"Never work with children or animals," the notoriously grumpy W.C. Fields once said. The makers of "Nim's Island" obviously ignored this advice in adapting Wendy Orr's 2002 children's book for the screen -- the movie revolves around a girl who lives alone with her marine biologist father and several exotic pets on a tropical island in the middle of nowhere. Think "The Swiss Family Robinson" with Internet access.
Eleven-year-old Abigail Breslin, an Oscar nominee for "Little Miss Sunshine," stars as the resourceful and self-reliant Nim, who's left stranded in her island tree house when dad Jack (Gerard Butler, of "300") sets out in his boat to gather specimens and doesn't return. She reaches out via e-mail to her favorite adventure writer, Alex Rover, unaware that she's corresponding not with the brave hero but his fearful, agoraphobic creator, Alexandra Rover (Jodie Foster), who has to muster the courage to leave her San Francisco house so she can come to Nim's aid. In a dual role, Butler also plays the fictional Alex Rover, who serves as conscience, confessor and inspiration to Alexandra.
The trio of human stars wasn't a problem for married co-directors Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett, who wrote the screenplay with Joseph Kwong and producer Paula Mazur. While computer graphics programs can and do create movie creatures of all types these days, the sea lions, pelicans, lizards and other fauna that populate "Nim's Island" are -- with a few animatronic and CG exceptions -- living, breathing animals that came with their own issues, requirements and limitations.
Read on to find out how the directors and actors dealt with the critters, the logistics of shooting on location in Australia, the stunt work, and other aspects of bringing this action-adventure tale to the big screen.
"Not all animals are created equal. If you have to work with animals, I'd recommend working with sea lions, which are lovely, trainable creatures," says co-director Mark Levin. Spud and Friday, two sea lions from Sea World Australia, shared the role of Selkie -- and they arrived on set already able to kiss, salute and hug.
But because the marine pair had no previous film experience, they had to get used to the cameras, lights and crewmen -- and get comfortable with Abigail Breslin. Trainers Katie Brock, who worked on "Babe: Pig in the City," and John Medlin had Breslin pet them and feed them fish every day before filming started. "She really trained them well. She actually got very involved in the training," says producer Paula Mazur.
Breslin, who has two dogs, two cats and a turtle and wants to be a veterinarian if the acting thing doesn't work out, bonded with the 400-pound sea lions. "They come up to you and give you kisses," she says.
The sea lions "drove the schedule and the making of the movie in a very substantial way," notes Levin. "They were not allowed to be anywhere but on the studio lot. They weren't allowed to go to the beach for fear that they would break for freedom." That necessitated an animatronic stand-in for scenes on the beach. Using Friday as a model, animatronic supervisor John Cox sculpted a facsimile covered in fur and oil, for a wet look. He also created animatronic sea turtles, taking research trips to Sea World to observe, measure and photograph specimens.
Similar stand-ins were required for a scene in which Nim slingshots several lizards into the air, but the bearded dragon playing her companion, Fred, was real -- in multiple. Five different reptiles played the part. "We rotated them," says Levin. "They're kept in kind of an igloo ice chest to stay cool, and as their body temperature heats up, then they get more ornery and become less fun to have around. The lizard would always perch on Abby's shoulder, but then when it warmed up, it would crawl up on top of her head, and we always had to take it out and bring in a cold lizard."
Getting the lizards to "react" was an exercise in patience. "If you keep the camera on the lizard long enough and you put enough bugs in front of him, he's going to turn his head," explains Levin. Co-director Jennifer Flackett supplied sounds that gave Fred a "voice." But making him dance? Forget it.
"We'd asked the trainers what tricks the sea lions could so, and we wrote those things into the movie, like the dancing scene," says Levin. "But getting the lizards to dance was something we did with computers."
Interacting with the bearded dragons freaked Breslin out at first, she admits, "but then I got over it." One of the dragons, Goblet, laid a dozen eggs while they were shooting. The first one hatched was named Nim -- and the second, Abigail.
For the role of Galileo, Sea World Australia supplied pelicans that could fly on command. According to co-director Mark Levin, however, the birds weren't so easy to work with. His counterpart, Jennifer Flackett, says they posed a unique safety concern: "They find eyes to be very shiny and they like to snap at them."
A scene requiring Galileo to pick up and fly with a tool belt had to be computer-generated, as did the island's volcano. Computers also came into play in several green screen sequences -- the crew built a beach at the studio, shot the sea lion against the screen and later added him into the water shots at the beach.
"We wanted a very 1980s aesthetic," Flackett says. "How would you do it if you didn't have any CG? But when you have a shot of Jack jumping off his boat in the middle of the ocean and then cut to him underwater, which was shot in a tank, we were doing a lot of matching."
The film also incorporates real rainforest scenes with those shot on a soundstage, where production designer Barry Robison used bamboo and biodegradable plastics to construct a "green" tree house with solar and wind power and a rain-catching roof. Mist was pumped into the environment to give the set a wet, lush look.
Starting in mid-July 2007, the production spent four months on the Gold Coast of Queensland, Australia, which was chosen for its rainforests and beaches, the wild and unspoiled beauty of Hinchinbrook Island, and the availability of local crews and support infrastructure.
With the local help, the production was able to avoid periodic jellyfish invasions, but all the advance planning in the world couldn't change the unexpectedly wet winter. "There had been a nine-year drought in that part of Australia, and we seemed to have cured it," Levin says. "But you adjust. If it starts to rain, you do the rain scenes."
Nim's Island Stuntwomen
Jodie Foster had a double for a stunt in which she face-planted on some exercise equipment, but she did her other stunts herself. "[It was] a pretty tame shoot, just freezing," she says.
Breslin also had a stunt double for most of a rock-climbing sequence, but she did a lot of running, swimming and zip-lining on her own. She was fairly confident in the water before the shoot but admits that "once I got there I realized I wasn't that good of a swimmer." But that didn't stop her from bravely filming an underwater ride on sea lion Selkie, who wore camouflaged handles for Breslin to hold onto.
The directors say that Breslin was the perfect choice for Nim. "There aren't too many 11-year-olds … who could carry a whole movie on their shoulders," says Levin. "She has the talent and experience to really be the star of a movie."
Native Manhattanite Breslin "was a little afraid of heights, a little scared of stuff when we started rehearsals," says Flackett. "But by the end she had changed. It really brought her confidence up."
Foster was drawn to the girl-power aspect of the film and also wanted to make a movie her sons could see -- her eldest, Charles, had read the book. After dark dramas like "The Brave One" and "Flightplan," she relished the comedic change of pace -- for years, she'd been looking without success for a comedy. So when she read the "Nim's Island" script, she began lobbying and "banging down doors." Co-directors Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett championed her, but the initial distributor did not. "She had not done comedy in a long time so there was a reticence on the studio level, but we knew she would be brilliant in it," Levin says.
"I'll always be a dramatic actor," Foster says. "I'll do comedies every once in awhile. But it has to touch me in a certain way ... [my] natural humor is sort of dry and nasty -- and kind of R-rated."
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- Jodie Foster, Abigail Breslin, Mark Levin, Jennifer Flackett and Paula Mazur interviewed March 4, 2008.