The directing duo of Cheslik and Tews have proven once again that you don’t need a big budget to make magic. Whether they’re building gags or hiding the number of beavers that are actually in the film, Hundreds of beavers will make you believe in their whimsical world.
Hundreds of beavers tells the epic story of a persistent fur trapper who battles hundreds of beavers. Born as a form of practicality when shooting on a shoestring budget, simple effects add a richness of character to the film.
I sat down with director, co-writer and effects master Mike Cheslik and the film’s co-writer and star Ryland Brickson Cole Tews to discuss Hundreds of beaversDIY filmmaking and the joy of a making movies with friends.
Kelly McNeely: You have such a unique voice and vision. And I’m so curious where the idea for this film came from and what inspired or influenced the decision to make it a silent photoplay?
Mike Cheslik: Well, further The Lake Michigan Monster, I had done an effects sequence towards the end that was mostly silent. And we really enjoyed doing that and we thought, let’s do that kind of physically driven effects and action sequence, but for a whole movie. And then let’s do it in the snow, because only us and all our high school friends would want to go out and shoot in the snow. And so we thought they could distinguish this in the film market. And that was my attitude to it.
Ryland Brickson Cole Tews: Just the fact that there’s no dialogue in this movie, it’s a black and white winter epic… It was kind of like, well, if we really want to set ourselves apart from everyone else, we should probably do this. However hard and horrible it will be –
MC: And it was.
RT: And it was absolutely, it was an absolutely miserable experience, especially when he’s the director [gestures at Cheslik]. But it was what we had to do to break up. I think I succeeded, somewhat.
KM: I definitely felt for you in all the scenes when you’re running barefoot in the snow… I’m up in Canada so I know that pain, I totally understand that.
RT: I just had a screening here at Fantasia, I knew when I put my feet in the snow, everyone would be like [gasps]. When you go into, you know, Mexico or Brazil. I’m just like… [flat reaction].
KM: I have to ask the burning question on everyone’s mind. How many beaver suits were there? How many did you have to make?
MC: Well, we didn’t make them ourselves, luckily, we ordered them from the likes of, basically, “beaver costume.com,” “mascotusa.com”… Mascot USA is based in Beijing, of course. When I had little money the first winter, I could start with five beavers. And then by the second winter we raised a lot more money and managed to have six beavers. There is a photo where you see all six.
KM: Well, it looks so much more than that, so well done.
RT: A little sleight of hand…
KM: And how did you guys find each other? I feel like you’ve been working together for quite some time. And what inspired you to get into film?
MC: Well, we met in high school, and you know, I’d just say, Ry, do you want to come and play in the snow? Want to build a snow fort? Want to come throw snowballs at each other? Ry would say, “No” –
RT: No, I play on the soccer team. But thank you.
MC: I would say you want to play Super Mario Galaxy 2, Ryland? Do you want to come and play this?
RT: And I said: No, I’m going with the girls.
MC: Ryland, wanna come over and we’d like to draw our own Zelda worlds? You know, do you want to come and do this?
RT: Not for the last time, nerd.
MC: And then he put me in a closet. But on the top of that cabinet was a postcard with a beaver on it, and it fluttered down and landed on me, and we both looked at the postcard that also had snow on it. And we looked at each other and said, God, are you thinking what I’m thinking?
RT: I was like, yeah, I’m thinking I’m going with the girls, what are you thinking? So yes, it’s been a long time. We’ve been together since high school, just friends who like to work together. And it’s the same on Beavers; everyone playing a beaver or other animal mascot was also just friends from school, high school, college, you know. It’s great to have a big team of people that can help you, that you’ve known all your life that you can really trust, basically.
KM: Now, with The Lake Michigan Monster And with Hundreds of beavers, there is a very inventive filming style. What made you want to do, say, a 50s B-horror movie and a silent movie? What inspired that “let’s do it this”, because it’s very different and quite jarring. And it works great, so well done.
RT: With The Lake Michigan Monster, I had no money. And so it was like, well, we can’t make a great 4k color movie. We don’t have technology. So we tried to do the other end of the spectrum, try to do something totally different. So that’s kind of where the 16mm black and white aesthetic came from.
MC: You can take a photo with an effect much faster; if it’s in that aspect, you can make an effect photo in two hours instead of two days. So the whole movie grows from that aspect. And then you can write something a lot crazier, because you’re not limited by the time a serious effects photo would take. So in writing you can be totally imaginative.
RT: Yeah, because if you can get the audience to buy into this world in the first minute or two and say, oh this is the world…
MC: It will look bad.
RT: It will look bad, yes [laughs]. But then you took them. Hundreds of beavers has over 1500 effect photos you know but now they are in the world and willing to accept these cheaper looking effects.
MC: But it grew out of that outward looking, it didn’t come from a passion for any particular genre. There was no love behind it, it was clever marketing. It was literally just like… The Lake Michigan Monster – there is a monster in it, so we enter genre festivals. It says Lake Michigan, so we’re entering the Midwest festivals. Hundreds of beavers – memorable animal title. This is public domain IP. I’m not really into silent movies. Ryland hasn’t seen any of these water monster movies Creature from the Black Lagoon. People always say, “What a clever parody of monster movies Ryland did with them The Lake Michigan Monster,” and Ryland always turns to me, like, “I didn’t see anything of that shit”.
KM: Well, you do. You mentioned that there are obviously a lot of effects shots in the film, what was the most complex or challenging effect to do?
MC: Things that were physically difficult were sometimes very easy in post-production, and then things that were physically easy could take a week in post. I don’t know… that stupid rush had effects forever… [to Ryland] What is a good answer to this question?
RT: Well, it’s not my department, Mike.
MC: Well, physically, for Ryland to physically roll down the hill with a box. It’s so hard for him, but it’s great to connect him. But for me, that chase scene… Jerry Kurek, one of our beavers who plays the beaver lawyer—both beaver lawyers—Jerry did the chase effects, and the first pass took over a month, and then I did a pass and was the longest thing to do, that stupid rush. And it still looks fake. It’s still not done right, by the time you watch this I’ve probably tweaked the effects a few times.
RT: That is, like 75-80% of the movie is shot in northern Wisconsin, outdoors, in the winter, in the woods. But there’s some green screen stuff that we were still shooting outdoors with a big green tarp outside. But it’s funny, though, because in the beaver lodge scene, everything was done on green screen, but that was just in my old apartment, where I put green all around my apartment.
MC: It was so unimpressive. It didn’t look like a film.
RT: No, it was me and Mike and our cinematographer Quinn [Hester] there for about three days – like 20 hour days – just shooting this whole log chase… It looked less impressive than The Lake Michigan Monsterif possible.
MC: It wasn’t like a movie set. At no point did it look like a movie set. We weren’t even shooting a movie, we were collecting assets for these after effects compositions. Okay, I have an answer. The hardest shot is the stupid one that doesn’t even laugh, where he flips over on his back and lands on the ice. The water turned to ice and he lands on the ice. Do you remember this? After he jumped? If this is interesting to anyone, it was the hardest hit.
KM: Are there other genres you would like to tackle? I know this kind of got off the hook of being that B-style monster movie and silent movie. Are there other genres you’d like to try next?
MC: Yes, there definitely is. We think more about fighting movies.
RT: As Mike says, we’ll probably have a lot more Kung Fu in the next one.
MC: Have you noticed that when you watch it, you say to yourself, “This is good. But where is Kung Fu?”
KM: I noticed a lot of really cool fight choreography near the end there when you do the whole thing in the beaver dam. That was A+ fight choreo.
RT: Yeah, our fight choreographer John Truei, he’s a great man. He is also a horrible man.
MC: We should go wake him up. Just take the laptop. He passed out on the couch somewhere.
RT: We realized when we were shooting Hundreds of beavers, it’s a lot of fun to shoot fight scenes with your friends. It was the most fun I think on set, it was just having all our friends in beaver suits and choreographing a fight scene. It was so much fun.
Because then, like the rest of the movie—that was actually really good for morale—every day after shooting, Mike would pull the footage into the edit and just start the edit, so it was good to see it the same night. So we’re all drinking beer, you know, having fun and then Mike starts doing a rough edit or whatever and then you get to see firsthand, like, ‘oh that’s it what I did today. Okay, I get it now.” I can see where Mike is coming from, I can see his vision, okay, I guess I’ll stay in the woods for another day.
MC: Yes, it helps to gain the trust of your team, to show them what you’re doing, because otherwise it’s such a stupid feeling.
KM: When you’re fighting and basically every shot has that huge wave of dust…
MC: We should wake John up. It would be very funny.
RT: [Laughing] Let’s not do that.
MC: So John was like, “Give me that heat!”, and what he means is you put a lot of baby powder on the thing that’s about to get hit, and then it’s like every screen shot goes white, because it put something like that. lots of baby powder in…
RT: This is an old Hong Kong trick from the 80’s where every impact you would have some kind of baby powder or something… it just gives it that nice quality. I don’t know what you would call it?
KM: It gives it that “POW” quality…
RT: Yes Yes.
KM: It reminds me a lot of how, fearless hyena, Half a loaf of Kung Fu, those very early Jackie Chan films. It’s fantastic. So what’s next for you guys? Beyond Kung Fu Hope Movie…
MC: We’re going across the country, you can follow us @HundredsofBeavers on Instagram and we’re coming to a city near you and probably VOD at the same time. That happens later, but now we do the festival and you can track where we are. And if you go to a screening, maybe a beaver will show up.
If you are interested in learning more about Hundreds of Beaversyou can read my full review of the film here.
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