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Interview: “Smurfs 2” Director Raja Gosnell

Interview: "Smurfs 2" Director Raja Gosnell

Sony’s Smurfs 2 continues the live action/CG animation franchise based on the world-famous comic-book series created by the Belgian comics artist Peyo. This time the Smurfs team up with their human friends to rescue Smurfette, who has been kidnapped by Gargamel since “she knows a secret spell that can turn the evil sorcerer’s newest creation – creatures called the Naughties – into real Smurfs”. The film opens Wednesday – and I had a chance to ask it’s director Raja Gosnell a few questions. 

Lights-Camera-Jackson: You began your career as a film editor, and have a lot of credits as an editor. How did you go from that to becoming as major Hollywood director?
Raja Gosnell: I was really lucky. I worked with some great people. I had edited a lot of big family comedies and so I was looking for something different – they don’t give out Oscars for that sort of thing. I wondered if I should start editing dramas or…should I start directing. My wife and I wrote a couple of screenplays, which actually didn’t go anywhere. But I got the attention of some agents. So I got representation as a “director hopeful”. And it was actually John Hughes who gave me my big break. I had edited the first two “Home Alone” movies and they wanted to do a third “Home Alone” and Chris Columbus, the director the first two, either wasn’t available or interested so it was like – “who we gonna get? Well this guy must know how they work.” So it was just good timing, and a touch from above from John Hughes. That was my first film and it went well and it got me in with the people at 20th Century Fox. They introduced me to Drew Barrymore and my next movie was “Never Been Kissed.”

LCJ: “The Smurfs” was a major success. Did you think, while you were working on it, that it was going to be big?
RG: We knew there was a lot of Smurf affection in the world. The property has existed in Europe since the 50’s and a lot of people there grew-up on the books. Here in the states, of course, we had the Hanna Barbara cartoons in the 80’s and 90’s. So our hope was that people who grew-up on it were having kids about this time and there might be a nostalgic factor. But the answer is “no”, we didn’t realize it was going to be a hit. You never know – you just make the best movie you can and hope.
LCJ: I really enjoyed this sequel. Much of the film takes place in Paris. I know you made a lot of the movie in Quebec but you did do some shooting in Paris. What were the highlights of filming there?
RG: I was amazing! There is a general Smurfs love in the French culture – the original language of The Smurfs is french. Because we were so close to the ancestral grounds of The Smurfs were got a lot of access from the French authorities and the people of Paris. We were able to shoot on the stage of the Palais Garnier – the Paris Opera House – which is very rare. That was beautiful and the HUGE highlight. This is an incredibly historical building – where Phantom of the Opera took place. It’s an unbelievable architectural treasure – and there we were shooting, and the set was fantastic. We also got to shoot all over Notre Dame Cathedral. There’s a sequence where Smurfette, Vexy and Hackus are riding storks and they do a joy ride through the famous flying buttresses of Notre Dame. And there we are – up there with Steadicams. One time on a scout we walked through the attic of Notre Dame, which is an incredibly magical place that most people never get to see – it’s not on the tours. It was just a beautiful place to be and we felt very welcomed by the Parisians.
LCJ: In this new story you are kinda breaking new ground by adding new animated characters (Vexy and Hackus) to the Smurf universe. Was that a difficult decision?
RG: No it wasn’t. Fans know that Gargamel created Smurfette. So using that as a jumping-off place we reasoned that if Gargamel was able to create Smurfette then he’d be able to create new, Smurf-like characters. He could never make them true-blue Smurfs, and that’s his quest throughout the movie – ” How am I going to make these creatures true-blue Smurfs so I can extract their essence and continue my magical reign?” We were using mythology directly created by Peyo. We felt he’d be OK with the idea and his family, which still runs the Smurf business, was on board.
LCJ: Speaking of Gargamel, once again Hank Azaria is just incredible. When you originally cast this role did you have him in mind or did he just blow you away when he read for the part?
RG: Actually he never read for the part. We had him in mind all the time. He was a little hesitant to take the part at first. Of course, he’s amazing at creating characters and had done so many character voices for The Simpsons. I think the voice came to him first and that was his way into Gargamel. The first week of shooting we were sort of finding the character a little bit, but we all knew when we hit the zone. Hank is an amazing addition to The Smurfs. And he operates on so many levels – he’s hilarious for the kids but also just so quick and witty for the adults.
LCJ: Brendan Gleason joins the live-action cast as Patrick’s step-father. How important was it to include the relationship storyline between the two of them.
RG: It was the reason to make the movie, to be honest. We always wanted a human element to go along with the Smurf element. We thought that it’s a wonderful message to put into the world that families can be many different things. In what Peyo created, Papa is essentially Smurfette’s step-father. And in the movie Brendan Gleason’s character is Neal Patrick Harris’ step-father. And so the two, parallel stories of these two step-fathers trying to re-connect with their step-children just felt like a natural. And I think Brendan did such an amazing job. He’s so bright, whenever he comes on screen everything just lights-up. And he’s so easy to like. And yet was able to keep it all real. This is a movie with little blue people running around. To find the zone where that all feels normal, and yet the character’s motivations seem real and grounded, is a hard target to hit. And he hit naturally.
LCJ: He’s especially good in the more dramatic scenes. The voice cast is tremendous: Katy Perry, George Lopez, Christina Ricci, Jeff Foxworthy, Jimmy Kimmel, even Shaq. I bet no one says “no” when you ask if they want to be a Smurf.
RG: We don’t get a lot of no’s. It’s mostly people who do have kids and we try to make it fun. Everyone knows who the Smurfs are. Jimmy Kimmel being Passive-Aggressive Smurf – I think that was an easy “yes” for him. We always try to cook-up new Smurfs for different people to play. It seems to be a fun train to jump on and enjoy the ride.
LCJ: The great Jonathan Winters, who voices Papa Smurf, passed away earlier this year after he had finished his voice work for the film. What do you remember most about working with him.
RG: Working with him is like attending a Jonathan Winters stand-up comedy show. He was fantastic and very focused on the work when it was time to work, but anytime the projector would stop and there would be a moment he would launch into a fantastic story, that would have 3-4 characters, and he’d do all the voices. He was a warm guy, a complicated guy. And he loved, LOVED being Papa Smurf. He was very near the end of his life and I think he felt a little bit forgotten. The opportunity to be Papa Smurf and then have the movie be such a worldwide success meant a lot to him. On this second film, when he was in failing healthy, we told his kids that we didn’t want to stress him and not to worry – we could work it out. They said “No, no. This is the most important thing to him. Please come up here, please record him. This is what he loves to do.” So it worked out on both ends – we got to work with a legend but also to give him a sense of purpose at the end of his life.

LCJ: It was reported less than two-weeks into shooting “The Smurfs 2” that the 3rd movie was set. Are you committed to directing “The Smurfs 3”?
RG: I have committed. Obviously the movie gods and the audiences have to smile-upon “Smurfs 2” before there will be a “Smurfs 3”. So we are in wait-and-see mode. I’ve had a little interaction with the writers and they’re sort of getting the script into shape, but we’re not really in the “we’re making this movie” mode yet. We’ll see how “Smurfs 2” does and we’ll go from there.
LCJ: Alright – time for some “Lightning Round” questions: Is your favorite color blue?
RG: It is! I’ve surfed my whole life, and the ocean is blue, so yes, my favorite color is blue.
LCJ: This is a personal one: Can I make a pitch for a Movie Critic Smurf? – and I’m available to do the voice.
RG: That is a fantastic idea. You know we have to be a little careful how we treat critics because they’re not our biggest fan-base, let’s say. But I think that’s a wonderful idea, so we’ll ponder that one.
LCJ: Last question: Who’s you’re favorite Smurf and why?
RG: Oh, that’s like asking who my favorite child is. It’s not fair. But I guess I would have to say, in this particular movie, John Oliver as Vanity Smurf is really adult and sly and just freakin’ hilarious so, at this moment, having to say something, I’d say it would be Vanity Smurf. He always makes me smile.

Jackson Murphy, also known as Lights Camera Jackson, is a teenaged movie critic, and author of the popular website Lights-Camera-Jackson.com which discusses movies, television and radio.

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