Josh Greenbaum Tells Us About the Absurd Joys of Directing a Pack of ‘Strays’

There is a special glee in the way director Josh Greenbaum talks about the making of his latest movie, “Strays.” It could be because directing this kind of movie leaves an infectious anarchy in the air. Raunchy, heartfelt and hilarious, Greenbaum’s new film happily shreds the usual clichés of dog or pet adventures. We’ve seen them for years in titles like “Homeward Bound,” and classics such as “Babe,” where the animals are given human voices so they can become relatable. In “Strays,” the animals do indeed talk but are rebelling against a cruel human world, while also pissing on anything they want and planning to rip off an abusive owner’s testicles. It’s a movie for dog lovers and human haters. 

The hero is as lovable a character as you’ll see this year. Reggie (Will Farrell) is a Border Terrier who dropped into the life of Doug (Will Forte). Tragically enough, Reggie loves his owner, despite Doug being a bum and lowlife, who would rather spend all day smoking his bong, masturbating and hating on Reggie while his parents pay the rent. When Reggie somehow ruins Doug’s latest attempt at having two girlfriends, he dumps the little dog in the bowels of the city. Reggie is soon spotted by Bug (Jamie Foxx), a street-wise Boston Terrier who shows him the ways of free living along with Australian Shepherd Maggie (Isla Fisher) and Great Dane Hunter (Randall Park). But Reggie is convinced this must all be part of some game, so he needs to get back home. But as he becomes enlightened to the truth about life with Doug, a seething need for vengeance via testicle-biting forms. Greenbaum spoke with Entertainment Voice about the canine joys of making “Strays.”

“Strays” has this unique energy to it you can almost call “Punk,” especially when compared to most other comedies being made these days.

I’ll totally take that. I love Punk energy!

So let’s start at the beginning. Previously you made the lighter, still very funny “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar.” How did you decide on this as the follow up?

It’s a great question. I jokingly said to Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, the stars of that movie, that after working with them I’m only going to work with dogs from now on (laughs). That’s of course a joke. I hope that came across. They are the best and some of my dearest friends. But seriously, the script was sent to me and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do after “Barb and Star.” My agent was sending me things. I remember one weekend I was sent five scripts. So I’m reading the log line, the one paragraph description, and I come across “Reggie, a naïve dog gets abandoned by his mean owner and then seeks out revenge to bite his owner’s dick off.” I was thinking it was a joke. It didn’t sound like a real script. But it quickly rose to the top of the script pile for me to read. To be honest, I expected it to be just a spoof movie of the dog genre, which wasn’t going to be my thing. I was still going to read it because I like the idea of “loud concepts.” Like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” before you saw the film it sounded like a loud, dumb idea but it was handled with such emotional honesty. “Jo Jo Rabbit” is another one where it’s about a German boy idolizing Hitler but you see it and it’s handled so well. When I finally read Dan Perrault’s first draft of “Strays,” there was depth and heart and emotion. It held up on its own and it wasn’t what I thought or feared. It made me think of films like “Stand By Me.” It had more to it as a buddy comedy and R-rated human story. That’s what hooked me in. I like that you used the word Punk, because that’s what you’re looking for, something fresh and new. Guillermo Del Toro, who loved “Barb and Star,” I bumped into him a year later and he asked me what I was doing. I pitched him “Strays” and he said, “That makes sense.” That was very affirming (laughs).

You had to do a fascinating kind of dual casting for this movie. You’re choosing the right voice actors and at the same time, selecting the perfect dogs. What was that process like?

It was like a constantly moving target where ultimately what we did do is we cast the dogs first. We talked about the voice cast but knew that could come later. So I started by casting the dogs, which came with all sorts of questions. A lot of it boiled down to does their resting face convey the general mood of the character? I wanted to use natural performances and not lean too much on the CGI to convey their emotions. So we would ask, does this Reggie give off that sweet, naïve vibe? Did Bug or his body give off that tough, I don’t give a shit, street-wise attitude? It was that paired with talking with the trainers about if we could train these dogs. Interesting fact, three out of the four main dogs had zero training. We got them two months before. Only Maggie was a Hollywood dog. The others didn’t know “sit” or “stay,” nothing. You may already know this, but you also need to cast backups. You need three or four other dogs to play the same role. 

Then you needed to add the human element…

Yeah, meanwhile, I’m thinking of the voices. So I would take this iPhone app where I would pair the face of the dog I cast and pair it with Will Farrell’s voice. It would be a very cheap animation but you could see it. Early on, Will and Jamie were early ideas. They just embody those characters. Will produced “Barb and Star,” so I’ve known him for years. He’s so funny, but he brings such heart, which I think a lot of people take for granted. You feel it in Reggie. Then with Jamie Foxx, I admit I kind of forgot just how much of a killer comedian he is. He did stand up. He was in “In Living Color.” He’s been in a million things and he’s such a good dramatic actor you forget his roots are in being funny. My first day of being in the voiceover booth they insisted on being together, which is not the norm in animation for some reason. But you get so much by having them play off each other. It was amazing watching them throw the ball between each other. I would come home and my wife would ask, “Why are you still smiling three hours after the session?” I had just watched two geniuses just going at it.

You mentioned earlier how “Strays” has a lot of heart. It makes one wonder about the sensitivities of the director. Are you yourself a dog lover?

I am! I admit it. I am a huge dog person. I’ve had one in my life since I was born, literally. I’ve had maybe nine dogs over the course of my life. Probably college is the only time I didn’t have one. I’ve got two now. I actually adopted one of the dogs in the film. It’s Little Reggie who pops his head out from the top of a box at the beginning of the movie. It’s the puppy version of Reggie. He needed a home at the end and I thought about it. I called my wife and daughters at home and they screamed “yeah!” So I brought him home, my daughters named him Reggie and so now I have Will Farrell running around my home all the time. Hopefully he doesn’t get any bad ideas from the film. 

Just be nice to him (laughs).

Yeah! I’ll be honest, part of the pull to make this movie was also that love for dogs. Our set was this warm place where even some tough grip was standing there holding a dog, petting him. It was a warm environment because of all the dogs on set. 

So now that “Strays” is completed, what can we expect from you next?

I just want my next project to again make Guillermo Del Toro go, “That makes sense” (laughs). But it’s a great question and an interesting one. Any director will tell you that it’s scary and exhilarating at the same time. After each film what you want to do changes. You’re wondering what’s the next itch you want to scratch. I have a couple of things cooking that I’m excited about. I also wound up shooting a documentary. My background originally is in that, actually. I do both but I’ve done three feature documentaries and docuseries. I keep going back to that format because I keep trying to marry comedy and documentary. It’s an under-utilized combination. So there’s a project I shot with Will Farrell and it’s a documentary. I can’t talk a lot about what it is yet. But I shot it at the beginning of the year and I’m editing now. It’s different. It’s got funny elements and heavier ones too. 

And finally, we’ve been talking about comedy so what truly makes you laugh?

It’s hard to say. The absurdist kind of left turn is my flavor. In “Strays,” for example, I love when Dennis Quaid appears bird watching and he has a notebook where he marks what birds he’s seen, but the list just says, “bird, bird, bird.” That’s my brand. It makes sense looking back at “Barb and Star” too. Something about absurdity is my thing and turning your head, going “what?” 

It makes complete sense because life itself is absurd.

Yes and that’s why comedy can be so healing. You can be in a rut and nothing feels right, but then somebody makes a piece of art or film that reminds you about how absurd and silly it all is and it can be very liberating. 

Strays” releases Aug. 18 in theaters nationwide.