Children and Animals

by Clay McLeod Chapman and Craig Macneill.

W.C.Fields sure was onto something when he uttered this immortal warning nearly a century ago: “Never work with animals or children.”

Did we listen? Of course not. Our previous short film collaboration, LATE BLOOMER, premiered at the 2004 Lake Placid Film Festival where it was awarded the Audience Award for Best Short Film and went on to screen at dozens of festivals including the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. LATE BLOOMER was about a seventh gradesex-ed class that goes terribly wrong. The cast was predominantly comprised of preadolescents, and in spite of this fact, everything went very smoothly on set.  Based on that experience, we were very confident, perhaps overly so, about working with just one younger child in our next short, HENLEY.  In fact, for HENLEY we decided to double-down: not only would our lead be even younger than anyone we’ve ever worked with before—we’d throw animals into the mix. Live animals—Deer and rabbit to be exact.

We lucked out with our young lead Hale Lytle, who plays nine-year-old Ted Henley. Hale has a preternatural quality about him—a magnetic screen presence. Nine years old at the time of shooting, this kid had more energy than the rest of the cast and crew combined. When all the adults started to wane, losing energy around the 3 AM stretch, Hale would be still jumping around the set, ready for his close-up.

The deer, however, is another story.

Two key segments in our film revolved around prolonged shots of deer: a deer grazing in a field; and a deer stepping onto a highway at night only to be caught in the headlights of an oncoming car.

W.C. Fields was likely rolling in his grave as the script was being written.

We shot in Virginia during the summer and had all been told many times by many locals that the streets are flooded with deer. We would have no trouble finding lots of deer—alive, dead or otherwise. Just wait a couple minutes; they’ll step out from the woods and start waving their SAG card at you. Nothing lead us to believe we wouldn’t be able to get one—if not dozens—for a couple shots. Until, we didn’t. All those deer ready for their big break just disappeared. Poof.

Okay—so we’ll hire an animal trainer we thought. Use a professional. Nope. Turns out the state of Virginia considers deer a nuisance and has a law that states you can’t keep deer as pets—or, train them for movies. We kept pushing our deer scenes during filming, stalling for a miracle. On our last day of shooting, with no divine intervention to speak of, we rushed to an antique store looking for mounted deer heads. We found a footstool whose legs were made of—wait for it—deer legs. Hoof to knee. Our production designer sawed the legs off and attempted to puppeteer the shot of our hapless animal strutting onto the street from the knees down. It looked like a deer-of-the-night in high heels waiting for some john to pull over and pick it up. Or, as some suggested, like a moon-walking dead deer. Fortunately this footage never made its way into the film.

Luckily, a month later, one of our crew members just-so-happened to be working on a feature in upstate New York that just-so-happened to have a deer in it. The feature had hired a professional wrangler and this deer was legit. It had a trailer and everything. With a little begging, we were able to convince the animal’s handler to “borrow” the deer between scenes on the feature to shoot the necessary bits for our humble little short.

The amount of screen time taken up by our kidnapped deer adds up to only a few seconds. Blink and you might even miss it. That’s pretty minuscule compared to the days of anxiety and frustration spent trying to find the deer in the first place.  But ask us if we’ve learned from our lesson or not, if we’ll work with animals (or kids) ever again—and we’ll have to shake our heads no: As it stands, we’re planning to expand and adapt our short into a feature film. That’s ninety minutes of deer whispering. That’s more kids and a hell of a lot more deer.

HENLY screened in competition at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. The film premiered at the 2011 Gen Art Film Festival where it was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for Best Short Film.

Craig Macneill is a director and screenwriter based in New York City. Macneill’s first film, LATE BLOOMER, was an official selection at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and played at over twenty prestigious festivals worldwide winning the audience award for Best Short Film at the Lake Placid Film Festival and Best short film at the HP Lovecraft Film Festival. In 2009, Macneill, along with co-director Alexei Kaleina, completed a micro budget feature film tilted THE AFTERLIGHT. THE AFTERLIGHT had its world premiere at the International Rome Film Festival in Rome, Italy and in 2011 was acquired for theatrical distribution, DVD, and VOD through Cinema Purgatorio. Also Macneill, wrote and directed, LOBOS (WOLVES) a short film shot entirely on location in Spain. LOBOS premiered at the Zagreb Film Festival and the 2010 Palm Spring Shortfest. In 2010 Craig was awarded a Jerome Foundation Grant. You can find his work at North Lake Films.

Clay McLeod Chapman is the creator of the rigorous storytelling session The Pumpkin Pie Show. He is the author of rest area, a collection of short stories, and miss corpus, a novel. Currently, he is writing a trilogy of middlegrade children’s novels titled The Tribe—book one, Homeroom Headhunters, hits the shelves in 2013 from Hyperion books. He is writing the book for SCKBSTD, a new orginial musical with Grammy-winner Bruce Hornsby, directed by Tony-winner John Rando. He teaches writing at The Actors Studio MFA Program at Pace University.