Canine Cinema: STRAYS Takes a Bite Out of Summer Cinema

Photo courtesy Chuck Zlotnick / Universal Pictures

It was a case of plain bad timing for director Josh Greenbaum. Having directed comedy shorts, commercials, TV episodes, and streaming documentaries on a consistent basis since 2007, his first narrative feature—Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, starring Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo as a pair of eccentric best friends on a life-changing vacation—looked like it would finally get Greenbaum to the big screen. Then came the pandemic, and Barb and Star went not to movie theaters, but to PVOD, as Lionsgate first delayed and then canceled its planned theatrical release. A few scattered screenings at Alamo Drafthouse locations in the fall of 2021 spoke to the film’s crowd-pleasing nature, but alas, the vast majority of the people who saw it did so from their homes.

It’s Strays, then, that will give Greenbaum his first substantial theatrical run, kicking off on August 18th courtesy of Universal. Will Ferrell, Jamie Foxx, Isla Fisher, Randall Park, and Will Forte star in this comedy about a scrappy pup (Ferrell) who teams up with fellow strays to take revenge on the owner (Forte) who abandoned him. Filmed with real dogs—CGI magic makes their mouths sync up with the dialogue—the film is a modern, adult take on the animal adventure movies of the 1980s and ’90s—but, Greenbaum promises, it’s more than just an R-rated spoof, providing “depth and emotion” in addition to its over-the-top comedy. Here, Greenbaum speaks with Boxoffice Pro about his hopes that Strays will “[push] the door a little wider open” for more theatrically released comedies.

I loved animal adventure movies when I was a kid, so I’m excited to see this one. I know animal safety was not exactly paramount on all those older sets, so I have to confirm first—no animals got hurt, right?

Definitely not. That is a cardinal sin in moviemaking. Of course not, in making [the film], but also not in the film either.

My mom will be glad to hear that—she refuses to watch any movie where it looks like a dog is in danger.

I don’t blame her. No one wants to watch that. She can go if she’s OK with a couple of inappropriate jokes.

She was my movie buddy for Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, and we both loved it, so all good there. I know it screened in a small number of theaters, but nothing near us, so we had to watch at home.

We were right in the thick of the pandemic, so it was all PVOD—and then a couple theaters reached out once they opened up. I never got to see it in a theater, sadly, with audiences, other than one of our first previews. I think Alamo Drafthouse did [some screenings]. I’ve gotten some fun texts from friends [about how] some smaller theaters are now doing some runs. [The theatrical release] was very limited, but I’m just glad that you got to see it. It was a joy to make.

It seems like it’d be such a great crowd movie. They bring Grease back to theaters all the time—I don’t see why we can’t get a sing-along Barb and Star.

I’m hoping, someday down the line. Sometimes there are those things—you know, like Lebowski Fest, where people come dressed as characters [from 1998’s The Big Lebowski]. It’d be very fun. We obviously have a couple of big musical numbers that it would be fun for people to sing along with. We’ll see. Hopefully somebody, someday.

The person wearing the best pair of culottes gets a free popcorn or something.

[Laughs.] Yes. Absolutely.

For Strays, I know you have the jokes. But a key element of those animal movies is that they were emotional terrorism for a whole generation of kids. All you needed to do was start humming the theme song from The Adventures of Milo and Otis, and my little brother would start crying. I’m sure if I watched the end of Homeward Bound today, I would bawl. How do you retool that tearjerker element?

I grew up on those films, as well. I have a very real affinity for them. Obviously, our movie is not that, but it’s very much inspired [by that type of movie]. We asked the question, “What if our dogs acted like adults?” Why do we assume that all dogs are sweet and cute? To answer your question: When I first read the [screenplay], I just sort of assumed it was a spoof. “OK, that’s a fun idea, to spoof a dog movie.” There comes a point when a genre gets so saturated that it’s ripe for satire. And I was excited to read it. That’s a clever idea, an R-rated talking-dog movie.

But the reason I fell in love with it and then committed to directing it was because I very quickly realized, in fact, it was not a spoof. It had a couple moments where we send up that genre, but in fact it was a fully formed, fully realized story on its own. It had incredible humor and jokes, but it actually had rich characters [as well]. It had an emotional core. When I finally got to meet Dan Perrault, the screenwriter, and talk with him about it, I found out [the story] was born out of an unhealthy, toxic relationship he was in. The movie in many ways is a metaphor for unhealthy relationships and how our friends can help us move on and grow from them.

That’s what I got hooked on. There’s depth and emotion beneath all of this outrageous, fun, R-rated, hilarious, over-the-top comedy. I think of it more in the vein of Superbad—or even Stand by Me. There are elements of this kind of Stand by Me bonding. A deeper story here, even though it’s dogs. That was very exciting to me, that it was a fully realized movie. Not to mention a totally outrageous, fun, loud comedy that I think will be really fun to watch in the theater—which is the whole intention of it.

I loved that about Barb and Star. It’s funny, but the friendship at the center of the film was really touching.

For me, as a filmmaker, it has to be grounded. There must be some emotional truth in comedies. The best comedies, they hopefully pull you in with all the laughs, but then they surprise you with how emotionally invested you are in the characters and the story. For me, the more emotionally invested you are, the funnier everything plays, certainly something I made sure of in Barb and Star. As you know, it’s a very off-the-rails and very silly movie, but it still had at the center of it a story about friendship and about midlife, growing up, growing older, and wondering if you still have—as [Barb and Star] were trying to find—your “shimmer.”

There’s a moment in the first season of “American Vandal,” too, which Perrault co-created, where it’s been this hilarious send-up of true crime, and then you get this gut-punch of a scene with the Jimmy Tatro character, where you realize how alone and unloved he feels.

Yes, that’s exactly right. That was there from the get-go. You have a small, tiny taste of it in the [Strays] trailer. But we’re mostly leaning on the comedy and the outrageousness, which it has in spades. I’ve had many interviewers ask me so far, “Are all the best jokes in the trailer?” I can promise you that there are three times as many jokes, many of which I like much more than [the ones in] the trailer.

What Dan has done well in “American Vandal” and his new show “Players,” and then in Strays, is exactly that: Taking something that feels like it’s probably just a spoof and comedy, and then surprising you with the level of depth and heart and emotion that it brings to its characters and to the story. That certainly is how I approached Strays, as well.

Do you have a favorite memory of seeing a comedy in the cinema?

There have been so many moments. There’s nothing I find more wonderful than being in a theater, [seeing] a comedy, where there’s this communal experience of everyone laughing together. And beyond that—everyone gasping together and everyone cheering. There’s something about that communal experience that I love, both as an audience member and then, of course, as a filmmaker. You strive to create those moments.

If I had to pick one out as an example—I live in Burbank, and I remember seeing Role Models years ago [at the AMC there]. A great comedy; nothing, like, seminal, but I love that movie. There’s a moment towards the climax of the film where they come across the ridge, and they’re all dressed up like Kiss. The whole theater I was in—and it wasn’t opening weekend or anything! It was a few weeks in—the theater erupted in applause. I remember thinking to myself, “That’s what I want to do. I want to make a film where I know that, in that key climax of the whole story, your audience is so emotionally invested that even though it may be a silly comedy, they’re actually cheering.” That’s happened a couple times, but that one stood out to me. Another one, I believe it was in college: I remember watching Office Space and having a similar reaction when they took the printer out and beat the shit out of it. With the great “Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta” sound bite.

When I was pitching directing Strays, I referenced some of these moments. I said, “There’s a climax in this film that we’re building towards”—and I don’t need to get too into the details, but if you’ve seen the trailer, you know what the potential climax is—“and whatever we do in this moment, I want to make sure it’s as iconic and epic” as some of those films I’ve referenced. I sort of jokingly also referenced Dead Poets Society, where everyone stands on their desks—these emotional, iconic moments. I’m happy to report that at our first preview—actually, all of our previews—at this big moment in Strays, the entire theater of strangers erupted in applause. And then laughter and then cheering. It was like, “Oh, it’s happening. This is my dream!” So I’m very excited to re-experience that come [summer].

Earlier in your career, you were making content mostly for the web, TV, or streaming—you may know that audiences find your stuff funny, but it has to be a completely different experience actually watching a crowd of people enjoy it.

It’s amazing. And, as you mentioned at the start of this, I unfortunately missed out on it with my first feature, which was Barb and Star. I approached Strays with the cinema and the theatrical experience in mind the entire time, because there’s nothing I love more than the theatrical experience, and I know you guys are doing your part in beating that drum as well. It’s similar to how we’ll never tire of live music, [even though] it went away during the pandemic. I don’t think we’ll ever tire of this communal theatrical experience.

My goal and hope is to get comedies back in the mix. I think about the big, wonderful blockbusters, and I love them. I know a lot of people talk badly about them, but I think they’re fantastic. I also think there are other genres that really work well in a theatrical, communal experience. That was really the intention with Strays. I hope after Strays comes out everyone feels that little bit more confident [and] studios keep putting their chips behind comedies.

I honestly think we, as a culture and a society, need more shared experiences. When I grew up, we all went to the theater, but we also had a very shared experience in TV shows, right? Because there were only several networks. I love that there’s variety and that we all get to geek out in our own little worlds, but I also think it’s important for us to have these shared experiences, to remember that we’re all more similar than we are different, and that we’re all in this together. As maybe highfalutin as it sounds, I think that movie theaters do that. I really hope that Strays can do that in a small way, and maybe it pushes the door a little wider open for more [theatrical] comedies.

I’m also really, really impressed with Universal making the decision that—this is not a known property. It’s not based on a best-selling book, you know what I mean? It’s a fresh, interesting idea. I’m really grateful because, I get it, it’s easy for me to want to make interesting new projects. It’s harder for a studio to put a bunch of money behind something that may or may not pay off. So I hope they get rewarded for these types of decision making.

I really like that you filmed this with real dogs and then went and CGI’ed the mouths to look like they’re talking. I don’t know the finances of visual effects work, but I’m guessing Universal could have insisted you do more of a traditional live-action/animation hybrid, and it could’ve been done more cheaply. But then you lose the reference to the original films.

For me, that started from a very creative perspective. My first thought when I came in was, how are you going to do this? What techniques and tools? Right away I [knew I] wanted that authenticity. CG has come such a long way. And it’s incredible, what the artists are doing. But I felt like you can get away with it really well with bears and elephants and crocodiles. These are animals that I might see once a year at the zoo. I didn’t want the audience to be thinking, “Oh, that dog didn’t look quite right.” I wanted it to be sort of naturalistic. There’s some crazy stat [that] like half of American households and almost a third of worldwide households have a dog in the home. We’ve been very close to this specific animal forever, and we know their behavior. We know when they’re confused, that they tilt their heads, and what their tails do. I wanted to really lean into the natural, organic behavior of real dogs, which, as you might imagine, makes it very difficult on set to pull off certain things.

I’m really proud of the result, because I tried to not overly anthropomorphize them. I tried to use their naturalistic behaviors to communicate emotion. Because it lets you stay in that magical world of, “Oh, this just feels like real dogs,” but it also makes the comedy funnier. In comedy you need to keep certain things grounded and constant, even though you may have certain elements that are ridiculous. I wanted the dogs to look and behave just like real dogs; they just happen to be saying [or doing] outrageous things.

We’ve talked about two of my three favorite things—movie theaters and dogs—so I have to ask you about the third: junk food. What concessions do you get?

I kind of can go anywhere, to be honest, but if I had to choose one, I think it’s the nachos with the super-fake nacho cheese. I find it delicious. Then I pile it with jalapeños. That’s something my wife introduced me to. That’s probably my favorite, but I can go any direction. I can do a hot dog. I love popcorn. I love a Sour Patch Kid. I mean, that’s part of the fun of the movies, right? “Now I get to eat this very unhealthy food, but it’s fun.” It’s all part of the experience.

I’m so excited to see Strays, and to eat horribly unhealthy food during it. The voice cast you assembled is incredible.

Obviously, working with Will and Jamie was amazing, and a big part of how I made this was letting them improvise a lot. I made a point to get them all together—a couple of times, all four: Randall Park, Isla Fisher, Will Ferrell, and Jamie Foxx. The main characters, [voiced by] Will Ferrell and Jamie Foxx, they were in every session together. Which makes such a huge difference, because they’re riffing off each other, feeding off each other’s energy, improv-ing. That was a huge part of the comedy of the film.

This is Jamie Foxx’s first voiceover role, right? The man can do everything else. He’s insanely talented.

He’s amazing. We would be in the voiceover booth, and he would do a Trump impression, then a Biden impression, then he would sing an incredible song, then he would dance, and then he would deliver the line perfectly. This guy is just overflowing with talent. He and Will have never done anything [together] before! Their chemistry, as dogs and as humans, is incredible. You can just tell that they have an affinity for each other, and they’re really, really funny opposite each other. It was a joy to be in the room watching this comedic tennis match between these two. It was amazing. It’s probably the highlight of making the whole film for me.

Photo courtesy Chuck Zlotnick / Universal Pictures

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