When the script for my short film Adonis was finished, the first thing on my mind was casting a dog. The movie relies heavily on the dog and to me, that was the key and also my biggest fear. In fact, over the years as I tried to build a crew, several people refused to be part of the short film simply because it featured an animal actor and they didn’t want to deal with that. I was given names of several Hollywood animal trainers and made some calls. Because I’m not Universal Studios and just an independent filmmaker making a low budget short, I think some of those places brushed me off and acted like me calling them was a waste of their time. However, Debbie Pearl of Paws for Effect was completely different. She read the script and remarked how “cute” it was and wanted to help with the perfect dog.
I trekked up to the Paws for Effect Ranch in Lake Hughes to audition animal actors. This is a very large property with about 30+ dogs, all rescues. I was impressed how each had their own special house and when Debbie called their name, they would pop out and come to the door. Or, when some of them (I should say most of them) were barking, she would yell out their name and snap “shut up!” and they would be silent. Clearly, they followed commands.
When she called them by name, each would come inside and she’d run them through their tricks. The winner, as she had suggested, was a dog named Linus. He was a shaggy fella who I could see being a chick magnet. Unfortunately, I took so long getting the movie going that he grew too old to be able to pull off the job.
A few years later, I was gearing up again. I thought I’d make a quick spec commercial featuring a dog as a trial run. I had never worked with an animal or trainer before, so I wanted to test out the process. I made a fake Powerade spot that starred a small pup named Simon. Everyone making the commercial was blown away by this cute pooch. He quickly learned his marks and went to them. At first he was scared of a camera that moved quickly towards him. However, by putting a bit of food on the sunshade for him to taste, he immediately knew the camera was nothing to be afraid of. The shoot went really well and I had no more fears about making a short film that featured a dog. I thought Simon would be the star of Adonis but time was not on my side and he passed away.[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxxi2MF031g[/youtube]
Yet again, I set out to make Adonis and contacted Paws for Effect a few years later. I’m sure they thought I’d never really make this short film but instead, they were excited to hear that it was going again and anxious to introduce me to their newest rescue: Jimmy. This tiny, scruffy creature with spindly legs and spiked hair was perfect for Adonis. He was definitely a chick magnet and even trotted around with a bit of arrogance that I thought the Adonis character needed. Being brand new and very young, he was just learning. Adonis was going to be the perfect training ground for him.
By the time we finally got Adonis into true preproduction, Jimmy was not a rookie. In fact, he was a seasoned veteran with impressive credits such as The Dog Problem, Adam & Steve, TV shows such as Samantha Who, Melrose Place, Undercover and countless commercials. He, I dare say, was more experienced than most of us on the crew. He could do everything listed in the script and more. The only thing that he needed to practice was walking on a treadmill. Once I got hold of a treadmill and painted it chromakey green, I dropped it off at the ranch for him.
Shooting with Jimmy on set was probably the biggest joy of the shoot. It took place during a heat wave in Los Angeles. The stage was a remarkably miserable 103 degrees. Our star needed to stay cool and was based in an air conditioned lounge room between scenes. When it was time for his shot, he would suit up in his miniature backpack and he would prance onto the stage. His focus on Debbie was amazing. He wasn’t distracted by lights or equipment. Others brought their pets to the dog-friendly set but our canine star couldn’t care less. She would show him the marks and run through the shot. After the first run-through, he knew what to do and didn’t need prompting. Unlike what most people say about needing hundreds of takes to get things right, our little guy always was spot on. Everyone on set would watch and be shocked at how well this amazing animal actor performed. They would often burst out in uncontrollable laughter during his scenes and would give him loud clapping and cheering ovations when he finished. Then, he would trot back to his air-conditioned room and take a nap.
I mentioned the heat. To top that off, we shot into late hours. We were behind schedule the second we stepped on the stage. In those conditions, the crew could certainly be miserable and lose morale. I never saw this happen. It seemed everyone had fun on the production and I can attribute a lot of that to Jimmy himself. Just him trotting onto stage brought a smile to everyone’s face. He certainly made me very happy whenever I saw him. That special star brought genuine joy to our movie. As Charles Schultz wrote, “happiness is a warm puppy.” It was a genuine honor and pleasure to work with this remarkable soul.
My advice to filmmakers contemplating using animals: Always work with animals…as long as they are trained by someone like Debbie Pearl and Paws for Effect.[vimeo]https://vimeo.com/46699557[/vimeo]