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. R-rated comedy Strays featuring the voices of Will Ferrell and Jamie Foxx is here to shake up the summer blockbuster season and to mark the occasion FILMHOUNDS sat down with director Josh Greenbaum (Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar) about his new comedy Strays.
First of all congratulations on your hilarious new film Strays. What was it that attracted you to helm a project about an R-rated talking dog movie?
I’m excited by projects that push the boundaries. Growing up as a kid I loved films like Homeward Bound which had talking dogs and I thought it would be a fun opportunity to take a genre that’s usually for kids and turn it into something fresh and that adults could enjoy. It’s also a film that has something to say about friendship and toxic relationships and how your friends can be the ones that help you get out of an unhealthy relationship. So even though it was a funny talking dog movie it still had something heartfelt at the centre which drew me in and hopefully audiences will appreciate it too.
Your previous film Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar was sadly affected by the pandemic and didn’t make it to cinemas. How does it feel to see your first feature film being distributed cinematically?
It’s great. It’s certainly a proud moment for me as a filmmaker but with comedies you really want people to see it as part of a crowd and when we filmed Barb and Star we we were getting ready to show it to the world and then the pandemic hit and the rest is history. We still had a great audience response for Barb and Star but it’s awesome to hear that this film is having a positive response in a collective shared space like the movie theatre. It’s a film where you want to laugh along with others.
Well, I watched the film in a screening with maybe 8 journalists and despite the small number of people, there was still a lot of loud laughter and audible cringey moans. I can certainly attest it’s a movie you will want to watch with many people as possible.
What would say was the biggest challenge of working on a film where most of your cast are real-life canines?
I didn’t want to buy into the old adage that you should never work with children or animals. Even though I knew it was going to be difficult, I very much wanted to do as much filming with actual dogs as possible. Even though CGI dogs were an option, I wanted the film to look as organic as possible and so I insisted we did it as much of it for real. And it certainly was tough having four dogs all sharing a frame and getting all of them to move or react the way you want them to. Comedy is all about timing and sometimes even humans don’t get it right – imagine how difficult it is with multiple animals. Some of the simplest shots would take ages to get right. But it makes it all the more rewarding when you see the final result.
I mean, if you can get the shot for real you might as well right? That’s very Christopher Nolan of you. And I have to say some of the dog acting in this film would be absolutely worthy of the Palm Dog prize at Cannes.
[Laughs] Well, thank you. We have the trainers to thank for that. They were the real wizards on set. We spent a lot of time with the trainers communicating what was going on with the dogs in each scene. They did a great job of getting the dogs to do a variety of reactions and movements for each scene. It wasn’t until later that we got the voice work from actors so we had to find the best take to match the funniest delivery of each line.
Speaking of the voice work, some of Will Ferrell’s lines felt very… Will Ferrell. A ittle bit Buddy-the-Elf you might say. Was there a lot of improvisation in the recording booth?”
Oh yeah. When you’ve got a comedy genius like Will Ferrell you don’t want to put a leash on his talents. There was space to play around and we encouraged the actors to improvise. At the end of the day, we wanted to make the funniest film possible and sometimes you get gold in a moment that is completely unscripted”.
R-rated comedies are few and far to see in cinemas these days. Was there any pressure from the studio on you, screenwriter Dan Perrault or producers Lord and Miller to make the film more accessible or family-friendly?
Not really. There wasn’t any pushback from the studio which we were very grateful for. You have to remember the studio that made this was Universal and they have green-lit some of the best R-rated comedies like so many of Judd Apatow’s films, Bridesmaids, The King of Staten Island and Bros. They were very supportive from the start and allowed me to make the movie I wanted. There were times on set when we were pushing the boundaries and I had to ask myself; are we going too far? Are we going far enough? Like with the mushroom scene or the scene with the keys at the pound. But it’s a comedy, you have to find where that line is and thankfully Universal never stopped us from exploring and finding it.
And finally, if you could describe Strays in three words what would you say?
I’d say wild, audacious and heartfelt.
Strays is released in U.K. cinemas nationwide on August 17th.