Exclusive Interview: Hope Alexander-Willis Remembers 1977’s Killer Dog Classic THE PACK

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SHOCK talks to actress Hope Alexander-Willis about her time dodging devil dogs in 1977’s THE PACK.

Robert Clouse’s masterpiece of eco-horror, THE PACK (aka THE LONG DARK NIGHT) is one of the strongest revenge-fueled films from the seventies. It takes a situation at hand where holidaying tourists who have adopted dogs solely for their vacation period decide to leave these poor pooches stranded on Seal Island to fend for themselves. What ultimately happens is that these canines will slowly become crazed with hunger and form a bloodthirsty pack, hell bent on seeking vengeance on their human oppressors. Neglect comes back to bite you in Clouse’s magnificent stark message movie released by Warner Bros. in 1977 and one of the actresses from his incredible accomplishment (who falls under the category of sympathetic bystander) Hope Alexander-Willis shares her accounts first hand at working with these vicious celluloid hounds of hell…

SHOCK: I feel that this film is director Robert Clouse’s most personal motion picture. There is a lot of emotionally stirring elements in the film and an underlying pulsating melancholy; why do you feel Clouse wanted to make this film? How much of him and his own personality was in the final product?

ALEXANDER-WILLIS: Directors don’t really talk to actors about that kind of thing. He (Clouse) was a very quiet man. He didn’t hang out with us. Some directors will go out for a drink after the shoot or have a meal with them but we were on a pretty tight shooting schedule. At that time nobody had ever attempted to make a film with that many dogs in it; it was difficult. We had a brilliant, brilliant trainer. I hung out with the dogs more than the other actors because they were amazing! Of course it got pretty funny because the final day of shooting; the day we shot the VW scene where the dogs attack me. And there were two things about that: One is that after it was done, Karl Lewis Miller, our trainer, told me that the lead dog whose name was Josh could quite easily tear my face off! Karl said, “You know, if Josh had actually gotten in the car with you, he would have taken off your face!” .Because you can only train animals to a certain point and then they are animals. So, that was pretty scary! They put little bits in their mouth to rise up their lips to make them look more ferocious. And all of this was done with care and love, because these dogs were absolutely well looked after and treated like kings and queens! The other thing was that by the time we got to shoot the ferocious attack on the car, all the dogs knew me very well because I had been hanging out with them so all of their tails were wagging when they were on the VW lunging at me. So they had to kind of strap their tails down so they wouldn’t look happy! So, it was pretty amusing! I think it is a film with a purpose. I mean, I think it had a moral message. And I think that’s what makes it still a good film to this day. In that, it isn’t just a movie about a pack of dogs, it’s actually also about people. And how we influence environmental situations – it is about our responsibility in this as well. Dogs need to be loved and respected and this brilliant film teaches us that, because if we don’t, dire results can occur.

SHOCK: So you feel the film has a deep environmental message?

ALEXANDER-WILLIS: Oh yeah. Yeah, absolutely! We did research about the actual facts all about the times people do get animals and then feel that they can’t look after them and abandon them. It’s the same thing at Easter time, when people will buy rabbits and chickens and then two weeks later they don’t want them. Humans have no sense of responsibility to the other animals around and it is a terrible thing.

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SHOCK: What was Joe Don Baker like as a co-star? He had been in a number of features before THE PACK, and this was your first film, did he somehow take you under his wing or did he let you go about the work at your own pace and in your own style?

ALEXANDER-WILLIS: Well, he was more interested in talking to me about Shakespeare than talking to me about film. He always wanted to play Hamlet and, I had just gotten off the road doing a tour with Michael Redgrave, all over the country. So here I was talking about starring opposite Michael Redgrave and he was there discussing theatre. So, we would talk a lot about HAMLET and Shakespeare. We didn’t really talk about films very much or his experiences in film. I knew that he had been a big star doing WALKING TALL especially. He’s a lovely, southern gentleman. He was wonderful to work with; he was very generous to work with. We laughed a lot. He was a great partner.

SHOCK: I really love that charming scene where you and Joe Don Baker walk through the house that he is building you – do you remember this sequence?

ALEXANDER-WILLIS: It was really nice because I had a great partner! So, it wasn’t hard to act being in love with Joe Don because he is so handsome and charming and lovely. Robert didn’t give us a lot of acting notes, instead he would just work around his cameras. He pretty much let us go and do our own thing. I think it helped that Joe Don and I had chemistry. It is a lovely little sequence in the middle of that bloody film! And yes, kind of charming! I remember auditioning for the part. I was pretty new to L.A. and I had just moved down from San Francisco, where I’d been at The American Conservatory Theatre. I auditioned for THE PACK two or three times and got it! I was thrilled! It was the normal reading from the sides from the script and doing a little improve of being terrified.

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SHOCK: There is that terrific sequence where the dogs terrorize you in your car – thrashing about and tearing into the roof etc. What was this like to film?

ALEXANDER-WILLIS: Well, I think acting is acting if you’re on a small screen or a very big stage. But, the difference is on the stage you are reaching out to the audience and on film, the audience is coming in to you through the camera. But, if you find the characters truth and play the characters truth, you’re usually going to hit the mark with that. The hardest part for me was the fact that I loved the dogs and the dogs loved me, so, it really wasn’t acting to be afraid of them. Although after Karl told me about how Josh could just go at me and really do some damage, even though Josh was my friend by then and he and I had gotten to know and love one another, I would have been in trouble! The thought of that was scary! But for the car attack sequence – I don’t know what Karl did to get them all riled up. He was so brilliant! They told me they were shooting in slow motion. You know how some of the film goes in slow motion in the frame sometimes? So, I sort of gauged my body-movements thinking that it would be slow motion and then they decided not to do it in slow motion, but they didn’t tell me. So, I was a little worried how that was going to turn out. It was alright. It was kind of funny.

SHOCK: Do you remember animal trainer Karl Lewis Miller being on location? What was he like?

ALEXANDER-WILLIS: Karl Lewis Miller was amazing! He’s gone now. He died. He and I shared the same birthday. So, we had a bond over that. He was really funny and really, really smart! And his connection with the animals was on a very deep, deep plane – they totally trusted him! He refused to let them do anything that he didn’t do first. So, if there were any stunts, he would do them before he would let his dogs do them. And they trusted him. They trusted him completely! I remember there was that dog from the start that closes the film, the lovely collie that gets to be rehabilitated, and she was meant to be quite fretful throughout the film. And Karl would have to yell at her to get her to become wary and frightened and it would kill him to have to do that! He would get so, so depressed from doing that, and as soon as they would yell “Cut!” he would race to her and make sure she was ok. And she was. Happy as a lark after that.

SHOCK: What were the dogs like to work with?

ALEXANDER-WILLIS: They were all rescues. And then they became a part of his acting troupe. He was amazing. He was really amazing to watch! I watched scenes that involved the dogs. I, of course, watched them burning down the house. That was pretty spectacular! I have slides of everything somewhere – back in the day when you took slides. I have a lot of slides actually of filming. They used Vaseline to make the dogs look shiny and scary as well as edible stage blood, but these dogs were having fun. I love the way Karl and all of his trainers took such great care of the dogs! They didn’t over-work them. I mean, they treated them like children, it was beautiful. The leader of the pack, Josh and I bonded. I’m telling you, I really felt like he was my leading man as much as Joe Don was! I hung out with them (the dogs) and the trainer a lot. I don’t really remember how long the shoot was. Probably a month or maybe longer. But the dogs were great – they were brilliant “actors”. I have a wall of photographs from my career, and people. I have Michael Redgrave and I have Tom Stoppard and I have this person and that person and then Josh from THE PACK. Yes, he was a fabulous leading man! He was everything you would look for in a leading man.

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SHOCK: I love that the film employs the coming together of two human packs, if you will, you and your son and Joe Don Baker and his. Did you like this additive to the film? Was there much conversation as to how you would interact with your own son compared to his, and how he would act with his compared to yours?

ALEXANDER-WILLIS: The kids were newbies, pretty much. The first day of shooting (it was shot so completely out of sequence) was the scene where the kids come back after being gone, and I’m like half hysterical because I don’t know if they have been eaten by the dogs. And it was like, “Hi, my name is Hope. How are you?” And then boom! Into the scene! So, I always find that very strange about film. They had stage parents who were there and they were also in school part of the time as well. So we really didn’t have much to do with them besides being on camera together. And you raise an interesting point about disjointed families coming together, it was something in Robert’s script that he wanted to bring to the table, this idea of characters bonding and starting new. It’s a great idea that works on screen. But the boys’ parents were there and not much conversation about all this went on. Their parents were there protecting their kids. They were not heavy-duty stage parents. As a director, I have worked with some heavy-duty stage parents. Let me tell ya, it is not pleasant!

SHOCK: Do you remember the scene with the dead horse?

ALEXANDER-WILLIS: That horse stank! I can’t even tell you! It still makes my nose burn. That horse had been dead a really long time. I think it was like, embalmed or something. I don’t know but, the smell of that horse, dear God! And then that very bloody scene with the old man being attacked by the dogs. Karl did such an amazing job with them, getting them that crazy. I think I even have a photo somewhere, of Karl in my clothes with a wig on, because he would do all the stunts before hand. I don’t remember what it was for because I never really got attacked, I was always in the car or in the house at the end.

SHOCK: The film deals with the repercussions of neglect – that if you abuse your power, it will come back to bite you – what are your thoughts on this?

ALEXANDER-WILLIS: I think it does! You know, I mean, the thing is that people train animals to be brutal. They train them to fight. They train them to be afraid. And any animal that is afraid whether it is four-legged one or a two-legged one is going to attack. That’s what it is. So it’s our responsibility – and I have always said that there are no bad dogs, there’s only bad owners. And I think that is part of what the movie is about: about our responsibility to other animals. If you look at us as a species, as humans, I can’t think of another animal; even rabid ones that are more bestial and ferocious than we are. Our ability to commit crimes against each other are crimes against humanity. It’s purely shocking and I can’t think of another that would perpetrate this kind of madness that we do.

SHOCK: What are your thoughts on the sub-plot involving the man trying to set his man-child son up with the vivacious bimbette?

ALEXANDER-WILLIS: That’s pretty dated now, isn’t it? Well, it’s kind of sexist. I think that was the point. We had some of the greatest character-actors on the planet in this film. The lovely Bibi Besch who is also unfortunately gone. What an amazing actress she was! R.G. Armstrong, Ned Wertimer, and on and on and on. We didn’t have a lot to do in the film together. The one funny thing about Bibi (Bibi being more of a film actor than me at that point) and me being more of a theatre actor, is that we would be in makeup and Bibi would be brushing her hair and having her makeup re-done and all of that. And, I would be like “No, no. Take the make-up off of me. I have been up all night. I need to look really bad! Don’t touch my hair! It really should be a mess!” And there is Bibi getting all glamourized, the gorgeous doll that she was. Yeah. It was great! And R.G. Armstrong was such a lovely, lovely man. I mean, he’s everything you would hope that he was. You know this sort of hard exterior/soft interior kind of guy, you know. What a loss.

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SHOCK: The final siege on the house is incredible – what was the core direction from Robert Clouse here?

ALEXANDER-WILLIS: I think it was a built-set on location. Yeah, because we burned it down. But, the scene where we are fending them off – I broke my wrist. I had like a hair-line fracture on my upper wrist. The window was supposed to be secured. We were poking them with fishing poles, right? Or something. The back-net of a fishing pole. The dog got a hold of it and there was a tug of war and it was supposed to pull me part way through the window. The window was secured well. And so, when It pulled it pulled me off balance and my arm went into the window and cracked. So for the rest of the film – I don’t remember where in the filming it was – I had to wear sort of this soft-cast that they could take off and stuff. It’s a dangerous game! I remember it being very wet and damp. The weather is northern-California, so I was used to it. You know, that’s my home. We were so lucky; we shot out at Bodega Bay and stuff, and it was so beautiful to be near the ocean.

SHOCK: This film was produced by Warner Bros. Did the executives at the time have anything to say about the production?

ALEXANDER-WILLIS: No, the suits weren’t around when I was around. But they may have been at the premiere. We premiered at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. It was a regular kind of Hollywood premiere. Where you walk the red carpet and you see the movie and you go “Oh, my God! My ass looks huge up there on that screen!” or one of those ctor things! My friends love it in a way! They’d totally be scared by it. I still have friends come up to me and go, “This movie is terrifying! Why did you let me watch this movie? It was so scary!”

SHOCK: What are you most proud of in regards to THE PACK?

ALEXANDER-WILLIS: Because I made it a really long time ago. I’m glad to know that people still think really highly of it. It think it was an important movie in it’s time. I think it would have gotten a lot more attention; everything just got so eclipsed the same year by STAR WARS. I think it was really well directed. The music by Lee Holdridge is spectacular! I mean, just spectacular! I think we had a great cast. And a great message! So, I’m proud of it. I think for this genre, so wonderfully made film.