‘The Secret Life of Pets’ — It All Started With One Question From Illumination's Chris Meledandri

The Secret Life of Pets-Still 2-H 2016
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

It all started with a simple question: Chris Meledandri, the founder and CEO of Illumination — the animation house behind Despicable Me and the mega-grossing Minions — is a dog-lover. He has two wire hair fox terriers. So pets were on his mind when he asked Chris Renaud, who directed with Pierre Coffin Despicable Me and its sequel, if he'd "ever thought about doing a movie about what pets do when you're not at home?'.

"We just started with that idea," recalls Renaud, who would go on to helm The Secret Life of Pets, the $75-million feature that Universal unleashes today. "The challenge was how big a concept that was. What do they do? Are they solving mysteries? We had to figure that out, but we wanted it to be relatable, a celebration of our relationships with our pets.” That idea was first discussed in the summer of 2012 and after developing the story and characters, it took two more years to produce.

In the end, the filmmakers decided to tell a New York-set story built around Max, a quick-witted terrier rescue, who's voiced by Louis C.K. Max is convinced he sits at the center of his owner’s universe. But his pampered life is turned upside down when his owner, voiced by Ellie Kemper, brings home Duke, a large, sloppy mongrel with no interpersonal skills, who’s voiced by Eric Stonestreet. This reluctant duo must team up when they find themselves on the city streets, and on the run from a cunning bunny named Snowball, voiced by Kevin Hart, who’s building an army of pets who’ve been abandoned by their owners and are out for revenge. The voice cast also includes the likes of Jenny Slate, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress and Albert Brooks.

The making of Pets was highly collaborative in Illumination’s own unique way. Renaud works at Illumination Mac Guff’s Paris animation production facility, where roughly 700 artists are based and the studio’s films are made, while Meledandri works in the studio’s Santa Monica headquarters. “The writers and vocal talent are also typically in the U.S. We start with storyboarding but it’s very collaborative,” says Renaud.

The core team, which includes Renaud, Meledandri and producing partner Janet Healy, co-director Yarrow Cheney (who's working on Illumination’s upcoming How The Grinch Stole Christmas), and the writing team of Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio (Despicable Me) and Brian Lynch (Minions) all communicated on a regular basis.

As is typical on an animated feature, a lot evolved along the way, including the look and personality of the film’s antagonist, Snowball the bunny, who started out big and ugly and ended up small and fuzzy. Explains Renaud, “We felt it would be funnier to have a little guy with a big chip on his shoulder, so we started talking about him more as a bunny you would see on an Easter card. We had been talking about Kevin Hart as the voice actor, and we sent the picture to Kevin’s people and he was excited. It was the contrast that felt really fun.”

Louis C.K.’s Max became “a little sarcastic, neurotic,” with the flavor of one of Woody Allen's New Yorkers, Renaud continues. "With Eric Stonestreet’s Duke, it was finding the contrast. It was a big personality coming out of this big fluffy dog. Eric can play big but also can be a softy. Duke’s character was one of most challenging. We had to establish dramatic conflict but not so aggressive that it’s off-putting —like Gru in Despicable Me. We had to establish empathy because you want Duke and Max to come together as buddies. Essentially it’s a buddy comedy.”

As the team built the story, they drew from experiences with their own pets. “The guinea pig is based on my guinea pig,” Renaud says, adding that Meledandri “said he didn’t want to push the characters toward one of his dogs, but he thinks he did.”

Having a large voice cast with busy schedules meant that each voice performance was recorded separately and the subtleties of each were combined in the editing. “Editor Ken Schretzmann (Toy Story 3) did an amazing job putting it together. I think it’s impossible to tell that they’re not together in the same room," Renaud adds.

The material seems ripe for a sequel. Renaud agrees but adds “we’re waiting to see how the global audience reacts. The concept is certainly big enough with all kind of ideas we can explore. I think there’s a desire to find these stories because pets occupy such an important part in our lives.”

And for those who are missing those Minions, they do appear in an Illumination animated short, Mower Minions, which plays before the feature. Additionally (spoiler alert!) you’ll catch a canine in a Minions costume at one point in the new feature. “Someone made a Minion costume for a bulldog, and we thought that was a fun idea to include in the film,” Renaud says.