Thor Freudenthal Interview, Hotel For Dogs

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

MoviesOnline recently sat down with director Thor Freudenthal to talk about his feature debut film, “Hotel for Dogs.” In this smart, family comedy-adventure, Andi (Emma Roberts) and her younger brother, Bruce (Jake T. Austin) live in a strictly no-pets household and are fast running out of ways to keep their perpetually hungry dog, Friday, under wraps. When they accidentally stumble on an abandoned hotel that is already home to a couple of resourceful strays, Andi has an idea.

She taps Bruce's mechanical genius for turning everyday objects into mechanical marvels, and, with the help of their friends in the neighborhood, they transform the down-and-out hotel into a magical dog paradise - not only for Friday, but for every stray they can find. But when the barking dogs make the neighbors and the suddenly out-of-work local dog catchers suspicious, Andi and Bruce have to use every invention at their disposal to prevent them from finding out "who let the dogs in." The comedy ensemble also includes Kyla Pratt, Lisa Kudrow, Kevin Dillon and Don Cheadle.

Thor Freudenthal’s knack for visual storytelling showed early. Born and raised in Berlin, Germany, he wrote and illustrated a series of comics for German publisher Carlsen, the publisher of the Tintin series, while still in high school. As a student at the Berlin Academy of Arts, Freudenthal discovered his passion for film. His self-produced short films, "mind the gap!" and "Monkey Business," quickly garnered awards and accolades on the European film festival circuit. His work landed him a scholarship at the California Institute of the Arts. His first American short film "The Tenor," about a zoo ostrich who dreams of a career in opera, went on to win the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences First Prize Student Emmy. It also toured the world with "Spike and Mike's Festival of Sick & Twisted Animation."

He then joined Sony Pictures' Imageworks and the creative team on the films "Stuart Little" and "Stuart Little 2." Working closely with director Rob Minkoff, he shaped the digital characters for the films and took on the complex task of pre-visualizing the scripts and supervising the team of storyboard artists. "Stuart Little" subsequently earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects. Freudenthal next made the leap into commercial directing and has worked for a wide roster of clients both in the American and European markets, including Nike, Reebok, Nabisco, Burger King, Florida's Natural, Popsicle and Philadelphia. In his spot advertising work, he combines his expertise in visual effects with a flair for offbeat humor and whimsical storytelling.

Thor is a fabulous guy and we really appreciated his time. Here’s what he had to tell us about his first feature film, “Hotel for Dogs”:

MoviesOnline: How was it working with all the dogs?

THOR: It was good. It was better than I anticipated. I learned to be patient which usually I am not. I found that it's really very much about preparation. You talk to every dog’s trainer in advance. I actually come from an animation background initially where you can obviously do anything you want, whereas here you have to work with the reality of what a dog is capable of doing. I wanted not to manipulate them digitally if possible and not do any sort of phony facial expressions or anything. So, there was sort of an educational period with the trainers, with them telling me if you want to convey sadness or that kind of emotion, he can do this, that and that. So quickly we figured out a catalog of things and knew our limits and went in prepared hopefully. Everything you see the dogs do, they worked on for two months before they went in front of the camera.

MoviesOnline: Is it tough doing those scenes where all of the dogs are in the frame at once? Do you get the cooperation that you need?

THOR: It's tough because they do get along, but this scene where they sit along that long family table having dinner is not as easy as it looks. To get them to sit still is a challenge, and then to sit across from each other. Who sits next to whom? In those cases, while there’s no image manipulation, we did do split screens and hid trainers on one side and dogs on the other and then combine those two layers later on to make it seem like the dogs are behaving.

Q. Did you have to keep certain dogs away from other dogs?

THOR: It’s more like that was the trainer’s domain. I just told them what kinds of dogs I would see. We did have a couple instances where we had a lot of them in one room. There was either like a little fight breaking out or somebody got a little too hungry or annoyed. So there were those instances, but I was amazed at how well behaved they were. I’m trying to come up with more dramatic stories but …

MoviesOnline: Were there are a lot of happy accidents that got into the film?

THOR: Mostly it came down to very intimate little expressions. For example, there was a pet store scene with the Heather character talking to the Dave character looking at this little Pomeranian that was so expressive. I was like, “Well, let’s just do a close-up of him throughout the whole scene and see what he does.” I think he opens and closes his mouth and it almost looks like he’s participating in the conversation. These accident expressions that later on in editing you realize that the Eisenstein theory so to speak applies, where if you put an expression next to another image, somehow the two connect and it appears as if the dog is participating and reacting where really God knows what he’s doing. So, those things we used very often.

Also, we were very lucky. Friday has that whole opening sequence of sniffing through the city in search of the hot dog that he smells and he reacts to all these smells that are not good and these reactions were sometimes lucky, lucky accidents. Like he was shaking his fur and stuff like that. I mean, you can’t make a dog do that at every take but he just did it at the right time.

MoviesOnline: Can you talk about casting Don Cheadle? It’s a good family film to begin with but he elevates it especially with his final monologue.

THOR: You’re absolutely right. First of all, I couldn’t believe that we had him in there. I loved him in Hotel Rwanda and Devil in a Blue Dress and the Ocean movies. He’s so versatile. He can do comedy as well as being really grounded. For this movie that is so fanciful and whimsical, I think it was important to have one role among the adults that really grounds it in reality. When I got set on Don Cheadle, we had an art department that did paintings of the hotel interiors and things like moods and even scenes like with the kids and Bernie. We didn’t know who Bernie was, but I told them let’s just put Don in there, let’s just paint Don Cheadle into the movie, and I sent a couple of these paintings to him with a letter and I said, “This movie really needs you. Look! You’re already in the movie so you might as well come on board.” He told me later he liked two things. He loved how the character of Bernie talks to the children, which is not very sugar-coated. He talks to them like adults in a way and he’s the only adult in the movie that has a true connection with them in that light. He told me that he talks to his two girls similarly. And then, secondly, he wanted to do something that his kids could see which he doesn’t often do.

MoviesOnline: He wasn’t condescending. It was nice to see him play it totally straight.

THOR: It’s tough. It was interesting the first day when Lisa Kudrow, Kevin Dillon, the kids and Don were all on the same set. I was wondering how that would work because Lisa and Kevin were sort of the more buffoony characters and he’s very grounded. How do you make it so that it doesn’t feel like two different movies? And, I think we bridged the gap to some extent with the comedy and his deadpan reactions to it.

MoviesOnline: Do you have any theories why we’ve seen, with Marley & Me and Beverly Hills Chihuahua and now this, a bit of a resurgence in dog films? What do you think it is about dogs specifically that we are attracted to?

THOR: Well I felt that bond – I experienced that myself getting to know these dogs over the course of 2-1/2 or 3 months – that there’s this bond unlike any other bond between a dog and a human being. We automatically start thinking of them as part of our family in a way. And, also, there’s that innocent quality to them that has no agenda but to please us or give love in a way. So those are the two things I think that they really, really… I personally am kind of a cat person to be honest with you but I found that to put a camera on a cat makes the cat look bored. I mean like the cat is just too independent. It’s like “What?” Whereas dogs are always participating in something. They’re so expressive and that’s why I think they’re great for the screen.

MoviesOnline: Were you aware of that before the film? Or is this something you discovered?

THOR: I was aware of it, because obviously in preparation you watched one or the other dog movie, but every day they sort of surprised me a bit with how good they were and how expressive they were. So I loved that. When in doubt, always include the dog. There were scenes written in the script where there weren’t any dogs, and I said please let’s put some dogs into it because it will enliven the whole thing.

MoviesOnline: You had a great cast. Had you ever worked with kids before?

THOR: Yeah. I’ve been directing commercials for about 6 years and a couple shorts. In the commercial world, I had worked extensively with kids and what I liked about that is there are no set rules or language. It’s very intuitive. You’ve got to get them to where you want them to be somehow. It doesn’t really matter how – whether it’s Method or Lee Strasberg or Sanford Meisner. No, you talk about their experiences and you try to somehow connect them to the character they’re playing. What is it in Jake T. Austin’s life or Emma’s life that we can bring in to Andi and Bruce? So we did some of that. We wrote little essays about their past and what happened to them, meaning they wrote them sort of like a homework assignment, and it really helped flesh them out as much as we could under the given circumstances of the film.

MoviesOnline: Is this your first feature length film? How did that happen?

THOR: Uh huh. It was something about the commercial work that I did. A short went to Sundance that Dreamworks really embraced and responded to. They sent me a very early version of the script and I read that title and went, “You’ve got to be kidding! What is this?” And then I realized you don’t think much about the logistics involved. What appealed to me was the urban fairytale aspect of it and the theme of family is where you find it. It’s basically these unwanted children, these unwanted animals coming together and making their own place in their own home. That’s what I liked. It wasn’t the fact that it was Fox Terriers and things like that. So that sort of made me sign on and be ready for it. After the fact, it was like, “How the hell are we going to do 100 dogs and children?” I’m very much into prepping and pre-planning as much as I can, so a lot of sequences were storyboarded and the visual aids given to everyone really helped pull it off even though it was incredibly difficult and it’s a crazy first feature to do.

MoviesOnline: Your bio says you wrote comic books? Have you ever thought of doing a comic book movie?

THOR: I totally do. In fact, I’m developing this comedy with Paramount called Agnes Quill and that’s an exciting property. I generally like the creation of worlds in a way and grounding those worlds in a reality that’s relatable. I grew up actually on the more European side of comics and I loved Tintin and Asterisks and these kinds of things. I wasn’t really the Marvel connoisseur. But, yeah, I love anything that’s a visual medium and comics and movies are fairly close together to some extent. So, it’s an easy translation.

MoviesOnline: Do you have a favorite dog from this movie?

THOR: I think Friday has to be my favorite dog because there were days that were really tough and he had almost a consoling quality to him. He kind of calms you down a bit because he’s just so sweet. Actually they were therapeutic to some extent. On a production like this, that can be pretty nuts, they really had a soothing effect. The other dog that I love is Georgia. It’s about small dogs for me. When I put the team of dogs together, it was important to have a variety. I like Golden Retrievers but for this kind of movie maybe they wouldn’t fit so well because you want quirky personalities and shapes.  So Georgia really stuck with me and I spent a lot of time with Georgia. What I found is, whenever you hug and compliment a dog, the trainer is right next to it. It’s almost like the trainer is being hugged. You go, “You’re my favorite” and then the trainer blushes. They’re like one and the same person. I mean, I loved them all obviously. How can you not? But those two are standouts.

MoviesOnline: How much do you think that had to do with the fact that most of these dogs are rescued dogs too?

THOR: Yes, that was astounding. I mean, you know, we first selected the types and then it was a question of where do we get them and a lot of them, like Cosmo who plays Friday, was a rescue and I think one of the teams of Georgia was as well. And it’s just because they were found from all over the place and then spent 2-3 months with Mark Forbes and his team. It was just great to see the theme of the movie being realized by the movie in a way. There was also Lauren Schuler-Donner and Jack Leslie, two of the producers, who are incredibly active in dog rescue. Like Jack, you go to his house on any given weekend and he has like two dogs there and he’ll go, “Hey, you want to take one?” And he usually finds homes. He rescues dogs off the streets of downtown and crew members adopted them. I think there were at least three adoption cases during the movie and that was cool to see.

“Hotel for Dogs” opens in theaters on January 16th.

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