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Posted on Thu, Nov 19, 2009 : 12:38 p.m.

Local dog becomes movie star, meets "Darth Vader"

By Staff

Whether or not you agree with the tax-credit program that sparked it, the burgeoning movie industry is creating all kinds of quirky and interesting situations we otherwise wouldn't be seeing around here.

Bunny (3).JPG
Here's one: Mary Dixon, who runs the local company Mup Mups Animal Actors, has a tale of a Saline poodle's brush with the big time.

On the evening of November 8th, Bunny found her self on a darkened street, in Darth Vader's arms...

In October and early November, my Ann Arbor company, Mup Mups Animal Actors, was hired to work on the film "The Vanishing on 7th Street" in Detroit.

"Vanishing" is directed by Brad Anderson (of the TV show "Fringe") and stars Hayden Christensen (the young Darth Vader in the recent "Star Wars" sagas), John Leguizamo (Henri-Toulouse Latrec in "Moulin Rouge") and Thandie Newton (Makemba "Kem" Likasu in the TV show "ER") as survivors in a world where shadowy figures appear and human beings disappear.

The plot is so hush-hush, even I was not given a script (which we usually have so that we can break down the animal action as required). We had to train on-set for both animals, which can be a real challenge, no matter how simple the action seems (to the director or crew) or how good a trainer you are!

For the October days, I hired a real police horse, whose owner, a sergeant, came as his primary handler. Which was good, since we were shooting in a not-so-nice area of Detroit! The production company closed down I-75 for 8 hours for one of the police horse shoots, which I believe is the biggest stunt a film company has pulled off since the Michigan Film Incentive (MFI) was started in April 2008.

The other animal I was asked to find for the film was a white standard poodle.

I've been involved in the dog show scene for 15 years as an obedience and conformation exhibitor and as a vendor of my handmade porcelain dog breed jewelry. So I knew it would be difficult at this time of year to find the extreme show-groomed poodles, with the balls and flourishes. They are all on the road, being shown for those last-minute 2009 AKC standings, most with professional dog handlers.

But, luckily for us, Bunny and a few other young ones were available. Of those, he picked Bunny.

Bunny is a young white standard poodle bred and owned by longtime show exhibitor and Southeast Michigan Poodle Club president Patricia Jason of Saline. She was cast as a fancy dog wandering alone to fend for herself on the streets of the deserted city. We shot on a back street between the Compuware building and Greektown, just under the People Mover.

The script called for her to walk around from one mark to another, seemingly easy stuff. But when I, Pat and her daughter Danielle Sugai got there, we were asked to add a few other behaviors to make the scene more realistic.

This happens nearly every time I get to set with one of my animal actors! So I am always ready with my cooked garlic chicken (which I raise myself on my little farm next to the Pittsfield Preserve in Pittsfield Township).

So...on the one hand, Bunny is only 1.5 years old and prone to bouts of random silliness. On the other hand, poodles are one of the smartest breeds.

We were pretty sure she could do it.

Bunny had other ideas...

When the prop guys finished readying the set, we were allowed to work with her right there, where she would be (rummaging through broken-open grocery bags with cans and boxes spilled out on the ground and shoes and clothing scattered around- because the people had vanished).

Bunny seemed to be channeling Marilyn Monroe, who had a penchant for doing things her own way, much to the consternation of her directors.

Despite our efforts and the yummy bait, she went around, saying "Hi" to the crew, sniffing the props, eating some of the chicken and generally being a goofball.

At one point, a crew member, wearing a hoodie over his head and a variety of unusual-looking flashlight devices on the front of his clothing, came over to meet her and ask her name.

He knelt down, hugged and pet her for quite a while.

"Why all the lights?" Pat asked.

He smiled and said, "Oh, I just like flashlights."

I said, "You look like a Star Wars character!"

A few minutes later, in better lighting, I took a good look at Bunny's biggest fan, who was still doting on her.

"Are you Hayden?" I asked him.

"Yes, I am!" he said.

" Well," I said, "I was kind of just kidding before but I guess you really were, like, the coolest Star Wars character- ever! " (besides Han Solo).

It was nearly impossible to recognize him with his hoodie and makeup, which I'd say is true for most actors I've worked with, including Hllary Swank.

The cameras were set up. "ROLLING!" Brad yelled.

Pat released Bunny from stage right (the left side of the frame). Dragging her leash, Bunny went all the way into the set, to the bags, rummaged.

Showed her good side.

Did it right.

For a whole minute that seemed to last forever. I silently counted the seconds from the sidelines.

Danielle, standing next to me, at stage left (the right side of the frame) and I were cued via Walkie Talkie to call the dog.

We yelled, "BUNNY!"

Up shot her head. Exactly what they wanted.

Bunny looked around. Exactly what they wanted!

What was going on?! She was perfect!

Then we called ", come!" and she sauntered off in our direction. Hayden runs into the scene, rummaging through the bags himself. Perfection.

Another take. Perfect again. No mistakes.

"CUT!" Brad yelled. "Moving on!" which meant, basically, that the dog was "wrapped!"

Ah, yes, the Force was strong in Bunny that night. I felt something, or someone was helping us.

It really was amazing that Bunny did the job so perfectly after all of those silly rehearsals. Pat and I had said Bunny's performance could be in honor of Pat's mother, who had sadly passed away just two days before.

Later, I was talking with the Humane Association representative and she said she'd 'felt a presence' on set helping us. I told her I did, too.

So, later, I thanked grandma, on the way home, for helping us with Bunny!

• • •

Background on the company, and some opinion on the film incentives I was inspired to start Mup Mups Animal Actors from being the first breeder/exhibitor in North America of a rare dog breed, the Wirehaired Portuguese Podengo Medio. I got interested in the Wire Podengo Medio in the early 90's out of books I read when I worked at the Humane Society of Huron Valley ('92-'94).

I got my first one in 2005. She's the first WPM Rare Breed Champion in America (UKC) and Canada (CFC).

I've met or lived with most of the Wire Podengo Medios in North America, including the movie star WPMs in Hollywood, at Universal Studios, where a friend worked doing animal training for movies and TV. They were in movies like "The Lake House" (with Keanu Reeves), "Three Wishes" (with Patrick Swayze) and "Zeus and Roxanne" (with Steve Gutenberg) and many others.

When the MFI was started in April 2008, I hung my animal actor shingle in late summer that year and started networking. I have been going through my fat Rolodex of two decades of animal world contacts from doing my artwork, doing dog rescue, training dogs and horses, years of Humane Society work, dog and horse showing and pet education.

I have good business sense instilled in me from my long retail work history in Ann Arbor throughout the '80s (at keystone shops like Sam's Store, Middle Earth and managing the Blue Front and Beatnix Vintage). I'm personable and bold...I knew I could launch this on my own.

Since then, I've been approached by several Hollywood animal companies to 'represent' them so that they can take advantage of Michigan's lucrative film incentive program. But I didn't need them to succeed. The incentive was intended to benefit us Michiganders. Not 'pass through' California companies who already have their own market share.

Thus far, my company has provided animals for most of the films made in Michigan in the past year. Nearly every project has involved people I've met through my many lives in the animal worlds. I enjoy sharing the experience (and money!) with them. I did it right: Mup Mups Animal Actors is the only company in Michigan that has all the legal requirements in place for doing professional animal acting for film/TV.

I believe it is important for those of us in the trenches (the smaller film crafts) to invest in being politically active in the arena of promoting, supporting and defending the MFI. It is our baby that we need to take care of.

I belong to several MFI networking groups, I attends rallies, festivals and organized meetups. I am an avid letter-writer to proponent and opponent politicians of the MFI.

For example, I knew that the superior of the 'Vanishing' police horse's owner, Sheriff Mike Bouchard, is a candidate for governor of MI. I made sure a very nice letter was regular-mailed to his office thanking him for the opportunity to employ his officers, both human and equine. Of course, I told him that the MFI is a great program; that it really is benefiting us Michigan citizens.

I do get the word out that we are willing to fight for those jobs against high-powered (and often underhanded) California competition and that we spend every dollar here in this state.

Most of the time, the producers do the right thing and hire us first.

I work hard for the MFI. I am only one degree of separation from the motivated Michigan-born Madonna, so maybe that explains some of my energy and drive!

As a Michigan worker, I have been willing and able to provide a little extras 'pass-through' companies cannot, such as friendliness and honesty, waiving hotel or 'per diem' fees and working with little budgets. Like most people in the already-established Michigan film industry, I live near the Metro Detroit area and can just drive home at night.

Since 1988 I have been involved in the Michigan film industry with my fiance, Steve Stanchfield, who is a University of MI film preservation specialist and a professor of film and animation at Detroit's College for Creative Studies.

I've also done animation art for Steve's company Thunderbean Animation and other clients. I've sold my jewelry at the Ann Arbor Art Fair and the Ann Arbor Farmer's and Artisan's Market and now it is sold at galleries and dog shows.

I've come to think of the Michigan Film Industry as our family. And I protect my family.