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GEORGE MENDONCA:
Excerpts of an Original Interview by noted film maker Errol Morris
July 13, 1992

EM: The first day you came to Green Animals, what was it like? Tell me about that first today.

GM: Oh, OK. Well way back after the, after the 1938 hurricane, there were trees down all over the place. And um, well, we had heavy equipment that we could use to, you know, clean up the place, to cut trees down and pick up the stuff because they didn't, they didn't own a truck or own anything. And, and of course, I was doing tree work in Newport anyway, you know, working with my father.
And so they asked, they asked, um, me to help there, so I went there to help, and that's, that's um, how I came there to work in the first place.

And then, and then I - the following year I went there the front lawn was all full of shrubs, wild, wild rose bushes and bayberry, all sorts of things. So we had a heavy machine that would cut that. So I went there with a big tractor and a machine and cut that. And that was a hot day.
And then Mary came out with lemonade and says "Oh, it's too hot to be working, here's some lemonade." So that's how I got to meet her. And then of course we started going together and um, a couple of years later I married her. (Laughter)

But um, I've had a very interesting life, I've met people from all over the world and --

EM: Can you just say who Alice was-- GM: Alice was Mr. and Mrs. Brayton's daughter. Yeah, she's the one that started restoring everything and then of course, when he passed away, Mr. Brayton passed away, Miss Brayton moved there and made it a permanent home.

EM: And she never married.

GM: She never married, no, no. Well, I don't know whether the family would want me to say this, but it was, it was one of those things that the boyfriend before, uh, before the father, before her father died. But it seems that, uh, uh, they made a deal there, and uh, so, uh, this is the way it went, so uh, there's other men after her, but so she, uh, she says, no, it was the one man that I wanted and it didn't work out that way. So I, I just won't get married.

EM: How many times has it been destroyed by hurricanes.

GM: Well, it's been five times. The worst, the worst one, the '54 hurricane was the worst one. That really, it almost, well, you could say that, if you didn't have the love for it that I had, you'd say, well, we might just as well cut the whole thing down and forget it. But uh, I made up my mind that we were going to get that back. And because I love what I'm doing this is why I'm still doing it, and uh, and I said I'm getting, I'll get this back, it's going to take time, but I'm going to get it back in shape again. And I did.
Then we had, uh, and there was another one -- there was the one in '60 that did quite a lot of damage, but not nearly as bad as the '54. And then we had -- we, we had one I think was in the '70s, again, it affected mostly the tall things, the camel, uh, the gira- -- well, the camel and the giraffe, it knocked the heads off. But there was enough material that wasn't broken that I could bring back and, uh, restore that in less time.
But the only other thing that we dread there is icing. If we have rain that's freezing, there's nothing you can do about it. And it will weigh them down because it breaks a lot of branches. We get a lot of snow. Then I'd go out, and brush the snow off, even while it was snowing, becau- -- to take the weight off. But with icing, you can't, you can't do that.

EM: Tell me what happens with ice. Details.

GM: Well, yeah, when the ice, the ice will stay on them unless you get a warm day, a good, sunny day, for it to start to melt. But it takes three or four days to melt the ice. The ice, see, it forms on and into the animal. And, uh, then, uh, even its own shade helps to prevent the sun from melting it. As the top melts, then it begins to -- the sun begins to shine through and begins to get more of the -- of the ice that's inside. But you can't shake it off, because you only break branches. So you just have to stand by and wait. What I did with some of them, uh, I would prop the -- I'd prop the taller ones, I'd prop them up with, with -- I'd get a -- a stake or something, and I'd prop them up and I'd tie them. But other than that, there was -- there wasn't too much you could do about it, just to sit back and wait and hope that it doesn't stay on too -- too long. Because if the bend- -- the branch bends down and stays too long, then it's awful hard to get it straight again. But it takes that shape and it's a -- it's the same thing like you're in building the animal. If you want a -- if you want to form something, you take a branch and bend it, and you tie it down. And after a year or so, it doesn't need to be tied anymore; it hardened off in that shape and it stays there. And this is how we build those things, too.
I've got -- I've got three that are dug out there now that I'm going to condition them to go to the flower show in Providence in February.

EM: It sounds like you train them.

GM: Oh, you train them. Yeah. As they grow. Now, people come there and they want -- they want -- they, oh, I have a big yew, or I have a big ... . And how do I start carving that out? I says, "Well, forget it, you don't carve anything out. As they grow you train them as they grow." You get the branches to do what you want them to do while they're young, while they're soft, and you tie, uh, tie them, or if you want to, uh, one that is too low, you can prop it up, and -- but they all have to be tied until the wood hardens off. And then it will stay there. And then the main thing, too, is that, in the trimming, you've got to hold your original line all the time. They say, "Well, you can't do that; the book says you leave a half-an-inch everytime you trim." Well, no, you don't do that, because you'd lose all the proportion. You could do that with a hedge, or if you have a -- any flat surface, or even an archway, it will get bigger and bigger, you can do that. But with the animals, if you want to hold the detail and you want to hold the size, the proportions, it's got to go right back to the same cut all the time.
And it's simple enough. The wood is hard there. And what -- like I tell them, I'm trying to teach different ones to do that, and I tell them, just bounce the sheers off the plant all the time, and it will cut right down to the -- to the original line all the time.

EM: What kind of damage do the insects do? Talk about insects.

GM: All right. Well, the true insects, of course, chew the foliage. But the worst, the worst of all the insects is, uh, the spider mite that feeds on the -- the sap from the leaves. And if they -- they multiply by the thousands during the hot dry weather, they multiply by the thousands from day-to-day. And, uh, if you don't spray them, you can lose all the leaves. They weaken the leaves so much that they fall off. So they have to be sprayed. We use -- we use mostly -- well, there's several things you can use, but mostly I use Malathion, because it gases out and it goes right through the whole plant, see. If you use a contact spray, then a lot of them will survive because they wouldn't get hit. But with Malathion, the gas, it gases out, and it goes right through the whole plant and it works out fine.

EM: Were you ever in that house while there was a hurricane raging around and destroying the garden? Tell me about that.

GM: Yeah, well, Mary and I just sat it out in the house, waiting -- waiting for it to, uh, to calm down. And the house rattles a bit, and you hear a snap here, a snap there, branches breaking off a tree here and there. And you -- you stay away from the windows because all of a sudden some branch might come through the window. But, um, we've been quite fortunate, as far as the house goes. We lost a lot of shingles off the house, off the roof. But, um, other than that, uh, not too bad. You get some water damage, uh, after it rips the shingles off, then you get leeks here and there. And, uh, sometimes through the windows, or under the doors, they will always get water forced through.

EM: But could you, during the hurricane, could you hear the garden being destroyed around you?

GM: Well, it was -- yeah, you care about the garden being destroyed around you, but you care about yourself, too. If you get out there, and get hit, huh, with some of these branches there, you're all done. It's not -- it's not something that you want to walk around. A lot of people have gotten killed, uh, by going out and wanting to watch the -- the branches fly around and things like that. But, no, we don't do that. We just stay away from the windows and -- and just hope that it -- the noise you're hearing isn't creating as much damage as you think it is.

EM: It's really loud?

GM: Oh, it's loud. The wind. Yeah, that wind is loud, and then, of course, on top of that, you hear something snap here and you -- I wonder what that was. But we were, after the -- after the '54 hurricane, we were 18 days without power, no electric. Uh, lamp posts, the telephone posts came down, electric posts, and all sorts of things.

EM: Also, what kind of damage could be done by the sun? Could the sun also destroy things?

GM: Well, uh -- really anything that's out, that's been in the outdoors, and it's been out, uh, exposed to, to the sun before, or the elements, will stand the sun. We've never had sun hot enough, uh. I don't want to say anything like that, because if it burns the plants, it's going to burn people also. But, uh, if you take something out of the shade, or out of the greenhouse, or your houseplants, and put them out, expose them to the sun, in about 15 minutes, they've all burnt. They, they just burn right up, because they can't take it. Well, it's like taking your shirt off and going out then, you'll have a sunburn that, uh, it will really peel your skin right off.
But anything that's -- that has been exposed to the weather, the sun won't bother it. In fact, most things love the sun anyway. This is what I -- this topiary that I've got, they were planted on the foundation planting of the house. And they only got sun half a day. So I've dug them out, and I got them out where they'll get the sun the full day so that they will -- I want them to thicken a little bit more, get more growth, and condition them. And when the weather gets cold, I'm going to move them into the greenhouse so that they'll continue to grow. The flower show is in February. And the only way you can have anything worthwhile, that type, that deep into the winter there, is by protecting it and hoping that they get it up there, if it's not a real cold, cold day when you get it out of the greenhouse, and they expose -- well, it will take about three-quarters of an hour from there to the -- to where they're going to be shown, is enough to cause damage. They'll have to be going in a closed van, or uh, it'd be the only way, to be in a closed van. You could wrap them up, but I don't think that would help too much.

EM: Didn't you ever worry that this is private property, and something might happen to Alice and the whole thing could be lost?

GM: Well, I -- really, I never did. Uh, that was one of the last things that I ever thought of, was that Miss Brayton was going to die. I -- I never gave it a thought. Because I loved what I was doing, and she was so nice to me, that I figured, well, we'd just continue on and on and on, and that's it. I never -- didn't worry about getting old, or she getting old. She was -- she was a lot older than I was, but that was something I never worried about, I never seemed to -- it didn't seem to enter my mind, anything like that.

EM: But it happened.

GM: It happens. Yeah, yeah, well, it's like they say, nothing is forever. (chuckles) Yeah. But, uh, well, I still say that I've had a wonderful life there. She was very good to me. The people from the Preservation Society are also very good to me, and uh, they, uh, they'll do anything for me, and, uh, what more could you want?

EM: Well, we've gone through the various things that could destroy the garden. We've gone through caterpillars, Japanese beetles, spider mites, hurricanes, what else can you tell me? What else could jeopardize these animals?

GM: Oh, well, that. If that's --that's the one thing that worries me about the topiary, is not just anybody can go and start trimming. They -- it may -- the first year or so it may look like it's not too bad, but the minute you start adding growth, little by little, a little this time, next time you trim, you add a little more, after about a year's time, you see it start losing its shape. And that's -- that's the thing. And this is one of the things that I keep drilling into -- like, Mary Ann, that I think is doing a good job. And I keep drilling into -- this into her, that you've got to hold the line, because any little bit that you leave here, next time you -- you leave a little bit more, because the new growth, the new growth is soft, and you'll cut the new growth, and the growth from the year before will stay. And then you've got to watch that they don't start to build a hump here, a hump there, and all that.

EM: With all that you know, has anyone ever tried to tell you what to do?

GM: Oh, a lot of them, a lot of them would do that. As I said, I'd just tell them, I said, "Look, I've done this all my life. I know what -- I know what to do, and that's it." But there's always somebody with, uh, sometimes good advice, and most of the time is just something that everybody knows anyway, or poor advice. (laughs). But I never waited to get advice from anybody to do anything that -- that I knew, I was born with it. So I didn't, I didn't need that.

Afternote:The bulk of Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is made up of long interviews Morris shot in 1993 and 1994 with Brooks, Hoover, Mendez and Mendonca, which then served as raw material for the mosaic of the final film. We've reproduced these chunks of the transcript of those interviews, both to flesh out the briefer portraits contained in the film, and to suggest the many ways Morris has manipulated his interviews in the process of editing his films. As an experiment, you might compare Morris's version to that of Tony Hoang's and to the original text.




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