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Temple Grandin Talks About Her Upcoming HBO Biopic

Temple Grandin seems a bit embarrassed, but simultaneously flattered, by all the hullabaloo about her life and accomplishments. A world-renowned designer of livestock handling facilities, a

Temple Grandin seems a bit embarrassed, but simultaneously flattered, by all the hullabaloo about her life and accomplishments. A world-renowned designer of livestock handling facilities, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, and one of the world’s highest functioning autistics, the most recent chapter of her life is being written right now, or filmed to be more specific, in Austin, TX. The completed work – a biopic on her life and experiences over the decades of the 1960s and 1970s – is set to air February 2010 in a two-hour production on HBO.

Grandin tells BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly that filming is about half completed, with a wrap-up expected in mid to late November, though she hasn’t actually visited the set as yet. She expects to visit the set later in filming and will appear in the film to provide an epilog on the years following the film’s period.

Grandin is portrayed in the film by Claire Danes, a Golden Globe-winning and Emmy-nominated film, television and theater actress. Danes and Grandin spent a half-day lunching and visiting in Danes’ New York City apartment as part of Danes’ research, she says. Grandin’s assistant, Mark Deesing, who has visited the set during filming, told Grandin that Dane’s depiction of her is so convincing that it "sent a shiver down my spine."

Grandin says the script was developed via in-person interviews and her various published books and writings. The working title of the film is “Temple Grandin - Thinking In Pictures,” which also is the title of the 2006 book that chronicled her childhood and life with autism.

She worked with the writer to ensure the chronology on this latest project. “I read over the script and they changed things that I hated. I was adamant that they depict me as I was. I wouldn’t stand, for instance, for my character to swear in the movie because I don’t swear. I want to make sure that they not present me as doing something out of character,” she says.

Some fictionalization occurs in the script, she adds, owing to the fact that two decades had to be condensed into a two-hour movie. Thus, at least one character depicted in the movie is a composite.

Throughout the process, however, she has insisted that “the cattle have to be right. I don’t want Holstein calves or a situation like in the movie ‘City Slickers’ where the cattle weren’t right.” She says the producers even bought a parcel of Angus calves for the production in order to ensure authenticity.

Grandin says the story begins in the 1960s when she was expelled from her high school for throwing a book at a female classmate who had been tormenting her. The biopic ends in the 1970s after Grandin has established her business – Grandin Livestock Handling Systems, a vehicle through which she's designed one-third of all the livestock-handling facilities in the U.S.

Grandin says the experience has had its fun, and funny, times. One central scene that appears in the movie chronicles her experience in designing a cattle dip tank for a now-defunct Arizona feedyard. Once a common feature in feedyards, dip vats were long, narrow vats, about 7-ft. deep, filled with insecticide solution. Cattle were forced single-file into the vats to swim through the solution for lice and tick control.

Grandin’s design featured a tractioned ramp for the cattle to calmly walk into the vat; the cowboy crew thought the traction was unnecessary and removed it. The resulting slick surface caused cattle to panic with some calves drowning after ending up upside down in the liquid. Grandin replaced the traction and the crew was amazed at the calmness with which cattle stepped off into the ramp.

However, depicting such a scene involving live animals in the movie was problematic, Grandin says. So rather than use live (which isn’t allowed) or even dead animals, the crew built a remote-controlled robotic calf that weighs about 400 lbs. – think about the shark in "Jaws" here.

Incidentally, the dip tank used in the movie was built based on a photo of a dip vat used at John Wayne’s Red River Feedyard in Arizona.

Having her life of four decades ago recreated has been an interesting experience, Grandin says. For instance, the dorn-room setting for her undergraduate days at Arizona State University is replete with her posters of the day.

She expects to be doing promotional interviews in print and broadcast ahead of the spring release. “I have to remind myself not to get a big head,” she says. “You know what happens. Just look at statues of famous people; they all have pigeon poop on them.”