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 The Mudge Boy

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 person.

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.

 

Shy, reclusive farm boy Duncan (Emile Hirsch of The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys) is bereft of love following his mother's death and his father's rejection. He seeks refuge in his pet chicken and in Perry (Thomas Guiry), a strapping lad from a nearby farm in whom he finds the validation he craves, answering it with a passion that represents both sexual possibility and looming danger. Richard Jenkins (Nate Fisher Sr. in Six Feet Under) co-stars. Feature debut for writer/director Michael Burke, based on his Sundance award-winning short Fishbelly White.