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There are always concerns when animals are involved in movie productions; making sure that both humans and wildlife are unharmed should be a top priority on any set. In the new movie The Rum Diary, adapted from legendary Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s novel, there were two scenes of particular concern to the production — the cockfights.
“The roosters are an essential element to Sala’s character,” says production designer Chris Seagers. Sala, played by Michael Rispoli, is a news photographer at the San Juan Star who strikes a friendship with the main character Kemp in the movie. “Bruce was always very concerned about how this would be shot. It was never about seeing a fight.
It was about showing the ballet of their movements, the artistry of it all. The birds we used were exquisite, and beautifully kept. We did a lot of research about what we wanted to photograph. We needed to see the birds leaping into the air, and spreading their wings.”
A lot of work went into making sure that the filmmakers could achieve the shots they wanted without any harm coming to the birds in any way. In order to achieve that goal, the production invited the American Humane Association to supervise all the animal action including the cockfighting.
Officer Laura Sweet worked on the initial training period, and the first sequence, and they also brought in Officer Gina Johnson to assist her in the first scene because of the number of animals involved. Avian Veterinarian Antonio Riveras was brought in to monitor the birds for stress and heat exhaustion.
“It was very important for us to adhere to the American Humane Association’s guidelines,” says executive producer Patrick McCormick. “We wanted to make sure that no animals were harmed in any way. We had to start figuring out ways to stage these cockfighting events so that we were totally sure the birds were safe.
We wanted everyone involved to be assured that their health and welfare were never endangered.” “In a cockfight, the bird’s natural spurs are clipped before the fight,” explains McCormick. “They are replaced with artificial metal ones, so that every bird has the same size spurs, and the spurs are what cause the injuries. We created soft rubber spurs to replace them.
The other thing we talked about was their beaks. We figured out we could tape them without impairing their breathing, as long as it was for a very short period of time. Initially, we thought this would be sufficient. However, we learnt from the A.H.A., that it was an issue if the birds touched in any way because this constituted fighting,” says McCormick.
“So, in addition to the rubber spurs and taping of their beaks, we had to figure out how to restrain the birds.” Laura Sweet from the A.H.A. worked with trainer Eric Colon for several weeks to devise a method of creating the shots without the birds ever touching.
With the aid of the costume department and prop-master Drew Petrotta, and costume designer Colleen Atwood, they devised an ingenious harness which fitted under the feathers. The harnesses were then attached to monofilaments, which allowed the animal wranglers to control the birds so they never got close to each other.
The scenes were closely monitored by the A.H.A reps and by first assistant director Peter Kohn. They only allowed seconds for each take, and only one or two takes for each shot. The hard work paid off and the filmmakers were thrilled with the footage. All the roosters used in the movie have been relocated to a life of ease on a ranch in Canyon Country, near Los Angeles.
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