From the best-selling book of the same name, Water for Elephants tells the story of veterinary student Jacob Jankowski (Twilight star Robert Pattinson), who has to drop out of school after the unexpected death of his parents, and ends up jumping a train that happens to belong to the Benzini Bros. Circus. When he is discovered, his skills with the animals are put to use and he soon meets star performer Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), who is also the wife of the Big Top’s often violent and abusive owner, August (Christoph Waltz). The bond between Jacob and Marlena forms over their mutual admiration of the animals, but also develops into something deeper, as the two see a second chance at happiness in each other.
During a press conference at the film’s press day, Oscar-winning actress Reese Witherspoon and director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) talked about what made them want to do a film of this time period, working with an elephant as a co-star, and how the showmanship and mystery of the circus is similar to making movies. Check out what they had to say after the jump:
You can also click here to watch 8 clips from Water for Elephants.
REESE WITHERSPOON: I liked the structure of the book. I like how, all through the book, there was this man’s remembrance of his life and his life experiences. One of my favorite parts of the movie is Hal Holbrook’s part of the movie, where he’s reminiscing. I thought that was great.
Francis, what is it about the era of the ‘20s and ‘30s that you really love?
FRANCIS LAWRENCE: For me, what I like about that time, and why I think the circus was so big at that time, was that people didn’t know nearly as much as we know now. We didn’t have access to everything, so there was still some surprise and some magic and something exotic, beyond the borders that we’re all used to. Now, we’ve all seen the bottom of the ocean, we’ve seen the moon, we’ve seen outer space, and we’ve seen every animal on the planet. We all have 500 television channels and the internet. When a circus rolled into town, at that time, it really brought magic. I do yearn for a little bit of that.
Reese, did your costumes really help you, in finding this character?
WITHERSPOON: Yeah, certainly. I debated about whether or not I was going to wear a wig. Ultimately, after lots of discussion and screen-testing, I decided, “I’m just going to cut my hair. I’m just going to dye it white. I’m just going to do it.” It was really transforming for me. I didn’t even recognize myself. It’s a real gift, as an actress, to have people around you, who are artisans that are the best at what they do, creating period costumes for you and set design. It’s a very collaborative medium. You’re only as good as the people that you collaborate with, so we were very lucky to have the best people in the business designing the film.
WITHERSPOON: Well, I was training a lot, with the circus training, riding the elephant and riding horses, so I was pretty busy. I’ve made a conscious effort, throughout my career, to not end up in a bathing suit in a movie, and here I was in this movie, wearing a leotard for the majority of it. It was horrifying! But, it was inspiring to have Jacqueline West design them. They’re beautiful. It was a different time, when women loved their curves and enjoyed being voluptuous, and all that sort of thing. All of the costumes in the film are very flattering for women.
What was it like to work with Tai the elephant, especially in the beginning?
WITHERSPOON: (Director) Francis [Lawrence] and I went out and visited Tai, probably three or four months before shooting, and he brought a camera. I was like, “Why did you bring a camera?,” but he took pictures of me, every moment of the first experiences I had, of meeting her and her picking me up. And then, he sent me the pictures and I was like, “Oh, my gosh!” I really have this memory of the first time I met her. I was terrified. I screamed. I like animals, but this was a completely unique experience.
Francis, what was it like to have to direct the animals, especially the elephant?
LAWRENCE: I had done a lot of work with animals before, and a lot of work with a dog in I Am Legend, so I had learned a lot from that. I did a lot of research, based on whatever animal we had to work with. I spent a lot of time with Gary, our elephant trainer, figuring out what an elephant can and can’t do, and figuring out what kind of behavior the elephant is capable of. And then, together, Gary and I would figure out what behavior we would have her do that would help sell an emotional value in a scene or sequence. If you take a scene where August is beating Rosie, what you have is Christoph in his own performance next to her while she’s just listening to the trainer and the trainer is running her through a sequence of behaviors that, in the context of the scene, feels as if she’s being injured when, in truth, she’s not even reacting to Christoph at all. She almost doesn’t even know Christoph is there, swinging this stick with a little ball on the end of it. She’s just listening to Gary say, “Bow your head. Open your mouth. Do this. Step to the side. Jump down.”
WITHERSPOON: Of course! That’s the whole point. They want you to lie. They want you to tell them that they can trust you and that you’re going to take some of the responsibility away. They like that. That’s what they buy.
Francis, what did you do to make sure that August wasn’t too much of a one-dimensional villain?
LAWRENCE: For me, in working with Richard LaGravenese, the writer, the big thing was giving a logic to August. In a strange way, he shares a lot of similarities with the other characters in the story, in that he experienced a lot of loss. He’s built a life for himself, he’s built a family for himself and he’s built a business, and he’s protecting that business and that family, in the way that he knows how to do best. So, you have a guy who’s doing what he thinks is the very, very best thing for his family, at all times. The most important thing was that Christoph and I never judged him as an evil person, in any way. You let the audience judge the character and judge the moral decisions that that character makes.
Reese, what was it like to have to do the kissing scenes with Rob Pattinson, who is so much taller than you are?
WITHERSPOON: What’s it like to kiss a tall guy? I don’t know. In the movies, they put you on a box, and then you kiss the tall guy.
WITHERSPOON: I was very excited to work with Francis. I was a big fan of I Am Legend. I just thought he brought a lot of humanity to that film. We had a lot of conversations about research that he had done, which was very extensive. Also, it’s a big undertaking, in taking on a very popular novel and having to tell a story with scenes that have no words. Film is a very visual medium, and I think he did an incredible job with that. Some of my favorite scenes in the film are ones where we don’t speak at all. We’re just seeing each other, from a distance. I think he told the story beautifully, in that capacity, and really chose those moments well.
Did you enjoy getting to shoot some of the film in Tennessee?
WITHERSPOON: Ironically, the only part of the film that I’m not in is the part that they filmed in Tennessee, so I wasn’t there.
LAWRENCE: It was about 118 degrees in Tennessee. We were all dripping with sweat, getting bitten by mosquitoes and getting caught in poison ivy.
LAWRENCE: It was really beautiful and I was glad we shot there, but it was a tough couple of days.
Francis, do you have any memories of the circus, from when you were a kid?
LAWRENCE: My memories of the circus are nothing like this movie. I wish that the circuses that were around now felt like they did then. They’re not quite as elegant or as magical as they used to be. There was something about the old tent shows, the Big Top, the canvas, the lights, the sawdust, the hay and the animals that’s just missing now. Now, it’s all urbanized and maybe a little garish. It’s not quite the same for me.
Do you see any comparison between the showmanship and the mystery of the circus, and what you do in making movies?
LAWRENCE: I think the movie business and film crews are a little bit like the circus, in that we travel around like a pack and we’re a big family for a finite period of time. We roll into someplace, cause a bunch of damage, and then roll out. There are some similarities.