Hey boys and girls, we had the pleasure of a chat with Raja Gosnell, the director of the new family comedy about some old favourites, The Smurfs. Mr. Gosnell clarified the difference between three medieval apples and modern ones, the magic of Hank Azaria and gave us a scoop about the long-awaited reappearance of Goth Smurfette.
Director Raja Gosnell
The Lady Miz Diva: There was a long stretch in the eighties when the Smurfs were everywhere. What do you remember about The Smurfs?
Raja Gosnell: I was a little old for the cartoons, but it was everywhere. You couldn’t live in the eighties and not know about Smurfs. What I remember was the late night jokes, like the Lettermans and Carsons; they were making jokes about Smurfs, and stand-up comedians - Will Smith was making Smurf jokes. You knew they had invaded pop culture and they’d sort of gone to those levels.
LMD: How did the project come to you?
RG: I was fortunate enough to get a call from Jordan Kerner, who’s the producer, and he said, “We’re working on a Smurf movie.” I must admit I was initially a little bit hesitant, cos I’d done the Scooby-Doo movies and The Smurfs to me was another Hanna-Barbera. I was thinking, ‘Do I wanna be the Hanna-Barbera guy?’ But then I did some more research and I realised that it went far beyond the Hanna-Barbera Saturday morning cartoon, that there were these books and books that Peyo had created. In those books I found the characters were much more fully drawn and there’s family action, there was family dysfunction that the family all gathered around and made better, there was adventure. There was a much bigger world to be had there. Then I read a follow-up script and Gargamel as a character was just delicious. So those two things together made me say, “Yeah, I’m definitely in.”
LMD: So many people grew up with the Smurfs in the eighties, but there’s a whole new generation who perhaps have never seen the Smurfs as there hasn’t been anything new on in years. How do you balance bringing the Smurfs to that new audience while remaining faithful to those who remember them well?
RG: Well, that’s the trick. First and foremost, we went back to Peyo’s books. We wanted to honour the world that he created and the characters that he created. You’ll see the Brainy and Grouchy that you’ve always known. You’ll see the characters as you’ve always known them. We are well aware that we’ll have an audience of thirty-something parents who grew up with the Smurfs, and their young kids. So we wanted to -- like most family movies -- have stuff that played to the kids; there’s a lot of physical comedy, a lot of Smurfy cuteness. And then there’s some lines like “Passive-Aggressive Smurf,” and there’s Narrator Smurf that are for the adults. There’s a very fine line to tread, is it too adult? Is it too young? That was probably our main barometer; finding that line where we had enough for the adults to smile at. A lot of that’s in Gargamel; his little throwaways and his asides. It was really, really important to us to make a movie that longtime Smurf fans can embrace and they will.
I know there’s been some grumbling online about, “Oh, they’re in New York, they shouldn’t be there. This is wrong. Peyo’s rolling over in his grave.” So there’s a bit of grumbling about it, but I guarantee, if you’re a Smurf fan and you see this movie, you’ll see the Smurfs that you grew up with and you’ll see The Smurfs movie that you want.
LMD: I wondered how much thought went into the look of the Smurfs? They’re not three apples high. Maybe three crabapples high? They’re kind of small for three apples.
RG: They’re three medieval apples high! Here’s what he had to do: We created three different sizes of Smurfs; and then we looked at everything we wanted the Smurfs to be able to do in the movie. Well, we wanted them to ride on pigeons, we wanted them to go through storm drains, we want them to fall in the toilet. So, most of the stuff that are interactions in our world, the bigger guys that are more like our modern-day, genetically-enhanced apples, probably wouldn’t work.
LMD: What was the thought behind making Azrael about sixty percent real cat with CGI effects, versus making a completely CGI creature like the Smurfs?
RG: Our hope is that the transition between the real cat and the CGI would be seamless, but of course it’s not quite because the CGI cat acts differently. We wanted it to be a real cat, first of all because there were financial considerations; it’s much cheaper to shoot with a real cat. We just also liked the reality of it. Azrael is always a cat, but from Peyo’s books to the Hanna-Barbera cartoon, there’s a relationship between these two. The cat’s the henchman; he’s the smarter henchman. He’s always smarter than Gargamel. And there’s some of that physical action; Gargamel stomps on his tail or the cat gets caught in something, Gargamel throws him off, so we knew we needed a digital cat to do all those sorts of stunts. In fact, there’s a title at the end of the movie that says “No digital cats were harmed during the making of this film.” I think we may get some complaints from the animal rights people, but we worked really hard to make sure the cartooney moments are really cartooney; that the cat’s enough of a henchman as opposed to a real cat.
LMD: I’d read there are plans to make a trilogy of Smurfs films. Would you be interested in directing again if that was so?
RG: Well, trilogy’s a long way, sequel definitely! Listen, I feel a lot of creative ownership of this movie. I directed it and every one of those Smurf performances I directed. It’s different than directing live actors, cos you’re talking to an animator, but you’re still jumping up and acting out and staging. I mean, my days would start with, ‘Okay, it’s gonna be this Smurf, he’s gonna come in, these two Smurfs are gonna come in the side, and they’re gonna talk, and the camera’s gonna be over here.’ So you essentially need to shoot and direct Smurfs the way you would direct human beings. So, I do feel a lot of love and creative ownership over the movie.
LMD: If there is a sequel I wonder if there was any plan to go into the Smurfs' backstory a little bit, because I would love to see Goth Smurfette?
RG: Goth Smurfette! Actually, you may. You actually may because there’s talk of a Smurfette origin story. Not a whole story, but she has a flashback to her creation. In our movie, there’s a reference to “Gargamel created me and Papa helped me become the Smurf I was meant to be.” But the next movie is intended to be sort of around her story of does she really belong? Is she really a Smurf, or does she feel that since she was created by Gargamel, will she ever fit in?
LMD: I would love for our last question to be all about Mr. Hank Azaria, who’s amazing in the film as Gargamel. What it was like to direct him?
RG: Mr. Azaria is a dream to direct because he brings so much; so much energy and so much creativity. And it may seem easy, it may seem like he just walks in and does whatever, but he has very, very specific ideas on what he wants to do. He always wants to spend some time on the set, see where everything is, get his bearings, cos he comes from theatre, as well. So we would talk a lot; we’d talk a lot about the character and I’d come and stage the action for him, “This is what I’m thinking we’re doing,” and he’d say, “Okay, but what about if I do this, or what if I do that?” Great. And so it was a very collaborative effort, and he always had a few other different lines he wants to try. Absolutely! I’ve never once in my entire career told a funny person, “No, don’t try an alternate line,” because I don’t know how to be funny. I only know how to direct my funny performers into those directions. It was just an absolute pleasure and he totally brought Gargamel to life and just found that zone of not too over-the-top or crazy, and then the sarcastic asides to the cat. As I said in the script, Gargamel’s just delicious and Hank just totally brought him to life.
~ The Lady Miz Diva
July 25th, 2011
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