Sunday, December 05, 2010

What's it like writing for animals?


A lot easier than directing them. On FRASIER the key to writing for Eddie was not asking too much of him. Moose (Eddie’s real name) had an extraordinary trainer in Mathilde de Cagny. As long as the stunt was quick and doable, Mathilde could get Moose to do it (always through treats and loving care). If there was some question while we were writing we would just ask Mathilde. More often than not she’d say Moose could do it. The dog was a gamer! With actors we had to ask their managers.

Other writers were more of a problem. One day in the writers room I pitched some bit with Eddie and a sock and one of the writers (who constantly drove everyone nuts) asked, “What is Eddie thinking now?” What is he fucking THINKING??! How do you answer someone like that without being brought up on charges?

Moose passed away at 15, which is like 108 dog years. I'm only sorry he never got to be on INSIDE THE ACTOR'S STUDIO with James Lipton.

Directing animals is another story.

I directed an episode of JUST SHOOT ME called “Sewer”. The B-story had Nina (Wendie Malick) bringing in an orangutan. I forget why but I’m sure it was for a good reason. He was a little harder to train and was in a good part of the show.

On filming night I said to the actors, if he does anything unexpected just go with it and stay in character. We can always re-shoot the scene. Likewise, I told the four camera operators, if you’re on the orangutan and he does something wacky stay on him. Don’t go to your next shot.

Sure enough with cameras rolling and the audience in place, Wendie steps out of the elevator hand in hand with her furry friend, approaches David Spade’s counter, and has a brief exchange with him. The orangutan, who comes up to Wendie’s knees, lifts her dress a few inches, and peers right up between her legs. God love her, Wendie stayed completely in character and reacted with utter nonchalance. The audience went completely nuts. It was a five minute laugh.

After the show had been filmed and the audience released I went back to do some pick-ups. The orangutan’s trainer tapped me on the shoulder and gently told me it was past his bedtime. I said it would only be about another fifteen minutes. He repeated: “Uh, it’s past his bedtime.” I then asked what happens if he stays up after his bedtime?

“He bites everybody he sees.”

“Okay everybody, that’s a wrap!”

I’ve heard stories of actors who were reluctant to work with animals for fear of being upstaged, but I’ve never personally encountered one. However, I think there was a cat who once refused to work with Dustin Hoffman.

15 comments:

LinGin said...

The introduction of Eddie on "Frasier" is one of the great moments on a great series.

I found out Moose died when there was a wire service story in the Philadelphia Inquirer. I loved the dog although I think Jack (Parson) Russells are a little nuts and was happy to see him get his due.

Wendie Malick is terrific. I find that when new characters enter a series in the show's late stage it is just prolonging the inevitable. But Wendie had the opposite effect on "Frasier." She re-energized the show and helped the series go out with spirit. And she had sensational chemistry with John Mahoney.

Mac said...

"I call him 'Eddie Spaghetti'"
"He likes pasta?"
"No, he's got worms"

frank1569 said...

Ken - I know its not Friday, but I'm confused and hoping you'd be willing to offer some sage advice.

Started in the biz at age 10; 15yrs+ as a commercial art director; former top story analyst for Fine Line; un-produced, but sold 3 screenplays to EUE/Screen Gems and Jeff Cooney films.

Now I'm partnered with an Oscar-win producer on my new project, a unique TV horror-comedy series, but he's 'going out' with it one contact at a time, a slow-go strategy that has me weeks away from homelessness.

Meanwhile, I still can't find an agent/manager/etc willing to even read me.

Any idea what I'm doing wrong?

Jeff Gill said...

Posting comments like that would be a first answer to your last question.

Anonymous said...

Off topic, but I think Ken should know that this blog is banned by the Halifax Airport wi-fi.

Breadbaker said...

They don't go in for orangutan jokes in Halifax.

Tom Quigley said...

A great line for Wendy to come up with off the top of her head as Nina would have been "If you'd done that last night, we'd probably be going out again."

lazysamoan said...

I think you meant the audience went ape shit.

A_Homer said...

Ken - a question
I am just finished flying with British Airways and their tv offerings included the "Ski Lodge" episode of Frasier, which I believe is a good example of a farce. I believe you discussed it once so if so, could you re-state it anew or reprint it, but if you didn't could you discuss that episode and script?
thanks

Buttermilk Sky said...

Isn't there a Ken Levine who has a porn blog? I'll bet you can still get that in Halifax.

Sorry to hear about Moose. I was looking forward to a FRASIER reunion show.

VW: slingrag. Billy Bob Thornton's long-awaited sequel.

DwWashburn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DwWashburn said...

I have always enjoyed Wendie's acting. I don't know if you hold Wendie in as hi esteem as you do Patty Heaton, but I would like to hear any reflections you might have about Wendie.

VP81955 said...

The pic showed Moose near the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which expired some years after the dog did. (It may still be alive as an online publication, but what good would that do a dog?)

Matt Patton said...

Best story about working with an animal I head came from the whacked-out British comedy show GREEN WING where one of the characters gives BIRTH to a lion cub (it's a complicated joke based on a throw-away line from the first season). At any rate, to get the shot, they had to go to the zoo where the lion cub lived and re-build the needed set in the enclosure where the cub lived. For what amounts to a 30-second bit in the finished show. The cub,bu the way, was absolutely adorable . . .

Matt Patton said...

"BY the way" My ability to spell slips away on a daily basis . . .