IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Director Raja Gosnell talks 'The Smurfs'

Tuesday, 02 August 2011 14:46 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Director Raja Gosnell talks 'The Smurfs'

Filmmaker Raja Gosnell is no stranger to directing movies based on beloved cartoon characters but his animation to live-action pedigree doesn’t stop there. Gosnell began his career as an editor and worked with legendary director Robert Altman on the groundbreaking 1980 film Popeye, which was one of the first of its kind. He would eventually go onto a successful career as a feature film director with popular projects under his belt such as Never Been Kissed, Big Momma’s House, and Beverly Hills Chihuahua. But it was his work behind the camera on Scooby-Doo, and its sequel Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed that made him the perfect choice to direct his latest film ... The Smurfs.

The film, which opened last weekend and earned an impressive $36.5 million in its debut, takes the classic Peyo created characters and uproots them from their magical village to the mean streets of present day New York. While the movie draws most of its inspiration from the Belgian artist’s books, it also pays respect to the classic Hanna Barbera produced Saturday morning cartoons that many fans grew up with in the ‘80s. All of your favorite characters appear in the film including Papa Smurf (voiced by comedy legend Jonathan Winters), Smurfette (voiced by musical sensation Katy Perry), and Brainy Smurf (voiced by SNL's Fred Armisen), as well as their archenemy the wizard Gargamel and his evil cat Azrael. The plot revolves around Gargamel, played by Hank Azaria, discovering the Smurfs' village and chasing six of them into a magical portal that transports them all to the Big Apple. Once there, our Smurf heroes seek the help of a young married couple (How I Met Your Mother’s Neil Patrick Harris, and Glee’s Jayma Mays) in order to find their way home and along the way, the Smurfs end up teaching the expecting couple what it means to be a real family.

I recently had a chance to speak with director Raja Gosnell about The Smurfs and the legacy of the characters. He spoke freely with me about the new movie, his experiences as a filmmaker adapting animated characters for live-action movies, casting Jonathon Winters as Papa Smurf, creating a new Smurf character specifically for the film, the genius of Hank Azaria, and his plans for a possible sequel. Here is what he had to say:

To begin with, the target audience for this film is obviously kids but as an adult I really enjoyed the movie. Was it always part of your plan to embrace the older generation that grew up watching The Smurfs in the 80's as well catering to a family audience?

Gosnell: That was a very, very definite part of the plan. Absolutely. We wanted to make the movie first and foremost for the long time fans of the Smurfs who grew up with Hanna Barbara, but also for the generation that grew up with Peyo's book from Europe. That was probably our first and foremost objective, but of course it's The Smurfs so we wanted to make it for a family audience as well. We wanted to stay really true to the characters, which I think we did with some of the comedic scenes between Gargamel and Azrael. So I think it was a very intentional decision and I'm really happy to hear that you felt like we hit on those marks.

You have a history of bringing classic cartoon characters to the big screen in live-action films, first with your work on the Scooby-Doo movies and now with The Smurfs, but you actually began your career as an editor working on legendary director Robert Altman’s Popeye. Can you talk about how making live-action movies adapted from popular cartoons has changed over the years and what have you learned from all of your various experiences that you were able to apply to making this movie?

Gosnell: A lot of it is in the eyes of the beholder. There are certain movies that are just poorly made and maybe they didn't have the money or realize how big of a project it really was going to be. Cartoons don't just automatically look good in 3D. We worked really hard on Scooby. We started with a real Great Dane and everyone said, “Well you know that's not Scooby.” So we altered his face a little bit and sort of brought him into the zone where we felt comfortable. Obviously technology has come a long way from when we were first doing it so if we were doing it today it would look even better. I guess everyone sets out with a certain target audience in mind and certain movies may play it too young. Scooby is an interesting example because the initial script that we shot was actually pretty edgy. It was more of the Austin Powers version of Scooby-Doo. So it was more for the crowd that grew up with it and always wondered, “Hey do Shaggy and Scooby smoke pot?” So we threw little jokes in there but initially it was much edgier and there was a concern at the studio that we really risked alienating the family audience and the people that are still buying the cartoon. So before we even got a chance to screen that version of it we had to cut it down to a much less edgy version of it. So that is what resulted in the Scooby-Doo that ended up coming out. But I'm sure that everyone who does one of these films that brings something from animation to real life goes through those decisions at some point.

You brought up the advances in technology and it seems like you really couldn't have made The Smurfs five years ago, do you think that is correct?

Gosnell: I think so. I mean for me the bar was set with Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films and Dobby in the Harry Potter movies because those are human-eyed creatures. It's one thing to do a dog, an Easter Bunny or to do Garfield the cat because that's clearly a cartoon but we wanted to make these living, breathing, humanoids that have real hair on them. That you would worry about if they would be in danger. If Azrael gets a hold on them it's going to be bad and we wanted to make them as close to real living beings as possible. The work that Imagework did is just fantastic. If you look in their eyes, there's definitely a soul behind those eyes and that is one of the hardest things to do in animation, to actually feel like there's a soul inside of that being you're looking at.

You just mentioned creating the souls of these characters, does that just come from the animation or do the voice actors and what they bring to their roles also add to creating it?

Gosnell: Well of course the voices are important and all animation is driven by the vocal performance. So when I'm directing the vocal performances, if Clumsy is supposed to be excited then he's going to be excited, and if he's having a low moment then he's going to perform it like that. Then the animators take their cues off that. Directing animation is not a lot different than directing actors and there's a lot of interpretations of what sad might be or what excited might be. We pushed really hard for subtlety in the moments that required it. Obviously, there's some big broad physical humor where that's not required, but when these Smurfs are performing and they're relating to each other as a family, there's just a tremendous amount of nuance in their performances. That didn't come right out of the box like that. That came from me working with the animators, standing up and actually directing the voice actors through the animators.

Can you tell me about working with comedy legend Jonathan Winters and casting him as Papa Smurf?

Gosnell: You know we held our breath a little bit because he is advanced in years and we were worried a little bit about his health, but there's no doubt that his voice was there. It's not a comedy role. Papa is sort of the wise leader and the soulful voice of The Smurfs in a way, like that scene on the rooftop with Neil (Patrick Harris) where he talks about fatherhood. Jonathan just brought so much gravitas and soul to that little character and I can't give him enough credit. We really worked hard, we did a lot of different takes and it was really an acting experience. It wasn't like just come in and read the lines. It was really, really acting which was particularly hard since you don't have other actors to work against. Early on you don't have any sort of image of Papa to work against, so you're sort of acting in a void. I would attempt to be the other Smurfs and if I thought Jonathan was a little too up then I might feed the line of the other Smurf a little more down, a little more quiet so I sort of give him clues in terms of what his performance might be by the way I was performing it.

It would have been difficult from a budget standpoint to have the entire movie filled with Smurfs, so you selected six main Smurfs to focus on. As a longtime fan it seems to me that using Papa Smurf, Brainy, and Smurfette are kind of obvious choices but can you talk about creating Gutsy Smurf and how you decided on using the other two Smurfs that you chose, Clumsy and Grouchy?

Gosnell: With any sort of ensemble piece you want a variety of voices. You don't want all of them to sort of talk with the same voice or have the same attitude. Papa's sort of the wise old soul of the village, Smurfette's super optimistic and says, "Don't worry guys, it'll be ok.” She's just that bubbly personality. Brainy is an iconic Smurf, he's always got ideas and he's really good for exposition. He can say, "Well if we do this and then this, this will happen!" You know that even if he's wrong you still can try to get the exposition out. Those are great tools for writers to have those voices. In addition to that you always have the guy in the ensemble that says, "Ah, this will never work!” You need sort of a naysayer and Grouchy is the perfect naysayer. He was in the comics, the cartoon and he is in the movie voiced by George Lopez, and he's hilarious. He's got all those funny lines that were great. Clumsy Smurf is really the heart and soul of the movie. He tries so hard, and he wants to just get it right but he keeps messing up. He's put his whole family in danger, and he just wants to fix it. The thing with Clumsy is he sort of has this identity not only from how people treat him, but just his name alone. He has to sort of spend the movie dealing with the guilt of bringing them there, but also the possibility that he can break out of that and maybe be a hero one day. His emotional journey, I think is one of the stronger emotional journeys in the piece because you feel bad for this little guy. He has a great heart and all he wants to do is the right thing and bad things keep happening to him. Then finally Gutsy Smurf, he's a new Smurf. There was forty-one named Smurfs by Peyo, but there was always ninety-nine Smurfs in the village. So we don't feel like we invented a Smurf, more than we sort of introduced the audience to a Smurf we hadn't met yet. We wanted a guy who was their man of action without asking questions. He's going through the breach, he's running through the door, he's jumping off the building and that not only was the action we needed but he was a fun character for the boys to follow, you know the males in the audience. But it's also very good because of the Brainy situation. He's constantly running behind questioning whether this is actually smart or not and Gutsy never stops to ask a question. He's just always the man of action. I would say those six Smurfs were chosen for the variety of voices and the opportunities they gave the writers and me to have different characters to bounce to for any situation.

There are several moments in the movie that “break the fourth wall” in the sense that the Smurfs travel to a modern day New York that is aware of them as fictional characters in pop-culture. Can you talk about the choice to tell the story in that way, rather than having them enter a world that is completely unaware of their existence?

Gosnell: It was definitely part of the script. We wanted to pay homage to Peyo the creator and to the years of fans that have enjoyed these Smurfs. We didn't want it to be perceived that we the filmmakers had made up the Smurfs. There is all this history that comes along with the Smurfs. Mostly from the books, but also people have their own history with the cartoon. How we played it was that they were a legend from Belgium and I think Jayma (Mays) even says they bring good luck like leprechauns to the Irish. So we wanted to have a sense that Smurfs do exist in the world, but in present day we think of them as legends or leprechauns. When they discover Peyo's book in the bookstore and you see the drawings of Smurfs, our take there was that Peyo didn't necessarily invent the Smurfs, but he documented them. He somehow went to their world and documented their daily lives. So we took a little license with reality there, but I think it was a good license to take in terms of making them real, making them a part of our world and not just an inventive cartoon character for convenience.

After seeing the movie, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Gargamel besides Hank Azaria. It seems like he was pretty much the perfect actor for the part, can you talk about casting him in the iconic role?

Gosnell: I know! Hank just brought that guy to life and he made it funny. It was actually Hank's idea to make the relationship with the cat more of a conversation. I think in Peyo's work, and in the Hanna Barbera cartoon, the cat was always smarter, but Hank wanted to make it more of a married couple, which is how he put it. So that the cat is continually correcting Gargamel and rolling his eyes when Gargamel gets it wrong. The cat's basically smarter than him. So Hank brought all that to the role. Of course he brought the voice and the characteristics, and there's times when Gargamel has to be big, grandiose and self-absorbed and Hank does that incredibly well. At this point it's hard to picture anyone else doing it although I must say there was a brief conversation with Mike Myers who was thinking about it for a little while. There was never an offer or anything that I know of, but that was sort of early on.

Besides being a great actor, Azaria is of course also known as a great voice actor having been a cast member on The Simpsons for the last two decades, where he has created some of the most iconic characters in the history of that show. Was there ever any thought given on this film to having Hank voice one of the Smurfs as well as playing Gargamel?

Gosnell: I think we probably toyed with that idea, but I think we didn't want to sort of muddy the waters with that and honestly we loved our cast. I think that guys that aren’t really known for their comedy like Anton Yelchin, who is primarily a very serious actor, is really good in the movie. We cast him because he has this high innocent voice that's just lovely. What we did when we cast The Smurfs was we just had the casting guys get a whole bunch of audio from existing things. We didn't have people come in and read, but we actually put up a drawing of that character on a wall and we'd look at the drawing and listen to the voices. When one sounded like it went with the Smurf, then we'd say, “Who's that?” Then we narrowed down the list and made some calls. You know there's a lot of Smurf love out there. Very few people said no. Most people said, "Yeah! I'll be a Smurf. Of course I'll be a Smurf!"

Finally, have you given any thought to where the series might go if you do a sequel and what do you think will be the impact of your film on the legacy of the Smurfs?

Gosnell: Well that's a big question in terms of a Smurfs legacy. We hope that a new generation of fans discovers The Smurfs, and we definitely hope that the generations of fans who grew up with them will embrace them. I know that there's been some nervousness that I have seen online about these not being the real Smurfs, and “why did Hollywood have to go and do that?” But honestly if people really, really love their Hanna Barbera Smurfs, they should get the box set on DVD. If people love their Smurfs in book form, they should get Peyo's books. But if they give this film a chance … believe me there is something in there for them. We made this movie for them. So if they give the movie a chance, they're not going to walk away disappointed. So hopefully that's the legacy of it. That it sort of furthers the Smurfs fan base, introduces them to a new generation and hopefully Smurfs live on. In terms of a sequel, we specifically made sure that Gargamel has some "Smurf essence" left at the end of the battle. So we know that there's a vile down there that has a bit of "Smurf essence" and that Gargamel is still in our world. So presumably some mischief is yet to be made. I can't talk a lot more about the sequel, but I would say that Gargamel makes use of that and the Smurfs have to come back to ruin his plan.

The Smurfs is currently "smurfing" at a theater near you!

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