A Writer’s Secret to Creating “The Secret Life of Pets”: An interview with Brian Lynch – Animation Scoop

A Writer’s Secret to Creating “The Secret Life of Pets”: An interview with Brian Lynch

The Secret Life of Pets opens nationwide this weekend, going head-to-head with the box office juggernaut Finding Dory. The buzz about this latest feature from Ilumination Entertainment has garnered great buzz, and if it’s as well-received as hoped, maybe it will prove there is room for multiple animation features to find an audience and succeed at once. Leslie Combemale of Animation Scoop spoke to writer Brian Lynch about his part in bringing the film to the screen, the inspiration he found from his own pets, and his deep respect and awe for the voice artists involved in the project:

LoAS: With The Secret Life of Pets, in terms of co writing, how did it break down between the writing partners? What’s the division of labor? I’m fascinated by how multiple writers work and build a movie together cohesively, especially in animation. Can you talk about that?

BL: Sure. Cinco & Ken wrote the first couple drafts while I was working on Minions and then they moved on to Despicable Me 3. When I had about a year left on Minions, Chris Meledandri asked if I would look at Pets to see if it was something I could take over. I never overlapped working with them. They kinda got the party started and I tried not to ruin it!

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LoAS: How close was it to finished was it? Did you significantly alter itt?

BL: You know, the characters and central conflict were all there. I’m not even sure if there was a complete draft when I came onboard. I don’t know if there was a third act, but the story was basically the same and the characters were the same. We worked on it for a year or two years after they left, so obviously the characters changed a little bit as it went on and a couple of the characters became bigger and more prominent. Have you seen the movie? For instance, Gidget and Tiberius didn’t really have that friendship in their original draft. I remember thinking it would be funny if the hawk joined the team instead of working against them. Gidget found more of a backbone as I wrote more and more, because I liked empowering her more and more, instead of making her just the worried girlfriend throughout it. So, definitely, I didn’t want to mess up what they started, but as we played with it more and showed it to more people, we just kept working on it until it became what it is now. Without them, it would be a completely different movie, and without me it would be a completely different movie for sure.

LoAs: What aspect of the film that you birthed is your favorite and what had to get cut? I think it’s always difficult, a writer always has to cut things and I think it’s really painful.

BL: My favorite part is what happened to Gidget. Like I said before, I think she blossomed over the last couple years of working on the movie, and I think that had a lot to do with Jenny Slate because once she got in the recording booth it’s like “Oh, this character is not going to sit back and be part of the group, this girl is going to lead the group… and I love that she surged to the forefront of the group of Max’s friends. That’s what I’m most proud of for sure. She’s one my favorite characters that I’ve ever written.

In terms of what we cut, I don’t miss much, but at one point, Sweetpea, the bird, who hangs out all throughout the movie and just chirps and doesn’t say anything, he had a lot of funny dialogue, but it came to the point that there were too many pets talking. He had a lot of funny stuff. Tiberius had a bigger ending that I don’t think we even recorded with Albert Brooks because there were too many big endings… because we have 18,000 characters, so he had a little bit more to do towards the end, but I think if there’s more pets movies there will be a lot more fun with Tiberius to be had, so he’ll have his day, for sure.

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LoAS: Who was going to be the voice of Sweetpea?

BL: I don’t think we even recorded with an actor. It was just scratch at that point. But we realized there were just so many voices talking to each other that we had to lose somebody, so Sweetpea never really got a voice.

LoAS: I know some of the story is from your life. Can you mention a few of the references – I hope it’s not Ozone, because that would not be good!

BL: Oh no, it’s not Ozone. The biggest one for me is …I didn’t create the conflict between Max and Duke, that was definitely Cinco and Ken, but I have two dogs that have gone through the exact same thing. One was this little dog named Peanut who’s referenced in the movie very quickly. She’s this beautiful little Maltese, and we went to the pound to renew her license, and we saw this little tiny Chihuahua shaking in the corner, being bullied by the other dogs. We thought we can’t leave him, although we did leave him that day. We thought of him for about a week, and realized we gotta get him. We checked online, and saw he was on the red list, in terms of being in danger and he could go at any time. So we went and we broke him out. We were worried that Peanut was going to be the aggressor and we put this little Chihuahua down and he just went at Peanut! He didn’t bite her, but he was growling and trying to say, “I’m in charge now, this is my house!” It was a long process, and the process is not over. It’s been 4 years and they still kinda bicker, but that was really easy to write Max and Duke, because of Peanut and Lou’s relationship. And also Lou is very much the inspiration for how I tackled Snowball when I wrote him, in that Lou acts like the meanest, toughest dog in the world, but with myself and my wife and our child, he just melts. As soon as you hold him he just wants to be held, and just wants to be loved… and that’s Snowball. Snowball projects this image of being a macho leader and can kick everyone’s butt, but he just wants love and he just wants respect. I think that at any point in the movie, if Max and Duke turned around and said to Snowball, ‘do you wanna hang out?” he would be like – “okay, I don’t hate you anymore, let’s just hang out.”

LoAS: You have sorta answered that you are a dog person by mentioning your two dogs, but you capture the cat so well with Chloe. In the theater, I had somebody on my left that was clearly a dog person, and a couple on my right who were clearly cat people. I’m wondering your perspective on cat vs dog.

BL: Well, I love cats as well, and I think Chloe is one of the stronger characters in the movie too. I just love her personality, and her dialogue, and Lake Bell is incredible in the recording booth. I had a cat growing up. I had the same one since I was a little kid, until I was 16 or 17, she lasted forever! Her name was Heather, and she was very loving on her own terms, like most cats are. She was like, “now I have time for you”…and she would sit on your lap. But we also had a dog at the same time, who lasted just as long, and they were kinda friends. We never had the dog and cat adversarial relationship and I think that helped writing Max and Chloe. They make fun of each other but they are also each other’s best pals, and go to each other for advice. They will never admit that they are each other’s best friend but they kind of are. They are there for each other. And that was something Cinco and Ken brought to it for sure. I loved their relationship from the beginning. I thought it was great that Max wasn’t chasing Chloe, that Max respected Chloe, and needed her advice. She acted like she didn’t want to give it, but then immediately gave it to Max because she loves him.

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LoAS: One of my favorite aspects of The Secret Life of Pets is the non-traditional casting or rather the casting that doesn’t make obvious choices vocally for the characters. How much did you imagine who would be voicing the finished cast, and did it alter at all how you rewrote scenes when you had to do so?

BL: It was definitely easier to rewrite the scenes once the actors had their first recording. For instance, Tiberius is another good example of that. He was always written as a tough hawk. You know, he wants to eat Gidget when he meets her and he has a tentative vibe of “ I want to be your friend, so tentatively I won’t eat all the other friends.” But still there was an element of danger to him, that at any point he could just rip them apart. But once Albert Brooks came in, he said, “Can I try it as Gary Marshall?” That’s the voice, he changed it a little, but that’s the starting point. It’s Gary Marshall’s very friendly, very warm voice. That changed how I wrote Tiberius. The same thing with Dana Carvey. When He came in, he gave us 20 different voices for the character. We picked the one that fit Pops the best, and that was in my head whenever I wrote. With Louis CK, whenever I had to write a Max scene, I would listen to his standup, and get the rhythms of that. Same thing with Kevin Hart. You could write two pages for Kevin, and he would give you ten pages of ad-libs that were more brilliant than the two pages. It’s amazing- This cast, I’m very lucky all around. They make everything I write much better. Once I heard them do the characters, it was so easy to write their dialogue.

LoAS: What was your favorite ad-lib by anybody who was in the cast?

BL: That’s a really good question. Most of the good experiences were sitting in the room with the actors and working on the lines together. The one that sticks out in my head, and I’m not a fan of poop and fart jokes at all, I don’t like them, but I do really like the one in The Secret Life of Pets where Snowball gets so excited in the middle of his evil laugh, he poops his little rabbit pellets, and that was not in the script. Because in theory and on page, I wouldn’t think that was funny.

LoAS: To me that’s one of the funniest thing in the entire movie, I swear to you. I was really surprised it didn’t happen more than once. It made me laugh so hard because also the cat playing with the poo. Oh my gosh. I don’t like poop jokes either, and I thought that was hilarious. That was an improvisation?

BL: That was Kevin going while he was doing the laugh. I forget what the joke was originally. I think originally he just laughs and it leads to coughing for way too long and he is like “I have to excuse myself.” But his version of it was “Guys, I have an idea. It might be terrible, but let’s try it.” We have it on video and everything. It’s incredible. He did it. He performs as Snowball, including the fist in the air, and his head up when he’s yelling. And he poops, and he looks behind him. He completely acted it out in the booth, and we knew immediately that that was going to work, because we had Kevin Hart as Snowball act it out for us. It got to the point where he said, “let me try one more”. He did it and then he tries to regain composure, and laugh again, and he poops one more time, and he goes “Listen, I’m gonna have to excuse myself” And he leaves. That was in the first test screening. I think the audience was with us until he did it a second time, and it was like, “All right, that’s too much.”

LoAS: It’s always good to know how hard to push it, right?

BL: Right on. It’s great, and it’s something that if I wrote I would be like, “I’m not even sending that, because I don’t think it would work”, but it works. That’s the genius of (directors) Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney is having the cat play with the poop in the background as he’s going on. It gives you two jokes on screen at one time, which is really good. And I’ll get credit for it. Me, Cinco & Ken, everyone will think we wrote it!

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LoAS: I think people who are voice artists don’t get as much credit for the amount of expressive vocalization and acting that they do on their own in a booth with earphones on. It’s pretty impressive.

BL: There’s this scene in the movie where Max and Duke are lying to snowball about how they killed their owners, and it’s just them trying to top each other, and they overlap. When you watch that scene, it seems like a really great comedy duo that is doing it live in the room and I don’t think Eric Stonestreet and Louis CK have even met yet. But they are just so good, they are able to figure out the rhythm and work with it. It was amazing.

LoAS: With Albert Brooks as Tiberius, it’s like he’s playing Bernie Rose from Drive, only with more restraint and heart. Do you have any other tidbits of when you worked with Albert Brooks?

BL: When Albert Brooks came in, that was the most scared I had ever been until he came in the room, because it’s Albert Brooks and I don’t want him to hate me! I thought he was gonna come in and be like “look, I’ll do my own lines, I’ll come up with my own stuff, because I don’t like the script.” I had nightmares about that the night before and I was like, this is gonna happen. But he loved the script. He read the lines, and laughed and added to it or said it was perfect as is. I’m like, “What is going on? Albert Brooks is liking my dialogue, that’s so fun”. That was great, and he was so fun every day. Dana Carvey not only gave us dozens of different voices to choose from, he would come in with alternate versions he wrote the night before and that’s incredible for the guy to do homework. He’d be like “Here’s some more if you want to use them, you can. If you don’t, I get it”. Lake Bell gave us a dozen voices. I think Lake Bell could do every character in an animated movie. She has so many voices in her, it’s amazing. You wouldn’t even know it’s her if she played five characters in the same movie. And she has just got it. She knows where to get the joke in a way she can wring the comedy out of a delivery.

LoAS: Can you talk a bit about The Flushed Pet? What was your input on that? (SPOILER ALERT in this answer)

BL: The big problem with The Flushed Pets is even though they are trying to kill our leads, when I came onboard, there was no ending for them because I definitely don’t want to see the flushed pets hurt or taken away. They are the bad guys, kind of, in the movie, but you totally get where they’re coming from. And you don’t want to see them hurt. That was a big part of the first test screening we had. The end joke with them partying with Leonard the poodle at the end was not in the movie, and people were legitimately worried about the flushed pets being ok. There’s an alligator, there are snakes, there’s the pig and the lizard and it’s cool that despite having 40, 50, 60 characters in the movie, people cared about them. That means we are doing our job ok. It was just a question of finding a nice ending for them. I think we landed it, because the audience was leaving happy about that.

LoAS: I’m wondering about whether there was an ode to Rear Window, since the movie takes place in New York and there is a scene with a lot of people and their pets in the windows. Was that something that was meant to be a reference?

BL: When I was working on Minions and I was talking to Cinco and Ken about the movie, they told me they originally imagined the movie to be Rear Window with a dog. It was gonna be Max at home all day, bored, and he would see something across the way, and it leads to an adventure. That’s not at all what happens in the movie. But that’s definitely their first idea in terms of what should happen, and I’m sure that that leaked in because of them.

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LoAS: In your career of writing for animation, what is the most surprising experience of something coming to life in a way you weren’t expecting or imagining?

BL: I’m always surprised the first screenings in terms of what the audiences fall in love with, and what they root for, whether it be in Hop, we had a bunny that made James Marsden’s life an absolute hell, and when we saw the movie, the audience was like, “well I like that bunny!” From my point of view, the bunny is a nuisance to the main character the whole time. Whereas with Max and Duke I was like, “Is Max being too mean to Duke?” The audience watched and was like “No, Duke’s intruding on Max’s life, Max would fight back a little”. It’s always interesting to me that the audience gets behind the characters the way they do. And it certainly has helped as I write more and more. I remember the first joke I ever wrote that I saw animated in a movie and I was sitting in a critics screening and I made an audible noise because I didn’t know they used this joke and whenever the movie is on TV and I see that moment, it’s kind of like where everything started. It means a lot to me.

LoAS: What’s the line?

BL: It’s not even a line, it’s just at one point, Ewan McGregor’s robot character creates this dishwasher robot and at one point he’s so good at washing dishes, he throws them all in the air and then runs over to the coffeemaker, and makes coffee, and drinks while the dishes are in the air, drinks it, and goes back to doing it. And that was what I wrote. He’s so good at it, he takes a coffee break with dishes midair. It was there and I was like, “Oh my god, I wrote this thing and then these animators, who are ten times more brilliant than I am, made it look incredible and all I did was one idea that I had for five seconds and jotted it down as one of many ideas and they took it and ran with it”! It’s just a neat experience. And it’s above the dishwasher at Illumination. They have a still of that picture, and every time I see it I just get happy.

LoAS: It’s a great way of expressing why people would want to write for animation, specifically because it’s such a much more collaborative type of filming. You’ve got the writer, and then another artist taking what you’ve written and turning it into something, adding more to it. There’s no other art form that does that.

BL: It’s a safety net that I really love, and I never take it for granted, in that when I write something, the directors will find the best way to do it, and the storyboard artists will find the funniest way to do it, and if it works, it’s because of all of us, and I love it. Instead of just filming something live, and then going “That didn’t work we have to come up with another joke”, we just chisel and chisel at it and see everybody’s best effort on screen, and if it doesn’t work, we go right back, and I write something new, the director and the storyboard artist work on making it the best version, and it’s great to just chisel until we get this piece of art that we all really like.

LoAS: What a great sentiment on which to end our interview. Thank you so much!

BL: Thank you so much. This was great.

Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale

Leslie is a freelance film critic and interviewer at Cinemasiren.com. She began representing artists and animation art in 1988, co-founding ArtInsights in 1994.
Leslie Combemale
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  • LesAnn620

    Ahhh! I am so excited to see this movie now. I was excited before, but knowing more about its background just makes me anticipate it that much more. Loved reading so much detail about how it came together and I was literally smiling at the screen as I read. 😀

  • ArtInsights

    thanks! so glad to hear it’s getting you excited to see the film. It was a very fun interview!