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Diversity, Divorce and Dogs: Writer/Director Gil Junger

At first glance Think Like A Dog might seem like any other family film, and it is clean and fun, but the themes are much more sophisticated, and even quite reflective of current times highlighting diversity and showcasing the struggle of contemplating divorce and how it affects kids. Our EIC Kelli Gillespie sat down with writer/director Gil Junger for an in-depth discussion.

Lionsgate’s Think Like A Dog Buy it Tuesday June 9 or Watch Digitally: https://www.lionsgate.com/movies/think-like-a-dog

Risen Magazine: Gil, you wrote and directed this movie. Why was it personal to you?

Gil Junger: I actually wrote the movie when I knew, before my family did, that I was leaving. I knew that I was going to get divorced and my biggest resistance and fear was, how were my children going to be? Are their hearts going to be okay? What can I do to hopefully support them emotionally? So I wanted to express not only the fear that so many kids go through today and how it literally makes their world seem like it’s collapsing, but also that there was another way to look at it, in that and I believe this, if there is genuine love, genuine appreciation for each other, that I formally believe that children will be okay.

And where does that love come from? It’s simple. It comes from gratitude. When I was in the process of writing, and in the process of making the steps to leave, I at one point was sitting on the edge of my bed and I was very sad. And at the time I had a golden retriever and he was curled up on the bedroom floor sleeping, and I started to cry, no noise, but just tears because I was hurting. And my golden retriever wakes up, comes across the bedroom, jumped onto the bed and licked the tears off my face. And I was like, Whoa, Whoa. I’ve always felt like dogs kind of have feelings, but that was staggering to me. And then I started to think about, wait a minute, this dog is happy every day. They wake up, the tail wags. They go to sleep, the tail wags. You walk out of the room, walk back into the room, the tail wags.

So I thought, wait a second. How can I be like that? And so I actually kind of connected love, gratitude for what you have naturally, not possessions, by who you are. Gratitude for just being. There’s actually one simple line in the movie when Megan Fox is explaining to the woman in the nail salon, what happened: What happened? You guys seem so solid. And Megan Fox just looks at her and said, life. And it’s true. It’s like so many of my friends that are having troubles in their marriage, is not that they’ve really fallen out of love, but it got pushed aside because the two people are looking outside themselves for happiness or success or achievement. Instead of looking inside themselves for answers. The answer is if you love yourself and you come from a place of gratitude, your life is going to be so much more rewarding. I firmly believe that and that is the message that I’ve been trying to put out there.

RM: I think the state of the world that we’re in right now, it’s forcing us to refocus, to slow down, to pause. And while it may seem this comedic family film, Think Like a Dog, might not have any relation to what’s currently happening, I actually think that there’s a lot that can be gleaned from it. I loved how you had the richer themes mixed with that comedic emotion that even a child could understand.

GJ: Bingo. Boy, you hit it right on the head. I genuinely wanted to make a positive, life-affirming film that on the surface, especially to kids, look like a comedy. But underneath it, the emotional underpinnings are pretty powerful. I mean, because if you look at the themes in the movie, they’re not jokey themes. Mom and dad are getting divorced. My life is crumbling. I don’t know what’s going on anymore. That’s pretty dark.

RM: Even down to the bullying in there and kids standing up for themselves. I love that you made science fun because we’re seeing the science fair experiment. We’re seeing that you can be smart, and while adults might not take you seriously at times, you need to show them who you are.

GJ: Oh, I am so touched. No, I mean it, that you really get what I’ve been trying to do. I’m very proud of the film and, I just wanted to send a positive life message. On the adult side, stop looking outside for what can be better. It’s right inside and it’s some lesson that I’ve learned recently, finally. And for the kids, believe in yourself. Believe in your voice. It’s not a dissimilar a message that I had in the 10 Things I Hate About You, with the Kat character.

I really wanted to make a sophisticated family film that parents could genuinely enjoy and then hopefully experience with their kids and go away, whether they realize it or not, with a more positive life view. I mean, that’s the power of cinema if you do it properly, you know? So I wanted the movie to entertain, just like you said, and it does. It’s cute and it’s funny and it’s, I think, well shot. But so many people that have seen this have been so surprised that it’s really just a good film. Because as soon as you hear family film, you think animated, goofy. And I as a parent of two teenage boys, I can’t tell you the amount of family films I’ve been to where I’m like this, “Oh my, 30 more minutes. Shoot me.” You know what I mean? That’s not the kind of film I wanted to make.

RM: Bringing it back to the relevance of it today, when you shot this, of course, diversity was important, but little did you know that it would be such a topic currently? And I love the scenes in China. I love that they spoke their own language. I love it showed relationships can be global.

GJ: Oh my God. You get this movie so well. No, no, seriously. Thank you. I wanted the themes to show that it’s not an American upper-middle-class problem. It’s everywhere. It’s generational, it’s global and it’s all about connecting. And if I get to do a sequel, you’re going to see an unbelievable gift of appreciation from the Chinese dad to the Chinese boy, because he thought his son was wasting his life with computer games. It wasn’t computer games. He was trying to help human beings communicate by bypassing the filter that we all put on — insecurity, greed, jealousy, hatred, ignorance. Because if, and I truly believe this, if we could communicate and as soon as that thought is created, if it didn’t have to go through the filter of our childhoods and our pain and our traumas, the communication would be so much more loving because it would be nonjudgmental. You know what I’m saying?

So I really appreciate you. That is the whole reason that I was in China. I wanted to show that it doesn’t matter what your face looks like, we all have the same issues. And I think if we could all come from a place of gratitude… I can tell you factually that when I kind of learned this new way of looking at life, which is gratitude and appreciation for the simplest of things and self-love, I am a different man today than I was five years ago. I am so different, it’s a joke. I’m like so much more relaxed and just appreciative. No, seriously. I’m like a dog, if I had a tail, I’d be wagging. [Laughter]

RM: Let’s touch a little bit on the practicality of your directing too. I mean, you’re working with two of the easiest things, children and animals. [Laughter] So what did that look like on set for you as far as the interaction. The dog’s not physically moving his mouth, but we’re hearing his thoughts and he’s got to look engaged with the people around him?

GJ: Good, good question. Again, one of the things that I really wanted to do was create a sophisticated family film that was a talking dog movie that no way was I going to allow that mouth to move, not even a chance. Because for me as an adult, I’m out of the movie. There’s no way I’m going to believe it. To that end, I wanted the relationship between the dog and the boy to look very real. I didn’t want to have, I don’t know if you can see my eyes, but I didn’t want to have the dog like this, looking for the trainer. That’s always what they do. You look at other dog movies, I’m telling you, the eyes are darting around. And as a director, I know it. They’re looking for the trainer.

So what we did in order to, again keep this believable and authentic, was not only did we train that dog for three months, but the instant Gabriel, the young boy, showed up on set, the instant he showed up was two weeks before we started shooting for our rehearsals. We made sure that every minute, and I’m not exaggerating, every single minute that he wasn’t on set acting or working, he was with that dog. To the point where he took the dog home with him to his hotel at night. So what happened is, and it was the trainer’s suggestion, it was brilliant. What happened is, the boy and the dog genuinely created a bond and a friendship and trust.

That’s why if you go back and look at the movie, if you’re interested, like the intimate scenes, when you can do it, I believe in you, mom and dad haven’t lost their love, it’s been distracted by adult human complications, all of those scenes, which is the spine of the movie. You look at that those scenes, the dog is looking directly at him. As a matter of fact, the trainer said to me, they’ve never seen a more realistic animal portrayal in any movie they’ve ever done, and they’ve done 200 of them. No, we really kind of nailed it. I was very, very proud of the work. They did of the time and commitment that Gabriel offered in supportive of the movie with that beautiful dog, yeah, I think it really worked.

And you’re right. I wish I had a megaphone and I could just shout to the world. I know this sounds corny, but I think this movie, and I’m not trying to pat myself on the back, but I’m just saying as a human being who has I think a lot of feelings and emotions and isn’t afraid to express them, this 90 minute movie for all of these families in this time that are kind of stuck in the house together, it’s a beautiful escape. It’s a 90 minute escape from all of the turmoil that life is experiencing right now and it’s life-affirming. The movie is meant to say, life can be a joyous, loving experience. I don’t even know of a better movie for this time. I’m not saying it’s a great, great film. I’m saying the essence of the movie is needed right now. Belief in love, belief in unconditional love and coming from a place of gratitude for all of us, it’s not a bad reminder right now.

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