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“Head Down, Mind Open:” The cinema of Raja Gosnell

Raja Gosnell discusses the beginning of his career, three of his films, filmmaking, and the backlash to his latest project, Show Dogs.

By: Steve Pulaski

If Tumblr cinephiles can use the platform to create concepts such as “vulgar auteurism” and Michael Bay and Paul W.S. Anderson can have apologist pieces, I don’t see why I can’t devote a little of the web’s real estate to Raja Gosnell. You’ll at least know one of his movies: Scooby-Doo, its sequel, The Smurfs, its sequel, Beverly Hills ChihuahuaBig Momma’s House, the third Home Alone film, or maybe Show Dogs, his latest, which stirred up a lot of controversy. Gosnell has been directing since 1997, but his editing credits go all the way back to Adventures in Babysitting and Pretty Woman, further emphasizing his range as a filmmaker. Even for purists’ tastes, this is an enviable slate of feel-good entertainment.

My decision to look into Gosnell is an odd one. It came shortly after seeing Show Dogs, a film faithful readers will recall I wasn’t necessarily enamored with, but one that boasted a director with whom I was vaguely familiar. Not long after seeing that film, I scoured the internet seeing if I could watch an interview with the man or find a little bit more on the enigmatic soul who was routinely entrusted with eight/nine-figure budgets to adapt some of American culture’s most iconic properties into feature-films. The interviews and information I found was merely adequate, which was not surprising. Why would anyone take the time to dig into the complexities or process behind making live-action/CGI hybrids and talking dog movies when there are more Fritz Lang and Ingmar Bergman thinkpieces to be penned?

The Process:

I decided to watch/rewatch most of Raja Gosnell’s films before sitting down to write this blog (the only one I still have yet to see is The Smurfs 2). As far as my methodology is concerned, after some thought, I decided to take three of his films and examine their cinematic and structural features. Those films are Yours, Mine & OursBeverly Hills Chihuahua, and The Smurfs. I felt looking at those three, in particular, would provide obvious contrasts. Yours, Mine & Ours is a live-action family comedy with an incredibly large ensemble cast. Beverly Hills Chihuahua is a talking dog comedy heavily bent on Californian/Mexican culture, and The Smurfs is a hybrid of live-action and CG-animation. Gosnell is a filmmaker who typically works on a large scale, and after some consideration, these three films seemed like the most logical to explore.

But as I was primed to finish writing and release the blog before my self-imposed July 30th deadline, I pondered whether or not I’d be able to get in contact with the man himself. After reaching out to his agent, which led to two subsequent, 45-minute phone-calls with Gosnell, this piece now has more life, insight, heart, and wit than I could’ve imagined.

The Beginnings:

When speaking one-on-one, Gosnell couldn’t be more mellow. He comes to our two-part phoner armed with a wealth of knowledge and on-set experiences. Overtime, you begin to understand how he views film in an almost mathematical sense. He enjoys using the term “puzzle” in order to describe how to effectively manage all the elements on the production and post-production side of things, and doesn’t shy away from wanting to go big with his setpieces and hijinks. It’s how he broke into the industry after all. Upon working as one of several editors on Amerika, an ABC miniseries from the late eighties, he was noticed by his then-production supervisor who recommended him to director Chris Columbus. He would go on to edit the favorable “Babysitting Blues” scene in Adventures in Babysitting, and then become the primary editor for Columbus’ Heartbreak HotelHome Alone, its sequel, and several other projects from the popular director.

Gosnell also has a very blue-collar sensibility to filmmaking. He more-than-once during both of our conversations says his typical response to any kind of turmoil during production (studio interference, less-than-positive screenings, logistical issues) is to keep his head down and work through the issue, again loaning to the aforementioned conceit of film as a puzzle. Puzzles of any kind need to be approached with an open mind and a respectful patience, and Gosnell seems to have enough to go around.

Gosnell’s story of how he became entranced with filmmaking began at the most fundamental stage: editing. Unlike many directors, who aspire to be a certain auteur or emulate their own personal godfathers of the medium, Gosnell looked to replicate that special feeling he got when he successfully edited his first short film on his father’s Super 8 bench. He was only in eighth grade and had recently shot some footage around his school, and without thinking, successfully timed the footage with the Paul McCartney song “Just Another Day” so that as the footage ended, so did the song.

“Certain cuts were hitting,” Gosnell warmly recalls, “and I didn’t really understand that on a cerebral level because I’d never done it. I think that at its very core is the appeal of the craft. It was like, ‘I want to do that again, I want to feel that again. That felt special.'”
It’s a feeling that propelled him to have a myriad of editing credits, some of which likely on your favorite feel-good movies.

“That doesn’t go away, man, I’ve been behind the editing machine for [about] 40 years, and when the magic hits it still feels exactly the same as it did the first time,” Gosnell says.

Yours, Mine & Ours (2005):

Yours, Mine & Ours is a remake of the 1968 comedy starring Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball as two older, single people who fall in love and marry, the only drawback to their holy matrimony being that he has 10 kids and she has eight. In Gosnell’s remake, it is Rene Russo who has 10 children and Dennis Quaid who has eight. The film, which was handled by four production companies simultaneously, including Nickelodeon and MGM, came hot off the heels of Cheaper by the Dozen, another movie where the punchlines came from having a slew of children causing mischief everywhere they went.

“Working with a large ensemble, a particularly large ensemble with kids, because they have limited work hours, was really complicated in terms of planning,” Gosnell is quick to note.

He said the youngest on-set were only available for about three hours in ordinance with child labor laws and union regulations for child actors. “In terms of how you normally approach a movie,” he adds, “It was complicated because we just didn’t have everybody all there when we needed them. When it’s all there and happening, it’s a lot of fun.”

A key part of our conversation is noting how films can change drastically during their production. Gosnell notes that Yours, Mine & Ours was originally conceived as a romantic comedy, one that would be more fixated on the relationship between Quaid and Russo with the friction amongst the children serving as more of a setback to why them getting married seemed unlikely. Due to the input of multiple studios and rewrites along with the addition of pages to the script coming in on an irregular basis, the film changed quite a bit in the middle of production. That made the project take the last-minute path of including more physical comedy and “kid-chaos.”

“It wasn’t the construct of what we originally set out to make,” Gosnell tells me in the context of the rampant physical comedy in the film, “so it was a push-and-pull [with the many studios], and honestly not being in a room and carrying it all out led to some awkward situations.”

But Gosnell persevered the way he knows how, and Yours, Mine & Ours is a testament to what the director does well. Large-scale situational comedy, including one smoothly directed scene in a hardware store, along with a good handling on mayhem involving numerous individuals. When it comes to films with notably turbulent productions, you could’ve done much worse than Yours, Mine & Ours. You could chalk that up as Gosnell’s role as a credible stabilizer in the productions of his films.

Beverly Hills Chihuahua (2008):

Beverly Hills Chihuahua is a classic fish-out-of-water story revolving around a pampered chihuahua named Chloe, who gets dognapped in Mexico and must escape the presence of other, bigger dogs with malicious intentions. Chloe gets help from a German Shepherd along with a Mexican chihuahua who has feelings for her. When conversing with Gosnell about the thrill and process of filming real dogs for a movie, out comes his childlike exuberance for the whole production.

“It’s just great, I mean, they’re dogs!,” he exclaims. “They’re adorable, they love their trainers, and they’re like athletes. They’re trained to do something and now it’s time do it.”

Because the film features many scenes where multiple dogs are in the same scene, conversing or making off-the-cuff remarks, a popular style of editing known as “comping” is employed. This involves shooting each of the dogs individually, within the same setting, and then through the magic of post-production, constructing the individual shots into one to look as if the dogs are really all sharing the same space at once. It allows the filmmakers a way to handle the agency of the dogs, and assure they don’t have any difficultly interacting.

“The challenges around [the film’s production] were communication,” Gosnell says, confirming my suspicion. “I talk to the trainers and the trainers communicate with the dogs. For me, [the goal] is to get as naturalistic of performances out of the dogs as possible. [But] they’re dogs, you can’t ask them to do what you’d as a human to do. It’s a combination of using their natural behaviors and movements to go with what the character’s attitude is in that moment. I hope the dog can turn around and look, but if they can’t, I have a just-in-case plan.”

Beverly Hills Chihuahua was originally conceived as a film called “South of the Border,” and it was designed as story centered around a Chihuahua’s spiritual journey to its homeland leading to a discovery of his/her ancestral roots. Essentially, Gosnell shot “South of the Border” as it was written/intended, but once again, executives had other plans in mind. They wanted a film that could live up to the title “Beverly Hills Chihuahua.” The fascinating part is that much of that original conceit is still embedded in the film, most notably in its attention-to-detail with Mexico and the landscape of the country.

“We immediately said we have to shoot [the film] in widescreen,” Gosnell recalls, “[because] we had to capture the visuals and the Mexican desert. It was taking the best of what it really is. We wanted Mexico to be really colorful with the reds and blues, and I think we went with a contrast of Beverly Hills, which was whites, sheers, and pastels. So when [the characters] cross into the border, it’s a blast of primary colors.” Gosnell notes the issue of perspective as well, saying, “anytime you’re in Chloe’s world, you’re two feet off the ground,” reminding us that even from a POV aspect the film had its own creative challenges.

Details like this make just another talking dog movie that much more noteworthy, and that process and creative brainstorming on part of Gosnell and his legion of talented crewmembers (who he’s always quick to praise and give credit) peels back the curtains to reveal a deceptively layered film from an aesthetics standpoint.

The Smurfs (2011):

After spending a lengthy amount of time in the mix of rights deals, negotiations, and script-rewrites, the film adaptation of The Smurfs was entrusted to Raja Gosnell, most likely on the basis that he worked his Houdini magic for two Scooby-Doo movies despite another in-house shakeup (more on that some other time). Gosnell’s audio commentary on the DVD of The Smurfs reveals interesting details behind the film’s production. For one, each shot of a Smurf in the film cost roughly $35,000, with the studio-approved number of shots being no more than 835. This is why, Gosnell says, you see more wideshots of Smurfs and less closeups, for the inclusivity of the characters needed to be taken into account, and over the cost of what became a 103 minute film, him and the crew literally couldn’t afford to waste a shot.

“Every film has its own challenges and every day on a film set has its own challenges,” Gosnell says. “It’s a lot of planning and pre-planning and budgeting that goes into [CG movies] to the point where I had to literally sign-off that I can execute [said] page of the script with two wide-shots and three close-ups.” 

With films that place animated characters in the world of CG figures, there’s also the additional difficultly of having the actors work off of subjects who don’t exist. Gosnell calls this a “certain freedom” for both him and the performers, commending both Neil Patrick Harris and Hank Azaria for doing such a phenomenal job. “We had little light sticks to help with their eye-lines, but it was basically [them] reacting to people off camera doing the lines. You kind of got to treat the Smurfs like[…]shooting actors, and there’s a little bit of a learning curve for everybody cause it’s all in my head.”

A film like The Smurfs has two lives, so to speak. One is the fast-paced, expensive shooting in the live-action world (in this case, the bustling community of New York City), while the other is all intensive, time-consuming labor by animators, who spend hours upon hours rendering, color-correcting, and creating the characters that also need to inhabit this world.

“We had to create Smurf Village,” Gosnell says. “That’s a 100% computer-generated world. Peyo had done a lot of stuff, so we wanted to be as close as possible to what the audience expects. We put a lot of effort and energy into executing that. Anytime you take something from the pencil kit and make it into a 3D world, things look different; it can’t look the same. We wanted it to look like a happy place, and because it was CG, we were able to fly camera around because there were no physical constraints of what the camera could do. It was super fun to do.”

Rewatching The Smurfs, I was surprised to see just how much of the film is rooted in the cinematography. Gosnell’s camerawork in conjunction with the photography and visuals Phil Méheux (who often works with Gosnell) create a world that echoes a bit of magical realism. It’s quite frequently beautiful, pulsating with life, and elevated by Gosnell embracing the lack of physical limitations for his camera.

Show Dogs (2018):

As mentioned earlier, Gosnell has been in the news fairly recently due to his latest film Show Dogs causing a great deal of controversy. The film, which revolves around a police-dog and his human partner going undercover to infiltrate a dog show, which is rumored to be a front for an animal-smuggling ring, came under fire for two scenes that showed a dog’s genitals being groped while the dog was told to “go to his happy place” in order to cope with what was occurring. Facebook posts from people who felt that the scene was a prime example of child grooming techniques soon turned into national outrage.

I was hesitant to bring up the controversy in my discussion with Gosnell, largely because he hadn’t spoken publicly about the backlash. Nonetheless, he was immediately receptive to my inquiry. He began by saying that studios consistently demand “edgy” content, but it’s when they receive the slightest criticism at test-screenings that they make demands somewhat contradictory to what was seen as the original intent of the film.

When speaking about Show Dogs, Gosnell describes it as “a throwback buddy cop movie.” “No one really makes talking dog movies anymore,” he says, “and no one really makes buddy cop movies either.” The idea behind the film was taking those two elements, along with two macho characters (Ludicrous’ Rottweiler character Max and Will Arnett’s Frank) who don’t like one another and have to navigate in a fish-out-of-water setting.

But Gosnell could see the smoke before the flame of the fire was even present. He watched Peter Rabbit, a kids movie that came out a couple months prior to Show Dogs, get criticized for “food bullying,” in particular a scene where a character fends off the villain by making him come into contact with foods (in this case blackberries) to which he’s allergic. After that, Gosnell said he made repeated attempts to “get out in front” of the potential controversy about that particular scene.

“I wrote this long email to the marketing department saying ‘we gotta put [the scene] in the trailer and TV ads, [and] position it as it’s intended, Gosnell says. “These two fish-out-of-water, macho cops have to do something embarrassing because the case requires it; a classic buddy-cop scenario. No one is being victimized. We need to put it in that context. I couldn’t have felt stronger that we had to put it out there. And if some of the potential audience has concerns and decides not to see the film, then so be it. At least we won’t have egg on our face and be making apologies on opening weekend. I couldn’t have made that plea more forcefully and basically [the marketing department] respectfully disagreed. They said [accusations of the scenes being inappropriate] didn’t show up in any of their research.”

Even up to a week before the film’s release, Gosnell was adamant about damage control.

“I wrote a statement that I proposed be used in the event of controversy,” he says, “and in the statement, I attempted to put the joke in context.” “The controversy happened and the studio’s statement contained no explanation of the intent, so the film and the filmmakers ended up looking incredibly inept and tone deaf. Especially to the people who didn’t see the film and were only hearing that it ‘grooms children for sexual abuse.’ Max isn’t a child. He’s 95 pounds of angry canine teeth and muscle who would bite your face off if you tried that shit, voiced by a macho rapper who would probably do the same. That’s what needed be in the advertising, so people could understand it and decide for themselves.”

Had the joke been inserted into the marketing campaign for the movie, Gosnell believes there would’ve been at least some understanding amongst audiences about the content and approach of the film.

“Now, would the original Facebook post [regarding the controversial scenes] still have pinged around the web? Sure. The poster had a completely legitimate position based on her life experiences.  Plus it fit perfectly into the narrative of out-of-touch Hollywood elites pushing dangerous ideas on our children.  But would it have become an international media shit-storm?  Probably not. Most people would have likely thought, ‘Oh, you mean that joke that’s in all the TV ads? Eh. Looked kinda funny to me’ and let it go at that.”

Gosnell is also clear on why he didn’t preemptively cut the scene.

“Frank and Max doing the Dirty Dancing choreography was consistently the audience’s favorite scene,” he states. “It got huge laughs and applause in every screening. No way I was going to cut out the best scene in the film, and no one would have let me.”  The film ended up being pulled from theaters and hastily reedited. Gosnell adds that it didn’t help that the marketing also forewent showcasing the approach of Show Dogs and its desire to be a self-aware, throwback buddy-cop comedy with talking dogs, saying that not making clear to the audience that the writers/filmmakers were “in on the joke,” so to speak, led to the film appearing dated and/or tone-deaf.  But like many epilogues to eventful stories, it’s a lot of “what ifs” and “could’ve been’s” at this point.

I felt completely detached [from the controversy],” Gosnell states. “I felt like I honestly did everything I possibly could to protect the movie from this. I did everything I could to protect the audience from unwittingly stepping into an uncomfortable situation, and I think featuring that heavily in the marketing would’ve done all of that.”

The Conclusion:

To reiterate, my interest in profiling Raja Gosnell’s career is the result of a perfect storm of interest from the controversial Show Dogs, my familiarity with many of his works, and the need to write a lengthy piece about someone/something. After having the great privilege of speaking to the man himself on multiple occasions, I can’t stress what a consummate professional he is in every sense. A humble, witty, and grateful individual with a high-degree of imagination and creativity, Gosnell’s diverse filmography shows he’s gifted in creating several different kinds of films. However, of all the things we discussed in our conversation, one of the final points he touched on could serve as a reminder for critics and audiences alike.

Every film has a story, Gosnell says in so many words. “Even the most godawful movie, someone worked their ass off. Sometimes it just doesn’t work. Sometimes it was a bad idea. There’s a wealth of reasons why things don’t work.”

In the case of this piece, I’m happy to say things worked out just fine.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality in North Central Illinois. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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