Interview with Lasse Hallström on A Dog’s Purpose

Lasse Hallström recently took a break from work to talk with me about his newest movie, A Dog’s Purpose, in theaters now. Mr. Hallström, whose films range from Dear John and Hachi: A Dog’s Tale to The Cider House Rules, The Hoax and Chocolat, has been directing motion pictures since 1985 with his feature My Life as a Dog. This is his first interview about the picture since A Dog’s Purpose debuted. This is an edited transcript with one minor plot “spoiler”.

Scott Holleran: Congratulations on a commercially successful debut at the box office, where your movie, A Dog’s Purpose, made its money back in one week. Thank you for making an intelligent, wonderful and meaningful motion picture.

Lasse Hallström: Thank you for the lovely review. I really appreciate it. I put a lot of heart into this film and I totally enjoyed the process.

Scott Holleran: Applying the movie’s theme, what are you working on now?

Lasse Hallström: I finished shooting a live action version of The Nutcracker [Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms] based on the original story by E.T.A. Hoffman in the 1800s—the ballet came out in the late 1800s—which will come out around Thanksgiving 2018. So, now I start editing. It’s a lot special effects. I’ve never had a budget like this before. It was fantastic, not that the budget didn’t weigh on us—it’s a tremendous responsibility. We had a wonderful lead girl named Mackenzie Foy. She played the daughter in Interstellar. I think she’s amazing in it. We have cinematography by Linus Sandgren (La La Land, The Hundred-Foot Journey), music by James Newton Howard (The Hunger Games, Batman Begins, Concussion) and Tchaikovsky and we use the original ballet music. We have Morgan Freeman (An Unfinished Life, Feast of Love), Helen Mirren (Collateral Beauty, The Hundred-Foot Journey) and Keira Knightley (Collateral Beauty). It was a lovely experience.

Scott Holleran: Your last movie, The Hundred-Foot Journey, and this one, A Dog’s Purpose, are bright and colorful. Is this a conscious choice?

Lasse Hallström: No. If there’s a [subconscious] choice, I can only say I enjoy making movies that focus on character and what characters have in common—in India, France, or America—I love character observations. So I work with actors to help to create something authentic and recognizable. That’s what drives me really.

Scott Holleran: What technology do you find best helps you achieve the look you want?

Lasse Hallström: That’s a good question. I have a split answer. If I’m egotistical, I would go with the digital system when it comes to capturing performances because I love to improvise especially with dogs in order to keep rolling. But for the artistic look I certainly prefer film. If I want the best and most authentic look, I have to go with film. Subtleties of the skin get flattened out with digital. The greenery of the forest looks very different, too. My cinematographer, Linus Sandgren, who just did La La Land, has taught me the wonderful difference between film and digital and I have to stick to film. Film is superior when it comes to subtlety of color.

Scott Holleran: What one quality did you seek in the actors who played Ethan?

Lasse Hallström: I look at the ability to improvise and be alive in front of the camera. I tend to want to improvise around the script. There’s a lot of improvising. It’s a great asset for me, it’s more vibrant. For example, when [two characters in A Dog’s Purpose] break up, that was all improvised. The scripted version felt a little written. So I used the improvisation.

Scott Holleran: Which scene best essentializes the movie’s theme?

Lasse Hallström: [Pauses] I don’t think I have one. Personally, I like the end shot of Maya [a character played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste] when she pats her dog and says ‘what are you thinking?’ and he says “…one of my best lives, really”. I thought that was the best interaction. I can’t say I have a defining moment.

Scott Holleran: Why did you decide to make another movie about dogs?

Lasse Hallström: It’s coincidence, really. I have to say if I’m offered something with potential charm that’s driven by character and allows for that, I’m undaunted. I like the idea of hearing a dog’s thoughts and trying to get in the head of the dog. I pay more attention to dogs now. I try to figure out what they’re thinking which makes me want to connect with dogs even more. I find that I’m more passionate in wanting to know what’s on a dog’s mind. I think you know about my [having had] five chow chows. I’m a fanatic dog lover. [Pauses] I lost my chow chow right before we started shooting [A Dog’s Purpose]. So, now I just have memories of them.

Scott Holleran: Did you have Dennis Quaid in mind as Ethan?

Lasse Hallström: He was cast very early on. It’s a lead character but I had worked with him before on Something to Talk About. I really love him. We both love dogs and play golf and we’ve worked together before so it was easygoing [on the set]. He’s got a great sense of humor.

Scott Holleran: Did he collaborate with the other actors playing Ethan at earlier ages?

Lasse Hallström: I kind of told him [about the character] and he met and discussed the character with K.J. Apa. I think they decided to have some mannerisms in common, like a little nervous thing with his hand. I trusted him to the point of letting him do whatever he wanted to do including when to tell the cameraman to stop. So we did a lot of takes. I said: here’s the crew, here’s the camera and there’s the crane.

Scott Holleran: Why did you choose Josh Gad (Frozen) as the voice of the dogs?

Lasse Hallström: That was an idea from the studio that I loved. We really hit it off long distance and, with him in Los Angeles and me in London, we kissed and hugged long distance. I still haven’t met him.

Scott Holleran: You chose Rachel Portman, who scored your movies Chocolat and The Cider House Rules, to compose the musical score. Why?

Lasse Hallström: She always delivers. I love what she’s doing and she’s a dog lover, too. She loved the film and was inspired by it, so we had another good experience. She made so many scenes [with her musical score]. It’s a perfect complement to that breakup scene.

Scott Holleran: What’s the most common criticism of the movie which you think might be valid?

Lasse Hallström: I knew it was [going to be] that I’ve been making too many “heartwarming” movies. So, it’s a bit too sweet even for me. It’s the nature of the project. I keep getting attracted to stories that have a certain life-affirming quality. I’m just that kind of guy. I can’t resist charm and life-affirming moments that entertain or, as we say in Swedish, roa röra, a phrase which means entertain and touch or move.

Scott Holleran: What’s the most common praise for the movie that you think might be valid?

Lasse Hallström

Lasse Hallström: The one I pick up on and appreciate is that it’s heartwarming after all. But being drawn to it is crossing the line into sentimentality. I’m actually allergic to sentimentality. But I’m very, very drawn to it, or to the conflicts, because I keep saying that if I’m honest or realistic with wanting to convey strong emotion or sentimentality I can stay on the right side [of the line]. If I’m false or pushy, I can fall into sentimentality. The fact that people are moved by it, not by blatant attempts to push buttons and evoke emotion, may be why the movie earned an A from Cinemascore audiences.

Scott Holleran: Had you seen Frank Marshall’s Eight Below?

Lasse Hallström: No. But Frank Marshall is probably a kindred spirit. He has a positive outlook on life.

Scott Holleran: What did Walden Media add to the movie?

Lasse Hallström: I got to meet them for notes on the edit. But nothing was imposed on us.

Scott Holleran: What did Amblin add to A Dog’s Purpose?

Lasse Hallström: I really enjoyed working with the heads of Amblin, Michael Wright and Holly Bario. I respect them very much. Steven [Spielberg] wasn’t involved very much this time but he liked the final result which is the ultimate reward to me because he is my master.

Scott Holleran: What did Universal add to the movie?

Lasse Hallström: They gave it a fantastic release. They’re the best at releasing and doing publicity from what I’ve been told.

Scott Holleran: Is this the movie you wanted to make?

Lasse Hallström: Yes. There’s nothing I can’t stand for.

Scott Holleran: Had you read W. Bruce Cameron’s book, have you spoken with him and has he seen the movie?

Lasse Hallström: I read it, I met him on set and he likes the film. Expect similarities to the book but also a lot of differences. However, it is heartwarming.

Movie Review: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

Though I’ve seen Stanley Kramer’s 1967 motion picture Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner several times, last week was the first time I saw it in a movie theater. Seeing this historic movie with an audience in Hollywood, courtesy of TCM Classic Film Festival 2016 (read my postscript on the introduction after this review and more about the festival here), with contextualization by a leading cast member and a film scholar, gives me deeper appreciation for this bright, intelligent and colorful movie. Its us against the world/to hell with what others think idealism is embedded, radical and wholly embraced by the audience nearly 50 years after its debut.

Despite its detractors, and there are many, especially on the left, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner remains extremely powerful, if sometimes static. Spencer Tracy—who died days after the picture’s final production—and Katharine Hepburn co-starred for the ninth and last time opposite Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton as the interracial couple. The Tracy-Hepburn pairing persists as the credited cause for the picture’s impact yet I found that this adds, but does not fully power, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

As a Bay Area couple whose professed liberal values are tested when their daughter (Hepburn’s niece Katharine Houghton) announces her engagement to a black doctor (Poitier), Tracy and Hepburn are indelibly cast and give emotional authenticity to the film particularly its famous final scene. The screenplay, too, by William Rose, who won an Academy Award for his work, is excellent, which unfortunately if not surprisingly is often ignored when the movie’s discussed.

Of course, producer and director Kramer, whose adaptations of Nevil Shute’s post-apocalyptic novel On the Beach and the Scopes monkey trial play Inherit the Wind, as well as Ship of Fools, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Judgment at Nuremberg, and lesser known movies such as Oklahoma Crude with Faye Dunaway and The Secret of Santa Vittoria with Anthony Quinn, make compelling cinema of serious and challenging themes, deserves top credit.

But one line,  expertly delivered by the great Sidney Poitier—“I fell in love with your daughter”—who mastered the year in movies with outstanding performances in In the Heat of the Night and To Sir, with Love, fundamentally makes the movie credible. Poitier’s line is neither delivered in defiance nor in apology; it is a clarification brimming with joy and spoken in solidarity with a father as his equal. At every point in this groundbreaking film, from his flirting with a black woman to his response to servant Tillie (Isabell Sanford), who judges him solely by his race, Poitier’s John Prentice acts on his own judgment for his own benefit; he is the title’s who that drives the plot’s progression.

With non-verbal cues, such as picking through a sandwich as if looking for signs of sabotage after Tillie serves refreshments on the terrace, Poitier’s Dr. Prentice personifies the rational man. When Dr. Prentice speaks, he maintains his virtues, whether setting his terms with his fiancee’s parents, responding with tact during cocktails with her friends or erupting with fury at his father (Roy E. Glenn, Sr.) when he decides to declare his break with tradition. Most of this happens at the San Francisco home of his fiancee’s parents, newspaper publisher Matt (Tracy) and small business owner Christina (Hepburn) Drayton.

Their daughter’s proposition is for her parents to bless this interracial union before the couple leaves to get married, which is to happen imminently, so there isn’t time to deliberate about a marriage which, in 1967, was illegal in almost half the country. Besides Sanford’s outspoken Tillie, with whom the audience identifies up to a point for her work ethic, protectiveness and suspicion of the black separatist movement, several other characters participate in the pre-dinner affair, including a Catholic priest (Cecil Kellaway) who is friends with Mr. and Mrs. Drayton and Hilary (Virginia Christine), a parasite who works for Mrs. Drayton.

Yet Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner begins at the airport, where Rose and Kramer cue the simple love theme, set the movie’s steady pace and establish that the world changes and one must stay on the move.

The black and white couple descend an escalator with a gathering of happy children, representing youth and the future, and take a taxi—where they exchange an interracial kiss, to the astonishment of the blue-eyed cab driver—to Mrs. Drayton’s downtown art gallery, where they encounter leech-like Hilary and her modernist contraption. Along the way, Dr. Prentice learns that Mrs. Drayton is an entrepreneur and that her daughter is proud of it. Then, they arrive to meet the parents. A foghorn sounds in San Francisco Bay, signalling trouble ahead.

The agitator is Joanna “Joey” Drayton (Katharine Houghton in her flawless movie debut), an idealistic white woman who meets the handsome black doctor on a trip to Hawaii and instantly falls in love.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner seasons the conflict, with an occasionally artificial air and its own archaic notions, such as Dr. Prentice’s line about a marriage being for the purpose of procreation. From Hepburn’s equalizing command more than question—”Can’t we all sit down?”—to the establishing shot of Matt Drayton’s study with its books and photograph of Franklin Roosevelt, every turn is seeded, earned and dramatized. Whatever makes it seem dated, such as the interracial dance scene between “knockout” Dorothy and the go-go delivery boy, Monsignor Ryan quoting the Beatles or Matt Drayton’s disastrous attempt to prove himself to be a thoroughly modern man eating boysenberry ice cream, which permits the movie to simultaneously acknowledge the “angry black man” and the “angry white man”, adds up to the climactic final speech and dinnertime.

This includes the appearance of Dr. Prentice’s parents, a decent couple from Los Angeles visiting snooty San Francisco (where their would-be daughter-in-law looks down upon a girl from Pomona). Bringing the earlier taxi scene full circle, his mother (Oscar-nominated Beah Richards) and father silently ride in the backseat as Joanna Drayton drives, with Mr. Prentice looking angrily at the white woman and with Mrs. Prentice looking admiringly at her son, the widower who lost a child, is ready to love again and marry on his own terms as his own man. It’s a powerful contrast which precedes Poitier’s later emotional outburst to his character’s father that he thinks of himself as a man, not as a “colored” man.

That the meaning of this line has been flipped and reversed today—with the father’s notion that one’s identity is based upon race sadly closer to predominant ideals about race among today’s black intellectuals, who proclaim themselves “persons of color”—and Poitier’s Dr. Prentice would likely be branded an unenlightened “Uncle Tom” (which is what Poitier was branded by a black newspaper columnist after his banner year) only serves the movie’s theme that love is colorblind, which, in reality, is true. So now is the picture’s optimistic forecast about an American Negro becoming president of the United States of America.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is no less probing and powerful, if neatly arranged and produced, a picture show now as it was then. Almost every scene stands out as important. It is sharp, biting and proud—and, ominously, still radical in its comic and dramatic case against collectivism.

Movie historian Donald Bogle brought out co-star and stage actress Katharine Houghton at TCM Classic Film Festival 2016‘s screening of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner at the Chinese Theater 6 in Hollywood and the two exchanged a brief question and answer about the historic film. Houghton said that she was constantly on hold because the Columbia Pictures production was on, then off, then on again, and she explained that Columbia did not want to make the movie, which the studio apparently did not know was about interracial love during development, for fear of the audience’s negative response. Though Bogle and Houghton had the effect of apologizing for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner by indicating that it was made for white audiences, her enthusiasm for the film’s theme that love is universal remains in her interview and performance.