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For the Birds – Mark Waters

Jim Carrey’s co-stars in "Mr. Popper’s Penguins" were silly, unpredictable and downright cold— and that’s why he loved them


JIM CARREY has earned a reputation for being an unpredictable actor, and he’s brought that manic energy to countless roles over the course of his career. But when he took the title role in Mr. Popper’s Penguins, the comedian finally met his match in the form of his co-stars: eight gentoo penguins.

For director Mark Waters, the choice to shoot with real penguins, rather than use computer-generated ones throughout the entire picture, was an easy one. He loves animals, and the opportunity to work with the little guys was one of the things that a racted him to the project. Not only did it make visiting Dad on the movie set the most exciting part of the day for his daughters (ages 5 and 9), it also gave Waters the chance to take a step back from directing and play animal trainer himself.

Play spoke to Waters about watching Carrey cozy up to the brood, the surprising difficulty of acquiring antarctic fowl (you thought they sold them at pet stores, maybe?) and how the movie influenced the finances of one Donald Trump.

Play: Penguins don’t exactly go to acting school. Were they able to follow the script?
Waters: Penguins aren’t the stupidest animals that have ever been in a movie, but they’re not as smart as mammals. They’re not dogs or cats. Even though they’re cute, they’re birds. So you can train them to do what a bird can do. They respond to food very well, though. If you give them some fish at a certain place on the set, they’ll go back to that spot.

Play: But they weren’t actually dancing, right?
Waters: Half the shots in the movie were done with live penguins, and half the shots were done with CGI. When they slid down the ramp at the Guggenheim, for example—we obviously weren’t given permission to bring penguins and water into the Guggenheim. But the stuffat the apartment and other locations was shot with actual birds.

Play: Was Carrey squeamish about the birds, or did he take to them right away?
Waters: Jim was very open to feeding them fish himself. When he was on the set, he’d feed them fish, and then they’d naturally gravitate toward him, expecting that he’d feed them again. So they always looked like they were giving him their full a ention.

Play: Sounds fun. But … maybe really cold?
Waters: We had five 10-ton air conditioners cooling the set to about 42 degrees. For Jim, it was ok in the section of the movie where he’s wearing a parka, but before that, when he’s just in a white shirt and still working with a lot of penguins, he’s wearing silk long underwear underneath his clothes. In between takes, he’d throw on a parka and stand in front of heat lamps.

Play: Where did you get all those penguins?
Waters: It’s a very difficult process. You can’t just go to Petco and buy penguins. In fact, you’re not allowed to bring any birds from outside North America into the country. We were looking at bringing birds in from Argentina or Antarctica, but the authorities would have none of that. We needed North American penguins. But then, Sea World isn’t going to let you have their penguins…

Play: And then there’s the matter of finding the right kind of penguin.
Waters: We got lucky, because I was looking at all these species of penguins that would be best for the movie. Emperor penguins—that’s the kind from March of the Penguins— are just way too big. They’re like 4 feet tall and they’re kinda scary. You don’t want to have a 4-foot kid interacting with a 4-foot penguin. And then the little ones are crazy. They’re wild little hyperactive birds who will not stop for anything, and they’re scared of humans. So I went to Sea World, and the gentoo penguins were the ones who came up to me and were curious and let me feed them. They were perfect. And then it turned out that the BioDome in Montreal was closing its penguin exhibit, and it was able to loan us a few gentoos before they were sent to Hong Kong.

Play: Has your opinion on CGI penguins changed now that you’ve hung out with the real deal?
Waters: You can create CGI penguins that look believable, but there’s something about the way the penguins behave—they’re spontaneous and exuberant and wacky—that makes them fun and compelling to watch.

So I thought, yeah, let’s shoot the live penguins and then challenge our visual effects artists to match their Antarctic glee.

Play: Carrey seems like the sort of actor who could manage some Antarctic glee himself.
Waters: As a physical actor, Jim reflects things in his body. It’s one of the things that makes him amazing to watch. Putting him in with the penguins made for an easy working relationship. I think he’s like that with any animal, and the penguins just kept him on his toes.

Play: Have you been to a zoo since making the movie?
Waters: Actually, yeah. I was at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and saw the penguins there. Those were South African penguins, though, which are a different breed entirely. I had an appreciation for penguins before, but now I feel like I’m a cocktail-party penguin expert. With my group at the aquarium, I was pointing out all the things I knew about penguins to try to show off.

Play: There’s a subplot in the movie about Jim Carrey’s character trying to buy the Tavern on the Green in Central Park. Is that based on Donald Trump’s actual efforts to buy the restaurant?
Waters: It’s like the chicken and the egg. We just concocted the story out of thin air. Popper wants to buy the Tavern on the Green and build a tower in its place, but he has this change of heart and realizes that he just wants to renovate it and restore it to its former glory. But in order to do a joke where Jim Carrey comes downstairs and says, “Hey, I got a reservation at Jean-Georges, which is impossible to get—unless you’re dating The Donald, which I’m not willing to do,” we had to give the script to Trump and get his permission to use the reference. At first he didn’t want to approve it, but Jim read it for him personally. At that point, Trump said, “OK, I like the joke, you can do it.” A week later, we read in the New York Post that Donald Trump was a empting to reopen Tavern on the Green. I like to believe we inspired him.

Play: Do you ever miss the penguins now that they’re in Hong Kong?
Waters: By the end of the shoot, I was happy to say goodbye to them and send them along on their journey. It certainly was fun having them on set, especially because we’d get more (and more entertaining) set visits, but I’m happy that they’re comfortable in their new home.

Play: It’s not so hard to make people fall in love with penguins, I take it?
Waters: Penguins are inherently lovable. If people don’t like penguins, I don’t really trust them.

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