The Secrets Behind Training Terrifying Rats for Netflix's Stephen King Movie '1922'
The big screen adaptation of Stephen King's It might have the more famous villain, but there's one thing Netflix's new King film 1922, based on a novella of the same name from the author's 2010 collection Full Dark, No Stars, has on its blockbuster rival: way more rats.
Rats on rats on rats on rats, crawling and scurrying and serving as a furry symbol for the guilty conscience of Wilfred James (The Punisher's Thomas Jane) after he murders his wife (Deadwood's Molly Parker). There are so many rats in the movie that the film's veteran animal trainer Steve Woodley and his 24-year-old son Dylan, who also works in the family business, often had their hands full. With rats.
When director Zak Hilditch first met with Woodley, a third-generation animal trainer based out of Vancouver, Canada, the filmmaker thought they might be able to make do with about 50 rats. Woodley, who has worked on films like The A-Team, X-Men 2, and Freddy Got Fingered, knew the project was going to require something more ambitious: They ended up using 200 rats. Yes, real rats. 200 of them.
That doesn't even include the extra rats Dylan found in the cages one day after they finished filming at a "creepy" old farmhouse in Langley, Virginia. "We were wondering why a few of them were trying to eat us," explains Dylan over the phone from Canada. "We were looking at the tails to see who was who and there were a few unnumbered rats and we we're like 'Oh, ok these are wild rats.'"
While many movies and TV shows often rely on CGI animals, which often look cheesy to savvy viewers, 1922 doesn't feature a single digital rat. Instead, this father-and-son team of animal trainers commanded their rat army to give some of the most unsettling performances of the year. To find out how exactly the pair coaxed such stellar turns from these whiskered thespians, I talked to the duo from their training facility in Canada and they entertained me with rat tales (and rat tails). Move over Pennywise, it's the year of the rat.
Thrillist: In one of your first big moments in 1922, we see a rat crawl backwards out of the actress Molly Parker's mouth when she's in a well. How does a scene like that work?
Steve Woodley: We had a head mold that was made.
Dylan Woodley: What we did was we had piping going through a wall and into the back of the animatronic head. Then we just fed the rat through and it came out the mouth.
Steve: What they would do is feed them into the tube backwards and then they would cover the end of the tube they put them in so the rat couldn't turn around. So it had to back up out of the tube, and when it would back up out of the tube there'd be a reward waiting for them on the other end.
For a scene like that is there a star rat you use for the most difficult or intricate shots?
Dylan: Yeah, we had four of them that were really easy to handle. They would just do it. We'd try different rats and they would get a little frustrated and be like, "I don't want to do this" and they'd just sit in there. But these guys were like, "Ok, the only way out is to back up." You find different rats with different personalities.
Steve: When you're working with 200 rats and you're working with them everyday, they start to take on human qualities. You have the social, friendly rats. You have the head-cheese rats, the leaders. You've got angry rats and some weak rats. It's pretty interesting. You have to sort through them and find the ones that are comfortable to do the specific tasks.
The moment when all the rats come down the stairs at once also looked pretty complicated.
Steve: For the first couple weeks, the animals were all trained to a buzzer and they knew to come to the buzzer for a food reward. And then after, they were strong on the buzzer and they knew how to do an A to B, we would move them around to different areas of our training facility until we got to the point where we could take them up three stairs and have them hop down three stairs. To a rat, it's still pretty scary to do stuff like that. Then we'd work up to four stairs, five stairs, six stairs, and all the way to the top of the staircase. Then we'd have them coming down the stairs. And then we had to add a person to walk down the stairs with them, which was me. They would all just swarm around my legs and come down the stairs to Dylan.
So you have a training center where you work out the sequences, and then you bring the animals to set when it needs to be shot?
Dylan: Actually, that scene they used in the movie was our practice run. We just set up to do it, and they were like, "I think we got it on the first take." We were like, "But, guys, it was the practice run." I don't know how it looked because I haven't seen the movie yet, but that was just the practice run. I guess the director thought the practice run was enough, which is good!
How was the scene where a rat bites Thomas Jane on the hand done in a safe way? He stomps it out, which is graphic and disturbing.
Steve: You're teaching the rats to come into the hand -- to bait to the hand with peanut butter or a food product it will come to. What we did was we'd have the rat sitting there and then Dylan would move a peanut towards it, and then it would open its mouth and come towards the peanut. Then in a separate shot we'd have the hand and the rat would come to the hand, so we'd put those together. That's how we got the shot. Then you pull the hand away before the rat gets to the hand.
What about the squishing part?
Steve: In the squishing part, we had an amazing effects guy who made a double rat.
Dylan: Yeah, he took one of our rats and we took him to his workshop. He made a mold of our rat and it looked identical. It was pretty amazing.
Another part I'm thinking of is when the rats are standing on the church pew. Was that challenging to get all the rats to stand together like that?
Steve: No. That's all part of the training. We use clickers and we would have them stand up on their hind legs and play them. It sounds funny, but we worked them like dogs. At that point in the show, the animals were getting very comfortable and they would come in and hit their marks. Just stand up on their hind legs for their rewards. It was like working with little dogs.
Dylan: I think we only used two or three at a time and they made it look like more. If there was more than three rats, they probably just took different plate shots of it.
Steve: What they'd do there is they'd take two or three rats working right beside Molly, and they'd take the same rats and move them over a few few feet and film them standing on their hind legs again on a plate shot.
Are there any specific challenges to working with rats? What makes them unique?
Steve: The biggest thing for animal trainers training any animal is that time is our enemy. The more time we have the more we can achieve because you can't rush the animals through these things. You need to have the right amount of time for each behavior you train them. Obviously, rats aren't like a dog who wants to please you. It's a rat.
Towards the end of the film, Thomas Jane's character is followed around by rats and he's clearly very scared of them. Are there any animals that scare you?
Steve: Actually, rats. Isn't that funny?
Dylan: That's why I did it.
Steve: I was animal coordinator on the movie, so I'd come in for the heavy lifting days with my son and I can work with rats no problem. But I had my artery pulled out my arm when I was young by a rat. Right out of my wrist. So out of all animals I've trained over my whole career, I've never been bit like that. But this rat just nailed the perfect spot on my wrist. It was pretty nasty.
Was that when you were working on a film?
Steve: No, this was when I was really young. Like, 10 years old. To a 10-year-old that makes you sit back and look a little bit before you put your hand in the cage. It was a big river rat that bit me.
What's your favorite part about the job?
Steve: Obviously animals. They're great. Dealing with animals is much better than dealing with people, that's for sure. You get the respect of the animal and they respect you, and then away you go. And it's a different challenge every day for each animal. There's always something new and different. There's always an element on a film set that can change the day that you're not prepared for and you have to overcome that. It makes the job interesting and it's never boring. There's always something new and exciting.
This might be a silly question, but when you work on a project with a lot of rats do you give them all names?
Steve: Yes! What Dylan did, because there were so many, he had a ton of cages and containers that he had all the rats in. He would name the boxes.
Dylan: It was like Alpha through Zombie, or whatever. So there was a name for each cage and there were probably 7 rats per cage. And they were all numbered under their tails. So it would be like A1, A2, A3, and all the way to A7. And it was that way all the way across. So we had the rats numbered like that, but then you'd get rats who you start to like and you make a box full of your "hero rats" that do the more unique stuff and they all have real names. Because you start to work with them a lot more.
Steve: We had a couple did the heavy lifting on the movie and they all had individual names. There was Squeaks and X-Man. What was the other one?
Dylan: There was Jeffrey Dahmer. When we got Jeffrey Dahmer, he came in a box with a bunch of other rats, but when we got him from the mail place and picked him up, he was the only rat left because he ate all of his friends.
Steve: He ate his friends.
Dylan: Yeah, we had him separated from the rest of the rats. He had his own box because if there was anyone else there he'd eat them.
Steve: But he was a great worker, Jeffery was. He just didn't play well with others.
So what happens to a rat like that after the shooting is done? Do you keep some?
Steve: Actually, some of them were crew gifts. A lot of the crew took them home. We still have Squeaks and Jeffrey Dahmer and quite a few of them because we went onto another movie with rats right after this one. So it worked out. Right now, I think we have 24 of the original rats here. Most of the other rats we gave away to people who wanted them. A lot of people wanted them because they were trained so well and they were so friendly. Some died of natural causes as well because rats get different cancers and things -- they don't live very long. But most of them got good homes and we have about 24 here.
Dylan: My partner who was on the movie helping me, he has like half a dozen at his house. His kids have them.
How many animals do you keep at your facility?
Steve: We have some North American wild. We have some domestics, our dogs and cats. We have livestock.
Dylan: Rats, reptiles, all that kind of stuff.
Steve: We're kinda into everything.