Gail Mancuso on A Dog’s Journey, working with dogs and being part of a female-driven film.
Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to an early screening of A Dog’s Journey by the kind folks over at Universal. Along with the early screening, I was invited to participate in multiple interviews with Betty Gilpin, Dennis Quaid, Kathryn Prescott and the film’s director/co-writer, Gail Mancuso.
Over the next three days to celebrate the release of A Dog’s Journey opening in theaters nationwide, I will be posting one of my interviews each day. I love a good dog movie every now and again but am someone shocked by how much I enjoyed this film. Truth be told, I found it to be even better than the first. The story told in A Dog’s Journey is through the perspective of a young female named CJ. This alone makes the film a standout as most films about dogs are usually about a boy and his dog or a man and his dog. A Dog’s Journey proves that a dog can be a woman’s best friend too.
Below is the first of the four interviews to be posted. This interview is with the film’s director/co-writer Gail Mancuso who after a 20+ year career in television is finally making her feature film debut with A Dog’s Journey.
Scott Menzel: Hi Gail, it is lovely to meet you.
Gail Mancuso: Thank you. Nice to meet you as well.
Scott Menzel: We are just entering the summer movie season where everything’s all about the big budget spectacle.
Gail Mancuso: Candy, eye candy.
Scott Menzel: Absolutely and it is so refreshing to see a movie like this. And to look around the theater with a nice mix of press people and regular audience reacting to this movie was really different than most other films especially the last 15 minutes of the movie.
Gail Mancuso: My favorite part of the movie.
Scott Menzel: Yeah. It’s just something that I just don’t get from these big budget movies. I mean, I love all movies, but yeah, people were talking about how emotional Endgame is and I’m like, “Is it? Is it really?” But anyway thank you for making something that actually hit me emotionally.
Gail Mancuso: Oh my gosh. Thank you so much for us seeing it, and enjoying it. So yeah, it’s been quite the journey.
Scott Menzel: I’m sure. I feel like you’re sort of a legend when it comes to television. You’ve been in the television industry for over 20 years. My first show that you were part of was Sabrina The Teenage Witch, of course.
Gail Mancuso: Oh my gosh. You’re digging deep.
Scott Menzel: Oh yeah, and then some of the more recent stuff like, I must have met everyone who has worked on Happyish over the last a couple of year which was a show that I loved and I felt like was so under appreciated.
Gail Mancuso: Yup, Happyish, I can’t believe you watched that.
Scott Menzel: Yes. I loved that. I also loved Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23, Happy Endings, Community, and many others that you worked.
Gail Mancuso: Oh my gosh. Oh wow, thank you. Thank you so much.
Scott Menzel: Before we go into the movie, as someone who has worked in television for such a long time, how has the television industry changed over that 20 year period?
Gail Mancuso: Yeah, it’s really interesting because I think it’s a great time right now to actually be directing television, or getting into directing television. Because the landscape has broadened so much, and there’s so much opportunity out there to be able to get something that people like the general audience can actually see on Netflix or Amazon or whatever. It used to just be the three channels or five channels, whatever, and then occasional cable channel. But now there’s just such a huge outlet to be able to have your material seen. So I think this is such a great time to create material for the general public to see in their own living rooms.
Scott Menzel: There is a lot to choose from but I think it’s almost a little bit oversaturated now.
Gail Mancuso: Yeah. I don’t know what to watch.
Scott Menzel: I mean I don’t either. It’s like with Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon adding new series every week. And then Netflix with a new movie every other day. Anyway, my second question is what took so long for you to make the leap over into feature-length films? Because I know you did a lot of TV films. But this is really your first feature film debut.
Gail Mancuso: Yeah. You know, I was really happy. I am really happy doing television because one of the things that’s great about TV is that you’re actually practicing your craft on a daily basis. That means you’re doing episodic, you’re going in almost every day and you’re working with actors, you’re blocking, you’re creating shots, and you’re making a story that actually gets seen by an audience. And that was really satisfying for me. So I kind of wanted to wait until my kids were older and out of the house before I really ventured into features because I really enjoyed the lifestyle. And when this project came to me, I was like, “This I think is the one.” It really spoke to me and I felt like this is the one that I really want to do.
Now that being said, it’s not a comedy. There are some comedic moments, but I never would have thought if you would have said like, “Oh, what is my first movie going to be?” No way would I have thought it would’ve been something like this. I thought, “For sure, obviously I’m going to do a comedy. That’s mostly what I do.” But this just had my name all over it. I’m a dog lover. I have five dogs of my own and I’m a woman, obviously. And I just enjoyed taking CJ on her journey from a little girl, to a preteen, to a teenager. That all spoke to me. And so, yeah, it just was like, “This is the one.”
Scott Menzel: Yeah, it’s a fascinating film. And I will give you a huge compliment because I think this one is so far superior to the first film just because I feel like the journey itself is better. We’re living in a time where we want more female-driven stories told by female storytellers. And what’s great about this movie is that you get that but what I really connected with this movie besides the dog stuff, which we’ll talk about in a little bit, is this struggle of this girl and her mom. And you walk this very fine line with this movie because you do have a PG movie which is being sold as a cute little dog movie. So how did you do that? How did you walk that line because this film gets into some darker themes, which are not normally found in a PG-rated film?
Gail Mancuso: Right, right. I was always dealing with the script and the performances. And I just wanted to make sure that we weren’t trying to avoid issues, but we were touching on them but not too hard. It was really important to me that we did get the PG rating because there’s so few and far between a good PG-rated film. And I really wanted to deliver a PG-rated film.
I have been very concerned for a long time about what we do to our young women. And how our young girls are obsessed with their body image and how at such an early age, they feel they should be somebody other than themselves. So for me, the core of the movie is sure, taking CJ and seeing little glimpses of her life like when the mom says, “Don’t eat the pizza you might get chubby.”
Scott Menzel: Oh yeah, that was horrible.
Gail Mancuso: So little things like that. And I wanted to see her vibrant at a younger age, which she was. And she was fierce and she got on the phone call, and she was able to get the dog. But we don’t really quite know what happened after that chubby statement. We just know that her room got darker, it’s a darker room, and she’s brooding. So there’s a lot where the audience can sort of connect the dots. But we know that she’s gone off course. And of course, with the help of Bailey, the dog, she gets back on course. But it is for me the message would be finding yourself confidence, and believing in yourself. And that’s what spoke to me about this movie. And I hope it comes through.
Scott Menzel: I do, I think that does come through. The reason why I bring that up is that you tackle alcoholism and childhood abandonment. And what’s so interesting about Betty Gilpin’s character Gloria is that she doesn’t quite realize she’s doing it. Right from the beginning of the film when Dennis Quaid is like, “Hey, do you want us to watch CJ? So you can go live your life a little bit. No hard feelings.” And
she’s like, “You’re not taking my kid away.” And then throughout the rest of the movie up until the last act, it’s just her disappointing CJ over and over and over again. And one of the things that I picked up on, which I thought was also really, really smart on your behalf of adding it, was how she almost was following in her mom’s footsteps at certain points.
Gail Mancuso: Oh, of course. Thank you. And I do want to speak to, to the Gloria of character because it is such a complicated character and it’s easy to say, “Oh, she’s a bad mom.” And just to kind of one note her. But I think Betty Gilpin really brought such strength to that performance and found so many different layers. And it was really important to us. I really relate to the Gloria character. I think a lot of people will. And to that note is that she was a young mother, and her husband was killed and we don’t really get into it, but she lost her husband early. But she had to go find herself. And so she took her daughter with her. But in finding herself, she made bad choices, which you picked up on that, that young CJ picked up on also.
But what I really like is, and this wasn’t originally in the script, but I really wanted this to happen. Is the reconciliation at the end of the movie. The heroic act. Which I call a heroic act of asking for forgiveness. Because it takes a lot for a person to ask for forgiveness. And she did. And CJ wasn’t at that time ready at that point, but the later and just in a shot or two, you see that that relationship has healed somewhat in that forgiveness was given. And I think in this world that if we can all just be a little kinder to each other and just give people some slack and like, “Okay, mistakes are gonna happen, but let’s see if we can get past that and learn to love again.”
Scott Menzel: Were you familiar with these books before doing the movie?
Gail Mancuso: No, I was not. I did read them once this came across my desk. So yeah, they are a little darker, the books.
Gail Mancuso: Yes. It’s interesting because as many times as I’ve seen the film, there are different moments that get to me, unexpected moments. And, and I found that even when we were doing the sound work on the movie, Andy Nelson would say, “This used to get to me. And then I discover this other moment and there’s this other moment,” so it’s all kind of like layered through what, that is stuff that rings true to people. And you feel for CJ.
Scott Menzel: I can tell you that I sobbed so freaking hard, in the last 10 minutes of this movie. It was ridiculous.
Gail Mancuso: I have to tell you, I really appreciate it. People have been really hard on me because I come from television. So it’s like, it’s like that’s, it’s an easy say, “Oh she’s from television. What does she know about storytelling?” So it really makes me feel good that you actually get when I tried to do. So I really appreciate it.
Scott Menzel: I think you did a great job. And actually, maybe your television background really helped you become a great filmmaker so quickly. Because I think this is an impressive first feature. All right, we have to talk about dogs.
Gail Mancuso: Oh yay.
Scott Menzel: So I have two dogs.
Gail Mancuso: Do you have pictures?
Scott Menzel: Sure do, I have a Yorkie named Teddy and a dachshund/Jack Russell named Tarzan.
Gail Mancuso: (Shows photos) Oh, my gosh. I love the black and white on Tarzan. I love that photo of the two of them staring out the window.
Scott Menzel: How many dogs do you have?
Gail Mancuso: I have five dogs.
Scott Menzel: What kind of dogs?
Gail Mancuso: I have mostly Australian shepherds. But I also have a rescue mixed terrier mix. We rescued him at 9 and he’s now 13 or 14. So he’s hanging in there.
Scott Menzel: Oh, that’s great. Both of our dogs are rescue pups. What was it like having dogs on set?
Gail Mancuso: What was it like having dogs on the set? It’s the best job ever. I was like, “Really? This is called work.” Because they would come on the set and especially old Odin who plays Bailey, I would just give them all love and kisses. And the A team would be like, “Gail, we need to be rolling.” So its really hard to give up the dog. I’m like, “Okay now we’ve got to work.”
But in terms of professionalism, like getting the scenes done, we had wonderful trainers. Bonnie Judd who, we worked through the script together. And we talked about what kind of tricks we wanted the dogs to do. And, she trains with enthusiasm and positivity. So after we’re done with the scene, you hear all the trainers say things like “Yay” followed by all this applause. “Yay, good, good boy” and then kisses and we were all allowed to pet them and give them love and stuff. So it was really a fun set.
Scott Menzel: I don’t mean to bring this up but the first movie, I remember that they canceled the junket because of the whole Peta nonsense that all turned out to be fabricated so I love hearing about how you love dogs and how the trainers treated the dogs on set. How many trainers were on set?
Gail Mancuso: We not only had a lot of trainers, but we had a representative from the AHA and the APA there. And they also had their own security detail.
Scott Menzel: Oh my God.
Gail Mancuso: Believe it or not. Yes, that happened. And we had cameras security cameras. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to say that. But we had security so why not? We had security cameras up. So these dogs were taken care of. I’d always ask, “Do you think Odin can do this?” Or, “Do you think Bonnie can do this?” You have to have a good relationship with the trainer.
Because as a director, I’m concerned about the actors and actors to relate to each other. They communicate with each other. But dogs, they’re communicating with their trainer. So, and there’s no way you can break that relationship. It’s like you want that dog to have that relationship with the trainer. So it’s so important to be completely simpatico with the trainer. And this way I think it worked out so great because we were so on board. And so in sync to what we wanted to do. And the dogs were so happy.
Scott Menzel: Ok, I am almost out of time. They want me to wrap.
Gail Mancuso: Oh come on. We could talk forever.
Scott Menzel: I know. I am really enjoying this conversation. So, I didn’t ask anything about the cast. What was it like working with Dennis Quaid? But the bigger and more important question is something we’ve talked about a little bit earlier. What was it like having such a female-driven story, with female characters and being a part of?
Gail Mancuso: Well, it’s fantastic because I’m speaking to things I really know. The whole charm bracelet thing, that was me as a kid. I had a charm bracelet and I just thought that for instance, like I’m not sure guy would’ve come up with that idea. Because I wanted the dog not only to have super smelling senses but also dogs, as a dog lover, you know, there are lots of different senses. So I wanted to bring that into the movie. I want to bring what kind of sounds could he hear that he could help recognize. And I thought the charm bracelet would be an interesting way to go.
And then working with these wonderful actresses, I mean Abby Ryder Fortson who plays the 11-year-old CJ is fantastic. That scene when she comes back from the walk and is talking to the mom with the mimosa. That was the first scene that she shot on set.
Scott Menzel: No shit.
Gail Mancuso: Yeah, she went toe to toe with Betty Gilpin and I mean she is amazing and she has an amazing family. And we used to go out to lunch together. So I’m was very fortunate to be able to have her. And then, of course, Katheryn Prescott who just played the part beautifully. I mean, you feel for her so much. And the journey that she takes as CJ. That recognition at that moment where she’s like putting it all together. I mean, and then she realizes that Max is Molly and they brought Trent together and that whole ending. It just was beautiful. I’m very lucky.
Scott Menzel: Yeah. And I know we got to go but I have to compliment you on the seamlessness of actually having a story where it’s an interracial couple that doesn’t have to be mentioned. Because I feel like there’s always this talk of “Look what we did!” instead of it just subtly being placed into a movie. And I think it always works better when it just subtly place in the movie.
Gail Mancuso: Absolutely. Absolutely. It was so great to meet you. Thank you so much.
Scott Menzel: It was an absolute pleasure.
Gail Mancuso: You’re awesome. Please take your wife to see the movie.
Scott Menzel: I will and I’ll bring the Kleenex for her too because she’s definitely going to be crying by the end.