Lights, Camera, Lions tells the remarkable story of Hungarian Hubert Geza Wells, who defects to America during the communist era and goes on to make a name for himself as one of the desired animal trainers in Hollywood. His hair-raising memoir (pun intended) gives insight into training animals that has never been revealed before.
|Publisher:||Morgan James Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Hubert Geza Wells has trained hundreds of Hollywood actors, but none of them talk about it. The veteran coach doesn’t take it too hardhe knows that some movie actors are just animals. And he’s never surprised when they try to bite the hand that feeds them. Hungarian-born Wells is one of the movie industry’s most respected and enduring animal experts. For the past forty-four years, he has made a living through his company Animal Actors of Hollywood by persuading an encyclopedic range of animals to perform for the camera. Wells has trained animals for more than one hundred films, including Out of Africa, Ring of Bright Water, Born Free, Living Free, Sheena, LadyHawke, and The Ghost and the Darkness. After having filmed on all five continents, he now devotes his time to writing about his unique experiences in book and script form.
Read an Excerpt
IS THIS ANY WAY TO MAKE A LIVING?
Candy wasn't large or especially fierce, as tigers go. She was an average striped cat, but she was irritated by the torrid Santa Ana winds and at me. I was trying to teach her to sit on a pedestal. As she stood on her hind legs, her mouth, studded with three-inch serrated fangs, hovered a good foot above my face. Her pupils wide open, two craters of green lava. Her bark, the most frightening sound an animal can make, exploded from the depths of her resentful diaphragm. No other animal sounds like an angry tiger. It's as unnerving as the hiss of a grenade landing at your feet. I knew someone was about to get hurt. I knew it was going to be me.
She lashed out with a forceful right. Then she was on top of me, and we both fell to the sawdust floor. I must have raised my left arm to cover my face. A sharp numbing sensation shot through the fleshy part of my palm. There was no pain; I knew more by the crunching sound of muscle and the warm fluid running down my wrist that I had been bitten. No, my whole life did not flash before my eyes. But as I was lying there, pinned down by 300 pounds of vindictive cat, the thought occurred to me: "Is this any way to make a living?"
I had been presenting my dog-and-leopard act in St. Petersburg. Webb's City is a sprawling complex of specialty stores covering two city blocks. With good reason, Webb's City calls itself "the largest drugstore in the world."
I had just returned to the hotel after the day's final show. The desk clerk was waving frantically, "Two reporters have been looking for you all day, Mr. Wells. Reporters from Life magazine. They want to do a story about you and your animals."
The next day, we took Lolita and Amber for a frolic by the Silver River. Lolita, a full-grown leopard, and Amber, a yellow retriever, romped through the Florida jungle like inseparable friends. The Life photographer and writer were amazed. And they were right to be. In the wild, a leopard will do almost anything to nab its favorite delicacy — a dog.
The photo spreads appeared a few weeks later when I was back in New York. Lorraine D'Essen, owner of this city's largest animal agency, and an accomplished author, was impressed. With a touch of envy in her voice, she remarked, "I suppose you bought up all the copies in Manhattan."
"No," I told her modestly, "I only bought a dozen. I'm sure you would buy at least that many if one of your animals appeared in Life."
I was proud. I'd achieved a long-standing ambition — to be in Life, the most prestigious magazine in the world.
Is this any way to make a living? You bet your family album it is.
An aging game show host is being interviewed on a TV gossip show. His wavy hair is silver with a touch of blue. Until recently, it was chestnut brown. He had discovered, to his horror, that the hair dye he used contained "animal products." His sensitive conscience was so outraged that he went silver almost overnight.
His eyes burn with the conviction of a judge at the Spanish Inquisition as he reveals the deep, dark secrets of the Hollywood animal trainers. His host seems outraged. She asks more questions with well-rehearsed spontaneity. They don't mention me by name, but the industry knows full well that the villain of this story is me.
I had just finished one of the most demanding projects of my career, working a large group of chimpanzees. Despite the difficulties, we pulled it off without an injury to man or animal. But here I was, being hauled over hot coals in the media, and a criminal action hanging over my head like the sword of Damocles. Nobody seemed interested in hearing our side — least of all this self-appointed Inquisitor of Trainers.
During this ordeal, I continually asked myself, "Is this any way to make a living?" On days like this, certainly not.
Evening in Maasai-Mara. My Land Rover is clanking along the winding trails of one of the last strongholds of wildlife on this overcrowded planet. I am lying contentedly on the jolting roof. A good day's filming is behind us. There is peace in my soul and before my eyes is indescribable beauty.
Beside me is a tawny film star. Her name is Asali, which means "Honey" in Swahili. She's classically proportioned — a lioness in her prime. Her amber eyes reflect the riotous tropical sunset. Flared nostrils filter the myriad scents of the bush. I know she enjoys the magic of the evening as much as I do. There is a kinship between us, one that stretches back through the ages to the caveman who coaxed the first wolf to his campfire. Is this any way to make a living? You bet your last Kenyan shilling it is.
A sawed-off giant of a studio executive stands before me. Only five-foot-two in his elevator shoes, but he thinks he can look down on me from the exalted position of power. He wants to hire marksmen with high-powered rifles to cover my lions when I work with them.
"I insist on using sharpshooters every time a lion is on set," he says. "Robert Redford's life is worth more than your lions."
The short hairs on my neck are bristling; a spring of anger winds tighter in my stomach. But the safety catch is on. I am not going to lose it. My voice turns a shade softer, the volume a half a decibel lower. The giant of the industry has to step closer to hear me. He looks directly at my Adam's apple.
"That's not the point, sir. The life of the last beggar on the streets of Nairobi is worth more than all my lions together. I fully realize that. And I do take elaborate precautions. But having a loaded gun on the set will never be one of them.
Be logical. When would the sharpshooter practice his craft? When the lion is approaching the camera? That's what the scene calls for. And what if, God forbid, the worst should happen and the lion knocks someone down? If your William Tell blazes away, then he could kill or injure the man or further infuriate the animal. This is not the first time I've turned a big cat loose on a movie set. Like Indiana Jones said: 'Trust me.'"
The issue was closed. The sharpshooters never materialized, and we filmed all the scenes without bending a hair on Robert Redford's head. That's how it often is in this business. Nobody would think to tell the cameraman, or even a grip, how to do his job. But somehow everyone thinks they know how to be an animal trainer. Not only that, but they think they can do it better. When I have to fight that kind of ignorance and often just plain concentrated stupidity, I ask myself: Is this any way to make a living?
The light slowly dims on the ornate ceiling of a movie theater. The mood of the music changes. Now it has subtle undertones of lurking menace. You can feel the tension running through the audience. The actress is clinging to the bole of an acacia tree, as if she'd like to disappear into it. Then Asali, the most beautiful lioness that ever lived, steps from behind a thorn bush.
This is the first of the four lion sequences in the Oscar-winning film Out of Africa. The scene never fails in its magic, no matter how many times you see it. Drawn by the magnet of a defenseless human, the big cat approaches. I know she will hit her mark like the old pro she is, but even I can't help a faint uneasiness: "What if she keeps on coming?" She freezes, lifts her head, her gaze settling in the general direction of Meryl Streep's throat.
I have seen it a dozen times, and at this moment I always hear the audience catch its breath. The magic of the movies is working, as it should. And Asali, my trainers, and I are all part of it. Is this any way to make a living? At moments like this, you bet your last donation to the World Wildlife Fund. Of course, it is.
* * *
I have trained animals for forty-five years. The list is practically endless — literally from aardvarks to zebras. I have taken lions to the Serengeti, wolves to the Arctic tundra, chimpanzees to the African jungle. I have water-skied with elephants, skin-dived with sea lions, sidestepped charging Cape buffalo. I have sweated in the 125-degree heat of Lake Rudolph, shivered in a record-breaking 86-below-zero in Alaska. I have also worked with some of the world's most exotic humans, including Sophia Loren, Robert Redford, and Elizabeth Taylor.
I have been charged by rhino and bitten by snakes. My skin is tattooed with scars donated by every big cat except the jaguar. It's been a hair-raising but healthy life. I am close to 60 now, and I am still ready to wrestle lions, tigers, or giant snakes whenever the script calls for it.
All over the world, wild animals have been pushed to the brink of extinction. The same can be said of the animal trainers. Training exotic animals for the camera is a demanding and complicated profession. In recent years, it has become more difficult, thanks to misguided efforts of the lunatic fringe of the Animal Protection Industry. Slanderous attacks, innuendo, senseless regulations, and, sometimes, pure malice have made animal trainers an endangered species.
The future for us does not look bright. But I have survived a world war, a bloody revolution, and 200 stitches, so perhaps this new danger will pass too.
Over the years I have collected a rich store of memories. At times, I have been supremely happy, at other times so miserable I felt like dying. This book is my memoir of a life in an unusual profession. I hope the reader will find this glimpse into the world of the professional animal trainer enlightening, but mostly entertaining.
* * *
How did it all begin? How does one become a first-generation animal trainer? No one is born with high boots, riding britches, and a chair in one hand. At least I wasn't. It started as a hobby that slowly but surely got out of hand. It began so far away and such a long time ago I could almost say "Once upon a time ..."CHAPTER 2
PERMIT ME TO INTRODUCE MYSELF
I hail from a land of knights and wandering gypsies. From the country that gave us Count Dracula, goulash, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. It's a small country in Eastern Europe, about the size of Delaware, called Hungary. Geographically, it is situated in a corridor, where East meets West. The conquering hordes of Mongols, Tartars, Turks, and Slavs always had to trample through Hungary to get at Western civilization. And trample they did.
Hungary is ringed by an ocean of Slavic peoples, but Hungarians are not Slavs. We call ourselves Magyars. Scientists tell us that the Hungarian language and Finnish are somehow related, but so are the elephant and the hyrax, a rabbit-sized African mammal. It's hard for the layman to see the connection.
Legend has it that a tribe of seven clans came from the steppes beyond the Ural Mountains. They were led by two princes, Hunor and Magor, who were chasing a golden stag. By the time they had reached the basin of the Carpathian Mountains, the stag vanished. At this point, history takes over from legend. The Magyars saw that the fertile basin would make a great place to settle. A slight problem — the land was already occupied by Slavs. But a Magyar chief named Arpad offered the locals a beautiful white stallion in exchange for "a handful of earth, a sheaf of grass, and a jug of water." The Slavs jumped at the deal. Only then did they discover that Arpad had been speaking figuratively. They had unwittingly sold their land, rivers and grazing. They objected, naturally, but they were no match for the hardened nomads from the Asian steppes.
The Magyars conquered the Slavs, but the wandering, looting lifestyle was hard to give up cold-turkey. So for a couple of centuries, when bored, the Magyars mounted their shaggy little ponies and — with their Asian-style curved bows and unorthodox combat style (fighting dirty) — terrorized the Teutonic princedoms, fiefdoms, and duchies of the West.
For a century, the litanies of the pious Teutons included the following prayer:
De sagittis Hungarorum salve nos, Domine.(From the arrows of the Hungarians save us, O Lord.)
All good things come to an end, and so did this reckless period of pillaging. In the late 900s, our first king, named Stefan the First (aptly), adopted Christianity as the official state religion. Stefan sent out foreign missionaries, and, unlike his forefathers, he preferred to use gentle persuasion. When that failed, as in the case of a few recalcitrant pagan chieftains, he simply buried them alive. He did such a thorough job of spreading the faith that Pope Sylvester the First rewarded him with a golden crown. After his death, he became Hungary's first saint.
Then followed a few centuries of more or less glorious kings — some sinners, some saints. In the 1500s, the Turkish Empire began looking for more space. The Turks defeated Hungary at the battle of Mohacs in 1563, and since then we won almost every battle, but unlike the English, we never won a war.
In the early 1940s, as history records, the following conversation occurred between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his aide-de-camp.
ENTER aide-de-camp (ADC), morning papers in hand.
ADC: Good morning, Mr. President. Today Hungary declared war on the United States.
FDR: Hungary? Where the hell is that exactly? Fill me in a bit, will you?
ADC: Well, sir, Hungary is considered a Balkan country, but it is not on the Balkan Peninsula. It's a kingdom, but it has no king. Its regent, Admiral Horthy, is a seaman, but he has no sea. Shall I continue?
FDR: No, thank you. I think I got the picture.
But let's not get ahead of history. In the 1930s there was still peace, and the proverbial "good old days" were in full swing.
My father, Karl, was a forest engineer. He served on the enormous estate of the rich Count Nicholas L —. Being a forest engineer is a particularly European profession, a combination of forester and gamekeeper. Father planted saplings, supervised tree harvesting, organized the annual hunt, and was responsible for all the wild creatures of the forest. That part interested me most. I was going to follow in Dad's footsteps.
I was given the name Hubert after the patron saint of woodsmen and hunters. I've never forgiven Pope Paul I for dropping Hubert from the list of canonized saints, but luckily, I received two other saintly names — Laszlo and Paul — plus the pagan name Geza, for good measure.
Karl and the Count were good buddies. They would often leave the saplings, foxes, and bunnies behind and disappear into the jungles of the capital: the sparkling city of Budapest. Being rich, the Count could well afford the good life. He had his own gypsy band, drank imported champagne, and entertained a long procession of perky dancing girls. Years later, after the war, the Count lost everything and became a boiler cleaner. My father, who always insisted on paying his own, was less able to pay for these amusements. He got deeper and deeper in debt, until one day, when I was about four, he hocked my Mum's silver (a family heirloom), gassed up his savannah-yellow BMW, and disappeared into Austria. He was the first member of our family to defect to the West but not the last. My only memory of my Dad is a live ram he gave me for my fourth birthday. It came with a red leather harness, hooked up to my baby carriage: my first act in show business.
We relocated in the western part of the country, the rolling hills of Transdanubia, where my Mum's family owned some fertile land, good green pasture, vineyards, and acres and acres of forest. Our new home was an old whitewashed brick house with a red tile roof and a carved wooden porch.
My father had gone, but I did not grow up like a weed. My mother saw to that, and she had the help of four other guardians. They were my uncles, Josef the Strict and Paul the Handsome; my saintly Aunt Clara the Good; and, holding us all together with gentle but very strong hands, my dear Grandma, Irma the Firm.
My grandmother was a bone fide baroness, although she never used her title. Later I came to view her as combining the qualities of Scarlett O'Hara and Karen Blixen. She was decisive, forceful, inventive, realistic, and kind. Looking back, I see how well she personified the times between the two wars in Hungary. Grandmother Irma would have been at home in Margaret Mitchell's Old South, and she would have been an outstanding figure among the early settlers of British East Africa.
Between the wars in Hungary was a time and style of living one can only glimpse today in a Strauss operetta. We were the last beneficiaries of Europe's waning feudal system. We had the best of the system, of course, living the life of the landed gentry. We had no slaves, but we did have peasants: sharecroppers, herdsmen, coachmen, and gamekeepers. My playmates were their sons, but mostly their daughters. For some reason, my personal gang consisted of six girls, all older than me. I was easy to tell apart by my better clothes and cleaner face, but the sign that often gave me away was my shoes. Unlike the village kids, I was never allowed to run barefoot before the end of May.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Lights, Camera, Lions"
Copyright © 2017 Hubert Geza Wells.
Excerpted by permission of Morgan James Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Is This Any Way To Make A Living? 1
Chapter 2 Permit Me To Introduce Myself: 1934-1945 7
Chapter 3 But It's Only 1945, Mr. Orwell: 1945-1954 21
Chapter 4 The Hills Are Alive With The Sound Of Filming: 1954-1956 29
Chapter 5 Seven Days Of Freedom 45
Chapter 6 Welcome To Vienna 57
Chapter 7 "Give Me Your Poor, Downtrodden, And Confused" 1957-1964 67
Chapter 8 Hooray For Hollywood: Also For Burbank 89
Chapter 9 Once There Was A Place Called Jungleland 97
Chapter 10 To The Island Of Droon Or Otterely Ridiculous 111
Chapter 11 Ladies And Gentlemen, This Is Our Last Performance 117
Chapter 12 There Is No Business Like Monkey Business 119
Chapter 13 Kwa-Heri Means "So Long" 131
Chapter 14 Hawmps Or Ride Them Camels, Cowboys 161
Chapter 15 M'Zee Simba, The Old Lion 165
Chapter 16 Sea Gypsies And Wilderness Family 169
Chapter 17 Rasing Daisy Rothschild Or The Last Giraffe 173
Chapter 18 Never Cry "Wolf," But Beware Of The Director 177
Chapter 19 Sheena, Queen Of The Jungle, And Five Raspberry Awards 183
Chapter 20 The Sundance Kid In Africa 189
Chapter 21 Out Of Africa Into The Frying Pan 195
Chapter 22 The Clan Of Seven Producers And One Lonely Cave Bear 203
Chapter 23 Ivory Coast, Land Of Bad Ju-Ju 207
Chapter 24 The Man-Eaters Of Ghost And Darkness 211
Chapter 25 Angkor Watt, But What For? Or Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright 221
Chapter 26 Bits And Pieces 231
Epilogue: The Age Of Stone Lions 239
About The Author 245
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a legend's story that is a must-read. I bought this book at a book signing and read it right away. I love animals, movies and personal stories, so the interest level for me was a 10 - on a scale from 1 to 10. Hubert's story is amazing. He has led a life that most of us could never even imagine. I'm so glad he took the time to write his memoirs, especially since the days of real wild animals in movies have been replaced by CGI. It's not the same - by far. There won't be anymore accounts or stories about wild life in the movie world, so this book is literally a gem.
A true story not even Hollywood could imagine. A young man fights against tyranny, flees his war-torn Hungarian homeland with only the shirt on his back, makes his way to America, and becomes one of Hollywood's must successful and sought-after wild animal trainers, working with a galaxy of human stars and legends. I got this book at a book signing. I couldn't put it down and read it in one sitting. It also has great photos. My advice: READ THIS BOOK!