When the fire broke out, Uggie, a Jack Russell Terrier, was inside the apartment with his owner, silent film star George Valentin. Madly jumping and barking, Uggie tried in vain to get Valentin to leave the building. In desperation, Uggie ran out of the open door and down the street until he found a policeman, persistently trying to get his attention, even tugging on a pant leg. Finally, Uggie’s relentless coaxing convinced the cop to follow him home, where smoke was billowing from the building.
As the unconscious Valentin was pulled from the burning building and laid out on the sidewalk, Uggie quickly approached, sniffing all over his body, determinedly searching for signs of life—until the director yelled “Cut!” With the camera no longer rolling, Uggie bounced off for some well-deserved play time.
Sarah Clifford, one of Uggie’s two principle trainers, was on the set with Uggie during the lengthy sequence of events that brought the fire scene to life on film. Her company, Animal Savvy, a California-based agency that rents highly trained animals to the entertainment industry, had been hired to provide the dog for the movie The Artist, a silent film shot in stylized black and white, which was named the best picture of 2011 by the New York Film Critics Circle and is highly touted in the race up to the Oscars.
“I knew when I read the script with all the running and jumping and barking action, it was an amazing fit [for Uggie],” Clifford explains. Her instinct was proved correct when the terrier walked away with a Palm Dog Award during the Cannes Film Festival. His performance in The Artist has been widely praised, with New York Post film critic Lou Lumenick calling it “the best performance, human or animal, I’ve seen this year.” There’s even a Facebook and Twitter campaign to have Uggie made eligible for the big acting awards. Quite a lot of buzz for a dog that almost ended up in the slammer.
Uggie was adopted by animal trainer Omar von Muller when his original owners found the busy little terrier had far too much energy for them. The future film star was headed for the pound when von Muller stepped in.
Von Muller has been working with dogs since childhood. “My whole family were animal people,” he says. “We had tons of dogs.” At the age of ten, von Muller trained his German Shepherd and, four years later, he was getting paid by friends and family to do training. “Anything Rin Tin Tin or Lassie did on TV; I would train my dogs to do,” he says.
Von Muller had done film work with another Jack Russell Terrier, but that dog was growing old and the trainer was excited to discover his new pet’s talents.
“Uggie showed me his ability at just six months old,” von Muller says. Most notably, Uggie wanted to work and paid close attention to learning anything new.
According to Clifford, it is Uggie’s natural abilities that allowed him to deliver a stellar performance, especially considering that Uggie spends so much time in front of the camera in The Artist. Dogs that adapt well to the movie business are fearless, she says, and are not scared or distracted by different sounds or movement of equipment like dollies and cameras.
“The fire scene,” she explains, “was really intense; a lot of elements; a big sequence with different locations. For the interior scene, he was in the house barking. There was a smoke machine. Jean was going crazy [as part of his performance].
“Uggie does a lot of big live performances, so he has extra confidence and isn’t scared in new situations. He does skateboarding, which is very, very popular, jumps into arms, plays dead; a lot of high-energy behaviour.”
Typically, a dog actor won’t get to spend much time with the movie’s stars prior to filming but in the case of Jean Dujardin, who played Valentin, Uggie spent several days at the actor’s home. Dujardin worked with the dog and learned the behindthe- scene parts of his on-screen tricks.
“It made all the difference,” says Clifford. “Actors and dogs must bond and feel comfortable. This translates on camera.”
Filming in general, she says, is the hardest medium to work in, as far as dog training goes.
“You have to know how to read the dog,” she says. “The animal trainer is the director for the dog. It’s not something everyone can do. People constantly approach me saying they want their dogs in movies. Really, one in five hundred dogs have the ability to do movie work.
“Besides doing what he’s told, Uggie has a lot of character and he loves people and the actors and the directors,” says von Muller. “He kisses them all at work.”
Uggie’s talents and personality have made him a popular dog on set. Before The Artist, he appeared in countless print ads and TV commercials, and his film work includes Mr. Fix It, What’s Up, Scarlett, Life Is Ruff and Water For Elephants).
No matter how experienced a dog actor is, the constantly changing demands of movie work always present challenges. To get Uggie to sniff Dujardin’s body for signs of life required some ingenuity.
“We hid hot dog pieces in his clothing,” Clifford explains. “The command ‘go with’ means to stay with an actor but normally that actor is awake. When they called ‘action’ and I said ‘go with,’ Uggie stayed right with Jean. As soon as he was dragged and they laid him out, Uggie was sniffing for the hot dog. It looked like he was sniffing to see if he was still alive.”
Uggie is all business on set, but once the work day is finished, he heads home to an ordinary life as one of the von Muller family’s nine pets, playing Frisbee in the park and sleeping in his own bed next to von Muller’s.
“He doesn’t act like a Jack Russell when he’s inside,” says von Muller, adding that Uggie at home is calm and relaxed. But clearly, this talented dog deserves a far wider audience than just one family.
“He makes people laugh. People come and hug him and kiss him. He’s one of the greatest dogs we have.”