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How to Train an 1,800-Pound Movie Star : What it takes to turn a Kodiak into a screen sensation : A Bear's-Eye View of Grizzly Country

October 22, 1989|DANIEL CERONE

HEBER CITY, Utah — A breath of frosty morning air gently sweeps through the valley, rustling brittle autumn leaves and sending a flurry tumbling down the mountainside in an orange, yellow and red waterfall. They settle at the base of a mountain, not far from a log cabin that was hand-framed by Mormon pioneers in 1879.

Doug and Lynne Seus are relaxing inside the restored cabin as their son Clint Youngreen prepares a fire in a blackened pot-belly stove. Together, the three raise and train wild animals for the movie industry on a seven-acre spread located about an hour's drive east of Salt Lake City--and civilization.

A timber wolf howling outside is soon joined by a chorus of a dozen more. The wolves are being prepared by another trainer for director Chris Menges' film version of Jack London's novel "White Fang." Doug Seus peers through a window and motions to the majestic landscape outside. "This is all spiritless, silent scenery," he says, a tinge of sorrow in his husky voice. "The true magic is not here any more."

The missing element Doug Seus is talking about is the endangered brown bear, specifically the grizzly, an animal that roamed the countryside freely until it was hunted down as vermin by settlers with repeating rifles in the early 1920s. "We become placid, mechanical robots in land that does not have that great bear," he continues. "You use senses in grizzly country that you never used before. Your sense of smell, your eyes, everything is more acute."

"The natural man takes over," Lynne Seus says.

But there is at least one brown bear left in Utah. A tremendous cage with heavy steel bars sits in the center of the family's animal compound. It is home to Bart, a shaggy 12-year-old behemoth who tops the scale at 1,800 pounds and, when standing, towers nearly 10 feet. Bart is a Kodiak bear--cousin to the grizzly--and the world's largest land-dwelling carnivore. The custom-built cage is the only way that Bart is allowed to legally live in the state of Utah.

Under the Seus family's tutelage, Bart stars opposite a baby bear cub in "The Bear," a Tri-Star release that opens Wednesday. The film is the personal project of French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, who artfully demonstrated that spoken language is not a necessary component of modern cinema in 1981's "Quest for Fire."

In "The Bear," Annaud carries the idea of nonverbal communication a step further with a motion picture shot entirely from an animal's point of view. Based on James Oliver Curwood's 1916 novel "The Grizzly King," it tells of an orphan bear cub who befriends a solitary grizzly, and the two hunters who relentlessly pursue them.

The $25-million European production reached epic proportions in the wilds of the Italian Dolomites and the Bavarian Alps as the 200-man crew battled nature. Director of photography Philippe Rousselot ("Dangerous Liaisons") shot 1 million feet of footage for a film that required seven years to plan and execute. The project employed three full-grown bears, a dozen bear cubs, one golden eagle, two cougars, four deer, five grass snakes, 10 Dobermans, 18 turtle doves, 20 newts, 100 frogs, 300 trout, 900,000 bees--the list stretches on. After shooting, a cacophony of animal roars, grunts, squeaks, squawks, yawns and whimpers was digitally sampled and recorded, then carefully laid onto an intricate sound track, consuming the manpower of 30 technicians over 10 months.

For his part in the film, Doug Seus achieved what was believed to be biologically impossible. Adult brown bears are inherently cannibalistic and commonly eat bear cubs that they encounter in the woods. Because of this, Annaud commissioned Muppets creator Jim Henson to design remote-control animatronic bears to double for the big bear and the little bear. But with positive conditioning, Seus broke through Bart's predatory instincts, enabling the bears to work side-by-side and opening the door for an unexpected offscreen friendship to develop. The synthetic bears were used only in scenes that depicted violence.

"The Bear" opened on 400 French screens late last year, one week after "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." The antics of Disney's animated rabbit were no match for Annaud's hometown popularity and the real-life charm of a bear cub and his adult companion. "The Bear" swatted aside "Roger Rabbit" in its route to a $100-million-plus worldwide gross. Meanwhile, folks at Tri-Star--which is distributing the film in the United States and Canada--set their sights for a fall release, when the box office is generally slower.

"November seemed to be a fairly clear period of time, before the big crunch of Christmas product," said former Columbia chief Frank Price, whose newly formed Price Entertainment acquired "The Bear" for Tri-Star. "We have a wonderful film starring bears, and as appealing as our stars are, I think some of the press would prefer to interview Robert Redford. So we have to make sure we open at a time when we can get the attention of the press and the public."

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