WRITTEN BY AMY LONGSDORF
For Digital First Media
It’s been more than three decades since filmmaker Chris Renaud said his final goodbyes to his Irish Setter Shammy but he still speaks about the pooch with great affection.
“I was nine when we first got her and … she is such a cherished pet in my memory,” he says. “She meant a lot to me and my brother, and my mom and dad too.
“I can still remember the time she chased a woodchuck. And she chased a skunk and got sprayed. And then I got it all over my jacket. I was the butt of a lot of jokes when I went to school that day with said coat still on me. … It’s not easy to [de-skunk] an Irish Setter.
“She was a great dog, and very active until her final years.”
When Renaud began directing “The Secret Life of Pets,” one of the summer’s most eagerly anticipated animated flicks, Shammy’s antics came rushing back to him.
“She, for sure, made it into the movie,” he says. “There’s a dog in the movie who piddles when he’s excited and that’s Shammy. … Shammy also used to knock her head as she [walked under] a table and that made it into the movie too. There’s so many little behavioral things that remind me of Shammy.”
The fourth film that Renaud has directed for Illumination Entertainment, “The Secret Life of Pets” pivots on a Jack Russell terrier named Max, who is voiced by the ever-wry Louis C.K. Deeply in love with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper), Max is thrown for a loop when Katie brings home a sloppy mongrel named Duke (Eric Stonestreet) to be his brother.
When Max and Duke begin trying to outdo each other to impress Katie, they wind up lost in the streets of New York. Eventually, they fall into the clutches of a fanatical bunny named Snowball (Philadelphia’s Kevin Hart) who is helping organize abandoned pets to take revenge on their owners.
“Kevin Hart imbues the character with vulnerability and comedy right off the bat,” says Renaud. “He’s a villain but a bad guy you love.”
As befits a movie overrun with adorable animals, “Secret Life” is a valentine to the joys of pet ownership.
“I think the movie is for people who know and love their pets,” says Renaud over the telephone from Paris where he lives with his wife, two kids (aged 13 and 10), a dog and a guinea pig. “What we were trying to do is have people take pleasure in recognizing their own animals and getting a window into how they might think.
“With Max, he thinks about his owner Katie in a way we all hope our pets think about us. He loves her to death … The movie celebrates the relationship between us and our animals.”
Renaud is coming off a heckuva winning streak. He directed 2010’s “Despicable Me,” 2012’s “The Lorax” and 2013’s “Despicable Me 2,” and exec produced 2015’s “Minions.” All together, the films have racked up nearly $3 billion at the box-office.
In what ranks as a truly remarkable achievement, Renaud has his name on two of the five most successful animated features of all time. “Frozen” is at number one with $1.2 billion but just beneath it is “Minions,” which netted $1.1 billion at the box office last year. Next comes “Toy Story 3” and “Zootopia” and then “Despicable Me 2,” a $970 million-grosser.
Of all the characters which Renaud has had a hand in creating, the Minions are, by far, the most successful, popping up just about everywhere and anywhere.
“It is so gratifying for me the degree to which the Minions have been embraced,” says the filmmaker. “It’s almost unprecedented in the CG animated world. It’s amazing.
“That’s really all a creator hopes for, that their characters grow beyond them.
“It’s like Darth Vader and Batman. They’ve gotten bigger than their creators. … It’s the loftiest validation of your work, to have it take on a life on its own.”
And the Minions are big all over the world.
“A colleague of mine here in Paris who’s Iranian just came back from Iran and told me the Minions are in Iran. I thought, ‘If the Minions are in Iran, they’ve gotta be everywhere, except maybe North Korea.’”
For Renaud, saying goodbye to the Minions was “a bit of a bittersweet thing.” Still, after executive producing “Minions,” he opted to take a break from the gibberish-spouting Twinkies and take on the assignment of directing “The Secret Life of Pets.”
The idea for the film began when Illumination Entertainment president Chris Meledandri wondered what cats and dogs do when they’re home alone. From that slender premise, it was up to Renaud — as well as a team of writers and animators — to concoct a compelling tale.
“We really had no characters or no story,” says Renaud, a Baltimore native who grew up in Allentown. “We just had to start [building] from the ground up. And, at first, we were all over the place, including crazy genre ideas, like science-fiction infused storylines.
“Then the writers pitched an idea about a Terrier named Max feeling [threatened] when an old boyfriend of his owner Katie shows up with his own dog.
“That really resonated with me because my sister-in-law ended up marrying the guy who could tolerate her cat. Whenever you have an animal, and bring another one into the house, it’s a very traumatic event.
“It’s a story as old as bringing home a second child from the hospital, when the first child kind of goes, ‘Hey, aren’t I enough?’ So it was very relatable, getable idea. That was our way into the story.”
One of Renaud’s best ideas was making sure the film was populated not only with cats and dogs but also by other species including hawks, guinea pigs and fish. Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Steve Coogan, Jenny Slate, Dana Carvey and Hannibal Buress voice the assorted animals.
From the get-go, it was also Renaud’s responsibility, along with designer Eric Guillon, to decide on the look of the main characters, some of whom appear more cartoony than others.
“We ended up with a bit of a range of stylization,” says Renaud. “Duke, the big, brown dog, is very stylized … He’s a bit more cartoony than our other dogs … We wanted Duke to be this big, shaggy thing, and a visual metaphor for what’s happening to Max. He’s crowding Max in Max’s apartment. He’s a big hairy obstacle.
“But with Chloe the cat, we sort of pushed her shape into being a bit more catlike. One of the things you’ll notice with Chloe, who’s our good-guy cat, is that she has whites in her eyes, which is a classic cartoon [device]. Our bad-guy cats have yellow or green eyes with slits, which is more animal-like than Chloe, our hero.
“And with the Dachshund and the Pug, while they’re stylized, they’re recognizable as their specific breeds … Then we also want the design to line up with the voice and who the character is.”
In one of the film’s funniest moments, Snowball is giving one of his diabolical speeches when he inadvertently lets go of a few, ahem, droppings, which a nearby cat immediately begins batting around like a toy.
“We wanted to go beyond the Disney version of the depiction of animals and get into the reality,” says Renaud. “And a cat will play with poop.
“I’m sure there are going to be some parents out there who think we have too much potty humor in the movie but I will say those are people who probably don’t own pets because if you have a pet, you spend a lot of time talking about or dealing with [a pet’s bodily functions].”
Renaud and company didn’t rely only on their memories of pets to create the characters. They brought in a dog trainer and asked him to put a couple of pooches through the paces so they could study a number of behaviors. And, for other species, they did a lot of research online.
“We challenged the animators to think about how a real dog would do certain things as opposed to how [a human-like] animal would do things,” notes Renaud. “If a real dog wants something from a counter top he’s probably not going to use his paw but rather his mouth. …We wanted the characters to be true to being animals.”
When it came to casting the characters, Renaud opted to go for top-notch comedic talent. He got his first choice for nearly every single role.
“I had heard Louis C.K. talk about his dog in his stand-up act,” says Renaud. “And he really thought about how a dog would say certain lines. … And, with Kevin, we thought it would be fun to hear a voice as big as his coming out of this cute, tiny bunny.”