Films about dogs usually aim for families, like Marley and Me or The Secret Life of Pets. Films about car racing usually aim for a young male audience, like the Fast and the Furious franchise or Need for Speed. But what about a movie that combines both genres in equal measure?
The Art of Racing in the Rain, in theaters August 9, follows race car driver Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia from the hit NBC drama “This Is Us”) through his turbulent racing career and his turbulent love life with Eve (Amanda Seyfried). But here’s the twist: every scene is from the perspective of Denny’s dog, Enzo, whose inner thoughts are voiced by Kevin Costner. It’s based on the best-selling book by Garth Stein, which spent 156 weeks on the New York Times best seller list.
BOXOFFICE spoke with director Simon Curtis, who previously directed such hit films as Woman in Gold and Goodbye Christopher Robin.
What attracted you to this project?
I loved this book. I fought hard to direct this film, six or seven years ago when it was at a previous studio [Universal]. I was rejected on that occasion. [Thomas Bezucha, director of The Family Stone and Monte Carlo, had already been hired.] I was thrilled when I eventually got my hands on it, because I think it’s a beautiful film about so many things, but principally a film about family. I have two daughters, so obviously that was part of it.
What I loved about this story was how we’ve seen so many films where there are births and marriages and deaths—hundreds, if not thousands of films. But we’ve never seen those big personal family events from the dog’s point of view. It was really fun when we were shooting it to place the camera in the dog’s position, to see what a birth or a marriage would look like three feet from the ground.
Do you have a favorite such dog shot in the film?
That’s a good question. I love when he looks up at Milo and Amanda kissing for the first time as husband and wife. When we were designing the set, we were making sure windows were low enough that we could get the angle from the dog’s height. When you have a dog in every scene, it’s definitely a challenge. But we were very blessed with our dogs and with our dog trainers.
Nonetheless, I like to rehearse each scene before we film it, and you can’t really rehearse with a dog. We would work out how the dog would do A, B, C, and D in the scene, breaking the scene down into each of those actions. Once we’d done that, we had to work out what we’d do with the dog trainers, because they’d be sitting right next to Milo on the film set. It was like 3-D Sudoku, because you had to work out so many different levels at the same time.
What are some of your best stories from the set?
We would talk for ages about “How are we going to get the dog to jump through that window?” or “How are we going to get the dog to pick up the hat?” But time and time again, we were gobsmacked that the dog would do what was needed on the first take. So we got through our schedules must faster than we were expecting! [Laughs]
There’s a beautiful moment towards the end of the film, where Milo says to the dog, “You’re a good friend.” Quite spontaneously, the dog responded by just laying his head on Milo’s shoulder. As a director watching that moment of spontaneous acting? That shot is in the final film.
How did you approach the source material in this adaptation?
If I’m honest, the story first came to my attention after having read the screenplay that Patrick Dempsey had given me. [Dempsey was originally attached to star in the film several years ago.] I fell in love with the story first through the script by Mark Bomback, then began to cherish Garth’s wonderful book.
The movie is pretty close [to the book]. The voiceover is a huge part of the success of the book, I believe. Enzo’s voice is the secret sauce of both the book and the film—his philosophical view of the world, sometimes being so intuitive and accurate, sometimes being so wrong and so funny. Once we were lucky enough to have Kevin Costner record the voice of Enzo, we liked it even more, so we added some lines.
What was the most challenging thing about making this movie?
Making a film where a dog is in every part, that’s challenging not only for me but for the crew and for the actors. Milo plays a character who’s very close to his dog, but the dog also had to have a very close relationship with the trainer. So balancing those two things was quite tricky, because we didn’t want to undermine the dog and his trainer, but it had to seem like the dog’s primary attachment was to Denny, played by Milo.
Also, doing a domestic family film that also has a big racing element, balancing those two things. Racing is such a magnetic and, dare I say, machismo world. I was very keen to make the racing as exciting as possible, but not to the detriment of the emotional heart of the film.
Which films did you look to for inspiration here—dog movies like Marley and Me, racing movies, or something else entirely?
It was a mixture of three things: I watched every dog film I could. I watched every racing film I could. But the films that were of most influence to me were the dramas I grew up loving like Terms of Endearment, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Ordinary People. They don’t seem to make those films very much anymore, about modern America and a modern family. I was trying to fuse all of those together.
Someone saw the film and said to me, “That was the most exciting racing scenes since Rush.” I was very proud of that. Someone else said to me, “That was the best dog performance I’ve ever seen.” When we screened it, it’s the laughter and the tears of the audience when seeing the life of a family that most thrills me.
Why is it important for people to see this on the big screen?
I watch a lot of things on streaming, but everyone working on this film thought of it as a big cinematic experience, where the audience can share the emotion and the ride. When we had test screenings, hearing those roars of laughter and hearing those sniffles has been in support of that. I do think of this as a cinema experience, and I hope the audience comes, to keep these films around.
AT THE MOVIES WITH SIMON CURTIS
The first thing that comes to my mind is my dad taking me to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It was in a small theater in South London, and it was just a very powerful experience. I hope young people can feel the same about cinema now as I did then. That would have been 1969, so I would have been 9. I was really into it.
AT THE CONCESSIONS STAND
I’m not a fan of popcorn. I suppose my favorite would be a hot dog. I don’t like hearing people eating popcorn when I’m watching.