The Art Of Racing In The Rain – A Dog’s View On Humanity

For screenwriter Mark Bomback it was a gift to adapt Garth Stein’s beloved novel The Art Of Racing In The Rain, which features a wise and philosophical dog who longs to be reincarnated as a human.

“Oftentimes when you’re writing a screenplay, you have two tools only: dialogue and action, that’s it. You wish you could get into the interior lives of characters in other ways, like novelists do, but you only have these two things. In this film, we have the opportunity to enter Enzo’s head through voiceover and his narration. It’s probably one of the most critical tools I had in trying to adapt the story, says Bomback, who dealt with another kind of animal when he wrote the screenplays for The War for the Planet of the Apes, and Wolverine.

While primarily a writer of feature films, Mark Bombck recently created the limited series Defending Jacob for Apple +.  In addition, Bomback has advised at the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Story Lab, and has taught screenwriting at his Alma mater, Wesleyan University.  

Like the novel, the film is narrated by the wise and philosophical dog, Enzo (voiced by Kevin Costner). Through his bond with his owner, aspiring Formula One race car driver Denny Swift (Milo Ventimiglia) , Enzo has gained tremendous insight into the human condition and understands that the techniques needed on the racetrack can also be used to successfully navigate the journey of life.  The film follows Denny and the loves of his life: his wife, Eve, their young daughter Zoë, and ultimately, his true best friend, Enzo. Enzo has seen a documentary about Mongolia, where it’s believed that when a dog finishes living his lifetime as a dog, his next incarnation will be as a man. Enzo longs to be reincarnated as a human, with opposable thumbs and a speech-facilitating tongue.

Bomback, who had not been much of a dog person before, says, “There is something about these creatures who live in our homes, who are privy to the most sacred moments in our lives and have this real unconditional love for the humans in their lives. There’s this presence in the room that loves you more than you love yourself.”

“To me, his voice – and this is directly from the novel – is such a rich one because he is incredibly emotionally connected to everything, and is constantly trying to soak up experience as much as he can.  But he also has quite a wry sense of humor, and then he’s almost like an alien in some ways, trying to interpret human behavior and he does this sort of reverse of what we do when we see animals and anthropomorphize them and give them human attributes. He winds up thinking of humans in terms of canine attributes. He’s a very unique narrator and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one exactly like him.”

Bomback explains, “We are not privy to anything that Enzo wouldn’t be privy to.  It is at once a challenge, but really a blessing when you’re writing a story like this because it forces you to approach scenes in a very unique way. You have to maximize moments and really get a lot of information out in terms of narrative and character development. But it also makes you step back and think about the stuff you’re not seeing.”

Director Simon Curtis (Goodbye Christopher Robin, My Week with Marilyn) says, “Enzo’s brilliant voiceover is very insightful. Sometimes it’s very accurate, sometimes it’s flawed, but that’s part of the enjoyment.  Sometimes he gets it right, sometimes he gets it wrong, but he’s a very well-meaning dog who wants to learn in the hope that he can come back as a human in his next life. One of the things I’ve most enjoyed about this shoot is that there are scenes in this film that one has seen hundreds of times – the birth of a child, the leading character being put into handcuffs, the wedding, and so on – but seeing them from a dog’s point of view makes those scenes very fresh and original.”

Simon Curtis

Producer Tanya Landau adds, “We all have feelings that our dogs are human and have human thoughts, but this put it into perspective. The metaphor that the dog has for being present, and how he relates that to Denny’s racing, as well as Denny’s journey, made the whole thing very special.”

Landau says Enzo is a very spiritual soul. “He’s seen this documentary on reincarnation and he wants to learn everything he can from Denny and imprint it on his soul. He wants to remember so when they meet when he’s human, and they shake hands, they’re going to share that wisdom. That was the most important thing that we kept throughout the story.  Enzo is always the voice of spirituality. Humans aren’t always aware of it, but it seems like animals might be.”

“Enzo is every dog,” says author Garth Stein. “We had different dogs for different book covers, for the hardcover and paperback. And in its 38 languages, every language has a different dog on the cover. Every culture has its own representation of Enzo. In the books, it’s a conversation I’m having with the reader and the reader gets to project his or her own dog onto it.”  Stein says that human relationships with dogs are: “All about unconditional love. They don’t ask much from us, we don’t ask much from them, except for love. And that’s a really true and wonderful relationship. I think it would be great if we, as people, could treat each other a lot more like dogs. I mean in a good way. All love, no judgment. No expectations, except love.”

Stein visited the set during production and he and his three sons appear as extras in one of the racing scenes.  He says he had given up expectation of the film getting made when he got a call, saying it was finally moving full speed ahead with Fox 2000.  “I was like, wow, this is kind of cool!  In a sense, there were two stages of my joy.  There was the stage of the build of the book getting bigger and bigger and bigger – and having an enduring kind of legacy. And now, there’s a new level of excitement – it’s going to be a movie, and Kevin Costner is going to do the voice! I get the tingles just thinking about it. This is crazy!”

Among the things Denny tells Eve are “That which you manifest is before you,” “When I’m in a race car, I’m the creator of my own destiny” and “Create your own conditions, and the rain is just rain.”

“Racing is a metaphor,” says Curtis. “Denny and Enzo want to find a way to apply the lessons of the racetrack to help them navigate the complexities of real life.

“Enzo” and Milo Ventimiglia in The Art Of Racing In The Rain

Author Garth Stein says he really enjoyed the idea of writing a philosopher dog.

“A lot of that came from the Mongolian concept of reincarnation. But it’s an outsider’s story.  It’s based upon the idea that a dog, being a disinterested character, would make judgments about the world he sees. And how maybe people could improve their lives if they just thought a little more about the implications of their actions.”

When Stein wrote the novel, he notes, “I was racing in a class of spec cars, so all the cars are the same. The trick with that is – we have to improve the driver. In the paddock, we would all talk about how do we get a better mental approach to racing, so we could be faster as a driver — because our cars were pretty much the same. And out of that came all these things in the book. Your car goes where your eyes go. All these sorts of lessons we apply on the track. And my friends and I would sit around and say – if we could apply the rules that make you better as a race car driver to our own personal lives, we’d be really good people. We wouldn’t care about something that’s already happened on a racetrack – it’s already happened, you can’t change that.  You can only change what’s in front of you. So you can’t waste any energy thinking about it, or feeling bad about it, or judging other people about it. It’s done. It doesn’t matter how I got here. This is where I am on the racetrack. How do I improve my position?  And so the idea of Enzo transitioning that to the human condition — that was the trick of it. Where it came from, I don’t know, Enzo taught me that.”

Garth Stein

Stein says, “The idea of that which you manifest is before you is really about if we can approach something with the proper preparation and the proper mental state, essentially, we can make almost anything happen. It’s about making sacrifices and having discipline within ourselves to create something. On the racetrack, it’s very much a mental game. You’re driving very fast and you’re driving in a very big, sometimes very expensive, very heavy car, that could theoretically kill you at any moment. Therefore, you’re playing a mental game. And you need to have some kind of mental fortitude to understand that you have the capacity to achieve things. It’s all about preparation, mentally and physically. I think the idea applies to almost everything. Sports is a terrific metaphor for art. The luckier you are, the better you are, the luckier you get.”

Bomback says the metaphor behind The Art Of Racing In The Rain that speaks most to him is, “I think there’s a tendency in all of us that when things are outside of our control, to either throw up our hands or lay blame on other factors or in some way say, ‘I guess this just wasn’t meant to be.’ I think the lesson that Enzo learns, that Denny has internalized but is struggling to abide by because he’s thrown so many obstacles, is that ultimately the rain is only what you let it be.  And to what extent can you apply your own will and take a situation that is out of your control and bring it around to where you ultimately want to go.”

Curtis says it’s about a “Sense of wonder and being positive.  Luck happens to people who create their own luck. Some things you can’t control in life, but it’s not a bad feeling. I think the central dilemma in this film is for Enzo and Denny to apply to complex real life the lessons they’ve learned on the racetrack. Enzo has watched this Mongolian documentary and that’s helpful – because he’s not that sad at the end of his life as a dog because he’s so thrilled with what’s to come.”

Ventimiglia says, “We never know what our life is going to look like. We can dream and imagine, but we don’t really know what it’s going to be until we’re in it, right then it’s happening. You can prepare, but you can’t plan for these things until they happen. The idea of rain – you know it’s coming, but you don’t exactly know when. The idea that you have to be present and you have to try and almost dream a little bit ahead so you can have a level of reaction.  Denny talks about racing in the rain, and how if he creates the circumstances that he’s in, then he can control it, because the rain is an unknown factor. If you’re fighting against it, it’s going to win. But if you’re using it to create your own conditions, then you can control the outcome.”

He notes, “There’s a lot of Enzo’s philosophy that we characters don’t get exposed to because we’re not hearing the narration. But when you read the script and the book, you see this hopeful way of looking at humanity through the eyes of an animal that wants so badly to be human, you start to understand the power of impact that we have as people. You can change direction and hopefully you can be more empathetic and understanding of what someone is going through. And hopefully, you can be more emboldened to be a better person, be compassionate, good and loving. You have a choice. I think there’s a lot to learn from Enzo’s view into the world and his desire to want to be a good person in his next life. It’s encouraging. And exciting. I feel like that is Enzo’s sole desire, to experience life with opposable thumbs and not a flat tongue. But it’s also an opportunity for Enzo to do what’s right. He says he will imprint on his soul the experiences that he has so he can carry it on to the next. And I think that’s one of the valuable things we need to understand so we can impact and make a difference. We really can change the course of someone’s day or potentially someone’s life. It’s exciting to know that that sits in the heart and soul of an animal.”

Producer Patrick Dempsey says, “There’s a mindfulness in sport. It’s Zen and it’s like whatever you’re thinking, whether you’re conscious of that or not, it will manifest itself physically in front of you. You can kind of control your own destiny that way. I think that’s the brilliance in this novel and what Garth really was exploring as a writer. And I think it’s so true in life.  Especially in the world that we’re in right now, it’s really important messaging. The metaphor for ‘racing in the rain’ is that there’s a spirituality, a philosophy, a religion in racing. It’s not really the battle with your competitor, it’s the battle with yourself. And that hits all of us, it’s a universal message.”

“There’s a tone in this film that the world needs right now,” says director Simon Curtis. “It’s about human connection and kindness and doing the right thing and I think in this time we live in it’s all very good to hear that. “It’s a love letter to family, it’s a love letter to animals and it’s a love letter to optimism.”

“It’s a story you may know,” says Milo Ventimiglia. “It’s an emotion you may feel when you look at your own pet’s eyes and you see them beaming back at you.  It makes you feel good about being a human, about being a person.  And hopefully, it spreads a positive message in the world when there’s a lot of negativity out there. I’m grateful to be a part of a project that is inherently good and is promoting good.”