Under the Radar

Director Raja Gosnell Talks ‘The Smurfs 2’

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Raja Gosnell has directed an impressive string of successful family movies over the last decade, including the live-action Scooby Doo movies, Beverly Hills Chihuahua and The Smurfs. Our regular readers might not know his name, since his movies seldom have guns or explosions, but your kids love his work.  The Smurfs 2 opens this week and he's already started work on The Smurfs 3.

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Raja began his career an editor and worked on some '90s classics including Pretty Woman and the Home Alone movies. He talked to us about why your family will enjoy The Smurfs 2 and how he got his start in Hollywood.

How does The Smurfs 2 differ from the first one and what should people expect to see that they haven't seen before?

I think that the things that are similar are that it's going to have all the comedy and fun for the whole family that the first movie had. It's going to have a strong family message that the first movie has, and I think even a lot deeper, more emotional family message then the first one.

This movie is different in that it sort of goes into the psychology of Smurfette. In the original Peyo creation, Smurfette was created by Gargamel and sent into Smurf Village to betray them, but Papa saw the good in her and through love and kindness and a special potion, turned her into a true, blue Smurf, and she's been accepted into the Smurf family ever since.

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But in the back of her mind she has this fear that she's not really a Smurf. In the first scene of the movie she wakes up from a nightmare where she has just betrayed the Smurfs. So that’s sort of on her mind. We pick up Gargamel back in our world and he's a famous magician because he has some leftover Smurf Essence, but he's running low quickly. He's made two new Smurfs called Vexy and Hackus in exactly the same way he made Smurfette. He dubs them "The Naughties," but he doesn’t have the formula to turn them blue, so they're useless for his essence quest. So Smurfette is Smurf-napped back to Gargamel's time with the hope of getting the formula from her.

So the psychology of it is that beloved Papa is essentially her stepfather and evil Gargamel is essentially her father. And through her course of being with Gargamel and with the two Naughties, she's a little bit manipulated, a little bit seduced into feeling like she belongs with that family. And so there's sort of a family dynamic going on and she actually bonds with The Naughties. And actually through her being Smurfy and having good Smurfy values, Smurfette sort of brings them over to her side.

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In the meantime, our human story is Neil Patrick Harris' character, Patrick, is sort of dealing with his stepfather who came into his life when he was very young and they have always had a frosty relationship. And so we have two stepfather stories working concurrently in the movie in there, so there's a lot about family. There's a lot of nuanced psychological dynamics between the two. And I think Smurfette's journey from being concerned that she's not a real Smurf through – going right up to the brink of betraying the Smurfs, to then realizing that, yes, she is a real Smurf, is something that is much more deeper and probably dramatic than people would expect and is different from the first movie. And I think it will just make it a much richer experience.

So how closely do you feel like you have to stick to the original comics or to the 80's kids TV series? 

Well, we used that as our jumping off place. We certainly stay close in terms of the characters. I mean Grouchy is going to be grouchy and Lazy and is going to be lazy and Vanity is going to be vain and those sorts of things.

So who they were, but in terms of the storylines themselves, we feel like those stand on their own and, you know, part of the reason people were going to pay money to see a 3D movie is to see the next iteration of the characters. So I feel like we definitely are very conscious of Peyo's creation in the books, but in moving forward we feel like the stories we tell can be in the here and now and can be relatable to people today.

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Talk about the process of mixing live action with animation. Have things changed since you made Scooby Doo?

The tools are all getting better. The lighting tools, particularly, are amazing. These Smurfs are going to look absolutely real on the streets of Paris and in the Paris Opera House and flying through the flying buttresses of Notre Dame. But the acting of the Smurfs is – it really comes down to the animator that’s working at that machine. I can give a thousand notes about a different kind of a smile, but the person actually moving the levers is actually doing the performing the way an actor would. So the way I deal with the animators is similar to the language I would have with Neil Patrick Harris or Brendan Gleeson or Jayma Mays or Hank Azaria. I use very similar language, but it's up to the animator, just as it's up to those actors to hear and translate and make it their own. At the end of the day, it's not about the wiz-bang tools. It's about the artistry of the person working them.

The geometry tools are also are much, much better. One of the big battles early on when I did the Scooby movies was figuring out how just to simply make him look like he's walking on the ground. And now they have programs for that. We do a laser scan of every set, so they know exactly where in space each Smurf is. And so they have different tools to automatically make the Smurf walk on the ground. And then once he has that ground contact, then the people start adding the finer nuances.

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You had a long, really successful career as an editor before you became a director. How did you make that transition?

It's interesting. Yeah, it feels like being an editor gives you sort of all the tools that you would need to direct in terms of like knowing the coverage that you need and knowing what's going to work back in the cutting room and what's not. And editing can give  you a good storytelling sense.

So I think I do have a strong storytelling sense. Sometimes when I get involved in the script, most of my notes are about the storytelling, because there's often scenes that are sort of tangential and slow things down or things that aren't connecting to the other scenes. So I think I brought that from editing, but it's a very different discipline in that when you're editing, you can kind of lock the doors and figure things out. You know it's you in a room with the material and you can sort of quietly at your own pace figure it out. And there is none of that on making a movie. You're on a motion picture set. There's 200 people around you and every click of a second hand is money that’s being spent. And so you have to think on your feet much more.

The biggest transition for me from editing to directing was communication. As the editor, I communicated with the pictures and sounds that I had put together. As a director, none of that exists. So you're going into meetings with wardrobe people and set people who regrettably can't read my mind, so I have to find the words to explain what's in my head. And as easy and obvious as that sounds, it's not a skill set necessarily shared by those in the editing world.

So that was probably the biggest learning curve for me. Oh, I actually have to explain exactly what's in my head to get this to this person. Of course with every great person you work with, you hope they take that idea and make it better. Even if it's 180 degrees different than what I asked for, if it's better, that's great.

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How do you train to become a movie editor and how would someone who's interested in getting into film business and being a director, what do you think is the real practical way to do it?

I think this is a miraculous time in the film business because people now have the tools in their off-the-shelf laptop to edit and add sound and compose music and do all the things that people couldn’t do for themselves as recently as ten years ago. So anybody with a video camera and Final Cut on their Mac can make a movie. So I think that I would say start there. You know, find the story, get some friends, you know do some stuff. Do something that’s fun. And so you kind of learn the ropes that way and make a good movie.

And if you make a good movie, then you can get it to an agent. The agent can say, hey, this guy is hot or maybe you can get that into a film festival. Maybe get to the point where someone sees it and it's five minutes of it, but someone says, hey, that would be a great movie, so let's expand it. Let's get you more money and let's get a writer.

All you’ve got to do is turn on YouTube and you're seeing tons of material that’s basically finished films, with all the bells and whistles, so the next step is getting that to agents and to distributors.

I grew up on Bugs Bunny cartoons. I started as an apprentice editor. My first job was to drive negative to the airport and take it to the lab at 3:00 in the morning. And then, you know, I started doing sort of the grunt work.

We worked with film in these days, so the terms won't mean anything to anybody these days. But, you know, started sort of coating the film and just the clerical stuff with film, I guess. And then in my spare time I would go in and watch the editors. And so I worked my way into a position where I had viewed enough editing and worked around the systems enough that I knew how that all worked.

And then when I got a chance to edit, I think all that watching TV and watching cartoons was all sort of deep inside my head somewhere because I was able to take mounds and mounds of film and just tell a story with it. That’s basically what an editor does. You take all this material that the director has given you and you tell the best story. And so somehow I'd have a gut instinct that, well, after this shot, then this is the right shot to go to. And after that shot, this is the right shot to go to. And after this shot, you know, that’s probably the right shot to go to, but wouldn’t it be more interesting to try this other shot?

And in terms of the joke timing and all of that, I'm sure that’s the pure Chuck Jones, you know? But yeah, I think everything you view is sort of stuck in there somewhere and when you find yourself in a situation, some voice from somewhere talks to you and then says this is the right way to do it. And if you are editing, like I said, you can always lock the door and figure it out.

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