'Wolf Totem' trainer talks about his wild adventure

By Michael O’Sullivan
Washington Post
Posted9/13/2015 7:15 AM
  • For "Wolf Totem," French director Jean-Jacques Annaud hired animal trainer Andrew Simpson to raise 16 wolves from puppies.

    For "Wolf Totem," French director Jean-Jacques Annaud hired animal trainer Andrew Simpson to raise 16 wolves from puppies.

Actors can be difficult, as any filmmaker knows. For French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, the solution was radical: Raise the performers from infancy, and they'll do exactly what you want.

In his new movie "Wolf Totem," the temperamental stars in question are wolves.

Annaud has worked with animals before, in the Oscar-nominated "The Bear" (1998) and "Two Brothers" (2004), which told the story of sibling tigers separated as cubs. For his latest -- an environmental-themed drama based on the Chinese bestseller by Jiang Rong -- Annaud hired animal trainer Andrew Simpson to raise 16 wolves from puppies.

Born in Scotland, Simpson got his start as a dingo wrangler on the 1988 Meryl Streep drama "A Cry in the Dark." Since then, the 48-year-old trainer has made a name for himself as a wolf expert for film and TV. Through his Canadian company Instinct Animals for Film, he has worked on such productions as "Game of Thrones" and Alejandro González-Iñáritu's forthcoming western adventure "The Revenant."

According to Simpson, adult wolves are notoriously uncooperative on camera. For that reason, such lupine-centric films as the "Twilight" franchise typically use CGI wolves or, as in the case of the Liam Neeson thriller "The Grey," a combination of CGI, animatronic puppetry and one or two real wolves. More commonly, German shepherds and Siberian huskies are simply painted to look like their undomesticated cousins. For "Wolf Totem," Simpson bred, raised and trained three litters of Mongolian wolf pups, even briefly living with several of the animals in an apartment in Beijing, where he had moved for the three-year project.

We caught up with Simpson by phone in Thailand, where, for the moment, he is working with ordinary canines on the drug thriller "Operation Mekong."

Q. Tell me about the wolf-training process.

A. Wolves, in my opinion, are one of the hardest animals to train for film. They're so intelligent, but if they don't trust something, they'll walk away from it. The only way to get a wolf to do what you want it to do on camera is you have to spend time with it. You have to have the trust before you can have the control. A lot of people don't do that. With Jean-Jacques Annaud, the one thing he said from the start is "I want to use real wolves." He wanted to see the wolves act naturally, as opposed to the typical come-to-your-mark-growl-and-stand-still stuff that is normally associated with Hollywood wolves. One thing we did different that we'd never done before -- and as far as I know nobody had ever done before for film -- is we raised the first pack of nine wolves without touching them. After the first three months, I wanted to quit and go home. It was just impossibly hard.

Q. What was the point of not touching them? Was it so some of the animals in the film would retain a bit of their wildness?

A. Yes. Normally in Hollywood if you bring four to five wolves up to their marks, they go to their specific marks, like an actor, and they stand there and look at you. What we did with these ones is we'd give them a general area where their marks were, but they would walk up to the mark and then they would move around and interact with each other. They'd growl and snap at each other. They'd still pay attention to you, but it wasn't total attention. They still had their natural interaction with each other, which came across on screen. Off screen, they would eat from your hand and they would stand six inches from you. But if you wanted to touch them, they would bite you.

Q. There are shots of wolves snarling in "Wolf Totem." I understand that in order to get a wolf to snarl, you have to take away his bone.

A. That's the simple answer. His bone is usually bolted to the ground, so he can't pick it up and walk away with it. You let him eat the bone -- and again you need to have a relationship with the wolf in order to do this -- you let him eat the bone, and then you come in and pretend to be the bad guy, for want of a better word, and try to take his bone. He just snarls to tell you to stay away from his bone, as if you're another wolf. For them it's just a game.

Q. "Wolf Totem" is not a cutesy nature film. How did you shoot the scenes where wolf cubs are shown being brutally killed by Chinese shepherds?

A. Ninety-nine percent of the movie is real. The close-up shots -- where you can see them holding the wolf in their hands, and you can see the cute little puppy yawning and everything -- those obviously are real. And then for the pull-back (shots), we had a very good company to make animatronic dummies in Beijing. They made incredible dummy wolf pups. It looks horrific, it's hard to watch, but it's all done by trickery.

Q. You bred the wolves from zoo animals that were hand-picked for their ease around people. Does a calm temperament necessarily carry over to the young?

A. It can. It's not a 100 percent guarantee. What does carry over to the young is the stress, or the lack of stress, that the mother feels when she's pregnant. It can be the same as with a human baby. If the mother goes through a lot of stress -- if she's living on the streets, if she's a junkie, all that stuff -- these emotions can carry over to the child. It's the same with a wolf. If you breed a wolf that's nervous and skittish and running, that'll transcend into the puppy, too.

Q. You raised several wolves in your apartment. Can you really housebreak a wolf?

A. You can to a certain age. Once they get to a certain age, they turn into a wolf. You'll always know when he turns into a wolf when he wants to start ripping your couch apart, or you come home and he's on top of your kitchen table. It may take 12 weeks or 16 weeks, but it always eventually happens. You'll never truly domesticate a wolf in that situation, because its nature takes over.

Q. "Wolf Totem" is likely to be China's submission to the Oscars in the foreign-language film category. What was it like to work there?

A. With anyone, especially in Western countries, when you go, "Oh, I'm going to China to do an animal movie," the first thing everyone thinks is "OK, there are no rules. There are no regulations. You can do anything you want in China." Which is kind of true. There is no governing body to look out for the animals. But for us, it doesn't matter. If I work in France or China or Thailand, as I am now, I still keep the same ethics and standards.

Q. What are some misconceptions people have about wolves?

A. The biggest misconception about wolves is that they're just going to turn around and attack you. A lot of that comes from "Little Red Riding Hood" and fairy tales that scare the (expletive) out of you when you're little. And then a lot of it is Hollywood stuff: The big bad wolf comes into a cabin and rips someone apart. In reality, wolves are highly intelligent, way more intelligent than dogs. They have a unique pack structure. Everyone takes part in raising a pup; everyone takes part in hunting. They have a big bond that I think a lot of human families these days are lacking. They really just want to be left alone.

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