Toby Jones, creator of 'AJ Goes to the Dog Park,' calls the locally-filmed comedy 'an extremely Fargo movie'
The Fargo native who worked for the Cartoon Network calls his new film "a pretty ‘ope’ forward project."
FARGO — As teenagers, Toby Jones and his friends ran around Fargo-Moorhead making goofy movies.
That paved the way for Jones to study film in college, move to Los Angeles and work on shows at Cartoon Network.
Twenty years later, he finds himself back in Fargo working with many of those same friends on another goofy movie, the comedy “AJ Goes to the Dog Park.”
“It’s all part of the same continuum,” he says. “There’s a through line. I’m making this movie at 36. The movies we were making in high school in the backyard, there’s a similar spirit. It’s creatively freeing.”
AJ is played by Jones’ friend AJ Thompson. The AJ in the movie has a good life until his beloved dog park is replaced by a blog park by the mayor, prompting AJ to take action.
“It’s kind of an odyssey to get his dog park back,” Jones says.
Or, as he writes in the film’s description, “He must fight, fish, scrap, scrape and sap to get it back.”
"It was a silly tongue-twister and then it became the whole movie,” Jones says.
Jones writes and directs the movie, a project that has been in the works for a few years.
Actually, it's the third "AJ" project he's created, following 2006's "AJ Goes to France" and the 2014 short film, "AJ's Infinite Summer."
During the pandemic, Jones realized he didn’t have to be in Los Angeles to be working so he started coming back to visit for periods of time to continue the project.
After graduating from Fargo South High in 2005, Jones got a degree in filmmaking from Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Two years later he started working at Cartoon Network’s "Regular Show” as a storyboard artist and writer. He stayed with the show for five years and was nominated for two Emmys. He then worked with Ian Jones-Quartey’s “OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes” for five years.
Recently he’s been working for Apple, Netflix, Warner Bros. and Cartoon Network, in particular as a writer on Apple’s “Shape Island” and a writer and storyboard artist for Warner Bros. “Jellystone!”
He didn’t need the impressive resume to get his friends on board with making “AJ Goes to the Dog Park.”
In addition to Thompson, who also serves as a producer, the crew includes producer Ben Hanson and director of photography Tucker Lucas.
Hanson and Jones have known each other since 2001 when they were freshmen at Discovery Middle School.
When they started making movies, Hanson took jobs behind the scenes, writing, wrangling props, driving people to and from sets.
“Now it’s just like that but with more events,” Hanson says. “It’s like being a project manager for the silliest projects imaginable.”
Hanson also does some accounting and film scheduling with different locations. Among other places, the filmmakers have shot in the Fargo Jet Center, Fargo's Carlson Library, Minnesota State University Moorhead, Thunder Coffee in West Fargo and the homes of filmmaker/teacher Greg Carlson and radio personality/actor JJ Gordon. And, of course, the Village West Dog Park at 4415 9th Ave. Cir S., Fargo, with a Fargo water tower looming above.
While AJ and the canine playground are real, the evil mayor who converts the dog park into a blog park is, “a fully fictional cartoonish creation” played by Crystal Cossette Knight.
Cossette Knight didn’t grow up with Jones and company and Hanson says there can be a learning curve for actors joining the troupe.
“New people have to get used to how silly and cartoony the dialogue is,” the producer says.
“It’s really about making myself and my friends laugh. We’re making something we want to see,” Jones says. “Why aren’t there movies that are absurd and crazy and make you laugh?”
A 16-minute version of the film, “AJ Goes to the Dog Park: Part One,” was screened at this year’s Fargo Film Festival in March and was a hit.
“It was fun to watch with an audience and see what was getting laughs,” the director says.
He plans to finish shooting this month, then start post-production which will take a while to finish the feature-length film. Although it is live-action, there are digital effects used in the piece.
Members of the band Secret Cities — featuring more of Jones’ friends — will record music for the film.
He believes he’ll have it ready for film festivals in 2024 and hopes to screen it at the Fargo Theatre.
“The goal for me is for it to find its audience. It’s a pretty specific comedy. We’re hoping that that translates to someone looking for this kind of movie too,” Jones says. “It’s an extremely Fargo movie. It’s got Fargo people, places and names. People drink milk at dinner. Actually, there are a lot of ‘opes’ in the movie. It’s a pretty ‘ope’ forward project.”