A photographer, an actor/producer/director, and a horse trainer walk into a theater … .
No punchline. I wasn’t telling a joke. For good or ill, I just couldn’t resist that opening line.
I’m talking about a panel at a film festival in New York city.
Anyway, we love to see horses in films. We’d like to see more. We also want to be confident our favorite actors – sorry, George, Brad, Ryan, Benedict – are safe.
The panel at the Equus Film Festival in New York, NY, talked about the American Humane Association, which watches out for the safety of animals in films. The Screen Actor’s Guild pays for the monitors and advisors on a film. Many film directors, including Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino, insist on AHA oversight, as you’ll see below.
It hasn’t always been that way. The Hollywood unit was formed in 1925 with a couple of gaps of in its operational history. Still, there aren’t enough representatives for every film set. Movies shot overseas may not have oversight, although producers are cognizant of how audiences perceive the treatment of animal actors, so they submit the films for review and rating by the AHA.
Back to the panel
Panelist Victoria Racimo, whose film “One Day” about the famous racing mare Our Mims, the inspiration for Our Mims Retirement Haven for broodmares, was also an actor in many films and TV shows, including westerns.
She told several “inside Hollywood” stories about equine treatment both in the early days when she worked in westerns and more recently from contacts still in the business.
An aside: to blab or not to blab?
I struggled with my decision to share them here. My journalism school Spideysense insisted I find corroborating info online. Also, Racimo still works in the film business, has colleagues still working and seeking work, plus she didn’t know a journalist was in the audience. Organizations often reject me for media credentials because I’m an unaffiliated blogger, so I simply pay for spectator tickets. That anonymity gives me freedom for fiction research, but for journalism, I really need to “out” myself.
Anyway, let me just say, unless Racimo contacts me and gives me permission to share, allow me to mention, if you’re not a fan of hers yet, you may want to be.
Returning to the panel – and that commercial for Horseware Ireland!
Also on the panel, British horse trainer Emma Massingale mentioned how directors always want “just one more shot.” Most directors are unfamiliar with horses and can’t tell if the horse may not have the energy, strength, or patience for another take.
My Spideysense also wonders if the wrangler may or may not be in a position to speak up, especially if he or she wants to keep that job or work again. If a crew member is difficult to work with or costs a production money/time, word gets around among crew booking agents. Statements of an AHA monitor are less likely to be questioned or ignored.
Massingale also mentioned how horsemanship has improved over the decades, so horses are trained for specific tasks for months prior to filming.
For example, for a Horseware Ireland commercial for which she provided and trained Connemara ponies — “her babies,” as she described them — she taught one how to push a cart and pull fabric from a sewing machine.
She even “Bear Grylls-ed” it with the four ponies to an island off the coast of Connemara to test the limits of their bonds. The Island Project film is the result.
Away from the panel
Hollywood’s horses have gone from being manipulated, disposable props to trained animals who can even be creative collaborators if a bond exists like Massingale observes in her team of Connemaras.
In this AHA video, director/producer Steven Spielberg refers to the possibility of an animal’s injury or death as a “Sword of Damocles” hanging over his production of “War Horse, as well as his own reputation. He was determined to avoid disaster or even the perception of one.
Plus, although he doesn’t mention this in the video clip, I’m sure his daughter who loves horses and recommended he adapt “War Horse” for film would have been upset had worst come to worst, too.
Another flinty-eyed view from the other side of the camera
Yet, on the flip side, using horses and other animals suggests additional time and costs to filming. I was in TV long enough to know that, if a show or event is expensive to make or cover, it won’t happen, unless the ad revenues or ticket sales are worth the risk.
Most readers of this blog may not be fans of Quentin Tarantino, but I am. He’s currently in a western period, after his latest film “Django Unchained” and his upcoming, as of this writing, movie “The Hateful Eight.”
In this video, Tarantino talks about his work with the AHA. You can tell by the clips from his films, his stories include what he describes as “gnarly things” with horses. After the initial, OMG-he-didn’t-do-that shudder at the action in the clip, you know he made sure the horses and actors were safe. This online article from “The Horse” tells how all the action can be safely accomplished.
Also in that video, you noticed actor Jamie Foxx riding a chestnut, his own personal horse Cheetah in Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.”
Foxx reportedly used his horsemanship as a selling point for the role, plus added the potential services of Cheetah, who was new to movie-making but had Foxx as his own personal advocate, as you can see in this article in Horse & Country.
In the early days of Hollywood, horses were in the waning days of their jobs as trucks, cars, and tractors.
Through much of the twentieth century, observing emotions in animals was met with the dismissal of “anthromorphism” and retorts of “It’s just a dog/cat/horse/parakeet,” unless the animal in question was Trigger, Champion, Silver, or Lassie.
Flash-forward to this new millennium. We can buy sympathy cards for families who’ve lost pets. We recognize when the creatures who share our lives want or fear.
The line between livestock and companion animals is blurring, even among farmers who used to keep pets outside near the Food Animals We Don’t Name. The changes are very new, emotional, and — all-too-often — extremely polarizing.
True genius resides in the capacity for evaluation
of uncertain, hazardous, and conflicting information.
– Winston Churchill
Anyway, Hollywood monitors the winds of societal change. Ignoring them isn’t worth the expense.