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Temple Grandin's early life portrayed in film

February 25, 2009
by Melinda Swenson

Golden Globe-winning and Emmy-nominated film, television, and theater actress Claire Danes ('Stardust,' 2007; 'Romeo & Juliet,' 1996; 'My So-Called Life,' 1995) will play Colorado State University Animal Sciences Professor Temple Grandin in an HBO movie that is currently in post production and expected to be released in 2010. The film is a biopic on Grandin's life and experiences during the 1960s and 1970s.

HBO movie expected in 2010

Picture a scene in Texas.

Zoom in on a small college campus. Insects shrill in the summer foliage of the trees outside a residence hall. Members of a film crew come and go from the building with equipment and props.

Inside the confines of a tiny dorm room, Claire Danes, a Golden Globe award-winning actress, is wearing a wig and fake teeth.

She is acting out a scene for the HBO film, Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures, a biopic about the life and experiences of Colorado State University Animal Sciences Professor Temple Grandin, a renowned animal welfare activist and designer of livestock handling facilities.

Dane portrays Grandin - who is arguably the most accomplished and well-known adult with autism in the world - in the film, which chronicles two decades of Grandin’s life in the 1960s and 1970s. Much of the filming was done in the summer of 2008 and the movie is expected to air on HBO in 2010. 

On location in Austin

“The movie was produced in Austin, mostly at an abandoned airport on a sound stage set up in an old airplane hanger,” says Grandin, who was given the green light by the film makers to veto portions of the script that she felt didn’t depict her accurately.

“They wanted to recreate my dorm room from my days at Arizona State University, so they borrowed rooms from a nearby college. They even put replicas of the 1960s-era posters I owned on the walls.

“When I saw the raw footage of those scenes and saw Claire Danes, who somehow managed to look just like me, it was like I was looking into a time machine!” Grandin says.  

Learning the part

“In real life, Claire Danes has long, blond hair and beautiful teeth and is shorter than me. In the film, you wouldn’t know that Clare Danes is herself,” Grandin says. "She wears no makeup except some foundation so that she won't look like a ghost."

“Claire was very serious about ‘becoming me’ in the film. She invited me to spend part of a day having lunch and visiting with her in her New York City apartment.

“She studied my mannerisms and movements and then she exaggerated them for the movie because she is representing me at an age when I was very autistic,” Grandin says, referring to the fact that she has since learned to manage some symptoms of her autism such as strong emotions and tics.

“Claire asked me about autistic sensory problems and about visual thinking, which is the way autistic people think. We made small talk about my interest in horses. I got the impression that she is a very serious actress and that she wants the film to be as powerful as it can possibly be.”  

Making it authentic 

Grandin also spent a day and a half with Mick Jackson, the film’s director. “He asked for pictures from my childhood and ones of me in my teens and twenties.”

The movie begins with Grandin’s high school years and ends in the 1970s after Grandin had established her business, Grandin LivestocHBO and Grandin's working replica of a dip vatk Handling Systems. “I still had my original drawings from 1987 for a dip vat I designed,” said Grandin. "Dip vats are long troughs filled with water and insecticide that kills ticks and screw worms that infest cattle. The idea is that they go into it single file and swim the length of it.

“I designed something called an anti-bunch gate which keeps the cattle from jumping in on top of each other which can cause them to panic and drown. The set designers used my drawings to make a working dip vat for the movie.

(Photo at right: HBO and Grandin's working replica of a dip vat)

“I went down the day before they did the shooting to make sure that everything worked. The B crew was there, the ones who film scenes that don’t have the stars in them.There were people from every trade you can imagine working on the set designs and there were some real cowboys playing cowboys.

“I told them, ‘This is not a prop - if you’re going to run 30 cattle through this thing, you have to have the anti-drowning features on it.’”

There was a reason Grandin felt so strongly about the producers using the safety features.

“Years ago, I designed a dip vat for a cattle operation but the cowhands removed one of the safety features. Two calves got turned upside down in the dip vat and drowned. I literally screamed at them to reinstall the traction on the ramp that they’d removed,” said Grandin.

In the film, this scene is recreated; however, a 400-pound robotic calf is used to depict the drowning. 

The L.A. Premier and beyond

If she doesn’t have a speaking engagement, Grandin would like to attend the movie’s premier, which will be held in Los Angeles.

She’s reluctant to give up speaking engagements because she uses the income to support three CSU graduate students in their assistantships. One of them is studying pig handling and transport and the stress associated with this, a second is studying dairy cow welfare, and the third is going to vet school.

“If I go to the premier, I’d like to go the parties surrounding it,” said Grandin. 

Although she seems to be busier than ever, Grandin knows that there will come a time when she’ll be unable to continue her life’s work. “We need someone to carry this forward,” she says. 

Contact: Melinda Swenson
Phone: (970) 491-2463