“You can’t help but worry about a film that relies on a dog’s performance…” - Director Simon Curtis talks making The Art Of Racing In The Rain
After bringing to life the troubled origins of Winnie The Pooh and its creator AA Milne with Goodbye Christopher Robin, you might have thought director Simon Curtis might want a break from charming, whimsical animals. But he’s dived right back in for new drama The Art Of Racing In The Rain.
This new film is narrated by a dog named Enzo, who recalls the life lessons he has learned from his race car driving owner, Denny. He takes us through his ups, his downs and his adventures with his owners.
The film stars Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Seyfried and Gary Cole, with Kevin Costner voicing Enzo the dog.
Curtis is in charge, working from a script from Mark Bomback, who adapts Gary Stein's bestselling novel of the same name.
With the arriving in cinemas today and due for release on DVD later this year, we spoke to Curtis about what it’s like to direct when your central character is golden retriever…
This film has been in development for almost a decade, how did you come to get involved?
“I’d first read it a number of years ago. I share an agent with Patrick Dempsey and he gave me the script with a view to doing it. I loved it, I loved the emotion of it and it worked on so many levels. It’s a film about a family, but there’s also the dog and all the racing, so much to dig into.”
Could you see how you would pull it off technically?
“You can’t help but worry about a film that relies on a dog’s performance. Normally, when you get a script, you can go through and work out which days will be the tough days. But, for this, every scene relied on the dog doing so much. We were tremendously lucky with Parker, the dog we choose and a really top group of trainers. I’d go as far as saying that Parker is one of the best actors I’ve worked with.”
It’s not like that you can rehearse with a dog?
“Each scene, the dog needed to do a variety of things and that all had to be broken down individually. You also had to accommodate the trainer, who would be clicking and offering the dog food to get things done. It had to be in the dog’s eye line, so I had to plot every scene to avoid shooting the trainer at the same time. It was like 3D Sudoku.”
How did you find setting up shots with that kind of variable in play?
“There’s a myth about directing that you do it all. You assemble a brilliant team on both sides of the camera and you support them. Fox had made Marley and Me and they had great contacts in the dog training world. Neal Moritz helped create Fast and Furious and that was very helpful with all the racing sequences.”
How did you find the right dog?
“It was more choosing the right breed. In the book, the dog is a mixed breed, but you can’t do that in the film. We needed to have a dog looking a variety of ages and you need one breed. I’m so glad we chose the golden retriever, they’re such smart and sensitive animals with these beautiful faces. There are a lot of close-ups in the film and I never got tired of looking at those faces.”
How did you decide on Milo and Amanda?
“I had met Milo on another film which didn’t end up happening. I knew I liked him and I thought he was an incredibly good fit for the character. He looks like a racing driver, and, as anyone who has seen him in This Is Us and Gilmore Girls will testify, he’s got an incredibly empathetic, sensitive quality. He was perfect.”
What about Amanda?
“I’d always wanted to work with her. I’d loved her in Mamma Mia and Les Miserables. She’s also a tremendous dog lover. The biggest challenge for her was playing a character who wasn’t initially that keen on dogs. That was going against the grain for her.”
There’s also Ryan Kiera Armstrong, who plays their daughter Zoe, was she hard to find?
“It was more conventional, but I met a lot of young actors before finding the right one. I’ve always been quite lucky with my kids. I did David Copperfield for the BBC and I cast a boy who’d never acted before, that turned out to be Daniel Radcliffe. I’ve always enjoyed finding new talent and working with young actors. Ryan was one of the best I have worked with.”
How long did it take you to find Enzo’s voice?
“No time at all. Kevin Costner knew the story and wanted to do it. I wanted an iconic, American voice to be the dog. It needed weight to it, it’s a dog recounting his life.”
How did you record the voice? Was the film shot and then you put Kevin’s voice on afterwards?
“That’s right. On set, we had someone read in the voiceover, just to make sure we had enough space in the cuts. I think the reason the book has been so successful, and it’s sold over six million copies, is the dog’s voice. It’s so wise. The audience enjoy seeing it come to life.”
Did you enjoy capturing all the motor racing sequences?
“It was fun. We had a big second unit because there are so many different race meetings. We needed a lot of different locations and cars and crew. It’s also not like you can hire a bunch of extra to do a pit change, it’s a skilled job.”
“Everything around cars is so expensive. I was lucky I had a great team to get me through. I’m thrilled with the sequences, they look amazing. But it was another layer of complication, if there wasn’t a dog in the scene, there was a car.”
When you finish promoting this, do you know what’s next?
“Not in the sense that I’m ready to announce anything. I have a few things I’m working on, but it's a strange time for the film business. To me, films come together when they’re meant to. This is a classic example of that. A long time in development, but it found the right cast and the right time.”
Having worked with a dog and in the 100-Acre-Wood with Winnie The Pooh and Tigger, do you fancy something with just humans next time?
“They do say never work with children or animals. I’d like to add racing cars into that mix as well…”
The Art Of Racing In The Rain is released into UK cinemas on August 9th.