True Blood’s Wolves

By latbfan on Jun 3 2010 | 17 Comments »
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Trainers Work with Wolves on the True Blood Set

HBO raced to finish filming several scenes of True Blood last month. This time, their deadline wasn’t about a strike, rewriting, budgets, actors’ schedules, or air dates. They needed to wrap the episodes before the wolves shed their winter coats: “We had to work on their timeline,” says executive producer Gregg Fienberg. A lighter summer coat would make the 120-pound gray wolves, cast in werewolf roles, look smaller and less menacing. “We can’t suddenly have wolves that look different.”

The popularity of the vampire genre, which all of a sudden has embraced werewolves, has some productions learning to deal with wolf actors. Big-budget movies can afford to craft expensive computer-generated werewolves (every few seconds of screen time for the growling giant werewolves in the coming movie “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” took a team of as many as six visual-effects experts up to six weeks to create), but TV, with its smaller budgets, must often rely on the real thing. “In our world, werewolves are shifters who turn into wolves. They don’t turn into giant wolves the size of minivans. They don’t turn into human-looking wolves,” says creator Alan Ball.  The cost of live wolves varies, but they typically rent for under $500 a day, plus the cost of trainers. Since the animals prefer to travel in packs, six or seven additional wolves may accompany a wolf actor, but producers don’t have to pay for the rest of the entourage.

But working with live animals has other advantages besides lower production costs: wolves can help bring out actors’ animal side. Brit Morgan, who plays sultry werewolf Debbie Pelt on “True Blood,” shot a scene in which she kicked open a door as two hybrid wolves jumped on either side of her. One got excited and snapped at her hand. The director yelled “cut” and she says she heard someone say, “Um, you almost became lunch.”

But the scene is one of her best yet, she says. “It felt so primal and the energy was so strong.” (A wolf has an estimated biting capacity of 1,500 pounds per square inch, compared with about 750 pounds for a German shepherd, according to the International Wolf Center.)

Wolves, even if raised in captivity, pose a special challenge, because they look like their cuddly canine cousins. Actors must be warned repeatedly not to pet the animals, and have to sit through frequent safety seminars. Perfume and cologne disturb the wolves and are forbidden on the set. Food must be cleared from the immediate premises, as per rules provided by the American Humane Association’s Film & TV Unit.

Before he was cast as werewolf Alcide Herveaux on “True Blood,” actor Joe Manganiello had little experience working with live animals—just a couple of scenes with a penguin on a CBS pilot. A live wolf required some adjustments. On a recent break on a set in West Hollywood, the actor had to rush through a crowd of extras and off the sound stage after crew members spotted him eating turkey. “All I heard was ‘Are you out of your mind? The wolves are coming,”‘ he recalls.

Skittish by nature, wolves must arrive on the set a day or two before a shoot and have private time to sniff around and get comfortable. There are air-conditioned trailers, with separate compartments for each wolf, where they rest between scenes. Each wolf eats three to four pounds of raw meat and high-protein food daily and needs frequent breaks. “They’re worse than children,” says director Michael Lehmann.

Wolves can be trained to stand on a mark or jump on cue for a treat of red meat. But unlike dogs, their faces don’t exude much expression, directors say. Some scenes require a “hybrid” body double. These mixed-breed dogs are three-quarters wolf and have a more agreeable demeanor. Rugby, a 100-pound perky hybrid, had his cream-colored coat dyed brown so he could stand in for chocolate-colored wolf Shadow for a scene in which a person jumps in front of a bullet to save a werewolf.

Like human actors, some wolves are better at certain scenes than others. If a scene requires a wolf to stand still for a long period of time, Steve Martin (owner of Steve Martin’s Working Wildlife, which provides the wolves), may recommend Thunder (a golden timber wolf with amber eyes), typically his steadiest wolf. Frankie is a happy, outgoing wolf whose head bobs up and down when he tries to stand still. Cody gets nervous with indoor objects overhead, so he’s better for outdoor scenes. Shadow is fast and can do scenes that require a werewolf to run through the woods.

Animal actors, like the human variety, experience career highs and lows. A wolf could land several roles and then face a dry spell, says Mr. Martin. And species-wise, he is keeping his options open. Also in his stable are trained reindeer, a bear named Brett, porcupines and an elephant (upon request). “Right now it’s wolves,” he says. “Next year it could be cheetahs.”


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17 Responses to “True Blood’s Wolves”

  1. CitizenErased says:

    That was utterly fascinating, and I don’t usually say that for any of the usual ‘OMG, naked!’ press we see. I like how they’re using real wolves, I think the CGI wolves in Twilight are bloody ridiculous.

  2. lizzie1701 says:

    I love those wolf actors! I love that scene where they are circling Bill! Thanks Lat!

  3. mbb says:

    can’t wait to see them. thanks to AB and his desire for authenticity. thanks to steve martin. i’m sure i will love seeing your ‘babies’ on screen.

  4. Aemac says:

    The wolves seem like they’ll be among the most exciting things about season 3, besides Bill and Franklin Mott, of course. Thanks Lat.

  5. AterialFountain says:

    I think they’ll be fascinating to watch.

  6. Hajnalka7 says:

    Thank you everyone, for the ‘Heads Up’ about this article. Several people contacted me and told me to immediately hasten over to The Nest pronto. The article is quite accurate and well written. And, after all of my many posts aboard The Spec. Train about the very unique and palpable ‘energy’ emitted by working with animals – but especially Exotics – and what they can bring to an actor who opens up w/o fear and ‘feels/merges’ with that force; it was very gratifying to read Brit Morgan speak so enthusiastically about this very subject and experience it for herself.

    However, if they think the wolves were a challenge, they’ve got FAR bigger fish to fry when the big cats arrive. The danger (and dollar) level rises exponentially. Thus far, we’ve only gotten the briefest of glimpses of a black leopard (or jaguar… but most likely a leopard), and we do not know how many other big cats (if any) will be utilized. If this cat is meant to be Crystal, then it will be very interesting for me to learn if the actress had any involvement with the cat in scenes or if – due to security and insurance concerns – the big cats were off-limits to the cast. Pound for pound, a leopard is 10 times stronger than a human of comparable weight. Unlike wolves, most cats are solitary (barring the lion, which is the only ‘social’ cat, and male cheetahs who form coalitions… primarily brothers), with adults coming together only to mate. Rampant individualists, they are unused to working collectively or collaborating to achieve an end and are very mercurial and single-minded. They want what they want. And if they want it NOW, it can be impossible to change their minds. Any sudden movement, change in behaviour, trip/clumsy gesture, or rise in vocal pitch can trigger their prey drive. Everything must be measured, fluid, seamless, and authoritative. You must respect them. They must respect you. And still that is no guarantee that the balance will not tip at any moment. All who work with apex predators accept this risk; but those who work with big cats commend their spirit into the hands of Fate more than the others.

    • Hajnalka7 says:

      Working Wildlife does offer some Big Cats (including two older black leopards as well as pumas/mountain lions). These undoubtedly will be the cats used in S3. They have some interesting video regarding working with leopards that you will enjoy. Their female trainer, Donna Martin, will most likely be the one on set supervising the TB Felid action. When I was at CCF (the Cheetah Conservation Fund) outside Otjiwarongo, Namibia, we had one or two visiting interns from the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program (perfectly acronymed as EATM) offered through Moorpark College. Known as ‘America’s Teaching Zoo’, many excellent animal handlers have graduated from this program.

  7. crystal says:

    I love this as a spoiler, gee this descrptions sounds like a minisode we have already sceen. with two of our favorite actors.

    Rugby, a 100-pound perky hybrid, had his cream-colored coat dyed brown so he could stand in for chocolate-colored wolf Shadow for a scene in which a person jumps in front of a bullet to save a werewolf.

    Good article, and it should be intersting to se how they handle panthers and tigers.

  8. nataka says:

    thanks for that cool article, a lot of new info for me.

  9. cr says:

    I’m slow to pay attention, but AB has made Debbie Pelt a werewolf instead of a were-owl? Admittedly, the -wolf is probably more sexy than the owl.

    • Dani Kay says:

      I thought Debbie was a were lynx but I think it would have been better if they kept Debbie’s original form because thats what contributes to Debbie’s story in a big way.

  10. Sarah says:

    Fascinating article latbfan – can’t wait to see how it all plays out on screen .

  11. BillyGrande says:

    Guys explain something please,are they using real wolves or hybrids?I think that some scenes require real wolves and some hybrids for more safety.Am I right?

    • latbfan says:

      Billy, from what I understand, yes, they used both wolves and hybrids, depending on the requirements for the particular scene.

  12. BillyGrande says:

    Ok thank you ;)

  13. Dani Kay says:

    There are alot of fight scenes that will be needed in the future from wolves even though I do enjoy the wolves I am just wondering how the fight scenes are going to work they cant just keep magically skip over wolf fight scene. And from what I understand they have renewed for the 4th season if they are going do the witch wars they need to and must have a fight scene. As I could imagine with the human actors it must be difficult to do a fight scene with live wolves.

  14. Wilddwarf says:

    I can just imagine the things that could go wrong XD. *actor pets wolf* *chomp* Director:Don’t pet the wolves! *actor is eating a sandwich* *wolf takes a bite* Director:Don’t eat around the wolves! *actor accidentally steps on a wolf’s paw* *chomp* Director:Watch your step around the wolves! *sigh* I could go on for ages…

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