Interview: Tai’s Trainer Talk In-Depth About Tai’s Role as Rosie in ‘Water for Elephants’

Spielfilm.de interviewed Gary Johnson, owner of Have Trunk Will Travel. Gary is also Tai’s human daddy and trainer. Our friends at Robsteners have translated the article from German to English for your reading pleasure.

Spielfilm.de:
Can you explain to us what your company “Have Trunk Will Travel” does exactly?

Tai and Gary

Gary Johnson:
We have six elephants, five females and one breeding bull. Four babies were born with us and that’s very rare. That’s a huge achievement, because asian elephants are an endangered species. All over the world there are only about 35,000 of them left. We have eight full-time co-workers that take care of the elephants. Tai, an female, asian elephant is Rosie in Water for Elephants. All our elephants, apart from the bull, have played in lots of movies, ads and TV shows before. For Tai, movie sets and directors are nothing new. We’ve had her for 35 years now and because of the experience she has by now working with her is really pleasant.

Spielfilm.de:
Do you and Tai have to work hard in this movie?

Johnson:
Especially in this movie we’ve worked a lot. It was very exciting as well though. I loved everyone who worked on this movie. People were realy respectful and always friendly. The director Francis Lawrence was a real gentleman and did a great job in my opinion. He drove to our ranch in California a dozen times to watch the training and to spend time with Tai. That’s how he knew how to shoot the scenes with her later on.

Spielfilm.de:
How much time did Reese Witherspoon with Tai? The relationship between Marlena and Rosie is very important for the story right?

Johnson:
Reese Witherspoon visited the ranch often to train with Tai, because she has some really physical scenes with her. She had to climb onto Tai, just how it is known from circuses when the girl sits on top of the elephant. Tai lay on her side and when she got up Reese had to learn to stand on her trunk. They had to train a few different options to climb on top then. In one scene Tai stands on her back legs and Reese directly beneath her. In another scene Tai does a headstand and Reese dances beneath her at the same time. That’s really complicated and we had to train those scenes with a choreographer. The timing had to be right. In another scene Reese stands on top of the elephant. Another time Tai sits on a base and stands on her back legs and Reese then climbs onto her back. They had to train that scene a very long time. Tai does things like that regularly and it’s part of her routine. She practices daily and a lot.

Spielfilm.de:
How difficult was that for Reese?

Johnson:
She was extraordinary and told us she did gymnastics as a child. She grew up with animals and has always felt comfortable with them. All three main actors, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson and Christoph Waltz were very impressive. We’re very lucky that we were able to work with them. They’re just incredible.

Spielfilm.de:
What are the most exciting scenes with Tai and Reese the audience will get to see?

Johnson:
I think my favourite scene is the last one in which Reese stands on Tai. That’s a very dramatic moment. Although she does a few different routines, this might be the most spectacular one. At one point she lies on Tai’s back and Tai dances with her all through the arena. That scene is very impressive as well. In another very funny scene Christoph Waltz (August) and Reese dance on a podest and Tai gets so jealous, she tips Christoph on the shoulder. Then she steals his hat, throws it on the ground and tramples on it. It’s like she wanted to say, “Let Reese be. She’s mine.” Rosie also seems to feel that Christoph’s role is not really a likeable one.

Spielfilm.de:
How hard and intensive was the training on the movie set?

Johnson:
There were two trainers on set every day, my assistant Joanne Smith and I. Tai had to practice a lot of different routines and that meant a lot of work. We had a month for the initial preparation and after that we practices for three months, daily, to rehearse all the routines. In a particularly difficult scene Tai had to draw a plug out of the ground. Normally you use a plug on the ground to chain an elephant. In the movie, Rosie pulls the plug out of the ground, sneaks to a barrel filled with lemonade, drinks, sneaks back to her initial place along with the plug, pushes it back into the earth and pretends nothing ever happened. We had to practice a lot for that scene. Tai also had to lie down in a circus waggon and pretend that she was hurt. For this scene we needed a lot of time as well.

Spielfilm.de:
What about the scene where she runs away from the circus, gets to a city and destroys a lot of things there?

Johnson:
In that scene Christoph Waltz is very angry at Rosie, because she sneaks to the nearest villages and eats the vegetables from the market. Rob (Jacob) has to search for her and get her back. For that scene we needed about 300 extras and a few gamesmanship for Tai. There was just too much going on there, children on bikes and a lot of people. In all that chaos Tai had to act and we couldn’t just stand in front of the camera and tell her what to do. She had to eat the corn for example. but not the potatoes. That was a really special command but she did great. As an award she got an apple, a carrot and a little candy. Elephants love that, but Tais favourite sweets are “Jelly Beans”. Sometimes we even clap her on the shoulder and tell her that she did well. She understands that as well.

Spielfilm.de:
In the movie we fall in love with Rosie. How intelligent and emotional are elephants?

Johnson:
I don’t think that Tai really knows that she’s acting. She does know though that something will happen, cause she’s done that before already. She understands what it means when the director shouts “action” or “cut”. We’ve trained her to stop anything she does as soon as the director shouts “cut”.

Spielfilm.de:
How did Robert Pattinson interact and work with Tai?

Johnson:
Robert has a few close-ups with her and Tai thought him to be very likeable the first time she saw him. When Rosie is hurt he takes care of her. Robert never got loud with her and their relationship was adorable and easygoing. I think she liked him a lot.

Spielfilm.de:
How well does Tai act? Has she played a lot of leading roles before?

Johnson:
A lot of moviemakers told us how impressed they were by her and that she’s always done everything right. They also thought she was very abiding in every shot. I think she’s a good actress.

Spielfilm.de:
How did you shot the key scenes in which August isn’t exactly nice to Rosie?

Johnson:
That scene was manipulated with CGI effects in post production. The wounds which can be seen on Rosie are not real. They’ve been put on with make-up. When Christoph shot the scene in which he was supposed to hit her with a stick, the stick was just about 25 cm long. He did the movement but never touched her.

Spielfilm.de:
That means that during those extremely emotional scenes Tai was never in danger and always really happy?

Johnson:
Of course Tai was always safe and we always took care of her. Nobody would ever allow an animal to get hurt. Nobody will ever hurt our elephants. But on screen that emotion is shown pretty well, simply because Chrstoph is a great actor. When he acts his voice gets higher which makes him sound dangerous. Tai’s eyes were very responsive to that. It can be seen in the movie. She looks at him as if she wanted to say, “Hey, what are you doing with me?”. That’s exactly what she has to do for the role as well.

Spielfilm.de:
I can imagine that in the 30s there were circus animals that weren’t treated that well?

Johnson:
It’s like with every aspect of life. There are those and those. I like to think that most people in the 30s were good and took care of their animals. There are evil doctors and lawyers and obviously there are people who don’t treat their animals the way they deserve to be treated. In some places animals were surely mistreated. Nowadays with the supervision things like that couldn’t happen. We thing it’s positive that there are that many rules to keep the animals safe and happy. We are under constant supervision and that’s good.

Spielfilm.de:
Reese Witherspooon told us that she was very emotional on Tai’s last day on set because she was really close to her. Was that a very emotional moment for everyone?

Johnson:
She cried and was very sad. They had a really strong relationship and Rob had to fight with tears as well. Of couse you can’t compare animals and human beings but I think that Tai and other elephants can develop a very strong relationship to humans as well – especially ours since they’re constantly learning and working with humans. We take them to shoot movies, take them to the beach or the forest and they have a lot of fun. Our relationships are based on mutual trust. Working with Tai was very touching and emotional for Reese, Rob and Christoph. Watching Reese and Tai work one could see that they had a special bond.

Spielfilm.de:
How much fun did Tai have while working?

Johnson:
I think she had a lot of fun while working on “Water for Elephants”. Elephants are built for walking, moving a lot and they’re very intelligent. They need phsyical and mental challenges.

Spielfilm.de:
How did it come to be that you work with elephants?

Johnson:
I’ve loved animals ever since I was a kid. My family had farm animals so I grew up with them. When I was ten, there was a family in southern california that had a petting zoo with lots of different animals. I began cleaning up in those zoos and later on, when I was older, I was allowed to help riding the elephants. With sixteen the opportunity to get an elephants presented itself and since then I’ve always worked with animals. My wife’s step-father was a famous elephant trainer and at the age of 14 my wife learned it as well. We’ve both been doing this for a very long time now and we’re really passionate about the elephants.”

Spielfilm.de:
The movie is going to be suspenseful and emotional. Do you think that people will learn a lot about elephants and how extraordinary they are?

Johnson:
I think that the movie will raise awareness, just because the story is really exciting and because the younger generation will love to see Rob and Reese together. I think the audience will see how intelligent elephants are. We really hope we can raise awareness about the animals that are kept captive and also the ones in the wilderness.

Spielfilm.de:
At the end I want to ask you: You’ve felt drawn to elephants you whole life. What’s the magic that’s the foundation of this book, this movie and our love to elephants?

Johnson:
They’re very intelligent animals. You just have to watch them while they’re eating. It’s unbelievable and magical. It’s just really impressive how they eat the hay with their trunk. They’re majestic. They also have wonderful eyes. They just have something about them that draws you in.

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This entry was posted in Elephants, Have Trunk Will Travel, Rosie, Tai, Water for Elephants and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.
  • http://www.twitter.com/h2oforelephants tinkrbe1l3

    <3 what a great interview

  • Mandy

    Thanks–great read! (But, please note–you don’t need a period after a quotation ending in a punctuation mark, such as with the quesdtion mark here:
    She looks at him as if she wanted to say, “Hey, what are you doing with me?”.)

    • Dawn

      That’s kind of a weird thing to say…about the quotation ending. By the way, please note-it’s spelled question, not quesdtion.

  • Pingback: Tai’s trainer, Gary Johnson, talks about Water for Elephants, Tai, Rob & more! | TwiNews()

  • http://www.christophwaltzfans.com jekkie34

    Tai is obviously a very impressive elephant.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/RobCatCdn RobCatCdn

    This ^^^^ :-)

  • M a ddy

    What a fascinating interview! I hope we get to see the full extent of Tai’s cleverness in the DVD extras which I will, of course, buy the instant it is released. I am just getting more and more excited for this movie.

    I was lucky enough to interact with an elephant about 15 years ago. I was 7 months pregnant and it was so sweet how she was gently curious about my belly. I will always remember this amazing experience! Lucky Reese got to play with an elephant and all the other creatures for months!

  • http://www.dogmassage.com Joanne

    It seems that Gary is very good at taking care of his elephants. To have an animal that is so big and so well trained is very impressive. Hats off to people like Gary, and Have Trunck Will Travel, keep up the great work.

  • roblover

    Such a wonderful interview. Thanks for the enlightenment.

  • Pingback: Intervista a Gary Johnson, il trainer di Tai | Twilight Italia()

  • jainem

    This 9 minute video was just released by ADI, showing Gary Johnson and his employees beating and shocking Tai and his other elephants, be prepared to be shocked and sickened. After reading this interview and then to see him abusing these elephants, shows him to be a liar. Have Trunk Will Travel duped everyone.
    Elephant abuse is still alive and going strong in the 21st century.
    http://vimeo.com/23564589

  • Rosie

    I think this comment “Of couse you can’t compare animals and human beings” says about all I need to know about this man, especially after seeing the ADI video of “how well” he treats his animals. All he’s interested in is making money from animals who should be in the wild, not touted round to do tricks for the highest bidder and to be kept in unnatural surroundings. People like him make me sick, he says that Indian elephants are endangered and yet here he is keeping some just to make him money.

  • Charlie

    At some point the tiresome ADI pioneers were bound to make their appearance. First of all, I know your heart is the right place, so fair enough to you. I do have to point out, however, that the HTWT team aren’t deliberately exploiting and being cruel to the animals for their own amusement or as some kind of “evil plan” for profit. I can safely say that everyone in that team loves elephants and care a lot for them. The clip I have seen is not particularly bad, compared to others I have seen of real circuses. Half of it included the animals being carefully handled, patted and stroked. No-one raised their voice in any of it.
    They have a breeding programme, and have had several babies which are very important for conservation purposes. I think they probably find it difficult to train the elephants without some sort of punishment and reward system, but I can guarantee those elephants are probably extremely well treated out of training.
    Lastly, I’m entirely unsure why the goal of you all is to call a boycott on Water For Elephants. This makes no sense whatsoever. To start with, not only was there no harm come to the elephants on the set of the movie (it receieved the ‘no animals were harmed’ certificate) but the producers did not even know about this video showing the ‘abuse’. Why is the movie being punished when the elephant handlers are the ‘problem’? Secondly, if you disregard all of that, do you even know what the movie is about? It’s probably the best thing to happen to your cause! It is as far from glamourising the circus industry as embarrassing it, and I can bet my life that a lot of money will be going to ex-circus animal or elephant charities from people after watching this movie. I was worried when I went to see it that it would be putting circus animals into a good light, because I hadn’t read the book, but it was horrifying and upsetting. If I had ever considered going to an animal circus, I definitely don’t now. If this movie were to become internationally acclaimed I can see a contribution to the death of the wild animal circus. Just take these things into account before you get angry. I really feel that anger would be better used on a project which fights the real cruel industries, such as horse racing and the fur industry.

  • jainem

    Apparently you don’t know that these elephant experts Dr. Joyce Poole of Elephant Voices, PAWS founder Pat Derby, Patty Shenker and Catherine Doyle sent a very polite letter to 20th Century Fox, on April 28, 2010, asking them to avoid using live animals, particularly elephants, for the production and explained why we were opposed to the use of live animals in entertainment.

    The closing paragraph of that letter stated: “We look forward to being able to see and enjoy an animal-free “Water for Elephants” in the not so distant future, and we are happy to discuss any elephant issues further with you if you so wish. We would appreciate hearing from you on this important issue.”

    The response from Fox stated that they would be using Have Trunk Will Travel, a company with an impeccable record of humane training.

    Well we now know that HTWT does in fact abuse and beat their elephants for profit and that the Producers of Water for Elephants were in fact informed about how elephants are trained in the entertainment industry but chose to ignore it.

    HTWT breeding program is not for conservation purposes but to make sure they have elephants to use for entertainment and profit. None of these elephants will ever be returned to the wild.

    The American Veterinarian Medical Association issued these guide lines in 2008. “On rare occasions the guide/bullhook may be used for physical punishment after a highly dangerous behavior is performed or if a handler’s safety is threatened or as a means of self protection.
    However use of the guide/bullhook, during routine training in a manner that causes physical harm to the elephant is not considered acceptable.”
    http://www.avma.org/reference/backgrounders/elephant_training_bgnd.pdf

    Abuse is still abuse whether it is happening in the fur trade, horse racing or elephant entertainment and should not be condoned or ignored.
    I can only hope that the people who do attend the movie will never again go to another circus, because now they know that these elephants live a inhumane life just to entertain them.