Los Angeles - For Berlin-born Thor Freudenthal, a guy known for doing commercials and working on visual effects for the Stuart Little movies, taking on Hotel for Dogs - a movie that involved both kids and animals - as his feature-film directorial debut posed a rather enormous challenge.
As a result, Freudenthal took the opportunity to turn the "hotel" in the movie into a character in itself. It's in that mysterious and almost-enchanted hotel that Andi (Emma Roberts) and Bruce (Jake T. Austin), two young orphans, take in a group of wayward canines, setting up an assortment of contraptions that enable the dogs to entertain themselves in the absence of their surrogate owners. While it might seem like the perfect opportunity to use computer-generated graphics to show the dogs doing an amazing array of tricks, Freundenthal wanted to keep things within the realm of possibility.
"The dogs are 100 percent real," he says. "I'm very visually based, but it was important in this movie, since everything is so whimsical and heightened and extravagant, to keep the dogs real. We didn't want to anthropomorphize it too much."
Enlisting a group of professional dog trainers who hired and fired the creatures at will, Freudenthal was able to make a movie that emphasizes the dogs' loveable nature without imposing too many human qualities. The dogs might sit on toilets or kiss each other, but the stunts were all choreographed through extensive training.
"The team of dog trainers were incredible," says Freudenthal. "The dogs exceeded my expectations. You can't just spill the dogs out onto a set and say, 'Let's see what they do.' The dog needs an 'a' position and a 'b' position and a task to fulfill. Out of that came organized chaos. In the movie, you have unwanted children and animals coming together to provide a home and a family. To me, it was important to convey that theme."
The movie's unabashed charm (as well as the fact that not a single dog dies) distinguishes it from the slew of dog films that have recently hit theaters. Freudenthal, who confesses to being a cat person, says he was initially worried the movie would get lost in the pack (pun intended). But now that he's seen the competition, he's confident his film about the canine creatures has enough going for it that it won't be dismissed. "The magic of dogs is that they're so expressive that that old Eisenstein theory of editing really applies," explains Freudenthal. "Since we didn't manipulate them digitally, if you put a shot of a bowl of food and then cut to a dog, you could read a thought into that face. That's what makes dogs the ultimate screen animal. They're so expressive."