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From south Charlotte to Hollywood

By Leigh Dyer

Posted: Monday, May. 21, 2012

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The thought brings a laugh at first, but Jett Steiger would agree: He owes his success in his movie career to goats.

Little did he know when he was growing up in south Charlotte and attending Providence Day School that he would end up making his mark in the film world by becoming a producer who’s an expert in wrangling bleating farm animals.

“Just call me ‘weird animal producer Jett Steiger,’” he says with a chuckle.

Steiger has progressed through his 20s building a career with short films and commercials, many shot with a group of friends he met while attending the Savannah College of Art & Design. They formed a production company, Team G, and moved to Los Angeles. Steiger fell into the role of producer – a crucial, yet often unglamorous, part of making movies – because none of his other writer, director or cinematographer friends would do it.

A producer is usually the one stuck solving problems – such as how to get a film crew to the forests of Oregon on a shoestring budget to film what became Steiger’s first full-length feature, “The Woods.” It premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and went on to generate mild buzz on the festival circuit (it’s on Netflix now). The satire followed a group of hipster 20-somethings as they tried to start a utopian civilization in a forest, but found they were unable to wean themselves from Facebook, Twitter, Cheez-its and Mountain Dew. The characters brought along a menagerie of animals to keep themselves company – including llamas and goats – who became challenges to work with both on screen and off.

After that experience, which involved living in tents and working sunup to sundown, Steiger felt comfortable when he got the chance to join a second feature film entitled “Goats” last year. His role was to navigate the quandary of going to a city – Tucson, Ariz., without much in the way of a film-friendly animal-wrangling community – and figure out how to audition goats for onscreen roles.

“For me, the most fun part about making movies in general is going to a weird place and figuring out how to do it,” he says. At this point, a cushy soundstage in Hollywood sounds downright boring to him.

‘He’s going places’

“Goats,” which premiered at Sundance in January and was picked up for distribution by Image Entertainment this spring, is the first big-name theatrical release on Steiger’s resume (he is credited as a co-producer). It stars several well-known Hollywood names, including David Duchovny of “The X-files” and “Californication,” and Vera Farmiga, nominated for an Oscar for acting opposite George Clooney in 2009’s “Up in the Air.”

Based on an acclaimed novel by Mark Jude Poirer, it tells the coming-of-age story of a teenage boy raised in Tucson by a flakey New-Age mother. The only father figure he has is Goat Man (Duchovny), who tends a flock of goats on his mother’s property and teaches the teen lessons about stability, caretaking and commitment. But the teen travels to an exclusive East Coast prep school and finds his life out West thrown into sharp contrast.

It was directed by Christopher Neil, nephew of legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, in his own feature-length debut. During an interview following his Sundance premiere in January, Neil said the story felt autobiographical to him – he grew up with a New-Age mother and a stepfather who resembled Goat Man and was surrounded by a herd of goats until he was 13. “I had the eerie feeling that (novelist Poirer) knew me,” Neil said, though the two never met before they worked on the film together.

Neil entrusted Steiger as the primary “man on the ground” in Tucson. “He’s a really smart, hungry producer,” Neil said of Steiger, “and I would say he’s going places.”

‘Difficult animals to work with’

One might think that being a guy raised in North Carolina and California who’s charged with finding a goat community in Tucson might become a daunting challenge. But Steiger (who still travels regularly back to Charlotte to visit his parents) dove in without hesitation. “I was basically the first person there and the last person to leave,” he recalls.

Steiger and his team interviewed a number of farmers with goats before they lucked into finding a real-life Goat Man – a herder who maintains about 30 goats and hires them out as gear-packers to take locals and tourists out on camping trips.

Steiger had to find look-alike goats who could serve as doubles for one another in multiple scenes, and deal with goat personalities that ranged from uncooperative to downright diva-like, all while supervised by a strict representative of the American Humane Association who Steiger refers to as the “goat cop.”

“They wouldn’t want to leave their trailer, or go into their trailer,” he says. “They’re just in general very difficult animals to work with.” But on screen, his work was a success – the animals bonded with Duchovny, and critics for the most part bought Goat Man as an authentic character.

Steiger enjoyed the film’s premiere at Sundance, but then jumped right into his next project, producing the upcoming feature film “In a World” with actress Lake Bell (whose credits include “No Strings Attached” and “It’s Complicated”). Bell wrote, directed and acted in the movie, an urban-set comedy about professional voice-over actors living in L.A.

Steiger met Bell during previous trips to Sundance with his own short films, and she previously hired Steiger to produce a short film she directed for 2011’s Sundance festival. She was so impressed by Steiger that he led her to hire more crewmates who are N.C. natives. “He was the force that helped me assemble a team of people that were utterly inspiring, respectful and collaborative,” says Bell.

Steiger recently wrapped the production with Bell – which did not, he says regretfully, include any goats. After his other recent experiences, the city setting was a culture shock, he says: “I look at it as a downside, actually.”

Steiger’s now back to a few television commercials and at work developing new feature projects for 2013 – the wilder they are, he says, the better.

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