I wrote the following article in ’97 for the L.A. Times Syndicate, and re-posted it in October ’04 — two months after launching Hollywood Elsewhere:
“Young marrieds Craig Sheffer and Sheryl Lee are lying in bed and mulling over their troubled sex life. Lee’s psychological history is at the nub. One of her problems is a bug phobia — always scrubbing under the sink, hunting around for creepy-crawlies. Anyway, the camera rises up from their bed, climbing higher and higher until it comes to an overhead propeller fan. And we suddenly notice a fly sitting on one of the blades.
How did Young get the little bugger to just sit there, waiting for his big moment?
Answer: The fly had been placed in a freezer for five minutes just before Young yelled “action!”, and was thus too frozen to make any moves. And even if he wasn’t all but frozen stiff he would’ve failed, due to a thread of tungsten wire — thinner than a human hair — tied to the fly’s midsection.
The person who arranged all this was “fly wrangler” Anne Gordon, whose company, Annie’s Animal Actors, was hired by the Bliss shoot in Vancouver.
The Bliss fly is actually a flesh fly — the kind that feeds on meat, and is about two or three times larger than your average house fly. Gordon bought 100 to the set on shooting day but only used “about a dozen” to get the shot.
A different chilled fly was used for each take, she says, because it would be cruel — not to mention impractical — for the same fly to be sent back to the freezer after each shot. The optimum time to shoot a chilled fly is four minutes after the ice chest, she says. They’re usually warmed up and able to fly around after seven minutes.
Another way to get a fly to sit still is to “cover him with a special mixture of milk and honey,” says Mark Dumas of the Vancouver-based Creative Animal Talent. “That way it’ll stay there a while and groom itself.”
The overhead ceiling fan shot was “tough,” says Gordon, and not just because of fly-prep issues. She says she felt a bit awkward looking down at a couple doing a love scene all day. “They’re down in the bed doing their thing and I’m up on the ladder,” she says. “They hardly had anything on.”
Of course, the main issue when it comes to bug actors isn’t sex but death — i.e., not getting killed during takes.
The fact that flies are small and pesky and murdered by the tens of thousands each day by humans the world over cuts no ice on movie sets. SPCA rules require that any visible insect used in any shot be treated with the same care afforded to any large animal.
Dorothy Sabey, a Vancouver-based humane officer for the SPCA who watches out for animal safety during shoots, understands the hard realities of insect life. She just wants them suspended during filming. No bugs have ever been harmed on her watch.
“I just have to make sure they can fly away,” she says. Or scamper away. Sabey recalls working on a TV movie that had a scene in which a shoe is seen stepping on a cockroach. Death was averted, she says, by hollowing out the shoe sole “so the cockroach was quite safe.”
It goes without saying that no Bliss flies were sprayed, swatted or flattened during production. Their safety was matter of particular pride for Gordon. “We cannot kill a fly for any purpose if it’s being used in a shot,” she says. “This rule includes mosquitoes and maggots, even. I know maggots are really awful looking, but then again they’re baby flies.”
As Dorothy Sabey explains, “If any life form is in front of a camera, it’s an actor…and we don’t kill actors, do we?”
Yeah, but we do freeze them. As long as we’re going to get all extra-sensitive and p.c. about it, doesn’t this constitute some kind of cruelty? Would any filmmaker or animal wrangler ever consider putting a dog or a cat into a freezer to keep them still in front of a camera?
“It’s a gray area,” Sabey admits.
Even grayer is the SPCA rule that after shooting the flies used by the wrangler have to be returned to the storage laboratory from which they’ve been brought.
Given the average fly’s lifespan of about 30 days, the decent thing would be to set them free after putting in a hard day on a soundstage. Instead it’s back to the lab and convict-like confinement, killing time and just waiting for the end.
Sabey says she’s willing to forgive if a bug is accidentally killed. “If it happens anyway then it really is an `oops’ because everybody tries hard,” she says.
“Of course if somebody kills a fly around the block, that’s different.”