The clucking sound heard at a Toronto Film Festival screening of Mark Lewis’ The Natural History of the Chicken wasn’t coming from the film. It was the audience, fluffing its feathers over the filmmaker’s latest foray into the animal kingdom – this time about a creature we normally call dinner.
As the film reveals, there’s more to the chicken than its sumptuous breasts. For West Palm Beach resident Karin Estrada, ‘Cotton’ is a playful pet, which she takes swimming in her pool and dresses in little diapers. In the 1940s, a rooster named ‘Miracle Mike’ rose to fame after surviving decapitation – going on to become a carnival attraction (and a healthy source of income for his owner, Lloyd Olsen). And for pastor Joe Tauer, a plucky barnyard dweller called ‘Liza’ is the inspiration for a Sunday sermon.
Lewis, whose oeuvre includes 1988′s Cane Toads: An Unnatural History and 1998′s Rat, admits that the chicken film was his most difficult project to date. ‘Chickens are a killer of a subject to do,’ he explains. ‘I was so worried about this film because there’s no inherent drama in it. Rats – you can say they’re attacking or taking over the city; cane toads – they’re also taking over, but there’s nothing about the chicken except that we eat them, and they exist.’ As a result, the success of the chicken film depends on its human characters, whose relationships with their feathered friends provide the dramatic (and comic) backdrop for the film. ‘Humans are not scared about being funny with their animals,’ explains Lewis. ‘The thought of somebody giving mouth-to-beak CPR to a chicken is funny.’
The filmmaker delights in taking a comedic approach to natural history, which he says is typically ‘a very pretentious and portentous genre.’ With this in mind, Lewis chose the title for the film. ‘The ‘natural history world’ – it sounds like something you read in an encyclopedia or at the zoo,’ he muses. ‘What I like about the title is that it sticks it up to natural history to some degree – especially with the chicken. Just because the animal is domesticated doesn’t mean it stops having a natural history.’
The Natural History of the Chicken – produced by Mark Lewis’ Radio Pictures (L.A.) in association with PBS and Devillier Donegan Enterprises in Washington, and the U.K.’s Channel 4 (for around us$600,000, as reported in the 1999 RealScreen Natural History Guide) – debuted in Toronto this year, making it the third doc Lewis has presented at the festival. It was also one of several films projected digitally at the event, although the doc was shot on Super 16. Lewis explains that the decision to project digitally was both aesthetic and financial. ‘Two or three years ago you’d always finish the film as a proper print. Now, the digital projection technology is very good – your film looks just as good screened DigiBeta as it does 16mm. It’s also more expensive to go to an optical print – it’s more for credits, captions, computer graphics and blue screen work.’ He adds, ‘I think prints are dying – sadly.’
While he is happy to project his films digitally, Lewis is not ready to originate in the medium. This is another aesthetic choice: ‘The problem with digital origination is that I like to use the different lenses and filters available for Super 16 and 35mm cameras – I don’t think the choice of lenses and filtration are available for digital yet.’
This consideration was particularly important in the case of the chicken film, because Lewis had a specific vision in mind. ‘I really wanted the Babe look,’ he says, referring to the 1995 feature film about a pig. In fact, the cinematographer on Natural History of the Chicken – Steven Arnold – was also the second unit director of photography on Babe. To achieve the look in Lewis’ film, Arnold used what he called, ‘the Babe filter.’ According to Lewis, the Babe look evokes an ideal world for the chicken. ‘I wanted the chicken living in fields and lushness,’ he explains. ‘I wanted to show a really pretty world that the chicken could live in that wasn’t necessarily a horrific little backyard coop, or a barn, or a big tin shed. I wanted to show some very idyllic farms and circumstances for the chicken, to show that there are chickens out there living a very happy life. We did try to make it look very glamorous.’
But while the film appears very cinematic – and projects beautifully on the big screen – it will not likely see a widespread theatrical release. ‘We’d like to see it in theaters, but the reality is that funding for docs comes out of television,’ he says. ‘We don’t have much of a window between when the broadcaster wants to put it to air and a theatrical release . . . And the returns are not that great.’
According to Lewis, just making it to the TV screen can be a difficult task for a one-off doc, and he sees this as a growing trend. ‘I’m saddened by what’s happening in broadcasting, especially in the U.S. There’s not much support for individual docs because broadcasters have all got strand programming,’ he explains. ‘These days you end up with a lot of films made because they’re on a subject that fits within a strand title. They’re not made because Joe Shmoe thought it would be a great idea to make a film about a barber shop in New York.’
Despite the challenges, Lewis fully intends to continue making films that break the boundaries of strand programming. He has several projects on the go, including two docs that revisit the chicken theme: Unnatural History is comprised of three stories, including one about a chicken that was murdered in a small town in England, and a film about cock fighting. Lewis is also working on a film about orchid enthusiasts. (Which prompts the question: Do they make diapers for orchids?)