While the old Hollywood axiom about not working with children or animals is about the potential for upstaging, there's good reason why it's a phrase often misinterpreted to be about the difficulty of working conditions. Neither of the aforementioned are well known for being super cooperative exactly when they need to be, and in the case of the latter situations are made even more difficult when the creatures are wild. A perfect example of this can be found in the story of the making of Hold The Dark, the new thriller from director Jeremy Saulnier. The film has Alaskan wolves playing a key part in the plot, and it was an element the filmmakers underestimated, starting with what screenwriter Macon Blair described to me as a "far too specific" script:
Very specific. 'The wolf stops, turns its head a quarter degree, gives an eye to the camera.' It was very, very specific, and there were a lot of sequences where I don't know what... I do know what I was thinking. I was thinking that it wasn't going to be my problem! So yeah, 'I'm going to give them some really complicated stuff to do with, with very precise directions.' And of course they're wild animals. They will do exactly whatever they want.
Hold The Dark held its American premiere at Fantastic Fest earlier this month in Austin, Texas, and the day after the screening I had the pleasure of sitting down with both Jeremy Saunier and Macon Blair to talk about their latest collaboration (they've now worked together on all four of Saulnier's feature directorial efforts, the previous three being Murder Party, Blue Ruin, and Green Room). I brought up the subject of working with the animals on the movie, going in assuming that it wasn't the easiest part of production, and the filmmakers told me all about not only the difficulty of working with wolves, but also why it was so important.
Macon Blair noted that while there was absolutely no way that the production could get the wolves to do exactly what he wrote into his screenplay, he was immensely impressed with what Jeremy Saulnier and his editor, Julia Bloch, were able to piece together. He openly described some of what he wrote for the animals as "not film-able," but still his director and the film's editor were able to get the footage that they needed to construct competent sequences.
Some of you may be questioning at this point why the Hold The Dark production wouldn't just patch things up with CGI, but that was actually something Jeremy Saulnier specifically wanted to avoid. While he had been somewhat convinced by other films that there was more that could be done with trained wolves, he didn't want to use the artifice of visual effects in a movie that is as grounded in reality as it is, even with its more supernatural elements. Explained the director,
The wolves, though, when Macon sort of choreographed the sequence with the semicircle of wolves approaching - what we see in movies - we thought they could do that. But most of the wolves you see, either they run through frame, or they're 3D CG models, and that's what we definitely didn't want to do, is dip into that world where we were doing something very artificial and contrived. Because the movie needed to be very grounded and unimpeachable as far as, 'Is this real or not?' Because we're asking people to take a big leap and it has mystical elements and all that.
Breaking it down, Jeremy Saulnier explained that there was little direction that could be offered for the wolves beyond the occasional introduction of a free meal:
The animals, you know, you throw a raw chicken at the wolves and they'll eat it, and they'll stare for a bit, but they do not behave properly. So it was an exercise in filmmaking, how do we translate Macon's script, get all the impact of that scene, but totally bend to the will of the wild animals and never allow ourselves to sort of lean back on any sort of artificial techniques.
Obviously all of this sounds like a sincere creative challenge, but one bit of positive news for Hold The Dark was that not all of the animal wrangling required serious improvisation. One of the key moments early in the movie sees Jeffrey Wright's character, Russell Core, impeded on the path to his destination by a large bison in the middle of the road, and Saulnier explained that there was really no issue at all with those creatures:
The bison behave quite well. They don't tend to be too skittish and bounce around.