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Strays: Exclusive Interview with Director Josh Greenbaum

The profound, deep friendships featured in canine cinema have long made the genre a beloved classic among families – until the dogs decide to revolt against their owners and instead pledge their loyalty to other pets who also no longer feel appreciated by humans. The titular dogs in the upcoming adventure comedy, Strays, are subverting audience expectations by banding together to carry out revenge on the people who wronged them.

Strays‘ screenwriter, Dan Perrault has long reveled in upending audience expectations by creating such edgy, comedies as American Vandal and Players. His latest script immediately captured the attention of dJosh Greenbaum, who appreciated that the narrative features a more aggressive side of man’s best friend, while also crafting characters who embark on a realistic, relatable emotional journey.

Strays follows Reggie (Will Ferrell), a relentlessly optimistic Border Terrier who’s abandoned on the mean city streets by his uncaring owner, Doug (Will Forte). However, the naïve Reggie is certain that his beloved owner would never leave him on purpose.

But Reggie soon meets a fast-talking, foul-mouthed a Boston Terrier named Bug (Jamie Foxx), a stray who loves his freedom and believes that owners are for weaker dogs. Once the two dogs become friends, Reggie finally realizes he was in a toxic relationship with Doug, and sees the human for the heartless person that he truly is.

Determined to get revenge on Doug, Reggie seeks help from Bug and Bug’s friends – Maggie (Isla Fisher), a smart Australian Shepherd who has been sidelined by her owner’s new puppy, and Hunter (Randall Park), an anxious Great Dane who’s stressed out by his work as an emotional support animal. Together, they develop a plan and embark on an epic adventure to help Reggie find his way home and make Doug pay for his callous behavior.

Greenbaum generously took the time last week to talk about helming and producing Strays during an exclusive interview over Zoom. The filmmaker spoke about making the feature to help promote its release next weekend.

Photo by Universal Pictures - © Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Q: You directed the new adventure comedy, Strays, which was written by Dan Perrault. What was it about the script that convinced you to helm the film, and how did you approach your directorial duties throughout the production?

JG: It was several things. I remember getting sent a bunch of scripts for the weekend after coming off my last movie, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, and I was trying to figure out what my next movie would be.

My agent sent me five scripts that weekend, and I remember reading the logline for this one, which said: “A naïve, sweet dog Reggie gets abandoned and wants to get revenge by biting his owner’s d*ck off.” I thought, that sounds totally absurd, but it definitely peaks my interest.

But in all honesty, I think I assumed that it was just going to be a spoof movie, and it wasn’t going to be another dog movie. There are a bunch of spoofs in the dog genre.

I love a good dog spoof, but it’s not really my thing. I tend to want a stronger narrative and an emotional center.

But I finally got around to reading the wonderful script for this film by Dan Perrault that weekend. At the time, it was called Stray, and I later pitched that we call it Strays for various reasons. I was really taken aback by how it functioned on its own as its own story, and it also had heart and depth. I also liked that it had the fun, raunchy R-rated jokes and dog jokes, and we certainly spoofed the dog genre.

As a script, it also functioned as a story on its own, and it was really about something. I realized in a way that it wasn’t a dog movie, but was about toxic relationships and how to get out of them, as well as how your friends can help you through them. It’s also about how you can find your self worth.

That’s what I locked into. Then I started thinking about films like Stand by Me and Breaking Away.

Also, I was thinking about how 40-Year-OldVirgin. What I love about it is that it’s a very loud concept. Before I saw it, I thought that it was just going to be a silly sex comedy about how a guy has somehow never had sex. But the way it was handled and executed with such emotional honesty was certainly inspiring. So I thought a lot about that.

So I stopped thinking about dog films and started thinking about human films, R-rated films and comedies that were inspirations in the same way that I wanted to attack this film.

I was also excited to be able to do something new. As a filmmaker, you always want to be the first in the door doing something new, or takie something that has been done a lot and putt a whole new spin on it. So it was very exciting for me to think about how no one has taken the traditional dog genre and done it in an adult way.

Q: Like you mentioned, there has been a resurgence in dog-centered movies in recent years. How did you incorporate the humor into the canine bonding element of Strays’ storyline?

JG: It was interesting. I would almost describe my set as two phases; I had the on-set performances that we captured with the dogs, and then we also had the on-set performances in the recording booth with Will Ferrell, Jamie Foxx, Isla Fisher and Randall Park. So it was a bit of both.

On set, I was blown away by the performances that the trainers were able to illicit out of the dogs. The trainers were able to get actual emotions conveyed through the dogs’ performances. The trainer who worked with Reggie was able to train the dog to have six or seven walks. He also had different speeds to which he walked. He was also trained to pounce or prance with his tail wagging, as well as move his head low or high.

Each of those movements conveyed a different emotion. You don’t think about that with dogs. But when humans do that, you read all the nuances of the way they’re walking and moving to tell us a thousand things. You need the same things with the dogs, so I was blown away with the nuance of the performances they were able to deliver on set.

Then once we got into the voice-over booth with Will, Jamie and everyone, I asked and semi-insisted that they all be in the room together, and they did. Will and Jamie did all their sessions together. Then I also had Will, Jamie, Isla and Randall do all their sessions together. That not only created a ton of comedy, as you could imagine, as they’re the funniest people in the world, but it also created raw, emotional moments.

Coming from the live-action world, I was surprised that the traditional process for animation is that actors go in on their own, read their lines with a director and then leave. I’m not a professional actor, so I was like, “Why don’t we get you all together?”

That’s certainly where a lot of the comedy happened. A lot of the emotions happened during those scenes, as well. One of those scenes was when Reggie and Bug have a fight, and Will and Jamie went at it. It felt real and was emotional and raw. Having them play off of each other was the path to getting the emotional through-line feel real and effective.

Photo by Universal Pictures - © Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Q: The comedy’s main characters are the titular stray dogs, and the story interweaves live-action and animated sequences together, like you just mentioned. How did you work with the film’s VFX department to create the animals’ interactions?

JG:The bulk of the performances in the film – about 95 percent – is real dogs, besides making them talk. That was important to me because I really wanted to capture naturalistic dog behavior. We know dogs well, and many of us live with dogs. I’ve lived with dogs my whole life, and I even adopted one of the dogs from the movie. So I now have two dogs living with me.

So I wanted the performances to feel as realistic as possible. But occasionally there would be moments where we weren’t able to get a dog to do something, or it wasn’t safe. Anytime it was remotely unsafe, including a sequence in the film involving an eagle, of course we go to a full CG dog at that moment.

But I really tried to lean on the natural performance of the dogs. I think as an adult audience, if you have an over amorphized performance, that will take adults out of the story. Kids will just go with it if it’s silly and cartoonish. But I think adult audiences, obviously to which this film is targeted towards, are more aware to it. I never wanted you to have moments of being pulled out of the story, as something feels unrealistic.

The more they felt like real dogs to me, the funnier it got. They look like real dogs delivering these lines and having these thoughts, and the combination of those two create instant comedy for me. So that was a lot of the balancing act.

There was certainly times when my incredible VFX team went above and beyond having the dogs talk. There’s even a performance in the manner in which they talk. We thought about how Will Ferrell and Jamie Foxx would deliver their lines, and how we could convey that with a dog’s mouth. So there were a lot of conversations around that.

Occasionally, we did add subtle eyebrow movements and things like that to help the emotions set in. I was pleasantly surprised at how much we were able to convey with just the dogs’ performances themselves.

Q: Besides helming Strays, you also served as a producer on the feature. You were joined by fellow producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who have also worked on other high-profile comedies and animated movies. What were your relationships with Phil and Chris like while you were producing Strays together?

JG: We had an amazing team of producers on the film. Phil Lord and Chris Miller are the absolute best at what they do. They do a couple of things that I love. Whenever we would talk about this film, we would primarily talk about the heart, story and emotion. The jokes are the fun part, but the bulk of our focus was always on the storytelling, emotion and heart.

So I think that’s why they’ve had such a strong track record as producers.  They’re incredibly funny filmmakers and people, but they also always remember to keep encouraging the teams on their projects to go after the heart. That’s pretty much the same way that I approach my filmmaking, so that was fantastic.

We also had Erik Feig and PictureStart on board the film. He’s the guy who had the brilliant idea to start this whole thing. He heard the pitch from Dan Perrault and said “Yes, let’s do it.” So I give a lot of credit to Erik to have the instinct to say “Yes, I think this is a great movie.”

We also had Louis Leterrier, who worked on the latest Fast and the Furious and does some amazing action movies, also serve as a producer on our film. We was so amazing and wonderful to work with on this film.

He had his own splinter unit, which was very helpful. We had three or four dogs for each of the four main roles. So Louis could take four of the dogs and go do wide shots while I worked on close-ups. So it was a really wonderful, fun and creative team overall.

Another fun thing about this film was that we never stopped writing and working on it. Since it is more of an animation process, so while we were in post, we could continue writing new lines and jokes, as well as trying new things. That was new to me because I come from the live-action side of filmmaking, where whatever you shot on set is the only thing you have. So that was very exciting!

Photo by Universal Pictures - © Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Strays will open exclusively in theaters, courtesy of Universal Pictures, this Friday, August 18.

Check out more of Karen Benardello’s articles.

Karen Benardello
Karen Benardello
As a life-long fan of films and television shows, and an endless passion for writing, Karen Benardello decided to combine the two for a career. She graduated from New York's LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic in 2008. Karen has since been working in the press in New York City, including interviewing film and television casts and crews, writing movie and television news articles and reviewing films and televisions series. Some of her highlights include attending such local events as the Tribeca Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and New York Comic-Con, as well as traveling across North America to attend such festivals as the Sundance Film Festival, SXSW and the Toronto International Film Festival. She has been a member of the Women Film Critics Circle since 2012, and the New York Film Critics Online since 2019.


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