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For the love of horses (and Benji): Filmmaker finds new home in Bedford County

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

(Photo)
Joe Camp with Mr. Cash.
(Photo by Kathleen Camp)
In the early 1970s, Joe Camp had a great idea for a movie, built around a unique central character.

The Hollywood studios, however, didn't see it that way, and all of them rejected the project. The head of distribution for Universal Studios said he liked the movie but didn't think he could convince others to do the work that would be required to sell it. He suggested that Camp distribute the movie himself.

(Photo)
Joe Camp holds the dog which starred in 2004's "Benji Off The Leash," and who now lives with the Camps in their Bedford County home.
(T-G photo by John I. Carney)
So Camp ended up writing, producing, directing and distributing "Benji." The movie starred Higgins, a mixed-breed former shelter dog who had previously appeared on the TV show "Petticoat Junction" and who was trained by Frank Inn.

There had been other movies and TV shows focusing on dogs, of course, from Rin Tin Tin to Lassie, but those stories were generally told from the viewpoint of the human beings who were rescued by the dog, befriended by or separated from the dog. "Benji" would use Higgins' variety of expressions, combined with clever visual storytelling, to make the dog truly the central character.

"The dog is the three-dimensional character," said Camp, "not the humans. The humans are the props."

'We ... finally hit the long ball'

The movie, made in Texas for a shoestring compared with Hollywood productions, went on to gross millions, due not only to the film's charm and quality but to Camp's persistent marketing, opening the film city-by-city instead of all at once and insisting -- in the days before multiplexes were common -- that the film be shown in the best-available theater in each market.

The movie rating system was still fairly new, and the movie industry was treating it as permission to test the limits of what could be shown on screen. That left little in the way of clean but imaginative family entertainment, a gap that Camp was more than happy to step in and fill. And, yet, in many cases it was adults, not just kids, who made up "Benji"s audience. The movie built word-of-mouth traffic through the adults who came to see it, said Camp.

Learning to be a distributor was a learning process for Camp as a filmmaker.

"Every decision I made in the beginning was wrong," said Camp. But he was a quick study, and by the end of the first summer the movie had started taking off.

"We went the whole summer and finally hit the long ball," said Camp.

The start of the school year tends to reduce attendance for family movies, so Camp ended up waiting until the following summer to resume his city-by-city campaign, and the film shocked everyone with its continued success.

'The best years we had together'

"Benji" became a franchise, with a series of theatrical movies, TV specials and a Saturday-morning live action television series, with Camp busy producing, directing and writing. Benjean, a female dog fathered by Higgins, took over the role of Benji after the first movie. (There is a third Benji, the most recent, but we'll get to her a little later.)

Camp also directed two non-Benji films, "Hawmps" (about a Western cavalry outpost trying to use camels instead of horses) and "The Double McGuffin," a mystery with kids as the central characters.

In 1989, two years after "Benji The Hunted" was released to theaters, Camp's wife Carolyn had a stroke. She recovered 96 percent of her original brain function, but it caused Joe and Carolyn to value their time in a way that hadn't been possible during the busy years of marketing the Benji franchise. Camp says that Carolyn's last years were "the best years that we really had together."

Carolyn died in December 1997.

Meanwhile, Joe Camp had taken the Benji property and put it into a partnership, one that Camp hoped would give him the freedom to produce Benji projects while leaving the responsibility for distributing them to someone else.

But the partnership turned sour, leading to a series of legal disputes. While those were costly, they led to something life-changing for Joe Camp: the company with which Camp had liability insurance assigned an attorney named Kathleen to work on one of the cases, and she and Camp fell in love. They married in May 2001.

"I had the most expensive marriage you would ever put together," he quipped.

Discovering a new world of horses

They settled in California, where Kathleen had been living, but Joe began talking about getting away almost immediately.

(Photo)
Joe Camp with Saffron and Firestorm.
(Photo by Kathleen Camp)
The couple had begun raising horses, as the result of a birthday gift, and Joe became fascinated with the techniques and ideas of Monty Roberts, author of "The Man Who Listens To Horses." Roberts believes that you must gently, through positive methods, teach a horse to trust your leadership and follow you willingly. Roberts' term for this is that horse and trainer "join up." Camp tried Roberts' techniques and was moved to tears when the horse came up to him and touched his shoulder.

Soon, Joe had decided to write down his own ideas about raising and working with horses.

Designed to run free

"The Soul of a Horse: Life Lessons from the Herd," written by Joe Camp with a foreword by Roberts, was published in 2009. Although Camp had only been working with horses for a year and a half when he wrote the book, it became a best-seller. Camp has published a follow-up book, "The Soul of a Horse Blogged," as well as a number of smaller books building on ideas related to the first book. He and Kathleen have a Website, http://thesoulofahorse.com, and Camp is working on a new book, "Born Wild -- The Soul of a Horse."

Camp has also written a book about his filmmaking experiences, "Who Needs Hollywood."

Basically, Camp's ideas relate to creating an environment for horses more like what they would experience in the wild, and for which their physiology is designed. Camp, who'd always been told that horseshoes were necessary to keep a horse's hooves from disintegrating on concrete or asphalt, heard other voices, saying that simply wasn't the case, and in fact Camp said the way that an unshod hoof flexes helps promote the flow of blood through a horse's leg.

"Horses are born to be on grass," said Camp.

'They can take care of themselves'

He believes that sugar-based and molasses-based horse feeds are detrimental, and the best thing is to allow the horses access to a variety of naturally pesticide-free, herbicide-free vegetation.

"When they have those choices," he said, "they can take care of themselves." He said horses will naturally lose weight because of their winter diet, and gain it back when the sugar-rich spring grass becomes available.

"The human wants to keep them the same all the time," he said.

Camp does feed his horses nutritional supplements.

Escape from the Golden State

Joe and Kathleen Camp had horses in California, but they were looking to move, as California's financial problems increased the tax burden on residents. Joe Camp loved his movie-making career, but he's amused by people who assume that anyone with a connection to the entertainment industry must be fabulously wealthy. Camp, after all, had to repay investors and then had the legal battle over the partnership.

Joe said he and Kathleen were looking for a place where they and their six horses would feel comfortable, with plenty of room, affordable on a fixed income, and not too far from an airport, fresh fish, or Starbucks.

Camp contacted his network of friends, including his Ole Miss fraternity brothers, for suggestions.

The couple considered moving to Mina, Ark., but just as Kathleen was driving to the airport to check out a possible home, it was sold. She made the trip anyway, looking at other sites, and a tornado struck the town just after she returned. In any case, nothing seemed like a perfect fit.

Two weeks later, the Camps heard about a new possibility, in a place called Bedford County, Tennessee.

"I think we found a needle in a haystack," he said. "It's a God thing."

Some friends warned him that the house was in a "founder valley," meaning that his horses would founder from grasses with too much sugar. But Camp was able to apply his principles and the horses have been running free on the property for three years last month.

"They've been happy, healthy campers," he said. He now has eight horses.

Starbucks? While there's none in the county, the nearest location is just 20 minutes away from the farm, and that's close enough to satisfy the Camps.

In God's hands

Eventually, Kathleen got tired of the impersonal world of insurance law and of commuting to Murfreesboro or further. She'd always wanted to teach, and she ended up teaching 11th grade literature at The Webb School in Bell Buckle.

"Where else in the country could that have happened?" Camp asked. "Both of us were, like, 'It's in your hands, God.'"

Camp sees God at work at a number of junctures in his life. He was interested in movie-making from an early age, and dreamed of going to the University of California at Los Angeles to study film. But, at the insistence of his parents, he ended up going to Ole Miss first, even though the school had no filmmaking program. After two years, he tried to transfer to UCLA, but his grades were three-tenths of a point too low.

"I thought my life was over," he said.

He now believes that what he learned at Ole Miss turned out to be more valuable, and more critical to the success of Benji's grass-roots marketing, than the nuances of filmmaking he would have learned at UCLA.

"You don't need to study movies," he imagines God telling him. "You need to study marketing and advertising."

Life with a movie star

The last Benji movie was "Benji: Off The Leash," released in 2004, 17 years after "Benji The Hunted." For "Off The Leash," Joe and Kathleen found a new shelter dog in Mississippi to play the part of Benji, with the search documented by an ABC news crew. That dog still lives with the Camps here in Bedford County.

A new Benji?

The Benji story may not be over. Camp's son Brandon, one of his two children with Carolyn, is working with Walden Media, a leader in financing and packaging uplifting, family-friendly movies like the "Chronicles of Narnia" series, on a movie which would re-launch the "Benji" franchise. Brandon Camp was the director of the Jennifer Aniston / Aaron Eckhardt romantic comedy "Love Happens." The Internet Movie Database lists the new movie as being in pre-production.

Joe Camp said that if everything falls into place, the budget for the new movie will be more than the budgets of all of his Texas-based Benji movies combined, and then some.

Meanwhile, Joe and Kathleen are content with their dogs, horses and chickens, and their new home in Tennessee.