I had heard the warning to filmmakers “Never work with animals
or children” but chose to ignore it when I set out to make The
Mudge Boy. The story follows Duncan, a fifteen-year-old, misfit
farmboy and his pet chicken on a strange and dangerous search for acceptance
and love. I’d written a script with a chicken as a main character.
I didn’t have a choice but to ignore it.
Because Duncan’s relationship to “Chicken” was central
to the film, I needed her to be a fully developed character and had
created many “un-chicken like” behaviors for her. The script
called for Chicken to ride in a basket on Duncan’s bicycle, sleep
with him in bed, follow him like a dog, and jump on command, among other
things. I wanted her to be at ease around a lot of people as I knew
her comfortableness or lack of it would come across in the footage and
would make or break the crucial bond with Duncan. And I wasn’t
comfortable with the idea of an animal being nervous on a film set.
I wanted Chicken to have a good time.
In winter of 2001, momentum was building to get the movie made. I had
work-shopped the script at the Sundance Labs and received an award for
the screenplay at the 2001 Sundance Festival. We wanted to shoot the
film that summer and it seemed like we just might make it. As we were
potentially only a few months away from shooting I thought, “I’d
better get a chicken.”
I drove to Vermont. I wanted leghorns, beautiful white chickens with
bright red combs. They are most often used for egg production so I made
a few calls and secured a source. I arrived at the “egg factory”
(home of 85,000 chickens) and purchased two pullets for five dollars
a piece. I saved the receipt and drove the chickens to their new Foster
Homes where they would be raised as human children. My hope was that
they would forget they were chickens.
July arrived. The chickens were learning their tricks and bonding with
people. One chicken learned to eat from a cereal bowl. I wrote it into
the script. Working with animals would not be a problem this time. We
were ready to make the movie. But the money hadn’t come together.
We waited. Months passed. I moved the chickens out of Foster Care and
into my mother’s coop to wait out the winter. We’d try again
next summer. At least the chickens were doing well.
A new producer signed on the following year. “I don’t want
to be waiting around for a chicken.” He needn’t worry I
assured him, explaining their training. We were to hear from the financiers
the next day. The phone rang. It was my mother. One of the chickens
had died for no apparent reason. Hoping chicken #2 would not be affected,
I went to the money meeting but didn’t tell my producers. Isn’t
that why I got two chickens in the first place? The film was green lit.
Maybe the death wasn’t a bad sign after all. We celebrated.
Mom called again. It wasn’t good news. I was beginning to dread
her phone calls. I drove back to the egg factory and got two new chickens.
We were only six weeks out. I wasn’t at all sure if there would
be time to train the new birds.
Day one. The shoot begins.
We are scheduled to start filming at a remote train trestle. While
cast and crew hike the half mile in, grip and rigging equipment are
hauled to location on a pick-up truck outfitted with train wheels. Our
plan is to shoot the “above trestle” master while the mist
still lingers in the valley below. The cinematographer and I had scouted
this location several times, and we knew that our “perfect light”
window was only about twenty minutes.
Our master shot is designed to capture the incredible beauty of Vermont,
while subtly keeping a bit of the script’s humor in play. Chicken
is required to sit calmly on Duncan’s bicycle in the foreground
while Duncan peers over the edge into the water below. After a few preliminaries,
we’re ready to shoot. The light quality is rapidly changing, and
as I place Chicken on the handle bars I hold my breath. If she jumps
off the bike, the shot’s composition will be ruined and we might
lose our magic-hour light. I glance around at the crew. There’s
a lot of shuffling and looking at the ground. It seems they too have
heard the warning “No Children. No Animals.”
I place Chicken in frame. She sits on the bike. She doesn’t jump
off. In each of the three takes she gives me something slightly different.
She’s a pro. We wrap out the shot. The crew breaks out in hearty
applause, the doubting producer clapping along. Chicken heads back to
her “trailer.” I exhale. This might work.
Over the next twenty days Chicken proves herself again and again to
be a consummate professional. She shows up on time, hits her marks,
and conveys a sense of dignity and humor that makes one of the other
actors remark, “Chicken makes it look so easy.” Her performance
seems effortless. The bond I wish to capture between a boy and his pet
comes alive take after take. And while even some of the best actors
need several takes to get their performance pitch-perfect, Chicken consistently
nails it in one or two. My respect and admiration for Chicken grows.
People begin responding to her like a person. “Is Chicken working
today?” becomes a common question. We all forget that we aren’t
supposed to work with animals. It becomes a non-issue. Chicken is a
On the last day, the cinematographer and I decide we need a new shot.
Chicken would be required to perform an unscripted action. Something
she hadn’t learned beforehand. I think about it for a moment then
describe what she will do. I want her to walk into frame, take a “beat”
on the edge of the table and jump off. On action and unrehearsed, Chicken
walks into frame, scratches her ear, and jumps off. The A.C. amazed,
asks “How did you know she would do that?” I reply “I
just tried to think like a chicken.”
Chicken wasn’t the only one to learn a new trick. I’d work
with her again in a minute.