Brian Trenchard-Smith (Turkey Shoot) Talks the Challenges of Making Movies with Animals (Part 1)

The story of the Director, the Actor, the Guest Star Who Has Seen It All, and a very large, very hungry African lion called Sudan.

EXTERIOR. CHIAPAS JUNGLE, MEXICO – DAY

An episodic TV crew makes the final preparations for a complicated shot. Dolly track has been laid to converge on a tree with sprawling roots.

The Director looks at his watch.

The Guest Star Who Has Seen It All watches nearby with bemused interest.

The Director looks at his watch again, as if willing the minute hand to stop, and if possible go backwards.

Fluff and Buff, the hair and make-up artists, dab sweat from the brow of the Actor, standing at the base of the tree. Given that the temperature is over 100 degrees, this is a noble but futile effort.

DIRECTOR
Don’t worry about the sweat, he’s meant to look scared.

ACTOR
I am scared.

DIRECTOR
Don’t worry. This is totally safe. Nothing is going to go wrong.

The source of the Actor’s anxiety arrives on the set, his partner in the scene, a male with dangling testicles the size of grapefruit.

01_TARZAN-Hubert Leads Lion past Wolf

Sudan, a large African movie lion, is led out of the bushes on a chain by two Trainers. Two other Trainers follow, carrying short poles. As the Trainers tether the Lion to a spike embedded beside the far end of the dolly track, Sudan yawns and licks his lips to cool them.

ACTOR
Has he been fed today?

TRAINER
If we feed him, he won’t work.

The Actor’s jaw tightens further.

GUEST STAR
I’ve brought an apple for him.

Humor is no comfort.

TIME CUT to:

Everything is in place for the take. The Trainers have been positioned out of shot to protect both the Actor and camera crew, should the Lion stray from his designated path. The collar round Sudan’s neck is concealed beneath his shaggy mane, and the trailing leash masked by his body. The Actor has practiced limping backwards while swinging a burning firebrand to deter the advancing beast. The dolly grip and operator have rehearsed the camera move that will keep the Lion on screen right, with his retreating victim on screen left. It’s a traveling geography shot that will add tension when intercut with compatible dolly shots on the faces of the Lion and the Actor.

02_TARZAN-Chuck & Lion

The Director wants the audience to see the Lion and the Actor in the same shot; but not a static shot, which could be achieved by the elements being photographed separately with a locked-off camera, then fused in the lab, with the vertical join disguised by a tree in the close background. This would spare the Actor any proximity to the King of the Beasts. No. The Director wants a Movie Shot, not a get-it-done-move-on episodic approach, but a sense that the camera is almost mounted on the flank of the Lion as it slowly closes in on its prey. The time for this glorious cinematic moment has arrived.

DIRECTOR
So, on “Action,” slowly hobble back, wave the firebrand, shout at it to back off…feel free to improv…

ACTOR
“Back off, you fucker…”?

DIRECTOR
Something like that, but without the “fucker.” … Here we go, roll camera.

The Prop Master lights the firebrand again. The 1st A.D. calls for turnover in Spanish.

The crew, a well-oiled machine, commences their respective duties. The Chief Trainer calls commands to the Lion.

TRAINER
Sudan! Go! Slow, Sudan! Slow! Good, Sudan! Good!

The Director hovers beside the camera, which keeps pace with the ambling Lion. Sudan is fascinated by the firebrand, and reacts to its movements. The Actor is In The Moment! Everything is working perfectly.

03_TARZAN - Hubert, Lion, Firebrand

At this point the Transportation Captain arrives on set to watch the shot. The 1st A.D. sees him, and a long simmering feud chooses this moment to erupt.

1ST A.D.
(curtly)
No ha puesto el camiones en donde le dije.

TRANSPORTATION CAPTAIN
Cree que es el jefe? Yo soy el capitán de transporte! Los camiones parquean en donde digo yo!

DIRECTOR
Guys! Sshh!

They neither see nor hear him. They are in a world of rising steam.

1ST AD
Stúpido!

Whoa! Bad word in Mexico. Serious escalation. The tension-meter on the set spikes. Hungry lion, anxious actor handling fire, two departments inching toward civil war, complex dolly shot, etc. It’s understandable. But the net effect of the expanding angst is to push the Actor into the truth zone. It’s a great performance, swinging from fear to rage and back again. Meanwhile, the other drama continues.

TRANSPORTATION CAPTAIN
Chinga tu madre!

1ST A.D.
Chinga su madre!

Oh, boy! Now we’ve gone to Def Con 4. After soiling each other’s mothers, there is only one stage the conflict can move to … The Slap.

The Transportation Captain slaps the 1st A.D.’s face; not to inflict physical pain, more of a formal gesture, a challenge.

Some men go red with anger. The 1st A.D.’s complexion goes pasty white. His eyes blaze. Detonation is imminent. Luckily members of both departments seize the potential combatants and hustle them to separate corners of the jungle.

The Lion sits down at the end of his leash, awaiting reward. The Actor has started to enjoy himself. Lions? Hah, they’re pussies. The Director calls for Take 2. There’s no producer on the set to stop him.

As you may have guessed by now, this is not another of those whimsical screenplay scenes that periodically crawl out of my id, this actually happened. In 1991. The show was Tarzán. The Actor was Canada’s great Chuck Shamata, whom I have cast in two movies since. The Guest Star was former Tarzan Ron Ely. The Lion Trainers were the incomparable Boone Narr and Hubert Wells, and the Director obsessed with getting a tie-in shot was yours truly.

Every movie mixes good intentions under pressure with powerful egos. There Will Be Blood – if you do not head these situations off at the pass. I had ample warning that the clash of personalities was gathering momentum, but chose to ignore it. Naturally Murphy’s Law applied, at the most precarious moment. So I lost an excellent A.D., René Villarreal, fired regardless of the rights and wrongs of the issue, lest the transportation department immediately get in their trucks and drive back to Mexico City without us. So I have learned over the years to develop an ear for seismic pre-shocks, and use diplomacy, humor, bribery, alcohol, whatever it takes to help the parties see each other’s virtues. Part of a director’s job is to set the tone in the workplace, encourage communication, and make everybody’s hard work fun.

04_TARZAN - BTS & Lion @ Agua Azual

I find directing animals great fun. It requires patience and flexibility. In the new year, I’ll offer some practical tips. Watch this space.

Brian Trenchard-Smith has been burning to make genre films ever since seeing Hitchcock’s Vertigo at age 13. So far he has directed 42 Crimes Against Cinema, and counting. (He’s an enthusiastic recidivist.) His cult favorites include The Man from Hong Kong, Turkey Shoot, BMX Bandits, Stunt Rock, The Siege of Firebase Gloria. His latest film is Drive Hard, a quirky buddy action comedy with John Cusack and Thomas Jane.