“Strays” might be the most unexpectedly uproarious comedy of the year. And it’s even more satisfying because the words “R-rated dog comedy” probably don’t instill much hope.
And yet, here we are.
It starts to make more sense when you consider that the director behind the project is Josh Greenbaum, who directed 2021’s hilarious “Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar” (and who before that directed “Too Funny to Fail,” one of the funniest documentaries you’re ever likely to see). And because it stars Will Ferrell and Jamie Foxx as the voice of two dogs who are on a quest (along with their dog pals voiced by Randall Park and Ilsa Fisher) to bring violent revenge to Ferrell’s former owner (Will Forte).
As to how Greenbaum wound up with “Strays,” which is in theaters now, he was sent a pitch email with pretty much the logline above and a “GIF of a small dog humping a larger dog,” which shot it to the top of his reading list. But he was also worried it was going to be a spoof, “where we take the genre and we make fun of the genre.” To his surprise, the script by Dan Perrault (creator of Netflix’s true crime send-up “American Vandal”) was full of warmth and depth. “As a filmmaker you want your film to be about something more than just jokes,” Greenbaum said.
When he finally met with Perrault, Greenbaum said, he was surprised to learn about the script’s origins. “The script was born less out of for him wanting to make fun of dog movies, but actually more it was an interesting metaphor for being in a toxic relationship and how you deal with that and how your friends help you through it and how you find your own sense of self-worth,” Greenbaum explained. In the same way that “Toy Story” isn’t just a movie about toys, Greenbaum said, “I was sort of hoping that our film, yes, it has dogs, but it’s really not about dogs, even though there’s a lot of that in there.”
Rounding out Greenbaum’s pack were producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who have gamely traversed both animation (with projects like this summer’s “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse”) and live-action (they produced “Cocaine Bear” and directed “21 Jump Street” among many others). “Strays” arrived at around the time that Lord and Miller were setting up shop at Universal. “I had not worked with them prior, but we very quickly saw in each other a kind of kinship and similar spirit,” Greenbaum said. “They also have the same kind of work ethic I share, which I love, which is like we just never stopped writing, which is the unique aspect of this movie.”
Like an animated feature, they just kept iterating. “We kept rewriting ideas and bringing Will and Jamie into the voiceover booth and trying new jokes out and trying new things out,” Greenbaum said. They only stopped when they had to turn shots over for VFX.
Not that everything was so high tech. When Greenbaum was casting the movie, which was after photography had already started, he used a relatively low-tech solution to see if the actors he was thinking about were right for the role. “There’s a very cheap app on your phone that you can like take a picture of your dog, and then talk and then it will animate very cheaply its mouth,” Greenbaum said. “I was doing this for a month where I would take audio from like Will Ferrell movie or a Jamie Foxx movie and I would actually put it in this app and just see a very rough version of like, pairing Jamie with his Boston Terrier character, just see how it affected me.”
It was a rough approximation but it was enough to go on. For Greenbaum, Ferrell “embodied the very sweet, naïve” character in “Strays,” and with Jamie Foxx he wanted to tap into his earlier comedic performances. Greenbaum pushed for the actors to record together – not just Ferrell and Foxx but the entire pack, with Fisher and Park joining in when they could. “I came at it from a live-action director being like, ‘Why wouldn’t my actors be acting opposite each other?’ They loved it. I let them overlap and improvise and just bring it to life.”
If there’s a question of how much Greenbaum loved and appreciated his four-legged actors, it turns out that the director adopted one of his stars. There’s a moment at the beginning of the movie when Will Ferrell’s dog, Reggie, is seen as a scraggly little puppy. And Greenbaum adopted the puppy. “He’s in the cardboard box when Will Forte first gets him with his girlfriend.”
“And that dog needed a home after so I adopted him and brought him home to my daughters and my wife and now I live with Will Ferrell in my house,” Greenbaum said. Although with any luck his real-life counterpart doesn’t take after the movie version of Reggie. “I hope he’s not trying to bite my dick off, I guess my fingers are crossed that he’s not watching the movie and learning anything,” Greenbaum said.
“Strays” is in theaters now.
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