Raja Gosnell, the director of The Smurfs and The Smurfs 2, has quite a history with summer movies chock to the brim with high-tech effects...although not in the way people might think of them.
Yeah, he was almost the director of Fantastic Four before he passed on the script and Tim Story came along--but generally his movies (like Scooby Doo and Big Momma's House) aren't the kind of tentpoles that have too many explosions--just fully-CG characters that need to be convincingly real when juxtaposed with the live-action actors they're sharing the screen with. No big deal.
Gosnell joined us to talk about the upcoming sequel, his talented cast of comic luminaries and the possibility for a Smurfs 3.
Raja Gosnell: Yeah, no, we're not going to be at Comic Con, unfortunately. There was an idea kicked around that we should be there but ultimately it was decided that we shouldn't, so...we would like to be!
ComicBook.com: You've got both Neil Patrick Harris and Hank Azaria coming back; they're not just huge comic talents, but they're both probably going to be there anyway.
Which one of those guys is crazier to watch work? It seems to be that they're both great ad libbers.
Gosnell:They're both extremely professional and so I doni't really have any great wild stories to share with you. I think Hank is--the way he works nine times out of ten he's the only person in the room and he's yelling at Smurfs that are not there and chasing a cat who's CG who's not in the room. And plus, he's Gargamel so he's kind of a living cartoon.
He definitely goes off and goes to some ad-libby things but he also is a tremendously prepared actor. He always likes to come out and walk the set and see where the props are going to be; he's very meticulous in that way. Then once the cameras are rolling, "Gargy" comes out--all that relish comes out in his performance. He finds those amazing little adult asides to throw into the middle of his performance and he does his thing and he does it beautifully.
In terms of Neil, Neil is just such a professional and such a gentleman. He works really hard to not only do his part but sort of help everyone around him to be better. Jayma loves working with him, Brendan Gleeson loved working with him. For our movie he gives it such a human element that we really really need. For the audience, Smurfs doing smurf things is a great level one but in both cases in both movies when the Smurfs actually start interacting with the Winslow family, the movie just picks up steam and goes from there. Neil is also the master of the deadpan look or the perfectly timed eye-roll; he does all that beautifully.
ComicBook.com: NPH's reaction shots are an underrated tool, being a kind of comic straight man.
Gosnell: He does it beautifully. He delivers some funny lines as well but the role of Patrick Winslow is sort of the straight man role so he does those deadpan looks beautifully. In this movie he's dealing with not only Smurfs but Brendan Gleeson who's his stepfather and they have kind of a frosty relationship. But his stepfather gets turned into a duck so he's got classic Neil moments to be actually having arguments on the street with a duck.
Gosnell: I think the studio operatives did a really smart, strategic thing in that they've allotted a certain amount of money to develop a script but that's sort of the end of the commitment at this point. They'll take a wait-and-see approach, see how this movie opens and how we do overseas and then make the final decision to greenlight Smurfs 3 or not. So it's really up to the audience and the movie gods as to whether there will be a Smurfs 3. But there has been some script work done.
ComicBook.com: You guys have one of the last performances from Jonathan Winters. Is it a little strange to be doing press for a film where one of your lead actors--an icon, and a huge part of the film's chemistry--is absent?
Gosnell: Look, Jonathan gave us so much. He gave us a wonderful Papa Smurf. I will talk about him any chance someone gives me. He brought so much warmth and gravitas to the character and we felt very fortunate to have him toward the end of his life--to have him as our Papa.
I also think it was really great for him. I think before the first movie he was feeling a little forgotten and a bit done and he was able to do The Smurfs with us and the movie became a big hit and it reintroduced people to him in a different way, a way they hadn't thought of. By the time we got to the second movie, his demeanor had changed. He was sitting up a bit straighter, he was feeling a bit prouder. He wasn't feeling forgotten and so I think it was a beneficial relationship for both of us; we got a great Papa and he near the end of his life got a chance to give it one more shot and be up there and have a very successful movie. It was a lovely, lovely thing.
Basically press is going to consist of me talking about how wonderful it was working with him--something like what I just told you.
ComicBook.com: With the rise of these big franchises that are based on 30-year-old properties, you're getting guys cast who just seeing their name gives the whole thing an air of gravitas and a kind of nostalgic rush. I felt that way about Jonathan just like I did when I first heard that Peter Cullen was going to be doing Transformers.
Gosnell: Yeah, I'm glad you had that response because we did, too. It was just great to have that time with him.
We had one final session with him up in Santa Barbara. Normally he came to the studio here to do his recording but he was feeling weak and had been in and out for the previous weeks before that. We told him, "Jonathan, it's okay, we can do without these lines," and he said, "No, no, no," and he insisted we come up.
So we came up and did them and it was really interesting; you could sort of tell he'd had a glimpse of the other side. He had this sort of beatific smile on his face and he was the most relaxed I'd ever seen him. He did the lines beautifully but there would be like three minutes where he just sort of wouldn't be there, and then he'd have a big smile on his face and he'd come back and sort of acknowledge you: "Oh, yes, yes," and sort of back to catching up to where we left off. It was clear to us that he was very close to the end but by everything I could tell, some of the very happiest moments that I'd seen him were in that session.
Gosnell: There were a couple of attempts to get that movie up and going. Tom Rothman ran the studio at the time and really wanted to get Fantastic Four going; he was a big fan. Chris Columbus's company, 1492, were producing and they were big fans. Sam Hamm was the writer; he's a big fan. And they brought me on and I was a fan of the project but I don't think I was quite on the level with them. I had a familiarity with the project but as I read what they were doing I got more and more involved. And so we were probably a couple of drafts in and we'd actually hired a bit of art department so there was a production designer and a couple of draftspeople working. We were working away on what the world would look like; I think we even had a costume designer coming in to sort of show us what the Fantastic Four suits looked like.
Ultimately, the script came in and it was going to be too expensive for what the studio wanted to make at that point and it wasn't the script they wanted it to be so everyone took a step back to sort of retool. I ended up at that moment getting offered to go do Scooby Doo so I went to go do that and actually it did circle back around to me when I'd just finished the second Scooby Doo four years later and the studio had redeveloped the script into the movie that eventually got made.
Ultimately I was super-exhausted and decided not to do it and ultimately I think Tim Story ended up doing the Fantastic Four. So that was the extent of my involvement--I was on it for a couple, three months in early pre-production and script development and it was very clear that it wasn't going to go forward with that configuration and I think everybody took a step back from it then the studio dug in and did the next draft.
ComicBook.com: Would you ever want to take another swing at superheroes? I mean, you've done a lot of films that are big effects films but not in the way people think of when they think of summer effects films. People think of explosions and stuff like Fantastic Four.
Gosnell: It's very insightful for you to say. I mean, the amount of creative firepower that goes into having Smurfette--I mean, these are fully CG humanoid characters that are acting and they're not dogs. Everyone knows what a human looks like when they're talking and probably the closest thing has been the Gollum character in Lord of the Rings. That was probably the most humanistic-acting CG character but our Smurfs are in my opinion right on that level technically.
Obviously it's a different story and the Smurfs' version of drama is different than Gollum's but these are fully CG-created characters who you can look into their eyes, they have a soul; you can watch them move, they have a heartbeat, they sweat. These suckers--there's a tremendous amount of talent and artistry and just raw technical know-how that goes into something as simple as a Smurf walking across the back of a sofa--or later in this movie a Smurf actually cries and makes you cry. There's tremendously dramatic moments in this film and I think that if people just forget for a moment that it's a dumb kids' movie and really watch the movie for what it is, they will be really surprised in the sophistication in these performances.
ComicBook.com: But you've also got a kind of built-in escape hatch, because if things get too serious you can always crack the tension with a "smurfy."
Gosnell: [Laughs] Yeah, we definitely use those tools for sure. The audiences that come to see this movie want to go for--it's a fun family movie, it's a Saturday afternoon let's bring all the kids and let's go have a good time kind of a movie but we do sort of ease them into some more dramatic sequences but you're right--we always try to bring them out with a joke and going to a smurf line is one of our faves. So you caught us!
We actually in the last movie there was at one point where a memo came down that--I won't get into the details of it but basically someone said let's do a more adult writers' roundtable joke pass. The amount of blue material--double entendre intended--that came out of that roundtable using the word "smurf" was beyond your wildest. A tiny bit of it made it into the last movie and I think some of the parental groups beat us up a little bit for it where "smurf" may have been inserted for what could have been a swear word. We always had that thought through, that when he says "Who the smurf are you?" it's not "who the eff are you," it's "who the heck are you." But the parents read the worst version. We got a little pushback from that and we won't see a lot of that in this movie.
Gosnell: [Laughs] Ultimately I work for the audience. We all do, so as much as we like to keep our individual touches in and the things that help us get out of bed every morning and go make these movies--the little flourishes, the little things that people may not expect--at the end of the day this is a movie for the audiences and so we do take our test screenings seriously.
ComicBook.com: Do you know what your next project is or are you kind of in a holding pattern to see if there's a Smurfs 3 before you commit to anything?
Gosnell: Yeah, I think you summed it up. If the movie gods and the audiences smile on this one and it's successful then there will probably be a Smurfs 3 and I will most likely be involved. So I guess I am kind of in a holding pattern in terms of looking at other stuff. I'm reading some things now but wouldn't commit to anything until we get the word on that. I feel like Iv'e done two, I've got to do the trilogy thing, man!
I'm also really excited--I can't tell you much about it but the idea for a Smurfs 3 is more of an origin story so we're back in Smurf Village and, why mushrooms? Why the la-la song? What's the origin of all those things that sort of we just accept as Smurfdom? So--really interesting! So I'm very excited and I hope it happens.0comments
ComicBook.com: Would it be weird to see somebody else take this on down the line? I mean, obviously you've had other people take your foundation and build on it before, be it for Scooby Doo or even the Fantastic Four that you didn't do but you had that script in-hand.
Gosnell: It's a little weird. I made Beverly Hills Chihuahua and they made a bunch of direct-to-video sequels out of that and we weren't involved. It's a little weird but I get it. At the end of the day it's business and as much as we're all friends and they're all civil to each other at the end of the day it's business so I get that. But I can also from the other side say that hey, I've done--I'm going to get this figure wrong--but seven out of ten of my movies have had sequels made. That ain't a bad thing; I must be doing something right. It just depends on how you look at it, like anything in life.