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.
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: 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.