David Frankel

The director talks about bringing the popular book to the big screen, working with Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston and more

Director David Frankel definitely doesn't like to work on the same kind of project, whether it be film or TV. After directing two episodes of the critically-acclaimed mini-series Band of Brothers, he went on to direct episodes of Sex and the City as well as the pilot of Entourage before going back to the box office with The Devil Wears Prada. Frankel's latest film is just as different, a family film in Marley & Me, which hits the shelves on DVD and Blu-ray/DVD combo on March 31. I recently had the chance to speak with the director over the phone, and here's what he had to say.

How did this project first come to you? Were you a fan of the book or were you approached with the script first, or how did that all work out?

David Frankel: I had read the book and enjoyed it and cried at it. I had just finished making The Devil Wears Prada, with Fox 2000, with Elizabeth Gabriel, who runs the studio. She gave me the book, but I turned it down, because I just didn't see the movie. She was kind of relentless and over the next few years, she had kept coming back to me and I kept saying no. It just seemed to have no narrative to me. Then she worked on it independent of me and she got Don Roos to write a draft and Scott Frank to do a draft and, finally, I read Scott's draft and there was no plot to speak of, but it was the emotional narrative that got me and I was able to amplify. That's when I signed on, so it was like a two-year courtship.

This is obviously quite a different film from The Devil Wears Prada with all the elements of the babies and younger children and dogs. How much more challenging were those elements to making this film, rather than the regular duties of directing?

David Frankel: You know, I was surrounded by experts, so I would say the dogs were easy and the babies were hard. There's no baby wranglers. There are no treats that get them to do what we need them to do on command. The dogs were brilliant. They were incredibly well-trained and nearly always did what they were supposed to do for the take. We would work around their capabilities. The trainers would come to me and say, well, this is what the dog could do and I'd say, 'Great. That's what the dog should do then.' We rarely had them do something that they hadn't prepared and, most of the time in the scenes, it was like, 'OK, lets take this dog who is supposed to act like he's untrained, and just see what he does.'

Yeah, I saw that on the special features that it was a weird untraining that had to happen, and I saw on another special feature there was the one spontaneous "Marley moment." Was there anything else like the one where the dog just started to pee on the couch?

David Frankel: Well, there was that one and there were times that aren't on the DVD because it was only on the video assist record. We shot a rehearsal and after that we never rehearsed with Clyde (the main adult Marley) again. He comes running into the room and he's supposed to sort of run up Owen, who's sitting at a table. He went past Owen and actually leapt up onto the table and skidded into the lens. It was hilarious, but we weren't shooting. After that, this was the second week of shooting, and after that we never used Clyde unless it was film roll. There are moments that, in the movie, where he would pull Jen down, or through some bushes and Jen goes flying. He knocks over a bookshelf and books fall on him. He leapt into the bay once. All of that was completely impromptu. That was just Clyde being Clyde.

I haven't read the book, but I was familiar with it and heard about it. I guess I was kind of surprised that the film wasn't a "dog movie" per se, like I was kind of expecting. Can you talk a little about balancing the dog elements and the human elements in the film?

David Frankel: I mean, I love dogs. We have five dogs, all strays. Our house looks like the house in the movie, with the furniture half-eaten and there's nothing that's not semi-chewed. I spend half my backyard hosing down poop, so, in some sense, it's another man's autobiography and in another, it's very true to my experience and I wanted to capture that. I knew Scott (Frank) thought this was, more importantly, the story of a marriage and that's what was appealing to me. Really it's a window onto the first 15 years of his marriage and the highs and lows of a happy marriage. That in itself was an intriguing concept, because rarely has that been explored where there is no drama. No one is slamming doors, no one is leaving, no one is having an affair, none of the people die. There's no great tragedy, it's just regular life. I actually said to Tom Rothman, the chairman of the studio, 'We're making, essentially, a European art movie, because we're really just showing the tiniest moments of life and their without plot and without narrative. There's a real sleight of hand going to make all that come out. The dog helps to give us a source of humor and also solace.

I thought both Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston were great in this, so what were they like to work with and what drew you to them to you for this?

David Frankel: Thank you, I thought they were great too. They were great to work with and they've said over and over that this is the best filmmaking experience of their lives. It seemed that way to me, when we were making it, they just came to the set with real, incredible enthusiasm every day. What's great about them is they're both very flexible and they both love to play rather than just coming in and just doing what they've been told to do. That's the kind of environment that leads to a lot of lovely details and they also had a great chemistry. They just enjoyed being with each other, with the dogs and with the dog people. What drew me to them, I mean, I've just always been a fan of Owen's. There's a scene in Wedding Crashers - there are a couple of scenes - but there is one scene in particular where he's sitting with Vince (Vaughn) on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and there's a real poignant thing there. There's surprising depth, even when he's being wacky. I thought, well, if you take out the wacky and we just go for the depth, and then when you meet him and find out that the John Grogan that he's playing is really Owen, who he is. He's a really smart, articulate, well-read guy, and really curious, which is a really compelling quality.

So I read that the newspapers offices were shot actually on location. Since they were actual newsrooms, was that kind of hectic?

David Frankel: It was kind of tricky. You know, half the newsroom was glad that we were there and were thrilled to be extras, playing themselves in their own workplace, and the other half were disgruntled that we were making them be quiet and shushing them when they made phone calls. It was funny, it was kind of a constant struggle between the executive editor who was in command and actually invited us in, and the managing editor. That was in Florida, but at the Philadelphia Inquirer, they were great. We actually were in there early enough that we were less disruptive to their operation. Newsrooms are empty these days. There are a whole lot of empty desks and newsrooms may be a thing of the past. In Seattle the paper just closed and it's just the beginning of a wave of these papers and this wonderful institution that I personally grew up in. I grew up in a newspaper family. My dad was the executive editor at The New York Times. I would visit my dad after school and go over to the newsroom. I'm very comfortable and it's really a familiar place to me.

You directed the pilot and another first-season episode of Entourage, so I was wondering if there was ever a chance you'd come back to direct for that series? I'm a big fan.

David Frankel: Oh, I'm a huge fan. I love it. We've talked about it and it's just the scheduling hasn't worked out, more than anything. I would love to do it and they've been really open about letting me back. We just haven't worked out the timing of it.

Is there anything that you're developing or that you might have coming up that you can talk about?

David Frankel: Nothing coming out soon. Hopefully, this fall, I'm trying to shoot a movie, it's a comedy about birdwatchers. We're just trying to get the cast together to do that. That's a long ways away towards getting to see it, but I'm hoping we get to make it.

Is there a working title for that yet?

David Frankel: It's called The Big Ear. In really serious birding terms, The Big Ear is an official but unregulated competition among birdwatchers who try and see as many species in the United States in a calendar year. There are something like 650 native species and the best birders see all those and then they see another 50 to 75 accidentals, globals who fly in from other parts of the world. So it's a crazy year in the life of these really serious birders.

So, finally, the film did really well in the theaters, but for those who might not have caught it in the theaters, what would you like to say to those so they'll pick this up on DVD?

David Frankel: Well, I think it's something that's fantastic to watch with your family. I brought my seven-year-old twins to the premiere and they really enjoyed it. I was inspired to make it because both of my in-laws as well as my nieces, who are 11 and 12, all told me it was their favorite book, ever. I thought, well, that range of people appreciate this story about this dog, maybe it's going to touch a chord, so I think it really is a movie for everybody.

Excellent. Well that's about all I have for you, David. Thanks so much for your time and the best of luck.

David Frankel: OK, great.

You can make a perfect family movie night out of Marley & Me when it hits the shelves on DVD and Blu-ray on March 31.