Justin Cook chats with The Art of Racing in the Rain director Simon Curtis…
After a decade of bouncing between studios and cycling through rosters of talent, director Simon Curtis completed the tall task of introducing moviegoers to Enzo — a “good boy” with a passion for car racing. Garth Stein’s New York Times bestseller The Art of Racing in the Rain hit the big screen this past August and now is available on home video platforms (digital, Blu-ray and DVD).
Look no further than Curtis’ filmography to see why he was the right man for the job. Between My Week with Marilyn, Woman in Gold and Goodbye Christopher Robin, his work often straps the audience in for an emotional, even tearjerking, ride; The Art of Racing in the Rain is no exception.
Flickering Myth had the chance to speak with Curtis on everything from Kevin Costner’s casting, to finding the right Enzo and his love for moving people with his work.
The first thing I wanted to ask is, adapting a 300+ page book for a movie that’s under two hours is such a difficult undertaking — were there any scenes from the book that you wanted to include in the movie, but for time had to cut out?
Simon Curtis: It’s so hard because you get to know the script more than the book if you know what I mean. But no, I don’t think there were. Garth Stein, the author of the book, is very supportive of the film. And obviously, it’s not 100% the same as the book, but the book lovers, I’m very proud to say, seem to have enjoyed the film. And, in fact, the only thing is when we saw the finished cut of the film, Enzo’s voiceover, portrayed by Kevin Costner, was such a wonderful element that we asked for more voiceover than there is in the book.
So how did Kevin Costner come to be attached to this project? I know in the book, Garth [Stein] says the voice of the dog is reminiscent of James Earl Jones and Kevin Costner has that sort of sage wisdom to his voice as well, but was he the first choice for the role?
Curtis: Yeah, he was actually, he was the first choice. And I knew I wanted an iconic American voice. A senior statesman, [fitting] a dog looking back at his life. And I believe that Kevin was a fan of the book. So it was an easy connection.
In the book, the dog isn’t necessarily described in great detail and is sort of a surrogate for the reader to project their own dog onto. So of course, film’s a visual medium, and it doesn’t afford that liberty, so how did you go about choosing the right dog to fill that image many readers had?
Curtis: That’s a good question. In fact, if I remember, in the book, he’s a sort of mixed breed of some kind, which is very very hard to pull off in film because you need dogs of various ages and getting a series of dogs of different ages who all look the same, it’s tricky, so you have to go for a pure breed. And we worked with a brilliant dog trainer, who just said this is the breed you need, and she was right. Because we had two main dogs and they were two of the best actors I ever worked with.
So on a film set, there always seems to be, from directors, a sort of planning for the worst because things so often do go wrong, especially when working with animals. So can you talk about some of your initial trepidations with working with a dog on this film and your relief at the process going smoothly?
Curtis: If you’re a director, like I do, I sort of obsessively read the script in preparation, and then you divide scenes into bundles like, ‘That’s going to come together easily’ and ‘That’s a tricky scene.’ But because there was a dog in every scene, by definition, because we only showed things the dog was present at, I panicked because what if the dog doesn’t go from A to B or look in that direction. But they were fantastically well-prepared our dogs. And, in fact, we shot through the schedule because the dogs performed so well … We did wrap early because the dog performed so fantastically well.
I wanted to ask about some of the soundtrack choices for the movie. The movie is filled with some great needle-drops, especially the ending of the movie with “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. So how did you come across that song and how did it inspire you to use it at the end?
I was thinking of songs that have “Rain” in the title, but I wanted classic songs that were in collective subconscious. So I chose George Harrison tracks and Crosby, Stills & Nash, and I think they work because the audience brings their own emotional connection to those [songs] as well.
It seems like a common through-line in your filmography is a tendency to follow characters on very emotional journeys. What in your opinion is key to making a movie that resonates with people and can even tug on the heartstrings?
Curtis: I don’t know, but this film does move people, and what I loved about seeing it with an audience was you hear both laughter and sniffling tears. It takes people on an emotional journey, and I think a lot of films now aren’t very emotional actually, and I want to push in the other direction. I like being moved in a cinema, and I’m very excited about this coming out on DVD and digitally because I think it will reach a lot of people, who will hopefully be moved by it.
How did you go about shooting some of the racing scenes in this movie, and where did the decision come from to bring in [revered car commercial director Jeff Zwart]?
Curtis: Well, I had two producers who know what they’re talking about — Patrick Dempsey, who is a world-class driver in his own right and Neal Moritz, who did The Fast and the Furious. And Jeff came highly recommended and was a fantastic partner in helping me achieve the racing.
Were there any other dog movies that you looked to for inspiration when you were making this film or do you have any favorite dog movies?
Curtis: No, and I did check a lot of them out, but I suppose Marley & Me is my favorite. And that was the same studio as ours. I found that inspiring.
This book has been around for 10 years and it’s taken a little while for Hollywood to make an adaptation of it, but what do you think about the book is so enduring?
Curtis: I’ve always said the secret sauce of this film, and the story, and the reason it’s been successful is Enzo’s voice and his perception and he’s sometimes right and sometimes wrong. I think that spiritual dimension — he wants to learn from his life as a dog so he can come back as a human — I think that is original and very affecting.
Whether you’re a dog lover, racecar enthusiast or fan of the book, pick yourself up a copy of Simon Curtis’ The Art of Racing in the Rain! The film is available now on digital, Blu-ray and DVD.
THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN is a heartfelt tale narrated by a witty and philosophical dog named Enzo (voiced by Kevin Costner). Through his bond with his owner, Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia), an aspiring Formula One race car driver, Enzo has gained tremendous insight into the human condition and understands that the techniques needed on the racetrack can also be used to successfully navigate the journey of life. The film follows Denny and the loves of his life – his wife, Eve (Amanda Seyfried), their young daughter Zoe (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), and ultimately, his true best friend, Enzo.
Many thanks to Simon Curtis for taking the time for this interview.