On Hollywood films and also those by conscientious independents, the American Humane Association is brought in by the production to “monitor animal activity” when animals are featured on the set. But as producers know, the AHA isn’t just there to protect the lives of the animals — the organization also serves to protect the sensibilities of the performers. Case in point: John C. Reilly reportedly walked off the set of Lars von Triers’ new Mandalay in protest after the production slaughtered an “old and sick” donkey on the set.
Animal slaughter is nothing new in contemporary filmmaking. Gaspar Noe’s Carne, the precursor to his I Stand Alone, opens with the killing of a horse in a French abbatoir, a single-shot scene that is clearly real. A similar event, also at a slaughterhouse, occurs in Barbet Schroeder’s s/m drama Maitresse. There’s that ending spectacle, which looks awfully real, in Apocalypse Now. And of course, the death of a donkey — although most probably staged — is the final transcendent moment of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar. Whether our favorite filmmaking Dane is emulating the shock of Noe and Schoeder or the spirituality of Bresson will have to be seen.
Commented Peter Aalbaek Jensen, executive producer with Zentropa films, to the Ritzau news service about the scene, “As it was explained to me from Sweden, everything went by the book and the entire process was monitored by a veterinarian. We were very conscientious about that, because we didn’t want 70,000 American animal rights groups on our back. (With regards to the above link, what’s with PETA? Their spokesperson went from Pam Anderson to Bea Arthur?)
Last we checked, the animal rights movement is essentially a global one, but still, it’s unlikely that Jensen’s veterinary Kevorkian will find much work in Hollywood. The Screen Actor’s Guild requires that SAG films sign an agreement with the AHA, an agreement that gets the producer a friendly AHA rep who hangs out and watches the animal scenes. In turn, good behavior by the production gets it that AHA logo that pops up at the end of almost every film nowadays.
As a producer, I’ve found working with the AHA easy and painless, which isn’t to say that there haven’t been some difficulties along the way. I was one of the producers of Harmony Korine’s Gummo, which offended some with a kids-killing-cats storyline, and we were exactingly diligent about treating animals safely. (We learned, though, that road kill was fair game… and in Nashville, there was a lot.) In fact, the AHA logo was a requirement of our financing deal. When the film came out, there were some complaints that the AHA had “sanctioned” an anti-animal film, but to its credit, the organization said it wasn’t in the business of censorship and it defended our production.
No, our only tussle with the AHA came when we were scheduled to shoot two days in a house filled wall to ceiling with junk. After about an hour of shooting, we realized that the house had a massive cockroach infestation. The crew complained, and we made plans to fumigate before we returned to the location only to learn that our AHA contract forbid it. No animals could be harmed during the making of the film, and that included bugs. So, we let crew members stay home for the day if they wanted to (I don’t remember any taking us up on it), we bought spooky Hazmat suits for anyone who wanted them, transforming our set into something out of “The Hot Zone.” And, in the version Korine tells in several interviews, he and d.p. Jean-Yves Escoffier showed up in Speedos.