December 1, 2009
Perhaps the last place you might expect to cross paths with a celebrity would be in a slaughter plant. However, culminating her exposure on a growing number of high-profile talk shows and news programs over the past several years and her success as a best-selling author of many books, Dr. Temple Grandin’s latest project, a HBO movie about her life and career, solidifies her status as the most-recognized personality working in our industry today.
I recently had the opportunity to watch a preview copy of the movie about Meat&Poultry’s best-read contributing editor, and one of the most fascinating and influential people I’ve had a chance to work with during my nine-plus years covering this industry. After watching the movie, I spent a lot of time thinking about how important her work has been to so many people and how fortunate our readers have been to read her exclusively written contributions in our magazine for more than 25 years. I also had the chance to talk to her about the movie and knew her unique perceptions would also be of interest to readers.
Scheduled to premiere in February 2010, HBO Films’ production of "Temple Grandin," starring Claire Danes in the title role, chronicles the industry icon’s life through the 1970s and depicts her evolution from a profoundly autistic child who didn’t speak until the age of 4, to the world’s leading authority on animal welfare and the design of livestock handling facilities. Grandin has also inspired millions of people impacted by autism by demonstrating it is a hurdle, not a roadblock to a successful, productive life. The movie begins when Grandin is 17 and is visiting her aunt’s ranch in Arizona the summer before starting school at Franklin Pierce College. Her exposure to ranch life and livestock production began here and is the basis for the first half of the movie. Depictions of her challenges in dealing with other people juxtaposed with her amazing ability to think in pictures to excel in the academic areas of animal science and engineering was a balancing act that she says was very true to life.
"Claire Danes plays me in the 1960s and 70s when I was very, very autistic," said Grandin. And for those wondering about Danes’ transformation from blonde bombshell to feedlot outcast, Grandin points out, laughing: "She’s not going to look like pretty little Claire Danes, or sound like her. She is an absolutely brilliant actress."
In preparing for the role, Danes spent time with Grandin, studying her mannerisms and quirky cadence and intense facial expressions. She also knowingly avoided eye contact with co-stars in the movie, a tell-tale behavior of many autistic people. Grandin also dug through old VHS tapes of herself to share with the actress. "Watching her was like going back in a weird time machine," said Grandin.
The movie’s second half chronicles the challenges Grandin faced after graduating from college as she pursued a career in designing and building livestock handling facilities for feedlots and slaughtering plants. As a visual thinker, Grandin distinctly remembers the day she made her decision to work in the livestock industry, and it is depicted just as she recalls it happening. "There’s a great scene where a feedlot is presented as a door to opportunity," she recollects. She blazed through that door despite being one of the first women to work out in the yards.
Movie producers relied on Grandin’s expertise to make the story as authentic as possible. "I had a lot of input into a lot of the cattle stuff to make sure that was right," she said, including making sure HBO officials used the right type of cattle for the production. "They bought about 30 head of heifers that play the parts of feedlot calves. You can’t have Holstein cattle on a Western ranch. I also got to see scripts right from the very beginning. Especially stuff that was clinically wrong in terms of portraying autism – I threw a gigantic fit about that," Grandin said.
The movie glosses over the slaughtering process and most of the attention is on the production side of the livestock industry. "They didn’t show anything nasty," Grandin said. "But what was nasty was what was done to me as a woman getting started in the industry in the 1970s," which was portrayed, sometimes graphically, in the movie. The movie provides snapshots of her life in the 1960s and 70s, in an era when the industry was male dominated. Many heads turned when a woman walked through the feedlot gate. Grandin recalls coming out to her car one day after working at a feedlot in the early days: "Bull testicles were put all over my car. I was kicked out of the feedyard because the cowboys’ wives didn’t like that I was there; these things really happened. Being a girl in the 70s starting in the feedlot industry, that was tough and that is portrayed in the movie," she said.
One of Grandin’s first designs for the industry was an improved dip bath for cattle, to prevent balking and prevent unnecessary deaths. "I had designed a mechanism so that the cattle wouldn’t drown and this stupid feedlot guy took them off and it caused some cattle to drown," she said. "I put them back on and it worked beautifully. That’s exactly how it happened." For the movie, an actual dip vat was built using Grandin’s drawings. The experience affirmed what she already knew: "That my design was brilliant and they were stupid to try to change it."
In September Grandin flew to L.A. and screened the final version of the movie alongside a handful of HBO executives. She was pleased with what she saw, in part because it preserves her hard-earned legacy. Her mother, Eustacia, who is also depicted prominently in the movie, was one of the first family members to watch it. Grandin said her mother was accurate in her assessment of the movie about her unlikely child star. "She said, ‘I think Temple is going to like this.’"