In the family comedy-adventure "Hotel for Dogs," Andi (Emma Roberts) and her younger brother, Bruce (Jake T. Austin) live in a strictly no-pets household and are fast running out of ways to keep their perpetually hungry dog, Friday, under wraps. When they accidentally stumble on an abandoned hotel that is already home to a couple of resourceful strays, Andi has an idea. She taps Bruce's mechanical genius for turning everyday objects into mechanical marvels, and, with the help of their friends in the neighborhood, transform the down-and-out hotel into a magical dog paradise - not only for Friday, but for every stray they can find.
But when the barking dogs make the neighbors and the suddenly out-of-work local dog catchers suspicious, Andi and Bruce have to use every invention at their disposal to prevent them from finding out "who let the dogs in."
Besides Roberts and Austin, "Hotel for Dogs" features a comedy ensemble that includes Kyla Pratt, Lisa Kudrow, Kevin Dillon and Don Cheadle in this smart, funny family adventure that demonstrates just how far love and imagination can take you.
ALL ABOUT "HOTEL FOR DOGS"
Andi (Emma Roberts) and her younger brother Bruce (Jake T. Austin) have a secret - a furry, adorable and always hungry Jack Russell Terrier named Friday. When they can no longer keep their beloved pet in their small apartment, with a strict no-dogs allowed policy, the siblings will do whatever it takes to make a new home for him.
That's the premise of "Hotel for Dogs," an inventive urban fairy tale based on Lois Duncan's beloved children's book. Passionate dog-lover, activist and film producer Lauren Shuler Donner felt the book's strong message about the importance of family - however unconventional it may be - made the novel an ideal property to bring to the big screen.
What stood out for her was the fact that the story presented ample opportunities for humor and adventure. "'Hotel for Dogs' is as much an adventure as it is a comedy. Andi and Bruce have to ingeniously find a way to hide their own dog, Friday, and eventually, every stray dog they come across," says Shuler Donner. "The more dogs they rescue, the more dangerous it becomes for them. So Bruce has to keep coming up with new inventions to keep the dogs happy and quiet."
The comedy, she continues, "comes from the dogs' personalities and interactions - like one who likes to chew everything and the dog who howls if he can't look out the window, which all become running jokes that get funnier and funnier. I sensed that working with the dogs would give rise to some happy accidents on the set - and I was right. And then, of course, there were the fun machines Bruce puts together from stuff the rest of us would regard as junk. They're all so clever, you just have to laugh in appreciation."
"As you can tell," laughs Shuler Donner," I'm a big dog lover. My husband and I rescue dogs. We have three now. So, right away, that part of the story spoke to me.
"And I love kids as well," she continues. "These kids cause a bit of havoc because they are willing to do anything to stick together. Until these dogs come into their lives, they are afraid to connect to anyone else. When they set out to fight the system and rescue the dogs, they ultimately end up being saved themselves.
"There's a key scene in the film in which Andi tells her brother that they really should find Friday a real family, and he insists that they are a real family," she says. "Eventually they adopt all these dogs and they do become the real family he's talking about. So family is where you find it, family is the gathering of those closest to you."
Making his feature-film directorial debut, filmmaker Thor Freudenthal was drawn to the way the film's themes spoke to the importance of a sense of belonging. "It draws an interesting parallel between the kids and the dogs," says Freudenthal. "Although I was aware that it was a risk to jump into directing my first feature working with both kids and animals, I recognized the importance and relevance of the story and thought it was worth it."
Producer Jason Clark had worked with Freudenthal on both "Stuart Little" movies, for which Freudenthal served as lead storyboard artist. His ability to produce CGI characters with lifelike personalities and emotion told Clark that Freudenthal's acute attention to visual detail made him a perfect candidate to direct "Hotel for Dogs."
"I was fascinated by Thor's creativity and his ability to create characters and moments that rely on visuals rather than dialogue," explains Clark. "I knew he would be able to imbue the dog characters with qualities we would all fall in love with."
Shuler Donner was determined that "Hotel for Dogs" stand out from other family movies visually and believes that Freudenthal's experience in animation gave him a unique edge. "We viewed a short film he directed and, within three minutes, we knew he was the guy," she says. "It was the way he framed shots, the way he moved the camera, the use of color, the use of light. He's very visually savvy and very specific.
"And we wanted to make sure we had somebody who got along well with kids, who wasn't too intimidating or gruff," the producer continues. "He's a real sweetheart and the kids took to him right away."
Executive producer Ivan Reitman observes that Freudenthal's work has a special feeling that will set the film apart from more run-of-the-mill family fare. "'Hotel for Dogs' is a great story and very funny," he says. "It's a terrific idea and we wanted someone who could tell the story in a way that would appeal to an entire family - to parents, adults and teenagers, as well as to kids."
Shuler Donner adds: "Our mandate was that this had to be a film that parents like just as much as the kids. You laugh a lot and maybe you do cry a few times, but it never crosses over to the gooey side. The kids and animals are on a wild adventure and having fun. The dogs are so cute, the kids are so engaging and the inventions are so clever, that the parents will enjoy it."
Adds producer Ewan Leslie, "One of the things we loved about Thor was his whimsical approach to the movie. As an artist, he wanted to create a world that was grounded but still visually captivating to parents and kids. He was very interested in creating mood and character using color and texture, and he focused on the tiniest details that the rest of us might have missed. There were several ideas that Thor really fought for that the rest of the team didn't think were as important. Thor was often right, and that attention to detail elevated the movie way beyond your average family fare."
The secret ingredient in "Hotel for Dogs," according to Reitman, is that in addition to being very funny, it has a deep emotional core. "These days it's kind of refreshing to see a story like this told in live action, rather than in animated form," he says. "It's a bit of a throwback to the great family movies of the '60s and '70s, like "The Nutty Professor" and "The Shaggy Dog." There's something special and magical going on."
Clark concurs: "I'm sure it will make audiences laugh, but it will also engage them emotionally. I see the heart of this movie as the real connection between these two lonely kids and the animals. Ultimately, there is something very real at stake here and that's a strong reason to root for these kids to succeed. The movie is funny, exciting and has real heart, so I think it will work with audiences of all ages."
THE "HOTEL FOR DOGS" ACTING FAMILY
For the central role of Andi, the fast-talking, protective older sister, the filmmakers chose rising young star Emma Roberts. "We basically needed to find someone who could carry a whole movie," says Freudenthal. "To find someone who can do that at such a young age is extremely difficult. Emma came in and was amazingly professional. She understands the language of filmmaking and it was impressive to witness her level of professionalism and preparedness. She makes it look so easy on film."
"Finding the right actress to play Andi was very important because the character has to be tough and protective of her brother but also vulnerable and very sympathetic," says producer Leslie. "Emma is one of those young actors whose face just lights up the screen and she has the ability to play a wide range of emotions without any dialogue. The camera just loves her."
"Emma is fabulous," says Shuler Donner. "When it came to the dramatic scenes, she nailed them. What I didn't expect was her sweetness, the way she cares for Jake Austin, her co-star, and in the movie, the way she cares for her brother, Bruce. Her heart grounds the movie."
"Emma has star dust," says Clark. "She is an incredible and charismatic actress who can play the range of this part because Andi is someone who is always hiding her pain in an upbeat, optimistic and glib way. Emma can act the con man, but she also allows you to see underneath to the real pathos of a kid looking for a real home."
Roberts was excited by the role, especially the character's emotional growth during the course of the film. "Andi is definitely a bit of a tomboy but is cautious and very protective of her little brother, Bruce. Through this adventure, the dogs and the new friends they make, they get something they've never had before."
"Both Andi and her brother have great strength of character because they've had to take care of themselves and figure out how to navigate life on their own," notes Freudenthal. "While she really wants to be a conventional teenager, what Andi ultimately learns is to be proud of who she is."
To play Bruce, Andi's little brother and the movie's master inventor, the filmmakers conducted a nationwide search for an actor who was fun and could emphasize the whimsical side of this boy genius. They found their Bruce in Jake T. Austin.
Producer Clark remembers meeting Jake and recognizing qualities in him that perfectly suited Bruce. "Jake came in really late in the casting process after we had seen close to 80 boys and he was amazing on every level. He played the emotional beats very well, felt the role and also understood timing. When there was a joke or comedic line, he always understood when to give or to hold back."
Austin had just the right combination of innocence and wisdom we were looking for, according to Shuler Donner. "We needed someone who was a little lost and looking to his sister for guidance and yet super-smart, so that you believe he can concoct all these inventions. Jake is right on the cusp of something. He has a sort of savvy without being precocious."
Although Bruce is a mechanical genius, director Freudenthal adds, he still had to have a particular level of whimsy. "Jake has a glint in his eye and a way of looking at something in front of him and instantly understanding it. He is someone who lives in his head, wants to learn constantly and thinks in ways other kids his age might not."
For his part, Austin says he enjoyed inhabiting the character. "I really had to visualize and imagine what it was like to be Bruce and be a bit shy and nerdy. He was different from any other character I've played so far."
Joining Roberts and Austin are three other young actors, who help them transform the abandoned hotel into a home for four-legged creatures. The characters of Dave and Heather, two local pet store employees, are played by Johnny Simmons ("Evan Almighty") and Kyla Pratt ("Fat Albert"). Mark, a comically awkward teenager who works at a nearby market and befriends Andi and Bruce, is portrayed by Troy Gentile, who previously appeared in such comedies as "Nacho Libre" and "Drillbit Taylor."
In the film, Andi and Bruce's social worker, Bernie, is their most dependable adult lifeline. "Bernie bridges the gap to the adult world," explains Freudenthal. "He is their anchor. He's a disciplinarian, someone they take very seriously but also have a rapport with."
Academy Award nominee Don Cheadle was intrigued by the dynamic between Bernie and the kids. "When I read the script, I appreciated the way my character talked to the kids, because that's how I talk to my kids, pretty straight- up and honest."
The relationship between Cheadle and his younger co-stars mirrored that of their characters, according to Emma Roberts. "Bernie and Don are a lot alike because Don is very sweet and, when he talks to you, he doesn't talk down because you're a kid. He talks and laughs with you the same way that Bernie does with Andi and Bruce."
Cheadle was at the top of the producer's wish list for the role, says Shuler Donner. "It turned out his daughter is a big fan of Emma Roberts," she says. "And he had done enough serious movies recently that he felt comfortable putting some lighter fare into the mix. We were very lucky. I mean, you could literally hand Don the phone book and he would give it intent and make it believable. He was just amazing. And the kids rose to the occasion. He made them even better."
For Reitman, Cheadle's presence brought what he calls "the weight of credibility and intelligence to this very frothy tale. He's a very serious presence and it was wonderful just to watch him work. What happens because of his acting skills, everyone around him, even the dogs, become better. There's a truth and reality that takes over as soon as he steps on to the set."
Cheadle, who has two young daughters himself, also appreciated the fact that "Hotel for Dogs" was a family film that both parents and kids could enjoy. "You don't want to make a movie that parents are going to sleep through - although those can be nice too because you get that 'day nap' in."
The heads of Andi and Bruce's household, Lois (Lisa Kudrow) and Carl Scudder (Kevin Dillon),are aging musicians desperately holding on to the dream of becoming rock stars. Unfortunately, they fail to recognize their complete ineptitude for creating music, with hilarious results.
"In his mind, Carl is the total package of a rock star," says Freudenthal. "He's completely delusional. Lois, who is a bit deluded herself, probably met Carl when he was a roadie and believed they could someday make it. They're holding onto that dream for dear life."
Lisa Kudrow agreed to come on board after reading the script and discussing the project with Freudenthal. "I loved it and thought there was something different about this project," explains Kudrow. "I got really excited after meeting Thor and hearing his take on how the film would look visually. When I came to the set and watched how it was being shot, I appreciated and understood what kind of beautiful and magical storybook movie this was going to be."
Lois and Carl's musical skills can best be summed up as nonexistent, says the actress. "We can only be described as a 'band' because Carl plays the guitar and I have a Casio that can play many instruments at the same time. They are not very good. In fact, their level of talent goes beyond bad to pathetic. It was fun to be that bad because there's pressure when you're supposed to be good, but it's all fun when you're that bad."
Kevin Dillon jumped at the chance to fill the shoes of the narcissistic rock god wannabe Carl Scudder. Scudder, he says, is a character he could really have fun with, someone who is sincerely convinced he's destined for greatness. "I think the reason Carl hasn't made it is mostly because all the songs he writes are about himself," say the actor. "Even if he attempts to do an issue song, it ends up revolving around him in some way."
The comedic chemistry between Kudrow and Dillon came as no surprise to the filmmakers. The duo truly enjoyed playing off each other. "When I heard that Kevin was playing my husband, I knew it was going to be good. He is absolutely hilarious; every time he opens his mouth I have to fight to not laugh," says Kudrow.
"I've loved working with Lisa," says Dillon, returning the compliment. "We bounced off each other very well and came up with some really interesting moments that weren't on the page. She's a lot of fun and her character is a real crack up."
While the Scudders are by no means great guardians, Kudrow and Dillon bring a playfulness to their characters that draws audience sympathy, notes producer Jonathan Gordon. "The way Kevin and Lisa play the Scudders, you have to love them. You never feel the kids are in real jeopardy and, in reality, they're giving the kids a way of staying together."
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
THOR FREUDENTHAL (DIRECTOR) was born and raised in Berlin, Germany. His knack for visual storytelling showed early. While still in high school, he wrote and illustrated a series of comics for German publisher Carlsen, the publisher of the Tintin series.
As a student at the Berlin Academy of Arts, Freudenthal discovered his passion for film. His self-produced short films, "mind the gap!" and "Monkey Business," quickly garnered awards and accolades on the European film festival circuit.
His work landed him a scholarship at the California Institute of the Arts. His first American short film "The Tenor," about a zoo ostrich who dreams of a career in opera, went on to win the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences First Prize Student Emmy. It also toured the world with "Spike and Mike's Festival of Sick & Twisted Animation."
He then joined Sony Pictures' Imageworks and the creative team on the films "Stuart Little" and "Stuart Little 2." Working closely with director Rob Minkoff, he shaped the digital characters for the films and took on the complex task of pre-visualizing the scripts and supervising the team of storyboard artists. "Stuart Little" subsequently earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects.
Freudenthal next made the leap into commercial directing and has worked for a wide roster of clients both in the American and European markets, including Nike, Reebok, Nabisco, Burger King, Florida's Natural, Popsicle and Philadelphia. In his spot advertising work, he combines his expertise in visual effects with a flair for offbeat humor and whimsical storytelling.
Freudenthal applied his comprehensive knowledge to the world of feature filmmaking as second unit director on Disney's "The Haunted Mansion" starring Eddie Murphy.
JEFF LOWELL (SCREENPLAY) began his career as an extremely disloyal television writer, moving from "The George Carlin Show" to "Drew Carey" to "Cybill" to "Spin City" to "Sports Night" to "Just Shoot Me."
On the feature side, he wrote "John Tucker Must Die" and wrote and directed "Over Her Dead Body." Lowell fled Los Angeles a few years ago and lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife, two kids and three dogs.
BOB SCHOOLEY & MARK McCORKLE (SCREENPLAY) are currently executive producers of the Nickelodeon/Dreamworks series "The Penguins of Madagascar," a TV spin-off from the hit DreamWorks features. They also recently adapted their Simon and Schuster young adult novel, Liar of Kudzu, for Disney Channel.
Previously, the team dove into the life of a high school cheerleader to create their first original series, "Disney's Kim Possible." The hit Disney Channel show has garnered Primetime and Daytime Emmy nominations. The pair also worked as producers and story editors on the acclaimed "Disney's Hercules," which was hailed as one of TV Guide's "10 Best New Series" of 1998 and, in 2000, as one of the magazine's top-ranked shows for adults to watch with their children.
Schooley and McCorkle also earned story editor credit on the "Aladdin" television series and writer/story editor credits on Disney's first-ever video premiere, "The Return of Jafar," which stands as one of the top five best-selling direct-to-video animated films ever released. They also wrote the subsequent video release, "Aladdin and the King of Thieves," which received a 1997 Annie Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Animated Home Video Production.
The pair penned and story edited the two-time Emmy-nominated "Great Minds Think for Themselves," one of the original interstitial segments of "Disney's One Saturday Morning" in 1997. They re-teamed with the "Great Minds" creative crew in 2000 to produce the "Find Out Why" interstitial series in conjunction with the National Science Foundation and Discover Magazine, and also wrote the heralded "Toy Story Treats," a series of interstitials for ABC's Saturday morning line-up and Disney Channel.
The Temple University graduates initially met while working as entertainment managers at Sesame Place, a "Sesame Street"-themed play park in Langhorne, PA. They made their foray into Hollywood through the mailroom of DIC Entertainment, where they quickly advanced to staff writing positions.
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