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.
From Josh Greenbaum, the director of Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar, comes Strays, a wild, foul-mouthed comedy inspired by the likes of Homeward Bound and Milo and Otis, featuring the voice talents of Will Ferrell and Jamie Foxx as a duo of strays who are done being man’s best friend!
As the trailer arrives online ahead of the film’s June 8th release, Peter Gray spoke with Greenbaum about navigating such a daunting task as working with live animals, letting his actors off the leash to improvise, and how the film itself is a metaphor for the toxicity of relationships.
Prior to Strays and Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar, your background is in television and documentaries. Was there a nervousness in leaping to narrative features?
That’s a good question. Surprisingly not. I don’t want that to sound cocky (laughs), but the reason was that my original focus was narrative. I liked writing narrative, and it just so happened in film school you did a lot of narrative, and not a lot of documentaries, but my first feature was a doc (The Short Game) and that set me on this path. I love docs. I’m actually dipping my toe back in and making one right now. It’s a little less production heavy, which is nice for my schedule.
The bridging film was this documentary I made called Becoming Bond, which is about George Lazenby, and 2/3rds of that film are comedy re-enactments. Long story short, that’s how I got Barb and Star because Kristen Wiig came to a screening of Becoming Bond and told me that she loved the movie and wanted to work with me. I thought she was just saying one of those Hollywood things of, like, “I love your work” and that’s it. But a week later we were having lunch, pitching me Barb and Star. So, in a way, not too nervous, but it’s also very different when you’re working with dogs (laughs). That I was nervous about.
I was going to say maybe you had the pressure taken off (with Barb and Star) cause you just thought “It’s culottes and Jamie Dornan singing”…
(Laughs) Yeah, nothing could go wrong. I mean, there was a talking crab. Exactly.
With Strays I was unprepared for this family-friendly-looking film with these dogs, and then this cavalcade of F-bombs and dogs expressing they want to bite people’s dicks off! What was your reaction when you read Dan Perrault’s script?
It’s funny, I got sent a bunch of scripts, and I read the little logline of “This dog wants to get revenge on his owner by biting his owner’s dick off”, and I knew that was moving straight to the top of the pile (laughs). I just thought it’s crazy and it’s loud, and if it’s good I’m very excited. To be honest, I was going into reading it thinking I knew what it was. That it was going to be a spoof and have some funny jokes, and that’ll be it. So I wound up loving that it was super funny, and that it took the idea of a movie like Homeward Bound and turned it upside down and subverted it without being a spoof. The movie holds up on its own. The real thing that hooked me in was that underneath all the super loud, funny comedy was a real emotional story. Dan had written it kind of based off his own experience of being in an unhealthy, toxic relationship, and how do you work your way out from that? And how do you find your own sense of worth? There was all this depth I was excited by, even though on the outer packaging of it was a very loud funny (film). Then I was all in. We worked on the script for a year or two, and then what the actors bring to the table is a whole other layer.
Well this has got me very excited. Now I’ll be watching it wondering which dog I identify with!
(Laughs) Oh, totally! That’s the whole point. I’m very excited because I think people will just assume it’ a “dog movie” and that it’ll send that genre up. The movie isn’t about dogs. It’s about people. It’s about us. And the feedback from my friends and family at preview screenings has been exactly that of “Who do you identify with?” It’s really a metaphor for relationships and friendships. I hope that we can talk again after the movie comes out and I can find out who you identified with (laughs).
(Producers) Phil Lord and Chris Miller feel like they have cornered the market on letting artists express their vision quite freely – however broad that is. How much freedom did you have in just letting this idea go as far as it needed to go?
I mean, pretty freeing. It was great to be in that place, and, you’re right, Phil and Chris do that better than anyone. Not that they don’t also direct, but they have become such mega-producers, and I think they’re so successful in producing because they’ve come from that perspective of “Let’s support our filmmakers and challenge her or him, but let them run!” They let you paint wildly and then decide later on if they need to rein it in at all. What was new to me with this project was because the mouths of the dogs aren’t animated until later, I could keep re-writing the script all through post (production). That is, of course, a blessing and a curse (laughs), but you get to keep refining and sanding down the edges. That was a really fun, freeing creative process. Sometimes I would look at footage and see what one of the dogs did and I would show it to Jamie (Foxx) or Will (Ferrell), and they would then riff on what they see. And then vice-versa in that they might be improvising and I would have to go hunting for dog footage to achieve the joke or the line they did. It was a really cool, unique process. Somewhere between animation and traditional live-action.
I was going to ask about the casting. You have this incredible line-up: Jamie Foxx, Will Ferrell, Will Forte, Isla Fisher. Is there a difference in directing physically than in their recording booth?
There is. That’s a good question. That was new to me as well. I called some people (about it) and, of course, Phil and Chris have a background in animation, so I picked their brain. In a way it’s really freeing for the actors, but in some ways it’s really limiting because they’ve lost so many of their tools. What I found, pretty consistently, was that as long as they tried to be honest and grounded, even in this comedy. You can hear it if you close your eyes. You can tell a strong performance through just hearing it. A very specific thing I learned is that if they add a shoulder shrug or an eyebrow raise, that’s the stuff that doesn’t come through. You have to learn to not use your hands too much. Can you make sure it’s all just coming out of this one part of your mouth? (Laughs). On some levels it was the same process, just tweaked a little bit.
You mentioned about letting the actors riff. How much of the final film that we see on screen – if you’re allowed to say – is scripted and how much is improvised?
I never know the percentages for that, but a good amount is improvised. A very healthy amount is scripted though. The bones of the story have been very consistent throughout all its development. The essence of those characters and getting revenge and going on a journey…that’s always been there. The intricacies along the way have shifted along the way. It’s a good amount of improv, and I like improv. By the way, the reason I like improv is because it makes the actors perform better. If they don’t know what’s coming then it’s always fresh. I always try to remind my actors that it doesn’t have to always be funny either. Improv doesn’t mean make more jokes. It just might mean that you can say a certain scripted speech in your own words. By letting them have total ownership of the words, it often makes the performance stronger.
You mentioned earlier about the dogs’ mouths are done later on in post. How much of what you’re filming are actual animals? And is that difficult to work with all those animals?
(Laughs) Yeah! I have this hat on because I’m actually bald from the stress (laughs). It’s hard, yes. That’s the simple answer. To answer your first question, I would say about 95% of the film is just real dogs, and they had muzzles attached. That was always my goal from the get-go, was to constantly strive for the real thing, so long as it was safe for the animals. We hired all the right people and had the right people on set. Anytime the animal couldn’t do it or it was remotely unsafe, then we went full CG. I don’t think you’ll be able to tell when watching the film when we did that, which is great. I have to give a shout out to the Aussies there, because the company that did it all was in Australia – MPC – and I was on the phone with Australia all day long. I have a place in my heart for all the Australians who put their work into this movie.
What’s amazing is that you learn one dog can do a lot. Getting a dog to walk into a room, get from A to B, to sit down, bark, pick up a ball and walk out – which sounds really hard – trainers can get a dog to do that quite consistently. The problem with my film is that I needed that to happen, but I needed another dog to bark when he got the ball, another dog to walk in halfway through the scene, and then another one to just lay there the entire time. Once you added four dogs to every scene it became a mission.
As I said, this trailer was not what I was expecting, and I feel very confident going into a Josh Greenbaum film…
Oh, that’s very nice of you to say. I hope I don’t let you down (laughs).
I don’t think you will. Thank you so much for taking the time out, and I hope that when we chat next I can let you know which dog is my spirit animal.
I would love that. I look forward to it. It was lovely chatting with you, Peter.
Strays is scheduled for a release in Australian theatres on June 8th, 2023, with the United States to follow on June 9th.