In 2007, Jason Gann expanded his short film into an Australian TV series called "Wilfred," which followed Gann's title character as he wrecked havoc in the life of Adam, a hapless suitor for his owner, Sarah. To clarify, Wilfred is a dog, who appeared as a man in a cheap dog suit to Adam. But to everyone else, Wilfred was just an ordinary dog. The original series lasted for 16 episodes before FX picked up the rights for an American remake.
Beginning on Thursday, June 23, Gann will reprise his role on the new "Wilfred" series, with "Lord of the Rings" star Elijah Wood stepping in as Ryan, the potential boyfriend of Wilfred's beautiful owner Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann). Earlier today, Gann and Wood spoke to the press about the show and answered our questions about the genesis of the project and what we can expect from the upcoming season.
Q: Elijah, we imagine you get offered a lot of TV roles. Why did you pick this one?
Elijah Wood: (laughs) I actually don't get offered a lot of TV roles! I had read a few scripts, mainly dramas and I was just interested in taking a look at television. I had really never seen what was available and what people were making on television. It's changed so much, even in the last five years. I remember I read this script , it was the last script that I was sent and my manager said to me that it was the funniest script she'd ever read. I read it and it kind of blew my mind. It was unlike anything I had read or seen on television. You know, extremely funny and also cerebral and strange and difficult to describe, which I think is always a good thing.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your characters on the show?
Jason Gann: Wilfred is [a] dog. The world sees a dog, though Ryan sees a man in a cheap dog suit who smokes bongs and pretty much terrorizes him. But you know, we sort of think that maybe after a while, Wilfred is [Ryan's] angel and devil on his shoulder, giving him advice and trying to bring him back into the real world. That's Wilfred's character. Elijah?
Elijah Wood: Yeah, Ryan is essentially a guy who follows a path that was ultimately not of his choosing for far too long. He listened to his family, he listened to his father and he did what he thought everyone else wanted him to do instead of following his own interests. As a result of that, in the pilot we find him in a place where he's essentially hit a wall. And it's made him suicidal. He's kind of a broken individual. He's someone who hasn't really busted out of himself to live freely and live with confidence to define himself. Ultimately, that's when Wilfred arrives. He arrives in that moment of crisis to push Ryan outside of the self imposed and family imposed boundaries that have been created around him.
Q: How many episodes did you film and how long many episodes will there be in the first season?
Jason Gann: We filmed 13 and there shall be 8.
Elijah Wood: (laughs) There are eight episodes, but they're eight really good ones.
Jason Gann: (laughs) Yeah, there's 13.
Q: How is this version of "Wilfred" different from the Australian original?
Jason Gann: In November of this year, it will have been ten years since I wrote the seven minute short film that went to festivals around the world. That seven minute short was already very popular. In that short, we had essentially set up the premise. So for the Australian series, we just used the first seven minutes in the pilot as the first seven minutes of the show. We didn't really go into the psychology of the show or of the relationship between the guy and the dog. There was no background story for the guy. We didn't go into his psychology at all. It was really a love triangle between the guy and the dog and the girl.
Whereas, this show is a buddy comedy even though it does have love triangle elements in it. But each episode is about Ryan, and Wilfred kind of drives the stories and the audience are constantly left to argue with each other or with themselves as to whether this is all happening inside Ryan's mind. Or are we going crazy? What's really going on? In the Australian version, we just kind of said "the guy can see the dog." We said it in the first minute of the show and just ran on with it. And the Australian show had more of a British kind of sensibility and the style of "The Young Ones" or "The Mighty Boosh" where this series is a bit more abstract and absurdist. So, this show goes into the psychology more and it's smarter.
Q: What are your favorite scenes that you filmed so far?
Jason Gann: Elijah, go on.
Elijah Wood: Uh… No. Not off the top of my head. Do you have one ready?
Jason Gann: Yeah. Elijah, yours is the one on the roof. (laughs) I won't speak for Elijah, but we had a lot of fun on the roof in the rain. I think my favorite scene is in the strip club.
Elijah Wood: The roof argument was a lot of fun, that's true. That was also something I was really looking forward to from reading it in the script and ultimately shooting it because it's so ridiculously heightened. I don't know, there are so many sequences that we would approach everyday. I swear to God, everyday coming to work I approached it with so much excitement because everyday there was something that we were trying to shoot and bring to life. We're really insanely lucky to work with such wonderful scripts. Our writers and everyone together created such finely layered, very interesting and hilarious scripts that were on a constant level everyday. It's difficult to pick one sequence out in particular.
Jason Gann: Strip club scene.
Elijah Wood: (laughs)
Q: Wilfred is Ryan's coping mechanism. How do you guys deal with stress? Who do you see and talk to?
Jason Gann: I don't know if you really want to go there. (laughs) I'm sort lucky in that for me, I'm a writer now. I started as an actor but I'm a writer and so things like "Wilfred' and shows like that are where I escape to. The last few years I've had to force myself to go out and be more involved the world because I can get a bit more cerebral and escape into characters and the world of characters. But now I guess I escape into stories about Wilfred.
Elijah Wood: Coping mechanism… I don't know. I think we all deal with stress on a day-to-day basis. I probably smoke too many cigarettes, which isn't a very good thing. I don't have any extraordinary coping mechanism. I certainly don't talk to a dog.
Q: Elijah, how did your family react to the news about your new show? Are they looking forward to it?
Elijah Wood: (laughs) My family and friends were very intrigued at the notion and the premise of the show. Since we did the shooting and we had to do a number of promos before we actually went into production. But they started to air while we were shooting, which gave people a real sense of what we were trying to do. Since those have come out, a lot of family and friends have seen them [and] everyone is looking forward to it. They're excited and intrigued, as they should be!
Jason Gann: (laughs) They said "Elijah, we will always love you, regardless of what you do."
Elijah Wood: "Listen, no matter what decision you make, or how sick this is, we're proud of you either way." (laughs)
Jason Gann: Up to this point, it's been great.
Elijah Wood: "It's been great and I'm sure you'll make other great decisions later as well."
Jason Gann: "If you get a second chance." I wasn't really there for that conversation, that was imagined. That question wasn't even directed to me. I hijacked it.
Elijah Wood: You did! It was a hijack.
Q: Our first thought about "Wilfred" is that it's very similar to James Stewart's "Harvey." Obviously, "Wilfred" is also very different from that as well. But did you pull from any films or TV shows when you were creating this series?
Jason Gann: Personally, it is a lot of life experiences that poured into the creation of the Wilfred character. But since the "Harvey" reference was brought up, that wasn't in our minds when we first created the character in the Australian version. But it's interesting, I had a thought then about how Jimmy Stewart and about what I loved about him as an actor and how he brings an incredible authenticity to his characters… a unique authenticity that we as an audience are prompted to believe in him even though we can see that there's no rabbit and we can see what everyone else is seeing. But we believe in him.
I don't want to embarrass Elijah, but I think that Elijah brings something similar. He really makes my job of playing Wilfred a lot easier, because seeing it through his eyes, it's easier to believe it. So as an audience, we're hopefully willing to suspend our disbelief.
Elijah Wood: It's interesting that you reference "Harvey," I immediately thought of that as well. I'm a huge fan of that film and I don't know how many times that I've seen it. The parallel is interesting. It's obviously similar, but it's extremely different. But that notion of an imagined friend is quite similar and I think there's something wonderful about that.
Q: Elijah, do you think that Ryan is the straight man of this show? Or is it a double comedy act between Wilfred and Ryan?
Elijah Wood: Do I feel he's a straight man? I think he is. I think that Ryan is just trying to get everything together constantly. He's essentially reacting to the world around him and the scenarios that Wilfred is trying to put him into and the direction that he's being pulled into constantly. So, straight man? Yeah, but he's also in this crisis in his life and he's just trying to hold it all together all of the time.
Having a genuine relationship with this man in a dog suit and then also trying to balance that relationship with the real people who he knows (who can't see the man in a dog suit) and in the midst of that trying to rebuild himself and be the best person that he can be.
Q: Do you guys improvise a lot on the set?
Jason Gann: There's this new viral ad. I don't know if you've seen it yet, Elijah. It's the smoking one.
Elijah Wood: I saw it earlier and it turned out really good!
Jason Gann: It's really funny. We were just improvising at the end of a scene there and it ended up being like an extra… the improv there is really funny. That was when I started to think "Wow, me and Elijah now have really got something working." There hasn't been a great deal of improvisation in the script just because you have 22 minutes of television and you have to get a lot of story across. But you know, we have a bit of freedom when we're rehearsing the scene before we do it. If something begs to be tweaked and changed because we think it's really funny then it's great to have the flexibility to do that.
And also, when we're just bouncing around ideas when we're not actually shooting we get a really good idea than we can go straight into the writer's room so we can inject those ideas as we go along.
Elijah Wood: To speak to the scripts as well, they're very finely crafted scripts. They're incredibly detailed and layered, which isn't to say that there isn't room for improv. There certainly is, but there's also a lot of story to tell like Jason said, that is important to get across. And there are finely crafted jokes within that as well. So there is room to play around and Jason and I certainly have the comfortability with each other and within our characters to do that.
Q: Are we going to meet any other humans in animal suits this season or is Wilfred unique?
Jason Gann: At this point, he's unique.
Elijah Wood: Within this version. There were other animals present in the Australian iteration [of the show]. But so far in the story that we're telling, Wilfred is unique.
Q: So, we're not going to meet some girl in a cat suit at some point?
Jason Gann: The arc of the Australian series which covered two seasons of 8, there were 16 episodes in the whole series. Similar to the British "Office," it felt like it was complete at that. Whereas we have worked on this American show with a mind to be able to last longer. To see these characters really breathe and go somewhere new.
So, we've still got those cards that we're keeping to our chest at the moment. And should the show be successful and stretch out, we may bring more animals into it. But at this point, we're still discovering so much about this Ryan and Wilfred relationship that hasn't been explored yet in the Australian version. As long as that carries us there then we'll keep following that before we bring in any other canines.