Gail Mancuso always thought her feature-film directorial debut would be a comedy, given her background of having directed some of the biggest sitcoms in the history of TV. Instead, she found herself drawn to "A Dog's Journey" due to the emotional connection she has to animals as well as the messages the film sends to viewers.
"Everything was leaning towards the comedy genre," Mancuso told TheWrap. "I thought naturally I would do a comedy and I was working on one with Amblin, but then all of a sudden Amblin told me, 'We have this other one that's ready to go.' ['A Dog's Purpose' and 'A Dog's Journey' producer] Gavin Polone knew me from 'Gilmore Girls' and we powwowed, and he knew I was an animal lover and had all these dogs, so I read it and, being a woman and loving the CJ story, I knew we could make it into something very special. A girl and her dog really appealed to me."
Mancuso has five dogs now, but has been trying to mend a hole in her heart that was left when one of her dogs passed away a few years ago.
"I can't seem to fill that hole, but I get all this joy from all these other dogs, and I love the idea that when one dog leaves you, it gives you room to bring in another dog," she explained. "Everything just came together."
"A Dog's Journey," written by W. Bruce Cameron, Cathryn Michon, Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky, is a sequel to the 2017 film "A Dog's Purpose." It stars Dennis Quaid, Betty Gilpin and Kathryn Prescott, and features the voice of Josh Gad in the different incarnations of CJ's (Prescott) dog. In the film, a loving dog realizes that it's his purpose to protect his owner through different stages of her life, even if that means being reborn a couple times.
The movie also delves deep into the relationship between CJ and her mother, a complicated relationship that Mancuso hopes is relatable to mother-daughter duos.
"The character of Gloria (Gilpin), she's a very young mother and didn't really have an opportunity to find herself," Mancuso explained. "I feel for Gloria -- she's really young and is trying to do the best she can, even though she's drinking, and that's universal. What I also wanted to say in the movie is that we have to be careful of what we as a society say to young women, or what they should be -- we just have to be careful with our young women and give them self-confidence. I think young CJ was on a good track but then her mom started chipping away at her shortcomings instead of helping her -- I think it's relatable."
In reality, Mancuso made sure to add in a couple more messages here and there. Going into production, she knew that animals and death were tough subject matter, but she hoped to relay the idea to children that the death of a beloved animal does not always have to be a terrible thing.
"I tried to make the deaths a little different -- they had to go from one body to the next," said Mancuso. "My happy place is hiking, so that's why the transition is that scene of the dogs running in the hills. I wanted kids to think that maybe, their dogs are happier or it's OK, and then I quickly move away from that and we see puppies! I was very sensitive to those scenes."
In one of the dog's lives, CJ gets into a car accident in which her beloved pup passes away. But when the dog returns in another life to continue caring for CJ, we see the newest incarnation strapped down in the car wearing a harness, because CJ wasn't going to make the same mistake.
Mancuso is a noted TV series director, with just some of her credits including "The Nanny," "Sabrina, The Teenage Witch," "Friends," "Gilmore Girls," "Two and a Half Men," "Scrubs," "30 Rock," "Cougar Town," "Rules of Engagement" and most recently, "Black-ish," "Fresh Off the Boat," "Modern Family" and "Roseanne." She's won two Emmys for her direction of "Modern Family" and was nominated for three Directors Guild of America Awards for "Outstanding Directorial Achievement in a Comedy Series" for her "Modern Family" episodes, "My Hero" (2014), "Las Vegas" (2015) and "White Christmas" (2016).
"You go to work and laugh all day and it's the best job in the world!" Mancuso said of her time in TV. "Especially those 30-minute episodes where you prep for four days and then shoot for five days. What's great about episodic is that you're honing your craft and you are working on your story and how the story should be and constantly pitching jokes and finding locations, and you are making little movies and plays. All those years of doing that made the transition into a feature so seamless, because I had been doing it my whole career."
Clearly, she's worked with some of the greats -- but there's one person she really, really wants to collaborate with.
"I love Paul Rudd -- I'd love for him to be in my next movie! I only want to work with super-nice people and [I] heard he's one of the best... When I was in Las Vegas for CinemaCon, I ran into Emma Thompson -- I would also love to work with her again," Mancuso said.
She's also now in pre-production on her next movie, "Besties," but doesn't know what's next in store for her, although there's one genre she probably won't touch anytime soon.
"I want to make sure the next one is as good a fit as this one was for me," she said. "Is it gonna be a comedy? An action movie? A dramedy of some sort? I don't know -- I have a feeling what it's not going to be, though -- horror!"
Mancuso also takes time out of her schedule to mentor. She recently volunteered as a mentor for the Television Academy Foundation's internship program and became part of the DGA Director Development Initiative mentorship program. For two consecutive years, she has been on the advisory council for NBC's Female Forward initiative. Mancuso was also a member of the Television Academy Board of Governors in the Directors Peer Group for five years.
"A Dog's Journey" opened on Friday and has grossed $8 million so far.