Almost Famous                         The Goat Kids brought to you by Lotus Pond Media

The Goat Kids were a little smug this morning and insisted their food bowls be placed on linen tablecloths before they would eat. We're assuming their swelled heads will shrink back to normal size once they realize fame is fleeting, but for the moment we're letting them enjoy their day in the spotlight.

Charlie, Ella, Jack and Sally, our intrepid band of pygmy goats who make up The Goat Kids, had starring roles as "goats" in a movie being shot on New York's Staten Island. Well, starring roles might be pushing it a little; they were positioned on some hay bales by a street in a recreated medieval village while the lead actor was forcibly dragged to a guillotine erected in the town square.

The goats were quite proud of their contribution to the movie. The Goat Kids are already justly famous for their book deals, but landing a movie puts them into a new galaxy. Some day we'll say we knew them when and they'll pretend to have trouble placing our faces: "Weren't you the people that didn't use the linen tablecloths at that Nobu grain tasting?"

A string of coincidences led them to this little soirée in front of the camera. An old friend, Beck Underwood, ran into our oldest daughter, Yvette, at the McNally Robinson bookstore in Soho. Our daughter had worked with Beck on literary ventures in the past, so she introduced Beck to our children's story books: Meet the Goat Kids and The Goat Kids Explore the Woods. Beck's an incredibly talented artist, photographer, writer, set designer and the founder of site dedicated to an eclectic mix of art, film and photography. Beck was working as Art Director on the aforementioned movie and needed a few animals to amp up the realism.

Beck mentioned that she had some chickens, rabbits, and horses lined up, but really wanted some goats, "Would the goat kids like to walk on the great white way?"

"Would they? Absolutely."

After the initial excitement died down, we developed a growing concern about the logistics. Our goats roam all over our eleven acres pretty much as they please. We have everything either fenced off or blocked by water and the goats run around the property without a lot of stage direction. We assumed the movie set would be filled with hazards: electrical wires, sound stages, trucks, and food tables, as well as being surrounded by city streets or highways a quick little pygmy could reach just seconds after being startled by a flashing light or snorting horse.

There was also the very practical matter of getting the goats to the set. They're housed outside of Flemington, New Jersey, and the set at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island is an hour away. When we take the goats to the vet, a mere 15 minutes away, they spend the entire time smashing foreheads, leaping over the seats to gnaw on the driver and generally making a giant mess with their straw and hay.

For the entire month before the shoot, we kept thinking it would be great to have a goat trailer; we thought about it right up to the day of the shoot, and all the way to Staten Island and back. We thought about it a lot, but never got around to actually buying the trailer. Another practical matter involved acquiring an exhibitor's exemption from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). An exhibitor's license is required if you want to provide animals to movie sets on a regular basis, but you can get an exemption if they just happen to want your pet turtle for a one-time crawl-on cameo. We faxed a short form to the USDA's eastern regional office and had our official authorization back in the mail within two weeks.

We made a list of everything we would need on the set to keep ourselves and the goat kids happy. Like all goats, our kids are incredibly inquisitive; they love to climb on anything and everything, politely rejecting all attempts at confinement. We think they know their names, but refuse to acknowledge them when we call because they don't want us to find out they're trained. Similarly with "no" and "stop," you see the light go on in their eyes, but then they play dumb because they really want to keep eating the watermelon off the picnic table or continue dancing on the car. We worried the director would call "action"--only to discover one pygmy prancing on top of the camera and another pygmy chewing on the leading man's shoelaces.

We feared the impending goat chaos we might inflict on the movie business.

Convinced that the horses would stand regally, calmly, and make us look bad, we bought some leashes and started practicing with our goats. Well, we did buy the leashes, but the goats didn't really want to practice and kept making all kinds of excuses to avoid their training. The big day finally arrived. Fortunately, we received an email the day before that moved our call time from 8:00 a.m. to noon. If you've ever been around a movie set, you always hope for a late call. Our youngest daughter, Jessica, is a professional actress; we've been on a lot of movie sets so we know that filming is always a controlled explosion. You know it's going to blow on this day in that location, but you never know where the shrapnel will fall and whether you'll get out of the way in time.

The people, the schedules, the rehearsals, the sound checks, and the staging are always flying off in unpredictable patterns. Even the most professional crews play a lot of the day by ear, constantly adjusting to the unforeseen. With an 8:00 a.m. call, you could assume you'd be in front of a camera by 1:00 or 2:00 p.m. and finish by 8:00 p.m. when they lose the sunlight. With a noon call, that's four hours less waiting time, because the sun is still going to disappear at 8:00 p.m.

We wanted the goats to make a good appearance so we planned on hitting the set by 11:30, professionally early for our noon appointment. Staten Island was 53 miles and an hour away on a good day so we fixed on a 10:30 departure, allowing thirty minutes leeway for traffic and obscure directions. We checked our list and started packing the van at 9:30. Food bowls, water dish, leashes, shade umbrellas, giant ceramic turtles with poles cast into their backs to hold up the umbrellas, a roll of plastic fencing, five small metal fence posts, a big hammer, a spool of rope, SPF 50+ sunblock, raisins for goat bribes, pine needles for goat bribes, Purina goat chow for goat bribes, fresh hay for goat bribes, two layers of cardboard, ten old feed bags, two plastic tarps, a few buckets of wood shavings and a half bale of straw to soak up any goat "accidents" during the long ride there and back.

The last time we entertained the goats with a joy ride it took nearly three hours to clean the carpet in the van, so this time we were taking no chances. As a final precaution, we arranged a large piece of cardboard to block the goats' access to the front seats so we could drive without a pygmy diving onto the accelerator pedal at exactly the wrong moment.

10:25 a.m., everything was loaded, and the chase car with its support staff was already on the road to rendezvous with the goat contingent. Only four goats to board and we'd be ready to take off.

Now, during this whole process of checking off the list and loading all the supplies, the four goats had been everywhere: jumping on the roof of the car, leaping into the front seats, cavorting in the back. As soon as it was officially time to take off--no goats in sight. Uncanny intelligence resides deep within these beasts. Goats, like most animals, can sense immediately when you're going for them versus them coming to you. They're always pretty sure that more undesirable things happen when you're going after them.

Four small, speedy, nimble goats with sixteen legs versus one uplifted minivan door manned by a single person with only two arms: statistically, the goats looked like the winning bet.

Charlie, the herd leader, went in first because he's always the best behaved of the four. Ella, the female lead, went in next, but Charlie was trying to be too helpful. He wanted Ella to settle down and behave so he kept whacking her with his horns to punctuate his point, which just made her frantic to leap out of the car to get away from his horns. While the two of them were fighting, Jack sauntered by to enjoy the show. We scooped him up and tossed him in between the other two to break up the fight. Sally took off running.

It was clear that getting all four in through the back door was not going to work. It was impossible to push all of them in simultaneously and get the door shut quickly enough to keep them in. While the door was coming down, goats could escape from both sides and the middle. Quickly closing the rear door with just three inside seemed like a good start. Sally was running in circles around the car, very concerned about the other three, who were yelling for her from inside the car, but equally concerned about the human hunting her down on the outside.

We adopted a zen approach to capturing the wild beast: ceasing the chase and sitting peacefully in the driveway with a handful of fresh grass. A few nibbles were enough to put Sally's collar within range of our fingers and then a quick push through the side door landed her in captivity with the other three.

10:45, a little behind schedule, but it was still possible to land somewhere between on time and this side of fashionably late. The goats took the ride well. The music was turned up on the radio and the air conditioning was blasting in the back. They munched on their hay, bashed foreheads a little, "maaa'ed" a lot and made the trip without incident, arriving at Fort Wadsworth about 11:55.

Fort Wadsworth itself is one of the oldest military complexes in the United States. For more than 200 years, the fort protected New York harbor and the city beyond. Now, managed by the National Park Service, it sprawls in the shadow of the Verrazanno Narrows Bridge. The day's film site, the Battery Weed section of the park, is a beautifully aged relic with towering cannon emplacements and an expansive grassy center. This film was obviously a much bigger deal than we had imagined as they had taken over the entire Battery, transforming it into a medieval village. We've been on large budget sets, and we've been on independent film sets. Some independent sets consist of a card table with Ritz crackers and peanut butter, the director, and a hand-held camera borrowed from the producer's mother. We mistakenly pictured this production as a few film school students with a camcorder standing in the middle of an empty parking lot struggling to remove the lens cap, but this was clearly a professional, well-funded effort. They had trucks and trucks full of equipment, a half dozen smoke machines, a full spread of catered food, more than 15 people in the crew and 20 extras on the set--in addition to the principal actors. Along with all the standard cameras, they had a steadicam unit that could follow the actors as they walked or ran through the set.

We clicked on the goats' leashes, piled out of the van and led them toward the set. Astoundingly, they followed us in like sheep. There were people and trucks and noise and distractions everywhere, but they trotted into show business like they owned a star on Hollywood Boulevard. The biggest relief was that the entire set was enclosed by towering stone walls so we didn't have to worry about the goats running out into traffic. We fenced in a little area for the budding goat stars adjacent to the stone walls and set up our lawn chairs. Our beach umbrellas proved unnecessary as the high walls provided shade most of the day.

After turning the beasts loose inside their portable goat pen, we discovered that the walls abutted a hallway which emptied out into a passageway which emptied out into the grassy field at the center of the fort where the village was constructed--so of course all the goats immediately went running out the back hallway and onto the set.

We built some barricades out of wooden pallets and lawn chairs to block the escape route, but once the goat kids had sampled freedom, they relentlessly plotted their escape.

Ella, as head explorer of the herd, spent the first three hours of the afternoon pushing on every inch of the enclosure, testing for any weak links. And Ella knows instantly when she's not being watched. At one point our daughter Jessica went to get coffee, our photographer/wrangler was away getting background shots, and that left only one goat master on duty.

While Charlie's head was being scratched, Ella seized the moment. She scrambled up the plastic fence, triggering an avalanche as the fence slid away from its support poles. Once Ella had bolted over the collapsed fence, all the goats were on the move, climbing to victory. Fortunately our goats stop running as soon as they spot something they want to eat, and the grassy field on the other side of their fence proved tempting enough to slow them down. Backup arrived and the escapees were coerced back inside without any lasting trauma.

Most of the film crew and actors were from New York City so very few had spent any quality time with goats. A constant stream of people came by our little enclosure and wanted to pet the goats or get their pictures taken holding a goat. Quite a number of cell phones with built-in cameras clicked away all afternoon, but the goats took it all in stride.

Around 5:00 our son, Nicholas, and our oldest daughter, Yvette, arrived on the set and provided four extra hands to help wrestle goats. After completing a number of scenes, the crew startedsetting up for the animals around 5:30. When the two horse "stars" were led onto the set, we were relieved that the goats and horses just stared at, then ignored, each other. The horse people were pros. The owners listened to the radio in their air-conditioned pickup while the horses waited comfortably in their travel trailer until they were needed on set. We sat on our lawn chairs inside our tiny fence and grabbed escaping goats every five minutes for five hours.

Beck, the Art Director, came by and asked if anyone had explained the "goat behaviors" they wanted to see on the set. We explained to her that the only "goat behaviors" they were likely to get was anything the goats felt like doing at that moment. A lot of people think goats are going to act like dogs and save Timmy from the well. In reality, a goat will happily come over and eat the grass around the well while Timmy splashes and shouts, but they're not going to dial 911 with their noses.

The goat behavior challenge was solved by dressing Jessica up as a medieval goatherd and putting ropes on the goats so she could drag them around the set. The biggest problem was that Charlie wanted to beat on his fellow herd members when they got too close to him. This caused a lot of tugging and pulling until longer ropes were put on Ella and Sally so they could be out of Charlie's punishment zone.

The goats did get one close-up shot. We'll see if it stays in the movie. A prisoner was dragged through the town square to the guillotine and they positioned the goats right along his path. The goat kids did a great job in the scene. As part of their authentic method acting technique, they finished off the remainder of the horses' food that was scattered around; they were positioned next to some bales of hay so naturally they jumped up on the hay and looked around while all the actors and cameras and directors and sound guys ran past them during the shot. Charlie even started "maaaaing" while the cameras were rolling so maybe we'll hear him on the final sound track.

Sally pulled free once during a take, but a nearby actor grabbed her rope, reined her in, and the cameras kept rolling. All in all, the day was a lot of fun, we got delicious, free food from the caterers and the goats got delicious, free food from the horses.

Charlie was the best behaved goat, as always. Between takes, he didn't mind his medieval rope leash, so long as Nicholas allowed him to monopolize his space and get the maximum amount of head scratching. Jack began to enjoy his leash when he realized Yvette was willing to walk him anywhere and everywhere around the set. Even past their usual bedtime, Sally and Ella possessed enough energy to continue resisting their bondage, yearning to explore everything on their own terms, with Jessica, their loyal goatherd, trying to protect them from their own curiosity.

We wrapped around 9:00 p.m., the goat-mobile returned its charges safely back to Lotus Pond, and the goat kids were nestled in their straw beds by 10:30.

Our final celluloid assignment was vacuuming the van to remove all the hay, straw, goat hair, and whatever else our pygmy stars left behind. The goat kids were never in it for the money, of course, but as we were being thanked for imbuing the set with so much authenticity and fun, we were told a check, as they say, would be in the mail.

Another exciting day for The Goat Kids.

Copyright (c) 2007 Lotus Pond Media

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