“It had to do with these questions of life and death and loyalty,” said Mr. Gere, who in a recent telephone interview was careful not to use the word pet to describe the shelter dog his family keeps.
“It does imply a hierarchy of import, doesn’t it?” Mr. Gere said. “I don’t know who’s the master of who in these relationships.”
After joining the film in the role of the professor as well as a producer, Mr. Gere recruited Mr. Hallstrom, who had recently directed him in “The Hoax,” a 2007 film about the forger Clifford Irving.
Mr. Hallstrom, who broke through in the United States with his Swedish coming-of-age film, “My Life as a Dog,” in which the young protagonist is shattered to learn of the death of his family’s hound, said he was wary of taking on material that was in any way similar.
“I had taken pride in being absolutely unsentimental with ‘My Life as a Dog,’ and this was a very sentimental story,” Mr. Hallstrom said in a telephone interview.
But he added that he found the title character in “Hachi” as compelling as any of the humans he’d focused on in his previous films.
“I don’t point fingers at the different incarnations of life,” Mr. Hallstrom said. “Whether it is eccentrics or outsiders or dogs, I want to be as truthful as possible in depicting them.” The film was shot primarily in Rhode Island, using three Akitas to play the different stages of Hachi’s life and his varying dispositions: one dog that was good at sitting calmly, a second that was trained to walk slowly and a third that “ran a lot and jumped a lot and licked people’s faces,” Mr. Hallstrom said. Mr. Gere described his introduction to his four-legged co-stars by an animal trainer as if he were being initiated into a rock star’s entourage.
“He said, ‘Don’t touch them, don’t reach out, don’t even look at them in that first meeting,’ ” Mr. Gere recalled. “ ‘Just come and hang with us and be yourself.’ ”
There was, Mr. Gere said, “a certain amount of anxiety, of would we get along? They cannot be bought.” But after about three days, he said, “One of the dogs came over and put her head right on my lap. And that was a big moment — I was accepted in the pack.”