“Strays” Is Unlike Any Dog Movie You’ve Ever Seen
Director Josh Greenbaum tells The Wildest about how he captured the funniest aspect of this hilarious film: dogs being dogs.
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There’s a moment in the new comedy movie Strays — in theaters this Friday — that’s so perfectly dog. Bug (voiced by Jamie Foxx) an adorable little Boston Terrier, is walking through a wooded area. He’s just left his friends and is talking tough, telling himself that he’s not scared of being alone. Suddenly, a leaf falls from the sky, and Bug jumps. “F*ck you, leaf,” he mutters.
If you’ve ever had this dog, you know this moment. Something extremely inoffensive comes out of nowhere and spooks your baby. Your pup has to take a moment to regain themselves after this minor interruption from something as small as a leaf.
As director Josh Greenbaum explains in an interview with The Wildest, this moment was not actually choreographed. The dog playing Bug, named Benny, just got a little scared because of a falling leaf. But instead of cutting it, Greenbaum decided to use it. “Finding those organic moments were so fun when they just happened, and it’s like, ‘Well let’s use that behavior from the dog,’” Greenbaum says.
A Different Kind of Dog Movie
The premise of Strays is simple: What if there were a “dog movie,” but instead of being for kids (Homeward Bound, The Adventures of Milo and Otis) or tear-jerking (Marley and Me, A Dog's Purpose), it’s profane? But also, maybe more than any of those other movies, this one truly seems to understand the adorable weirdness of dogs — the silly little things they do that make us laugh. Yes, there is humor in these dogs saying bad words, but a lot of the jokes simply comes from dogs being dogs.
The movie, written by Dan Perrault, follows Reggie (voiced by Will Ferrell), who is devoted to his awful dad, Doug (Will Forte), seemingly not understanding that Doug hates him. When Doug abandons Reggie in an unfamiliar city, Reggie meets Bug, the tough-talking Terrier, who introduces him to new friends, pampered Australian Shepherd Maggie (Isla Fisher) and a Great Dane therapy dog named Hunter (Randall Park). Although Maggie and Hunter both have homes to go back to, they like partying with Bug, who loves humping discarded couches and eating discarded street pizza. Eventually, Reggie comes to realize how awful Doug was and starts a journey back home with the mission of biting his former dad’s penis off.
While obviously that’s an absurd goal, Greenbaum — a lifelong dog dad who actually adopted a puppy who played a baby version of Reggie — sought to find as many ways as possible to incorporate actual dog actions. With about four dogs “playing” each character, about 95 percent of what you see on screen is a real dog, rather than C.G.I.
As he was directing, Greenbaum thought about how dogs would react in certain situations rather than humans. “If their character was confused, I tried to capture them tilting their head instead of doing C.G. furrowing their brows, which is how we’re confused,” he says. “With kids, that’s fine, but with an adult audience, which is obviously what this movie is targeted toward, I really wanted to not give you any moments of ‘I’m looking at a weird C.G. animal.’”
Bringing Absurdly Funny Dog Realities to the Silver Screen
When Greenbaum, known for his work on the similarly zany Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, was working on rewrites of the screenplay with Perrault, they were constantly asking themselves: “What sort of funny dog behaviors have we witnessed that we want to give voice to?”
One of those that made it into the final cut is a classic dog habit of circling and nesting before going to sleep. In the sequence, the gang is out on the road when it’s time to sleep, but before they can rest their heads they must prepare their space just perfectly. It goes on longer than expected — just like a real dog’s sleepytime ritual.
Because the actors were recording their voice overs after the dog footage had already been shot, they could improvise off of what the animals were doing — like the leaf incident. Conversely, sometimes Greenbaum would scour the material he captured to match a dog clip to actors’ riffs.
Real Dogs Are the True Talent in This Movie
Most of the dogs playing the characters were newcomers to the world of performing, and before shooting, Greenbaum talked with the trainers about what behaviors the dogs would need to learn to hit the beats of the story. Of course, these movements couldn’t look like tricks. To that end, the trainers taught the dogs playing Reggie different speeds and styles of walking, to convey the emotion the character could be feeling at any given moment. (Reggie, for what it’s worth, is primarily played by a girl dog named Sophie.)
Some dog quirks, however, can’t be trained. Greenbaum thought it would be funny if, during a scene where the pups were running through sprinklers, one of the dogs bit at the water — like some Golden Retrievers he has had. So, head trainer Mark Forbes — a veteran of 101 Dalmatians and Marley & Me — found one Boston Terrier who enjoyed trying to eat spraying water.
“The only thing he could do was bite sprinklers,” Greenbaum recalls. “He was with us for three months of a shoot, and he came out one night for five minutes and just went like ra, ra, ra and bit a sprinkler, and then he was done. He was, like, retired and just chilling for the rest of the shoot.”
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Esther Zuckerman is an entertainment journalist whose work has been published by The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The Hollywood Reporter, and Thrillist among others. She is the author of two books: Beyond the Best Dressed (2022) and A Field Guide to Internet Boyfriends (2020). She lives in New York with her Corgi mix, Daisy, who is extremely long and will beg for treats.