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This article was published 15/5/2019 (375 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
W.C. Fields had a famous piece of advice to his showbiz fellowship: Never work with children or animals. They’re too unpredictable.
A Dog's Journey
Directed by Gail Mancuso
Kildonan Place, Polo Park, St. Vital
Opens Friday, May 17.
That dubious insight comes to mind on the subject of the movie A Dog’s Journey, the sequel to the hit 2017 drama A Dog’s Purpose. There’s a toddler. And there’s dogs all over the place.
Both films were adapted from books by humourist W. Bruce Cameron. Both centre on a dog named Bailey, who keeps getting reincarnated into different doggie forms over the course of the movie. And both films were shot in Manitoba: A Dog’s Journey was lensed last summer under the auspices of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment.
The major difference in the second film is that it was helmed by a different director. Taking over from Purpose’s Lasse Hallstrom, Gail Mancuso comes from the realm of TV comedy. She got her start directing episodes of the original Roseanne series in the early 1990s and has since toiled for gold-standard comedy series including Scrubs, 30 Rock and Modern Family (for which she won a directing Emmy). A Dog’s Journey is her first theatrical feature.
In a phone interview with Mancuso from her home in Santa Barbara, Calif., she disputes Fields’ wisdom.
"I loved it. I have five dogs," she says. "Obviously I’m very comfortable with dogs and kids and it was really just a wonderful experience."
"I grew up with animals," she says. "They give me unconditional love, They are so innocent. All they want to do is be loved and be petted. There’s no agenda with animals. It’s a very simple relationship and I think we all need that."
That attitude was crucial for the sequel, since A Dog’s Purpose was somewhat besmirched by a TMZ video that aired just before the film opened, implying a German shepherd performer was ill-used during a stunt that required it to dive into a tank of churning water.
No one could tarnish the sequel with any kind of similar accusations.
"We had these amazing dog trainers and we had a wonderful communication with them," Mancuso says. "We went through the script at the beginning of the movie. And every week, we would meet and discuss what was up for the following week and how the animals were coming along, what tricks were doable, what tricks were not.
"Sometimes we would make little changes which were just as funny or comparable to whatever was written in the script," she says. "We kind of customized (the tricks based on what) the dog was able to do and that whole system worked out great.
"We both knew what was expected of us and the animals when they approached the set," she says. "So there were no surprises. It was very organized and very well run."
FP: You’ve made TV movies and you’ve been working on TV series since the early ‘90s, yet this is your theatrical directorial debut. Why this and why now?
'I really really enjoyed working with the Winnipeg crew... Everybody just treats each other with kindness'
— Gail Mancuso
Mancuso: "The thing is that I always thought I would do a pure, straightforward comedy. That’s really what my genre is. I’ve been shopping around for different comedies and I’ve been working with Amblin.
"And this one came up and (producer Gavin Polone) pretty much thought of me because I had worked with Gavin on Gilmore Girls when he was producing. He knew me from that, and he knew I was an animal lover. He knew I had some comedy chops and the script was in really good shape.
"It was just one of those things. I’d never thought I would say I think I’m going to do a dog movie as my first feature and it’s gonna be more dramatic than comical. I wouldn’t have picked but I’m so glad it all worked out because it’s the perfect for first movie for me. I’m very proud of it it."
FP: You’ve carved out a specialty in comedy, and here, you’re working with material that should reduce people to puddles. Is this a case of wanting to flex new muscles as a filmmaker?
Mancuso: "Actually, it isn’t so much a different muscle to be honest with you. What’s great about all my experience in television and the way television works is that you’re able to really practise your craft on a much more frequent basis than if you were to wait around for your movie to come around to be produced and get greenlit.
"With TV, it’s a sure thing. Every week as a director, you are working with actors and your articulating intentions and motivations and you’re working through the scene, and you’re doing it on a daily basis. So I felt the transition to features was very seamless."
FP: You had your work cut out for you with a film that required Manitoba locations look like New York City, Chicago, etc. How did that work out?
Mancuso: "We had a wonderful location manager, Michael Cowles. He was just a gentleman. He literally took us everywhere. In the first movie, it was obviously established the farm in Minnedosa, so it was very important to keep that same farm in the movie, because they return to the farm, so that was a given that we had to go up there. And it was beautiful to be up there.
"The rest of (the movie) took place in Chicago, in New York and a little stretch of Pennsylvania. The Exchange District worked beautifully for a lot of that, especially the New York scenes. We did go to New York for (a scene in) Washington Square Park and a few other things but we were only there a day."
FP: You have called this one of the happiest film sets you’ve worked on. What made it happy?
Mancuso: "I really really enjoyed working with the Winnipeg crew. I grew up in Chicago and we used to drive up to northern Minnesota in the Iron Range area every summer. I’d spend my summers up there and Winnipeg reminded me so much of that — the personalities, the kindness and even the land itself. Everybody just treats each other with kindness.
"It felt like I was with my cousins again."
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.