'Having a dog in every scene is not for the faint-hearted'
New family film The Art of Racing in the Rain is narrated by dog Enzo as he learns about life, death and more. Laura Harding meets the film's director, Simon Curtis, to hear how you give a dog enough gravitas to anchor a tear-jerker
If you are going to build your film around the voice of a wise and philosophical dog, you had better hope that voice has gravitas. Luckily The Art of Racing in the Rain is narrated by Kevin Costner, one of the most earnest and comforting voices in Hollywood.
Based on the best-selling book by Garth Stein, the movie follows golden retriever Enzo and his life with race car driver Denny, played by This is Us star Milo Ventimiglia, as the dog learns about life, love and the human condition.
"I think the reason the book was a massive success is the voice of the dog is so unusual, profound, funny and accurate, but also inaccurate," says the film's British director, Simon Curtis. "It helps us learn... how do we live our life? What is important? And the dog is working that out.
"I always wanted an iconic American voice to be the voice of the dog looking back on his life. I lucked out with Kevin Costner because he has such a unique quality."
"Basically, Denny and the dog are trying to take the lessons from the race track (and running in the rain)," explains Curtis.
"Don't be afraid of the rain, make it your friend and take control of it, or learn to live in the present. You've to do that on the race track and they try and take those lessons and apply them to their lives."
For Curtis, who is best known for films such as My Week with Marilyn, Woman in Gold and Goodbye Christopher Robin, as well as his work on the TV series Cranford, it was the race track that provided some of the film's toughest challenges, as Denny becomes an increasingly accomplished driver.
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"This was the first film I hadn't made in the UK and it was quite nice that you didn't have to worry about what people wore in Edwardian England or whatever, but this had its own issues," he says.
"Having a dog in every scene is not for the faint-hearted and the racing scenes were really complicated, but I'm really pleased with the level of racing in the film.
"But also, there aren't a lot of films that are just about human beings living their lives and that is what appealed to me.
"In the CGI world we live in, in the films, to have this real dog with a real face and real eyes and real emotion, has a power."
That dog comes in the form of two-year-old Parker, who plays Enzo for the majority of the film, and is a surprisingly emotive presence on-screen.
"Having Kevin Costner helping us with those emotions is an important part of it," Curtis says. "But time and time again I was half-jokingly saying that Parker is one of the best actors I've ever worked with, and I do sort of feel that.
"Working with a dog is scary because, as a director, you look at the script the night before and think, 'Oh my God, we might not make this day if the dog doesn't do x and y and z', but, in fact, every single day the dog and the trainers delivered - it was a miracle."
The same can't be said for working with nine-week-old puppy Sawyer, who appears as young Enzo.
"You just point and shoot and hope for the best," jokes Curtis.
It certainly helped matters that Ventimiglia is a dog person.
"As fans of his from the Gilmore Girls and This is Us know, he is such an empathetic, lovely man," Curtis says. "If you look at him in This is Us, he's a patriarch and he just brings empathy and sensitivity.
"I know from being out on the street with him that his fan-base loves him. Everyone wants him to be their son, husband or father."
But for Ventimiglia, Parker made it easy. "Just because Parker is a dog, it doesn't mean that he doesn't have the most beautiful soul," he says. "He's so expressive and such a loving animal.
"There's a lot I got as Denny from him. It was easy. I'd lean down before a take and whisper in his ear and tell him exactly what we were going to do, and then he'd do it exactly.
"He's such a deep, bountiful soul and he looks at you with those almost human eyes.
"It's one of those things that is beautiful to see... the level of emotion that comes from these animals that are just there to love us. That's what they're looking for in return.
"Sometimes, you don't need the words. There's just the experience you share, a common moment where you look in someone's eyes and you both know exactly what you're feeling. It's an innate spiritual thing."
The Art of Racing in the Rain is in cinemas now