“This film is a salute to how much all of us love our pets. No matter what they do in the movie, the new friends they meet or the death they defy, they still have to be back at the end of the day to see their owners come home. Even if they go on crazy adventures during the day, the highlight of every day is when their owner comes home.”
For their fifth fully animated feature-film collaboration, Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures present The Secret Life of Pets, a comedy about the lives our pets lead after we leave for work or school each day.
For one bustling Manhattan apartment building, the real day starts after the folks on two legs leave for work and school. That’s when the pets of every stripe, fur and feather begin their own nine-to-five routine: hanging out with each other, trading humiliating stories about their owners, auditioning adorable looks to get better snacks and watching Animal Planet like it is reality TV.
The building’s top dog, Max (C.K.), a quick-witted Terrier rescue who’s convinced he sits at the center of owner Katie’s (Kemper) universe, finds his pampered life turned upside down when she brings home Duke (Stonestreet), a sloppy, massive mess of a mongrel with zero interpersonal skills. When this reluctant canine duo finds themselves out on the mean streets of New York, they have to set aside their differences and unite against a fluffy, yet cunning, bunny named Snowball (Hart), who’s building an army of pets who’ve been abandoned by their owners and are out to turn the tables on humanity…all this and making it home before Katie returns at dinnertime.
Illumination Entertainment founder and Ceo Chris Meledandri and his longtime collaborator Janet Healy—who together have produced the beloved films of the Despicable Me franchise, as well as the blockbusters Minions and Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax—produce the comedy that is directed by Chris Renaud, co-directed by Yarrow Cheney and written by Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio and Brian Lynch.
“The inspiration behind Pets was all of the pets that my family and I have owned since I was a little kid,”says Chris Meledandri . ‘’We grew up with a cat and dogs and a bird, and what I realized as I became a parent was that we all invested these pets with rich emotional lives. Whenever we’d come home we would be thinking about the joy in their faces in seeing us and thinking about them doing things that were a little bit naughty. We realized we were asking exactly what they had done while we were out.”
“It struck me that I wasn’t alone in wondering about what the inner lives of our pets were,” he continues. “The minute I started to look at my own pets that way, I realized that everybody looks at their pets through that lens. Whether or not it’s a real emotional life or a projected one…it doesn’t matter. We’re fascinated with their inner lives and highly curious about what they’re doing and thinking when we’re not around.”
In addition to Meledandri, who works out of Illumination’s head office in Santa Monica, California, Janet Healy, with whom he has produced all of the films in the Illumination canon, oversees the Production arm of the company, Illumination Mac Guff in Paris, France.
Meledandri is adamant that no production is conceptualized without the deep involvement of Janet Healy, with whom he has produced all of the films in the Illumination canon, and oversees the Production arm of the company, Illumination Mac Guff in Paris.
“Janet is the best producing partner I could ever imagine having, and at this moment in time we’re producing multiple films together. She brings a level of leadership, creativity and energy to every aspect of every movie.
“When you’re taking on that many films at the same time, there has to be a seamless relationship,” Meledandri continues. “I honestly believe that she has to be the best producer working in animation today. What’s great is that we not only get to enjoy these films as producing partners, but we also get to enjoy the experience as friends.”
Healy sparked to the film’s premise. “We project so much character onto our pets—the things we want them to be. Even when those qualities aren’t there, we continue to feel that they have this secret, full life that we’re not a part of. When Chris told us this high-concept idea, we thought it was amazing. He’s a great leader because he’s so decisive and understands animation and character like no one else.”
Working with the writing team of Cinco Paul & Ken Daurio, with whom they have worked on the films in the Despicable Me franchise, as well as Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, Meledandri and Healy first asked them to develop this idea into a screenplay. They were then needed to start Despicable Me 3, and writer Brian Lynch—known for his work with Illumination on Minions, Hop and their highly successful theme park ride Minion Mayhem—took the helm.
Meledandri can trace the different characters in the film back to the colleague whose pets inspired them.
“Cinco and Ken shouldered the project initially, and Brian has worked with us for the last year-plus,” he notes. “A lot of the anecdotes of his life made their way into the film. It’s been a great pleasure to watch as everyone has brought their individual experiences of pets, whether they’re from childhood or from the pets that they have now, into this movie.”
Daurio explains how it all began: “The first thing that Chris pitched to us was the image of a dog watching his owner leave the house. As soon as the owner leaves, the dog dumps his food in the trash and opens the fridge to find something better to eat. That was the initial image that was planted in our head, and it stayed with us throughout this entire process.”
Paul describes what drives the process he shares with Daurio: “The key to an Illumination film is lots of laughs and lots of heart. We want people to laugh as much as they possibly can, but we also want to make them cry a bit at the end as well.”
As they pondered upon the setting, the duo was drawn to a New York apartment building. “Early on, we decided we wanted this story to take place in an apartment building,” Paul says. “That gave us access to a lot of pets and the idea that when the owners are away, they party. They gossip and drink out of the toilet; things they would never do if their owners were watching.”
This is Lynch’s third collaboration with Meledandri, and he appreciates Meledandri’s character-centric approach.
“Chris always says, ‘We’ll come up with the story and the set pieces later. Let’s work on who our lead character is, what happened to him or her before and what we want the audience to know about them and feel about them. We will go from there,’” offers Lynch. “It has always been helpful to work that way.”
Lynch loved extrapolating upon these pets’ secret lives, revealing: “This film is a salute to how much all of us love our pets. No matter what they do in the movie, the new friends they meet or the death they defy, they still have to be back at the end of the day to see their owners come home. Even if they go on crazy adventures during the day, the highlight of every day is when their owner comes home.”
The moment that Max’s owner brings Duke home from the pound has a special inspiration of its own. Laughs Meledandri: “I imagine Max feels a bit like my nine-year-old son must have when my wife and I came home from the hospital with a new baby: ‘Where did this guy come from? Who asked him here? My life was fine before he arrived and, no, I don’t want to share everything that I’ve got that’s so perfect.’”
Producers Meledandri and Healy have partnered with The Secret Life of Pets’ director, Chris Renaud, for many years.
“When I was running animation at FOX and executive producing movies, Chris Renaud was our star storyboard artist. Eventually, we gave him a short film called No Time for Nuts to direct,” Meledandri provides. “He did a fantastic job, and when I started Illumination I asked him to join us with the idea that he would direct.”
“We’ve worked together since the first Despicable Me, which he directed along with Pierre Coffin,” says Meledandri. “Making an animated film like this involves thousands of decisions on a weekly basis. You’re bringing together hundreds of creative members of your crew—who are all contributing on significant levels—and you have to find a way to not only guide them and nurture them, but also synthesize their contributions so that the movie feels like one holistic expression. That, plus you have to make the film charming and engaging, and distinctive. Chris does that all and is just an enormous talent.”
The next project Renaud would helm for Illumination was 2012’s Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. On that film, explains Meledandri: “Our production designer was Yarrow Cheney, who had also been production designer on Despicable Me. At the same time we were making these films, we realized that Yarrow also had a directorial side. We began to see that he had real potential as a director.”
This potential was further realized when Cheney directed Puppy, one of the sweetest shorts that Illumination has created, and the production team decided he was ready to co-direct. Says Meledandri: “Janet and I consider him to be part of the foundation of this company. He is also a tremendously good-natured leader.”
In fact, very few people at Illumination know the director and co-director as well as producer Healy.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with Chris and Yarrow over the last eight years,” she offers. “They have incredible talents and very complementary skills. They’re both so adept and experienced at animation, but Chris comes from a storyboarding and comic-book background, so he’s a master of timing and staging. He’s got a comic sensibility that can be very irreverent and always fun. Yarrow, on the other hand, has an artistic background in fine arts. He’s a beautiful painter and has one of the most precise and sophisticated color senses of anybody I’ve ever met. He’s extremely good at conceptualizing environments, pinning down characters and arriving at a great animation color palette. Together, they’re a full package that makes this movie wonderful.”
Director Renaud explains what drew him to the film: “What I wanted to do was to portray pets in this very contemporary way. I also liked playing with this funny, very real idea that when you leave your dog, even if you come back 20 seconds later, they act like you’ve been gone for 24 hours. They’re so thrilled to see you, and their short-term memory doesn’t quite work. That’s how we play Max, who sees Katie through that lens in his own life. She’s the center of his universe, and he expects that’s how she feels as well…until she brings home this other dog.”
Co-director Cheney discusses his inspiration: “Every animal has their own personality, and there is so much humor in that. They aren’t people, but it feels that way. To have the opportunity to capture that in film is what spoke to me, especially as a pet owner. When we leave for work or school in the morning, we are essentially handing over the keys to our pets. It is now their place, and for this universe we imagine that they have their own daily routines, just like humans.”
While so many films with animals anthropomorphize them, the team knew it was crucial that the characters maintain their animal characteristics so that the audience would relate to them as pets.
“What I wanted very early on in the animation style was to make the animals…animals, and not depict them in a wholly anthropomorphic way,” provides Renaud. “When we look at animation problems, we would ask each other, ‘How does he get from point A to point B? How does she spin around or lift her paw.’” That extended to more complex scenes. “For instance, we have a moment where a few dogs hear something that sounds like somebody’s in trouble. But they’re instantly distracted by a butterfly flying by and run off in the other direction.”
Cheney elaborates: “Our goal was to have the audience look at the actions of these animals and think that is something their own pet would do. Instead of a film where the animals are wearing clothes and walking around on two legs, we wanted to make our animals act like animals.”
When the production team set out to define the comedy’s characters and their distinctive personalities, it was critical to strike a balance between a higher intelligence and one that felt like it was coming from the pet itself. They knew that the minute they crossed the line and depicted a human trapped in a pet’s body, they lost the essence of the idea. It was crucial to make audiences feel: “This is the way my dog or cat acts when I’m not around.”
“The best example is what happens when we leave the house in the morning,” notes Meledandri. “Our movie starts with Katie leaving, and Max is immediately struck with how much he misses his owner. His plan is that he’s going to sit by the door all day and wait for her. Now, when Max expresses that to another character, yes, he’s talking but you believe that; it’s a doglike behavior. Many of us would fantasize that is what our own dog would do when we left the house. The goal has always been—in the writing, directing, and down to the animation itself—to always maintain those behaviors and nuance performances that are true to the pet.”