They say a dog is a man’s best friend, but what if the man is a total dirtbag? In that case, it might be time for some sweet revenge, doggy style. When Reggie (Will Ferrell), a naïve, relentlessly optimistic Border Terrier, is abandoned on the mean city streets by his lowlife owner, Doug (Will Forte; The Last Man on Earth, Nebraska), Reggie is certain that his beloved owner would never leave him on purpose.
But once Reggie falls in with a fast-talking, foul-mouthed Boston Terrier named Bug (Oscar® winner Jamie Foxx), a stray who loves his freedom and believes that owners are for suckers, Reggie finally realizes he was in a toxic relationship and begins to see Doug for the heartless sleazeball that he is. Determined to seek revenge, Reggie, Bug and Bug’s pals—Maggie (Isla Fisher; Now You See Me, Wedding Crashers), a smart Australian Shepherd who has been sidelined by her owner’s new puppy, and Hunter (Randall Park; Always Be My Maybe, Aquaman), an anxious Great Dane who’s stressed out by his work as an emotional support animal—together hatch a plan and embark on an epic adventure to help Reggie find his way home … and make Doug pay by biting off the appendage he loves the most.
The celebrate the release of the Red Band Trailer for Strays, I had the chance to chat with the film’s director Josh Greenbaum (director of Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar) about finding the heart of the story within all the crudeness, directing dogs in real life, and some casting surprises that he’s excited for people to see!
Nick: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat today, Josh! It’s a pleasure to meet you!
Josh Greenbaum: Nice to meet you as well!
Nick: In preparation for chatting with you today, I went back and rewatched Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar last night! And I’m curious to know when the project of Strays first came to you? Was it pre-Barb and Star, or was it after the movie became a comedy hit?
Josh Greenbaum: Yeah, great question! It’s the latter to answer it quickly! It was after Barb and Star, and we were still in the pandemic. So, I was reading a lot of scripts, looking for what the next thing would be. Of course, entertaining sequel ideas for Barb and Star with Kristen [Wiig] and Annie [Mumulo], which we love doing! We just come up with places they could go to that rhyme with their names!
But, this came across shortly after Barb and Star was released, and I read the log line about a talking dog comedy about a dog who wants revenge on his neglectful owner by biting off his dick! And I put that right to the top of the pile. Like I needed to read it at least. To be honest, my expectation was not super high and I’m guessing I know this is, it’s probably a spoof dog movie.
I was so pleasantly surprised to see that it wasn’t that at all. Of course, there’s a couple of key moments that send up that dog-movie genre, which I’m a huge fan and grew up on. I love Homeward Bound! I mean, who doesn’t? But the script really worked in its own right, and that was great.
I think the other thing that really made me lean into this project was that it had quite a lot of depth. It was written from a place about being in an unhealthy, toxic relationship, and how you get through that, and how friends help you get through that. I want it to be fun, outrageous and make you laugh – that’s rule number one! But if it can also be about something more universal and more emotional, I can latch on to that.
Nick: I think the moment in the trailer I saw a great mix of that humour and emotion was the “Fetch and Fuck” scene. It was funny, but heartbreaking at the same time.
Josh Greenbaum: Oh yeah. I think the best comedies can sucker punch you because you’re not expecting it. You know, you sit back and watch an emotional drama and you’re sort of ready for it. Whereas comedy, you’re coming in ready to laugh, and then you can get blindsided by a dramatic or emotional moment. As a filmmaker, I love the ability to do that! I think it enables the comedy to pop.
If you’re emotionally invested in a story and characters, jokes are especially funnier if they’re born out of the character you’re invested in. The most excited I was about this film was during our early previews and I guess you would call it our climatic sequence of the film, got a rousing round of applause and cheers. Which as a filmmaker – we were all looking around at each other saying: “Oh, this is working”! And I would say that only works if you’re emotionally invested.
Nick: I’m guessing that emotional investment comes a lot through the performances too. And you’ve got Will Ferrell and Jamie Foxx in this cast – is there anyone else audiences can look forward to hearing? Are there any fun surprises waiting for us?
Josh Greenbaum: Definitely, there are some fun surprises that I do not want to reveal, including some human cameos that are quite out there. You don’t see them coming! But, I mean, we have such an amazing cast. Obviously, with Will and Jamie, I couldn’t ask for anyone better to anchor the film around, and they have never been in a movie together until now!
And I think a part of what excited them about the movie is that I wanted to bring them, plus Isla Fisher and Randall Park as the core cast, in the room together doing as much of the voiceover work together as much as possible. Normally, you don’t get to do that way with animation. Traditionally, you might read the lines by yourself or opposite the director and that’s it. Why would we do that when we have these wonderful actors who can feed off each other and improvise? I did as much of that as I could, and Will and Jamie’s chemistry is really amazing. But, yes, there’s plenty of pop-up and voice camoes that you will see.
Nick: I’m so intrigued to know what it was like in those recording sessions with those comedic talents. Is there a certain level of freedom you just give actors like that when they’re all in that room together?
Josh Greenbaum: Yeah, that’s why you hire those people, in my opinion. My analogy is: “why buy a Ferrari if you’re only going to drive it 30 miles-per-hour”? No! Let it go! That’s a terrible analogy, I’m not a car guy [laughs].
Nick: Don’t worry, neither am I!
Josh Greenbaum: The truth is though, it’s a fantastic script that we really worked hard on. There’s a tonne of jokes that we’ve written, but at the end of the day I always just wanted to let them play and see the amazing magic come out of that. And not even just for the comedic parts. If there is an emotional speech that Will’s giving, I’ll often have him improvise and put it in his own words because it just comes out all the more real, and textured, and natural.
Nick: I guess on the flip side of directing in the recording booth, you also have to direct the film in the real world, with real dogs! I actually have no idea what the process is for you as a director as to how you film with real dogs, and still utilise the CGI elements. Can you talk me through the process and challenges, but also the excitement of filming with dogs?
Josh Greenbaum: I mean, I love dogs. I’ve always had dogs. I actually adopted one of the dogs from the movie that played Reggie! I have twin daughters and they wanted to name him Reggie.
I have to admit, I was in the same shoes as you before making this! I was wondering how we were going to do this. But, my North Star early on was that I knew I wanted to utilise real dogs as much as possible, with the headline of making sure it was as safe and fun as possible for the dogs. A big part of my first step was getting the right trainers, getting the right kind of people on set who can make sure we’re always looking out for their welfare.
And then, whenever something was not achievable with a dog, whether the dog was unable to do it or it was remotely unsafe, we then just went with a full CG dog. But, luckily we had to rely on that very little because the trainers are so amazing. Many of the lead dogs were rescues, and they really achieved a lot.
Each character has about three or four dogs that play that one dog. Granted, you’ll have one dog playing the character, like, 95% of the time. You just may have one dog that can do something special like jumping on to a box or something like that.
The name of the game was patience. The challenge wasn’t getting the dogs to do this elaborate thing. In fact, most of the time, I just wanted to film them in these cool wide shots to get them all in doing their thing, and not just a whole bunch of single shots. That made my life infinitely more difficult, but we pulled it off and it was great. It’s such a cool and interesting vibe on set because there’s just dogs everywhere. They’re hanging out with the grips and stuff, and it made this very warm, familial energy. Not all sets are like that!
Thank you to Josh Greenbaum for his time, and to Universal Pictures for setting up our chat! The Red Band trailer for Strays is now available to watch, and the film releases in Australian cinemas June 8.
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