The star of a new movie being shot in Winston-Salem today wandered backstage posing with cast and crew for photos commemorating the last day of filming, and wagging her tail.
Susie – a vibrant 3-year-old pit bull mix from Greensboro who survived a brutal attack as a puppy – is the focus of “Susie,” a movie with a cast and crew that was predominantly local. It was all to tell the story of how Susie bounced back from near-death, and inspired changes in laws about how animal cruelty is punished.
In August of 2009, Susie – then about 10 weeks old – was found badly injured and burned in a Greensboro park. She had been beaten and set on fire, suffering a broken jaw and second- and third-degree burns over 60 percent of her body, including her ears, which were burned off. Her wounds were covered in maggots, something that veterinarians say ultimately saved her life since they ate away at infected tissue.
But she was nursed back to health at the Guilford County Animal Shelter and later adopted by Donna Lawrence, a hair salon owner from High Point. Susie’s story of survival has been told in several books and on the website www.susieshope.com. And she inspired N.C. Senate Bill 254, known as “Susie’s Law,” which strengthened punishments for animal abuse.
Despite her mistreatment, Susie has gone on to be an inspiration to those around her, demonstrating forgiveness and enthusiasm.
“She’s doing great,” Lawrence said. “She even showed forgiveness during filming.”
While filming one shot during a courtroom scene, an actor accidentally stepped on Susie’s paw, causing her to yelp in pain. Everyone on the set froze, Lawrence recalled.
“Then she went over to the guy who stepped on her and licked him, to show she forgave him.”
Lawrence had to overcome a trauma of her own as she bonded with Susie. In 2008, she had been attacked by a pit bull, an event that left her afraid of large dogs… until she met Susie.
“She brought healing to me, seeing her living in the moment and not living in fear,” Lawrence said. “Her scars, instead of something horrible, became something beautiful, to show what she had conquered.”
Susie plays herself as an adult dog in the movie, while a younger dog with bandages and a $70,000 animatronic puppy are used to depict scenes of her rescue and rehabilitation. Those scenes, depicting the terrible injuries and the intricate surgery needed to save Susie, were grueling to shoot, but “you got a sense of the power of her perseverance,” said Laura Hart McKinny, the film’s executive producer, who is a faculty member at UNC School of the Arts.
Lawrence is played by actress Emmanuelle Vaugier, who is best known as Charlie’s ex-fiancée Mia on “Two and a Half Men.” Burgess Jenkins, a local actor who has appeared in such films as “Remember the Titans” and “Wesley,” plays Donna’s husband Roy, and Andrea Powell plays her friend Ramona. The cast also includes Megan Blake, a local actress who is known for her work in support of animals, and Jon Provost, who is best known as Timmy from the classic TV series “Lassie.”
Altair Casting and Production Services, which is based in Winston-Salem, produced the film and used empty storefronts as sets, in addition to shooting scenes at the Millennium Center and other sites in the area. One day of shooting took place in High Point and one in Yadkinville, but the rest was in Winston-Salem.
“We really used Winston enormously,” McKinny said. “We’ve had terrific local support.”
The movie had a production budget of $1.4 million, with investors from around the Triad. With post-production, the film’s budget should remain under the $2 million mark, she said. A theatrical release is planned for 2013.
“We were very conscious of hiring local,” McKinny said.
Michael Lee Garrett, an alumnus of UNCSA, is one of the producers of “Susie.” He said that more than 90 percent of the film’s staff – which included 85 crew members and 30 cast members – were either from the area or had local ties, many of them alumni of UNCSA.
This has been a busy time for local film production, with both “Susie” and “You Are Here,” a comedy starring Zach Galifianakis and Owen Wilson, being shot in the area.
“We’ve been filling up all the hotels and restaurants,” McKinny said.
Lawrence said that she was impressed with the dedication of the cast and crew in telling Susie’s story. She visited the set every day, and her husband and Susie were frequently on the set as well.
“It’s gone really great,” she said. “We’ve been really pleased with everything. They don’t play around, they get it done.”
The production required long hours and a fast shooting schedule to come in on time and within the budget, McKinny said. But they were determined to get Susie’s story out to a wide audience.
“It’s hard not to be dedicated when you meet Susie,” Garrett said.
Source: Winston-Salem Journal