Camels have received a bad rap over the decades as cantankerous, aggressive animals prone to spit at humans.
But John Curran, director of the new film "Tracks," which opened Friday, discovered after working with them regularly on the movie that the animals are actually calm.
"I found they were Zen-like creatures," Curran said. "They have this chilled expression on their faces all the time. They look like they are smiling at you."
"Tracks," based on Robyn Davidson's acclaimed memoir, tells the story of her amazing solo trek four decades ago across almost 2,000 miles of the brutally beautiful Australian desert accompanied by her dog, Diggity, and four camels — Bub, Dookie, Zeleika and her baby, Goliath.
Mia Wasikowska stars in the drama as Davidson. Her four-legged costars are played by Istan, Morgan, Mona and her baby, Mindie. Together they form a kind of Greek chorus, their facial expressions seeming to comment on the action and the foibles of humans.
Australia is home to about 800,000 wild camels. They were first imported to the country in the 19th century.
"Tracks" was shot over eight weeks in the deserts of the Australian states South Australia and the Northern Territory at the beginning of the hot season in October/November 2012. Though most cast and crew members were housed in small hotels in surrounding areas, at least two cameleers would camp out each night with the camels.
Curran met a lot of cameleers in Australia before production began. He didn't come away with a good impression.
"They are a crazy breed of people," he said.
Then Davidson suggested Andrew Harper, who operates the Outback Camel Co., which specializes in desert treks and scientific expeditions. She has been on many treks with Harper, who has been a cameleer since 1995.
As soon as he met Harper, Curran knew he had found the right man for the job.
"Andrew was confident he could deliver certain types of camels," Curran said. "I think if you ask anyone, 'Who was absolutely pivotal to this shoot?' they would say Andrew."
"Tracks" was the first film Harper worked on as a cameleer. "We had four cameleers working on the film who would come and go, plus myself," said Harper over his satellite phone from the Simpson Desert in Australia
"We have just finished the last day of five months of trekking," he said. "I am looking at the camels as we speak, and I am about to take them home."
Harper and his crew initially worked with 19 camels, eventually narrowing the field to eight — the four leads and their doubles.
"They were used to working in close proximity to people," Harper said. "They also all had very good dispositions and a real calm character. The calf was the right age and very playful."
Harper describes camels as "very switched-on animals. They like people just like horses and dogs do. It's commonly accepted that sometimes they are far easier to work with and smarter than horses. They are really a delight to work with. That bond — it is a deep respect and affection you have with your animals because they are your lifeline."
A few weeks before production began, Harper met with Davidson and Wasikowska to begin the actress' training with the camels.
"It immediately was apparent to me that Mia loves animals and she absolutely adored the camels," Harper said. "They connected with her. It would have been extremely hard to fake that. If you didn't have a bond with the camels, then it would show up on screen. The lead camel respected her, which lead camels have to do."
Curran believes that a key reason Wasikowska took the film was that she would get to work with animals, particularly the camels.
"She would get her face in there and nuzzle and kiss them," the director recalled.
The adage — somewhat modified in this instance — that you can lead a camel to water but you can't make them swim proved true in the scene in which Robyn and her camels emerge from the desert and take a dip in the ocean.
"None of the camels had been into the ocean before," Harper said. "We didn't know if they would go into the water. They did go in, but not for very long."