While she was helping me shoot The Bear, my friend Sarah suggested ants. Perfect! They're even smaller than spiders.
So we looked around my house for ants. Not a one. We tried Beacon Hill Park. Nada. We hiked all over town. Bupkiss. Finally the writer Sid Tafler phoned to say he'd found a million of them out at Thetis Lake.
Sure enough, there were two huge anthills made from pine needles in the forest behind the lake. We took a bushel of ants and needles back to my place and built a major ant farm between two sheets of glass so I could backlight their tiny tunnels.
I knew little of ants. When I was a kid in Uganda the anthills were made of red mud and were the size of Buicks. One day a year, called the "wedding day", they grew long white wings and blotted out the sky in a massive mating ritual, and the Ugandans packed them into patties and fried them. They tasted sweet, like cheap acidic candy that rained from the sky. I suppose they were packed with protein too. This was the extent of my ant experience.
But Sarah knew all about them from her nerdish tweens. Ant husbandry is quite simple: we fed them fruit and water, and they built an underground metropolis between the sheets of glass.
Three times I had to destroy their city for technical reason; they immediately got to work rebuilding. They even had what looked like a tiny mausoleum where they stacked the corpses of the fallen, although they are so tiny it was hard to tell.
In fact, size was a problem. Ants are one-third the size of spiders. Filming them pushed my Super8mm gear to its technical limits. But they were easy to wrangle, and as with spiders, crows and bears, I soon became enchanted by their tiny tunnel world.
When an ant finds a chunk of food it gets excited and runs around exuding formic acid (that's why they taste sweet). When other ants smell its trail they follow suit, and soon the area swarms with workers. We exploited this by creating a tiny cardboard "run" with a morsel at one end.
First, we placed a worker ant in the run and let it do its thing. Then the run was removed, the actor ant was brought in, and it ran right along the worker ant's trail. This is how we got them to run up to the desk, flee down the hall, etc.
We used a fallen ant for all the seated shots. But after about a month there were suddenly many corpses. Winter was a-comin'. The mausoleum filled up with the dead, and soon only a few stragglers survived. I consoled myself thinking that they would live forever in our footage.
Dave, my producer at MTV, particularly liked the Taxi Driver ending, and sent the clip to the Webby Awards. You're supposed to forward yourself for these awards (which I could never do) and pay $500 just to participate (another thing I could never do), so this was a unique situation.
To my surprise the clip was nominated for Best Experimental Film. I was thrilled to see The Ant on the Webby website alongside Michel Gondry, Al Gore, David Byrne and David Bowie. The awards were held at a swank hotel in New York. But I lost to Isabella Rossellini. Like she needs another award.
Meanwhile, my Sword In The Stone situation called for another critter. I had an idea, but it involved one of the largest mammals on the planet - the manatee.
How was I going to wrangle those?
Read more: Video