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Filmmaker takes crew members to see films they worked on for the first time by Aaron Hunt

“A Cow At 8:00 AM is Different Than A Cow At 2:00 AM”: Animal Trainer Lauren Henry on First Cow

Lauren Henry and Eve on the set of First Cow

Kelly Reichardt peppers her 19th Century Oregon Territory with warm cakes and endearing fauna. Eve, the “first cow” in the territory, is a symbol of opportunity to everyone but its natives, the hinge of the film’s plot, a romantic proxy to its protagonist, “Cookie,” and one of animal trainer Lauren Henry’s best behaved cows. The secret to contriving “wild” and natural animal behavior in the preposterous habitat of the movie set? Patience. Putting the time in to normalize the set for the animal and any action he or she might have to perform in it. But Henry’s work goes beyond effable instruction. It’s not something you can imitate in steps, it’s something emotional and intuitive, a gift or will you have or don’t.  

Henry’s Talented Animals have worked in all modes. In Green Room, her pitbulls gnawed teen faces to goulash. In Cabin Fever (2016) one of her dogs was infected with a flesh-eating virus and preyed, again, on supple adolescent faces. In Air Buddies, her talking golden retriever puppies played soccer, baseball, did yoga, and made a coordinated maneuver to tie the babysitter to her rocking chair while flexing their edge-lit blowouts. Her animals in First Cow performed in the subtler vein of Henry’s work on Wild and Into The Wild, where trained animal behavior was meant to look caught and candid. For her animals to move unaffectedly their comfort was even more critical. So Henry prepared them for what she predicted the wild movie world might throw their way.

[The credits roll]

Filmmaker: What did you think of the film?

Henry: It is always challenging for me to decide what I think of projects in which I was involved—I have read the script so many times, and been through so much, and in every scene I am seeing all the work involved and all the takes we did not use, and am watching the subtle animal action. So I know my experience in watching bears little resemblance to what most movie-goers will experience. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed First Cow. I thought the story was compelling, and the imagery was beautiful, and I very much appreciated the gentle pace and the unglitzy realism. It is very different from most Hollywood fast-paced action, but it is also not that sort of hyper-gritty-realism that you sometimes see in indies. It just sort of moves at a natural pace and lets the world in front of the camera pull you along. Obviously, I am biased, but for example, I thought the moment with Cookie helping out the newt, or the camera lingering on the owl were beautiful moments.

Filmmaker: Did you always intend for your work with animals to lead to the film industry?

Henry: Oddly enough, when I was nine years old, my grandfather told me I was going to train animals for the movies. At that age I was training my dog, cat and cockatiel to do tricks together and put on shows for little kids in the neighborhood. Of course my parents told me to goto college and do all that, so I did. Sure enough I graduated college, got a degree, put it in my back pocket, and went and trained animals for films. [laughs] That’s the short story. But yes and no. I think training animals is part art and part science. I think you’re born with the gift to be able to communicate those kinds of complex things and make it simple for animals to get it and make it rewarding for them and enjoyable for them to do it. There’s a science to it just like there’s a science to understanding people, psychology. But then there are just people who understand people. They get it. I think I have a strong base in the art form of it and in the science form of it.

My dad was an actor, so I did a lot of stagework and running the lines with him. I spent a lot of time backstage as a kid growing up, so I think I understand how the film industry works and how actors work and I can marry the two things pretty easily. 

Filmmaker: Does it change your approach at all that you’re dealing with wild animals rather than the magical, able types of others films you’ve worked on like, lets say, Air Buddies, in First Cow?

Henry: I think there are several examples on my iMDB about this [contrast]. Everything you do on a film is contrived in some way unless you’re shooting a documentary and waiting for something to happen with a camera. Anything we do with a wild or domestic animal in a confined space in front of the camera is in some ways trained. Or, you understand the biology and the nature of such that you can set it up to occur in that moment. The owl in First Cow is an owl that’s trained to do live shows and fly into people. It’s comfortable in front of the lights and on a branch that we set it on to do the look. Even though it’s a wild animal it is trained, it is acclimated, and enjoyed that process. 

Same with the dogs in First Cow or any of the other shows. The biggest difference in those particular cases is, if you want dogs to act like natural dogs vs puppies who are doing very unpuppy-like behaviors for the sake of a kid show—in the instance of First Cow they wanted more of the natural dog behavior because these were dogs that lived in the village or were out with the trappers. The challenge is that you want set savvy dogs that are going to do a repeatable behavior in such a sweet spot on the screen at the right time and then also make it look natural. Because it’s not natural if you put all of those constraints on the animal. That’s the challenge. Most of the time they want wild animals to do wild behaviors, and it works within their wheelhouse quite well. 

Filmmaker: How do you prime your animals for the oddity that is the movie set?

Henry: The very first thing we do is pick the individual ahead of time. We have to know that they have the kind of personality to work in a set environment, that they will enjoy it, and that it’s not going to be stressful for them. We’re not going to pick any cat, any dog, any cow, whatever. For instance, one of our best movie cats is the most obnoxious one to live with because he wants to be the center of attention, he wants to meet everyone, and go see what’s around the corner. That makes for a really good movie cat because it fits his personality. “Oh, a complete stranger, I want them to be my friend!” That is going to work much better than the cat who runs and hides under the bed whenever somebody new shows up.

So same with the cow. Part of our screening process before submitting cows for Kelly to pick for this particular part, was meeting the cows and making sure they were happy, social and outgoing. Once they were selected, in this case it was Eve, we set up a mock set with a generator, lights, and a bounce, everything she would encounter on set, and we acclimated her to those things a little bit longer each day until it was just part of her scenery. When we did the raft we practiced with her on the raft in little increments of time everyday. She’d eat her breakfast and dinner on the raft and get used to it. She far exceeded our expectations on the day she rode the raft and she was totally happy to be out there. We did have a trainer on the raft in case there was a problem and he was in wardrobe and hidden. But after all that acclimating she was very happy to ride that raft down the river. 

Filmmaker: Eve’s doing a lot of subtle work here, mostly stationary at night. Were those night scenes challenging in any way? 

Henry: Most of the time the camera’s pretty tight, and I’m there rubbing her head and giving her treats. So she’s being rewarded for standing there. She’s also very very patient. She also understood and is very good about staying on her mark. She understood she had to stay and that the treats were gonna come, and I was always very faithful to give her cookies at the right interval. So she knew she was working for like a paycheck you get every couple of weeks. She knew her paycheck was coming if she stood there. So we just built up the time in between her paychecks so that if I had to stay back because they did do a full body shot, she would stay there and know she was going to get rewarded. As soon as there was a cut she knew she’d get her treat. And that made for a happy cow! 

Filmmaker: Of course the nature of the film set is that things change on the day. Are those changes difficult for the animals?

Henry: Part of our job is to be team players and to be flexible. On First Cow she actually is being milked on camera. So there are certain things we couldn’t change in the schedule because she wouldn’t have milk if they wanted to film her at a different time of the day. So it depends on the animal’s flexibility, and it depends on the shot. But we do do our best to accommodate changes, they do happen and we usually have contingencies in place. We try to guess what they could be too, we can see that we need a weather cover so we might need to change animals or whatever to accommodate that.

Filmmaker: Do you always have your own crew with you, or is it just you?

Henry: No. I have a partner, we’ve been together for 25 years, he and I do this together. He, Roland Sonneburg, is the other half of Talented Animals. He and I do most of the jobs together, and there are other trainers who freelance for us when we need them to. The crow is ours that was in it, the dogs, the horses, etc.  

Filmmaker: I did read about the animals you have on your website. Do you work with animals that are brought in too?

Henry: We do. Part of that is because we don’t want to get too top heavy so that we don’t have too many animals to give each individual attention. We partner with other companies who are doing a really good job and bring them on as needed.

Filmmaker: What did pre production on First Cow look like?

Henry: Sitting down with Kelly to learn what she desired to see on screen, what type of animals she wants to see doing what and when. Figuring it out— because what looks to directors like natural behaviors to us takes pre-production, which is very critical. We have to prep it to look natural. If we show up on the day with an animal that has no inkling of what they’re supposed to do, it’s just going to sit and do what it wants. So we have two or three different conversations as the script changes, the actors are brought in, the locations are selected, and we look at what these things do to impact the animal’s performance. And then there are the actual hours of training the animal, going to location, setting up mock sets, working on duration, working on the distance so that an animal can do what they need to do deep into a scene. So a lot of our time in pre-production is spent reading through the script, trying to replicate what we can before shooting so that the animals are used to it.   

Filmmaker: What are those conversations with Kelly like?

Henry: Kelly’s great. She has a really unique eye. It took a couple of meetings to figure out what her vision was, but I have a lot of respect for her. She has a very unique way of presenting the story, and we did have to figure out how to navigate that to give her what she wanted. Those conversations were very interesting. A lot of fun. She shows us a lookbook of colors and feels more than specifics.

Filmmaker: So you’re also also finding animals that work in her palette?

Henry: Exactly. And it would be in what would exist in that time frame. We did look at the mix that the cow was supposed to be. That cow breed doesn’t exist anymore, but the Jersey cow is a breed that’s a good representative of what those mixes of cows looked like back then. We didn’t want to present a super iconic-looking cow. Kelly wanted a small one, because she didn’t want the cow to overpower the characters’ size in framing. She’s a very small cow but has very big eyes and a very soulful expression, and I think Kelly really picked up on that too.  

For the other animals, we also looked for what would be common to be seen at a fur trappers camp so that it wouldn’t be too offbase. There aren’t going to be a lot of purebred labs running around in that day and age. 

Filmmaker: And I heard Eve has a calf named Cookie!

Henry: We did name her Cookie after the character. Eve was pregnant with her during the shooting and had the baby maybe three to four months after shooting. She was just barely pregnant with her while we were filming. Little Cookie. 

Filmmaker: I noticed there’s a night scene with CGI wolves. Were you ever in talks to have real wolves do that? 

Henry: We did briefly. They didn’t even know if they were going to shoot it. When they got into post production they had the money and added it. But it got quickly written out as something that probably wasn’t going to happen.

Filmmaker: Do you also work with insects?

Henry: We do! We’ve done maggots, crickets, and frogs! We did Wild with Reese Witherspoon, and that had a lot of little creatures in it. The funny thing is you have to finish the day with the same amount of animals you started with. So we count all of our crickets, all of our frogs, all of our maggots, all of our worms, and make sure nobody is left behind. And then we do spend a lot of time understanding all of their biologies, making sure the frogs stay warm enough, or that the crickets stay hydrated enough and well fed, and then working within their natural behavior cycles in order to get what you need for camera. 

Filmmaker: Which of your animals have been with you the longest?

Henry: We had a wolf who was in Twilight, Into The Wild. There’s a tribute video to him, I think he was one of the more impactful members of our team. We have a cat right now named Mac, who—we don’t know how old he is because he’s a rescue, but we’ve had him for over 16 years so he’s well over that. He started out working with Diane Lane, he did Portlandia, he was the cat on Grimm, and he’s done countless commercials and ads. He’s just one of our go-to kitties because he never lets us down.                               

Filmmaker: What departments are you talking and working with on set primarily? 

Henry: That depends on each scene. Some scenes are very props driven. In some scenes I’m working closely with the DP. In others it’s with the actors. I did a movie once with Morgan Freeman. He was so—I don’t know how to describe him, but I could basically just turn everything over to him. He had it so dialed in and under control. I mean he and I had a conversation and we were working together, but I could almost just leave. He’s so good at making it happen naturally and bringing out [in them] what he needed. Some actors require more work from me behind the scenes because they can’t juggle both duties. In that case I have to do a lot more hand holding. But it depends on the scene. 

Filmmaker: What do you work with the actors on?

Henry: I’ve done horse movies where we have to get the actors comfortable around horses. Some actors are scared of dogs, and some actors are not. Reese Witherspoon was very comfortable having frogs on her, others aren’t. So you ask them if they want to get together and work on these things ahead of time and most of the time they say yes. Again, it depends on the animal, but the other side is that there are these things you need to say and do to get the performance [out of the animal]. Typically they practice a few times before the camera rolls, they do their magic and make it happen.   

Filmmaker: Do you provide the space and amenities for the animals between takes?

Henry: We do. Occasionally it’s something production provides if it’s something within their wheelhouse. We’ve had dressing rooms provided for small dogs and things like that. For First Cow, we had a 12’ x 12’ portable pin that we brought and set up. Eve would have her food and water in there. We also have a big truck that’s a 16’ box van and the inside is set up with air conditioning and heating and beds and toys. So we have that to maximize their downtime because they can be on set for 12, 16 hours. We want to put them in a space that they can sleep and where they’re not being harassed for selfies or something. But the cow, Eve, loves people. She would not settle until people petted her, gave her treats, and took selfies with her. So she needed that stuff and we just let it happen. When she was tired she’d laid down, but we didn’t want her to be sequestered away from people. 

Filmmaker: Are you also responsible for the appearance of the animal, if their fur needs to be more frazzled in a scene or something, or does that cross departments?

Henry: Both. I can make them look scruffy on my own, but I have worked very closely with special effects make up if we needed to do wounds on an animal. I did a movie called Cabin Fever where the dog’s entire flesh is falling off his body, and that took two hours in hair and make up. Then sometimes you do have hair and makeup come with the makeup dirt to put a spot somewhere or something. But I try to start that off with the right basics. And it was a challenge to make Eve scruffy and dirty enough because she is a very healthy vibrant cow. So right before we rolled  I’d have to find a patch of mud and smear it all over her. Then 20 minutes later it’d have dried and flaked off and she’d be shiny again.

Filmmaker: How do you do what you do?

Henry: I have a strong understanding of animal behavior and building rapport, creating the environment that allows the animal to act those behaviors that are behaved. I think it is abstract and difficult to put into words. There’s not a recipe I can give you that you can go and do. The kind of animal changes, as well as their individual moods and the day. A cow at 8:00 AM is different than a cow at 2:00 AM. Making sure you understand that those things adjust. Maybe it’s golden hour and you need to get something done in a ten-minute frame, maybe it’s day 29 of 30 and you’re dealing with personalities whose stress you don’t want projected onto your animal. If you show up and the entire place is in a bad mood, it’s your job to not let that impact the animal. 

Filmmaker: Are there misconceptions about what you do?

Henry: I could list them but I don’t know how productive that would be. The people that are in this business are in it because they love animals and they’re willing to go a long time between paychecks and make sure that the animals they have live wonderful lives. That’s been my experience, that it’s a very dedicated, animal-loving group of people who also love making films. The animals that are in this as a vocation are some of the luckiest animals I know because of the incredible care they’re given in terms of health. But also emotionally and mentally. They have to be happy in order to go to set. You’re always training for the next day you’ll be on set, so that day you’re there has to go really well for them so that it’s happy to come back the next day. An actor may quit after a bad experience with a director. An animal could quit too, but that would be very very sad.  You wanna make sure they don’t want to quit, they never want to stop, and we do have some animals who just drag us to the stage because they can’t wait to get in front of the camera. So that’s our job, and that’s how we know we’ve done a good job.       


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