‘Having an adorable 15lb mutt as a hero made my job a little bit easier’: Strays director Josh Greenbaum | Film

Strays may be a film about talking dogs but it boasts an obscenely stacked cast. There’s Will Ferrell, revisiting the sweet naivety of his Elf era. There’s Jamie Foxx, having more fun than he’s visibly had in a decade. Will Forte gets to be more obnoxious than he’s been since The Last Man on Earth. Jamie Demetriou pops up briefly. Sofía Vergara plays a settee. It’s all very impressive.At any other point in time, you would probably be reading an interview with one of these people. However, the ongoing Sag-Aftra strike means actors are not currently promoting their work, and so it is that I enter a Zoom call with Josh Greenbaum, the film’s director. I have to confess to a few worries about how the interview would go – after all, his job would have usually been to make the movie, not singlehandedly promote it. But I needn’t have worried. Calling from his home in California (background: height adjustable desk, Eames chair, one of his movie posters), it turns out that Greenbaum is easily enthusiastic enough for the job.Not that he isn’t starting to take it personally. “I’m wondering if I’m cursed,” he faux-huffs. Strays is his second film. “My last one got hit by Covid, and now with this one there’s a writer’s strike and an actor’s strike. I’m like, ‘Is something wrong with me?’ That’s my narcissistic take on it.”At least, unlike his last film – 2021’s wonderful comedy Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, which ended up sneaking out on Netflix during lockdown – Strays is actually being released in cinemas. And that’s a good thing, since it’s one of those big, muscular, unapologetic comedies that Hollywood seems a little afraid of at the moment.Better still, the film absolutely lands. I watched it at a sparsely attended press screening, which isn’t necessarily the best environment to see a comedy. But almost from the very first shot, Strays had everyone in the auditorium bent double in hysterics. It’s unrelenting. There are long sequences during which every single line is a new joke, each polished and sheened and delivered like a rabbit punch. Forget superhero spectacle; it turns out that the thing we’ve been missing most since the pandemic is big rooms full of people laughing at the same time.“There’s nothing better to me in the world than that,” says Greenbaum. “Simply put, it’s fun. It’s fun being in a theatre and laughing with people. My whole thing with this film is ‘Grab your pack’. Get a group of friends and go see this movie in a crowd and have fun.”It would be wonderful if Strays kickstarted a mainstream comedy revival, I say. “I would love for comedies to come back,” Greenbaum replies emphatically. “I’m grateful to Universal, who have had decades of success with wonderful R-rated comedies, from Judd Apatow to Ted and beyond. That was their bread and butter. They want these comedies to work as much as I do. So, you know, fingers crossed.”He makes an important clarification here. Strays is not a film for children. It looks like one – it’s a live-action talking-dog film along the lines of Homeward Bound – but it is filthy from start to finish. There’s humping and pooping and mushroom trips throughout. Will Ferrell voices a dog called Reggie, whose negligent owner deliberately abandons him in the middle of a big city. Reggie falls in with some other strays and, after learning that he didn’t deserve such cruelty, declares that he will seek retribution in a fairly unique way.“When I got sent the script, the one-sentence logline was that it was the story of a dog that wants to get revenge on its owner by biting his dick off,” says Greenbaum. “It was also paired with an animated gif of a dog humping a larger dog, so I was like, ‘Well, I guess I have to read this now.’”And upon reading the script – written by American Vandal’s Dan Perrault – Greenbaum says he was struck by the film’s hidden heart. “I realised how emotionally grounded it was, and that it was full of fully fledged characters with real heart and emotion.” He adds that one of the big inspirations for the film was Stand By Me. “Underneath it all, it’s really about toxic relationships. How your friends help you through them, how you find your own sense of self-worth – all these things that I think we can identify with.”That said, to make the audience side with a dog whose mission in life is to tear the penis off a living human being, two things had to happen. First, the dog had to be extremely lovable. This part was easy enough. “As a director, one of the things you focus a lot on in the first few minutes of your film is how to get the audience on board with the protagonist,” Greenbaum explains. “But when you have an adorable 15lb mutt as your protagonist, people are like, ‘Yeah, I like that guy.’ It made my job a little easier.”The second thing, though, was tougher. To make people root for Reggie, Greenbaum had to make the dog’s owner really deserve having his penis being bitten off. But this is a tightrope; after all, nothing kills humour like depictions of animal abuse. That’s where Will Forte came in.“Will instantly knew what the job required, which is a testament to him,” says Greenbaum. “He said, ‘I think I have to play him mean enough for the story to work.’ You have to have to want this guy to get his comeuppance. The flip side of that coin is that you can’t play him too mean. That’s part of the magic of Will Forte. He can be such an asshole yet, at the same time, you love him and you’re laughing.”‘He can be such an asshole’ … Greenbaum directing Will Forte (left) as Doug. Photograph: Chuck Zlotnick/Universal PicturesTo get the balance right, Greenbaum had Forte do multiple takes, ramping the villainy up or down in each one, so he could better calibrate the edit for audiences. In some takes, Forte played the threat level at seven out of 10 and in others he went all out. So which levels tended to make the edit? “I would say we kept the eights and nines, and then there’s an occasional 10,” he replies. “You want to put your audience in an uncomfortable place. We did some really silly stuff with him, but I didn’t want Will to feel like a cartoon character. But, you know, your nine might be somebody else’s three. And any time you’re dealing with any type of aggression or abuse towards animals, I think people’s tolerance threshold is very low.”Greenbaum used real dogs for the bulk of what he describes as “a weird shoot”, which largely involved getting them to move silently from one mark to another, before the dialogue was added in post. But animal safety was at the forefront of every decision he made on set. “I would never in a thousand years do anything that would put an animal in harm’s way,” he says. “Any time there was any question of whether the dog’s safety was a concern, we didn’t even remotely consider it. In that instance, we would just go straight to CG.”And the director walks it like he talks it. At the end of shooting, Greenbaum learned that one of the dogs who played Reggie wouldn’t be going to a home, so he adopted it for his family. “If you see him running around back there and think ‘That looks like the dog from the movie,’ that’s the reason why,” he tells me. I question whether or not that would count as performer promotion, which would contravene the rules of the strike. “Well, luckily the dog acting guild, DAG, is not on strike, so he is able to join the interview and promote our film,” Greenbaum replies before wincing. “I better be careful about the jokes I make about that.”My getting to talk to Greenbaum has been one of the unintended pluses of the strikes. As we wrap up, I tell him how refreshing it is to talk to the guy who made all the decisions about a film, rather than having to ask another actor about their character. “I feel bad for actors,” he replies magnanimously. “They come on set, they shoot for a week or two before leaving, and then it can be years before the movie is released. They haven’t thought about the film, and then they have to try to remember it so they can talk to all these smart people about it. That’s hard. Whereas I’ve lived this movie for three years of my life: of course, I can talk about it!” Strays is released on 18 August.

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