They say that the three things you should never work with as a filmmaker are children, animals, and water. Suffice to say, I've managed to find ways to work frequently with all three.
At the beginning, this was entirely my fault. My first film in film school was the de rigeur NYU student film about the homeless, but for the second I somehow wrote something requiring a five-year-old. Luckily, this was a non-sync film and so all she had to do was look cute and play video games, both things that come naturally to most children. Having survived that experience relatively unscathed, I next took on water, choosing to convey the deep meaning of the line "'Til human voices wake us, and we drown" in my cinematic interpretation of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (described in more embarrassing detail in a previous blog) by having a tweed homburg worn earlier by the character of "Prufrock" wash up on the beach at the Jersey Shore. Maybe it wasn't exactly what Eliot intended but ooh, the symbolism! Getting the Atlantic Ocean to behave exactly the way I wanted only took about 17 takes, and the arty flashframey shots of my legs scurrying after the hat, trying to keep it from going out to sea, were a great addition to the credit sequence outtakes -- which were, unfortunately, the best part of the film.
Not having had my fill of people and things unable take direction, I decided to make a dog a main character in my thesis film -- one who, naturally, appears in nearly every scene. This being a low-budget production (one that still plunged me into credit card debt for several years), I could not afford an animal trainer, and so scouted dog schools looking for a likely candidate, eventually ending up with Emma, a cute but unprofessional little critter who made everybody's life hell. One of my most vivid memories of that production was trying to get Emma to look at the camera by having Ted, my lead actor, who she'd decided was her favorite person on that particular day (the position was always up for grabs), stand right next to it while Emma's owner fed Ted Emma's favorite food, Wheat Thins, and the both of them called, "Emma! Emma! Look, Emma!" in perky voices, over and over and over again. I think I may even have photos of this somewhere (which I can't seem to find, but while looking, I did dig up some old set photos, one of which is offered above as a complete non sequitur).
But since I began working on other people's projects and lost control over my own destiny, I've worked with plenty more animals, and I'm not just talking about the ones who walk on two legs and spend all their time on the phone screaming at their agents and hitting on PAs. The long list includes cats of various sizes from house to jungle, parrots, butterflies, cows –- which are much, much bigger than you think they are -- and one very independent-minded skunk who, instead of walking straight toward the actress like he was supposed to, would get about half-way there and then bolt off course, on the exact same trajectory every time, forcing one to wonder, are skunks really stupid, or are they really really smart and are they just fucking with us?
Oh, and one fake ferret puppet operated via a couple of long sticks by a little British puppeteer, who originally built it as a mink for the film "Bright Lights, Big City" something like 15 years before it showed up on our commercial –- so really, one had to admire both its longevity and its versatility. And its ability to jump from the coffee table to the poor actor's face through enough takes that the guy had to get a bag of ice for his nose. This was before he had to gyrate wildly about the room while biting on a bite guard attached to a rubber tongue to which the ferret was, in turn, attached, apparently not very well because it kept flying off and hitting the wall during the take –- which might well be the outcome if you were actually trying to remove a ferret from your tongue, but it was not supposed to happen in the spot. So we did it again, and again, and again, until finally, the only solution was that the actor had to try to inconspicuously hold the ferret to his face while running, screaming, and, finally, dialing a text message into his cell phone, finally bringing us to the tag line: "When you can't talk, Verizon text messaging!"
Speaking of puppet animals, I've also worked with Alf, who is actually two puppeteers, one a really obnoxious guy who operates his mouth while doing the voice of Alf. It may come as no big surprise to anyone that Alf's off-screen persona is a pain in the ass given his on-screen persona, but one would hardly expect him to be, also, both surly and egotistical –- especially considering that the man was famous for playing what is described on IMDb as "a furry alien wiseguy" whose show has been off the air for close to 15 years and that, since his guest spot on Hollywood Squares in 2004, Alf's work has been reduced to doing commercials with Hulk Hogan. Or then again, maybe that's exactly why. (Hulk Hogan, for the record, is quite nice).
But before I went off on what I like to delude myself was a vaguely relevant puppet tangent, I was getting to the point that most of the animals I've worked with are dogs. Still uniquely popular in the vernacular of All-American pets, most dogs are also uniquely smart, patient, willing and obedient, which in this case works to their disadvantage because it gets them into situations any dog with a modicum of intelligence –- which is about what most of them have -- would normally choose to stay, far, far away from. This is why, inevitably, a day of working with dogs involves a good deal of waiting, shouting, cajoling, and at least a couple of people making total idiots out of themselves in the interest of getting said dogs to do something that is, if not completely unreasonable, at least unnatural and probably embarrassing for them, if they feel embarrassment, which I'm pretty sure some of them do.
On a good day, they just have to sell their little doggie souls for snacks. Like on the commercial I worked on for Frontline –- a brand name I was unfamiliar with but quickly deduced, from all the scratching going on in front of the camera, is a type of flea and tick repellent. There were three dogs doing the scratching, two pugs named Chi Chi and Mu Shu and a Boston terrier named Buster. They were all pretty good, although Buster seemed to have more of an attention-span problem than the other two because whenever Buster was on set, Al, our first AD, had to call for all talking to stop so Buster could concentrate.
"They're great dogs though. I had two Boston Terriers when I was a kid," said Al, looking a bit misty in a way you don't expect in a man who has the size, shape and swagger of a former football player gone to seed. This is what dogs do to people.
"He seems talented," I replied. "And these trainers seem very good. I've never seen them before."
"These girls are the real deal," said Al. "They worked on 'Men in Black 2.' Mu Shu is the dog from 'Men in Black 2,' Mu Shu is Frank." Then he turned in that sudden way unique to ADs and schizophrenics and called into his headset, "Quiet please! Buster on set! BUSTER IS ON SET!"
I made this remark because, generally, dog trainers make up their own, feral species who seem as if they had, themselves, been plucked straight from the wild, snarling and squirming. They arrive on set disheveled and smelling like the smoky doggie meat treats they always have smushed in their hands and pockets. They have no people skills, tending to be much more comfortable talking to their animals, who they seem to believe can understand them perfectly but insist on ignoring them. Like when one said to a dog I was working with a couple of weeks ago, "Oh, you're pulling your 'Sex and the City' crap again, eh?" I realized then that the dog was, indeed, Pete, Aidan's dog, but the only crap he seemed to be pulling was being too eager to get up off the couch and get his treat, probably because he hadn't eaten all day.
The Frontline job dog trainers, however, were two pretty, well-coiffed ladies in ironed black jeans who actually talked to the dogs like they were, well, dogs, and wore snazzy aprons with their company logo and their various tools and treats at the ready.
"Good job! Good doggie!" they chirped. Over, and over, and over again.
"Hit the dog in the butt with the ball, hit him in the butt!" responded the director, an avant-garde-styled guy named Travis with dyed-black hair, two earrings and a chunky Ankh pendant over an abundance of chest hair displayed through the wide-open collar of a Guyabera. Although he would probably have preferred to be directing a Jane's Addiction video than bossing around a dog who was more famous than he was, he was still clearly having all the fun he could.
"That's funny as crap!" he exclaimed after a shot where they had two of the dogs pulled across the stage in a tiny wooden car and trailer. "To have Mu Shu in the back there is just extra stupid." We also got to see the dogs get chased around the stage by a remote-control monster truck.
Of course, by then we'd all completely lost interest. Having to wait on anyone or anything is very trying for a film crew, much less having to wait while not talking or making any sudden movements -- the only things that keep us awake. Forcing one to contemplate (or maybe not "one," because maybe I'm the only "one" who sits around thinking about these things in her downtime -- I mean, it's either that or go back to craft service): is it worse for the pugs or for those of us who are fully cognizant that we are waiting on pugs?
Sometimes, there's no doubt. In another spot, featuring a family of commercial actors having dinner, all of their food was made to hover around above the table, the joke being that young Timmy, or whatever his name was, was upstairs reading about astronauts on the web, and Verizon internet is just that good. Ha ha. What really was funny was watching five skilled but not particularly graceful prop guys dance around the table, dangling the food on long metals skewers that were going to be Photoshopped out later, trying to make it all look gravity-defying. But then came the real challenge: making the dog float.
The dog's name was Camille but the director, a nice although self-centered (as is the nature of his species) director named Dan, decided, for some reason, to call her "Mr. Pickles." I'm not sure how Camille felt about this but it infuriated her trainer, a woman with a steel-grey puff of hair and a drooping scowl that looked it like it was just dying to have a cigarette hanging from it, who had the improbable name of Melanie.
"She's getting upset! This is very confusing to her!"
It was a losing battle, because naturally the new name caught like wildfire, as such things will with film crews, until everyone was calling Camille "Mr. Pickles." Apparently the woman who was monitoring the shoot from the Society for the Ethical Treatment of Animals did not consider renaming to be a form of dog abuse worth noting on her little clipboard because she allowed it to continue, unabated.
"Can we have Mr. Pickles on set?" called Dan.
"There's nobody here by that name!" squawked Melanie from the other room.
But come Mr. Pickles did for her big moment: to be put into a harness, one not-too-cleverly concealed with fake fur of not entirely the correct shade of off-white dog, that was then hauled across a wire on a pulley operated by all five prop guys, causing the dog to bob through the air, narrowly missing the heads of the actors. The man in charge of the process was a young prop guy named Mike, typical of the species Hot Artdepartmenticus –- rebellious yet handy and identifiable by it's large number of tatoos -- who clearly hadn't come into this day knowing that he'd be spending the latter portion of it trying to comfort a poor dog that he was in large part responsible for making airborne. This was particularly necessary once we got to the commercial's punch-line, which required that when Timmy or Bobby or whatever comes down to dinner, everything floating falls, including Mr. Pickles herself, in several variations thought up by the agency which were super confusing to a dog not happy to be in flight in the first place. She no sooner got used to being caught by the dad -- one-handed, which took some work so that her little furry body wouldn't tip forward or backward in the harness forcing her to scramble about for a place to put her paws –- than she, instead, was allowed to plummet, nearly hitting the floor. Dan the director asked Melanie how Mr. Pickles was doing after she nearly went splat.
"She just doesn't want to do too many more," the weary trainer replied.
While I can't speak to her psychic wounds –- we may yet see poor Camille on "The Dog Whisperer," biting and growling at anyone who utters the word "pickles" –- the dog finished the day unhurt, and she was a trouper. She got a well-deserved round of applause from everyone, and even if its enthusiasm was due partly to guilt at having been witnesses to her on-set humiliation and partly schadenfreude at not having been the victims of it, at least not that day, with some snuggling and a few extra goodies, she seemed happy enough.
Leaving only those of us with the power of reflection to face the question: This is what we do for a living?