STORM BOY | Actors who'll work for fish

Craig Bullen grew up in the circus. Little wonder, he's still working with animals. He and his two brothers and a sister lived at Luddenham on the sprawling family property which was where their circus animals rested and which doubled as a theme park. As a youth, this writer spent weekends with his older brother, a school mate, watering the giraffes, rounding up the bison, learning to ride horses. A weekend trip this year back to my mother's family town of Goolwa, in the Coorong of South Australia, was a chance to see the locations and props for the new Storm Boy. And to see the film where it was made.

At the end, up came Craig's name, billed as pelican trainer. He was one of a team, with his wife Zelie Bullen, Paul Mander and Julia Bury. And there in the credits was his young son, Colt Bullen, as stand-in for the film's star, Finn Little. Craig and Zelie have a business together training animals for the screen.

I chatted to Craig and we remembered Bullens Animal World at Luddenham, their dad's Lion Park at Warragamba, going to Wallacia Primary and, later, Nepean High where I was also a young teacher and even taught him. Then down to business, talking about the second film of Storm Boy, based on the delightful small novel with an environmental message way ahead of its time.

INTERVIEW

How long did it take to get the pelicans ready? We got them as chicks. People don't realise it but pelicans grow really quickly and once they're six months old they look fully grown, size-wise, so it's a bit deceiving. We had five. They were wild pelicans. No one breeds them here. We started training them at three months old.

Are they vicious when young?  No. But they're very food-driven. When they're young their beak isn't so sharp but as they develop it gets quite a little tip on the end and once they get mature they can do a bit of damage with it! But they're not aggressive. There's a lot of snapping and wing-flapping but it's all part of the chicks learning how they're beaks and wings work.

You can't train adults? Just way quicker if you get babies. On a film you get X amount of time for prep and you gotta to use as best you can without spending half of it just getting the animal used to you. Once they realise every bit of food they get comes from you they become your friends quite quickly!

Did you have particular pelicans as Mr Proud, Mr Ponder and Mr Percival? No, they were all interchangeable. We used one for a lot of the actor closeups, for the boy cuddling, things like that. We actually had two that were quite comfortable with Finn.

The hardest thing for the birds to do? Believe it or not, Ian, it's all the stuff with the actors. The birds have to be patient and just stand there. It doesn't sound like much but with all our animals, whether it's a horse, a dog, an elephant, a lion or a monkey, a lot of our training is just patience training. They just gotta stand there. And with the pelicans that was one of our big challenges. They need to be familiar with their surroundings and the crew. It was only a small crew on Storm Boy, about 70. The pelicans need to pay attention to the trainer for eyelines. Like when Jai [Courtney, as Hideaway Tom] is talking we want the pelican to look at him and when Finn [Little, as Storm Boy] answers we need the pelican to swing round and look at him. 

How did the actors get on with the birds? We really cracked it for actors comfortable around them. With Finn we spent six or seven weekends with him with the birds, just hanging out. Luckily we had Colt with us who's the same size as Finn and we used Colt for a lot of the training with the birds so they were comfortable around someone the same size. Colt is 12, just started high school. Actually they wanted him to audition for the part of Storm Boy. When the producers came out to our property and talked about the job, they had one look at Colt and said why doesn't he try out for the lead? Unfortunately for them Colt's been on film sets most his life and he's seen what actors go through. He sees all the boring stuff, the standing around. The producers on Red Dog 2 wanted him to audition for the main part because he was so good with the dogs and he turned that down, too. If you're gonna do that stuff, Ian, you got it throw it 110 per cent, you can't do it half-assed. We work with actors all the time. It's a hard deal and they earn every cent they get. Some of them.

How long was the Goolwa shoot? About three months. Our pelican camp was based in Goolwa and we also shot at Port Noarlunga and different locations but we came back to Goolwa each night. We loved the township. It's a cute little place, really nice atmosphere. We caught a little cockle boat to the set most mornings -- you couldn't drive to the location -- we had to load up the pelicans every morning, put them in their boxes and drive to the jetty, load 'em onto the boat.

Storm Boy was written by a teacher, Colin Thiele. Did you ever read it? I was in grade 4 at Wallacia Primary, I remember as plain as day. And the funny thing is when Colt got back from this job his class was starting that book. He had a bit of fun with that, coming straight out of doubling for the boy in the movie. That book was ahead of its time. Everyone talks about conservation now but in 1976 it was new.

What was the hardest for the animals to pull off? Some of the flying was a bit tricky because it was windy. Trying to get the birds to fly from A to B without too much of a loop-the-loop was hard. The difficult stuff is when the actors do lines and the birds have to stand and concentrate. Sometimes the actors mess up their lines and now it's become 20 minutes and the birds are done, we gotta swap them out because they've lost their attention. The big action stuff is easy because the birds are busy and wanna do stuff and get their treats.

What are their treats? Just fish. We used mullet, the local fish at Goolwa. Some of the pelicans like eating the heads and the tails, not the middle bits. You gotta keep them at their weight to make them interested enough in their food to perform. Can't just feed 'em willy-nilly. If there's a scene where they have to eat a bucket of fish you'd say OK, we do that on a Friday so they've got all weekend to get hungry again!

So, which is the better film, mate -- 1976 or 2019? Oh, I like the new one . . . !

  • Storm Boy is screening at Event, Hoyts and Palace cinemas, including in conjunction with schools. Due for release on Blu-ray and DVD soon.

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