Film and fame
"Class! Collar your dogs!"
Most Americans would recognize the husky female voice that gave that command in a heartbeat.
One of the three "Marley" Labs
I followed instructions, bent over my Doberman, Leissl, and placed around her neck the 15-year-old choke collar I had taken out of storage. Then I stood up, as rehearsed, to listen for the next command from the class instructor, Kathleen Turner.
I never thought I'd be standing in a dog obedience class with such a famous, non-expert instructor, but there I was in a scene set right at the beginning of the 1990s—while around us, past the lights, cameras, and action, it was March, 2008. Leissl and I had landed roles as extras in the "Hero Dog Obedience Class" scene for the movie Marley and Me, due in theaters in December, 2008.
A few months earlier, I had opened an e-mail with a provocative subject line: "Casting dogs and owners for Marley and Me." I read through, and decided I met, the requirements, which included having a flexible work schedule and the ability to work a 10-12 hour day. So I submitted the required discussion of the dog's talents and pictures of the handler-dog team in natural light—and held my breath. Several weeks later, I had to peel myself off the ceiling when I learned that we had been selected for the dog obedience class scene in the film.
Rehearsal day—positive training for the three Marleys
Just prior to this exciting day of movie making was the rehearsal, where the handler-dog pairs met with all three of the Marleys trained for this scene. Mathilde DeCagny, trainer of "Eddie" the dog from the TV show Frasier, was head trainer of the Marley Labradors. Ray Beal was the Owen Wilson look-alike trainer who worked his magic handling the Labs, while Mathilde gave the commands from the sidelines that brought out the naughty in Marley. The third member of Marley's crew was Mark Forbes, animal coordinator for this project and general manager of Birds & Animals Unlimited, which provided the animal talent.
Aside from offering time for Marley to practice, rehearsal gave the handlers and dogs a chance to get used to the three well-trained, wacky, adolescent Marleys. Nanci Little and Phillip Hoelcher of Trademark Animal Talent wanted to make sure none of the extra dogs they hired had issues with each other or with one of the Marleys. As rehearsal started, Nanci made an announcement. She did not want to see anyone forcing their dogs to do anything, and she reminded us that if clickers and treats had been brought, we should pull them out and use them.
Though no clickers were used to train Marley on rehearsal day, a representative from Birds & Animals Unlimited answered an e-mail from me about their training methods.
"We use clickers for some things but most of the training is basic positive reinforcement. We are very mindful of the importance of the dogs (sic) attitude. We are very careful not to let them get bummed out."
The yellow Marley Labs were obedient and upbeat, which testifies to their positive training method. As for the extras, I didn't see a team among us using the force method. People were using treats to gain and keep their dogs' attention, and the majority wore buckle or martingale collars.
Our rehearsal group consisted of an Aussie, a Benji-like dog, two collies, a Doberman, a German shepherd, a husky, black Lab mix, a Labradoodle, a Newfoundland, a Terrier mix, and a Weimaraner. Most of us had never seen a Labradoodle, so she drew a lot of attention. Her name was Gigi, and she is in a one-year foster home placement. Soon she will move on to formal training as her next step as a service dog.
Starting the rehearsal, Phil put us in a moving circle and gave us commands to see how we and our dogs did as teams, while Mathilde and her staff watched and evaluated us. Afterward, they put Abby the Aussie and her handler on one side of Marley, and Leissl and me on the other. (This was not the way it would be on shooting day, but it was a thrill during practice.)
The first test for the handler-dog teams was ignoring the Lab as he got into character as the hyperactive Marley. While Ray played tug with Marley around our drill-class circle, our dogs were supposed to keep their attention on us. This was difficult, as there had never been a well-trained but out-of-control dog in any drill class Leissl and I had attended. I used treats and conversation to keep Leissl focused on me. She did well, as did the other dogs.
Helen and Leissl Schwarzmann
Jump up for treats
After the drill class practice, we moved to where the scene would be shot. This was a much smaller space. For this part of rehearsal, Mathilde reinforced the Marleys on several behaviors. The question most new dog owners ask is, "How do I stop my dog from jumping on me?" But in this instance, Mathilde had trained the reverse.
"Up!" she'd say in an encouraging voice and with an added hand signal. Up went the Lab on Ray Beal. Ray squirmed and protested to get the Marley off, but Mathilde's command was the one the Lab listened to. Until she gave the word, Marley remained an unrelenting adolescent with his big paws on Ray.
Pulling Ray through the middle of our drill circle was Marley's next feat. Mathilde stood on the other side of the circle with the universal dog magnet—the stainless steel dinner bowl. When our drill circle started moving, Mathilde gave the signal and Marley hauled Ray through the center of the drill circle and out the other side to get to the treat waiting for him in that bowl.
I wasn't close enough to see what treat was in that bowl, but I did get a peek into Mathilde's treat bag when she was doing an arm signal for Clyde, the star Marley of the trio. (Both Mathilde and Ray wore bags, but not Mark Forbes.) In Mathilde's bag was something that looked like toffee-colored beef sticks. I contacted Birds & Animals Unlimited to ask about the treats, and was told the trainers use Bil-Jac liver treats and cooked chicken breasts. Neither of these were the secret in Mathilde's bag, but whatever treat the trainers used, the Marleys were working for good things, not to avoid punishment.
Getting ready for film day
At the conclusion of rehearsal, Nanci told us to be back on shoot day, and mentioned that taking pictures on the day of the shoot was prohibited because the stars would be on the set. She looked around, and said to those who wore flip-flops that they should wear closed-toed shoes on shoot day. But Mark overturned that instruction and gave the OK to wear flip-flops, as, he said, "It is Miami." Nanci and Phil mentioned that they teach real obedience classes in Miami and would send anyone home who showed up to class in flip-flops, but Mark's decision stood.
Sometime around the lunch hour on rehearsal day, Nanci sent an e-mail that the shoot date might be changed due to weather concerns. Within a of couple hours the date was confirmed, and we were told to be at the park by 6:30 a.m. the next morning.
I spent the evening packing Leissl's crate with blankets, towels to wet to keep her cool, towels to keep her comfortable, an ice chest full of frozen chicken breast pieces I'd spent the weekend preparing, sun block, dog brush, people brush, chair, dog toys, water bowl, several pairs of shorts and tops for wardrobe to chose from, and a host of other miscellaneous items that Nanci suggested we bring along. There were people in hospitality whose job it was to make sure there would be plenty of water for everyone, which was a thankful bit of news, but I brought a jug of our water, too. (I packed my camera, too, just in case they'd change their minds, but they didn't.)
At midnight, I set the alarm for 4:00 a.m. Because I feared not hearing the alarm at such an early hour, a friend who is regularly up that early volunteered to call me. It worked. I was on my feet saying "Hello" while the sun was still hiding. I had barely slept, but Leissl had no problem getting shut-eye.
An orchestrated event
We arrived at Jose Marti Park 10 minutes early. After setting up our crates, unpacking, and eating breakfast, it was time to get on to the set, which was now full of people doing all sorts of jobs. The entire park was rented for the day and unless you were meant to be there, you weren't allowed entry. The cost of this day had to be remarkable. The Labs' Marley-type behaviors had to be in place and reliable by now. Reputations, and the movie's success, depended on that.
I walked out in blue shorts, tank top, tennis shoes, Doberman Rescue cap, and sunglasses, and was given the OK except for my sunglasses. They were too contemporary and not resistant to the stage light glare. I was fitted with a huge '90s-style pair of sunglasses, while the other extras' outfits were also evaluated and fixed where necessary. All of us were photographed in our outfits by the continuity department, in case we needed to return for a second day. Then it was on to the first scene.
The three stars—Kathleen Turner, Jennifer Aniston, and Owen Wilson—arrived on the grassy set. All of us stood quietly. Of those handlers I spoke to in our group, none had done movie work before, so seeing the celebrities took a few moments to absorb. There were stand-ins for each star, too. Their job was to go through the physical motions of a scene so cameras and lights could be set correctly. The three stars each had personal assistants, who were right beside them with shade umbrellas whenever the camera was not rolling. The Marleys had their crates beneath the shade trees. The extras got to go under shade trees between scenes, but between takes handlers could provide shade for their dogs by standing over them.
The first scene included the arrival of the class. A few of us were chosen to be latecomers, and Leissl and I were the latest. Gigi, the Labradoodle, was picked to walk up to Kathleen Turner, who was having a conversation with Owen Wilson. Kathleen reached into the black treat bag hanging off her hips (we saw red "scratches" which had been painted on her arms to show the effects of wrangling imaginary dogs into submission), and she threw kisses to Gigi as she fed her a treat.
John Grogan, the author of the book Marley and Me, had described the real-life trainer Kathleen Turner was portraying as a dominatrix dog trainer, and the actress was true to the role. (In real life, I'd never seen a staunch jerk-and-pull obedience instructor wear a treat bag, however. This would be too close to "cookie training," which is not a compliment. Cookie trainers and dominatrix types have opposing training theories that do not integrate, but Hollywood is known for making the impossible happen.)
Encounter with the author
A few new members were added to our obedience group on the day of the shoot. John Grogan and his wife Jennifer were flown out from Pennsylvania to the set to join the class. Mr. Grogan was given a lovely terrier mix to handle, while his wife handled the Weimaraner who had attended rehearsal. I had brought my Marley and Me book on the chance the author would be on the set. I approached Mr. Grogan for an autograph at the end of our lunch break, and later, during a scene break, I darted across the drill circle to ask him a burning question.
"If I don't ask you this," I said, "I'll shoot myself."
This is why I like writing more than speaking. In writing, I could delete that "shoot myself" part and say something more like what a sane person would say, such as "I'll be very disappointed in myself." However, I just kept barreling along and said, "Has the obedience instructor this scene revolves around ever contacted you? I could not believe she kicked you out of class. Obviously, you and Marley needed more help than anyone."
He told me that a lot of people had recognized themselves in the book and had written to him, but she was not one of them.
"What? How could she not see herself?"
I was obviously more annoyed than he was by then, but training rescue dogs will do that to you. Marley could very well have become a statistic after being exiled from an obedience class if his dog parents weren't John and Jennifer Grogan. Mr. Grogan decided that the trainer was just not able to see outside herself, so I accepted his conclusion and walked back to my mark.
Taking care of the extras
Another newcomer to our obedience group had arrived, dressed in a knee-length denim skirt, tie-around shirt, and sandals. She was not a dog handler, but a friend of someone high up in the production's food chain. As a partner, she was given a cocker spaniel from one of the many small dogs that were brought for the background classes and they got a spot next to Marley.
Two men from rehearsal day chose to wear flip-flops, and by day's end realized why that wasn't a good idea. Their feet had provided snacks for the ants who flourished on certain parts of the hill. Nanci ran around spraying dogs' paws, and people's feet and shoes, with a bug repellant for most of the day. She came prepared with an arsenal of items. For the quarter-sized hot spot Leissl had licked bald on her rump, Nanci brought a spray that bald men use to patch hairless spots. After a few mists, Leissl looked flawless.
Choke collars—and the illusion of one
The latecomers' scene was filmed from three different angles, if not four. It was a long process. After that, we progressed to the "collar your dogs" scene. Wardrobe rushed in with handfuls of choke collars, because many of the dogs were in buckle-type collars and their handlers didn't own chokes. This is a testament both to the development of new products and training techniques since the early '90s that work better and are more humane, and to empathic shifts in dog owners' perspectives.
Gigi's handler mentioned that she'd signed a contract with the service dog group sponsoring Gigi that no choke chain would be used on her. Gigi has a lovely reddish coat and was in a head halter of similar color. Though her handler may have slipped a collar on, she didn't connect it to the leash. With the body of fur on Gigi, no one would notice.
Dogs have fan clubs, too
Jennifer Aniston stopped to pay attention to Gigi and her beautiful fur several times during the day. Leissl had a fan, also. One of the crew members has three Dobies in California and had come over to pet Leissl at least three times. There seemed to be someone drawn to most every dog in the group, and it was heartwarming to be approached by the dog lovers in the cast and crew.
As the "collar your dog" scene progressed, the Marleys had another behavior to show off. While Owen tried to put the choke collar on, Marley was to stop him by biting it, which held up the class. The Lab did a good job with Mathilde directing him, and left an opening for a punch line from Ms. Turner. Behind the class was Mathilde, and behind her were white background panels, which will undoubtedly disappear in editing. Mathilde gave the Marleys their cues with hand signals, and occasionally she had to include a verbal command, which will also disappear in editing.
Trouble—in the form of a cat
After Marley's collar was put on, we did the exercise that we'd practiced on rehearsal day where Marley takes off through our class circle with Ray in tow. Mathilde was on the other end with the dog's much loved dinner bowl, but before Ray could pass the leash to Owen, the Lab got riled up when he spotted a cat on the dock across the canal!
This particular Marley was a handful to hold on to, and he was not shy about announcing his sighting. Had the leash slipped, I have no doubt that he would have flung himself into the canal, swam across it, and found a way to scale the wall to get that cat. There was no calming the boy down. With each second ticking away, dollars were adding up. They put this Marley in his crate and brought out another Lab. Dogs will be dogs, and even movie star dogs have fetishes. This was the understudy's big break, and he took up the challenge and finished the scene.
Hard work, preparation, and creativity yield flawless scenes
Each scene was filmed from at least three different angles and each angle was filmed no less than four times. Every time a scene was set up, we were given marks to stand on, and the dogs had to stay on their marks as well. One scene required the dogs to be standing in front of us and it started with Ms. Turner saying, "Class, sit your dogs." Remarkably, and unlike reality, hardly a peep was heard from the class, and quietly we got our dogs to sit. We all had heard "Quiet on the set," and took it seriously. Leissl is not a tuck-sitting dog, and we had been reminded twice that she was too far away from our mark in this scene. I decided to start back a half foot away, so when Leissl sat, we ended smack dab on mark.
When Kathleen Turner's turn came to be dragged by Marley, she asked aloud if we extras were showing some reaction to what was going on. We hadn't been directed to do anything, so most of us remained stoic and quiet on the set. The handler in flip-flops standing next to me said he thought Ms. Turner being dragged was funny, and someone seconded that. Kathleen Turner then said, "Fine, but everyone can't find it funny." So she directed those two to laugh, but others of us had to react differently. She broke the ice and gave us room to perform. When it came time to watching her get knocked down and humped by Marley (yes, they even trained him to do that), we were permitted to show our reactions—appalled, amused, or something in between. I had more respect for Kathleen Turner's professionalism when she stepped outside her role as an actress.
As for the Marley hump, this happened further away from the class than any of the other behaviors. Marley pulled himself free from the dominatrix trainer's grip after yanking her across the lawn and away from class. When Kathleen Turner blew her whistle, Marley barreled back at her, knocked her over, and took advantage of her knee. (When it came to falling down, there was a double who took the hard knock and drop for Ms. Turner.) From there, Ray Beal held a cloth sprayed liberally with a feminine scent to the Lab's nose, and Mathilde touched Marley on the inside of his back leg, which got his motor revving. That's when they placed the Lab on the knee of the dominatrix trainer. This was the last scene of the day, the sun was nearly gone, and as we had worked past hour 14, most everyone was showing signs of fatigue.
While they set up for the last angle, I removed my sunglasses, planning to place them back on when we started to roll again. Within a minute, someone ran up to me from out of nowhere to explain that I had to wear those glasses for the sake of continuity. I had no idea we were being watched so closely, and I explained my plan was to put them back on as soon as we got back to work. Meanwhile, Owen Wilson and one of the crew members kicked a soccer ball back and forth in front of us, which got some of the dogs' attention. When they switched to a Frisbee, the Aussie was the one who perked up. All dogs remained well mannered, though, even with temptation in front of their eyes.
In all, the shoot day was a phenomenal demonstration of positive training. With everything riding on getting the scenes done, the dogs were as professional as the humans. The dogs' attitudes were positive and their behaviors consistent. Even the cat emergency was handled impressively. If filmmakers count on the reliability of positive reinforcement training with hundreds of thousands of dollars riding on the result, it certainly makes sense that such methods can work for dogs everywhere.
It's a wrap
What will happen to the three Labs after the Marley and Me project concludes? I asked Ray Beal. He explained all the Marleys will go back to one of the Birds & Animals Unlimited base locations where they'll remain until they are called for another project. (I had an insane, but fleeting, wish that the dogs would need homes, and I would be ready to provide one.)
I had adopted Leissl from a shelter six years ago—and have no idea why such a lovely Dobie girl had ended up there in the first place. She has been an ideal companion from day one, and we had a lot of fun together on the rehearsal day and on the special shoot day. For our work on the Marley and Me movie, Leissl was paid 50% more per hour than I was. That was humbling.
And what's ahead for Leissl and me? We are currently clicking our way to attention, off-leash heeling, and recall precision. Our mutual goal is an AKC Companion Dog title. I have a house full of rescue dogs, which doesn't allow for as much one-on-one competitive training and practice time per dog as I'd like. I have learned to manage by rotating focus on each dog and accomplishing short-term goals. At the end of the day, playing catch, tug, and "find the peanuts" is what's most important to the psychological health of the pack.
As far as the film-making future goes, I've learned that opportunity not only knocks on doors, but invitations for adventure can arrive through e-mail. Leissl and I were very fortunate to be involved with the Marley and Me film, and because of it we are now in the Trademark Animal Talent database. If there is ever a need for a Doberman in the future, we would be honored to be called upon.
Marley and Me will open in movie theaters on Christmas Day 2008.
All photos by Nikki Spirakis