I haven’t seen any of the films Raja Gosnell has directed, which include Big Momma’s House, the live-action Scooby Doo adaptation and its sequel, and now The Smurfs 2. But when I received an offer to interview him last month, I jumped at the opportunity. I have, admittedly, very little knowledge of how big-budget family movies get made; in fact I tend not to think much at all about matters of filmmaking when considering the genre. This is due, in large part, to the marketing blitz that accompanies the release of any such film nowadays. I don’t have kids, and I’m rarely obliged to review kids’ movies for my job. Why bother seeing the Smurfs in a theater, I figure, when I see enough of them on bus advertisements, backpacks, and fast-food packaging?
I was curious to learn about the concerns a director faces when making a movie in this hypercommercial context. I was also curious to learn how a director of big-budget family films views himself: Is he a player in a large corporate enterprise or its guiding creative spirit? My impression of Gosnell is that he sees his role as falling somewhere between these two extremes. He frequently referred to directing as “my job” and was quick to grant credit to his collaborators (actors, screenwriters, the many computer animators) for the qualities he most liked in his films. He reminded me of the work colleagues whom my father, a chemical engineer for a large pharmaceutical company, would invite over for dinner when I was a boy: a team player who’s well aware of his professional responsibilities, committed to upholding the company standards, polite, a good listener, and somewhat bland in his tastes. The ones who had children seemed to love being parents; their unflagging sense of duty made them well suited to it. I’m probably not the best person to decide whether these qualities make for good children’s movies, so I won’t get into that here. My conversation with Gosnell follows the jump.
Ben Sachs: I’d like to know what got you interested in making movies.
Raja Gosnell: Family movies or movies in general?
Well, let’s go way back. I was in middle school, I had to do a project, and my dad had a Super-8 camera lying around. So, I shot film all over school, not knowing what I was doing, and then I edited it all together in no particular order. Well, there probably was a story order in my head, but I forget what it was. I screened it to the Paul McCartney song “Another Day,” and the song actually played beautifully with the images—they both ended at exactly the same time, which was completely unplanned. To me, that represented the magic of editing.
From that point forward, I was interested in being a film editor. That was my way into the business. I came to work with Chris Columbus, editing the first two Home Alone movies and Mrs. Doubtfire, and moved into directing after that. But I still feel like it’s a bigger version of being alone in my room with that Super-8 camera.
Since you brought it up, what led you to direct family movies?
Like I said, I was editing for Chris Columbus, and in the course of our time together, he made some hugely successful films for a family audience. So when I started to look around for a movie to direct, it was no big surprise that the studios wanted to talk to me about films in that genre. The first movie I directed was Home Alone 3 —which was a no-brainer, since I edited the first two. After that, I directed Never Been Kissed , which isn’t exactly a family film but plays in the same sandbox, so to speak.
And then, the studios just started making more family films. They’re some of the more reliable performers that the studios have. And I happen to be good at them and really, really enjoy making them, so I think it’s my fate.
Once it became your line of work, did you start thinking consciously of how kids would respond to things like your composition of shots or direction of dialogue? Or did you develop a set of gut instincts?
I think I developed my gut instincts by watching Bugs Bunny cartoons growing up. I think Chuck Jones’s sense of timing got in there at an early age. It definitely came into play in my editing of Home Alone. But first and foremost, I read a script and I decide what each scene is about. Different scenes have different functions. Is the most important thing to make people laugh, carry the emotion, or deliver a bit of information? And then I look for the most entertaining way to do that.
As I’m setting up a shot, I’m not thinking of what a five-year-old would think. I’m thinking, “What would make me laugh? What would be a nice touch in this moment?” I don’t start thinking about the five-year-olds until we start screening the movie. Usually the director’s cut is longer and has more stuff that we tried . . . because we ad-lib on set, some edgier things get in there. Sometimes those things remain [in the final cut], but sometimes the preview audiences react strongly against them and we have to take them out. When there’s a lot of money against the movie, those preview audiences are listened to quite seriously.
What’s an example of an edgier joke that you liked but had to cut?
In Smurfs 2, Brendan Gleeson plays Neil Patrick Harris’s stepfather, and he’s a big, John Candy-type character who busts into a room and says inappropriate things. We had a scene like that. He’s known as the “Corn Dog King”—everybody knows him from selling corn dogs on TV. And so, he’s going around handing out special corn dogs to everyone, putting a little twist on the corn dogs based on how the person might look or what their character might be. We thought it was hilarious, but it proved a little too edgy for some of our parents in the focus group. We had to take it away, but . . . [laughing] it will always remain in our hearts. Brendan did such a great job with that.
Brendan Gleeson is in this movie?!
Yes. It was such a gift that he decided to do this movie. We were looking around for an actor to play Uncle Victor, and we even found a few. But then Brendan came up, and it was like, “Wow! He’s interested in doing this?” We were surprised, because he’s known for such high-profile roles. I mean, he was in The Guard—he was in Braveheart, for God’s sake! Why would he want to do a movie with Smurfs? But he’s got kids, and the opportunity of being transformed into a duck was a big draw for him. And he really connected with the family message.
His character is Neil’s stepfather: he came into the house after his [biological] father had left and did everything he could to be a parent to him. But Neil’s character had so much anger in him that he never really saw that. Even now, he has a kid of his own and he still harbors that resentment. Through the course of the movie, he comes to find out that that anger was misplaced, and Neil has a beautiful epiphany moment when he realizes how much Victor did for him. Those are the kinds of scenes that make [Smurfs 2] different from the first one. I think people aren’t going to expect this interest in psychology and family.
Do you feel more satisfied with this one than with the first Smurfs movie?
I feel very satisfied. It’s just a more interesting story. Smurfette was created by Gargamel, but she was taken into the [Smurfs’] village and, through the Smurfs loving her and a special potion Papa [Smurf] made to turn her blue, she became a full-fledged Smurf. But, in the back of her mind, she knows she was created by the Smurfs’ archenemy, and that haunts her a bit.
So when she ends up with Gargamel and his new creations, the Naughties, they start preying on that. You know, Gargamel says to her, “Welcome home, my daughter.” He starts manipulating her in hopes that she’ll give over the special formula that he needs.
It sounds like there’s a running theme of surrogate family versus biological family.
Exactly. We have parallel stories, with Neil and his stepfather and with Papa Smurf, who’s Smurfette’s stepfather. You could say that’s the overarching theme of the movie: What constitutes a family? I think it’s struck a chord with a lot of people so far. Unfortunately you don’t see any of that in the trailer—it’s all Gargamel devising punishments for the Smurfs. [laughs] But I hope people give us a chance and find the deeper movie under all that.
Did you talk with the screenwriters while they were writing the movie? Or do you typically rework a script after it’s completed?
Jordan [J. David Stern] crafted the story. While I was [directing] [The Smurfs], he was off thinking of what the story of Smurfs 2 might be with some other writers. They touched on the Smurfette creation story as jumping-off point . . . The basic structure was hashed out in those early sessions.
Then I got involved. I mostly did story stuff. Having been a director for 15 years and an editor for ten years before that, I’m very conscious of storytelling, progression, and all that stuff. Sometimes scenes exist [in the first draft] that don’t need to, or we can take the thought of one scene and integrate it into something else. It was a bit of an editing process. I didn’t write dialogue and I didn’t recast the original story. I guess I’m the relief pitcher of the screenwriting process.
I reworked the second act. I had the idea that, when [the characters] are in Paris, they should fly through Paris. I cooked up a scene where the Smurfs get on storks and fly through Paris. I also got the idea that Vexy would start to manipulate Smurfette and make her feel like party of the [Naughty] family.
Are there any movies you look to as the gold standard for this kind of storytelling, as models you can refer to when you’re refashioning the script?
Not on a conscious level—I mostly rely on my gut. But like I said earlier, my gut instinct comes from watching a lot of things. So I’m sure I’m cribbing somebody’s work at any given point! But, look, everyone [in family films] for the past ten or 15 years has been trying to do live-action Pixar. It’s sort of been a mantra: “How do we get that Pixar charm into a live-action movie?”
The answer is . . . you kind of can’t. The Pixar movies exist in their own universe because they create their own universe. In our universe of hybrid film, it’s live human beings and animated characters interacting. I could never go into a studio and pitch the plot of Up. It would cost $200 million dollars! But Pixar is the gold standard. We all look to them for simplicity of storytelling and great characters.
Since you’re committed to live-action, would you ever want to work outside of family films?
Of course I would, though I like making family movies a lot. It makes me sad that they’re less valued by the critical community—and, to be honest, the entertainment community as well. I think that’s not fair. Family movies really help to keep the lights on at the studios and pay for some of the more adult movies that get made. I think the common perception is that family movies don’t require that much talent to make, which is unfair to all the amazing people I work with—the editors, the directors of photography, the animators. These people pour their souls into these movies. And they have fun every single day they do it.
One of the things I’m most proud of in Smurfs 2 is that these little blue CG-animated creatures have a tremendous amount of soul and humanity to them. That comes from the skill of the artists, the vocal performances . . . it’s all these people coming together to make the characters. When you look at that little Smurf onscreen, you want to believe that it has a heartbeat, that it has feelings.
You mention the vocal performances. Could you describe how those are created?
Well, as the director of the movie, it’s my job to direct those performances. The first session is always kind of an expedition. We have the words on the paper, we have our great actor or actress, but we don’t really know who the character is yet. Finding the vocal quirks for that character takes a while. So, we usually record four or five lines, then see how we’re feeling. “Maybe she should play it a little more innocent, play around with that . . .”
Once we lock into the character, it’s my job in the early recording sessions—since there’s no movie, it’s just the script and a dark room—is to tell [the actors] where we’re at in the movie. “Right before this scene, so-and-so did this and you saw it. So you’re a bit upset, but you’re trying to keep it in control.” I’ve got to cue up the scene for them and get them in the right emotional state. Or say we’re recording a joke: If it makes us laugh, it’s good; if it doesn’t, we dissect it a bit.
Is it ever frustrating when you don’t have the image on hand when you’re trying to elicit a particular emotion from the actors?
Not for me. It can be for the actors, but it’s not like we have one session and we’re done forever. I think all the actors know that. Everyone usually does about eight sessions before the film is done. We record the script as best we know, but then as we’re shooting, things come up. People ad-lib, the staging changes, lots of different things can happen. So we have follow-up sessions.
But, look, I am the opposite of a funny guy. There’s no way I could tell John Oliver or George Lopez how to be funny. I try to explain what I think would make something funny, but ultimately they have to process the material and make it work. And nine times out of ten they do.