Interview: Director Chris Renaud on ‘The Secret Life of Pets 2’
Even before The Secret Life of Pets opened in theaters, even before it became the fifth-highest-grossing original film in history, director Chris Renaud and the team at Illumination Entertainment were already working on a potential sequel.
“We’d gotten a strong reaction to the teaser for the first movie and we started talking,” Renaud told me during a recent conversation in New York City. “You just want to be prepared. Like, what’s the idea?”
In The Secret Life of Pets 2 the idea was to expand on the first movie’s irresistible hook, the private affairs of man’s best friend (and also cats) when their owners are away. This time, Max (Patton Oswalt, replacing Louis C.K. for reasons I’m sure you can figure out on your own) is struggling with his role as the self-appointed protector of his owner Katie’s new baby. While Max learns about the dangers of helicopter parenting from a laconic farm dog named Rooster (voiced to gruff perfection by Harrison Ford), his bunny pal Snowball (Kevin Hart) helps a Shih Tzu (Tiffany Haddish) rescue a tiger from the circus, and his neighbor Gidget the pomeranian (Jenny Slate) loses track of Max’s most treasured dog toy.
When I spoke with Renaud, we discussed how these three storylines were developed, what it was like directing Harrison Ford as a cartoon dog, the rules of the Pets universe, how it feels to have your movie adapted into a tie-in menu, and the absurdly small amount of money he was paid for creating one of the best Batman stories ever.
This film has three main stories that are all interwoven. Were there any other alternate versions of those stories that nearly made it into the movie before you settled on what’s onscreen?
This is what I’ll say. Very early on we knew that the big theme would be kids and pets. It was something we hadn’t visited in the first film, it was rich territory, certainly from a relatability for an audience point of view. So we played with different scenarios of how that would work. Was Katie pregnant? Is it an impending baby? Is the baby here? Or is it a toddler? We went through a lot of versions of that with Max. But we always had that as the idea.
Snowball I think might have landed the earliest with the superhero thing. We had him with Molly but we didn’t have that extra sort of arc. The superhero thing came about as an answer to that question. It felt like such a great opportunity with a character like Snowball, that he’s deluded enough to believe that wearing superhero pajamas makes him a superhero.
The hardest and last was Gidget. Not the hardest, I shouldn’t say that, because Max was the toughest. We had to figure out: Okay so Max has this little kid, he’s afraid for him, what’s the best way to tell that story? We went through a few versions, then when we landed on Rooster and the farm as this other perspective like “Hey kid, it’s a dangerous world but we have to live in it.” That’s when it all fell into place on Max’s storyline.
Gidget’s is in some ways the smallest of the three, so what was the perfect accent that she could provide? The problem with Gidget is she was so powerful in the first film, beating up alligators. We didn’t want to activate her in that same exact way, so what was another storyline? We played with a few ideas; that she had to apartment sit for Max, and then we came to the Busy Bee storyline that’s in the film.
You’ve directed movies alone and you’ve directed movies with a co-director. I���m wondering how you work with a co-director. How do you divide up the responsibilities?
It’s tricky. I have a co-director on this film [Jonathan del Val] but it’s a different role. Co-director on Despicable Me 1 and 2, I really view Pierre Coffin as a directing partner. Particularly on the first film, the simplest way I can explain it is I really focused on story and editorial, and I recorded the actors. And he focused on animated performance. We really just split it up. And actually we didn’t even overlap — obviously we would talk to each other, but it was very separate. And then as the sole director you’re sort of doing everything.
Now, that said: My co-director, Jonathan, is a great animator. He was an animation director on the first Pets. So he had a lot of input on animation on this film as well. Very often it depends on who the co-director is, and what sort of specialty they’re coming from as to where you divvy up the responsibilities.
Do you prefer one over the other? Solo versus co-directing?
I don’t actually. I think they both worked. I’m sure it doesn’t always work! But for me, I’ve been lucky.
I would love to talk about the rules of the world of Pets. Can every animal in this universe talk?
Well, we clearly make some decisions were they don’t all talk.
It’s funny, because I think it depends. There’s a tiger in the film who’s big. We needed him to be big, but he’s also young, like in human terms, he’s still a kid but he’s big for his age. We kept a voice out to push his vulnerability. Not necessarily that he’s mute. We have a line in there like “I don’t speak wild animal.” That’s kind of a little explanation. But it’s really about preserving his appeal, his innocence, his defenselessness. So that was the choice there, even if it necessarily doesn’t make sense in the realm of everyone speaking.
And then other characters, like Sweetpea the little bird, just speak in tweets. Just because, again, stylistically it feels like you can do that with a bird because they’re outside the mammals. I just sort of advocate what I think feels right. The rules aren’t consistent.
So there’s no series Bible to follow? No rules of which animals can or cannot speak?
There’s no Bible. My favorite line — I can’t even believe I’m quoting him — is Alfred Hitchcock where he says “Logic is boring.” We do it based on the character need.
Does the turkey talk?
So maybe there’s a bird thing. Like, birds in the world of Pets generally can’t talk.
The turkey is different, because I do the turkey voice, actually. And the turkey is meant to be — because sometimes birds are like this — like an alien. Sometimes when you have an interaction with a bird, like a pigeon or something, you’re like “Is he going to kill me?” There’s just that strange, otherworldliness to birds and so that was what we played with with the turkey to make him scary but silly at the same time.
I loved everything about Harrison Ford in the movie. How easy or difficult was it to convince him to play the voice of a cartoon dog in a movie called The Secret Life of Pets 2? Because he’s never done an animated movie before.
He’s never done it before. I don’t know if he’s ever been asked before. I wasn’t in the room for those negotiations, but it was all very quick. I actually think that certain elements of the story really appealed him; certainly about the pet and kid aspect, and letting your kids go off and live their own lives. Those themes really spoke to him in the original presentation. It wasn’t like a thing like “Oh we gotta convince him.” He was on board.
What was it like directing him to play Rooster? I would love to have watched him record his lines.
It was kind of amazing. With Harrison, typically I would read against him as Max, just to give him something to bounce off of. Even his [grumbles like Harrison Ford] was so great.
We’ve got a lot of that stuff that we put in there, because it just brings that character to life. His voice, that grit and authenticity, is such a perfect counterpoint to Patton’s Max. For me, it was one of the highlights of my career, having been able to record him for this. It couldn’t have been a better experience. He was professional, he was working with us to do the best he could do. He was like “Is that what you need? I’ll do it again.”
It seems like he gets it.
He totally does. At this point, you see him on things like Jimmy Kimmel, and he’s got a great sense of humor about himself.
He’s self-aware about it.
Exactly — and where he is in the pantheon of Hollywood actors, which is pretty damn high. And he’s able to play with it, and that’s why we were able to get him to do the role.
On an unrelated topic, one of my personal passions is food that is based in some way on movies. And you are one of the first directors I’ve ever spoken to who has had lots of food based on his movies. I am curious how aware or unaware you are of that stuff. Do these companies need to run things by you before they make them? You were a producer on The Grinch; were you aware IHOP had green Grinch pancakes a few months ago?
The IHOP relationship has been around for a while. I used to work at Fox with Blue Sky. And I think IHOP, the first thing they did might have been Horton maybe?
But no, nothing is run by me. It’s funny because I’m a big Star Wars fan, and that’s another property that goes through a lot of that. There’s a guy named Steve Sansweet who has the largest Star Wars collection according to Guinness. And one of his hobbies are the food items — of which there are everything.
Yeah, it can be… [laughs] Certainly sometimes you look at promotional partner and go “Wow, I don’t understand that.” But I think it’s just the way business is done these days. But no, nothing goes by me. On the first Despicable Me, the only Minion product was a carnival game prize. Nobody wanted to touch it. Then with Despicable Me 2, after the success of the first one, people wanted to do things. Pierre and I had asked the people at Illumination to get two of every toy made. And they said “Okay, great.”
Now it’s at the point I definitely don’t get two of everything made, but I couldn’t store it even if I did. I go to the office in L.A. and I’m like “Oh my god!” There’s so much stuff now, particularly with Minions, that it’s off the charts. I wouldn’t be able to fit in my office with all of it.
There were Minions Twinkies.
Well, that makes sense!
They do look like Twinkies! But part of the fascination of this world for me is trying to understand the desire behind wanting to eat these things you love. Like, a toy I totally get. But this is more “I don’t just want to own a Minion. I want to eat a Minion.”
[laughs] Yeah, it’s a fair point. But you know what? What’s happened is people collect that stuff. So I don’t even know that they eat it.
Well, Twinkies last forever. So if you are going to collect a food, that’s the right one to store for years and years.
You mentioned Snowball’s superhero storyline earlier, and I didn’t realize until doing some research for our interview that before you got into animation you worked in superhero comics, including some of my favorites as a kid, like Batman: Cataclysm.
Yeah, I pitched that original idea, believe it or not. This is kind of buried in DC history.
There was an article in New York Magazine about an earthquake hitting New York, and I got the idea and pitched it. And in those days they were like “No big crossover pitches, we’re not going to do it.” So I kept it small, but the themes were all there. And I pitched the story, and they were like “Wow, this is great. It’s got to be much bigger than the way you’re pitching it.” And they brought in Bob Gale, who wrote Back to the Future. They paid me $500. That was it.
I did get to write a few stories, which was kind of cool. And then of course they continued it into No Man’s Land. But yeah it all started with my pitch.
No Man’s Land was amazing too.
It was great, yeah.
So you get to dip your toe back into that world a little bit with Snowball in this movie, but is that something you’d want to get back into? Animation and superheroes seem to be going together more and more these days.
Totally. And we’re talking about a few things off and on. But I think the hard part is how do you do a superhero thing that has some kind of distinction? Because there is so much. From comedic things like Shazam all the way up through Avengers: Endgame. I think it’s tricky. Listen, I always love a good superhero story, but I think that becomes the hard part. How do you give it something that we haven’t seen before?
The Secret Life of Pets 2 opens in theaters this Friday.
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