A breath of frosty morning air gently sweeps through the valley, rustling brittle autumn leaves and sending a flurry tumbling down the mountainside in an orange, yellow and red waterfall. They settle at the base of a mountain, not far from a log cabin that was hand-framed by Mormon pioneers in 1879.
Doug and Lynne Seus are relaxing inside the restored cabin as their son Clint Youngreen prepares a fire in a blackened pot-belly stove. Together, the three raise and train wild animals for the movie industry on a seven-acre spread located about an hour's drive east of Salt Lake City--and civilization.
A timber wolf howling outside is soon joined by a chorus of a dozen more. The wolves are being prepared by another trainer for director Chris Menges' film version of Jack London's novel "White Fang." Doug Seus peers through a window and motions to the majestic landscape outside. "This is all spiritless, silent scenery," he says, a tinge of sorrow in his husky voice. "The true magic is not here any more."
The missing element Doug Seus is talking about is the endangered brown bear, specifically the grizzly, an animal that roamed the countryside freely until it was hunted down as vermin by settlers with repeating rifles in the early 1920s. "We become placid, mechanical robots in land that does not have that great bear," he continues. "You use senses in grizzly country that you never used before. Your sense of smell, your eyes, everything is more acute."
"The natural man takes over," Lynne Seus says.
But there is at least one brown bear left in Utah. A tremendous cage with heavy steel bars sits in the center of the family's animal compound. It is home to Bart, a shaggy 12-year-old behemoth who tops the scale at 1,800 pounds and, when standing, towers nearly 10 feet. Bart is a Kodiak bear--cousin to the grizzly--and the world's largest land-dwelling carnivore. The custom-built cage is the only way that Bart is allowed to legally live in the state of Utah.
Under the Seus family's tutelage, Bart stars opposite a baby bear cub in "The Bear," a Tri-Star release that opens Wednesday. The film is the personal project of French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, who artfully demonstrated that spoken language is not a necessary component of modern cinema in 1981's "Quest for Fire."
In "The Bear," Annaud carries the idea of nonverbal communication a step further with a motion picture shot entirely from an animal's point of view. Based on James Oliver Curwood's 1916 novel "The Grizzly King," it tells of an orphan bear cub who befriends a solitary grizzly, and the two hunters who relentlessly pursue them.
The $25-million European production reached epic proportions in the wilds of the Italian Dolomites and the Bavarian Alps as the 200-man crew battled nature. Director of photography Philippe Rousselot ("Dangerous Liaisons") shot 1 million feet of footage for a film that required seven years to plan and execute. The project employed three full-grown bears, a dozen bear cubs, one golden eagle, two cougars, four deer, five grass snakes, 10 Dobermans, 18 turtle doves, 20 newts, 100 frogs, 300 trout, 900,000 bees--the list stretches on. After shooting, a cacophony of animal roars, grunts, squeaks, squawks, yawns and whimpers was digitally sampled and recorded, then carefully laid onto an intricate sound track, consuming the manpower of 30 technicians over 10 months.
For his part in the film, Doug Seus achieved what was believed to be biologically impossible. Adult brown bears are inherently cannibalistic and commonly eat bear cubs that they encounter in the woods. Because of this, Annaud commissioned Muppets creator Jim Henson to design remote-control animatronic bears to double for the big bear and the little bear. But with positive conditioning, Seus broke through Bart's predatory instincts, enabling the bears to work side-by-side and opening the door for an unexpected offscreen friendship to develop. The synthetic bears were used only in scenes that depicted violence.
"The Bear" opened on 400 French screens late last year, one week after "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." The antics of Disney's animated rabbit were no match for Annaud's hometown popularity and the real-life charm of a bear cub and his adult companion. "The Bear" swatted aside "Roger Rabbit" in its route to a $100-million-plus worldwide gross. Meanwhile, folks at Tri-Star--which is distributing the film in the United States and Canada--set their sights for a fall release, when the box office is generally slower.
"November seemed to be a fairly clear period of time, before the big crunch of Christmas product," said former Columbia chief Frank Price, whose newly formed Price Entertainment acquired "The Bear" for Tri-Star. "We have a wonderful film starring bears, and as appealing as our stars are, I think some of the press would prefer to interview Robert Redford. So we have to make sure we open at a time when we can get the attention of the press and the public."
This week, "The Bear" will be unleashed on 800 screens across the nation. The question is, will American movie audiences take the bait?
"When people ask what the film is about, and I say that bears are the stars, they cannot think of what it is, they think maybe it is a documentary or a cartoon," Annaud said last week from his room at a Bel-Air hotel. "I see puzzlement in their eyes. Because people like categories. They like to be reassured with a formula."
The 47-year-old Annaud, who directed some 500 television commercials in Europe before turning to films, spoke with measured words. In France, his movies are national treasures, but in America they are curious baubles. His first one, "Black and White in Color," was released in 1976 and received an Oscar for best foreign-language film. The prehistory adventure "Quest for Fire" was a modest success in the United States. His next film was 1986's "The Name of the Rose," a medieval mystery story starring Sean Connery. It was a blockbuster in Europe, but failed to generate much box office in the United States.
Annaud's confidence in "The Bear" is unwavering. " Nobody is prepared for what they see when they come to see the film," he said. "This is the whole problem of the film--at the same time it is the fun of it. My pleasure is to think that I am trying to push to the very limit the possibilities of film drama."
Having delved into the feelings of primitive man in "Quest for Fire," Annaud wanted to explore the deeper currents of human emotion that he believes are common to superior species of animals. Annaud enlisted the services of "Quest for Fire" screenwriter Gerard Brach, an agoraphobic who once spent 20 years without leaving the confines of his apartment. Brach sent Annaud a copy of "The Grizzly King," one of his favorite books as a child. Annaud was enthralled by the rich details he found in the adventure story.
Brach wrote a screenplay and Annaud met with Seus in 1984 to make sure that Bart could perform what would be required of him--to limp down a rocky ravine on three legs, wallow in the mud, catch trout with his paws, climb steep slopes, rub his back against trees. After that, Brach's screen adaptation of "The Grizzly King" was turned into a 382-page story board with 1,700 images, mapping out the fine points of each scene. The pictorial script also served as a communications tool on location for the international film crew comprising technicians from France, Germany, Italy and the United States.
Once the intricate details of the production were worked out, the film's proposed budget began to notch steadily skyward. Fortunately, Annaud was cushioned from a fall by the deep pockets of French producer Claude Berri, the founder of RENN Productions. Berri, who felt a passion for "The Bear," fronted the film with money he made producing and directing the successful "Jean de Florette" and "Manon of the Spring." Berri's dictum: "What is important is not what a movie costs, but what it grosses."
"We were afforded the luxury to wait as long as we wanted and roll the film as long as we needed to treat the animals like star actors," Annaud said. "I was very proud of the moments when the little bear falls asleep in front of the camera or wakes up in front of the camera. Those moments cannot be cheated. You need a little bear who is tired.
"In one scene, the little bear snuggles up to her dead mother (which was actually a stuffed bear)," he continued. "To get the cub used to that, we would spray dew all around the stuffed bear, and then we would put a little warming device under its fur. So for weeks the little bear would cuddle up to that space to sleep. My trainers would say, 'We're going to play with the little bear. When she's fed up we will give her double portions of rice and raisins, and then she will be tired.' But we had to play with her for almost 10 hours. It wasn't until the end of the day, at sunset, when she felt like yawning. Then it was magic."
After spending almost six months shooting with bears, Annaud grew to suspect that "The Grizzly King" was rooted in an actual encounter with a grizzly. When he arrived in Los Angeles last week, Annaud's belief was confirmed in a letter sent to him by the author's granddaughter, Amy Bajakian. It read: "The book 'The Grizzly King' was based on the real-life experience my grandfather had while hunting in British Columbia. While tracking a bear he had wounded, he lost his rifle down a cliff. The bear returned, confronted him and then left him alone. This resulted in a soul-searching reassessment of the meaning of his life, and life in general."
That letter had a special meaning for Annaud, who experienced a similar tense moment on the set. While posing in front of Bart for a publicity photo, Annaud suddenly swung around and pointed the viewfinder hanging around his neck at the Kodiak. Annaud thought it would make a good photograph. Bart perceived the action as a threat.
"I blame myself for being too confident and making that sudden move," Annaud said. "The bear struck me a strong blow with his right paw. I was thrown flat on my face. Then he was on me. I just protected my ears, and eyes, and played dead as best I could. For a few seconds, I had the impression that I was living the climax of my own movie." Seus called Bart off in seconds, but Annaud wound up with a nasty puncture wound in his rear end. It was the only incident on an otherwise safe shoot.
"Easy kisses! Don't touch! Easy kisses!" Doug Seus shouted to Bart, who earned more than $500,000 for his role, not including feeding and transportation costs. His resume includes "The Great Outdoors" and "Clan of the Cave Bear."
Bart's 47-year-old trainer, who prefers to be called a behaviorist, was in the field in back of his house demonstrating one of the 45 commands that Bart has mastered--in this case, gingerly lowering his head and nuzzling a fuzzy teddy bear on the ground beside him. Seus raised his arms high in the air, and the Kodiak lifted his mighty bulk and squatted on his haunches, the small teddy bear tucked protectively under his arm. Bart looked at Seus and smiled. Or so it seemed.
"It's called transference," Seus said a few moments later, huffing and puffing as he wrestled with the nearly 1-ton Kodiak. Seus, a sturdy man who was a halfback at Notre Dame, was playfully batted about like a toy soldier by paws at least a foot in diameter. "We work on a positive rapport basis. This job is all about back scratches and ear rubs. We taught the big bear to do easy kisses on this thing," he picked up the dog-eared teddy, "and then we transferred that behavior to one of the animatronic bears, and finally to a real cub."
The bear cubs used in the movie were not as cute and harmless as one might suspect. Their fangs are as sharp as pike teeth and their jaws pack the power of a bulldog's. Only the trainers and nurses, whose hands were insured for the film, were allowed to handle them. The cubs were raised from infancy in a nursery in France by a staff of nurses, who kept careful records to track their growth and development. The cubs received bottles every three hours, were weighed twice a day and checked weekly by veterinarians.
Seus' 26-year-old son Youngreen trained the primary bear cub used in the film. Her name was Douce, meaning sweet in French. Douce was chosen because she had the best attitude of the 19 bear cubs recruited from European zoos (all brown bears are born in January, so they were approximately the same age) and dyed a similar muted brownish gray. In a few short weeks, Youngreen had imparted to the young Douce many of Bart's trained behaviors, including a miniature, less-than-ferocious version of Bart's erect bipedal stance. Douce also did some improvising--hopping after a frog in one scene, and rubbing her back against a tiny tree in imitation of Bart's knotty-pine back scratches in another.
The significance of the trainers' accomplishment in bringing the two bears together is not lost on the followers of the brown bear community. "I'm not aware of a cub ever taking up with an adult male, because it would surely become bear food," said Colin Gillin, grizzly bear biologist for the state of Wyoming. "It's hard to say behaviorally why that happens. Quite often with predatory species, the adult male will kill the young in order to breed with its mother. Even yearling bears that weigh as much as 100 pounds will be killed and eaten by an adult."
"The hardest shot we faced was getting the big bear and the little bear to eat together off the same carcass," Youngreen said after the back-yard workout session with Bart was over. Father and son exercise the Kodiak at least an hour each day. "It was a fake carcass stuffed with real meat, but it was real enough to the bears. There's a natural tendency for one animal to usurp the carcass from the other. To get them eating this far apart"--he stretched his arms about three feet--"on the same carcass was probably the epitome of our training."
"They became friends," Seus said. "Through a training process, they learned initially to tolerate each other and eventually they formed a camaraderie. They would walk together, put out a paw to touch the other one and even lick each other."
It was a good thing that the bears could be trusted--alone or together. At times, their trainers were as far as 100 yards away from their animals, shouting commands at the top of their lungs and hurling food rewards at them like football passes. In one scene, Douce runs after her departing friends, stops and stands up straight to get a better look at them. Her shoulders drop in sorrow, she slowly sits back down and rubs her eyes with a paw, then swipes at empty air as if to say goodby. "When a shot like that works, it brings tears to your eyes," Lynne Seus said.
There were a couple of times when Annaud and Doug Seus, two headstrong perfectionists striving for the same goal, clashed on the set. On a rocky mountain shot when the bears were heading into their winter den, with biting winds blowing snow sideways, Seus sensed an uneasiness in the air. Keying into the bears' mood, he thought it best to keep them a safe distance apart.
"I was worried about the safety of the bears," Seus said. "Jean-Jacques said to me, 'I can't live with the shot that way.' And I said, 'Well, you will have to live with it that way because that's the way it's going to be.' He said, 'You can't talk to me that way. I'm not one of your bears.' And I said, 'I'm not one of your subjects.' So we packed it in and walked off the set."
"Everything had worked beautifully up to that point, so Jean-Jacques naturally wanted the bears right next to each other," Lynne Seus said. "He said he had to have that shot, when a few months earlier he didn't even have two bears in the same frame together."
Annaud supported Doug Seus in most situations. The two believe in anthropomorphism--attributing human characteristics and feelings to animals. In Brach's script, the bear cub ingests hallucinogenic mushrooms--presumably because he likes it. He also spends nights dreaming, a nocturnal activity carnivorous animals are believed to engage in for 20%-30% of their sleep time. Using handmade puppets, it took Czech artist Bretislav Pojar six months to create the psychedelic images used in those sequences.
"The old school of biology teaches that anthropomorphism is incorrect, that animals don't dream or cry or mourn," Doug Seus said. "One biologist witnessed a bear sliding down a snow bank, and he said it was called 'thermal regulatory behavior.' Absurd! The bear was having fun. If he was merely trying to reduce his body heat, why did he go up the hill six more times, and make six more passes at the slide, and then prance around at the bottom?"
"What the film did to me as a human being, it humbled me," Annaud said. "I had the privilege to spend time with people who are zoologists, veterinarians and animal trainers. They have a totally different approach to man. They don't see man as something different, a creature from another world. They see a strong continuity between man and animal, physically and psychologically. That's like telling some people in the middle ages that the Earth is not the center of universe. They take it as a personal blow. It reduces their status."
There are currently believed to be fewer than 1,000 grizzlies living in the lower 48 states. Since 1975, all grizzly bears in the United States south of Alaska have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. "Hopefully, this film will encourage people to support the existing environmental laws," Seus said. "I think the bear is the canary of the mine shaft. It's the barometer by which we judge the health of our environment. If it goes, then what?"