Beaver fever

Mike Cheslik and Ryland Brickson Cole Tews discuss Hundreds Of Beavers

by Jennie Kermode

Hundreds Of Beavers
Hundreds Of Beavers Photo: Fantasia International Film Festival

Four years ago at the Fantasia International Film Festival, a little film called Lake Michigan Monster, made in black and white with a very small cast and special effects cobbled together from everyday household objects, made a big impression. When the same team returned for this year’s Fantasia with a film about a ruined man in a snowy wilderness trying to build a career as a fur trapper, it instantly stood out as a must-see. Hundreds Of Beavers is truly unlike anything else you are likely to encounter in today’s film landscape, a wildly imaginative fable told through slapstick which somehow manages to keep upping the ante over the course of 108 minutes. Some people will not get it at all, but most critics loved it. I was delighted to get the opportunity to talk to its director and editor, Mike Cheslik, and his co-writer and star, Ryland Brickson Cole Tews.

“I think that a snow-based slapstick has been floating around in my head for a while,” says Mike when we meet. “When we finished Lake Michigan Monster, we were at the Milwaukee Film Festival, and just through bar talk with all the people that had done the first movie, we started developing the idea of a first draft a for comedy, something that we felt fit our team and that only we could do. We didn't have a ton of money, but we figured if there's a situation where Ryland had to tackle a bunch of people in the snow, that would be in the wheelhouse of most of our connections in Wisconsin, and I've been thinking about snow slapstick for my whole life.”

The film has been compared to a Tex Avery cartoon, but it strikes me as also owing something to earl serials. Mike says that he didn’t watch many of those during preparation, but he does like them. One film which influenced him was Ernst Lubitsch’s The Wildcat, from 1921.

“It's a silent that takes place in the snow and it just has a lot of very strong images that are framed against snow with very goofy iris cut-outs.”

Ryland looks at him. “Besides the old Popeye and Donald Duck cartoons, your biggest influence is probably Super Mario Galaxy 2. There's all those high angle shots shooting down, and Mike’s a big Mario proponent.”

“I like Mario, I think they did a good job with the Mario film. But yeah, also, we like the obligatory three action scenes at the end of the movie. The James Bond series started that idea of the obligatory action set piece. I know the Hong Kong there must be an action scene every so often thing, but I think James Bond in the Sixties had that first.”

“The Bond movies really felt like they owed something to the audience,” says Ryland. “That's our mentality. We feel like we owe it to the audience to keep giving them action scenes, keep bombarding them with ridiculous ideas, especially towards the end. These people paid good money – hopefully one day they’ll pay good money – and it's like, ‘Oh, you didn't like that? What about this? Oh, you didn't like that? What about this? Hey, what about this? We’ve got this up our sleeve.”

What really impressed me, I say, is how long they managed to keep the simpler gags going for.

“It was totally pre-planned,” says Mike. “Nothing was improvised really and it was all done in Storyboards Pro, drawn, and then we were out in the snow with drawings. The runner is just had a bunch of notecards on the floor early in writing. The idea was that not only will this premise heighten during the movie, but it'll be spread out and interwoven with other runners. And each beat of that runner will be funny and surprising, but also it'll dovetail with the runners next to it.”

With lots of separate set-ups, lots of repetition and lots of falling over, it still looks as if it must have been an exhausting shoot.

“Yeah, it was pretty exhausting,” says Ryland. “We had a very small crew and we had a core group of four or five people. Sometimes, here or there, we'd have a few more, but it was a small group. So yeah, it was a lot. I mean, not just falling down in the snow but, actually, the act of shooting wasn't the real hard part. Getting to the locations, just the the labour that involved, it was just backbreaking labour to drag all of this heavy equipment into the woods, when it's zero degrees. And there's two feet of snow in the middle of the woods. It's just a lot, just dragging stuff. So it was tough to act in it, for sure, but the worst part about it was just the cold and how everything was so heavy. I mean, you look at all the props in the movie. You can't just have a normal wooden apple. The wooden apple has to be this big.” He holds up his hands about half a metre apart. “You know, you can't just have the beaver be normal beaver size. No! It's gigantic here. Everything is times 10.”

“Basically he's the star but also the teamster and truck driver, loading and unloading the truck every day,” Mike explains. “So it's like, by the time we're even starting shooting he's already like tired from the work of getting all the junk into that into the middle of the forest.”

Ryland nods. “By the time we’ve actually got it all framed up and we’re shooting the movie, it's actually not that hard. The hard part is getting everything there.”

There are scenes in which Ryland has to be naked in the snow, whilst the beaver performers all have warm furry suits.

“That was one of the coldest days,” says Mike.

“Yeah, I got a little frostbite,” says Ryland casually. ”But you know, this is just how people dress in Northern Wisconsin. They go out in the snow naked anyway. I'm not doing anything special. I'm not doing anything anyone else isn’t already doing.”

I ask about the design of the beaver lodge, because that's a particularly spectacular sequence which owes a lot to cartoons, but also to films like Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times.

“Yeah,” says Mike. “There was a matte painting exterior, and then the interior is just a bunch of views of Shutterstock logs in After Effects. I just really wanted to have something like that in the movie. It's a little bit of Donkey Kong Country. It's a little bit of The Thief And The Cobbler: Recobbled Cut. And you're right about Modern Times.”

“It’s like in movies like the Castle Of Cagliostro, too...” Ryland begins.

“Oh, we stole that gag,” Mike reminds him.

“Yeah, but, you know, in a movie where like, you keep seeing the castle and eventually you want to go in the castle. You have to venture in there to destroy this looming thing, sort of like how in Lord Of The Rings there is Mordor and eventually you’ve got to go in there. You don't want to, because it's scary, but you’ve got to go in there eventually.

“The thing is, the movie was 75% shot in the northern woods, but the sequence in the beaver lodge was, I mean, believe it or not, we didn't shoot that in an actual beaver lodge. We shot that green screen. My entire apartment was covered in green. So it was just Mike and I and our cinematographer Quinn [Hester] for three 20 hour days, just in a totally green apartment, and we shot the whole thing and then Mike animated everything.”

“It was usually 20 hours, but there was that one weekend where there were just three and a half people and we turned in a small space into our studio,” says Mike. “There were a lot of things like that where very limited resources were turned into a big a big production.”

“We didn't do a lot of green screen shooting, but what we did do, we had a couple studio days but it was usually shot either in an apartment, or we were still in zero degree weather outside but we happened to put up a green tarp. But we were still outside. Outside is cheaper, you know?”

I mention that I also like the lodge because it shows the beavers as sophisticated and civilised, whilst our erstwhile hero comes across a bit like one of the sympathetic monsters in mid 20th Century creature features.

“There's no heroes or villains in this picture. It's really more of a documentary,” says Ryland.

“People aren’t going to change their attitude about animals or the fur trade during the two hours,” says Mike, “so we just show the natural process of a fur trapper taking out hundreds of beavers and people are going to think their own way about it,.”

“You can think however you want about me. This is just the way it happened,” says Ryland.

Mike concurs. “Everything you see is true.”

I tell them that I was impressed, all the same, with the slideshow that the beavers put on, which tells us something of the history of the fur trade in about three frames.

“Yeah, the whole movie was like that when it was just the boards. We were just shooting the boards - basically the storyboard is now in the movie. But that thing of doing gibberish and explaining and having some information in the gibberish. It's funny how much you can communicate just with the tone and cadence of gibberish without saying any words. That was Jerrk Kurek, who was so funny. He also played the beaver lawyer and the beaver lawyer got a big laugh in the South because it's like the John Grisham lawyer with his suspenders. And that, you know, no one else got it.”

“But they love that in Mississippi,” Ryland adds.

“Yeah, the southern beaver lawyer, and then here in Montreal, they loved ‘J’accuse!’” They both laugh.

There are no good guys and no bad guys, but this is still probably the most violent film at Fantasia this year, I observe. Whilst also being one of the ones which people are likely to be most happy about taking their kids to see.

“Yeah, I think so,” says Ryland. “I mean, that's what's great too. It's a soft PG 13, so you can even bring your kids. There's a couple moments when it’s...” He shrugs. “But yeah, I mean it that's what's funny, though – it’s like, even though there's a lot of action and violence, it's not like blood and guts and gore. It's beavers falling down. It's me falling down. You know, we get hurt, we even die, because I kill beavers, but it's not violent. It's always funny because obviously this is a very fake animal. No-one's actually getting massacred. So I think that really lends itself to just being a really entertaining movie, whereas if I was actually massacring hundreds of beavers, that’s probably an NC 17.”

Mike has a story to tell about that. “A guy last night was like, ‘Should I take my eight-year-old to your movie?’ And I was like, ‘I’ve got to think. I have no idea.’ And then eventually I was like, ‘Well, there's a bit where a beaver gets his head smashed in and his blood comes out everywhere.’ And the guy was like, ‘Oh, okay, no then,’ and I was like, ‘But the blood is only packing peanuts.’ I remember saying to him ‘I would prefer that your son came.’”

“It's fun, though,’ says Ryland. “It's like you can you can get away a little a lot more in black and white. And you got plushy guts, and you got packing peanuts. You know, it's always funny....”

“It's not always funny,” Mike interrupts. “The movie’s not funny. Everyone just calm down. Everyone's head’s getting a little big here.”

Moving on, I ask what their next project will be, and they both say simply “A lot more kung fu.”

Mike has his mind on something else. “You can systematically prove that the audience here is paying closer attention if you record the laugh track Fantasia and line up the waveform next to laugh tracks everywhere else in the world. In Fantasia, they would laugh, I would say, a full second before most of the laughs in the rest of the world. But what I'm saying is you could literally prove that, because I edited the film and the laugh just comes so much earlier. It's embarrassing for me that they're paying such close attention. Because in Wisconsin, where we're from, everyone's distracted by all the drinking in the audience. Everyone's drunk in the audience so they react to it a day later, they wake up in the middle of night and go ‘Now I get that!’ But in Montreal, they're focusing and we would prefer that they didn’t.”

So they’re saying that they would prefer people to watch the film whilst drunk..?

“Yes,” says Ryland. “Okay, well, yeah, the Fantasia crowd are phenomenal. They come out in droves for everything. It doesn't matter the time of the day, the day of the week, they're there. And we were here four years ago, with Lake Michigan Monster and it was such a blast. It was one of the best festival experiences we've ever had, so we couldn't wait to get back. We had one screening. We’ve got another one on Monday and it's just been phenomenal.”

“Let me stop you right there Ryland,” says Mike. “The other thing that Fantasia does that’s great is by having the film festival, that experience of being there before is in your mind while you're shooting.”

“That's true yeah. Mike definitely had that. That was the end goal kind of things, like once we're finally done shooting this thing, someday we'll be back in Montreal. We'll be back at the bar drinking and our movie will be back at Fantasia. And now, here it is.”

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