Bark: Mike, as the writer/director, what inspired you to include a dog in the film?
Mills: I inherited my dad’s 13-year-old Jack Russell, and he was there while I was writing [the screenplay]; it was very easy to start a conversation with that guy. I also have a Border Collie mutt, Zoë, and I talked to both of them a lot. I think that’s something from my family. I grew up with a Standard Poodle, and later, we got a Collie mutt at the shelter. We always talked or sang to them as a way of acknowledging them. When I’m talking to the dog, I’ll also do the dog’s reply, saying what I think the dog would say. So that was one of the reasons I decided to include a dog in the story.
Bark: Sometimes writers go too far with that approach, but you didn’t. How did you avoid it? You did have Oliver (played by Ewan McGregor) talk with Arthur.
Mills: Well, personally, I hate talking dogs. It’s obviously an anthropomorphization that usually proves how little people understand animals; I feel it’s a kind of rude thing to do. But it was a good way to show Oliver’s loneliness — you know he’s projecting his own feelings onto Arthur. When you see the dog staring back at him, it’s easy to think that the dog’s saying to Oliver, “We’re in the same pack.” You know, “We are together.” That’s what I thought was happening, at least.
Bark: The dog-park scene gave us great insight into the other characters. How did you work out that one?
Mills: That’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie. I’m a very humble writer, and I think I’m lucky if anybody likes anything I’ve written, but in this case, I really felt like I nailed something and am glad I got to include it in the movie. Oliver’s very curious about Arthur, and he’s studied Arthur’s background and he learned his parentage. And I think what he’s trying to explain to the dog is what all the human characters are going through: they’re trying to find themselves in their history and their story, and trying to wake up from the unconscious story that’s guiding them or controlling them. So he’s trying to explain to him that “you’re basically designed to hunt foxes, but you don’t hunt foxes anymore. You’re basically cute and charming and you’re chasing tennis balls because that’s as close to a fox as you’re going to get.” I think all the humans in the story have a similar fate, and they’re trying to uncover their history and trying to figure out how they became the people they are and trying to negotiate a better version of themselves.
Bark: Did having a dog in the cast create any challenges?
Mike: It was pretty easy, actually. Mathilde and Cosmo are both so good, and Cosmo’s a really a loving guy; he’s very attentive and quick to engage. Everyone calls him the love bug because he jumps into laps and is very cuddly. I recall saying a couple of times, “My god, his eye line is perfect! How’s that happening?” Then I’d realize, oh, Mathilde was doing something that I didn’t see. On one or two occasions, I asked Cosmo to do something kind of complicated, but it wasn’t difficult; it just involved the trainer working it out. What the dog brought to the set was a kind of party atmosphere. Mathilde has this beautiful Collie named Lincoln, and some Chihuahuas and Cosmo’s stand-in, JR, were also there. There were three or four dogs around the set all the time, just hanging out. That made it feel much more loose and not like work. Dogs’ ambiance, the ambiance they help create, really shifts things in a positive way.