By Michael Miller
4:43 PM EDT, April 26, 2013
Talk about underdogs.
This year's Newport Beach Film Festival features a slew of marquee names, from rocker Billie Joe Armstrong to "Office" star Steve Carell to Oscar-nominated director Lasse Hallstrom. But when tickets went on sale April 1, the film that sold out first belonged to a group of stars with decidedly lower stature.
Those would be the canine leads of "Wiener Dog Nationals," a family comedy by first-time feature director Kevan Peterson that will have its world premiere Saturday at the Island Cinema 7. The filmmaker expects a crowd of dachshund owners to bring their pets to the screening — the theater, for this showing only, will lift its no-dog policy — and they'll have more than just the premiere to celebrate.
"We can now officially say we sold out before Green Day," said Peterson, a Los Angeles resident.
As a lover of the breed, Peterson felt proud to contribute to the admittedly slim history of dachshund-centric cinema. Wiener dogs have had notable bit parts in many movies — Peterson cited Slinky Dog in the "Toy Story" trilogy as a favorite — but only occasionally have they scored the leading role.
An Internet Movie Database title search brings up a 1915 silent comedy titled "Dicky's Demon Dachshund" (of which the Moving Picture World declared at the time, "Some amusing incidents occur in the picture which will be found to be a comedy worthwhile"), plus a 1917 animated short called "Evolution of the Dachshund." An episode of a 1970s mystery TV show also sports the grim title "Dirge for a Dead Dachshund."
Most prominent is the 1966 live-action Disney comedy "The Ugly Dachshund," in which a Great Dane puppy grows up amid a litter of wieners and needs an intervention to realize it isn't one of them.
Having already made his first foray into the genre, Peterson hopes to expand it again with his next film: the sequel "Wiener Dog Internationals," which is scheduled to start shooting this fall.
For now, though, he has a packed weekend ahead. "Wiener Dog Nationals" is part of a two-day family program at the festival, which includes classic Warner Bros. cartoons, dozens of other live-action and animated shorts, the high school drama "Underdogs" (about football, not dachshunds) and 1996's "Muppet Treasure Island," among others.
Finding his film in that company at all was a vindication for Peterson, who conceived the original idea after he attended the Wiener Nationals race in Los Alamitos in 2007. Although a boyhood friend of Peterson's had dachshunds, he never owned one himself. Still, he enjoyed the event so much that he approached representatives from Wienerschnitzel, which sponsors the annual race, and pitched an idea for a film about the competition.
Wienerschnitzel gave the filmmaker permission to use the company's logo — which features prominently throughout — and shoot footage at the Wiener Nationals. Tom Amberger, the vice president of marketing for Wienerschnitzel's parent company, the Galardi Group, said the restaurant chain hopes to promote the movie through marketing tie-ins in the coming months.
In terms of funding the film, though, Peterson was on his own. After unsuccessfully courting production companies, he scraped together a budget through funding platform Kickstarter and private investors. Soon, though, he got a major name in his cast: Morgan Fairchild, a veteran of "Dallas" and other TV shows, signed on to play the villainess Ms. Merryweather. The part had originally been written for a man, but when Fairchild expressed interest, Peterson happily rewrote the script for her.
"Wiener Dog Nationals," which will have a second screening Sunday at the Triangle Square Cinemas, tells the story of a boy who learns that his deceased mother owned a championship dachshund as a girl. He persuades his father to adopt a rescue dog — which his snide teenage brother labels "so disgustingly cute" — and enter it in a race. The dog, Shelly, who sports a lightning bolt-shaped birthmark on one leg, turns out to be a natural, and she racks up victories as Ms. Merryweather, whose dachshund is the reigning champion, attempts to thwart her progress.
The part of Shelly required three dachshunds and a pair of trainers, who had the toughest time not in any of the racing scenes but rather with one small moment: a scene in which the family's daughter dresses up Shelly for a tea party at home. Those few seconds, Peterson said, took half a day to film simply because the dachshund kept shaking off its costume.
"It did not want to keep the hat on top of its head," he recalled.
'Wiener Dog Nationals'
Where: Island Cinema 7, 999 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach (Saturday); Triangle Square Cinemas, 1870 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa (Sunday)
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday; 12:30 p.m. Sunday
Cost: Both screenings sold out, but check venue box offices for last-minute tickets
Information: (949) 253-2880 or http://www.newportbeachfilmfest.com