Throughout his professional career, Joe Camp, filmmaker and author, has walked against the grain in many instances. He says that independent streak may have started when he was just a boy, growing up as an only child. “There are some advantages to having siblings,” he says. “But there are also advantages to growing up without. Alone in a sense, you learn to depend on yourself for a lot of things.”

He was also shaped by the fact that his family moved frequently when he was a child. They left his birthplace of St. Louis when he was seven and had brief stops in other Midwest cities before finally settling in Memphis, where they stayed for a number of years. Joe attended high school there, and he says he didn’t do particularly well in high school. “Academically I was okay,” he says. “But I didn’t do as well socially. I was dumped into a school that already had its cliques in place, so I sort of wandered around the edges of groups.”

Joe says he always had an interest in writing and in film. He says that started when he was just seven, sitting in a theatre watching Song of the South.  “For some reason the movie really touched me,” he says. “There I was at the end, a little kid sitting in the theatre with tears in my eyes, and I told myself I wanted to do that someday. Make a film that could really engage people on an emotional level.”

He never forgot that desire, so in high school he got some of his friends together and made some short films with an 8mm camera and no sound. Because of that interest in film, Joe wanted to go to UCLA Film School following high school graduation, but his father talked him into going to Old Miss, at least for two years. Then if he still wanted to go to California, they would find a way to make it happen.  So Joe waited the two years and applied to UCLA, only to be rejected because his grades were not good enough.  At the time he was terribly disappointed, but now he sees it as what needed to happen. “If I had gone to California and graduated from UCLA, I would have been caught up in mainstream Hollywood and Benji would never have happened,” he explains. “Maybe I wouldn’t even be talking to you today.”

A devout Christian, Joe Camp believes that things happen for a reason, and he is grateful now that his life took the course it did, even though it wasn’t always what he wanted at the time. “Sometimes you just have to let events play out and see where it takes you,” he says. “Things work out in ways you least expect it.”

Such was the case with the first Benji movie. Joe and two buddies who worked at the same ad agency in Dallas got together on a regular basis to write movie and television scripts and market them. They wrote spec scripts for a number of television shows, and one day while watching Green Acres, Joe noticed that one of his fraternity brothers Tom Lester had a role on the show. “I decided to contact him, but I knew so little about the film business then I didn’t even know where to send a note,” Joe says. “So I sent a letter to him in care of the network and they got it to him. He wrote back right away and that led to us writing a script for the show.”

That was the first inroad into the film business, but Joe and his partners still wanted to do a feature film. However, they weren’t even thinking about a Benji movie. “That was another one of those God moments,” Joe says. “I was watching the Wonderful World of Disney one evening and saw clips of Lady and The Tramp. I thought it was a cute movie, but it made me wonder if it would be possible to do a movie with a dog as the point of view character. Instead of something anthropomorphic, really get into the heart of an animal. It would have to be done without dialogue, because, for the most part, talking animals only work in animation. Babe is probably the only film I can think of offhand that is the exception.”

Continuing his story about the first thoughts of doing the Benji movie, Joe says he stayed up late that evening to read and his dog, which happened to be named Benji, was in the room with him. A siren went off somewhere in the neighborhood, and Joe watched the dog as it jumped up, went to the window, looked out, then looked back at Joe. “I could see that he had different expressions, and I thought, ‘this is it.’ I got down on the floor and started playing around with him and reading all the different ways he reacted to movements and sounds. It was incredible. The next morning I got up at four o’clock and the whole story tumbled out. 

“At the time I was working with an old Underwood manual typewriter, but I couldn’t type fast enough to get the words down, so I gave up and wrote it all longhand. Later that morning I read it to my wife, Carolyn, and when I was finished, she had tears in her eyes. So I knew I had accomplished what I had vowed I wanted to do when I was a seven-year-old boy sitting in that movie theatre.”

Joe sent the script to his agent, who shopped it around some, but nobody was willing to take a chance on making the movie. It had never been done before. Some people thought the story was too unrealistic to make much of a box office success. So the script ended up sitting in the agent’s office for several years.

In the meantime, Joe got work as a director for a small production company that did corporate and community films. It came about as another one of those serendipitous moments that he attributes to the hand of God, and he jokes about the first film he made that led to that job. “I was asked to do a film for a client of the ad agency I worked for. The city of Denton wanted a little film made about the city. So I went out with the crew and did the movie. But I did the sound first, not knowing that I needed a special camera for the visuals so everything would sync in the editing.

“Needless to say it didn’t work. The sound and visuals were way off. So we had to do some really creative editing to get the film to work with only a few lines of dialogue because that is all that was in sync. In the end, we managed to put together a pretty good film and the production company really liked it, so they hired me to direct more short films.”

Joe stayed with them for a year and a half, then decided to make the first Benji movie. There again he went against the odds and the conventional way of doing business. He shot the film without a distribution deal in place, and when the major Hollywood distributors declined to take it on, he formed his own distribution company with his partner, Ed Vanston, and released the picture worldwide to considerable success. The movie was the third highest grossing movie of that year.

Joe believes that all of these experiences laid the foundation for his desire to write his latest book The Soul of a Horse; Lessons From the Herd.  He says he probably wouldn’t have even thought of looking at life from the point of view of a horse if he hadn’t first done so with the dogs, and he may not have been so willing to go counter to popular thinking about the care of horses, had he not gone against popular thinking when it comes to filmmaking  Following several years of horse ownership and learning how to care for and work with horses, Joe decided to write this book as a way to let other horse owners know that “doing it the way it has always been done” is not necessarily the best way. “Horses have survived in the wild for millions of years,” he says. “So maybe domestic horses would fare better if their living environment was closer to that of their wild counterparts.”

To that end, Joe advocates horses be turned out instead of standing in stalls for most of their days. He also advocates pulling shoes and letting horses go barefoot. Pretty radical ideas for people who have been caring for horses a certain way for at least two centuries. When he learned that the horse Big Brown was to run in the Derby on special plastic shoes that are the next best thing to a horse going barefoot, Joe was anxiously awaiting the results of the race and thrilled when the horse won on Saturday, May 3.  “The colt became the first horse in history to win the Kentucky Derby without metal shoes nailed to his feet. It could be the impetus needed to get tons of metal shoes off horses’ feet so the hooves can flex as their genetics designed them to do.”

Joe hopes his book sells well enough that his publisher will be open to another book about horses and the care of horses. Since buying his first horse six years ago, Joe has done extensive research so he could learn the best way to take care of his small herd and he would like to share what he has learned with others. “We have just barely scratched the surface in Soul of a Horse,” he says. “There is so much more I’ve learned and probably a lot more yet to learn.”

Joe also hopes that people won’t hesitate to read the book because they think it is only a book about horses. He says it is as much about human relationships as animal relationships. “It’s important to give the choice of choice” he says. “To your horse, or your employee, or your friends, or your loved ones. Care enough to want them to be healthy and happy and it will come back a hundredfold.”



Maryann Miller  — Maryann’s Website

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