Screens A spotty business

Director Carroll Ballard herds big cats in 'Duma'

Bring together all the species of animals that director Carroll Ballard has worked with in his 25-year career of feature filmmaking and you would have yourself one very unique petting zoo.

Ballard, 67, has filmed horses, wolves, geese, and dogs since 1979, when he directed the original The Black Stallion starring Mickey Rooney, who was nominated for an Academy Award, and Teri Garr.

A young African boy befriends a cheetah in Duma, based on the book How It Was With Dooms: A True Story from Africa and directed by The Black Stallion's Carroll Ballard.

Since his equine experience, Ballard's creature confrontations have included Never Cry Wolf in 1983, Fly Away Home in 1996, and The Cruelest Winter in 2002. Now, Ballard has a run-in with the fastest animal on earth, the cheetah, in his newest film Duma, starring Hope Davis (American Splendor) and Campbell Scott (Roger Dodger).

Adapted from the children's book How it was with Dooms: A True Story from Africa, written by mother and son team Carol and Xan Hopcraft, Duma tells the real-life story of a wildcat that grows up with a family on a farm in Nairobi, Kenya. Although the film takes some liberties with the text, it stays focused on the most important aspect of the story, the relationship between Xan, a young boy, and Duma, his pet cheetah.

Ballard said he did not know what to expect from his spotted subject when he began filming in South Africa, although the animal intrigued him very much. "Cheetahs are a very specialized creature," Ballard told the Current via phone from Sacramento, California. "Speed is their whole thing. They're not very strong. They can see a flea a mile away and they'll take off running after it. Therein lies the secret of their success."

With assistance from African animal trainers and world-famous trainer Jules Sylvester, Ballard used four adult cheetahs, two teenage cheetahs, and seven cheetah cubs to portray Duma in three stages of his life. One of the cheetahs was actually the pet of Alexander Michaletos, the young actor and African native who plays Xan in the film.

After eight months of spontaneous shooting, Ballard and his team finished on location on a continent he calls "a mixed bag." It's inexpensive to film in Africa, but 120-degree weather and high winds were constant obstacles, and just getting the cheetahs to cooperate with the production's filming schedule was demanding enough.


Dir. Carroll Ballard; writ. Karen Janszen, Mark St. Germain, based on the book by Carol Cawthra Hopcraft and Xan Hopcraft; feat. Alex Michaeletos, Campbell Scott, Mary Makhatho, Nthabiseng Kenoshi, Hope Davis (PG)
"There is not a lot that you can do to train a cheetah," Ballard said. "It's hard to get them to go from one place to another. Like most cats they have a mind of their own." He said filming the cheetahs in their natural habitat was extremely tedious. "We spend time trying different kinds of things. We try and figure out what the creature's idea of fun is; what the creature's idea of fun is not." For instance, the cheetahs did not think it was entertaining to ride in the side car of a motorcycle during a high-speed desert scene. They only way the cheetah would stay, he recalled, was by laying a person on the floor of the side car and having the spotted feline sit on top of him or her.

Easier than filming the cheetahs was capturing supporting-role animals in motion, including attacking crocodiles, ferocious lions, and gentle giraffes. The reason: None of those scenes were filmed on location; they were shot at wild animal reservations and edited into the film later. "The crocodiles were never there," Ballard admitted. "The crocs were in a croc farm. It's the craft of the low budget film."

Low-budget artifice aside, Ballard is proud of his cinematic creation - the seventh feature-length film of his career - although he said the number of films he has made does not illustrate the years he has dedicated to his art form. "I've spent 45 years trying to make movies and actually four years making movies." There is, however, still some energy left in Ballard, who considers himself "long-toothed." An Academy Award-nominated documentary producer for his 1967 film Harvest, Ballard said he would not mind taking another shot at documentary filmmaking today since he especially likes how current documentaries are reaching mainstream audiences and becoming "more real."

Although he said he is "not particularly" considering working with animals again, Ballard, like the strategic cheetah dashing for a gazelle, is ready to pounce on his next opportunity.

By Kiko Martinez

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