Dara Taylor on scoring R rated talking dog flick ‘Strays’: ‘It's insanity, but in the best way”

From the humans that brought audiences Cocaine Bear and 21 Jump Street, R-rated talking dog caper, Strays poses the question: what if dogs were all bite and (some) bark? Outraged on behalf of their newest member (that has been abandoned by his owner), a ragtag pack of four-legged friends set about exacting a toothy revenge. Dara Taylor explains her unusual approach to composing a score about a posse of binge drinking, drug-taking, foul mouthed canines.

Earlier this year, Dara Taylor could be found in a branch of Petco, hammering everything she could find in the store.

“The sales people were very confused,” she laughs. “She was like, ‘What kind of dog do you have?’ We're like, ‘We don't have a dog…’”

The reason? Important dog-related research for new NSFW talking dog comedy, Strays, which features the voice talents of Will Ferrell, Jamie Foxx, Isla Fisher, Randall Park and Sofía Vergara.

Having composed scores for the likes of The Tender Bar (endearing, coming of age), The Invitation (horror, thriller) and Netflix’s no.1 film The Noel Diary (Christmas, romance), Taylor was ready to sink her teeth into a genre she hadn’t tackled before: foul-mouthed dogs with a plan for revenge. Back to that Petco trip:

“By the time I got to recording, I was finding that things that aren't meant to be instruments were the things that I really enjoyed,” she says. “So my percussionist friend, Hal Rosenfeld and I were in Petco, and we just banged on everything in the store! We wanted to see what this cone sounds like, play with crinkly toys, dog bowls, antlers and kibble and all these other weird things so we could incorporate them into the fabric of the score, just to give one level extra of uniqueness.”

One thing about this film is, as hilarious as it is, there's also a lot of sentimental moments.

In Strays, naive but lovable dog Reggie (Ferrell) is abandoned by his lowlife owner. Forced to live on the streets and fend for himself, he soon meets fast-talking, foul-mouthed Boston Terrier, Bug (Foxx) and his gang of strays. Determined to seek revenge, Reggie and his new canine pals embark on an epic adventure to get him home and make Doug pay for his dirty deed. 

The F-bombs featured in the trailer alone – along with the pack’s drunken plan to bite off a certain appendage of Reggie’s owner as punishment – are enough to flag up that this ain’t no Homeward Bound – this is an R rated canine caper.

“I think everyone's first thoughts are, ‘What?’” recalls Taylor on her first impressions after hearing the synopsis. “But it was so funny, even from the script stage. I work from home, and my boyfriend also works from home, so sometimes he'll hear me reading a script and I'm laughing. From far off he's like, ‘What's so funny?’ I'm like, ‘I'm reading a script!’ This was definitely one of those instances where I'm just laughing to myself in a room. It's insanity, but in the best way,” she chuckles warmly.

The biggest thing for us was to have the score be from the dogs’ point of view.

Taylor wrote a score that speaks to the heart of the film and its characters, which is finding your support and chosen family. Director Josh Greenbaum has some initial ideas about the approach to the score:

“He wanted to lean into the happy-go-lucky part of Reggie and create a sort of folksy backdrop to speak to the Homeward Bound of it all, but then develop it from there. One thing about this film is, as hilarious as it is, there's also a lot of really sentimental moments. So I wanted to be as real and true to the dogs and their current emotions as possible, regardless of how it might seem to their human audience. 

"We definitely wanted to find and hone in a sound that had this homegrown feel to it, but didn't lean too far into a specific genre, so it kept itself hybrid in a way. There’s some folk and acoustic guitar, but there's also an orchestra and piano to ground it cinematically, instead of it just being a folk song. Then there are some hip hop elements for Bug’s character.”

For Strays, Taylor utilises sweeping orchestral scores when leaning into the emotional scenes of a dog realising when he’s been wronged, and hip-hop inspired tracks when Reggie meets Bug and the gang and they get into various questionable street dog antics. She explains the juxtaposition between the two very different musical styles:

“The biggest part was to have a large juxtaposition at the beginning, and then have those gaps close as the relationships grow,” she considers. “Bug’s introduction definitely had more of a hip hop flair and I used this West Coast sine wave sound as the main melody that comes in in a few different places, sometimes supplemented with other instruments, or it's done on a piano later on. 

"That is to sharply juxtapose Reggie's tone with Bug’s theme, which might be treated one way in the beginning, but by the end, there's a softer side to it. I’m finding two genres that can be seen as far apart and then bringing them closer together as the story goes on.”

We wanted to see what this cone sounds like, play with crinkly toys, dog bowls, antlers and kibble.

Taylor scored music that would match each dog and their unique personalities, her favourite being Reggie's. “His theme became the theme of the journey and of the film, so it was the one that got the most use, and it was fun to use that in a variety of different circumstances, dramatically.”

Reggie’s street life is very different from his perceived perfect home life, where he is continually dumped in random locations by his owner in an effort to rid himself of his pet, only for him to return every time, thinking it a game. On the streets, Bug helps Reggie find his way back to his owner to exact his revenge. During the journey, the group begins to bond as they get into several sticky situations, culminating in getting caught by Animal Control after a mushroom-induced high causes them to maul a family of rabbits.

Taylor reflects on creating a score that matches the absurd nature of talking dogs that swear, drink and get high, and generally get themselves into situations that would never normally pair with fast-paced music for more traditional action set pieces.

“The biggest thing for us was to have the score be from the dogs’ point of view,” she says.

“So even if we see something as human observers that we know may not be as big of a deal to us, it might be to a dog – like fireworks. We wanted to lean into what the dog's perspective was: they thought their life was ending, so musically, we acted like their life was ending.”

The film is littered with memorable scenes, however Taylor has a firm favourite: “Apologies for any spoilers,” she smiles, holding up her hands. “In the pound, they have to get this key from across the hallway as they're trying to escape,” she explains. “It’s got this heist element to it, and there's some saxes and some pop brass in there. It's a fun detour to go down musically.”

Paw-sing for thought on what movie to watch next? Strays is available to stream at home in the US on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, VUDU, Xfinity and Microsoft.

Strays image credits: Universal Studios