African Farm Outreach Programme
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The trainer faced with the huge task of handling the animals on the shoot was Nicole Jennings. Initially approached in April 2003, her first task was to cast the dogs to appear in the film. As dogs play such a major role in the film they have to be the kind of creatures that are people-friendly and socialized. She chose Emma and Sasha to double as the film’s hero dog, “Doss”.

One of the biggest challenges was to get Luke, who played Waldo, to command the dogs, as he’d had no experience of close interaction with dogs. “The dog had to look naturally like he was the boy's dog and not always look for commands from the trainer,” says Nicole. “The command must come from the boy. The two dogs had different ways of acting. The more active animal, Sasha, always focused on the boy as long as he had her squeaky toy. The other, more subdued dog, Emma, became protective when asked to be. In the script there are many dog-reacting moments. As Armin Mueller-Stahl put it "the dogs are not on a career path to become filmstars so sometimes it was a little difficult to get them to concentrate but most of the time they were great."

Then Nicole had to acquire the chickens, sheep, horses, ostriches and pigs. They were sourced locally, depending on their availability. The pigs were the easiest. They were background and didn’t need any specific training. They just had to do what pigs do when the cameras were on them.
“The chickens had a lot of work to do!” says Nicole. She researched which kinds of breeds they would have had on this type of farm. “We knew they would have leghorns and kapoks.” That proved difficult as it wasn't the right time of year to be getting them. She got the Black-and-Whites locally but the Browns came from battery breeders in Elgin.

That caused problem number one. “Machines usually feed them so they took one look at the humans and freaked out. They had to be trained to be fed by humans. They were fed every half an hour. And we had to talk to them as well.”

They became so tame that the crew had difficulty in keeping them out of shot. “They wanted to be where the people were. They became very friendly.” So what do you do with a bunch of chatty chickens when filming’s over? They were sent to a rehabilitation farm for children and animals. “So they've been saved from a life of hell. But I think it was a mistake for us to bring a rooster. He crowed at the most inopportune moments. He's also moved on the hens in the middle of the shot – the old Romeo!”

The sheep farmers in the area are 'dorpe' farmers. These black faced sheep are meat sheep, not wool sheep. However, in the film the character is a sheep shearer. “We had to find merinos. That wasn’t too much of a problem but when we got the merinos on set we found they hadn't worked with dogs. So we had to teach them how to work with dogs. That had a happy ending.”

Local ostriches weren't suitable for the film. The ones that were available were too young. The adult ostriches were breeding and were best avoided. “So we brought the ostriches from Darling. They had never been on a shoot before so they were very aware of cars, people, etc.”

And one of the ostriches had a big scene with Richard E Grant. In one scene, an obstreperous ostrich chases the actor who plays Bonaparte Blenkins off the farm. The scene took an entire day to film. An ostrich wrangler called Luke Cornell was called in to help.

This looks like an easy scene to shoot, and it was and it wasn’t. The trick is to get the ostrich to head towards its flock of fellow birds. A makeshift pen full of ostriches is set up beyond camera range. Then Luke pulled a rugby sock over the star-ostrich’s head, and two helpers guided the enormous bird to the starter position.

Then Grant, decked out in period costume – that means “heavy woolen clothing and clumpy hobnailed boots” – is placed between the ostrich and the pen.

With everyone in place, man and animals, no one actually blows a whistle. The rugby sock is pulled off at the last possible moment, and they’re off! Grant is three metres in front of the charging monster, and you’ve got to be quick. “A kick in the goolies,” he says, “is too horrible to contemplate.”
Just one problem. There was a sheepdog that’s supposed to chase Grant and the ostrich. The ostrich made a beeline to the pen, but the dog went all over the place. So they had to shoot the scene over and over. The ostrich became more confident, and went faster, but the dog…

At the end of the day Grant says he had feet “like burst tyres, calves like steel implants and thighs on fire – but not with lust.” And then the caterer served ostrich meatballs for lunch. No, he couldn’t eat them.

And that leaves the horses. Nicole laughs, “No problems with them. The horses had to be carthorses and they did what they do best with a suitable panache. The white horse we used turned out to be a regular star – it had acted before!”

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