How do you talk to a seagull? How do you hold her close to where you are? To hear animal trainer Guillaume Grange tell it, you do it with a handful of dog food, a gentle affect, and nice ambient sounds in the background. They’re sensitive animals, you see. They’re so sensitive, “They always worry about everything,” Grange told Jezebel via phone from England. For 16 years, Grange has worked as an animal trainer for the U.K. branch of Birds & Animals, which provides trained animals to entertainment productions. (He’s been training animals for a total of 23 years.) He specializes in birds, and his past credits include Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Game of Thrones. For Robert Eggers’ enthrallingly mad The Lighthouse, Grange was tasked with training seagulls to menace Robert Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow. And do they ever—they tug at pants, they tap on windows, they squawk bloody murder. Among the many striking things about that movie is just how well-trained the gulls are. I had no idea you could get a seagull to do anything but steal your waffle fries.
It turns out that you can, with some patience. Grange explained that it was actually three birds playing the harassing one-eyed gull: Johnny, Lady, and the Tramp. They were all rescued about 12 years ago when they were very young, and they get about one gig a year, usually commercial work like a Coca-Cola ad they did. The Lighthouse is their biggest role yet. Good for them! They look great in severe black-and-white! Unfortunately for the birds, they did not get to meet Pattinson, though, as their parts were shot not in and around Nova Scotia (where the main action was filmed), but in a studio in London and then green-screened in. Below, Grange, who is from France and very much sounds like it, tells us about the “very sensitive” animals he works with and how he goes about convincing birds, which frankly give not one flying fuck about pop culture, to act. The interview below is edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: Did you know before you rescued these gulls that you could train them?
GUILLAME GRANGE: Yes. I did train seagulls before. I used to work at the zoo and do animal shows for zoos at all different places. When you train birds, it involves a lot of food rewards. And we know that seagulls are very sensitive animals. If something worries them even slightly, they regurgitate all the food out. You always have to be very careful with them, and to be very gentle and really take your time and make sure there is no stress and make sure they are always happy, or all the work you are doing will go out the window. They are very advanced and tricky birds to train.
Are they more sensitive than your average bird?
Yeah. They are not like a raven. A raven is like a dog. You can play with them, and they are strong characters. Seagulls are not very brave, and they’re very fragile. Their wings are very thin. They always worry about everything. You always have to be very careful and have a lot of patience to relax these animals to make them work. If they start stressing, even slightly, nothing happens.
Do you feel bonded with these gulls? Besides being sensitive, are there any distinguishing characteristics of their dispositions?
I got three seagulls. I enjoy working with them. I feed them. If they’re poorly, I’m the one who treats them. I train them. I clean their cage. I do everything for these guys. If they hear me coming, they start calling, you know, the typical seagull sound. They call me.
The first one is Johnny, who is… how to describe? A very special bird. He’s not very easily scared. He listens all the time. He’s a very nice guy. The two [other] birds are together, so I call them Lady and the Tramp. It’s one female and a male. They are literally the opposite of Johnny. Very timid. Even when we are filming we always have to make sure [the Tramp] can see his girlfriend. He will not do anything if he can’t see his girlfriend. We always make sure Lady is in a crate next to him. The female, Lady, she’s between the two other birds. She’s more confident. She’s a very good bird.
Are they affectionate with you?
No. [Laughs] Most seabirds don’t really show affection, I would say. They love you very much when you come with some food. They like spending time with you because we got them from a very young age and so they like to be with people. But they will not come cuddle. When you go to the aviary, unless you’ve got food, they walk away from you. But they like to see you. They like to have eye contact with you. They’re not going to be like a parrot, or a raven who loves to come and play with you. They’re just very independent.
Do the different species at the aviary ever interact as a group?
You can’t really put them together. We’ve got a lot of predatory animals: eagle, owl, hawk, ravens. Ravens, yeah, you can put them together. Ravens like to go in groups; crows like to go in groups. Canaries. We always find it very difficult to mix species in captivity. Even if they’ve got extremely large areas to live in, it’s still difficult. Some species bully other species, and it’s not very nice.
What did you think when you got the call for this movie? Did you think the birds could pull it off?
I was very skeptical. A few behaviors, these birds don’t do very often. By example, the pulling of the trouser, the banging on the window. We had a few weeks to prep on that. I was doing it with one of my colleagues. I managed to get all the behavior. All the birds got the same training, but of course some birds are better [at them] than others. Johnny was just amazing. After three days with the trouser, he was pulling, pulling, pulling. It was amazing. The Tramp had only one job he was amazing at. We taught him to open his beak like he was singing, so they could edit sound over it. He was the only one that did it great. It’s a very, very difficult behavior to teach, just to open his beak, just like that. Lady did all the movements, the flying around and stuff like that. They all can do it. We have three animals for a reason: If the animals get tired or if they sit for too long, we always can cover the job with a different animal.
How do you you get a seagull to open its beak or peck on a window?
Every time you work with animals, you have to listen to them. An animal tells you, more or less, what to do. Opening the beak was tricky. We had the birds very relaxed and they were singing naturally, but it’s very difficult to have that on cue. So we used different food, because they are meat-eaters: chicken or dog food. Dog food is very easy. We threw them some food from far away, and they tried to catch it. Then, we wait a bit. We had to reward behavior and bring them towards opening the beak. So we’d fake throwing something to catch, and when they start the beak movement, we’d reward that. And we keep going like that. When they started to move the beak, they got a treat. With pulling the trouser, that was very easy. I put my hand in a trouser and made a little opening, and I slid a bit of chicken and every time the bird wanted to eat it, I slid it back in. So he tried to open it, and he pulled around the hole, and I put the food back out. He knew if he pulled it, the food would come out. Easy.
Do they remember these tricks? Are they pulling at your trousers now?
Filming was about a year ago, and the other day I went to see them and I stood in front of the cage and the Tramp started to open his beak. I said, “You remember, okay.” With the glass, if we put them in a situation where they could do it again, I’m very sure that within a couple of days they would do it again. It would come back.
Do you think seagulls are misunderstood? They’re the villains in this movie. I come from a beach town in New Jersey where people actively hate seagulls.
Animals are always misunderstood. Each animal has their job. I’ve been studying ecology for about six years, so I know what I’m talking about. They are misunderstood. The problem is we’ve been taking their place, and of course they want to eat, so they learn very quickly how to steal ice cream and fries from people’s hands. Because they are birds, they do poo a lot and everywhere. But they are actually very useful animals in the wild, for cleaning dead animals and eating sick animals, too. Each animal has their place in the world. I think we need to look at them a bit more, yeah.
Do you get a sense that the seagulls enjoy this line of work? Do they evince a certain charisma or obedience when they are acting?
I’m not going to say they enjoy it, but it’s a pleasure to do it because when we are filming, there’s always food involved. Food brings them pleasure. They’re like me. I’m a Frenchman. Food brings me a lot of pleasure. I love my food. It’s not something they mind. Like The Lighthouse, the whole setup was made to avoid stress on the animals. They had breaks. They filmed in a big area. The crew was minimized. We restricted the movement of the people and the camera when the birds were out. All that is to make sure the animals were not stressed. If they’re not stressed, they don’t mind. You open the crate, they come out. They do everything they have to do, and they go back. They’re happy to return to their crate because there are treats. I’m not going to say that they like it, but they don’t mind it.
Is there anything else you do to relax the gulls?
You have to be careful with noise. A lot of animal trainers like to have very quiet sets when they work. I like not loud sounds, but I always like a bit of sound in the background. It’s very relaxing for the animals. When it’s very quiet, it stresses them. In the wild, for seabirds and owls, it’s always noise around. The only time it’s quiet is when a predator is around. It’s always nice to have a little bit of noise like that. I always make sure radio is playing in the background, something nice.