Wild America: About The Production

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Have Camera, Will Travel

How does an award-winning filmmaker go about making a film of his own childhood experiences? This was the question faced by producer Mark Stouffer as he began reminiscing about growing up in Ft. Smith, Arkansas in the 1960s. Of particular interest to Mark was the summer of 1967 -- when he and his brothers first left the relative comfort of their rural home town and set out to film what would become their first wildlife documentary.

"We were blundering and staggering our way through those dangerous situations without a clue or a plan of how to pull them off," recalls Stouffer. "We did outrageous things because we didn't know we weren't supposed to. Here we were, young teenagers, crossing the country filming the rarest, most dangerous animals of North America. No money, no chaperone, no plan, making every mistake you can possibly imagine. I may be biased, but I think that that's a good story."

Writer David Michael Wieger agrees. "Marty, Mark and Marshall left home one summer as kids in search of their dream. And they ended up finding it."

Wieger met Stouffer returning from the Sundance Film Festival, and the two immediately saw eye-to-eye on turning the Stouffers' story into a film. Eager to begin writing, Wieger packed a suitcase and spent a week with both Marty Stouffer and Marshall Stouffer, one week with their sister, and one week with Marty, Sr. and Agnes, the boys' parents. He visited the houses the family lived in, and heard recollections of relatives and friends -- how the boys began filming with the family's 8mm movie camera, splicing together their prints with adhesive tape and screening the results for their friends.

Perhaps just as importantly, Wieger began to get into the mood of the mid-60s. He notes, "During that era, unprecedented energy and new ideas were coming into people's homes and lives through the media. Mark and his brothers wanted to become a part of that media, and they chose wildlife filmmaking as their way to do it."

"I just think that the magic of the time had a great deal to do with how our careers started. I don't think kids today could just set out like we did and get to the same place," says Mark Stouffer.

After Wieger and Stouffer had a first draft of the script, Stouffer turned to his longtime friend, Irby Smith, a film producer. Smith also grew up in a rural environment in Texas and he understood the feelings of the brothers. Combining efforts, the filmmakers worked on developing the script from the point of view of the youngest brother, Marshall. Smith states, "We wanted to blend the facts of the story with the fantasy that comes of it being seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy. To Marshall, everything is 'larger than life.' It's the kind of adventure everyone wishes they could have had when they were that young."

Director William Dear could also identify. He read the script and found surprising parallels to his own childhood -- he, too, had spent weekends making films with an 8mm camera owned by a friend's father. "I've learned from experience that if you are internally connected with a script, the chances are you are going to make a better movie. I remember when I shot my first movies and dreamt of one day becoming a director. These boys experience their dream. I regard this movie as a real story."

When Morgan Creek Chairman James G. Robinson gave the project a green light, the filmmakers began searching for actors to bring the story to life and locations that would serve the cross-country nature of the script.

My Three Sons

The filmmakers knew that they needed to find three young actors who would be believable as brothers. They felt doubly blessed when three of the hottest young talent around -- Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Devon Sawa and Scott Bairstow -- were available and, once cast, bonded almost instantly. They even began to act. . . like brothers.

Relates the director, "Jonathan, Devon and Scott are amazing. They really became brothers. I mean they would play pranks on each other, and they would have family-type disagreements, but they also shared a genuine love for each other. That's a blessing because it shows onscreen."

"I feel very lucky to be working with the heartthrobs of every girl between the ages of six and sixteen," says Frances Fisher, who plays the boys' mother, Agnes, to Jamey Sheridan's Marty, Sr. "The guys are just wonderful."

Mark Stouffer found the similarities between his family and their onscreen counterparts a little disconcerting. "There's a certain dynamic operating among Scott, who plays Marty, Jr., Jonathan, as Marshall and Devon, who's playing me. You have the aggressive leadership of Marty, the wild rebelliousness of Mark and the quiet determination of Marshall. Together, we were very mischievous," Stouffer smiles, "but not destructive. Watching pieces of our story being replayed in front of the cameras, well, honestly, it's just a little weird."

Devon Sawa felt that having the actual Mark Stouffer around during filming made the story more real. He notes, "We got to find out a lot about our characters from Mark. I mean, as an actor, I can't try and recreate exactly how Mark reacted in a certain situation, but I can take some of what he's told me and combine that with my own perceptions. I get to build the character of Mark Stouffer on film. It makes my job a lot easier because I get to talk to 'the real thing.'"

Jonathan Taylor Thomas found that he could see how the Stouffers wound up venturing beyond their farm to look for a fuller experience in life. He states, "Agnes and Marty Stouffer, the parents, didn't get to live these great worldly lives. The boys see that, and they get to live out some of their parents' dreams by going out and experiencing the world their parents never saw."

Scott Bairstow also got to bring his personal experiences and observations as a real-life older brother to the project. He notes, "Marty, Jr., the oldest, has a burning passion, and I think that overrides everything in his path. Oldest children have the toughest row to hoe. Everything they do is for the first time, and that's a lot of hard, ground-breaking stuff. I mean, I got in fights with my parents and my little brother, and it caused some heartache. But by enduring heartache, we get to grow stronger. As teenagers, we're just trying to find out who we are outside of our parents. That's a really strong theme in this movie."

Southern and Northern Exposure

Because of Jonathan Taylor Thomas' shooting schedule on the television series "Home Improvement," filmmakers targeted an April start date for "Wild America." The location scouting began with two goals in mind: first, the locations had to resemble the rural Arkansas farms of the mid-60s and, second, the geographic region needed to provide an early summer. Both goals were met on the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia. Recalls Mark Stouffer, "In Savannah, summer came early, it looked like Arkansas, the people were very warm to us, and we found the house that became the family home sitting just outside of town."

A small grain farm on several acres of land was chosen as the family's home. The acreage also contained a shop that would serve as Marty, Sr.'s used carburetor shop. Two small World War II training planes, PT22's from Ryan Aircraft Company, double as the craft that Marty, Sr. and Marshall restore while Marty relates tales of his experiences as a pilot during the war. Only a few miles from the Stouffer farm is Georgia's Tybee Island where Mark and Marty, Jr. abandon Marshall to watch the car while they partake of the sun, surf. . . and girls.

The wetlands of Rincon, Georgia, just miles in another direction from Tybee Island, provided the murky swamps where the brothers, newly embarked on their expedition, find themselves in the company of a 'gator hunter. The old eccentric spins a tale about the beast that got his leg and provides the boys (for a fee, of course) with a boat and some gear to hunt down the fearsome creature.

But in addition to the farm, beach and swamp locales, the story of the Stouffers takes place on the prairie, in the snow, and in the high desert. Again, filmmakers got a 'three-for-the-price-of-one' deal in Alberta, the heart of western Canada. A provincial park high in the rugged, snowy Canadian Rockies just outside of Canmore offered the bear cave, the mountain vistas and the meadows with wandering moose. Famous for its collection of dinosaur bones and other fossils, Drumheller, Alberta provided the badlands, with wild horses and soaring eagles, as well as the government military base the boys inadvertantly discover.

W.C. Fields Knew a Thing. . . or Two

Of course, the Stouffers wouldn't have much of a story if it weren't for the amazing array of wild and domesticated animals that trotted, stampeded, flew or swam into their lives. The filmmakers knew of the famous maxim about performing with children and animals, and met the challenge head-on.

Director William Dear states, "It's very easy for the writer to say 'the wolf runs to the water hole and chases the antelope away.' No one tells the wolf, or maybe he just didn't read his script. Working with animals requires more patience than working with young actors, special effects, or anything else that turns up in movies. It can make you a little crazy."

Much of the craziness fell on the shoulders of Senia Phillips, the animal coordinator. During the course of the shoot, Phillips had several challenging animal roles to cast, including a domesticated owl and a new-born fawn, and some deceptively simple ones, like locating beagle puppies.

Recalls Phillips, "The script called for a fawn, but I told them that it was the wrong time of year. So when one was born, I was really lucky to find it. We went to work almost immediately. If we hadn't found him, he would have been played by a baby goat."

The 'role' of Leona, Marshall's owl in the story, was filled by Owl-X, a great horned owl who resides at the National Foundation to Protect America's Eagles complex at a theme park in Tennessee. Cared for by hand since suffering injuries as a chick, Owl-X is a local star in his own right, traveling with docents to schools to introduce children to the beauty and majesty of predatory birds.

Finding beagle puppies seems like an easy enough task at first look. Anyone familiar with the breed, however, knows that beagles have changed significantly since 1967 due to the introduction of bloodlines from Europe. Three puppies with a vintage 1967 'look' were found, however, and Phillips completed her roster of players who live on the Stouffer farm with two adult dogs, a cat, a turkey and a fox. She states, "Most of the animals that live on my farm first worked in film, and then I just gave them a home for life. The dogs and cats live in the house and the rest run free outside. I don't even have a lawn anymore. You have to shoo turkeys and chickens off the porch just to open the front door."

Jonathan Taylor Thomas was most involved with the animals, both on and off the set. He says, "Having first-hand experience working with a lion, bears, a baby deer -- it's amazing what their faces contain. They're so beautiful, it's mesmerizing. I want people who see this film to say, 'I want my great-grandchildren to see these animals.'"

However, not all of the non-human co-stars were cute and cuddly. And as reality played an integral part in the Stouffers' "Wild America" documentary series, filmmakers struggled to make the boys' encounters with nature as authentic as possible.

Scott Bairstow recalls, "When we filmed in the swamp, that was a swamp. It was full of bugs and snakes -- and that alligator! -- bingo, it's the real thing. It scared me, I can tell you. Needless to say, I did not get out of the boat."

The cast managed to escape without any real mishaps -- except for sore earlobes. Thomas says, "All of the animals are great, but I think my favorite is the fawn named Bucket. He's great, but he loves to suck on earlobes. Everyone on the set has hickies on their ears from Bucket because he's so adorable, you just can't say no."

Producer Irby Smith elaborates, "We have a great story and it works as a movie. It's a fun adventure that also looks at themes of familial responsibility and coming-of-age. But you add to that the voyage of discovery that these boys have with these animals -- I mean, watching a fawn stand up, cross to an actor and lick him on cue -- it's just something you could only call 'the magic of the movies.'"

David Michael Wieger sums up, "When Mark and his brothers left their home, their parents were only partially supportive--Marty, Sr. lost part of his workforce, and Agnes, like any parent, feared for their safety. But when the boys returned, they had actually become the kind of men that their father always wanted them to be. They essentially made their futures that summer, and their parents loved and respected them for it."

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