The new film “Strays” may enlist Will Ferrell, Jamie Foxx, Isla Fisher and Randall Park to “fill in” the personality of its four canine lead characters, but it’s real-life dogs — and an army of trainers — who work hard to deliver a convincing performance on screen that matches their voice work. Director Josh Greenbaum not only cast the pups with as much thought and detail as when he recruited their human counterparts, but worked closely with head animal trainer Mark Forbes to make sure that they learned the various activities, and behaviors to believably tell the story written by Dan Perrault about a discarded pet who travels cross country with three pals to exact revenge on his owner.
“The casting process on a film like this is one of the hardest things in the whole film,” says Forbes, who previously worked on everything from the 1996 live-action version of “101 Dalmations” to the 2018 remake of “Benji.” “We had four main characters that we’re all trying to find not only the right look for that character, but how does that character look in a frame next to this other character? And they really liked this idea of [Reggie, a border terrier] being somewhat smaller and having this giant [Great Dane] Hunter, and the other two dogs [Bug, a Boston terrier and Maggie, an Australian shepherd] were somewhere in between.”
“In any movie, you’re dealing with normal chemistry questions of your cast, of ‘how do these guys play off each other?’” says Greenbaum, whose previous work includes “Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar” and the documentaries “Too Funny To Fail” and “Becoming Bond.” “In the script, there might’ve been three or so of the breeds labeled. But then as we got into it, I was just making the visual look of my film — and what that led to was three out of the four leads of our film had zero training, ever.”
As ominous as that may sound for a film where four dogs appear in virtually every scene, Forbes indicates that’s a consistent foundation for his search during the casting process — to find an animal with the right look that can be trained. Greenbaum says that other than finding a “good-looking foursome” on screen, another priority for him was to find animals whose natural demeanor suited the personality of the character on the page.
“Another huge [consideration] is, what does their resting face and body convey? It’s a real question because I really wanted to try to lean on natural animal behavior,” Greenbaum explains. “I didn’t want to overly manipulate CG emotion the way you might in a kid’s version of this film.”
The team eventually reached a consensus on which animals would play the hero dogs, but that didn’t mean they knew exactly what to expect as they prepared them for shooting — or even just being photographed. “One of the things that surprised everybody, I think, once we got there on the day one was the size of Dolan [the Great Dane],” Forbes says. “He looks like a small pony! So we got there on the day and started setting up shots and everybody realized, wow, this is a huge dog.”
Greenbaum says that readying Dolan to play Hunter proved challenging for multiple reasons. “He was only one year old, the youngest of the group,” Greenbaum says. “He would get excited and get what we call the zoomies… tearing around set, 150 pounds, having a blast with his cone on, smashing into C-stands and having fun. We worried if we had to rethink the script or rewrite his character, but ultimately he totally came around and was an incredible performer.” Dolan’s counterparts for Reggie and Bug, on the other hand, immediately became puppy pals. “They just liked each other and they would do natural stuff with each other,” reveals Forbes. “That really helped, I think, sell a little bit of that relationship.”
Prior to shooting, Greenbaum would start with storyboards before walking through the scene with the filmmaking crew and the animal trainers, two of the latter of which were assigned to each dog. “I walked around the set with stuffed animals … there’s probably ridiculous footage from the behind the scenes stuff of me doing that,” he says. “And then they’ve got to figure out where the trainers need to be and how do we either avoid them, frame them out of the shot or later on paint them out.”
“The one thing you don’t have to do is worry about sound,” he adds. “But it’s a very elaborate, long, somewhat tedious process.”
Despite how extensive was Greenbaum and his team’s preparation, Forbes indicates he ran into the same issue as he almost always does once filming actually begins. “It doesn’t matter how many times you tell [the filmmakers], nobody realizes how fast dogs are,” he says. “They’re going to have a camera on a golf cart in front of the dogs running, and they almost have to experience it [themselves] to understand that those dogs are going to be past that golf cart — especially when there’s four dogs running, because there’s the competition thing.”
The film involves a wide spectrum of doggie derring-do — jumping over fences, humping furniture, and at one point, a dog hanging onto another one’s leg while both get carried into the sky by an eagle. The last of those scenes was achieved by compositing individual stunts together and polishing the whole thing up with computer-generated replacements. But Forbes says that “the competition thing” also complicated what one might expect to be one of the simplest tasks for the dogs to pull off: “One of the hardest things things to do was get those four dogs to walk in a line.”
“A Great Dane walking and a border terrier walking cover a very different amount of distance,” he says. “So to get those shots of the four dogs, they all learned the different speeds, but when you actually get there on set and have four dogs lined up and you want them to walk 25 yards all in a line, it’s pretty impossible.” A low-rent solution enabled them to achieve the desired effect on screen. “There was a string going to each dog’s collar that goes back to a trainer dressed completely in blue screen trying to keep them as they’re walking at a certain speed of walking so that they’re somewhat together.”
Without the use of other controllable behaviors such as a human face’s natural expressiveness, walking — and body language in general — also proved to offer an effective window into the emotional state of the dogs as the director drew nuanced performances out of his stars. “Mathilde [de Cagny], who is the main trainer of Reggie, taught him seven or eight different speeds and styles of walking,” Greenbaum says. “So like you think about a human, if I walk slow with my head down, you know I’m down in the dumps. So I went through not only every behavior, but every emotion I would like to convey, and then we figured out what tools could they give me to help convey those emotions. I was really surprised by the level of emotion we were able to put on and pull out of those dogs.”
Meanwhile, the voice actors were not cast until halfway through production, a detail that only added value to the footage captured on set. “Once we recorded their voices, it was really fun to then go back and find the footage that mirrors their performance,” Greenbaum remembers.
It would work both ways, where sometimes I would take a scene and show Jamie Foxx and be like, ‘take a look at this and improvise,’ and then there would be moments where we’d let Will and Jamie and everybody riff, and then I’d go figure out how to make it work with the dog footage.”
As unambiguously proud as he is of this film, he admits that there were some moments on this production that he’s never experienced before, and will likely never do so again, such as during a night shoot when a hard-working trainer demonstrated that they could indeed teach a dog to hump an object. “I remember being on set at 4:00 a.m. and it’s quiet — and you hear a trash bag getting shaken a little bit and you hear this very sweet trainer going, ‘humpity humpity, humpity humpity’,” Greenbaum recalls. “I’m like, what am I doing with my life?”
Ultimately, in order to achieve everything he envisioned on screen for “Strays” — including a whole lot of humpity-humping — Greenbaum would end up employing a combination of techniques, including some that reach back to the earliest days of cinema itself. “It’s the Eisenstein experiment, [where] if you put a shot of my face but right before you put a knife, you interpret my emotion as fear or threatening.”
“The camera and the blocking and the music you put underneath it all help tell your story,” he says. “You’re using all the tools for one purpose — to impart an emotion.”
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