Before becoming one of the most successful family film directors working today (with such box office successes as Big Momma’s House, Scooby-Doo and Beverly Hills Chihuahua under his belt), Raja Gosnell worked for… Robert Altman? It’s true, Gosnell began his film career working as an assistant editor on several of Altman’s films before becoming Chris Columbus’ editor-of-choice, cutting classic family comedies like Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire.

Gosnell’s latest movie finds him resurrecting another pop-culture artifact—The Smurfs. Created by cartoonist Peyo, The Smurfs began life back in 1958 as a Belgian comic book series. It wasn’t until the 1980s however, when Hanna-Barbera gave the little blue gang their own long-running Saturday morning cartoon, that The Smurfs experienced worldwide popularity.

In their brand-new, big-screen, 3-D adventure, The Smurfs are transported through a magical portal from their beloved village to present-day New York City. They take shelter with a married couple (Neil Patrick Harris and Jayma Mays), as they figure out how to get back home and hide from their nemesis, the evil wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria). Jonathan Winters (Papa Smurf), Katy Perry (Smurfette), Anton Yelchin (Clumsy Smurf) and Alan Cumming (Gutsy Smurf, one of two Smurfs created specifically for the film) provide some of the voices. With its colorful blend of live-action and CGI, The Smurfs, which hits theaters in 3-D on July 29, should please both the young and the young-at-heart.

Just before the movie’s release, MM caught up with Gosnell to discuss what interests him most about the legendary Smurfs, as well as his early days working with Altman.

Kyle Rupprecht (MM): How did you get involved with The Smurfs? Were you already a fan of the little blue guys?

Raja Gosnell (RG): Producer Jordan Kerner first approached me about directing The Smurfs. I was certainly aware of The Smurfs; you can’t have lived through the ’80s and not had some awareness. They were everywhere! But no, I wouldn’t say I was a fan, because I was a bit old for the cartoon when it was in its prime. So I did some research, watched some of the cartoons and, most importantly, discovered Peyo’s books. That’s where the characters came most vividly to life for me. They are a bit more complex and have a few rougher edges in Peyo’s work, which for me makes them that much more human.

I was also really happy with the script in that it gave equal time to Gargamel and his comedic pathos. Love Gargamel! And it had a lovely human component as well. It felt like a family hybrid film that was actually about something besides the easy laughs. So I agreed to get involved and we developed the script to what it is now.

MM: The movie utilizes CGI in order to bring the Smurfs to life. You’ve directed some other CGI-heavy films, including the Scooby-Doo movies and Beverly Hills Chihuahua. From a directing standpoint, what are some of the biggest challenges in working with CGI?

RG: The Smurfs is definitely the most complex CGI film I have done. The trickiest thing with hybrid movies is that you are shooting in a real world, but your animated characters will be added later. So on set you are essentially staging and shooting invisible seven-inch characters that have complex interactions with the humans, each other and the real world. We had a terrific special effects crew who were masters at moving things with monofilament. Basically, everything the Smurfs touched and moved had to be manipulated by us. It really helps the reality of the animation when CGI characters interact with real things that are on set.

So the day usually started with me on the floor with my six little Gumby Smurfs, moving them around and talking in their voices so the cast and crew could understand what was happening in the scene. Then I had to direct the camera when to move to follow the Smurfs’ action, be it walking or running or parachuting off a seven- story fire escape. It’s really tricky for a camera crew to follow and pull focus on something that is not there! My team was incredible.

Then it’s a similar thing in post-production. My fantastic editor Sabrina Plisco put the film together by adding our Smurf actors’ vocal performances to empty frames, timing how the performances and the camera will flow, then the animators begin putting Smurfs into the frames. Then it’s about me directing the Smurfs’ performances. So I spent hours and hours in a dark projection room with Troy Saliba, the lead animator, and his team adding every comedic and emotional nuance we could think of to bring our little Smurfy movie stars to life.

In the Scooby-Doo films, I had one CGI character to keep track of, and he was mostly a cut-to joke. In The Smurfs, I had not one, but six CGI characters to bring to life, and they are arguably the stars of the movie. They have to carry the emotion of the movie, so the importance of getting nuanced, humanistic performances was huge. The movie lives or dies on the reality level of the Smurfs’ performances.

MM: How has the landscape of children’s movies changed since your first feature, 1997’s Home Alone 3? Is the marketplace more or less competitive?

RG: I prefer the term “family films,” because I definitely try to make films that have some surprises and smiles for all audiences. Yes, the landscape has certainly changed a bit since 1997. Pixar had just released the first Toy Story (1995), so full CGI animation was getting a lot of buzz, while Disney’s classic, hand-drawn features were still going strong. Hybrid films required a bit more technology to get them to a place where the animated characters seamlessly integrated into the live action world, and looked good on an affordable budget.

Competitive? I guess its always been competitive and it always will be. All you can do is make the best movie you can, hope that the marketing department supports it, then leave it to the audience to decide.

MM: You started your career as an assistant editor on several Robert Altman movies, including Popeye and Quintet. How did you get involved with Altman? Were there any lessons you learned from this iconoclastic moviemaker that you’ve utilized in your own directing work?

RG: I started with Bob Altman’s company as a gofer, a PA in today’s terminology. My job was to be at the LA International Airport between 2 and 4 in the morning to receive the negative (they were shooting A Wedding in Chicago) and take the negative to the lab for processing. The rest of my days were spent in the editing room doing basic preparation so the film would be ready for the editors to cut. I loved being in the editing room and I soaked up every scrap of knowledge and experience I could.

I never worked with Bob on set, so I can’t tell you that I gained directorial knowledge there. But he was absolutely fearless in the editing room. Even when a scene was working pretty well, he wasn’t afraid to break it and try something completely different. These were the days of film only—no digital media, no unlimited versions to save. We had one print, and that was the only record of the edit. If you changed the cut, it’s possible you could never get back to exactly that version again. So I’ve always remembered Bob’s fearlessness. The editing process is, in some ways, the final rewrite of the movie. Hopefully you can consistently make good choices and can defend your film from the more damaging notes and ideas that inevitably come your way.

MM: Almost all your films have been geared towards families/children. Why is that? Any desire to go in a different direction?

RG: Several reasons: I’m good at family films, I’ve had a lot of success with family films and that’s what studios want to hire me to do. We all get typecast. Whether you are an actor, director, composer, even wardrobe personnel. Anything creative, if your resume contains mostly one type of film, that’s what the studios want to hire you for. It’s human nature.

Would I like to go in different directions? Yes, I’m always actively looking into other genres. It would be fun to do a straight-up guys film, like Rush Hour or Wedding Crashers. I’m also kind of an outdoorsy guy, and I like challenges, so an exotic “man vs. nature” type story would be terrific. We shot Beverly Hills Chihuahua all over Mexico and I really loved the adventure of it.

Shakespeare In Love, American Beauty and The Usual Suspects are some of my all-time favorite films, so delving into that dramatic realm would be fantastic. I remember watching Blue Valentine last year and just connecting to it—it’s such a smart, real movie. I thought, ‘Wow, I’d like to direct something like that!’

MM: Do you have your next project lined up yet? If so, is there anything you can tell us about it?

RG: Nothing definite now. I had such a great time making this film and was so supported by everyone, that if a sequel comes around I would definitely want to be a part of it. That said, there are a couple of projects that have come my way that are piquing my interest—a good mix of family and totally new stuff in the vein of what I described above.

MM: Who is your favorite Smurf, and why?

RG: Wow. Right now that’s kind of like asking me which is my favorite child. Impossible to say absolutely. I would say this: Grouchy makes me laugh the most because… well he’s just so Grouchy. A lovably funny curmudgeon. Clumsy is the sweetest and most under-appreciated by the other Smurfs. You just want to give the little guy a hug and hope he saves the day. Papa is hands down the most soulful. Brainy is my go-to guy for exposition. He’s also the put-upon younger brother in our little family dynamic. Grouchy and Gutsy shove him around a bit, but Brainy gets his moment to shine. Gutsy is our Smurf-of-action and Smurfette is just all-around adorably Smurfette.

I think the longtime fans will feel right at home with these characters. We worked really hard to honor Peyo’s creations and be very, very true to who they are.