Not very often does a feel-good movie come along that really pulls at the heartstrings and appeals to children, tweens, and adults with relevant themes, such as bullying, courage, and kindness. Marshall The Miracle Dog is one of those long-awaited family films. Moreover, I’m thrilled to have witnessed the making of this movie, from start to finish. And the best part? I got to be an extra in the restaurant scene, even if you blink you might miss me.
The movie, filmed mostly in Edwardsville and Troy, IL, as well as St. Louis, was as much fun to make as it is to watch. Sure the movie features Hollywood stars like Matthew Settle, Shannon Elizabeth, and Lauren Holly, but many of the cast and crew are originally from St. Louis. Even though most of them have moved to LA to follow their dreams, they all love to come home to their Midwestern roots right here in the Lou.
If you haven’t seen the Marshall movie trailer yet–what are you waiting for? Watch it here!
Jay Kanzler (Director)
The filming of Marshall The Miracle Dog is over, but for many of the famous canines in the movie, their work has just begun.
Their owner Debbie Pearl, founder of the full-service animal company Paws for Effect, hand selects some of her furry friends to visit sick children in hospitals and medical facilities across the country through the nonprofit organization Dream Fetchers, which she started in 2005. The impact that her famous movie dogs have on their fans, especially sick children, is the most rewarding part of her career as a professional dog trainer. Every time she brings movie star dogs together with children who face life-threatening illnesses…magic happens.
Max was a sick, emaciated puppy full of bug bites when his owner surrendered him to a shelter in Los Angeles. One year later, this loyal, smart, energetic Yellow Lab played the leading role in the movie “Marshall The Miracle Dog.”
At only eight weeks old and four pounds, Zeke suffered from a painful skin disease and was minutes away from being euthanized when given a second chance in life. Six months later, this sweet, intelligent Terrier Mix played a part in the hit show “Glee,” appeared in television commercials, and landed his first starring role in the movie “Sox” before joining the Marshall cast.
Wylie was abused and scared when he ended up at the high kill animal shelter in LA County, which was known for having dogs with the contagious Parvo virus. Today, his portfolio includes a national Target commercial and several television shows.
These top dogs are among the incredibly talented canine cast of the soon-to-be-released family film “Marshall The Miracle Dog.” The dogs come in all shapes, sizes, and quirky personalities. But one thing they have in common—they are all rescues. Not only that, some of the lucky dogs participate in a nonprofit program called Dream Fetchers, which brings lovable movie dogs and sick children together for a powerful experience.
The rags to riches stories of these animals are as inspiring as Marshall himself, the real life Yellow Lab who was rescued from an animal hoarder in Missouri in 2010 and was so badly malnourished and injured that he died three times on the operating table, and the veterinarian had to amputate his leg. Today, Marshall travels to schools to encourage children to prevent bullying, never give up, and believe in miracles, an important message that resonates with every adorable pooch in the movie.
“Rolling….quiet on the set….action!”
When Director Jay Kanzler shouted these words on the set of Marshall the Miracle Dog, it was my signal to get into character. Right on cue, I pretended to eat a garden salad and whisper gibberish to my acting companions Gina, Laura, and Julie. We were all extras in the diner scene, which was filmed at Cleveland Heath in Edwardsville, IL, a few weeks ago. This was our first experience working in a real movie. Needless to say, I enjoyed every minute of it, even if we had to drive an hour from home to be on location at the crack of dawn so that we could hurry up and wait another eight hours until it was our turn to be on set.
Hey, that’s show biz. And it was worth it.
Being an extra in this movie, based on the book Marshall The Miracle Dog, was pure fun. I met some incredibly talented people and didn’t have to memorize any lines. For me, the hardest part was to find something “neutral” to wear, which sent me on a wild goose chase for a beige tshirt since everything in my closet is brightly colored with busy patterns. My teenage daughter told me I was “over-thinking” it, but I took my role every seriously.
My job was to poke my fork into a piece of lettuce and make weird facial expressions, while reacting to the confrontation at the table in front of us. That’s where hottie actor Matthew Settle complained about his veggie burger to his gorgeous costar Shannon Elizabeth and the hilarious Patti Vasquez, who played the spunky waitress. It takes all day to shoot one scene that maybe lasts a few minutes by the time its edited and hits the big screen at the movie theatre. The lighting has to be just right; the actors have to nail their lines; the props have to be in the right place; makeup, hair, wardrobe has to be continually adjusted; the crew has to walk on their tiptoes and not make any background noise; and the director yells “Cut!” every time a construction truck drives by outside, and the scene has to be shot over again. And every minute costs money.
I didn’t mind the waiting around. When else will I get the chance to appear in a real Hollywood movie, even if my role was to sit at a sticky table in the corner, chew a piece of wilted arugula, and drool over “Doc Henry” who wore tight jeans and a flannel shirt.
As the co-author of the Marshall upcoming children’s book series, I was lucky to be invited to the taping of several movie scenes, which mostly took place on the other side of the river because Illinois offers a tax credit to filmmakers. Having the movie made here instead of Hollywood means a lot to Cyndi Willenbrock, whose book by the same name is coming to life in front of her eyes.
“From day one, our community has embraced Marshall and everyone has been so supportive. I wanted to keep the movie production right here and use as much local talent as possible,” said Cyndi, who makes a cameo appearance. “Thousands of people showed up for the open casting call, and when we needed extras in the baseball scene, our phones exploded with hundreds of texts and emails from people who wanted to be part of this truly amazing experience.”
Indeed, being a part of the Marshall movie is a highlight of my summer, even if I got lost every time I tried to find a location. For example, the hoarder scene took place in Troy, IL at a remote, rundown farmhouse that some say is haunted. This ranch looked custom built for the movie—only it was the real deal with overgrown weeds, a rusty tin roof and broken wood planks on the barn. Even the wild turkeys provided a natural soundtrack with a loud “gobble-gobble-gobble” every time the director yelled “Action!”
For me, this particular dog scene was a real adventure that started before I even got there. I was only a few miles away and had to roll down my window and ask a couple strangers for directions. Finally, a sweet old lady with a grey bun offered to personally escort me in her Black Ford Fusion, so I followed her down a long dirt road until we eventually spotted all the trucks, tents, and equipment set up at the end of a neighborhood.
Even though I wasn’t in this scene (although my son’s denim shirt was), it was my favorite one to observe because I got to play with all the dogs in the cast. And they are a bunch of characters, from the small-but-mighty, two-pound Yorkie named Zakary to the 140-pound English Mastiff named Ben, who plays a four-legged bully in the movie, but in real life is a softie.
These specially trained movie dogs come from a full service animal company called Paws for Effect in Los Angeles, and their owner Debbie Pearl drove a dozen of them across country in an 18-passenger van with the seats removed.
“We had so many dogs to choose from, so after reading the script I tried to pick a good variety of shapes, sizes and looks,” said Pearl, who carries a long pole with a treat on the end to get the dog’s attention. “Plus we wanted dogs that would go with the flow of things, be able to work together when food was around in some of the scenes on the floor and would be kissy for the attack scene.”
They say the hardest movies to make involve young children and animals, but Debbie make it look effortless. By the way, most of her dogs are rescues, which makes them even more special.
“Our dogs are rescues from either the shelter, a rescue group, or dogs that we have found wandering the streets or in the desert (people dump dogs out by where my ranch is in California). I believe that no dog should be homeless, I mean, no other animal is so devoted to man! So once we adopt the dog, we start the training process to get him ready for the big screen,” she said.
One of the most dramatic scenes in the movie (and there are soooo great moments) is when Marshall (played by a loyal Labrador named Max), knocks open the barn door with his big paw and helps all his doggie friends escape.
Now here’s a little behind-the-scenes secret: Cyndi fills in as Lauren Holly’s stunt double and gets knocked on the ground by the dogs, who appear to attack her. What the dogs are really doing is licking Cyndi all over because she has meat flavored baby food smeared all over her face and clothes. Gross, but it works!
The next week, on a scorching summer afternoon, I headed to Leclaire Baseball Field, in Edwardsville, IL, to watch them film the baseball scene. It was a long, exhausting day for these ballplayers, while the blue sky, white clouds, and charming homes along the tree-lined street provided another perfect setting to film the movie.
In between takes, I noticed how the crew followed the lead actors with big umbrellas to protect them from the sun and provided chilled water bottles and frozen custard to cool them off. Meanwhile, the extras sat under a big tree and ate pizza and popsicles in the shade. Nobody complained. We were all so happy to be a part of this family film. Besides, now I have a new appreciation for the nameless faces of the extras who are in the background of movies.
Stay tuned for my upcoming blog that profiles some of the main cast members who are originally from St. Louis and are now on their way to becoming Hollywood movie stars!
To get an idea of what it was like to film the hoarder scene, watch KSDK’s Leisa Zigman meet the dogs in the Marshall movie, right here!
Also, follow updates on the Marshall movie, book, and other happenings right here at www.marshallthemiracledog.com.
One look at the yellow lab mix named Marshall, and you know this dog has a story. He hops around town with three legs, and a jagged baseball-size scar dents the side of his face. Nobody gawks at his appearance or makes fun of his disabilities—quite the contrary. People of all ages adore Marshall, who comfortably rests his chin on the leg of anyone who sits beside him on the floor and strokes his silky smooth fur.
Marshall makes friends wherever he goes, not despite his differences, but because of them. His chocolate brown eyes speak a thousand words. Among them are kindness, forgiveness, love, acceptance, faith, trust, hope, fate, and, above all else, miracles.
Marshall is a survivor. For years he suffered abuse and neglect in the filthy backyard of an animal hoarder in Marshall, Mo., where more than 60 starving dogs fought everyday over meager amounts of food. Whenever Marshall scrounged for a morsel of nourishment, the other dogs brutally attacked him. He was the weakest one in the pack, and he spent most of his life in fear. His bed was the hard dirt ground, where he cowered in a corner and hid from the others dogs.
When the Missouri Humane Society finally rescued these poor animals—and they were all victims—Marshal was barely clinging to life. His injuries were so severe, the veterinarian was forced to amputate his leg. Marshall was the worst cast of animal abuse the doctors had ever witnessed. During his dramatic rescue, Marshall died more than once on the operating table. Every time he was resuscitated, he proved his will to live. Marshall’s courage to beat the odds is the first miracle in his story. The second miracle is what happened next.
Marshall found a forever home and began a new chapter in his life that would inspire all around him. To start with, he is the subject of a best-selling children’s picture book, Marshall The Miracle Dog.
Marshall is also the inspiration for a successful character education curriculum called The Marshall Mentor Program, which teaches students about bullying prevention and making positive choices to help them navigate through the challenging adolescent years. And now, Marshall is a Hollywood movie star, not to mention a media celebrity. That’s right, Marshall’s story is being made into a major motion picture named after him, Marshall The Miracle Dog. This family movie, currently being filmed in Illinois and St. Louis, is described as a cross between “Dolphin Tale and Marley and Me” and features a cast of celebrities, including Matthew Settle (Gossip Girls, Band of Brothers), Shannon Elizabeth (American Pie, That 70’s Show), and Lauren Holly (NICS, Motive, Dumb and Dumber). Stay tuned for more details about the movie, which is slated to open in theaters next year.
“Marshall’s message is to not give up five minutes before the miracle,” says Cyndi Willenbrock, who adopted Marshall in the summer of 2010 after learning about him on Animal Planet’s Confessions: Animal Hoarding. “The Marshall movie is all about friendship and courage.”
“When I first saw Marshall’s face on television, I felt an immediate connection. I related to his story, and I knew I had to meet him. Even though I already owned another dog, and I had no experience taking care of a special needs animal, I knew Marshall and I were meant to be together,” says Cyndi, whose demanding career as a medical supply salesperson left her with limited free time.
When Cyndi was able to finally bring Marshall home to meet her other rambunctious black lab mix named Mooshe, she didn’t know what she got herself into. Marshall was haunted by nightmares of his horrific past. He would wake up in the middle of the night terrified and shaking. Night after night, Cyndi held him in her arms and comforted him, assuring Marshall that he was safe and loved. They cried in each other’s arms until the bad dreams went away.
“Growing up, I sometimes felt alone and bullied by other kids, so I somehow understood Marshall’s pain. In the middle of the night, I started to jot down my thoughts in a journal, and before I knew it, I had written a children’s book. That’s how ‘Marshall The Miracle Dog’ was born,” she remembers.
Their friendship and bond grew stronger everyday. Clearly, they rescued each other. Immediately after adopting Marshall, Cyndi had him trained as a certified therapy dog so he would get used to being around other people and not be afraid to socialize with the world.
Cyndi also was determined to share Marshall’s story, and being an ambitious person who doesn’t take no for an answer, she made it happen in record time. She found an agent, who introduced her to a prominent children’s book editor, and they fell in love with Marshall’s true inspirational story that was definitely marketable in the book industry.
At first her agent advised Cyndi not to quit her day job because most authors don’t make a living selling books, but that soon changed. Marshall was in demand to appear at local schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and special events, meeting thousands of people on their whirlwind book tour.
“It wasn’t long before I decided to give up my six-figure salary and devote my life to spreading Marshall’s universal message. I use Marshall’s story to teach about the prevention of animal cruelty, as well as promote kindness and tolerance of others. Marshall has a unique way of connecting with people. It makes me feel so good to witness an autistic child who rarely socializes, or an Alzeimer’s patient who never communicates, reach out to Marshall and interact with him. Marshall gives me a real purpose in life.”
Marshall touches people’s lives in different ways. For me, I first learned about Marshall two years ago when my daughter came home from Rockwood Valley Middle School and showed me a flyer that advertised Marshall and Cyndi’s upcoming anti-bullying pep assembly. As a writer and a dog lover, I’ve always been interested in working on a children’s book with a dog as the main character, so I was eager to meet the two of them. My daughter Sari was in eighth grade at the time and had no intention of letting me visit her school and embarrass her, so I gave her a check and asked her to buy the book for me and have Cyndi autograph it.
That evening after dinner, instead of watching TV, we sat at the kitchen table and took turns reading a page of the book. The story, written in such a real, emotional human context, grabbed our attention right away. By the time we got to the second page, we started to feel a lump in our throat and could barely speak the words. Marshall’s story resonated the kind of empathy that many kids have become numb to because of all the glorified violence and hatred in news and entertainment these days. We were engrossed in the story about how Marshall was bullied and tortured by other dogs, how he was afraid of rejection after he was adopted, how his bravery set an example for anyone facing adversity, and, finally, how love conquers all. The beautifully detailed illustrations capture each moment and enhance the story, thanks to the colored pencil drawings of artist Lauren Heimbaugh.
The happy ending left us hopeful, but Marshall never left my mind. As I cleaned the dishes and Sari started her homework, I felt compelled to reach out to Cyndi, so I wrote her a thank you note. In my email, I thanked her for giving my daughter and I a special moment together. The last time we read a book out loud together, she was in kindergarten, and now she was about to start high school. Marshall’s story gave us a sliver of time to share something special.
To my surprise, Cyndi responded to my email later that same night and suggested we get together for lunch later that week. Well, needless to say, we hit it off right away. We told each other about our projects and passions, and she shared with me her big plans for Marshall, including a children’s book series and movie that she wanted me to be a part of. Are you kidding me?! I felt like I hit the jackpot! Marshall’s story was so worthwhile–how could I say no? Since then, I’ve enjoyed working every minute working with Cyndi, a dynamo and avid runner fueled by Starbucks coffee and power bars. Cyndi’s unstoppable energy and enthusiasm makes me believe that with a lot of hard work anything is possible.
“All Marshall wants is to be loved and to give love,” says Cyndi to crowds of people who showed up for the movie casting call last month. “If we all can be like dogs, this world will be an amazing, perfect place. To see Marshall story come to life on the big screen is a dream come true.”
And I’m honored to be a part of that dream.
In my next blog, read about my movie debut as an “extra”—let’s just say it involves at least 30 takes pretending to eat salad in a restaurant scene and drooling over a hottie.