At the New York premiere of the upcoming animated film, the writers and director revealed how they decided which pets to feature and who would voice them.
The Secret Life of Pets seeks to answer the question of what domesticated animals do while their owners are away, and it was that initial curiosity by Illumination Entertainment CEO Chris Meledandri that sparked the idea for the film.
Specifically, as co-writer Ken Daurio remembers it, Meledandri, “had this idea of an owner saying goodbye to their dog, leaving the house and as soon as the owner was gone, the dog emptied out its dog dish and went to the fridge to see what was there,” a sequence that the cat Chloe carries out in the film.
After spending months and months thinking about what different pets do while their owners are away, Daurio and co-writer Cinco Paul focused in on the movie’s central story of two dogs and how the first dog, Max (voiced by Louis C.K.), reacts when his owner, Katie (voiced by Ellie Kemper), brings home a new dog, Duke (voiced by Eric Stonestreet).
As for how they decided to center the movie around two dogs, as opposed to cats or some other type of pets, Daurio and Paul felt that canines were more engaged than their feline counterparts.
“Dogs miss you. Cats do not miss you,” Paul told The Hollywood Reporter at the Secret Life of Pets premiere in New York on Saturday.
Daurio agreed: “Cats really do not care if you’re there or not. It was really sort of that man’s best friend attitude that dogs have that started us [thinking that dogs] would miss us the most. Cats would be the ones that get in the most trouble.”
Indeed, they felt that there was a specific role for a pet cat.
“We knew that the sardonic best friend would be the cat,” Paul said of Chloe (voiced by Lake Bell), one of the film’s few felines.
While pointing out that the film depicts a range of different pets — including a bird, a guinea pig and a fish — co-director Yarrow Cheney said of the main pets, “There is a quality about dogs that lends themselves to telling a story about them.”
“Dogs have this special ability to communicate with us and really love us,” Cheney added.
When it came time to figure out who would be communicating as Max, Duke and even white rabbit Snowball (voiced by Kevin Hart), director Chris Renaud told THR that the actors’ characteristics mirrored what the Pets team was looking for from the animals.
“I think we always knew we wanted Louis as our main character, the reason being the main character can be very difficult because it can be bland or flat. With a guy like Louis in that role, it ended up being fun and very New York-driven, a little neurotic, a little sarcastic,” Renaud explained. “And then from there some of the opportunities that presented themselves, like with a guy like Kevin Hart, who has this big explosive voice coming out of this little cute bunny, it just felt like it would be instantly appealing and fun. And Eric Stonestreet as Duke, he kind of embodies this character, with this bigness of spirit. So you always try to cast whether it’s a live-action film with something that has some distinction but also reinforces the character.”
Hart, as the wild leader of an underground gang of animals, said that he tried to create a complex, appealing character with the not-so-nice Snowball.
“First of all, I’m a little crazy. Being that I got to play a villain, I said ‘How do I make this villain a little complex? How do I make him full of levels and layers?’ So I made him insecure, I made him emotional, I made him angry but all in all he’s just a person that wanted love at the end,” Hart explained. “So I think to make your character likable is what’s most important. Because when people like you they root for you, bad guy or no bad guy.”
For Bobby Moynihan, who voices a dog named Mel, he started with the image of the character and improvised from there.
“I think when I saw the picture I had like a half idea of what he might sound like and through talking to the director, Chris, and figuring it out and improvising a little, you sort of find the character,” the Saturday Night Live star explained. “We thought the movie takes place in New York, maybe he’s a little New York-y. He’s also not the smartest dog in the world. So that was a lot of fun, trying to find that level of stupidity.”
Moynihan and Bell as well as Jenny Slate, who voices the dog Gidget, all indicated that they appreciated the non-visual aspect of their work.
“You come in and you’re just doing voiceover in a mike so you don’t have to worry about what you look like or how silly you look doing it,” Moynihan said. “The vanity is taken completely out of it. So that part I like.”
Bell added, “It’s sort of the easiest job you could ask for. It’s super fulfilling because all you have to do is show up and ostensibly just play around and be sort of goofy and a year later these amazing craftsmen create this beautiful piece of animation.”
Like Moynihan, Bell was inspired by the image of her character and “threw some stuff at the wall.”
Slate said she was happy to play another character that has a “combination of sweetness and strength,” explaining that Gidget is the perfect pet to lead the search for Max when the dog goes missing because she’s affectionate and confident. “She has so much love for Max but her love for Max is exactly equal to her self-love,” Slate said.
Stonestreet explained that with the image of Duke already in place, “We just got into the sound and started messing around with the voice and playing and trying things and those things not working and landing on where we landed,” he said of working with the writers and director to find “a soft spot for where we thought Duke would live.”
Hart said his work on the film has made him think about what his dogs do while he’s away from home, revealing, “I think my dogs cook potato salad when I’m gone. True story.”
But for Kemper voicing a pet owner despite never being one herself helped her understand the connection between people and pets.
“I’ve never owned a pet in real life so I felt like it was fun to try and understand the bond that owners have with their pets because I feel like that’s a chip that’s missing in me. It’s such a special unique bond. I’ve always been envious of it.”