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Strays Director Explains Just How Tough It Is to Make a Live-Action Talking Dog Movie

Making any movie can be a challenge. Making the movie Strays, a live-action R-rated comedy starring dogs, was a special level of difficulty — though according to director Josh Greenbaum, you wouldn’t have noticed on the set. “You’re on a set with dogs and there is a truth to all these studies that say dogs lower your blood pressure and they calm you,” he tells Consequence via Zoom. “So on one level, on set it was very warm and quiet.”

The reason for that, he explains, is that the dogs on set needed to be able to hear their trainers — when Greenbaum mimics the trainers giving commands (“sit and stay and mark”) he speaks so softly it almost escapes the Zoom recording. “The levels at which the trainers talk — it’s that quiet. So it didn’t sound like a normal R-rated comedy film set. It was very calm.”

At that point in production, all of the action of Strays literally lived inside Greenbaum’s head. The film features the voices of Will Ferrell and Jamie Foxx as Reggie (Ferrell), a young Border Terrier, learns the ways of street life from Bug (Foxx), a more experienced Boston Terrier. To create the on-screen illusion, though, Greenbaum had to film his “stars” (the dogs) going through their scenes in pieces, with a plan in place that would allow that action to cut together with the voice cast’s work.

“I recorded a table read version [of the script], but with scratch track, not our main actors, because I thought maybe I’d play those scenes out loud for the crew to hear,” Greenbaum says. “I quickly realized that was unnecessary and inefficient, but it really meant that I was just the only guy who knew what was happening. Because if you walked on a set on any given day, you would see, like, a dog sit here, then walk over here. And then a dog would walk over there and then a dog would bark, and then a dog would pick up a ball and walk out of the room. You’d be like ‘What’s happening here?’ So I had to have it in my head the whole time.”

Continues Greenbaum: “It was both really, really hard and really kind of wonderful. The challenge was that we had four dogs almost in every scene. Getting one dog to do what you wanted was actually surprisingly easy. That, I was blown away by — the trainers can get a dog to walk in, pick up a ball, jump up on a table, bark, spin around, jump down. You can get that eight out of 10 times, nine out of 10 times. But once you add the second, third, and fourth dog,” he laughs, “you’re asking for disaster.”

To actually make the film, Greenbaum thus had to rely on his own personal philosophy towards directing: “Years ago, somebody asked me, ‘What makes a good director?’ I couldn’t quite answer it, and I finally said, ‘I think it’s strong ideas loosely held.’ [For Strays], I came in with a plan. But the ‘loosely held’ is really important because in any given case, new ideas can come in, and you should be able to try them out and audition them and pull them in — they can improve the story. Or challenges happen, and you have to pivot. And it’s like, ‘Okay, I know that I wanted to do it this way, but now we have to try it this way.’ So we totally had moments where things went quote-unquote awry, and then I would use them.”