It’s a remarkable feel good story about a boy and his dog.
Or rather it’s the first time that man develops a relationship with a dog.
Alpha is one of the surprising adventure films this year that stars Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chuck, the Czechoslovakian Wolfdog. The story follows a prehistoric journey of a young man who was separated from his hunting party after an expedition for wild buffalo. He befriends a wolf companion, who assists him on his trek home.
The story is directed by Albert Hughes (The Book of Eli, From Hell). The screenplay is written by Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt.
LRM Online had an exclusive phone interview with Mark Forbes, one of Hollywood’s most used animal trainers. He was the trainer for Chuck, the dog used in the production for Alpha. Some of his previous production work included A Dog’s Purpose, Marley & Me and We Bought A Zoo.
Alpha is currently available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download.
Read our exclusive interview below.
LRM: Thanks for speaking with me about Alpha. Could you tell me on what brought you on board to this project? What initially attracted you to here?
Mark Forbes: I got an original call from Albert [Hughes], our illustrious director. He started telling me about it. It sounded interesting. I hadn’t read the script yet. But, it sounded interesting and nothing earth shattering at first. We talked for awhile. He sent me the script. It wasn’t until the last page of the script that I really understood what the movie was about. [Chuckles] As soon as I realized that this whole thing was about the origin of the human canine relationship, it totally had me hooked. I went back and reread the script again. It made so much sense. It was just a great story. That’s kind of what got me hooked on it. That was about a year and a half before we even started filming. We talked extensively about the casting of Alpha on whether it would be a real wolf or a hybrid of some sort. We went through many, many months of research, scouting and looking around at different types of wolves and hybrids. We actually ended up with Chuck, who is a Czechoslovakian Wolfdog, which is a cross between a wolf and a German shepherd. It is a recognized breed in Europe. That’s kind of how the whole project kind of got started.
LRM: Tell me more about Chuck, the wolf dog here. It’s a hybrid. Did you basically brought the dog to the project as pretty young? Or was he an adult dog that you had to retrain for the purpose of this movie?
Mark Forbes: It was an adult dog. The Czechoslovakian Wolfdog is a breed that the Czech army in the 1950s wanted to make a military dog. They bred about fifty German Shepherds to five carpathian wolves. I don’t think it worked out necessarily for the military, but it caught on a little bit in Europe. The breed is now a recognized breed in Europe. It’s a great mix as far as the hybrids go. That’s sort of how we came across with that.
We looked at different hybrids in North America where most of them are our Husky or Mountie mixes. The Czechoslovakian Wolfdog is just more wolf-like. It had a much better temperament that I found. That’s how we kind of ended up with that type of dog.
LRM: How many dogs did you have to train? How long did it take for this film production?
Mark Forbes: We had Chuck and his backup, which was the dog named Zabbie. We had four other wolf dogs that sort of made up Chuck’s pack in the movie. We got about six months before filming started. We worked with them for about five months before we started filming. They were adults when they got them. The breed is a recognized breed in Europe. People walk them into town. They show them that dog shows. They put him in the car. They’re traveling around. So they get socialized. They get out and about quite a bit more than maybe some of the hybrids that you would find over here in North America where they just kind of live in somebody’s backyard.
LRM: Was this type of breed a easier or harder to train than most types of breeds out there?
Mark Forbes: Oh, yeah. They definitely still have a lot of the wolf characteristics, which people tend to think are aggression and confidence. Really a wolf is very wary. It’s very suspicious. Their senses are so hyper alert. That’s what you kind of overcome is that whole natural suspicion of new situations, new people, lots of people like on a film set. Those were sort of the biggest hurdles to overcome. A lot of the training was just taking them to a different places, working with them and getting them very comfortable in front of large crowds of people. It was a big part of the training of them.
LRM: Kodi Smit-McPhee, the actor on the production. How did Chuck adapted to him? How much training did you have to do with Kodi to act along with Chuck?
Mark Forbes: More than we would on a normal sort of just domesticated dog film. Kodi started coming out a two and a half months, I believe, before we started filming here in Los Angeles. He was coming out and working with Chuck. A lot of it was hanging out and just spending time. There’s really no substitute for just spending time with the animal. We started there as we moved up to location–we would set aside a couple hours everyday where a Chuck and Kodi would hang out. We would set up scenes. We would work on behaviors that we were working on at the time. It was just the amount of time spent that really sort of starts creating that bond, which helped us sort of portray that relationship you’ll see up on the screen. A lot of times with a very domesticated dog, we spend maybe one or two weeks with the actor. Obviously, in this case, we had to spend a lot more time. It definitely paid off.
LRM: That’s very impressive. The one thing that I actually noticed them throughout the entire movie is that they never really used any English language words. They created a made up language for the film. What command words did Chuck actually responded to? Was it mostly Czechoslovakian or was it like English?
Mark Forbes: It was mostly English. Even when Kodi would be giving him a command or be talking to him and that prehistoric language–we would be off screen giving him the cues whether they were verbal or a hand cues on what he should be doing. It’s not that he necessarily had to learn the prehistoric made up language with Kodi. [Laughs] A lot of times, it’s not even the word. It’s the inflection, the tone, the gesture and the body language that they’re responding to. Sure, dogs can learn to recognize and understand words, but there’s so much more that they’re looking than what they’re hearing. It means a lot to their performance as well.
LRM: What was the most difficult thing to train chuck for on this production?
Mark Forbes: No, there wasn’t any one thing. Probably the most difficult thing was that goal or that idea of getting him comfortable in all the different situations that he was sort of in. We got Chuck from France, from a breeder in France who took him to dog shows and showed him as a breed type. Just that act of putting him in the car, taking him to the dog shows, so he’s around other dogs and he’s around large groups of people. He’s getting socialized. The fact that he got all of that at a younger age really helped us. To sort of build on that, to be on a movie set, around a large crew, a moving crane with a camera, all the things that you see on a movie set that it’s really hard to recreate. That was probably the biggest challenge was just making him comfortable. As far as learning the tricks and everything else, they are super intelligent. They learned all that fairly quickly. It’s the whole making sure they’re comfortable and having fun part of it that takes the time.
LRM: I’m assuming Chuck is back in France going to dog shows again, right?
Mark Forbes: No, Chuck is at my house. He runs around with my little three other dogs. He is living the good life. [Laughs]
LRM: Let me start wrapping things up with you. How did you got started in this business in the first place?
Mark Forbes: I kind of fell into it. I wanted to do something with animals. I went to a little program at a community college outside of Los Angeles. Moorpark College has a broad-based exotic animal training and management program, which has everything from zoo keeping to pre-vet. It helped me see all the different sort of options there were in the animal field. I did a dolphin sea lion show when I graduated. I did a show up at Universal Studios, an animal actors show. Just kind of fell into the whole training and working with animals for movies and TV. I just kind of got lucky. I just kind of fell into this job.
LRM: You’re naturally trained to be like an animal whisperer and you could practically trained to almost anything now?
Mark Forbes: No. I don’t know if there is such a thing as an animal whisperer. There’s no real real secrets or shortcuts. It’s really about time. Spending the time with the animals to be getting them comfortable. Working on everything in a way that makes it fun for them. That’s really the secret to everything. It’s not like you can give them a bigger paycheck. It’s really about making sure that they’re enjoying what they’re doing.
LRM: Thank you very much for speaking with me. I love speaking with other animal lovers out there. You’re doing a great job.
Mark Forbes: Thank you so much.
Source: LRM Online Exclusive