‘Strays’ Director Josh Greenbaum on ‘The Hunt for Red October’ Influence and Making Peace With ‘Barb and Star’ VOD Release

‘Strays’ Director Josh Greenbaum on ‘The Hunt for Red October’ Influence and Making Peace With ‘Barb and Star’ VOD Release

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Strays director Josh Greenbaum has waited four-plus years for today. 

In 2019, when Greenbaum started filming Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, he operated under the belief that his feature directorial debut would be a traditional theatrical release. But 2020 had other plans, as Barb and Star became one of many films to go from theatrical to premium VOD or streaming due to the pandemic. But then the impossible happened. The high jinks of Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumolo and Jamie Dornan caught lightning in a bottle, especially Dornan’s beachside serenade to a squabble of seagulls, and the comedy cut through the saturated home market to become a cult hit.

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Despite his initial disappointment, Greenbaum soon found himself on a Zoom opposite Guillermo del Toro, who generously agreed to host Barb and Star’s Directors Guild of America Q&A. So the fact that Greenbaum’s debut film was still able to find an audience through its home release allowed the New York native to make peace with the situation.

“Emotionally, it was actually really hard. You’re just so excited for your first movie, and out of the blue, something you’ve never heard of just takes it out,” Greenbaum tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So (del Toro and I) had a great talk about (Barb and Star), and then I ran into him a year later. And I told him about Strays and pitched him what it was. And he simply went, ‘That makes sense (coming off of Barb and Star).’ And I just loved that.”

Strays is now playing in movie theaters, finally fulfilling the expectation that Greenbaum had for Barb and Star. The Phil Lord and Chris Miller-produced comedy is a hard-R talking-dog movie that subverts the subgenre of saccharin dog movies where the lead dog narrates the film in earnest fashion. (Josh Gad even plays a Golden Retriever who pokes fun at this tendency.)

Written by Dan Perrault, Strays is led by Will Ferrell’s Reggie, Jamie Foxx’s Bug, Isla Fisher’s Maggie and Randall Park’s Hunter, as the group of stray dogs are helping Reggie get revenge against his former owner (Will Forte’s Doug) for abandoning him. Throughout the film, the dogs sound as if they’re speaking English to each other, but Greenbaum took a page out of John McTiernan’s submarine thriller, The Hunt for Red October, which established that its Russian characters were speaking Russian to each other even though the audience was hearing English.

“I fully Hunt for Red October’d the entire film,” Greenbaum says. “Of course, we had to put it in English for all of us to understand, but that is not what the dogs are speaking to each other.”

Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Greenbaum also discusses the ins and outs of how he shot Strays with real dogs and how he accounted for the dog dialogue on set despite not having a voice cast until halfway through filming.

So is it true you adopted the star of your movie?

It is true, although he is the puppy version of Reggie (Will Ferrell), the main star of the movie. The real star is played by a dog named Sophie, who is one of our lead trainer’s dogs. But there was a young puppy version of Reggie early in the movie, and I found out he didn’t have a home after the movie was over. And so I called my wife and said, “Hey, I might be bringing home a little memento from set.” And then I surprised her and my twin daughters with sweet young Reggie, who they, of course, appropriately named Reggie. And so now I have Will Ferrell running around my house at all times.

Reggie Will Ferrell in Strays, directed by Josh Greenbaum.

Reggie (Will Ferrell) in Strays, directed by Josh Greenbaum.

Universal Pictures

It didn’t take any convincing? 

Well, my girls were just over the moon. They went berserk when they saw him. We already had a dog, and so my wife had to come around to the idea of having two. But she said, “Yeah, we can’t not take in a dog who obviously doesn’t have a home at the end of this shoot.” So it didn’t take much convincing.

Do we have Barb and Star to thank for you ending up on this movie?

I think so. I got sent this script and the log line right after I’d finished Barb and Star, and as a filmmaker, I was trying to figure out my next move. And I read the log line of, “A sweet naive dog named Reggie gets abandoned by his mean owner, Doug, who’s obviously played by Will Forte. He then meets some strays and wants to get revenge by biting his owner’s favorite body part off.” (Laughs.) So it definitely piqued my interest. I was like, “Okay, this feels weird and left of center and different,” and coming off of making Barb and Star, I wanted to keep doing things that felt a little bit different and a little bit fresher. So this just jumped out at me.

I did think, “Oh, is this just gonna be a dog’s spoof movie?” And I was pleasantly surprised that the script completely functioned on its own. It had these complex characters and a real heart to it, even though it totally went there in terms of outrageous, big, loud, R-rated comedy moments. I’m a big fan of having both comedy and an actual emotional center to a film. I’ve always wanted to make a Stand by Me or a Breaking Away, or certainly what Bridesmaids and The 40-Year-Old Virgin did, where you took a loud concept but did it with emotional honesty. So I feel like I got a weird hybrid of all those movies put on my desk, and it just happened to be in the form of a dog movie. So that was very exciting to me, and knowing the challenges ahead, I still was all-in.

Was it a tall order to get a hard-R talking-dog movie made? 

Yeah, but we had the right team in place and we got it to the right place. Universal is the studio that has always really understood these original R-rated comedies and full credit to them for seeing it as well. Of course, we all saw it, but it’s another thing to say to a studio or financier, “Hey, put your money where your mouth is.” And they very much did. There were a lot of moments where I was waiting for someone to come on set and be like, “Guys, we were just kidding. We didn’t really mean to go make this movie.” (Laughs.) But they’ve been so incredibly supportive throughout and we are finally about to see it in theaters. And that means a lot to me, because my first film, Barb and Star, got pandemic’d, as they say. So Strays is really my first big release to be out in theaters, globally, and I couldn’t be happier and prouder of the film.

From left: Maggie Isla Fisher, Reggie Will Ferrell, Bug Jamie Foxx, and Hunter Randall Park in Strays.

From left: Maggie (Isla Fisher), Reggie (Will Ferrell), Bug (Jamie Foxx), and Hunter (Randall Park) in Strays.

Chuck Zlotnick/Universal Pictures

Isla Fisher as an Australian Shepherd certainly makes sense — and not just because she’s Australian — but how did you decide your voice and dog pairings? 

I pointed both of them towards the character. I actually didn’t cast the voice actors at the same time as the dogs. I cast the dogs first, and then we went off and shot the film in Atlanta. And it wasn’t until about midway through filming that I actually locked in my voice cast, which was a very fun day on set. I got to go up to my team and the crew and the trainers and say, “Your dog is being voiced by Will Ferrell. Your dog is being voiced by Jamie Foxx.” So I started with just looking at the dogs and trying to figure out what each dog’s resting dog face conveyed. (Laughs.) Did it convey the character of Reggie and Bug (Jamie Foxx)?

And when I got around to casting the voices, I asked myself, “When I think of brilliant, naive, innocent and sweet …” And there’s no one better at that than Will Ferrell. And then I started to think about who to pair opposite him, and I’ve always been such a huge fan of Jamie Foxx. Somehow, they’ve never worked together, so that was really exciting that I got to bring them together. I also got my actors in the booth together, which is not very normal in this process. I asked if they would come in together, and Will and Jamie did all their sessions together. And then I had sessions with Will, Jamie, Isla and Randall (Park). They are all just so funny, and they also have really strong dramatic chops. There are some really emotional moments throughout the film, and I knew that they could deliver. I made my dream list, and all of a sudden, I got them all. So I feel incredibly lucky to have them as my cast.

There was probably a lot of rewriting and improvising in the booth, but how did you account for the dog dialogue on the day? Were assistants reading out of frame?

I had a whole game plan that I kind of threw out when I got on set. I did a table read of the script with some actor friends of mine who weren’t my final voice cast, and I then had the audio files of their voices. And I thought, “Maybe I’ll play these audio files on set so the whole crew can hear the performance and the timing of each shot.” But ultimately, I found it was faster and more efficient for it to just live in my head and then communicate it. So I would literally block the scene in front of the whole crew with stuffed animals, which sounds absurd, but it was the most efficient way to do it where you’re putting Bug here and Reggie there.

So I did that, and at times, I would certainly play a line of dialogue and know that I wanted a 30-second push-in on Reggie for this monologue. So you try your best to account for those performances and then make sure you have the timing of the dog’s performance. It was very much a puzzle, and having four dogs on screen at any given time made it all exponentially harder. So it was a lot of that. 

And afterwards, once the voice actors were improvising, I had my editors hunt through the footage to try to find the right performance of the dog to make that bit work. So I tried to roll (camera) as much as I could on set, and I think some of the crew members had shirts going around that said, “Still rolling.” If you look at my clapboards, there were 15, 16, 17 takes very commonly because that’s just the nature of working with animals. I normally like to get it and move on, but a lot of the time, there would be takes in the double digits for most setups. So it was a complicated process, but I leaned on my team to get it done and they did.

Director Josh Greenbaum with Hunter on the set of Strays.

Director Josh Greenbaum with Hunter on the set of Strays.

Chuck Zlotnick / Universal Pictures

Who gets the credit for the genius correlation/conspiracy involving dog poop and chocolate? 

Oh man. There have been so many rewrites, improvs and ideas, so I don’t know exactly who it was. It was either (screenwriter) Dan Perrault, myself or one of the actors. We always talked about it: “What do dogs think we’re doing when we’re bagging all of their poop?” That’s a question that we knew we wanted the film to answer, and of course, Bug has a hilarious conspiracy theory. Separately, we made the connection that dogs might know that they’re never allowed chocolate. They’ve either been eating it and it’s been pulled out of their mouth, or they heard that another dog had to go to the hospital after they ate chocolate. So we then made the weird connection that maybe Bug thinks the two go together. But I wish I could remember exactly who it was that came up with that joke.

Isla Fisher’s character says she knows 31 human words. Does that mean the dogs are not really speaking English to each other? Did you Hunt for Red October this movie? 

(Laughs.) That’s correct. You’re absolutely right. I fully Hunt for Red October’d the entire film. That’s a great, great comment. Of course, we had to put it in English for all of us to understand, but that is not what the dogs are speaking to each other.

Have Will Forte and Bret Gelman forgiven you for what you did to their characters in this movie? 

(Laughs.) I’m about to see both of them. We’re all watching the movie together on Friday. But I think so. I mean, Will Forte, there’s actually no one more game to do the things that he had to do in this movie. He’s just the best, and by the way, it’s an amazing performance. He had to come in and play a villain, and he knew he had to play him mean enough for the film to work. He said, “Josh, I think I need to play this guy fairly mean.” And I said, “Yeah, I think so.” Obviously, we wanted to make it fun and funny — and Will Forte does that better than anyone — but he did have to be mean enough that you wanted him to get his comeuppance. So he knew that and he went there. And Brett Gelman, I wish I could say that he was really upset with me for smearing dog poop all over him, but if you watch the behind the scenes, he’s like, “I think we need more.” (Laughs.)

From Left Will Forte and director Josh Greenbaum on the set of Strays.

From Left: Will Forte and director Josh Greenbaum on the set of Strays.

Chuck Zlotnick / Universal Pictures

There’s been a theory for a little while now that the box office for studio comedies has been affected by people getting their comedy through superhero films and other genre films. Do you buy into that at all? 

I don’t, but everyone can have their own theories. I think there’s a few different reasons. Obviously, there are other sources where we can find comedy in general, but I like to think that maybe we just haven’t given people that taste again. It’s that flavor that we all used to love. It’s really fun to watch a really funny movie in a theater and laugh with 350 people. I love that, and so many of my favorite memories from my childhood and my young adult life involve cracking up with a bunch of people in a theater. So I like to think that maybe we just haven’t given them that flavor again.

But I feel like it’s happening again this summer, and I’m very excited about it. I think everybody wants comedy to come back. Universal has put out some of the greatest comedies in the last couple decades, and I know they’re very invested in seeing comedy work on the big screen. And I hope that Strays can be a part of that change and a part of that movement. I think we can all use it. There’s something really nice about shutting out the world for a couple hours and just having a really fun time.

Earlier in our conversation, you mentioned the pain of Barb and Star not getting a proper theatrical release. But between its cult status among the audience and being beloved by your peers, have you been able to make peace with that situation?

I have, yeah. I appreciate it. Emotionally, it was actually really hard. You’re just so excited for your first movie, and out of the blue, something you’ve never heard of just takes it out. But I love the fact that people keep coming up to me about it, and I hope this film continues my path of making projects that feel left of center. I remember I had a wonderful conversation with Guillermo del Toro about Barb and Star. He did my DGA Q&A, and we talked about the film for an hour. I noticed he was a big fan, so I asked him if he’d do it and he said, “Oh, I’d love to do it.”

So we had a great talk about that film, and then I ran into him a year later and he said, “What are you working on?” And I told him about Strays and pitched him what it was. And he simply went, “That makes sense (coming off of Barb and Star).” (Laughs.) And I just loved that. It felt right that these two movies are in some weird cinematic universe or somehow connected. So I’ve certainly felt some love from people discovering that film and it helping them through the pandemic. And now I’m very excited for Strays to be a follow-up and to be out in theaters for people to go experience.

Strays is now playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.