101 Dalmatians: Production Information

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Walt Disney Pictures' animated classic "101 Dalmatians" undoubtedly is one of the most popular feature films of all time. But, far from being daunted by the prospect of remaking this much loved film as a live-action picture, writer and producer John Hughes welcomed the challenge. "It's a classic story of good versus evil and it was very exciting to see it done as a live-action film. We were able to do things we couldn't do with animation," the noted filmmaker says. "Animation has a certain magic to it, but there's also a magic in doing the story in the live-action form."

Director Stephen Herek similarly faced the difficult task of bringing to life these famous two-legged and four-legged characters. "I didn't shy away from the style of the original cartoon, but I didn't want to be locked into it either," he says. "Both movies are similar in that they revolve around animals. We have updated the story, but kept the romance and the old-fashioned view of London."

Says Hughes, "There is an interesting relationship between the animals and the humans in the story, with the animals living in a sort of parallel world, which was fascinating to explore. And although I've done things in the past with bumbling bad guys, working on a genuinely evil person, a great towering villain, was a lot of fun."

The villain to which Hughes refers is Cruella De Vil, played by one of the world's greatest and most versatile actresses-Glenn Close.

The character of Cruella is perhaps one of the most coveted film roles, but for producer Ricardo Mestres, there was only one choice to play Cruella. "We were looking for a world class actress, bigger than life, someone who could bring grandeur to one of the most famous characters in all of moviedom. Glenn Close was our first choice. She brings a life and an energy to the role that could only be achieved by a great actress."

Having just stepped out of her Tony Award-winning role as Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber's international hit "Sunset Boulevard," Glenn Close took the part of Cruella very seriously. "It was quite daunting to play an icon of cartoon evilness and I didn't presume that I necessarily could be better than the original," Close says. "Cruella walks a very thin line between being truly frightening and also entertaining. But, I think in the tradition of all great fairy tales that bad is bad and you have to commit to that. For good to triumph over evil in '101 Dalmatians,' it helps to have a truly evil antagonist."

Close's commitment to the role went far beyond just playing evil. She spent months enduring a harsh physical training program and strict diet in order to achieve the angular look of Cruella and to do justice to Anthony Powell's elaborate and stunning costume designs.

Prior to designing the look of Cruella, three time Academy Award® winning costume designer Powell worked with Glenn Close on "Sunset Boulevard." "He is one of the most gifted designers working today," Close says. "He has a great sense of culture, style and most importantly, he has a great sense of humor which is vital for Cruella."

Of course, the casting of Cruella was not the production's only major consideration, there was also the not so small question of 99 puppies, several adult dogs and myriad other animals to cast.

Although many films have included dogs, very few have attempted anything as ambitious as that of "101 Dalmatians" and as head animal trainer and coordinator, Gary Gero explains, "No one has ever worked with puppies on this scale."

As the film is set and was to be made entirely in the United Kingdom, it seemed logical to use animals from within the British Isles. Gero and his team of experienced trainers arrived at Shepperton Studios in the summer of 1995 and began the long and arduous task of finding suitable young adult Dalmatians, Airdales and Old English Sheepdogs to train for the roles of Pongo and Perdy, Kipper and Fogey.

The biggest task however, was casting the 99 puppies. Thankfully Walt Disney's exemplary record of treatment of animals within its films, and Gero's own expertise and reputation, had private breeders lining up to loan their puppies to the production.

Gero and head puppy trainer Mary Kay Snyder sent their legions of puppy trainers to the far corners of the UK to train the litters. No one had ever before attempted to train eight-week-old puppies for a film, and certainly not over 200 of them. However, the results surpassed all expectations.

"Puppies have an extremely high capacity to learn," Gero explains. "They're like children; they're like sponges. And as long as you treat everything as a game and ensure they enjoy what they do, you can get great results. However, these trainers have done things which have gone beyond even our hopes. Getting 15 puppies to sit and stay all at the same time was quite something."

The puppies and dogs were central to the whole production and everyone, both cast and crew, found their worlds revolving around the needs of the little paws. Production designer Assheton Gorton, had to design all the sets with the animals' welfare uppermost in mind. This included everything from shallow "puppy sized" steps which prevented puppies from tumbling, to disinfecting fake snow, soil and every single tree leaf.

This was also Stephen Herek's first time working with animals on such a large scale. "It takes a lot of patience and more often than not you find you're paying more attention to the animals than the actors," Herek says. "But, the animals and trainers were just amazing and thankfully I had the help of one of the most experienced second unit directors in the film industry, Micky Moore."

Executive producer Edward S. Feldman, who previously worked with Gary Gero on "Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book," was more aware of the complexities of filming with so many animals. "On 'The Jungle Book' we had 100 monkeys, 47 exotic animals and camels and elephants-all sorts," Feldman recalls. "You soon learn that animals have to come first and that all scheduling has to be built around them. In all pictures with animals the actors come second. Glenn Close, Jeff Daniels and Joely Richardson realized this and subordinated their needs in favor of the animals. It was very gratifying."

It was everyone's strongest wish that real animals be used wherever possible, although the expertise of Jim Henson's Creature Shop, and Industrial Light and Magic were called in to tackle any task deemed too difficult or too dangerous. As Herek explains: "Our philosophy was that real animals have a look and a movement that is impossible to achieve technically. ILM's challenge was to recreate a computer image that was just like a real puppy so that we could cut from a real dog to a computer image with no one noticing."

One notable departure from the original animated film is that none of the dogs or animals in this live-action version speak. John Hughes attempted to give the film a level of crediblity which could not be achieved with talking dogs. All thought is conveyed by action. "With only a few choice exeptions, I wouldn't have the animals do anything that we'd have to manipulate physically, and that includes talking," Hughes said.

Of course aside from the dogs, the film boasts a superb cast of talented actors including Jeff Daniels who plays Pongo's master Roger. "He's a lot different than the cartoon character," Daniels says. "We've taken the approach that he's an American who wishes he'd been born English. You can tell that by the clothes he wears which are very rural England. Roger gets into corners and does have comedic moments which are different from the cartoon, and he designs video games, whereas in the original he was a composer."

Jeff Daniels is no stranger to working with animals, having tackled an army of spiders in "Arachnophobia" and a flock of geese in "Fly Away Home." "I seem to be the actor they call when there are animals in the script. I think 'Babe' was the only movie I wasn't offered," he jokes. "But, the dogs in this movie have been incredible. They just love to learn. Give them a few times to work out what it is you want from them and they'll do it every time. It's fascinating to watch. I feel like I've got the best seat in the house, sometimes I find I forget to act, I'm so busy observing."

Daniels is thus only too familiar with the rigors and pleasure of working with animals and is quick to point out that any actor taking on a role featuring animals, should "know when you're going in that the take they're going to use is the one where the dogs are great. So you've got to be great every time. Whatever it takes you've got to really work for them and try to get them as good as they can be. Once you take that attitude it's not an obstacle but a challenge."

One of the UK's most talented actresses, Joely Richardson, who plays the part of Anita, had other reasons for accepting the role. "Selfishly I just thought of '101 Dalmatians' as my favorite cartoon and that's why I was so happy to be part of it."

Richardson continues that it is not often an actor has the opportunity to be part of a classic film which "I know is going to be around for a long time," but adds

that even she "was surprised and delighted at how much the live-action version has maintained the magic of the original."

She also readily admits that the chance to act alongside Glenn Close was one of the other main attractions. "It was wonderful to work with an actress I truly admire, who has so many years experience and who is really exciting. Jeff Daniels has also been great fun to work with. He can make any line sound conversational."

The role of Nanny is played by revered stage and screen actress Joan Plowright. The character of Nanny, she explains, is very much based on her own experiences. "I deliberately didn't watch the animated film again before we started shooting," she says. "But I've had nannies of my own, very proper, very warm-hearted ladies who were always quite tough when necessary-as Hugh (Laurie) and Mark (Williams)-found out! Nanny is, I admit, based largely on a nanny I had named Mrs. McLeod."

Like the rest of the cast, she was transfixed by the skills of the animal trainers. "You find yourself absolutely entranced by the dogs; their intelligence is amazing," Plowright says. "You actually believe you are talking to a dog and that it can understand you."

As Hugh Laurie and Mark Williams found out, playing the bungling henchmen can have its disadvantages. Williams who plays Horace, was nursing his bruises for quite a while. "There's a lot of comic violence in the film and mainly at the cost of my head," he says. "The script supervisor came up to me after one scene and told me that Hugh had just hit me 147 times!"

Hugh Laurie, who plays Jasper, eagerly confesses to having personally enjoyed the experience. "It was excellent fun! I don't think I'd have been able to go through those five months without that opportunity to vent my frustration and bash Mark. Although, the last time I hit him I did begin to feel sorry for him especially when the director said you've got to do it again, because you didn't hit him hard enough."

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