‘Strays’ Producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller On the Secret Life of Pets

“Strays” follows in the hallowed tradition of stories of animals separated from their loved ones — from “Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey” to “Finding Nemo” — with a few new twists, and a lot of four-letter words. Even more than offering an uncensored window into the perspective of humankind’s four-legged pals, director Josh Greenbaum and producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller wanted to examine how a closer look at dogs could shed light on some truths about the people who love (and in the case of the movie, loathe) them.

“When the script came across the transom, we were just so delighted that someone had taken this very, very silly idea of a filthy quest of these dogs and made it into a movie about respecting yourself and avoiding toxic relationships with people who don’t deserve to be around you,” says Lord.

“Part of the fun is thinking about how dogs see the world and being able to do it in as crass of a way as dogs might actually do, because their life is a lot about eating and pooping and peeing and humping,” adds Miller. “This is the real truth about how dogs see the world.”

Following a sweet border terrier named Reggie (played by Will Ferrell) on a trek to exact revenge on his abusive owner Doug (Will Forte), “Strays” truly — and literally — lets its canine protagonists speak for themselves. Greenbaum says the premise was lifted directly from an instinct shared by virtually all pet owners (the ones who would admit it, anyway). “I think any dog owner will probably tell you, we all create voices for our dogs. And I would be willing to bet most people’s voices are not PG-censored voices and what their dogs are saying are not always just sweet.

“So I hope that we gave voice a more honest voice to man’s best friend.”

By the trio’s admission, so many of dogs’ activities are inextricably scatological in nature. Yet finding a way to leverage that not just for humor but for genuine sentimentality was a challenge they faced as they told Reggie and his counterpart’s stories. Miller observes, “Some people forget sometimes that you can only get away with the raunchiness if there’s a real heart in the center of it. And the innocence of these dogs is what makes it funny.” Says Lord, “I think we project ourselves onto animals, especially dogs, and the parts of us that we project are our most innocent childlike selves.

“We have base, gross instincts of we smell food and we want to eat it or other things,” he continues. “And they allow us to talk about our silliest, most basic instinctual selves.”

In a film where the characters stage a prison break requiring a massive output of dog poop to kickstart, Greenbaum says that even a sequence like that begins with character and emotion. “The freedom you get with making a film like this is that you can go wherever you want, but just because you’re being outrageous doesn’t necessarily mean it’s funny,” he says. “So you counter all of that for me with an emotionally honest story. If you have me grounded in a real story about a toxic relationship and friends helping you through it and finding your sense of self-worth and you treat that with emotional honesty and you treat your characters with respect … then you get freedom to go make absurd jokes.”

The “Strays” dogs are voiced by Reggie, left, (voice: Will Ferrell), Maggie (voice: Isla Fisher), Hunter (voice: Randall Park) and Bug (voice: Jamie Foxx)
©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

Aside from lost-animal movies and anthropomorphized road-trip adventures, “Strays” straddles a handful of other genres thanks to its potty-mouthed characters and an ultimate goal not to reunite with Doug but to bite off an appendage that’s particularly valuable to him. When polled about what movie they think would make for a solid double feature with theirs, the filmmakers offered a wide spectrum of options. “I’m trying to think of other great revenge narratives that are really satisfying — like ‘Taken’,” suggests Lord.

“‘Kill Bill’,” offers Miller.

“Another one that comes to mind is one of our favorites from growing up, ‘The Cat from Outer Space’,” adds Lord, though he does so perhaps in solidarity with the challenges of wrangling animals for an ambitious story. “It mostly involves a cat staring at the screen, but now we appreciate how difficult it was just to get the cat to sit there.”

Greenbaum’s proposed films are a bit more sentimental, but get to what he sees as the heart of his own film. “‘Stand By Me’ and ‘Breaking Away’ are not quite right, but if I was running a film festival, it would create a lot of interesting conversations afterwards,” Greenbaum continues. “It might force you to kind of look at ‘Strays’ as, yeah, of course it lives with the ‘Teds’ and the ‘Bridesmaids’ and the movies I love, ‘40-Year-Old Virgin’ and ‘Superbad,’ but also maybe you go, oh, right, it’s got other layers to it.”

“[But] I like the idea of starting with a ‘Homeward Bound’ …  which I, by the way, love. It’s a very well done, beautiful, and very sweet and emotional movie. And then we’re sort of taking it to the next level.”

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