Dog lovers can relax – none of the pups in the new gross-out comedy Strays meet a grizzly end.
However, they are put through the wringer on a road-trip revenge mission to seek out Border Terrier Reggie’s (Will Ferrell) abusive former owner Doug (Will Forte), which may make any pet owner cautious about seeing it.
Director Josh Greenbaum shares those same audience concerns, as the owner of two dogs who proudly tells Zavvi his family have owned dogs “since the day (I) was born”. This now includes the dog who played Reggie in his film, who he adopted shortly after shooting wrapped, with his family taking delight in having a “little Will Ferrell running around (our) house” at all times.
He knew that the film had a tough tightrope to walk, having to justify a violent revenge mission in the final act, with his job largely revolving around making sure he wouldn’t upset fellow dog lovers too much.
The director explained: “For the plot of the film to work, Doug must be enough of a neglectful owner, a real dirtbag, for the revenge story to function. We don’t cross the line, but that was probably the line we massage the most; working out how mean he could be, whilst you could still enjoy the character as a ridiculous villain in a comedy.
“We wanted him to emotionally trigger you, but in a good way, so you would instantly be on Reggie’s side. This was the one variable that we had to dial the most throughout the process of filming and editing.”
This was just the biggest challenge on top of a more obvious one, with Greenbaum breaking the biggest rule in show business by signing on to make the movie: that you should never work with children or animals. Naturally, shooting a film with four canine leads – and very little CGI beyond making them talk – ensured that this wasn’t the easiest production.
“It sounds obvious but working with four dogs in every scene is the biggest challenge. One dog can do a lot in a scene – walk in, pick up a ball, spin around, do three tricks, and it’s all fine – but then you add three more dogs who are in almost every scene, and suddenly it becomes more difficult.
“I wanted to shoot the film cinematically and use interesting blocking where you could always see each dog, rather than just single shots of each animal. My intention was to make you feel like you were watching real dogs together, even though they were all shot separately!”
The screenplay kept transforming right into the editing process, with extra jokes added that would better suit more of the footage Greenbaum shot. However, there was one sequence that was a last-minute addition during the shoot which proved to be the biggest logistical challenge of all.
Greenbaum continued: “I never want to say no to any idea – if it’s funny, then we can figure out how to do it, especially when you’re working with fantastic trainers and VFX artists who you can communicate the vision to clearly. One of the things we added was a sequence where an eagle picks up two of the dogs, and it took a minute to wrap my head around how to execute that.
“This was the rare time we had to go full CG with the dog, because you don’t want these little dogs around birds of prey! Outside of that scene, the script was mostly tweaked and changed based on whether we would be able to execute the scene using the animals.”
After the Jennifer Lawrence vehicle No Hard Feelings earlier this summer, it seems like Hollywood is finally committed to putting A-list comedies back on the big screen, rather than relegate them to streaming. This was on the director’s mind throughout production, and inspired him to push the film’s grossest sequences as far as possible.
“My only goal with this movie was to make something loud, that could make people laugh. I grew up going to all sorts of comedies in theaters and there’s something wonderful about being in a room of strangers all laughing together – that’s a very kind of communal and cathartic experience that I think we all benefit from.
“I wanted to make a movie that reminded people of how fun it is to go to a theater and just laugh for a night, forgetting about everything else. It was the biggest thing on my mind throughout”.
Strays is in UK cinemas from Thursday, 17th August.