A Director’s Journey

A Conversation with Gail Mancuso on the Making of "A Dog's Journey"

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"I really felt, because my relationship with my dogs and my history, that it was my calling to direct "A Dog's Journey," and it was. It was the perfect fit. I never looked back…."

Gail Mancuso

Director Gail Mancuso came to A Dog's Journey after decades of award-winning work in television with a specialization in comedy. With over 100 projects to her résumé, her work includes such notable and often beloved shows as The NannyRoseanne, EllenFriends, Gilmore Girls, Scrubs, 30 Rock, and Modern Family, for which she earned two Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series.

A Dog's Journey marks Mancuso's feature film debut, and Amblin.com was very happy for the opportunity to talk with her about her experience bringing the heartwarming, heartbreaking and yes, comedic film to audiences in theaters this past May. Families and fans of Mancuso's work can now bring A Dog's Journey home on Digital 4K, Blu-ray and DVD, available now through your favorite video retailers and online vendors.

[Please be aware there are spoilers for A Dog's Journey in this detailed discussion on the production of the film. We advise enjoying the film before you read the interview.]

AMBLIN: What was it about A Dog's Journey that drew you away from decades of a very successful career in television to your first feature film?

MANCUSO: I'd been wanting to do a feature for a while and I thought it was going to be a comedy, because that's my wheelhouse in TV. After reading just script after script after script, when Holly [Bario, co-producer] sent me A Dog's Journey, I speed-read it. I emailed her immediately that I was in. I wanted it so bad. It was weird because I never had a reaction like that to a film. I usually have to think about it, re-read it, but this really spoke to me. And I really felt, because my relationship with my dogs and my history, that it was my calling to direct this movie, and it was. It was the perfect fit. I never looked back….

I related to and loved the female protagonist and I loved following her journey. I've always enjoyed working with young actors and dogs...and older actors too! [laughs] It's just something about the female protagonist that I related to and how strong she had to be and how she lost her way and that she found her way again through the help of Bailey and her family and her friends—her best friend. To me, it was just that was the heart of the movie.

AMBLIN: What differences did you find between working on TV schedules versus a longer-form work like a feature film?

MANCUSO: On the set, it's exactly the same, super comfortable. All the years and years of weekly episodes of being able to walk on a set, talk to actors on a daily basis, know the equipment, know shots and everything like that. It was super, super comfortable and a very seamless transition between the television set to the film set, the feature set. That said, it was like a pilot that never ended. You usually have a start date, an end date and then you're on to the next project in TV, but in this case, it felt like it was just an ongoing—it just kept going and going and going and going. [laughs] I loved it so much, I wanted to be part of every single aspect of it. I never wanted it to end, which was awesome. I'm still trying to find a way to keep it going [laughs] even though the streaming and the DVD is out now. Oh my gosh, crazy. Crazy.

AMBLIN: What was it like working with Holly Bario and Gavin Polone as your producers?

MANCUSO: I'm not just saying this because of Amblin.com, and I tell everybody this: I couldn't imagine having a better experience on my first feature than working with Amblin, from top to bottom. I had asked other directors, too, I got a little research, [lowers voice] "Hey guys, what do you think of Amblin? You know, I mean, come on, Steven Spielberg and all of that. Should I be nervous?" And they'd say, "Oh my gosh, they're the best company, because they're film-maker friendly." And up and down the line, it was so true. I was set up for success and supported all the way through. It was amazing.

Gavin had pitched me for this project because he knew me previously, because he was an producer on Gilmore Girls and I did a few of those, as well as a pilot for Gavin, that's how we knew each other years ago. I guess he must have remembered what a dog person I am, and the comedy aspect. In this movie, A Dog's Journey, there's a fine line between the dramatic and the comedic, because we have to keep it light. It can be a sad, dramatic story, but you know, Josh Gad [the voice of Bailey] and the light moments with the dog really needed, I believe, a professional comedic touch. And a female, because of the female protagonist, I think that's why he must have thought of me for this. I just value his input because he was just a really, really smart guy and he's done a kazillion movies and a kazillion TV shows. He's calm and he's just a great person to have at set and he just let me really do whatever I wanted; he let me do my thing. I'd sometimes ask him a question: "What do you think about this," or, "What do you think about this?" and he'd say, "Well, why wouldn't you do it? It would make a better movie." From that point it was a little sound bite is in my life now and I'm sure I'll take that with me in my next movie and like him, I'll be like, "Why not? Because it will be a better movie." Sure do it!

Holly is a consummate producer. She is so smart and I really value her story sensibilities and her character sensibilities. It was really nice when we have these conversations about the script, about character. She would challenge me to think about things through a different lens, say things like, "What do you think about this," or, "What do you think if we did this? I'm not saying we should, but what if we thought about this first?" It was a really great relationship that I wasn't expecting. I was expecting something a little more heavy-handed, but because she's so easy to talk to and so skilled and so smart. We get along on personal level too; we both have kids, and we both love dogs. I always enjoy notes from Holly because it really made me think about it in a different ways and helped take me out of my—you know, sometimes we get tunnel vision and I was like, "Okay, get out of the tunnel for a second and look at it from this lens." I'll work with her and Gavin on anything, anytime. Again, I couldn't have been set up better.

AMBLIN: Did you work with Bruce Cameron [author of the novels A Dog's Purpose and A Dog's Journey] and Cathryn Michon on the screenplay once you came on board, or was your work primarily with [screenwriters] Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky?

MANCUSO: It was mostly Maya and Wally. Yes, and I had worked with Maya and Wally before which was great. We had done a pilot together. We had a relationship and they aligned with my vision for the movie right from the get-go and went with my suggestions, took all of my suggestions, and yet we still had some creative differences, but very few [chuckles]. They were good about suggesting "What about this? What do you think?" Looking at things from a different lens or a different angle.

And I think because of Maya and Holly and I, because we're three women, we were really able to fine-tune the CJ [played by Kathryn Prescott] story in a unique way where I think we succeeded.

Then the great thing about Maya and Wally, even when I was on the set or working on the weekends I'd start thinking like, "Wait, maybe we can use joke here," or "Maybe we should add a scene, like a little scene or something?" I'd call them up or I'd email them every day, "Hey guys, what do you think of adding a little something here? Can you help me with this?" Literally, they would turn something around within 8-10 hours, "We're on it!" It's such a great confidence boost to have them in my corner and being accessible and wanting to help me because they were in Los Angeles when we were in Winnipeg [the major location shoot for the film].

AMBLIN: Talking about the female roles in the film. I think that's essential and a core to this film, especially in contrast with the original film, A Dog's Purpose, which was very male-centered with Ethan as the main character. CJ is the heart of A Dog's Journey, and she's at an interesting point that all of us have been at—female or male—that period of growing up and moving out into the world on our own. But like many people, she has this added pain she's carrying because of a fractured relationship with a parent. I think Betty Gilpin's character Gloria [CJ's mother] was so interesting in that regard too... What's great about the different female roles in this film is that they're more complex than just "This is a strong woman" or "This is a weak woman." They're shaded, which helps create great drama, of course. What was it like working in those different tones? Betty's character, there's such a—you kind of resent her because how she didn't raise CJ ultimately, and yet for most audiences I'd imagine, we can't help but feel an empathy for her too, especially in her key final scene, the reconciliation with CJ.

MANCUSO: That scene wasn't in the movie, in the original script when I got my hands on it. The reconciliation, which I thought was so important to come full circle and to resolve that relationship. And then to see her again in later years with the baby, which it so moving. Gloria is really one of my favorite characters. It's such a complex character. In a movie you have to tell so much with such little time. Her character obviously, we had to kind of hit the ground running with her and let the audience know that her husband had died young, and she was young, she didn't have a chance to live her own life before she had to be an adult. She was a child when she had CJ, really was supposed to be something like 22 or so, super young, yeah. And I think a lot of people can relate to that. It's like, "Oh my gosh, I really wanted to do this but my life took me this way." Once you have a child, it's all about the baby. Even the grandparents [Ethan and Hannah, played by Dennis Quaid and Marg Helgenberger] who seem on the surface to be so helpful and they only want to do good, but really when you're in somebody else's house and they're helping you raise your baby, they're sort of taking over and you could see how she's getting claustrophobic. I mean, she needs to break out. It was important for her to leave that farm. Betty loved this character because it gave her a chance to really play so many different layers. And I think she did it beautifully, she's such a wonderful actress.

I think Kathryn Prescott as CJ was just the perfect choice. I knew she was CJ when Kathryn walked in the casting office, from her first audition, she was just so natural. Yes, we just kept going back to her, I was like, "no, it's Kathryn, it's Kathryn!" [laughs] I don't know if [Kathryn] believed me, but it's true. I've written her a note saying, "You were CJ since the moment I saw you," and boy did she play that part beautifully.

AMBLIN: It's hard to imagine the film without the reconciliation scene, it's essential. It's like a landing point to one of the main relationships in the film, what really shaped CJ. Otherwise I think Gloria would have just been a villain.

MANCUSO: It's so different from the book. I don't know if you read the book, but the movie is really way different from the book. We had time to really shape it and to really figure out what we wanted to say, what I wanted to say.

Dennis was so great to work with. He was in the original movie. I think the thing about Dennis what's so great about him as a person and as an actor is—I was in Chicago [Mancuso's home town] screening the movie during the junket, and a middle-aged guy came up to me and he said, "Thank you for making a movie that a guy like me wants to see." This guy is like a typical Chicago pizza-eating, beer-drinking, Scotch loving, so maybe not the biggest athlete in the world. Picture this Midwest, beefy kind of guy. I'm like, "What do you mean? Explain what you mean." He goes, "Well, my wife and I, we look at movies that we want to go see and I'll acquiesce and I'll go to the rom-coms...I don't really care for the rom-coms, but to see Dennis Quaid, be a guy like me." I guess he really doesn't look in the mirror, but—[laughter]. The sense of being a man and—[laughs] maybe I shouldn't be saying all this!—but "being like somebody that I can relate to, working on the farm, working to make his family work and being central to helping ease the pain of his wife when she's missing [CJ], all that stuff. We guys don't have—there's no more John Wayne."

I know that women love Dennis, and I guess even men love Dennis because he is a relatable guy and he was just so perfect in this movie.

Here's a piece of trivia for you: There is a difference in Dennis between the first movie and the second movie. In A Dog's Purpose, he had to wear brown contacts because the actor that was playing Ethan as a boy had brown eyes. They cast him and I guess Dennis was asked him to wear contacts in the first movie which he hated, it was the worst part of the whole experience...I asked him, "How do you feel about not wearing the contact in this movie?" He goes, "Oh my god, I love you.” Because his eyes are so beautiful and it's anamorphic filming that we're doing, this Americana 'scope film. I just keep thinking of that scene when Bailey's dying and Dennis is crying and he's looking up and I'm like, "Oh my god, those eyes!" Can you imagine if those were brown contacts?… It certainly freed him to be who he is. I don't know if that scene would be as powerful if he had the contacts in. I don't know if he'd be able to do it.

AMBLIN: Marg Helgenberger plays Ethan's life-long love and wife Hannah. What was it like working with Marg?

MANCUSO: We became besties right away, matter of fact, when we were in Canada up at the farm, it's about three hours away from Winnipeg. We were at this Airbnb and her room was across from my room so we'd get our jammies on and we'd talk about our day. She's really special and I think she was amazing in this movie. And that's the other thing: the chemistry that she had with Dennis was great. It's another thing that I really feel that we don't see enough of, couples of a certain age. The dance scene, I wanted that. That's something my husband and I do when we hear our favorite song...and I put that in the movie and it's just something that you know they love each other so much and they can still be physical and love each other and that's okay to see that in the movie. It's just real life. And I just love those scenes when [Ethan and Hannah] are older. They give so much heart for this movie.

A lot of people call A Dog's Journey a dog movie, and yes, it's a dog movie, but it's really a love story. It's a love story between human relationships, human to human, and human to dogs. I think in every aspect of the film, it's just you're pulling for CJ and finally when she gets together with Trent [played by Henry Lau] . We some theaters we had applause, audiences hoping that would happen. I look at the film more like a love story.

AMBLIN: The film deals with the death of beloved pets, of course, and the loss that brings into our lives. You hear the old adage between directors and child actors when doing a scene where it has to be emotional or draw tears, asking the question, "Did you ever lose a pet?" Not to dig too personal, but were there any feelings like this that you brought as a director? That depth of feeling through having lost pets in the past or thinking of your dogs in your family now?

MANCUSO: For all of our pets that we've lost, the cast and crew and their dogs...The first dog that comes up for me is Theo, which is my dog that I lost tragically about eight years ago. I think the reason why I have five dogs now is because there's still a hole there that I can't fill in. I can't replace him...I think that emotion, that love for Theo, really helped guide me through this movie.

I will say this overall, everybody that was associated with that movie, every cast member, virtually every crew member has had a dog, or has a dog, or has lost a dog. On the screen, that love of dogs is clear to me from every position, from camera operator to costumers, everyone. Everybody just upped their game so much because of their love for their dogs.

For Dennis, for that scene at the beginning [in which "Big Dog" (Bailey) dies again]... I just reminded him that as a character that he's been through this before as a young teenager in the first movie. It's not the first time he's lost that dog, it's the second time. I think that really helped him find his way. He's so smart. He just brings so much to everything anyway, but to think of that, he's not just losing a dog, but he'd already lost this dog before.

AMBLIN: It's a strong character beat because not only has Ethan lost different dogs physically, but he's losing the same soul each time. That's doubly painful.

Let's talk about your dog performers. Obviously, all dogs have such unique personalities. What were they like to work with them and their working habits?

MANCUSO: Well, we had Bonnie [Judd] as our dog trainer, who is amazing. She was great and she trained her dogs with positivity, or "pawsitivity." It was really fun on the set. After every scene or every time a dog did something great, she and her trainers and eventually all the crew, they were like, "Yay, good boy, yay!" It was all this really loud applause and smiles. This is just a fun set to work on because Bonnie really set the tone for the animals. First of all, we went through the whole script to plan what realistically this dog can do because you can't teach a dog the entire script, they'll forget. We just go week by week, or however they schedule it.

So on the weekends we would get together and go over the next week's work and she'd be like, "Well, this is how far we got on this trick, does this work for you?" And I'd say, "Well, kind of," or "what would be a good option? Well, how about this?" And that's how we would work. We would just figure out what the dog can do, what's cute, what can tell the story. That's how we got along so well and that's how the dogs were happy and the trainers were happy. We worked with each dog. Now, Max was an amazing dog. He was our little guy, super smart… They all were great. The big dog, he's a rescue and we had only had him for eight days of training because he came from Winnipeg, there's only eight days of training and that's how good that dog was, which was amazing. Every time a dog would come on the set, I would just be loving on it so much that my assistant director would have to call out to me like, "Gail, we're not going to make our day if you don't stop”... "All right, if I must!"

AMBLIN: You obviously came so deeply prepared with decades of experience directing and producing for television. Did you still manage to learn anything on your first feature and can you synopsize the overall process of directing A Dog's Journey and what it's all meant to you?

MANCUSO: Even in TV I tried to learn something every day. I ask a lot of questions and I would say to crew, "I don't assume anything, and I'm going to ask and I may sound like I'm a kindergartner, but please explain this to me" or "Can you tell me how to do this? What is this piece of equipment for?" I think my takeaway from this movie is that I learned so much and it was so exhilarating to be able to be at the helm of something so special and to walk away with a great movie that I know that I want to do another one, and I want that to be just as special.... I think this one for me was truly from the heart and I want to be super careful with my next feature and make sure that it can resonate with me as much as this one did.

Steven Awalt is editor and digital content producer for Amblin.com. He's written extensively on the career of Steven Spielberg for nearly two decades, including in his book Steven Spielberg and Duel: The Making of a Film Career (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) about the making of Spielberg's breakout 1971 thriller.