices and got to know the dog. He was a great dog. They tried to get the dog to make a basket, which actually didn't work that first time. It got close enough. If there was a ball anywhere in the room, he wouldn't pay attention to anything else. He was really obsessed with playing with tennis balls, any kind of ball.

What was the hardest scene in the movie to shoot?
The basketball sequences were tedious because you have to build so many different shots. I did a shot in the movie that was hard. Kevin Zegers, the boy, is arguing with his mother in the living room about whether they're going to keep the dog. I wanted to make it one long sweeping shot, and we see the dog out one window. The camera comes around. Then we see the dog out a different window, through the glass. Then the camera continues to move around, the argument ends, and at the end of the scene—all one shot—you look around and the dog is in the house. I don't know that anybody's ever even noticed that it's all one shot. We did it using three different dogs—Buddy and the two doubles.

The other one that was hard: I had this idea that the dog would sneak in and out of the house, up on the roof. I wanted the dog to come out of the window, trot along the edge of the roof, down onto the top of the car, down onto the top of the driveway, run down, pick up the newspaper, and then run into the backyard with it. We had scheduled half a day to shoot this. And Debbie [the dog trainer] said to me, "I think we can do it." I set the camera up and the dog came out of the window, trotted along the edge of the roof, jumped down onto the hood of the car, jumped down onto the driveway, ran down the driveway, picked up the newspaper and ran into the backyward with it—all in the first take. I've never heard an entire crew break into spontaneous applause for a dog trainer.

Do you have any favorite stories from the filming process?
The first time that [we had a] basket actually go in, it was in the gymnasium. Kevin DiCicco had taught Kevin Zegers how to stand with his back to the basket, how to lob the ball so the dog would lob it hopefully into the basket. Kevin Zegers wasn't as good at it as Kevin DiCicco, Buddy's owner.

So we got everything set up for the shot and it was the scene of the halftime in the gym. Everybody was so nervous: Was this going to work? Would we actually get our actor to throw the ball so it goes into the basket? We must have gone through 15 takes, just miss after miss after miss. We were all just in agony thinking, "Oh my God, this isn't gonna work. This movie will die. We can't get a basket out of this dog." We were sweating. Then, finally, around take 19, the ball went into the basket. The producer of the movie leapt out of his chair about 10 feet, cheering. After that, Kevin got pretty good. We ended up getting a lot of real baskets on camera from the dog.

Did the dog respond differently when the ball went in the hoop?
No! The dog didn't know the difference. When the ball did go in the basket, he got praised for it—and he got a great reward. Every time he would try to bite the ball, it would just squirt out of his mouth. We deflated the ball slightly, and covered it in olive oil, so it would be slippery. When the ball would go in the basket, Buddy would get all kinds of appreciation. I'm not sure if he ever knew why [laughs]. He just loved playing with the ball. He couldn't get enough.

The line from the movie that has really endured is, "Ain't no rules says a dog can't play basketball." Have you noticed people still quote that?
I do! I love that. What's the other one I hear... [imitates deep voice] "What's the matter, gentlemen? Afraid your team might get beat by a dog?"

I was sad to learn that the dog died pretty shortly after the film.
Yes, he did. He developed a kind of bone cancer. We also weren't sure how old he was. When Kevin DiCicco found the dog—and he literally did come out of the woods, he was camping or something—Kevin never knew how old the dog was. [Note: DiCicco found Buddy somewhere in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1989, and decided to adopt and eventually train the dog.]

He wasn't young when he made Air Bud.
He was not young. In fact, we touched up a little white on his muzzle sometimes. I had seen video of him running around and shooting baskets and stuff from a couple years before the movie. He was obviously much more nimble and more able to do stuff. By the time we shot the movie, he was getting to be a bit of an older dog. It was a shame that he developed cancer. There was some talk at the time that making the movie was too much for the dog and that was why he [got sick]. Which, of course, was ridiculous. The poor thing had cancer. It had nothing to do with making the movie.

Bud Air
'Air Bud' was released in theaters 20 years ago this month. Warner Bros. Pictures

Was the friendship between the boy and the dog genuine or was it staged?
It was a little bit staged. I think they liked each other; Kevin certainly liked Buddy. To get the scenes where Buddy's looking really affectionate, what I would do was show a tennis ball to Buddy and then tuck it inside Kevin's jacket. Then he would follow him anywhere, because he's got a tennis ball. That was Buddy's obsession. They did get along well, and Kevin was really good with the dog.

What do you think of the endless sequels that were generated by Air Bud?
[Sigh] Oh, I don't know. I never had anything to do with them. I didn't really want to have anything to do with them. I was afraid they would get a little silly again, which is what I tried so hard to avoid in the first one.

They just go on and on. Every sport you can imagine.
I know! There were two brothers that owned the [production] company, Robert and William Vince. William was the one who was on set all the time, really produced that movie with me... His brother was the one that stayed doing all the Air Bud movies, and I daresay he's made a lot of money off them, but I've never been involved or even seen any of them.

You've never seen any of the sequels?
No. No. Didn't really interest me. I kind of got the idea. I saw the script for the one that [Robert Vince] had written to be the first sequel. My friend Richard Martin directed it. I didn't want to direct that. I didn't want to live my life doing those sorts of things.

When you meet someone and tell them you directed Air Bud, how do they typically react?
It depends how old they are. People my daughter's age, her generation—she's 30 now—really seem to have a great fondness for the movie. I love that. I'm always a little surprised by it, but I'm delighted. It was a low-budget film, and we sold it to Disney and it got an enormous release. My daughter was just telling me yesterday that her coworkers call me her "Air Bud dad" [laughs]. I'm happy with that.

You know, I never really liked the title Air Bud. I always thought that sounded a little less elegant than the movie I was trying to make. I was saying we should call the movie Buddy, because that was the dog's name. But there had just been a movie called Buddy with a chimpanzee or something.