It’s a rare film that offers a realistic portrayal of the human-dog bond, but writer/director Mike Mills does just that in his new, very personal, movie, Beginners. Ewan McGregor stars as Oliver, who’s not only navigating his father’s final years (Hal, played by Christopher Plummer) but also a burgeoning love affair in the company of his father’s Jack Russell Terrier, Arthur — portrayed by the incredibly charming Cosmo. Oliver and Arthur’s relationship is just one aspect of this understated tale of self-discovery, love and loss, which — with the help of trainer Mathilde De Cagny and enhanced by McGregor and Cosmo’s natural chemistry — shines as an honest view of our lives with dogs.
Animal trainer De Cagny, the force behind Moose, the Jack Russell who found fame as Eddie in “Frasier,” has a soft spot for dogs, especially JRTs. Many of her dogs — including Cosmo — have come from shelters and rescue groups. Born and raised in Paris, France, she began her U.S. career as a volunteer with Birds and Animals Unlimited after moving to Los Angeles. On the eve of the film’s premier, Bark spoke with De Cagny about training dogs for film and working on Beginners.
Bark: What’s Cosmo’s story?
Mathilde De Cagny: I got Cosmo from a Jack Russell rescue. He was really into prey drive, which is good and bad. He was very skittish, something you don’t want in an animal. But he’s a Terrier, and I have a lot of experience with Jack Russells; I know their quirks and that they’re far from perfect to begin with. I am able to put myself in a Jack Russell state of mind, and I know how to deal with them at different levels.
Cosmo is very different from Moose — always cuddly, even when I first went to pick him up, and I like that. He was lacking confidence, but that’s what I like to do: build up confidence by our relationship, by training, and by following [a dog’s] instincts and working with them. I had a feeling that he had good potential as a movie dog.
He is, indeed, very loving toward people and very playful, which we use a lot in the movie. And also, the nice thing about rescuing an animal — a dog — is that when I go to shelters and such, I have a sense of what the animal’s going to be like in general. That’s the advantage of getting a dog who’s older. You get to see that personality a little bit.
Bark: Was this Cosmo’s first movie?
De Cagny: No, he had already done “Hotel for Dogs,” which was really helpful. He had already been in front of the cameras and knew all the basics. The main thing for me was to see what Mike [Mills] had in mind for this movie. I just fell in love with the way he wanted the dogs to act, which was to behave naturally, no tricks; I like that the most, too. It also comes from the energy of your dog and the type of dog he is — his personality in general. Cosmo’s a very gregarious, outgoing little dog who loves people and loves to be a Terrier, which gives me a lot to work with. His preparation was to spend a lot of time with Ewan [McGregor] and Mélanie [Laurent]. Really, to spend a lot of time with Mike. It starts at the top.
Bark: What’s your ideal working relationship when it comes to the human actors?De Cagny: I was so fortunate that Ewan loves dogs, and therefore was willing to do whatever it took to work with Cosmo. When actors are willing to spend time and take over … that’s the way I like to work; I like to be away from the relationship, to become just a background for the dog instead of a primary trainer. I’ll end up carrying the food and the toys and all that stuff. With Ewan, I saw that the bond could be established pretty well, and I slowly but surely distanced myself from their relationship. Often, I wasn’t even in the shot with them — I didn’t want to be in the dog’s eye line.
Bark: Were there other dogs on the set?
De Cagny: I always take advantage of a set situation to train my other dogs, and that’s what I did this time as well. I had, among others, a Collie named Lincoln, and I let everyone take him for walks. He would hang out with Mike a lot. Again, I try to train so that the dog doesn’t panic when I’m out of the picture. First, I want them to have fun on the set because people are sweet and they get all kinds of attention, and second, to know that they’re safe and not be anxious when they don’t see their trainer.
Bark: How would you describe your approach to training?
De Cagny: Basically, it reflects the type of person I am, which is loose and free. Of course, you follow rules, but it’s nice to be able to be spontaneous. Most people like to be prepared, and I have to be prepared with the training and foundation and all that. But I like the spontaneity of what’s going to happen and dealing with it in the moment. I’m self-taught — I learned by intuition and by being around dogs. I like to work with their personalities, and my personality, which, again, is not formal. Really, I learn from my animals. It’s kind of like cooking — you see what’s in the fridge and you make something out of it. I never quite know exactly how I’m going to get something done; I take my cues first from my animals and then from the director. [In some situations] I can’t do that, and it’s difficult for me to be robotic. I understand that sometimes, that’s the way it is, but it doesn’t match the type of training I like to do. On the other hand, you can’t go on set with a dog and just have fun. You have to have the foundation.
Bark: How did Cosmo get along with Christopher Plummer?
De Cagny: Oh, that was interesting. I had to finish another movie, so I got there a week or so after they started, and another trainer had already established a relationship with Christopher and the dog. I had never met him and at first I heard that he was a little standoffish. But, as I normally do, in our very first scene, I introduced myself.
It was a tricky scene — the reunion, when Hal comes back from the hospital and hasn’t seen his dog in a while. The dog is supposed to be ecstatic — loving and kissing him. That’s usually easier if the person’s on a couch or sitting on the ground, but Cosmo was up in the air, in Christopher’s arms. I knew I didn’t have much time, so I said, “Hi, I’m Mathilde. I’m the dog trainer. And in order to do this scene fast and good, I’m just going to slap a bunch of bacon oil on your face.” I didn’t really give him a chance to say no. I did it, the dog kissed him and I said, “Well, okay, we can go now.” And boom!
When someone’s not too crazy about something, it’s better to work them fast, just like the dog. I don’t do a million repetitions. So, I worked with Christopher the way I would work with a dog who lacks confidence … you don’t give him too much time to think about it.
Christopher’s Canadian, so we started speaking French and connected really well — we had a really nice relationship. People were surprised that he seemed to change his state of mind with the dog once I stepped in.
Bark: What other tools do you have in your training kit?
De Cagny: We always have a bag of tricks. Cosmo loves toys; a ball will get one type of reaction from him and a noise will get another. Again, it’s a little like cooking. It depends on the moment. It depends on how I feel, what’s going on, what we’re looking for.
I use a wand, a kind of a “look stick” [with a piece of cheese on one end], which helps the dog focus. On “Frasier,” that’s how I got Moose to do the stare. Mike was talking to me about it, and I said, “Oh! I’m the specialist! I’ve done it for 10 years! I can do the stare.” This was one of Moose’s trademarks, the stare, and I’ve got it down to a science.
Bark: We heard that another tool you use is a paper-towel tube. What do you do with that?
De Cagny: I use it as part of the noisemaking. I did a movie with Martin Scorsese, who wanted a dog to turn his head in a particular way. In addition to the paper-towel tube, I used my voice, an iPhone and every single toy I had. Sometimes I would make a sound like a kitten, or like an elephant. It depends how intense I wanted the dog to be.
B: Ewan got a dog after the movie wrapped, didn’t he?
De Cagny: Yeah, he was so cute. He said, “Mathilde, it revived a feeling in me that I realized has been missing for my entire life.” Cosmo couldn’t wait to see him in the morning. He would jump into his arms and kiss him. It made him feel like Cosmo was his dog. At first, he tried to steal him! I said, “Not even in your dreams, Mr. McGregor!” Once he realized there was no chance he would get Cosmo, we were on the Web looking at dogs who would work for his family. Then, on his own, he got [Sid]. I asked a lot of Ewan — he had a high degree of involvement. Actors usually are pretty good [about the dogs], but few devote their acting time and on-set time to be around an animal like he did. David Hyde Pierce [Niles, in “Frasier”] and Ewan are probably my two top-of- the-line [in that department].
Bark: Did Ewan ask for training tips?
De Cagny: Not so much training tips — it was more about how to acclimate Sid to his lifestyle and his household … you know, the crate. Also, Ewan has a duck! He’s had a duck for many years. So I went to his house a couple of times to make sure the dog and the duck would be good friends. He asked me to supervise so that when the duck ran, the dog wouldn’t go after him. Sid wanted to at first, but we stopped him. That dog is amazing. He’s so cute.
Bark: When we talked to Ewan, he told us that Sid joins him on his motorcycle.
De Cagny: I gave him absolutely no training tips for the motorcycle. Well, just a few — how to get Sid used to being in the sidecar without anything going on, then get used to the noise. They just took off one day; I wasn’t there, but he sent me a video of them together on their first ride. It was adorable. That’s how Ewan is. He shares some of his dog and his moments with me, and we stay in touch because of that. So I did help him a tiny bit. Bark: Ewan seems to have a genuine love of dogs.
De Cagny: I felt that, too. We could never have accomplished what we did [without it] because as well trained as a dog is, if he’s ignored by the actors, or if they don’t want to create that bond, then you can’t force one, as much as you try. I had nothing to do with it, really. It just came from his heart and soul.
Bark: Did you know Cosmo had such a cuddly personality when you got him?
De Cagny: Yes. Yeah, which is why I got him. He’s a dog that is, indeed, very loving towards people and very playful, which we use a lot in movies. And also, that’s the nice thing about rescuing an animal—a dog—is that when you go to pick them out in shelters and such, I have a sense of what the animal’s going to be like in general. So that gives you an advantage of getting a dog that’s older and rescued, because within an hour or so of spending time with them, I can sense whether he’s going to be good for—well, it’s hard to say; there’s always a two-week period because they could get skittish—but you get to see that first personality a little bit.
B: Did you do any kind of assessment on him when he was in the shelter? Were there any traits you were specifically looking for?
De Cagny: He was very skittish, which is something you don’t want in an animal. But, knowing he was a terrier, and I have a lot of experience with Jack Russells, because I did the dog on Frasier, and I know their quirks and I know that they’re far from being perfect to begin with and they never will be, ultimately. But I am able to put myself in a Terrier, Jack Russell state of mind, and I know how to deal with them in different levels. And so he was very different from Moose [who played Eddie] on Frasier, and I like that in him, and he was always cuddly, even on Day One when I first went to go pick him up, and I like that. But I could see that he was lacking confidence quite a bit. But that’s what I like to do: build up confidence by our relationship, by training, and by following their instincts and working with that. So I had a feeling that he had a very good potential to be a good movie dog.
B: How do you keep Cosmo from becoming burned out? Does he work too many hours?
De Cagny: No, usually not, because they have the capability to sleep and rest quite a bit between setups. And they fall asleep right away, so in that regard, they actually do get quite a bit of rest. They do get tired too, not so much on that movie, but sometimes when you do night work, they get a little tired. But that’s why the crate is so important, and all of our animals are crate-trained, because as soon as you’re done, you cover that and let them sleep. And you always have half an hour, minimum. They’re able to get their sleep like that.
B: Do you worry about the “Eddie Effect”—that breeds in movies become overly popular, much like Jack Russell Terriers did because of Frasier?
De Cagny: Well, the movie’s not out yet. I think the Jack Russell trend is kind of over in that regard because of Moose, and already the damage is done. What I get really upset of is all those breeders that sell the dog to the wrong person. And I’ve had so many people calling me—and believe me—I’ve helped zillions of people, answered all their calls or letters of people that will say, “Well, how come he’s this and that?” And I’m like, “He’s a Jack Russell.” And breeders who sell those dogs—they sell them—to the wrong family is just unacceptable. I rescue the animals, and everyone knows the importance of training and what it takes to have a dog in your life, regardless of what it is. It’s a commitment. And the fact that so many breeders let those dogs go to whomever that are gone all day and it’s a disaster, is very inappropriate and unfair. I do my part by saying, first of all, rescue a dog. And second of all, really look into your lifestyle and the breed, because I really think those dogs are probably the most difficult ones to have. And they’re so smart and they’re so driven that to let them rot like that, or to leave so much impulsion not worked out and not used is really not good. Again, I feel like I’m doing my part, and there’s not one interview with Moose where I didn’t intimate the fact that they’re very difficult dogs, and blah blah blah. And he had three lives before me! And believe me, I learned so much from that dog and I’m grateful I had him, but boy, he was my hardest dog.