Susie wraps in Winston-Salem: Independent drama recounts tragedy and triumph

by Mark Burger

Having become a symbol for animal rights, Susie is now on her way to becoming a movie star.

In August 2009, barely a year old, Susie — a pit-bull shepherd mix puppy — was savagely beaten, set on fire and left to die in a Greensboro park. This shocking act of cruelty sparked a national controversy and led to the passage of what is commonly known as “Susie’s Law,” which strengthened penalties for animal abuse and made the crime a Class A felony.

The law (HB 1609, S.B. 254) was passed in June 2010 and, indeed, Susie was on hand to witness Gov. Beverly Perdue sign it. Having recovered, some would say remarkably, from her injuries, Susie was adopted by Roy and Donna Lawrence. Indeed, she’s living happily and healthily ever after, despite some pretty steep odds.

The independent drama Susie, filmed principally in and around Winston-Salem, recounts this real-life tale (no pun intended) of canine courage and human compassion. The film is as much about the Lawrences — Donna is played by Emmanuelle Vaugier (Saw II, Saw IV, Dolan’s Cadillac) and Roy by local actor Burgess Jenkins (Remember the Titans, Wesley) — as it is about Susie herself.

Among those who lobbied hard for the passage of “Susie’s Law” was Sen. Don Vaughan, played in the film by Jon Provost, well remembered for his role opposite another illustrious canine as Timmy in the hit CBS family series “Lassie.”

As for the title role, Susie takes center stage. Although some scenes were filmed using a double and others an animatronic dog, there’s no question who the star of the show was. What’s more, joked Laura Hart McKinny, one of the film’s producers, “Susie was the easiest actor to work with!” The project, which was entirely locally financed thanks to a grant from the Randall B. Terry Charitable Foundation and investors who matched the grant, came together in less than a year’s time. The majority of the film’s crew was comprised of graduates from the UNCSA School of Filmmaking, where McKinny is a faculty member.

When first approached about the project, McKinny admitted she turned it down, thinking it was planned as a documentary or short film. But the notion of a dramatic feature piqued her interest, and upon meeting the actual title character, she knew she had to be a part of it.

“All you have to do is meet Susie and that’s it,” she said. “She just steals your heart.”

Like many involved in Susie, director Jerry Rees fell in love with the story immediately. Although he’s worked extensively with Disney Studios during his career — including live-action (The Marrying Man), animation (The Brave Little Toaster) and more than a dozen attractions, including one he’s currently overseeing in Hong Kong — he describes himself as a “gypsy independent,” always on the lookout for something that stimulates his creative energy. Along came Susie.

The film was completed in a breakneck 19-day schedule, with some 900 set-ups. Said Rees: “Every day, we hit the ground running, we finished the day running, and we slept running!” Nevertheless, he said, “There’s an exhilaration to that” — and it was a feeling shared by cast and crew alike. One of the first things Rees told them was: “Let’s make this the best thing we’ve ever done.”

The required depictions of animal abuse “are gut-wrenching scenes… [and] tough scenes, and I didn’t want to dwell on them,” Rees said, “but they were necessary. If you’re true enough, it reaches the audience’s heart.”

“It’s a four-hankie movie,” adds editor Michael Jablow, a long-time friend and collaborator of Rees’ who, not unlike him, was immediately struck by the power of the piece.

Jablow, who first worked with Rees on The Marrying Man (1991) — a Neil Simon comedy perhaps best remembered as the film that brought Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger together — was already assembling the footage days after shooting began. Shooting on highdefinition video was more cost-effective than shooting on actual film, but not at the expense of the film’s look, according to McKinny.

“The footage is stunning,” she said.

“I’m elated by what I’ve seen so far.”

It’s not an overstatement to describe Susie as a labor of love for all concerned, and filming her story in her own proverbial backyard with many of the actual participants on hand as technical advisers lent a further note of positivity to the project. The story of Donna and Roy Lawrence is at least as dramatic as that of their Susie.

“It’s been amazing to have the real people co-mingling with us on and off the set,” said Rees. “They brought a great energy. We were really moved by how truthful and authentic they were.”