MIAMI - When filmmaker David Frankel showed a rough cut of his film “The Devil Wears Prada” to his boss, Fox 2000 Pictures president Elizabeth Gabler, she was so pleased that she handed him a copy of another best-selling book to adapt into a movie: “Marley and Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog.”
Written by newspaper columnist John Grogan, the 2005 book recounted his and his wife Jenny’s experiences with their Labrador retriever Marley, who grew from an adorable, precocious puppy into a hyperactive, relentlessly mischievous dog who discovered altogether new strains of canine bad behavior.
Although Frankel liked the book, he politely declined the opportunity to turn it into a film.
“It’s a lovely book, and it made me cry, but I just didn’t see the movie,” Frankel said earlier this month over a glass of wine at a cafe just a few blocks from his home in Coconut Grove, Fla. “There’s no conflict in it. It’s charming chapter by chapter, but it’s just an account of these people’s lives. I didn’t see how the pieces fit together to make a movie.”
A few months later, Gabler again pitched the project to Frankel, this time giving him an actual script, by screenwriter Scott Frank (“Get Shorty,” “Out of Sight”). And this time, Frankel immediately saw a movie, which wound up being filmed mostly in South Florida.
“What Scott wrote into the script was a sense of longing,” Frankel said. “He didn’t make it an episodic, literal translation of the book. He made it the story of a marriage - the whole rollercoaster ride this couple goes through over a period of 14 years. I felt like it was as close to an autobiographical film as I could possibly make, because it’s about a happily married writer who lives in South Florida with his dog, and I’m happily married, living in Miami, writing some of the time, and I have five dogs.”
Unlike Marley, Frankel’s dogs are all strays. Much like Marley, they are all “crazy,” he says. “You come to my house, and you’ll find chairs with holes six inches deep. There are no bedspreads in my home that have not been chewed up.”
More important, though, the 49-year-old Frankel, who has two children, connected with something deeper in Frank’s script: The restlessness felt by John (played by Owen Wilson) who, despite his love for his wife Jennifer (Jennifer Aniston) and their three kids and his job as a successful newspaper columnist, still yearns for that archetypal, elusive “something “more.”
“I love my wife, and I love my kids, and yet there are always days when I think, ‘Is this it?’” Frankel said. “We all occasionally feel a sense that we haven’t realized everything we thought our lives would be.
“That’s what I wanted the movie to capture, and that’s why the dog is such a beautiful metaphor for happiness,” Frankel said. “Dogs don’t look forward, and they don’t look back. They are all about ‘How can I be happy in this very moment?’ People often forget to do that. My wife called it the most wistful movie she’s ever seen.”
In casting an actor to capture that wistfulness, Frankel made a surprising choice in Wilson, previously best known for playing clowns and ne’er-do-wells (“Wedding Crashers,” “Drillbit Taylor”).
“This movie is a huge departure for Owen,” Frankel said. “He’s such a remarkable actor, and no one really knows it. What you see in this movie is who Owen really is. There’s a real sweetness to him, but you get the pain, too. He’s Jimmy Stewart, although no one thinks of him that way.”
For the role of his wife, the studio suggested Aniston, but Frankel initially thought the actress would not be believable playing a woman from the age of 28 to her 40s. But upon meeting her, it took him two seconds to decide she was “perfect.”
“And when she and Owen met, their chemistry was so charming, I knew this movie was going to be so easy,” Frankel said.
Less easy was wrangling the 22 dogs it took to play Marley from puppydom to age 14. The bulk of Marley’s scenes as a young adult, which take up two-thirds of the movie, were played by Clyde, a Labrador that Frankel says was “trained” to be rambunctious.
“The trainers could get him to do whatever we needed, but he’s never been taught not to jump up on people or chew whatever he wants to chew,” Frankel said. “Basically, he’s never been told ‘No.’ He’s crazily energetic, and Grogan testified he’s the spitting image of the real Marley. The trick was that the actors “had” to be ready to go on take one, because Clyde was always was brilliant on the first take. But he would get easily bored after that.”
Many of the other dogs that played Marley were cast for their ability to do one specific trick, like howling at the window or circling around in the water. One older dog portrayed Marley as a senior.
Although the potential for melodrama in “Marley & Me’s” last half-hour was enormous, Frankel says he tried hard to make sure he was never being invasive of the audience’s feelings.
“Jen and Owen and I talked a lot about giving the movie sentiment but not making it sentimental,” Frankel said. “Owen himself is not a sentimental guy, which I think helps when you see someone like that feeling pain. It makes it more touching and powerful. The other thing was to not to underline any of the emotion with the camerawork and the music. I tried really hard never to hammer.”
Even though the real-life Marley’s health deteriorated over the span of a couple of years, Frankel condensed the dog’s aging to a couple of short moments in the film.
“This is a movie about a man who is now middle-aged and acknowledging - not confronting, but acknowledging - his own mortality. We all have to deal with the end of things. Hopefully the movie provides you with a lot of space to project elements of your own life into it. In that sense, the spareness of the story - the simplicity of it - is beautiful.
“The surprise audience for “Prada” was middle-aged men, who turned out in huge numbers. I think the same thing will happen here. In a way, the core target audience for “Marley and Me” is men in their 40s, because we are at that time in life where we’ve lost some dogs, and we know there are still more to lose, and we are hyper-aware of the need to celebrate each day.”