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Despite the challenge of on-set animal wrangling, 'Strays' director says he wanted 'the real thing'

Strays leaves the doghouse for theaters Friday, June 9.

By Josh Weiss
Strays (2023)

There's an old and very well-known saying in Hollywood: Never work with children or animals. Director Josh Greenbaum decided to break that cardinal rule when he decided to make Strays, an R-rated comedy (out in theaters this summer from Universal Pictures) about a pack of unruly and revenge-driven canines plotting to bite off a man's penis. No, we're not kidding — that's actual the plot.

Wanting to pay loving tribute to the classic talking animal films of yesteryear (think Homeward Bound and the like), Greenbaum insisted on using real dogs. "I would say about 95 percent of the film is just real dogs," he revealed to The AU Review. Of course, that meant hiring a kennel full of on-set trainers, who could be relied upon to ensure that the various hounds hit their respective marks. It was, perhaps, the most ambitious use of dogs since the OK Go music video for "White Knuckles."

"What’s amazing is that you learn one dog can do a lot," the director explained. "Getting a dog to walk into a room, get from A to B, to sit down, bark, pick up a ball and walk out — which sounds really hard — trainers can get a dog to do that quite consistently. The problem with my film is that I needed that to happen, but I needed another dog to bark when he got the ball, another dog to walk in halfway through the scene, and then another one to just lay there the entire time. Once you added four dogs to every scene it became a mission."

RELATED: 'Strays': Will Ferrell is a revenge-seeking dog in hilarious, NSFW trailer for R-rated 'Homeward Bound'

During an interview with Empire, Greenbaum shed a bit more light on how they overcame the challenge: “We started to lean a lot on splits, where you split the frame without you knowing it. We would just do this dog's performance, and then this middle dog's performance and so on, and then you can blend the scenes. We did a lot of VFX tricks that didn't always involve a full-CG dog or talking, but that helped with the production."

The computer-generated moments posed their own set of anxieties for Greenbaum, who wanted the digital illusions to be completely seamless with the live-action components. "I was really demanding. Because I didn't want it to pull you out," he said to Collider. "I want you to just be immersed in this world and never have a question of, 'Oh, that didn't quite look right.' I hate when that happens for me as an audience member. So we worked really hard on that."

The upside to that is Greenbaum and screenwriter Dan Perrault (American Vandal) were able to continue tweaking the script through the post-production process when VFX artists were brought in to make the dogs' mouths move in time to the dialogue spoken by leading cast members Will Ferrell (Reggie), Jamie Fox (Bug), Isla Fisher (Maggie), and Randall Park (Hunter).

"That is, of course, a blessing and a curse," the filmmaker admitted. "But you get to keep refining and sanding down the edges ...  It was a really cool, unique process. Somewhere between animation and traditional live-action."

Strays leaves the doghouse for theaters Friday, June 9.

In the market for more talking animals? Shrek, Antz, Chicken Run, and Shark Tale are all streaming on Peacock.