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Cinema: Patrick Pittavino, "the man with 500 films" in love with Cambodia

" If you let me do the talking, we're still here tonight," warns Patrick Pittavino, our guest at Khéma La Poste, who counts some 500 film appearances to his credit as a dog trainer, animal handler or even "dog psychologist", whatever you want to call it these days. It was during the shooting of Jean-Jacques Annaud's film Two Brothers, released in 2004, that Patrick Pittavino fell definitively in love with Cambodia.

Patrick Pittavino. Photo CG
Patrick Pittavino. Photo CG

It's true that the man is prolix, jovial and apparently delighted to share a thousand and one anecdotes from filming. He mentions his experiences with Kirk Douglas, Alain Delon, Johnny Depp, Gérard Depardieu, Alain Chabat... and, of course, the many prestigious directors who have enlisted his services, given the man's decades-long reputation. The secret of his success, he says, is "to love animals, of course, to know how to prepare them and to listen to what directors want".

 

Interview with a film legend

 

Tell us a little about the film project that brought you to Cambodia for the 1st time in the early 2000s

It came at the behest of Jean-Jacques Annaud, with whom I'd already worked, notably on L'ours. When he was preparing the film Deux Frères, he was looking for dogs for the child's dog who is killed by the tiger and the hunter's dog.

So we got together, had a little chat and Jean-Jacques showed me some drawings - that's the way he works - and said, "Look, if you find something that looks like this, I'll show you. I looked, found the dogs that matched and he told me, after a presentation, that it was exactly what he'd been waiting for. The next step was to carry out a selection, so I took a dog, put it through a few exercises and Jean-Jacques pointed to one of the dogs and said:

"OK, that's him because he's not a dog, he's an actor."

And that's how my team and I ended up on this shoot.

In Cambodia on the set of Deux Frères. Photo Alamy
In Cambodia on the set of Deux Frères. Photo Alamy

Then I met the wild animal trainer Thierry Le Portier, who was to look after the two tigers. I knew him a little, so it was nice to work with him again. Thierry had laid out a large area, a kind of arena, for the animals to train in. This was important, because we didn't know how the animals would react to the shooting conditions, i.e. quite heavy heat and a lot of humidity.

Everyone had their own timetable, and I have to say that we had some of the best people, I think, for the 37 different species - birds, elephants, etc. - that had to be used in the film.

"When I went out into the field with an assistant, I realized that all these trainers, the best in the world, were watching me work the dogs. It was a very special moment of pride.''

In fact, it was very instructive for all of us to see how to work with totally different species. But we all had one thing in common: rigor in our work.

You also work with species other than dogs.

Yes, I worked on the Dior advert - the launch of Elixir to Life perfume - with Johnny Depp, and we took care of the wolves. It's a video clip that many people remember, but the shoot wasn't as exhilarating as some of the others.

With the wolves and Johnny Depp, for Dior
With the wolves and Johnny Depp, for Dior

The insurers were so demanding that Johnny Depp was totally inaccessible outside the shoot. So these are my only areas of involvement, because I firmly believe that this is a profession where you can't spread yourself too thin.

An old trainer used to say: "In life, when you do one thing, you can expect to be very good at it. When you do one, two or three, you don't care, and when you do a lot, you can only be mediocre."

And in training, especially with dogs, it takes a long time to get things right. I was lucky enough to work with Thierry Le Portier and other specialists for different species. It was very interesting, but if I take time to do that, the work with the dogs will drop in level. It's compulsory, you can't, or it would take several lifetimes.

It's a profession where there's a lot of demand and great potential in France and even in Europe. It's different in the United States, where a single trainer takes care of everything, which I don't think is the right way to go, and distorts the perception of the profession, both in terms of quality and cost.

How did you get into cinema?

Before cinema, I used to train dogs and organize competitions. It was a job, a real passion. Then, one day, I was asked to prepare a scene with Anthony Perkins. But in those days, I still preferred training to film. But then I participated in the shooting of Jean-Jacques Annaud's L'Ours, and that's when I made a name for myself in the business. It was really fun. And after that, one thing led to another. Today, my team and I have worked on over 500 films.

Is there any training in this very special field?

Well, these days there are a lot of training courses, each one as bad as the next. It's impossible to do this job if you don't learn on the job. You can't learn about animals unless you work with professionals.

"In fact, in this business, you find the good ones, you work with them and you learn. And then something happens."

I've also trained people, notably those in charge of security in the Paris metro or airports. I'd also like to point out that feeling is just as important as technical training. You realize when you're training people that, from time to time, no matter how much you give them all the necessary techniques, they move forward, they move forward... but there's something missing that you can't give them: a kind of complicity with the animal, a sixth sense, something... in fact, you have to "read" the animal.

In other words, when you see the animal coming, the way it moves, the way it moves, you know what's going to happen before it does. So that's wonderful.

You've worked on a number of small productions, as well as successful films

I've done films, and everyone says, ah, you've done this or that. Yes. But for me, it wasn't exceptional. In fact, we only remember the successes, but above all the films that required a lot of work and energy, like the Asterix series.

On Asterix, Idéfix is there for an average of 50 to 60 shooting days, which is enormous. You have to look after him because he's a little dog weighing less than five kilos. In Asterix, there's a lot going on, several thousand extras, a lot of noise, and you have to be attentive all the time.

With Idéfix. Photo supplied
With Idéfix. Photo supplied

When you're doing scenes like the Olympic Games, where you have 1,000 extras, it takes six hours to set up the arrival of the Gauls. It's difficult, and you need an understudy for the dog during the lighting and mechanical set-up, and you have to use an understudy so as not to tire the "main actor", in this case Idéfix.

How are you credited in the movie list?

Animalier, because the words have changed over the years. In the beginning, it was "dresseur", and now it's fashionable with associations not to use that word... it sounds mean. So we're alternately educators or even psychologists... it's just a question of words, but hey... it's still the same profession with the same people.

Do you work as part of a team?

It's not easy. It depends on the period, but in preparation, yes. When I started out, I was on my own, but then the requests came one after the other, sometimes three shoots at the same time, and I had to put together a team that knew how to work on feature films, because that's not necessarily easy. To learn a job like that - and I'm not talking about dressage, I'm talking about cinema - you need a good ten years.

With Cédric Eloy from the Cambodian International Film Festival
With Cédric Eloy from the Cambodian International Film Festival

"You have to know how to talk to a director or producer, how to suggest things. If you don't know anything about cinema, you can't suggest anything."

Tell us about Cambodia

It's a bit like a vaccination. Every time I come, it's a nice break from France. Above all, I come back with friends, the ones I worked with on the set of Deux Frères. Some of them even got married in Cambodia. So it was a shared love affair. It's a feeling that's very present in many film crews, something very special. All the people who worked on Deux Frères, when I meet them, we're all "bananas".

The film is full of good memories, because of the fabulous sets and the presence of excellent film technicians who helped me learn a lot about the business.

So I try to come to the country regularly for two-week stays. Even though the country has changed a lot, I still remember Cambodia in the 2000s as a crazy, wonderful experience.

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