Best of 2016 (Behind the Scenes): How Sully the Seagull made waves in The Shallows
Forget the shark that stalks Blake Lively; the seagull stranded with her on the rock in The Shallows stealthily stole every scene he appeared in. Nicknamed Sully by the film’s animal trainer, Katie Brock-Medland, the feathered star engaged comically with Lively’s heroine Nancy and drew praise for his performance from outlets like E!, Cosmopolitan, and — aptly — Vulture. Here, Brock-Medland details the effort to groom the bird for the spotlight.
When the filmmakers asked Australia-based animal trainer Katie Brock-Medland for help finding and training a seagull, she first had to make sure seagulls were allowed to act. As a protected species in Australia, seagulls can’t be used for shoots if they’re in captivity, but ones in rescue or rehab can — so Brock-Medland went star-hunting, finding three standout rehab seagulls. One of them was named Sally, a nickname Brock-Medland quickly changed to Sully because, well, the seagull was male. “I said to his rehabber, ‘He’s obviously a male,’” she remembers with a laugh. “’That’s not fair to call him Sally.’ She knew he was male but she just liked to call him Sally.”
Name changed and ready to go, Sully joined the team and the other seagulls for six weeks of training before shooting began. All of them stayed in aviaries set up in the studio, with pools to help them learn. As Brock-Medland recalls, Sully was always the best out of the bunch, and unsurprisingly wound up being included in about 90 percent of the shots director Jaume Collet-Serra needed of a seagull. “He was intrigued by the whole thing,” she says. “As a bird, he was very curious, and curious animals are easy to train.”
On Their Marks
Training involved managing the seagulls’ diets and positively reinforcing one simple rule: Do not leave the rock. To make sure the seagulls learned to stay on their marks in the film, Brock-Medland’s team fed them snacks instead of large meals, offering them mealworms and other treats — Sully preferred mozzarella cheese — little by little, modifying their behavior in exchange for food. “It was like training a dog,” she says. “They all learned that if they heard a whistle, they were going to get fed, so if they heard the whistle and knew food was coming, they’d have to wait until the end of the scene.”
More importantly, Brock-Medland wanted to keep the experience positive to make sure the seagulls wouldn’t fly away in fear from all the crew and special effects that would be going on around them. “There were wave-making machines and wind machines, so the sound was a lot for a seagull to get used to,” she explains. “Our goal was we wanted them to have fun, to make sure they weren’t scared.” And what’s more fun than getting treats?
A Lively Time
Blake Lively, who played stranded surfer Nancy, was hesitant about her feathered costar at first, but Sully won her over. “She wasn’t sure she liked birds in the beginning, but at the end of it, she had a bit of a crush on Sully,” Brock-Medland says, laughing. “I’m sure there are some amazing outtakes between the two of them. He just got real comfortable, and because we wanted him to be interacting with her, we asked her to feed him on a regular basis.”
Becoming Sully’s source for food made Lively an instant Sully magnet. “She was the one that was feeding him, so it was important for him to pay attention to her,” Brock-Medland says. “He ended up nuzzling next to her and one day he started pecking at her fake shark bite.” Improvised moments like those made Sully stand out, she adds. “He offered up a lot of stuff and she went with it, which was terrific. They had a bit of a rapport which was really nice.”
Lively thought so, too — and improvised the name “Steven Seagull” for Sully, which wound up in the finished film. (In the script, the seagull was named Sid, a shoutout to Sid and Nancy.) Before the film’s debut, she even posted a shot with Sully on Instagram:
And for some of those improvised moments, watch the tidbit beginning at about the four-minute mark from the deleted and extended scenes below:
Of course, Sully wasn’t perfect. When it came to his last scene in the film — the one in which Lively’s Nancy pushes him off on a piece of her surfboard in hopes of saving him — Sully didn’t want to leave Lively. “We had trained Sully for three weeks to stay on the rock, so that was his goal, that was his target, that was his little safe haven,” Brock-Medland says. “He knew he had to get back on the rock if he got washed off, so in that last scene, in his mind, he was meant to be on the rock, so he flew back.”
She laughs, remembering the tough shoot. “He did little flights back a couple of times, so we had to put people in strategic spots,” she says, adding that though Sully’s right wing had been damaged, he had healed enough over time to painlessly fly short distances. “My husband was at the halfway marker saying, ‘Stay, stay stay,’ and when the board turned the corner, I was in the water saying, ‘Stay, stay, stay.’” Finally, after trying again for the shot the next morning, Sully stayed.
A Big Splash
Over the course of the shoot, Sully became The Shallows’ mascot. “Everybody loved him, to be totally honest,” Brock-Medland says. “Blake once turned around to me and said, ‘I think I’m being out-acted by your bird.’” Good thing both actors, human and avian, toughed it out. “It was a hard shoot and working in the water is hard, because nothing happens as fast when you’re working around water,” she explains. “Sully was a trooper.”
And with the grueling role under his proverbial belt, Sully seems primed for stardom. At least, Brock-Medland thinks so — even if the seagull never has to carry another big-screen part on his wings again. “If there isn’t another role for him, he’s going to end on a high,” she says. “He’s done his best.”