Wednesday, August 10, 2011

NGA - Making Movies with Greyhounds: Dean and Dixie in Sunshine State

Preparing to film a scene. Courtesy of Mary Ellen Hollmann Hollis
Making Movies with Greyhounds: Dean and Dixie in Sunshine State
In the spring of 2001, Shirley Kane, Executive Director of Orange Park’s “Greyhounds as Pets of Northeast Florida, Inc,” didn’t know what to think when she listened to a telephone message from a man saying he needed greyhounds for a movie. She thought the inquiry was a prank or sales ploy, but she returned the call anyway, just in case. As it turned out, the inquiry was legitimate, the film being Sunshine State, written and directed by John Sayles whose previous awa r d -wi n n i n g films at the time included Lone Star, Passion Fish, Eight Men Out, and The Secret of Roan Inish, to name a few.

From the outset, Shirley understood that the tightly-unionized film industry prevented the non-union greyhounds and their handlers from receiving payment for services. This was okay with her because she also understood that a donation would be made to the adoption group she represented. And, of course, being on a film set would be educational as well as interesting, and nothing could beat the “free advertising” for greyhounds as pets that being in a nationally released movie would provide.

Sunshine State Shooting Schedule. Courtesy of Mary Ellen Hollmann Hollis
Immediately, Shirley got on the phone to her friend Mary Ellen Hollmann Hollis. Mary Ellen had adopted Dean and Dixie through “greyhounds as Pets.” Dean, a Richard Houchin dog, raced successfully as Dean Gibson at Orange Park and elsewhere. Dixie, a Bahama-Mama greyhound, bypassed formal racing and didn’t have a racing name. The canine pair promptly came to mind during Shirley’s conversation with the movieman. She knew first-hand that Dean and Dixie were easy-keepers and welladjusted, having suitable personalities for the film-making challenge. She was also aware that both had maintained athletic physiques and would represent the racing breed well. It helped, too, that their human, Mary Ellen, was an adventurous photographer and artist with a flexible schedule that would allow her to spend hours on a movie set with her charges.

After a live audition—more like a hasty meet and greet—Dean and Dixie were officially on the roster of stars with a script, a schedule, and the promise of air-conditioned “honeywagons” (a.k.a. movie-star trailers) to relax in between takes. Shirley and Mary Ellen were listed as the designated “Dog Handlers.”

Dixie in her Honeywagon. Courtesy of Mary Ellen Hollmann Hollis
One might wonder—as I did— why greyhounds? Why not Labradorretrievers, Cocker spaniels, Great Danes? Actually, for this very “Florida” film that was shot almost exclusively on location in-state, greyhounds were the perfect answer. Florida has always had the most greyhound racetracks of any state in the U.S.A., and there would have been plenty of racing near the film’s fictional communities of Delrona and Lincoln Beach. In such an environment, greyhounds would be more familiar, and commonplace, than they would be in non-racing states, especially in 2002, which is the film’s time period. Another answer to “Why greyhounds?” is that one of the peripheral characters—a land commissioner who takes bribes from developers— has a major gambling problem, and it is convenient to have a scene at a greyhound racetrack that reveals the character losing a huge amount of money. Observing his addiction in action, viewers better understand why this character is susceptible to bribes and why he repeatedly attempts suicide. As theater, the race itself is gorgeous, highlighting the beauty of eight greyhounds moving in symphonic harmony. Although Dean and Dixie do a lot of standing around as retirees in the film, they also have a chance to showcase their athletic abilities, particularly in a beach scene. From having observed an actual race, viewers can more readily visualize the symbiotic connection between greyhound athlete and pet, as well as better appreciate that greyhounds love to run on track or in retirement.

The film’s roster of characters is extensive. Rather than one or two major actors, an ensemble cast of stellar talent is featured, including Edie Falco (Marly Temple), Jane Alexander (Delia Temple), Ralph Waite (Furman Temple), Angela Bassett (Desiree Perry), James McDaniel (Reggie Perry), Mary Alice (Eunice Stokes), Bill Cobbs (Dr. Lloyd), Gordon Clapp (Earl Pickney), Mary Steenburgen (Francine Pickney), and Timothy Hutton (Jack Meadows).

With such an extensive ensemble, it is not surprising that the 141-minute film occasionally feels like a collection of theme-linked short stories. Most of the characters cross paths in some form or another, aided by the fact that the neighboring communities of Delrona and Lincoln Beach are both confronted with encroaching development. Still, the characters have their own varied challenges that make them distinct and individualized. In a way, the greyhounds serve as leitmotifs that link various threads together.

Scenes that include Dean and Dixie also include well-known actors such as Edie Falco, Ralph Waite, and Jane Alexander. “Edie Falco was really down-to-earth,” Shirley remarked about “The Sopranos” television star. Shirley noted that instead of using limousine services as some stars would, Falco drove herself around town. A dog-lover, she brought her Labrador-Retriever mix to the set, admiring the greyhounds and chatting comfortably with Mary Ellen and Shirley. Ralph Waite (who played John Walton Senior on TV’s “The Waltons”) was also friendly, graciously posing for photos when Mary Ellen’s daughter visited the set. Other actors, such as Angela Bassett, Timothy Hutton, and Mary Steenburgen were on different shooting schedules, so they weren’t around on the days the greyhounds were present.

Dean and Dixie appear in three scenes. An additional scene, which was Mary Ellen’s favorite, originally included the greyhounds, but they were excluded in the editing process. During filming of that scene, Dean listened intently as Furman Temple sat in a darkened room, delivering a monologue on the sorry state of the world. Mary Ellen recalled that during the speech, Dean’s head tilted and his ears poised alertly, as if he was absorbing every word. Although the camera focused on Furman, it panned in a cutaway to show Dean in attentive mode. During the movie’s premiere, Mary Ellen waited for the pan-to-Dean moment. She discovered, however, that there was no cutaway shot. After Furman finished his rant, he abruptly remarked, “Which one are you?” At that point, the camera revealed a home-health nurse holding aloft a syringe. She looked bored and impatient, ready to administer his insulin injection and depart as quickly as possible. The nurse fit with the movie’s theme better than an enthralled Dean because Furman, who is a nearly-blind diabetic, has been put out to pasture, so to speak. He utters the truth, but as a retired and aging individual, he essentially speaks to deaf ears. No-one is listening. For purposes of the film’s message, it simply wouldn’t do to have the message undercut by anyone— human or dog—offering undivided attention.

Dean & Dixie in Honeywagon. Courtesy of Mary Ellen Hollmann Hollis
In another, later, scene, we once again see Dean and Dixie at the Temple home. Here, they are in the shade just outside the ground level back door. The two appear to be unsupervised as well as unleashed. In fact, although they are usually right beside Furman, this scene has them on a completely different floor. Of course, what the audience doesn’t see is that Mary Ellen and Shirley are again poised within arm’s length, just out of view. In addition to the dogs, the scene includes Furman, who is upstairs on the balcony, and a young boy, Terrell, who comes around the corner of the house, passing the greyhounds. As Terrell goes by, he gently pats Dixie’s head. Given that he is a troubled youngster with sociopathic tendencies, the gesture is a hopeful sign. From upstairs, Furman calls out, “Who’s there?” The boy states his name and relates that he has built a pine coffin for a play Delia is directing. He asks where he should put the prop. Furman grouses that Delia intends to put him in the coffin after she sells his life away. Clearly, he feels abandoned, a point underscored by the fact that even his constant companions, Dean and Dixie, aren’t by his side.

The Furman-Terrell episode comes quite late in the film, and it occurs after Dean and Dixie’s beach scene, which showcases a pivotal moment for Marly and her father. It is early morning and Marly stands on a balcony looking out at the beach where she sees her father strolling with Dean and Dixie who are unleashed and loping casually ahead of him. On her way to join the trio, she calls out, “Do you need any help?” Furman replies, “No, I can still see light and shapes.” As the camera draws in to focus on Marly and Furman’s faces, the greyhounds disappear, presumably to romp freely on their own. The scene is charged because Marly has come to tell her father she can’t run the family business anymore. She needs—wants—to do something else with her life, and if selling out to developers allows her to escape, then she is for it. The discussion is brief. Furman’s response is different than before. When Marly says, “I can’t do it anymore,” he remarks, “The developers have been getting to you.” She replies, “No. It’s not them … I hate going in there.” When she asks, “What should I do,” he gives her an answer she needs to hear, “Get the best price you can … I’ve already been out in the world … Now it’s your turn.”

As they head back to the house, Furman calls out, “C’mon dogs, you’re supposed to be retired, not running around.” What he says is symbolically important. The greyhounds may be retired from formal racing, but they aren’t retired from life. They still appreciate a good run, particularly one that is unfettered by leashes, which allows them to chase as hard and fast as they choose. Marly wants to be unleashed, as well, and she is at last able to articulate that wish to her father. The step is a big one for her, representing a beginning. It is significant, and crucial, for her to receive a definite, albeit awkward, blessing from her father.

Without question, this beach scene is essential to the film’s continuity. Nevertheless, what pulsates in the memories of Shirley and Mary Ellen isn’t so much what happened on camera, but what occurred before cameras were running that day. In fact, when Shirley heard the script called for the greyhounds to be offlead at the beach, she was alarmed. Adopters are advised never to let their greyhounds off lead in unfenced places. “Letting them run free at the beach was not a message we wanted to send,” Shirley noted. She was told, however that the script called for the dogs to be off-lead and that was how it had to be. Mary Ellen suggested the dogs be allowed to expend some of their energy before filming. She said they would probably dash down the beach, then turn, circling back similar to what they are trained to do for track racing. Since it was early morning and the beach was relatively secluded, Shirley and Mary Ellen were not too worried about the pair running off. Still, it was agreed that spotters would be stationed around the beach to catch Dean and Dixie should they make an unexpected getaway. Mary Ellen’s prediction was correct. The two zoomed down the beach, then turned and headed back at top speed. What got everybody’s attention was that they were going full throttle towards very expensive cameras, showing no signs of stopping as they rocketed onward. Seconds contracted and expanded into randomly frantic shouts: “Watch out!” “Get those #X!&%# dogs away from the equipment!” “Aarrrgh!”

After intense days of filming, Dean and Dixie were ready to go home and stay for awhile—at least until the movie premiere rolled around—or maybe the Oscars. But, then again, a few days of being a movie-star in a greyhound’s life was probably more than enough. Who needed fancy theater seats or a long red carpet after a wild and crazy beach run like they’d had? On the other hand, a red carpet that was plush, thick, and perfect for a stretched-out snooze, might work well enough. After all, when you’re retired, it never hurts to consider every angle.

Photos courtesy of Mary Ellen Hollmann Hollis. Visit Mary Ellen’s art and photography website at www. Visit Greyhounds as Pets of Northeast Florida, Inc. at
By Leslie Wootten

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