Mar 30, 2011

Interview with Gary Johnson, Tai's trainer, talking about working on 'Water for Elephants', Tai and her relationship to the cast members

"Water for Elephants" interview with Gary Johnson, Tai's trainer and owner.

 Original interview is in German and can be viewed here.

Can you explain to us what your company “Have Trunk Will Travel” does exactly?

Gary Johnson: We have six elephants, five females and one breeding bull. Four babies were born with us and that’s very rare. That’s a huge achievement, because asian elephants are an endangered species. All over the world there are only about 35,000 of them left. We have eight full-time co-workers that take care of the elephants. Tai, an female, asian elephant is Rosie in “Water for Elephants”. All our elephants, apart from the bull, have played in lots of movies, ads and TV shows before. For Tai, movie sets and directors are nothing new. We’ve had her for 35 years now and because of the experience she has by now working with her is really pleasant.

Do you and Tai have to work hard in this movie?

Johnson:  Especially in this movie we’ve worked a lot. It was very exciting as well though. I loved everyone who worked on this movie. People were realy respectful and always friendly. The director Francis Lawrence was a real gentleman and did a great job in my opinion. He drove to our ranch in California a dozen times to watch the training and to spend time with Tai. That’s how he knew how to shoot the scenes with her later on.

How much time did Reese Witherspoon with Tai? The relationship between Marlena and Rosie is very important for the story right?

Johnson: Reese Witherspoon visited the ranch often to train with Tai, because she has some really physical scenes with her. She had to climb onto Tai, just how it is known from circuses when the girl sits on top of the elephant. Tai lay on her side and when she got up Reese had to learn to stand on her trunk. They had to train a few different options to climb on top then. In one scene Tai stands on her back legs and Reese directly beneath her. In another scene Tai does a headstand and Reese dances beneath her at the same time. That’s really complicated and we had to train those scenes with a choreographer. The timing had to be right. In another scene Reese stands on top of the elephant. Another time Tai sits on a base and stands on her back legs and Reese then climbs onto her back. They had to train that scene a very long time. Tai does things like that regularly and it’s part of her routine. She practices daily and a lot.

How difficult was that for Reese?

Johnson: She was extraordinary and told us she did gymnastics as a child. She grew up with animals and has always felt comfortable with them. All three main actors, Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson and Christoph Waltz were very impressive. We’re very lucky that we were able to work with them. They’re just incredible.

What are the most exciting scenes with Tai and Reese the audience will get to see?
I think my favourite scene is the last one in which Reese stands on Tai. That’s a very dramatic moment. Although she does a few different routines, this might be the most spectacular one. At one point she lies on Tai’s back and Tai dances with her all through the arena. That scene is very impressive as well. In another very funny scene Christoph Waltz (August) and Reese dance on a podest and Tai gets so jealous, she tips Christoph on the shoulder. Then she steals his hat, throws it on the ground and tramples on it. It’s like she wanted to say, “Let Reese be. She’s mine.” Rosie also seems to feel that Christoph’s role is not really a likeable one.

How hard and intensive was the training on the movie set?

Johnson: There were two trainers on set every day, my assistant Joanne Smith and I. Tai had to practice a lot of different routines and that meant a lot of work. We had a month for the initial preparation and after that we practices for three months, daily, to rehearse all the routines. In a particularly difficult scene Tai had to draw a plug out of the ground. Normally you use a plug on the ground to chain an elephant. In the movie, Rosie pulls the plug out of the ground, sneaks to a barrel filled with lemonade, drinks, sneaks back to her initial place along with the plug, pushes it back into the earth and pretends nothing ever happened. We had to practice a lot for that scene. Tai also had to lie down in a circus waggon and pretend that she was hurt. For this scene we needed a lot of time as well.

What about the scene where she runs away from the circus, gets to a city and destroys a lot of things there?

Johnson: In that scene Christoph Waltz is very angry at Rosie, because she sneaks to the nearest villages and eats the vegetables from the market. Rob (Jacob) has to search for her and get her back. For that scene we needed about 300 extras and a few gamesmanship for Tai. There was just too much going on there, children on bikes and a lot of people. In all that chaos Tai had to act and we couldn’t just stand in front of the camera and tell her what to do. She had to eat the corn for example. but not the potatoes. That was a really special command but she did great. As an award she got an apple, a carrot and a little candy. Elephants love that, but Tais favourite sweets are “Jelly Beans”. Sometimes we even clap her on the shoulder and tell her that she did well. She understands that as well.

In the movie we fall in love with Rosie. How intelligent and emotional are elephants?

Johnson: I don’t think that Tai really knows that she’s acting. She does know though that something will happen, cause she’s done that before already. She understands what it means when the director shouts “action” or “cut”. We’ve trained her to stop anything she does as soon as the director shouts “cut”.

How did Robert Pattinson interact and work with Tai?

 Johnson: Robert has a few close-ups with her and Tai thought him to be very likeable the first time she saw him. When Rosie is hurt he takes care of her. Robert never got loud with her and their relationship was adorable and easygoing. I think she liked him a lot.

How well does Tai act? Has she played a lot of leading roles before?

Johnson: A lot of moviemakers told us how impressed they were by her and that she’s always done everything right. They also thought she was very abiding in every shot. I think she’s a good actress.

How did you shot the key scenes in which August isn’t exactly nice to Rosie?

Johnson: That scene was manipulated with CGI effects in post production. The wounds which can be seen on Rosie are not real. They’ve been put on with make-up. When Christoph shot the scene in which he was supposed to hit her with a stick, the stick was just about 25 cm long. He did the movement but never touched her.

That means that during those extremely emotional scenes Tai was never in danger and always really happy?

Johnson: Of course Tai was always safe and we always took care of her. Nobody would ever allow an animal to get hurt.  Nobody will ever hurt our elephants. But on screen that emotion is shown pretty well, simply because Chrstoph is a great actor. When he acts his voice gets higher which makes him sound dangerous. Tai’s eyes were very responsive to that. It can be seen in the movie. She looks at him as if she wanted to say, “Hey, what are you doing with me?”. That’s exactly what she has to do for the role as well.

I can imagine that in the 30s there were circus animals that weren’t treated that well?

Johnson: It’s like with every aspect of life. There are those and those. I like to thing that most people in the 30s were good and took care of their animals. There are evil doctors and lawyers and obviously there are people who don’t treat their animals the way they deserve to be treated. In some places animals were surely mistreated. Nowadays with the supervision things like that couldn’t happen. We thing it’s positive that there are that many rules to keep the animals safe and happy. We are under constant supervision and that’s good.

Reese Witherspooon told us that she was very emotional on Tai’s last day on set because she was really close to her. Was that a very emotional moment for everyone?

Johnson: She cried and was very sad. They had a really strong relationship and Rob had to fight with tears as well. Of couse you can’t compare animals and human beings but I think that Tai and other elephants can develop a very strong relationship to humans as well – especially ours since they’re constantly learning and working with humans. We take them to shoot movies, take them to the beach or the forest and they have a lot of fun. Our relationships are based on mutual trust. Working with Tai was very touching and emotional for Reese, Rob and Christoph. Watching Reese and Tai work one could see that they had a special bond.

How much fun did Tai have while working?

Johnson: I think she had a lot of fun while working on “Water for Elephants”. Elephants are built for walking, moving a lot and they’re very intelligent. They need phsyical and mental challenges.

How did it come to be that you work with elephants?

Johnson: I’ve loved animals ever since I was a kid. My family had farm animals so I grew up with them. When I was ten, there was a family in southern california that had a petting zoo with lots of different animals. I began cleaning up in those zoos and later on, when I was older, I was allowed to help riding the elephants. With sixteen the opportunity to get an elephants presented itself and since then I’ve always worked with animals. My wife’s step-father was a famous elephant trainer and at the age of 14 my wife learned it as well. We’ve both been doing this for a very long time now and we’re really passionate about the elephants.”

The movie is going to be suspenseful and emotional. Do you think that people will learn a lot about elephants and how extraordinary they are?

Johnson: I think that the movie will raise awareness, just because the story is really exciting and because the younger generation will love to see Rob and Reese together. I think the audience will see how intelligent elephants are. We really hope we can raise awareness about the animals that are kept captive and also the ones in the wilderness.

At the end I want to ask you: You’ve felt drawn to elephants you whole life. What’s the magic that’s the foundation of this book, this movie and our love to elephants?

Johnson: They’re very intelligent animals. You just have to watch them while they’re eating. It’s unbelievable and magical. It’s just really impressive how they eat the hay with their trunk. They’re majestic. They also have wonderful eyes. They just have something about them that draws you in.

Hope the translation is somehow okay ;) 

Please credit if you use the translation, thank you :)


  1. This is a really great article, thank you so much for finding it and translating!


  3. He abused Tai throughout the movie. Of course he won't say that.


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