Never in his wildest imagination did Police Canine Officer acting Cpl Neil Samaroo dream of the assignment he was about to get, along with two canine officers from Tobago, PCs Kenon Baines and Delroy James.
Any shot can call when canine officers and their police-dog partners search for drugs, explosives and criminals, but this assignment involved shots of a different kind: the kind you find in movies.
The three officers were just about to finish their training with new dogs when a couple of moviemakers strolled through the police kennels in Cumuto with canine trainers Sgt Raphael Mohammed and Cpls Shane Chase and Stephen Swanson.
Director Michael Mooleedhar and producer Christian James knew exactly what kind of dogs they wanted for their movie, Green Days by the River, based on Michael Anthony’s novel about a teenage boy adjusting to his new home in the countryside.
“We wanted dogs that matched the description of the dogs in the book,” says Mooledhar.
With no access to stunt dogs in Trinidad, the moviemakers had turned to the police. Commissioner Stephen Williams and the Mounted and Canine Branch’s Supt Patsy Joseph grabbed the opportunity to showcase the Canine division.
This was all new territory for Samaroo’s dog, Bak, a tan Belgian Malinois with a smudge of black on his mouth; Baines’s Dutch Shepherd, Fando; and James’s black German Shepherd, Ciff.
These dogs had been trained in tactical and narcotics work, criminal apprehension, tracking and obedience, but they weren’t trained as stunt dogs. Now they had to act the parts of the loyal and sometimes vicious hunting dogs owned by Mr Gidharrie, played by Anand Lawkaran in the movie.
“On the set, we tried to manipulate the dogs into doing things in a way it would look natural,” says Samaroo. “Sometimes the dog would seem to be looking at Gidharrie as he sat under a tree. Every time the dog looked at Gidharrie, he would have been looking off camera, getting signals from the handlers to stay.”
“It looked like the dogs were running naturally through the bush,” says Samaroo, “but they were really following their handlers’ signals.
“We also had to do aggression work. In one scene, the dogs were hunting, capturing an iguana – but no animals were injured in the making of the movie.”
The iguana chosen for one of the scenes ran away, and a caiman replaced him.
There’s also a scene in which the teenager, Shell, played by Sudai Tafari, gets attacked and bitten by one of the dogs.
PC Baines had completed decoy training and was the same size as Tafari, so he became the stunt double for that scene.
“We wrapped my leg so I could take the bite,” says Baines.
Filming took place deep in the Cumuto forest over six hot and gruelling days.
“Sometimes the dogs got tired and fed up with take after take and no rewards,” says Samaroo. “When we had to manipulate the dog into some behaviour, we rewarded that behaviour, so the next time he had to do it it would be much easier.”
The reward was playtime with a red kong - a rubber chew toy for dogs. The dogs were so well trained, they were like actors,” says Mooleedhar. “Once the handlers showed the dogs what to do about five times, they would do it.
Nevertheless, he adds, “We had to do many takes to get a scene right. Sometimes when the dogs got it right, the actors didn’t get it right.”
“All the takes were an eye-opener,” says Baines. “I got to see how much work goes into making movies. I understand now how it takes so much money to make a a movie. There are so many resources that go into getting that correct shot. We don’t see a lot of the work that goes into making a movie.”
“The dogs performed well,” says Samaroo. “We were all pleased with their performance.”
“Green Days by the River is a book we knew since we went to school,” says James. “Being able to work on tthe movie gave us the opportunity to live the book.” Bak, Ciff and Fando may never get the chance to star in a movie again, but their canine handlers will always remember how their police dogs began their careers as movie stars.
The film will be screened at the opening-night gala of the trinidad and tobago film festival on September 19, and also opens at MovieTowne on September 27.