Tuesday, October 28, 2008


We're sitting around outside the set for the day, and one of our co-stars is about 5' away.

He is "Bear". Aptly named, since he is, in fact, 900-odd pounds of Alaskan Kodiak Brown. He was, in point of fact, the star of the movie The Bear. His head is larger around than the spare tire on my truck. His jaws would break 4x4s like matchsticks. His paws are the size of dinner plates, with 3-4" long claws that would tear through his trailer sides like a hot knife going through butter, were it not for the solid steel prison bar panels that have been welded continuously around said trailer.

It was once a trailer for 4 horses, but with the inner dividers removed, it's a snug fit for Bear. It's hooked to a Chevy Suburban. About 40' away is an identical rig, but with the smaller second banana for the day, "Griz," who's a mere 800-lb. grizzly bear. Just in case Bear chooses not to be feeling his motivation for today's festivities on set.

There's a small knot of us just out of paw-swiping reach at the end of Bear's portable domicile, marvelling at his magnificent beastliness. If not for the knowledge that he could rip my body asunder in two quick gulps, he almost looks petable.

His trainer/minder is about 20' off to our left, and he's about to tell us something: "I wouldn't stand..."


Laying flat on his underside, Bear has let out a gentle "Woof!" and slammed only his front paws on the floor of his trailer. The motion shakes 3 tons of car and trailer like a chihuahua in a hurricane. The noise decalcifies every spinal column within 50 yards, and we notice that we've all, involuntarily it appears, levitated some 20 feet sideways away from the trailer without having taken a single step.

I look up at the trainer, with a spreading smirk on his face. I siddle over to him.
"You were about to say...?"

"Well, that's Bear's personal cave, so to speak. When people crowd around the front of it, it can get him a little agitated."

"Well, we certainly don't want to be working with 900 pounds of agitated Kodiak bear, do we?"

"Naw, ya probably don't. He was just doing that to make some daylight, and get a rise out of you folks. Now he's got some clear space by the mouth of his territory."

"So we just rewarded bad behavior, in so many words?"

"That's about the size of it."

Duly informed on bear psychology and behavior, I decide discretion is the better part of valor. I will monitor the activities from safely outside the set, on the theory that if I get eaten, there'll be no one around to bandage the survivors of a bear rampage. The utterly self-preservationist aspect of this decision is wholly coincidental, I swear.

Bear's co-handler arrives, and by and by, she and the head trainer lead him to the set. They have set up the World's Thinnest Wire, attached to a car battery, such that a miniscule pop and zap is the result, should Bear venture out of his assigned range on set. It is tantamount to putting a spider web around an army tank, but I'm not the pro bear handler. Other than that, his motivation for his scenes is generally a Jet-Puff marshmallow. They throw them where they want him, and over he goes, shuffling and snuffling. Seeing this, I make sure my chair - well off of the stage - is sited to view the stage door, and that my car keys are in my front pocket, should Bear suddenly charge outside, and they need someone to drive away for help. Like to downtown Los Angeles, 50 miles away. There's nothing wrong with being prepared, after all.

After a pleasant 4 hours or so of reading, catching up on the newspaper, visiting the craft service snack table (wisely kept off-stage for the day) etc., I decide prudence dictates a brief foray onto set to see how things are going, and see if anyone needs anything. And/or to verify that they aren't all laying about in great bloody heaps after Bear has killed them all, and is thence devouring one and sundry at his formidable leisure.

The set is totally dark when I enter, and unnaturally quiet. But I can see people silhouetted against the lit scene tableau, and they appear to be alive. I quietly move towards a better view of the action. Everyone is quiet, speaking in inaudible whispers mouth-to-ear when necessary, except the trainer and the 1st Assistant Director, talking about what they'd like Bear to do. It is an atmosphere of quiet professionalism conducted in a dark, church-like hush.

Our entire cast is laying in sleeping array under blankets, 20 feet from the bear. They finish that part, and the cast quietly and gratefully departs, to be replaced by dummies for the next scene. I get near camera just as they are doing the scene where Bear is to discover the one luckless sleeping cast-member, grab him by the leg, and rip him and drag him off stage.

Two grips move a body-weight dummy into position, and we begin. Bear finds his target, and tosses 200 pounds of dummy about exactly like the rag doll it is. If this were a human, Bear would be dining on Leg of Human now. He finishes his antics, and goes back to snuffling and devoring his Jet-Puff marshmallows, carried by the trainer in a large stainless steel bucket, and tossed one at a time nearby.

"Uh oh."

It's the trainer's voice. A gunshot couldn't have paralyzed the set more quickly or completely.

Our 1st AD: What's the matter?"

"I'm out of marshmallows."

MUCH longer pause.
200 eyes note the nearest exit, and whether they might outrun the fatter and slower crew members to get through it, should the need arise. The electrician running a light on a platform 20' up a metal roof support uses his foot to nudge a knotted rope down to one of his comrades, in case he needs to save at least one other witrness to the impending melee. If possible, it is even quieter than when I came in. I can almost hear 100 hearts beating. The pounding of my own makes up for the lack.

Our 1st AD, voice with a noticeable quiver: "I uhhh, I thought the bear only works for marshmallows...?"

"That's right."

"So what do we do now?"

"I'm working on it..."

It's been maybe 30 seconds. A lifetime or two. Bear is beginning to get bored with his cinematic exploits. The shock wire is looking extremely small. I ever-so-non-chalantly move a step or two backwards, to clear an area around me for my possible break to freedom. As 99 other crew members do the same thing.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see the female handler sprinting back onstage with not one but two bags of Jet-Puff marshmallows in her hands. From 40 feet away she throws one to the lead trainer. Joe Montana and Jerry Rice have never had as much coordination, nor as much fan energy focused on their efforts as this toss has.

The bag arcs and is caught in a beautiful pass completion, and the lead trainer pivots in one graceful motion while tearing the bag, and throws several marshmallows all around Bear. Bear finds one, and turns his head back to the set just before he's gotten totally bored with screen stardom.

100 hearts shift back down to 2nd gear, and I feel and hear 100 sighs. It's all we can do to not spontaneously applaud.

Every one on set is fine. I have narrowly avoided the one moment when we all could have become bear buffet. Fate has been tempted enough for one day.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me. Because I'm getting back outside. NOW.

I return to my chair outside, swiftly and quietly, and vow to remain there despite any curiousity unless called for. On my way out, I let the sound mixer know that if they need me, they should call me...after the bear has been dispatched, should there be a bloody rampage.

I am reminded of the words of Chef in Apocalypse Now: "Never get out of the boat."
Absolutely g**d***** right.

I also reflect that there was a time, in my brief career years selling firearms, when some Mighty Hunter would share that a fishing or backpacking trip to bear country was planned, and inquiring what make and model of handgun would be best to carry for protection.

People had argued near endlessly and mock-authoritatively about .44 magnums, .454 Casulls, and such.

I share to you now, for all eternity, that a Barrett M82 rifle in .50 caliber Browning Machine Gun would not be too much gun for the task contemplated, but that should 20 or more pounds of $8000 rifle be considered a bit much to tote on a fishing expedition, a suitable alternative is a small 2-inch barreled pistol in either .38Special or 9mm.

Should a bear anything like Bear or Griz decide to molest you, the technique I recommend is to immediately draw the pistol, place it just behind your own ear at a .45 degree upward angle, and squeeze the trigger just before his jaws approach your body, and you'll never feel a thing.

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