This is Part 2 of a two-part series on the filming locations of Water For Elephants.
As promised, we’re now on to Part 2 of The Spectacular Filming Locations of Water For Elephants. Having gotten all the filming locations down for you in Part 1 of our article, today we’re sharing first-hand accounts from two of the movie’s supporting actors (extras). We’ll also introduce you to Tai (Rosie), the “biggest” star of Water For Elephants whom everyone falls in love with at first sight.
The ‘extra’, also called a ‘background actor’, is one of the least known and little praised actors in the film industry. However, they are the most important actor in the sense that they enrich a film’s atmosphere. What would any film be without the ‘background’ performers?
Nothing is more authentic than to hear about filming on the set from the people who were there and who were a big part of it all. Kevin Ketcham was one of the 25 core roustabouts in Water for Elephants. He was in many of the Big Tops scenes filmed on location in Fillmore and Piru.
Ketcham carpooled from Hollywood to Fillmore and Piru with some of the other actors who also portrayed the rousties in Water for Elephants. He said that the ride without traffic would take about 45 minutes. In traffic, it could be hours.
“We will be a vital part of the cast, like the coal that keeps the train moving,” described Ketcham in his jounal entry for the WFE Film Blog. “We all looked around at each other with excitement, but at that point we were just 25 guys hanging out, little did we know that we would all form a strong bond giving worth and meaning to the title of being a ‘Benzini Brother.”
To prepare for their crucial roles in the film, all the rousties attended a two-day official Roustabout training with the L.A. Circus before the filming started. At the training, they learned about the Depression Era circus life, how to tie circus style knots, how to raise the Big Tops from the ground up, and “how to swing 25-pound sledge hammers around a stake like a real team” (one of my favorite scenes in the movie). After the two days of training, the crew didn’t just act like roustabouts, they became them.
Ketcham talked about his special, magic “moment” during the making of Water For Elephants. I love what he wrote and have to share it with you - verbatim - here. (The only slight changes I made was to separate his writing into smaller paragraphs for easier reading on the web.)
My “moment” happened on day three of filming, it was right before dusk and the sun was a glowing hue of red and orange and it was setting over the mountains of Piru. The air was fresh and crisp; it smelled like the farms of the Midwest. All twenty-five of us Roustabouts were standing on the train as it pulled into the camera shot.
Dark black smoke billowed out of the front train car and the crew released a flurry of white dandelion seeds that flew through the air glistening in the fading sunlight. It looked incredible!! I turned to the right and left to tell my Roustabout brothers what I was feeling, but words weren’t necessary we were all experiencing the “moment” together… From that point on I lived and breathed Water for Elephants, every moment was precious, I knew that Francis Lawrence and Rodrigo Prieto had a masterpiece on their hands!
Since the filming ended, Kevin has talked to many of the cast and crew members, and they all agree on one thing - they’ve never before had an experience like Water For Elephants.
“Everyone wants to recreate that feeling they had shooting that film and I tell them they can’t. None of those MOMENTS and MEMORIES can be replicated because they were MAGIC,” Kevin summed up in his journals.
Another “extra” actor in Water For Elephants who generously shared his experiences during the filming is Cody Wood. A talented musician and actor with a classical music background, Cody originally auditioned for and won the part of “the fiddler” for the movie’s Circus Band. Cody’s “fiddler” scene was eventually cut out of the final script, and he took on another role in the movie - that of a “Rube,” a circus goer/townsfolk.
Cody documented his Water For Elephants filming experiences on Facebook. The same entries were also published on the WFE Film Blog. I love reading Cody’s film notes because he’s meticulous with details.
In Part 1 of his journal entries, Cody describes his first glimpse of the movie set as he was approaching the Big Tops in his car:
In the distance I could make out a series of large white tents. Figures of men and women appeared along the edges of the field. One man slowly turned when the bus approached. He wore a plain cream colored suit shadowed by dust and a plume of smoke swirled around his hardened face. The authenticity of his appearance was shocking. For a moment I wondered if I had somehow been transported to the 1930’s.
He continues describing his first day on the set in his journal entry:
I filed off the bus and into the tent where hundreds of future Rubes (townspeople/circus attendees) stood awaiting their hair styling or breakfast. The check-in line at the front of the tent moved quickly and once I had my work voucher I ping-ponged my way back to the wardrobe section. Hundreds of men’s suits hung on racks that stretched fifty feet long, each specifically numbered. My number was M826. I moved along each rack scanning the numbers. In between each aisle men sat hunched on benches lacing up boots and tightening suspenders. The breakfast spread was large and delicious. I piled fresh pancakes, hash browns, eggs, and fruit on my plate and sat down at a table. I was no longer Cody Wood 2010. I was Cody Wood 1931. I set my hat to the side and finished the meal like it was the Depression era.
Cody describes in meticulous details the famous scene when Rosie came into view:
The cage rolled on making room for the star of the parade: Rosie. Wearing a shimmering headband she lumbered down the street. Her trunk swayed back and forth, back and forth. Children laughed with excitement and pointed from the window of the candy store. A man next to me lit a hand-rolled cigarette. I gave a big holler to Rosie and clapped my hands. Back and forth, and back and forth, she lumbered. I rested my right leg on the bumper of an old two-door Ford – a relic from an era passed.
Cody humorously writes about this next scene which also involves Tai/Rosie and dozens of watermelons:
We followed the AD back down to the street and gathered around the corner grocery store. I wondered why they had so many watermelons. A middle-aged Asian man stood high-up on a ladder in cargo shorts and a sweaty t-shirt. He wore a faded blue baseball cap fastened down by an over-sized pair of headphones and held a ten foot long boom mic over the crowd. Ok folks, make some room!”
Out of thin air, Rosie appeared and was walking toward the middle of the crowd. We immediately split and cleared a path. Once she was in position I was so close I could reach out and touch her hind leg. “Thank you for your patience folks. Here is what’s going to happen. Tai (Rosie) is going to be eating the watermelons and Rob and Camel are going to come and take her away.” My job was to look enthralled by the fact there was an elephant eating at the grocery store. How could I not be?
Cody wraps up that day of filming with:
I didn’t want to, but I hung my suit back up on the wardrobe rack. I dropped my hat in one of the boxes, and took one last look at the set. The sky darkened and the lights of the Fox Studio buildings covered the evening canvas with glimmering light. This was the end for my time on Water for Elephants, but just the beginning for everything else ….
If you’ve seen the movie, you know exactly the scene Cody was describing above. Somehow, movie magic always makes everything seem larger than life!
Now that we’ve mentioned Tai the elephant, let’s find out more about her next.
Rosie aka Tai, the Star Attraction
Water for Elephants is a movie not to be missed not because it came from a beloved international bestselling novel written by Sara Gruen, nor because its stars include two Academy Award winners - Reese Witherspoon and Christopher Waltz - and international hearththrob Robert Pattinson. For me, its “biggest” star is the smart and adorable Rosie, the elephant.
Rosie’s real name is Tai. She’s a 9,200-pound Asian elephant. At 42 years old, Tai’s main diet is hay. Her favorite treats are jelly beans and anything sweet. I wish Tai could talk so we could interview her for our article. Can you just imagine the stories she could tell us about filming her scenes with Pattinson, Reese and Waltz?
Tai in Hollywood
Tai is no stranger to Hollywood. Her talents and good looks have made her a star in numerous TV shows and movies such as Operation Dumbo Drop with Danny Glover and Larger Than Life with Bill Murray. She even made a special appearance in Britney Spear’s music video Circus, and was a special guest at Nicole Richie’s wedding.
And here’s an interesting tidbit you may not remember. Three of the main stars in Water for Elephants have made a movie together before. Released in 2004, Vanity Fair‘s stars were Reese Witherspoon as its main heroine, Tai (in an Indian-themed gala, along with a dozen other elephants), and Robert Pattinson (who played Reese’s son). The scene between Pattinson and Witherspoon was edited out of the final cut, but you can still perhaps find it in the Extras section of the DVD.
Sara Gruen and Tai
Sara Gruen, the author of Water For Elephants (the book), had a cameo role in the movie, along with her husband and three sons who were cast as extras in the movie’s Weehawken parade scene (described above by Cody Wood).
As excited as Gruen was to meet the famous stars of the movie, she was even more thrilled to be lifted into the air by Tai, our playful elephant.
“Her trainer told me to hug her trunk,” said Gruen, “so I did, and suddenly I was 7 feet in the air. She gave me many kisses, probably because I always carry mints for my horses, so I was slipping her candy every time I got a chance.”
Gruen said they did the Weehawken parade scene at least 18 times. “I’m the one Rob Pattinson (who plays veterinarian Jacob Jankowski) elbows past and says, ‘Excuse me, ma’am’ to,” shared Gruen.
On one of the scenes between Christopher Waltz and Tai when he was ‘beating’ Rosie, Gruen said:
“From the side of the road, it was very obvious that he wasn’t going anywhere near her, but from behind the bank of monitors, it was extremely convincing.”
Robert Pattison and Tai
Pattinson shared his feelings about his co-star Tai in an interview withDark Magazine, “I didn’t really know what to expect when I signed for the film. Then, I met Tai the elephant and it was so incredible that I absolutely wanted to do it!” Pattinson capitalizes on Tai’s sweet tooth.
“I think I had a relationship with the elephant that’s kind of based purely on candy,” said Pattinson, who added that the secret was to “strategically place mints (on his body) then not tell anyone, so every single time the elephant would be constantly sniffing me, I would be like, ‘I don’t know, she just really likes me. It’s crazy.’”
“I was so sad when I had to leave her (Tai) at the end of the shooting,” said Pattinson. “She had such an extraordinary charisma. It’s weird – it must be the same with any other elephants since they are so huge. You feel untroubled when you are next to them. I would easily sit all day long next to Tai. And it’s what I did the very first days. I always sat next to her and I stayed there all day long. There’s no way she tramples on you or hurts you because she always knows exactly where you are. Those animals have amazing personalities – at least, she has. She’s lovely.”
Reese Witherspoon and Tai
Three months before filming of Water For Elephants began, Reese Witherspoon and director Francis Lawrence together visited Tai. “He took pictures of me, every moment, the first experiences I had of meeting her, and her picking me up. I look terrified,” Reese said, laughing. “I like animals, but this was a completely unique experience.” But soon after meeting Tai, Reese fell in love with the gentle elephant and became quite attached to her.
“I love that her trunk is both her nose and her hand,” said Witherspoon. “She has this incredible dexterity; she can pick up a log, but she can also pick up something this tiny.” (She was talking about a blue peanut M&M which Tai gently plucked from her hand.)
Witherspoon admitted that she was a bit nervous when she first met Tai, but it didn’t take long for Reese to let her guard down around her. “She could crush you with her jaw, but she knows the exact right amount of pressure with which to pick you up but not hurt you. It’s really incredible. I trust her more than any other animal I have ever been around.”
Christopher Waltz and Tai
Perhaps so that he can be in character for the movie, Christopher Waltz, who plays the fearsome, volatile circus master and Reese’s on-screen husband in Water for Elephants, had a slightly different take on Tai:
“[Tai] has one relationship with one human being only, and that’s with her trainer,” Waltz said. “The rest of us are just there. And considering that she could spit on your toes, it’s (a good idea) to keep a certain distance. It’s also a good idea to be friendly with the trainer.”
No Animals Were Harmed During The Filming of Water For Elephants
If you’ve seen Water For Elephants or have read the book, you know that August (played by Christopher Waltz) is very abusive toward Rosie. But don’t worry, all that was just illusions made for the movie. In real life, during those scenes, special care was taken to make sure that Tai was not hurt in any way.
How did you shot the key scenes in which August isn’t exactly nice to Rosie?
Johnson: That scene was manipulated with CGI effects in post production. The wounds which can be seen on Rosie are not real. They’ve been put on with make-up. When Christoph shot the scene in which he was supposed to hit her with a stick, the stick was just about 25 cm long. He did the movement but never touched her.
Spielfilm.de: That means that during those extremely emotional scenes Tai was never in danger and always really happy?
Johnson: Of course Tai was always safe and we always took care of her. Nobody would ever allow an animal to get hurt. Nobody will ever hurt our elephants. But on screen that emotion is shown pretty well, simply because Chrstoph is a great actor. When he acts his voice gets higher which makes him sound dangerous. Tai’s eyes were very responsive to that. It can be seen in the movie. She looks at him as if she wanted to say, “Hey, what are you doing with me?” That’s exactly what she has to do for the role as well.
For more on how Tai and other animals were taken care of during the filming of the movie, check out this video by the American Human Society.
Tai on Twitter
Of course, a celebrity like Tai must have her own Twitter account! If you want to tell Tai aka Rosie how much you love her, you can send her a tweet. Tai’s Twitter handle is @RosieRetweets. I’m sure she’d love to hear from you!
If you’d like to learn more about the making of this film, most of our research materials came from Water For Elephants, a Fan Site, the WFE Film Blog, Cody Wood’s Facebook page, and Kevin Ketcham’s tweets.