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Beverly Hills Chihuahua - Raja Gosnell interview

Beverly Hills Chihuahua

Interview by Rob Carnevale

RAJA Gosnell talks about working with dogs on Beverly Hills Chihuahua, turning a real-life rescuer to one of his canine co-stars, reuniting with Drew Barrymore and why Andy Garcia brought so much gravitas to the family movie…

Q. How did directing real dogs compare to the CGI days of Scooby Do?
Raja Gosnell: It was fantastic. They had so much soul in their eyes and there’s a personality that’s really hard to capture with computer-generated characters. There’s a life and attitude there. In fact, the character of the dogs in real life is reflected in the characters they were playing in the movie.

Q. And I gather life imitated art in the sense that you were even able to rescue some real-life dogs? Papi, the other chihuahua, in particular…
Raja Gosnell: Absolutely, and that was a great story. He was days away from being put down. But our head trainer, Mike [Alexander], found him after seeing his picture online and just called the shelter he was at. And you can just see his energy on screen. He loves life and his tail is always wagging. Everyone fell in love with him. So, it was fantastic that we were able to rescue him and then build the rescue message into the movie.

Q. Did that come as a result of Papi’s story?
Raja Gosnell: It was always scripted because it was important to us to send that message to people that there are those kinds of stray dogs out there, some of whom have been abandoned and live on the streets, and they’re just as worthy of our love and care too.

Q. The film is also about accepting people, or dogs, for what they are… rather than for beauty or superficiality…
Raja Gosnell: That’s the main message… Chloe’s whole journey is about looking outside of her Beverly Hills bubble and seeing the value in Papi for who he really is… and all those other dogs for who they really are. In her pampered life, she would look down upon them and not really mix with them. But in her adventure, she ends up being rescued and protected by them.

Q. Were you ever daunted by the prospect of directing so many animals in one movie? They say never work with animals or children…
Raja Gosnell: I was daunted in pre-production because I wasn’t sure how it was all going to work. But as soon as we started shooting, the dogs were so well trained and charming that we basically turned the camera on and away we went. One of the challenges, however, was how to use the animation, which only involved the dogs’ lips and eyebrows. In all other respects, everything the dog is doing is what the dog was really doing. So, trying to get my head around a scene where we had to have Delgado [the German shepherd] barking or to look scared, or fierce… we had to choreograph things in order to achieve what we were seeking. So, we’d have to train him to back up or have his head down. It was a learning curve.

Q. Was there a particular dog you fell most in live with? Delgado perhaps?
Raja Gosnell: I loved Delgado’s character, being a broken down, middle-aged guy [laughs]. I related to his journey and where he was at in his life… and the fact that he found redemption through helping this little dog that he initially found annoying. But, through the act of caring and protecting Chloe, he was able to rediscover himself. But in terms of my favourite dog, I would have to say Papi because he was everyone’s favourite. He was just so bright eyed and happy, and he brought life to the set whenever he was on it.

Q. The film also enabled you to work with Drew Barrymore again for the first time since Never Been Kissed. Had to stayed in touch and was it a fun reunion?
Raja Gosnell: Well, we don’t hang out in the cool clubs at the weekend [laughs], but we’ve stayed close friends and when I read the script, I just thought it was Drew’s voice. It had to be Drew. So, I called her because I know she’s a dog lover and she devotes a lot of her time to helping rescue dogs. I knew it would appeal to her and she responded to the script immediately.

Q. Did you also have a short-hand, having worked with each other before?
Raja Gosnell: We definitely had a shorthand and she clearly understood the character. She has a very endearing nature that comes through in her voice because that’s part of who Drew really is. Chloe, for example, starts off the film as this kind of mean, snobby, pampered Chihuahua who looks down on dogs such as Papi. But she remains somehow likeable in spite of that and that’s the magic of Drew Barrmymore!

Q. Another actor I’ve long admired is Andy Garcia [who voices Delgado]. How did you enjoy working with him?
Raja Gosnell: Andy brought so much to that character that wasn’t on the page – his pauses, his sarcastic asides. None of that was written… it was all Andy. He just brought so much gravitas to the role… that kind of pain and regret in Delgado. He really filled him out and made him real.

Q. Did he take much convincing to take the part?
Raja Gosnell: Not really, no. We cast Drew Barrymore first and once word got around, that kind of legitimised the movie and a lot of people became very interested as a result. Andy knew George Lopez was going to do a voice [Papi] and they were close friends. His only request was that he wanted to meet the dog who played Delgado and spend the afternoon with him, which he did and they bonded. He wanted to look into his eyes and understand his soul.

Q. Did every actor meet their characters in that way?
Raja Gosnell: No… Andy was the only one who spent an afternoon with him. They all had different approaches.

Q. Was securing the services of soprano Placido Domingo [who voices Monte] a casting coup?
Raja Gosnell: I’d say. And he brought such amazing warmth to the character and, obviously, an amazing voice! But he also brought an authority to that little dog and so much grandfatherly warmth. He’s actually quite a good actor.

Q. The film was a massive box office success in America, keeping Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio off the top spot when it was released last year. Did the level of success surprise you?
Raja Gosnell: I wouldn’t say I was surprised, no. I was always confident in the movie and I knew that Disney were putting resources behind it. So, I was gratified. And hopefully it will continue to have a life on DVD. My real hope is that it’s one of those movies you’ll see on TV 10 years from now and go: “I remember that!” I always intended to make a timeless movie… kind of like Homeward Bound, which is the gold standard for those kinds of movies. So, we’ll see.

Q. What’s the best comment you’ve had from a young fan so far?
Raja Gosnell: It sounds corny but just something like “I laughed” or “I cried”. That’s the best thing for me… knowing that people became so emotionally involved. Also, that people would tell me that by the time they got halfway through the movie, they forgot they were watching dogs because the action is so realistic.

Q. I must just check… you do like dogs, don’t you, because the director of Dean Spanley [another canine-related film] confessed to being allergic to them before shooting?
Raja Gosnell: [Laughs aloud] I’m a big fan of dogs, yes. That said, I didn’t call my agent and say: “Find me a talking dog movie…” I read the script, fell in love with the characters and was attracted to doing this big adventure movie that was also set in Mexico. You don’t see a lot of positive portrayals of Mexico in mainstream movies, so this was an opportunity to show it in a positive light – from its beautiful beaches, rainforests and architecture. The fact that it had dogs in it was only really a third consideration for me.

Q. What’s next for you?
Raja Gosnell: I’m currently reading and deciding. I’m waiting for something to touch my heart.

Read our review of Beverly Hills Chihuahua