How to Train Your Cockroach, According to the Insect Wrangler on 'Saint Maud'

The animal wrangler behind the charismatic cockroach in 'Saint Maud' is an expert on all things creepy crawly.

saint maud cockroach
Danna Windsor/Thrillist
Danna Windsor/Thrillist

There are, you could say, three stars of this year's unholy, hilarious horror movie Saint Maud: Maud herself, played by Morfydd Clark; her cancer-afflicted charge Amanda, played by Jennifer Ehle; and a cockroach with the voice of God, played by a large, charismatic Blattodean named Nancy. 

Nancy, a peppered roach, who appears numerous times in the film and, in one scene, actually "speaks," was supplied by Grace Dickinson, an animal trainer and wrangler who occasionally brings her menagerie of creepy crawlies to film sets and actually trains them to hit their marks. Nancy was also a late addition to the movie, as director Rose Glass at first thought she wanted a fluttering moth to add some sinister flavor—but at the time of the shoot, a moth would have been tough to get. "She turned up at the shoot with a giant box full of all these different things," Glass said, "and she showed me a little Tupperware container with these two massive cockroaches in them called Sid and Nancy. I was like, 'She's perfect. We'll take her.'" 

Though they're not everyone's cup of tea, insects are an integral part of the film industry, and are responsible for the most memorable and most stomach-churning scenes in movies like Candyman, The Silence of the Lambs, and Arachnophobia. Dickinson, who supplies and trains bugs, snakes, lizards, and rodents for film sets through her organization Reptiles Etc, spoke to Thrillist about her favorite creatures to work with, which insects have the reputation for being notorious divas, and how, exactly you train a cockroach. 

Thrillist: I asked on a whim if I could talk to the person who supplied the bugs for this movie, and the publicists were kind enough to give me your info. 
Grace Dickinson:
I was really excited when I heard you wanted to talk, because so often the bug work we do ends up on the cutting room floor. But I was excited for this film, because we obviously had a bit more of a key role. 

Are there multiple cockroaches in Saint Maud? Or is it just one bug that you guys used?
We call it a "hero role," which is what we had to do for this one, just one bug. But we can train backups and take backups with us as well. Sometimes your star might be having a bad day and the understudy's behaving better, or they might get tired and you can switch them in. But actually, everything we did on the shoot for this one ended up being the same individual cockroach. 

You had a star cockroach that you were using?
Yeah, she was a bit of a hero. Everyone was joking that she was so good they were gonna have her name in the credits, but I don't know if they did. 

I think they did actuallywait, what is her name? 

Yes! She is in the credits. 
Oh my god, you made my life. That is a career highlight right there. 

So, is supplying insects to film sets your job? 
It is, I'm afraid so [laughs].

Do you work with other animals, or is this what you specialize in?
Yeah, I specialize in all the things everyone else hates, pretty much. So mostly it's like, someone's gotta do it, but it's kind of a personal crusade for me as well, to change people's minds and get everybody interested in these animals. Mostly it's bugs, reptiles and rodents, rats and mice. Whenever you see a sewer rat scuttling along in the background.

I always wonder about that sort of thing, because there has to be a person to supply all these things to the movies or else they just use a CGI version. But I love when it's real.
Yeah, absolutely. And you can tell the difference when it's real, and it definitely changes the mood of the film, doesn't it?

I was thinking about this in the context of Candyman, the horror film, because that movie has all those crazy stories about using the live bees on set. There's a remake coming out and in the trailer, and it looks like all the bees are animated. 
Well, bees are really hard to work with. I get a lot of bee requests, and every single one ends up turning into CG, just because they're one of the few instances in which working with the real animals to achieve what they want, if you want swarming, it's actually more expensive, and it takes more time. And they're quite complicated. What people assume is that small bugs are simple and easy, but they're always more complicated than the big ones. It's more complicated working ants on a set than it is to work a tiger on a set.

Insects all have their own separate sets of behaviors, and your climate control has to be right, and it's all about lighting and temperature. For example, with bees, you can't shoot after like 6pm because they will automatically go to sleep no matter what you do. You turn up in the morning, you've already agreed over email, "Just so you know, we can't shoot after this time, can't shoot after this time," they're like "yeah, yeah, yeah, we know." Film sets are kind of a law unto themselves and time runs away. And then at 7pm they go, "Right let's get the bees on," and they won't! There's nothing anyone can do about the bees. It's their circadian rhythm. It is so deeply ingrained in them, that even if you conditioned them for months you wouldn't be able to get them to work outside their normal seasonal patterns.

Yeah, and you can't exactly reason with them.
Right, these small animals, it's a lot of anxiety keeping them happy and a lot of prepping and choosing the right things. People have their own ideas of how they think X, Y, and Z animal behaves, when actually what people's versions of animals are is not at all how it really is in real life. Even with the rats, you know, you turn up and they go, "Oh, we just want it down there kind of being a rat." Well, no you don't, because if this rat behaves like a rat, it is going to run into that dark hole over there and stay there, and that's not what you want. You want it to kind of pootle around like it doesn't care, which is why we have to train our rats to wait on a mark or go from A to B the target a specific area because otherwise they don't behave like real rats.

What kind of roach is Nancy? She is a cockroach, right?
She is a cockroach, yeah. She is what's known as a peppered roach. That's the common name. Not a lot of people have met roaches before, and not many people keep them and actually, they're few and far between even as pets in the UK. I don't know why, because they're wonderful. And I've got my assistant working on trying to establish a bigger breeding colony now because I really like using them, because they're huge, for one. And because they've got these wings, which look just a bit more authentic than the hissing cockroaches, which is what most animal wranglers and most films end up using—a kind of big, dark, shiny dinosaur-looking one, but they don't have wings. And they're naturally very steady in their temperaments. Although the girls are much better than the boys.

What do the boys do? How do they misbehave?
They're really nervous. So they're more likely to kind of try and fly off or do a runner. I even have one that made a little hissing noise and stink bombed the other day. Right before we all went on lockdown, I was training a peppered roach for a very big film, which I'm very excited about doing. Sadly, lockdown happened the day before we were due to go up and film at Warner Bros., and I'd been training that roach to go from A to B. It just happens to be the first male I've ever worked with, all of our others are females just by chance. And the difference is remarkable. We see the same differences in praying mantises as well. I was training some mantises earlier, at the end of last year, and the females are really, really steady, really aggressive, really switched on. And the males, you know, you look at them sideways, they just get scared, they scare themselves and do a runner.

saint maud cockroach
Nancy's first close-up | A24

That is so funny that they have these little personalities that you have to work around.
Right, exactly. So in the first case, depending on what the action is, I can go, OK, well, first of all, I'm going to pick a girl or a boy for that. And then within each sex category they've all got individual personalities as well, believe it or not—even the cockroaches. You just have to put a lot of time into interacting with them, kind of auditioning, if you like, to see what their natural aptitudes are.

How did you audition Nancy for this movie?
Actually, she kind of lucked out with the role a little bit, I have to admit. It was her looks that got the job. The first scene we shot was with the actress [Amanda, played by Jennifer Ehle], she's lying in her dark bed, and she's having this surreal moment. And a cockroach goes across the pillow. But what they originally wanted was a moth fluttering around her head, that was what was cast originally. And after a lot of discussion, I had to say to them, "you can't, it won't work, we can't get the right kind of moth that you want, we can't manipulate that kind of behavior in a studio setting reliably." And they then changed their minds to beetles and cockroaches.

So, I took a whole load of different species with me, just so I could try different things out on the day, because there was a really interesting, creative atmosphere on the set. There was a dynamic that wasn't the norm. It was really intimate. And Rose [Glass], the director, is very, very hands on and quite experimental. She wanted to look at different things and see what would work and to meet her artistic vision. And that was how she ended up picking Nancy, she just really liked her when she met her. She had the calmest temperament out of the three individuals of that species that I had taken along that day. So, that was how she first got the job.

Her big break!
What I understood in the scene was that she was representing the voice of God or something similar. And that she would be speaking in Welsh. I was pretty thrilled with that. It was the second time that year that I've had a bug playing a sort of religious icon, which is very, very random, but like ultra cool for me. I think the first one was a millipede on a show called The New Pope?

Oh yeah, I saw that millipede!
You've seen it? 

I know exactly the millipede you're speaking of.
Oh, my god. He's got like childhood flashbacks of the boy looking at one on a log. And then there was another one on a tree branch. And then when they were older we shot one in a little glass case. And then John Malkovich taking one out of his dad's ear. 

Those were all mine. 

saint maud cockroach
Nancy is too heavy to climb up a wall herself, so Dickinson had her walk across a green screen. | A24

I've loved bugs since I was a kid, so it's very exciting to me to hear all these stories.
I love when anyone gets excited about it, really, because it's amazing. Being able to, like, bring these animals closer to people around the world, to challenge people's opinions and preconceptions about them. Going back to Nancy, those were A-to-Bs that we directed her to do, they actually allowed three hours to shoot all the cockroach scenes that day. And we got everything and more done within an hour. Everyone just sort of looked up and went, "Well, these cockroaches made us all look a bit stupid."

But it was amazing that they allowed us that time. Because a lot of times, crews aren't able to be that accommodating for animals. But they just thought, "come on, it's a bug." We're trying to get really difficult shots and it's just gonna be bothering about all over the place. They hadn't banked on it actually being trained, and behaving like a professional. So we were able to shoot the exact same actions multiple times like you would with a human actor, and then do some close-ups, and then turn the camera around and get her working in the exact same action until there was really no point filming anymore. She was perfect every time. 

How do you train a cockroach to do a certain thing?
There's different ways of doing it and the different tips and tricks with different species, depending on what motivates them. We take advantage of their senses and the way they naturally explore places around them. Basically, cockroaches are really, really scent-oriented animals. We hadn't been told in advance that we have to do A-to-B that day, so we literally had to train her on the fly. Normally, I would practice at home and I would use lots of repetition and guide her in the right direction and have her go into a dark box with a treat inside like some honey water, something like nectar that's really sweet. And then they learn that that's their reward that's going to happen when they get there. When you've got to do it on the fly, because no one told you what you were supposed to be doing, we basically coached her in the direction. At first we make sure the area's kind of clean, because she's got to go across the floor. And then I'll use either a plank of wood or I just guide her with my hand using a marker at the opposite end so I can keep her straight, run her a couple of times, and then almost every time she'll follow the scent trail that she's left with her feet. 

It was a big challenge for a bug like that because, relative to her body size, it was a huge space that she had to cross right the way across the room. And I also anticipated that the rug was going to be challenging. If you're the size of a cockroach, and you see the edge of a rug, for you or me that's like approaching a five-foot-high wall. Nearly always they'll stop at an edge like that, and they'll skirt around the carpet rather than mount it and carry on in a straight line. So, I knew that was going to be a challenge. But once you've had a couple of practices, and she knew where she had to go and what she was doing, she stuck to the script. 

You make it sound so simple. 
It's great when you can impress somebody that's not expecting it. It's nice when it all goes to plan. Knowing the individual personalities, and also how many times you could repeat an action doing a judgement call
—"OK, she needs to rest now, we're going to bring the backup one in," because if you overcook it, they can start to get distressed, or they can get really tired. So it's constantly judging the behavior on the go.

You have to respect how they are feeling as well. 
Welfare is my number one priority, even for bugs. They've all got little brains, they can all perceive the world, they know when they're feeling threatened and stressed. And for a small creature, it's a lot easier for them to get stressed out than a bigger creature, especially because they're more sensitive to temperature changes, and changes in light can really startle them. So, they get lots and lots of practice in the run up, and that way, when we get them on the job, they're not traumatized from the journey because they have already gotten accustomed to journeys and all that kind of thing. People think it's hilarious when I've got the rats in the back of my car when I go to the shops. But it's all part of the process.

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.