Making movies is a little bit like making magic. It may look real on film but, of course, it is all an illusion. I was reminded of this a few weeks back when a good part of the country including western Wisconsin, where I live, was in the grips of a dangerous heat wave. Temperatures soared and heat indexes were at 115º F plus.
As I sat working in my home office, sweat dripping off my brow in spite of the two fans positioned on either side of me, I was reminded of when I was working on a feature film called Here on Earth. It starred a young Chris Kline, and equally young Josh Hartnett, and a lovely young actress named Lee Lee Sobieski. We had been contracted to provide a herd of dairy cows to give reality and atmosphere to the dairy farm location.
We dutifully hauled the six Holstein cows to the set every morning and once they were unloaded, cleaned up and made comfortable we waited around for their inclusion in a scene.
Movie work is a classic case of hurry up and wait which means everyone must show up at 6:00 am because they just might change the shooting schedule in which case you better be ready when the first assistant director runs up to you, walkie-talkie in hand, and says breathlessly, “The director would like to use the cows now.”
This in itself is not so bad, but shooting happened to be taking place in a record heat wave not unlike the one we all just experienced.
We had a place in the shade, and plenty of water for the cows so they were ok when we were not working but once we moved into the lower level of the barn it was stifling hot and we felt the cows were at risk.
I mentioned this to the first assistant director who expressed our concerns to the director. The order was then given, “Cool the cows!” and a large plastic duct was pushed through a window and cool, clean conditioned air began to pour into the barn. It was heavenly if you were a cow. But if you were a trainer or just about anyone else, you had to stay back out of frame and almost die as the barn heated up even more because of the monstrously huge movie lights and close pressed bodies of the crew.
The actors were treated well, also. The crew had broken for lunch in a large event tent, which offered shade, but there was still no breeze and the heat and humidity was oppressive. I was watching as everyone moved as slowly as possible to avoid any extra exertion when I noticed Lee Lee Sobieski exiting her trailer. She looked liked an angel just stepped down from the clouds as she approached – every hair on her head in place, her makeup perfect and completely sweat free, as if she was immune to the weather. She came with her plate and sat at our table, which was unusual, as animal trainers are pretty low on the film crew totem pole. She happened to be an animal lover and wanted to know more about the cows. So we enjoyed a brief, if hot, lunch break with her. Then she floated back to her air-conditioned trailer and we went back to the cows.
In my next life, I am either going to be a beautiful young actress or a beautiful young acting cow. In either case, I will be cool.
Early in my career as a trainer of animal actors I had the chance to work with a wolf on a TV commercial. A hot shot director flew in from Chicago. I located a wolf owner through another animal trainer, and Steve, a man with many years of experience in handling wildlife for film, brought two beautiful wolves. The set was an abandoned farmhouse out in the middle of a recently vacated cow pasture. We did the filming at night. The wolf’s job was to run up to the door and scratch at it as if trying to get in. My job was to entice the wolf.
Steve and my helper, my husband Kevin, met at the back of Steve’s SUV and opened the hatch. Inside there was a large dog crate. Inside the crate was a wolf who initially pulled back and then came forward to check us out. Steve opened the crate and took the wolf’s heavy lead in his hands. He gently coaxed the wolf out. The wolf was a beautiful animal and much larger than I had expected. His head and jaws were powerful enough to cause serious damage if he was so inclined. His coat was silver gray and glinted under the temporary lights the crew had set up at base camp. The wolf, his head held low, eyed us suspiciously.
“He likes woman better than men,” Steve said. “You need to get low and speak to him quietly to show you are not a threat.” Steve then stooped and talked to the wolf in a sweet singsong voice, all the while stroking his head and back. I lowered myself and did the same. The wolf came forward and licked my hand. I was amazed to see such strength and power quietly submissive under my hand.
Steve told us that this wolf had been handled from birth. Although it appeared tame it was nowhere near tame. If provoked, the wolf could attack out of fear. If startled, the wolf might run off the set into the countryside.
There were the usual delays on the set. Spending a lot of time standing around and waiting is the not-so-glamorous part of show business. Finally, the producer came over to us and explained what he wanted the wolf to do. It’s funny how the instructions I receive on the set always involve more or different work than what I agreed to initially. In my initial conversation with the TV people, the wolf was to stand next to the farmhouse door, jump up, and scratch at the door. Now they wanted the wolf to be placed some distance away from the door, to run up to the door, and then scratch at it. For all of this the wolf would need to be off-leash with no handler visible on camera. Then the camera would pan to the side past the wolf to the open field that bordered the cow pasture.
I was skeptical. To my surprise, Steve agreed that he could get the wolf to do it. My husband Kevin was stashed out in the field beyond the farmhouse set. If the wolf was startled or frightened, he would most likely run for the field.
I stood inside the farmhouse door with my hands full of strips of raw chicken. My plan was that the wolf would smell me and my chicken inside the door and then he would jump up on the outside of the door in hopes of getting some chicken. We did a few practice runs, off-leash. The wolf did not run away and he came to the door as hoped, but he didn’t jump up on the door and scratch at it. I guess my strips of raw chicken were not sufficiently enticing.
Steve put the wolf back on his heavy leash and we discussed what to try next. The wolf then pulled Steve to the side of the house where he began to scratch and dig at the ground.
Meanwhile, the director, well known for displays of temper, was growing impatient. His assistant, walkie-talkie in hand, repeatedly came up to us to say nervously, “We really have to get this shot now. We really do.” Steve, having been in the business longer than I, took this in stride. He said the wolf would do the shot when he was ready and not a moment sooner.
The wolf continued to dig for a bit longer and happily pulled a dark slimy object from the ground. I could smell it before I saw it. Steve laughed and said, “This will work.” With his gloved hand, he handed me the putrid object. “What is this?” I asked, quickly pulling on my own leather gloves. “It’s a dead raccoon,” he said. “Long dead.” Long dead was right. Its decomposing flesh barely clung to its long skeleton. It was a disgusting object but the wolf wanted it badly.
The nervous assistant popped up again, keeping a safe distance from the wolf, and said again, “We have to get this shot now.”
Carrying the raccoon carcass, I resumed my position behind the door. Steve took the wolf some 25 yards away from the farmhouse door. Inside the dark farmhouse, I could see a grip (one of the fellows that do all the electrical for the lights on the set) standing just outside a window to my right. “Be careful,” he warned. “There is no floor behind you. The cattle broke it all up by using the house as a barn.” I had only a small ledge to stand on. If I moved backwards off it, I would fall into a basement full of cow manure. It was dark inside the house but I didn’t need to be able to see to know that lots of cows had only recently left this house. I clung to the frame of the door, clutching the rotting raccoon.
The assistant whispered “Action!” to me, signaling that the wolf had been released. I held on to the frame of the door and held up the rotting raccoon. I could hear and feel the wolf slam against the door feet first as he scratched and pawed and tried to get to the dead raccoon. Steve was able to collect the wolf and gave him some raw chicken as a reward for being caught. Of course, the director wanted as many takes as the wolf could do and so we did it few more times. Each time I held on to the door frame for dear life so as not to fall backwards into the cow manure. My eyes began to burn from the smell of the raccoon and the manure. I wondered if my chosen career was so fun after all.
Then I heard the director bellow from his seat on the crane: “Who the [insert very bad word here] are you!” I heard my husband’s startled voice call a reply from across the field, “Uh…I’m here…for the wolf.” The director yelled, “Get the [insert another very bad word] out of my shot.” Although I couldn’t see his face, I was sure poor Kevin scrambled out of the field vowing never to work on a commercial with me again.
We did one more take and Steve decided that the wolf had had enough. We were done. The director was none too happy about this, but I deferred to Steve’s expertise. This was his wolf and he knew its limits. “You don’t want us to be chasing this wolf all over the countryside, do you?” he said to the producer. I envisioned a large wolf running down the nearby road surprising the drivers on their early morning commute.
Kevin joined us and moved to give me a congratulatory hug. “What is that smell?” he said, recoiling. “Oh, just a rotting raccoon carcass,” I said blithely, as I tossed a pair of good leather gloves into the trash bin.
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