‘Penguin Bloom’ reveals the secrets to getting a brilliant performance — from a bird
Directed by Glendyn Ivin, the film tells the real-life story of Sam Bloom (played by Watts), an athletic young mother who becomes paralyzed from the chest down in a freak accident. After taking in an injured baby magpie they name Penguin, Sam and her family learn to grapple with her disability and find some semblance of a new normal.
According to animal trainer Paul Mander, about 80% of the film is shot with real birds. “And every single scene with the bird was difficult,” said Ivin.
“It’s the old adage, children and animals,” the director said. “Working with Paul, he has such an interesting approach. Nothing was ever a problem, nothing was ever too tricky. He had such a calm, birdlike approach to the way that he worked with the birds and it kind of rubbed off on us all.”
Eight birds were brought in to play Penguin, who matures from a chick to a full-grown adult over the course of the film. Here’s how Ivin and Mander managed to get a star performance out of a wild magpie.
1. Work with what you’ve got
Australian magpies are wild birds, which means you can’t breed or keep them in captivity. It also means that no one’s ever really trained them before. “You really have to embrace what the bird’s going to do on the day [of shooting] and I really liked that,” said Ivin. “I liked having to adapt to what our main character was doing just as I would any actor. They’ve got their own energy and their own experiences.”
“And we didn’t really have a lot of choice with the birds for this movie,” said Mander. “We needed eight magpies and at the time of year we were filming it was very difficult to gather that many birds together. So it was really having to work with the birds that we had.”
2. Anticipate diva-like behavior
“There was one bird called Wendell that I called ‘One Take Wendell,’” said Ivin. “He would just get on and do exactly what you wanted and then you’d go, ‘I don’t think we can get any better, let’s just move on.’”
“To get a good performance out of the bird, we have to bond with them first and build a relationship so that it trusts us,” said Mander. “And we start relating that relationship very strongly to food so we can reward the birds for desired behaviors.”
Although Wendell was a consummate professional when the cameras were rolling, when they weren’t, “He was a little bit fussy,” said Ivin. Even though people were barred from bringing food and water on set, one scene required a prop that included bread and toast on a plate.
“Wendell got ahold of one of the pieces of toast and ran off,” said Ivin. “And when the standby props person grabbed the toast, Wendell went crazy. Paul [explained] that Wendell thought he was getting a reward and when someone who wasn’t Paul took that away from him, he was having this hissy fit like a diva. And I said, ‘Well, how long is it going to be until Wendell is ready to perform again?’ And Paul said, ‘I don’t know, it could be a few days. Birds hold on to these things for a long time.’ And I remember Wendell wasn’t 100% with anyone for a few days. They’re so particular and interesting, those birds.”
Australian family drama stars Naomi Watts as a mother paralyzed from the waist down after an accident and her avian-inspired return to an active life. Andrew Lincoln also stars.
3. Have patience through bad takes
One of the real-life Penguin’s idiosyncrasies was that she would pull tea bags out of tea cups. “We spent a long time training one of the birds to [do that],” said Ivin. “But whenever we went to shoot it, it would not do it. It would do it in the lead-up to the shot, but when you started to roll, it would just not do it. It was so frustrating.
“I’m not a gambler, but it’s a bit like gambling where you’re so far in and you’re going to roll the dice one more time and then another one, and then another one,” he added. “I think everyone was on the edge of their seat, literally hanging on to every movement of these birds to try and get them to emote or pick something up or to walk and land on the right mark. But enough time has passed now for us to be able to look back on that fondly.”
Another scene required Penguin to carry around a toy monkey named Mr. Murphy. “We had to train the magpies to pick it up in their beaks and carry it down the hallway of the house and into the children’s bedroom,” said Mander. “We also had to train it to take the monkey up onto the bed, put it on the pillow and put the little monkey to bed. Scenes like that were a little bit difficult because when we’re training for those scenes, they often film them very differently. So often we had to break the training down into a similar pattern for how they were going to film.”
4. Control your surroundings
“We were very lucky that we were filming mostly inside the Bloom house,” said Mander. “Usually the hardest thing with birds is that we have to let them go so they can fly outside. So the most difficult thing in that situation is having outside interference from wild birds, and it was something we had to counteract when we were filming.”
In Australia, wild magpies are very territorial. “So when we would fly our trained magpies outside, the wild magpies would swoop in and try to chase them out of their territory,” said Mander. “Some days I had to do some training with the wild magpies before filming with the trained birds.”
In one scene in the film, a swarm of wild birds attacks Penguin and visibly injures her. “That scene was all computer-animated,” said Mander. “It was something that they asked us about when they approached us, but we can’t control those kinds of situations so we would never put a trained bird in a situation where it could possibly be seriously injured. So all of that scene was computer-generated.”
5. Have a sense of humor
One of the first scenes Ivin shot required Watts to sit in a wheelchair as the bird perched on her head. “Just as I was about to call ‘Action,’ I noticed the bird sort of squat and pop up its feathers and I thought, ‘Oh, no, the bird’s going to do a poo,’” he said. “And the bird did a big poop that squirted and went down Naomi’s head and dripped off the tip of her nose. And this was kind of early on in [production] when we were all sort of getting to know each other. But she just started laughing and I thought, ‘OK, this is cool. We’re all in the right frame of mind to make this film.’
“And luckily that was one of the only times that Penguin did a poop on anyone in any scene.”
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