How Hungary's Oscar Entry 'On Body and Soul' Found the Perfect Deer for Its Surreal Love Story

On Body and Soul Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of TIFF

Ildiko Enyedi's film follows a man and a woman who have the same dream: Every night they meet as two deer in the woods and fall in love.

How do you cast a deer??

That was the challenge Ildiko Enyedi  faced when she set out to make On Body and Soul. The feature, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, is a surreal love story set in an abattoir. Endre, a shy slaughterhouse supervisor, and Maria, a socially awkward quality control manager, find they (literally) share the same dream: Every night they meet, as two deer in the woods, and fall in love.

For Enyedi, making her return to filmmaking after a 17-year absence, the hard part — after casting stars Geza Morcsanyi and Alexandra Borbely as Endre and Maria — was finding the buck and doe to be their ruminant alter egos. She enlisted the help of Zoltan Horkai, an animal coordinator whose credits include work on such blockbusters as Spy Game and Hellboy II. “He’d never gotten a request like this,” Enyedi says. “A deer is a wild animal. You really can’t train a deer.”

In fact, it took five months of working with Goliad, the buck, to get him used to the presence of the small human crew before Enyedi was ready to shoot. “The doe was easier: She’d already been in films; she was a professional,” says the director. “I chose her because of her face: She looks so much like Alexandra. You might think all deer look alike, but I did a real casting. Put these deer faces up one by one and you see how different they are.”

To film the animals, Enyedi approached the scenes as if they were human actors, framing with classic long, medium and close-up shots. “The trick was to avoid the Discovery Channel approach, where you are just observing an animal from afar,” she says. “Here we really framed the deer the same way we framed human actors; we framed them in a Hollywood way, and we edited the same way we’d edited our human scenes. It draws the audience in, makes them more perceptive to the animal’s facial expressions, to their body language.”

The result: The deer appear to give performances as touching and subtle as the film’s human leads. Their wilderness love story plays out with as much drama and tension as anything happening between Endre and Maria. The trick worked so well, Enyedi says, that she had to aban- don plans to use a stand-in for the doe.

“We thought we could use another female if the original got tired, just for wide shots in the distance,” she says. “But at the end of the first day, we knew it wouldn’t work. The audience would notice it wasn’t her.”

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.