The filmmaking duo of Cheslik and Tews have proven yet again that you don’t need a big budget to make magic. Whether they’re building slapstick 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 tale of a persistent fur trapper who battles hundreds of beavers. Born as form of practicality when filming on a minuscule budget, the simple effects add a wealth of character to the film.
I sat down to speak with director, co-writer, and effects maestro Mike Cheslik and the film’s co-writer and star, Ryland Brickson Cole Tews, to discuss Hundreds of Beavers, DIY filmmaking, and the joy of making movies with friends.
Kelly McNeely: You guys have such a unique voice and vision. And I’m so curious where the idea for this movie came from, and what inspired or influenced the decision to make it a silent photoplay?
Mike Cheslik: Well, on Lake Michigan Monster, we had done an effects sequence toward the end that was largely silent. And we really enjoyed doing that and thought, let’s do that sort of effects and physically driven action sequence, but for a whole movie. And then let’s do it in the snow, because only us and all of our high school buddies would want to go out and shoot in the snow. And so we figured that could distinguish this in the marketplace of films. And that was my attitude about it.
Ryland Brickson Cole Tews: Just the fact that there’s no dialogue in this movie, it’s a black and white slapstick winter epic… It was kind of like, well, if we really want to distinguish ourselves from everyone else, we should probably make that. As hard and as horrible as it’s gonna be –
MC: And it was.
RT: And it absolutely was, it was an absolutely miserable experience, especially when he’s the director [gestures at Cheslik]. But it was what we had to do to separate ourselves . I think we pulled it off, sort of.
KM: I definitely felt for you in all the scenes when you’re running around barefoot in the snow… I’m up in Canada, so I know the pain of that, I totally understand that.
RT: We just had a screening here at Fantasia, we knew that when I put my feet in the snow, everyone’s gonna be like [gasps]. When you get down in, you know, Mexico or Brazil. They’re just like – [flat reaction].
KM: I do have to ask the burning question that is on everyone’s minds. How many beaver suits were there? How many did you have to make?
MC: Well, we didn’t make them, luckily, we ordered them from like, basically “beaver costume.com”, “mascotusa.com”… Mascot USA is based in Beijing, of course. When we had a little bit of money in the first winter, we were able to start with five beavers. And then by the second winter, we’d raised a lot more money and we were able to have six beavers. There’s one shot where you see all six.
KM: Well it looks like a lot more than that, so well done.
RT: A little sleight of hand…
KM: And you guys, how did you find each other? I get the sense that you’ve worked together for quite some time. And what inspired you to get into film?
MC: Well, we met in high school and you know, I would just say, Ry, do you wanna come over and play in the snow? Do you want to build a snow fort? Do you want to come throw snowballs at each other? Ry would say, “No” –
RT: No, I play on the football team. But thank you.
MC: I’d say do you want to play Super Mario Galaxy 2, Ryland? Do you want to come over and play that?
RT: And I said, No, I’m gonna go hang out with girls.
MC: Ryland, do you want to come over and we could like, draw our own Zelda worlds? You know, you want to come do that?
RT: For the last time no, nerd.
MC: And then he got me into a locker. But at the top of that locker 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 some snow on it. And we looked up at each other and said, my god, are you thinking what I’m thinking?
RT: I was like, yeah, I’m thinking I’m gonna go hang out with girls, what are you thinking? So yeah, it was a long time coming. We’ve been together since high school, just friends who like working together. And it’s the same thing on Beavers; everyone who was playing a beaver or another animal mascot too were also just friends from grade school, high school, college, you know. It’s great to have a big crew of people who can help you out, who you’ve known your whole life that you can really trust, basically.
KM: Now, with Lake Michigan Monster and with Hundreds of Beavers, there’s a very inventive filmmaking style. What drove you to make, like, a 50s B-horror movie and a silent film? What inspired that “let’s do this”, because it’s very different, and pretty ballsy. And it works great, so, well done.
RT: With Lake Michigan Monster, we didn’t have any money. And so it was kind of like, well, we can’t make a great looking 4k color movie. We don’t have the technology. So we just tried to do the other end of the spectrum, try to do something that’s totally different. So that’s kind of what the 16mm black and white aesthetic came from.
MC: You can do an effect shot a lot faster; if it’s in that look, you can do an effect shot in two hours instead of two days. So then the whole movie kind of grows out of that look. And then you can write something that’s way crazier, because you’re not limited by the amount of time a serious effects shot would take. So then in writing, you can be totally imaginative.
RT: Yeah, because if you can convince the audience to buy into this world within the first minute or two and say, oh, this is the world…
MC: It’s gonna look bad.
RT: It’s gonna look bad, yeah [laughs]. But then you got ‘em. Hundreds of Beavers has over 1500 effect shots, you know, but now they’re in the world and they’re willing to accept these cheaper looking effects.
MC: But it grew from that look outwards, it did not come from a passion for any particular genre. There was no love behind it, it was shrewd marketing. It was literally just like… Lake Michigan Monster – there’s a monster in it, so we get into genre festivals. It says Lake Michigan, so we get into Midwest festivals. Hundreds of Beavers – memorable animal title. That’s public domain IP. Not really interested in silent film. Ryland has not seen any of these aquatic monster movies like Creature From the Black Lagoon. People are always like, “what an astute parody of monster movies Ryland made with Lake Michigan Monster”, and Ryland always turns to me, like, “I haven’t seen any of that shit”.
KM: Well, you pull it off. You mentioned that there’s obviously a ton of effects shots in the film, what was the most complex or challenging effect to pull off?
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 chase took forever in effects… [to Ryland] What’s a good answer to this question?
RT: Well, that’s not my department, Mike.
MC: Well physically, for Ryland to physically go down the hill with a box. It’s so difficult for him but it’s great to just plug it in. But for me, that chase scene… Jerry Kurek, one of our beavers who plays the beaver lawyer – both beaver lawyers – Jerry did the effects for the chase, and the first pass took over a month, and then I did a pass and it was the longest thing to make, that stupid chase. And it still looks fake. It’s still not done properly, by the time you’re watching this we’ve probably tweaked the effects a few times.
RT: That’s the thing, like 75-80% of the movie is shot in Northern Wisconsin, outdoors in the wintertime, in the woods. But there’s some green screen stuff which we were still mostly shooting outdoors with a big green tarp outside. But it’s funny though, because in the beaver lodge scene, that was all done on green screen, but that was just in my old apartment where we just put up green everywhere around my apartment.
MC: It was so unimpressive. It did not look like a movie shoot.
RT: No, it was me and Mike, and our cinematographer Quinn [Hester] in there for like three days – like 20 hour days – just shooting this whole log flume chase… It looked less impressive than Lake Michigan Monster, if that’s even 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 single shot is that stupid one shot that doesn’t even get a laugh, where he flips over backwards and lands on the ice. The water has turned into ice and he lands on the ice. Do you remember that? After he goes off a jump? If this is interesting to anyone, that was the hardest shot.
KM: Are there any other genres that you’d like to tackle? I know that this kind of came out of the benefit of having it be that B-style monster movie and silent film. Are there any other genres you’d like to try next?
MC: Yes, there definitely are. We’re thinking more about fight movies.
RT: Like Mike says, in the next one we’ll probably have a lot more Kung Fu.
MC: Were you noticing that when you’re watching it, you’re like, “This is fine. But where’s the Kung Fu?”
KM: I did notice a lot of really great fight choreography near the end there, when you’re doing the whole bit in the beaver dam. That was A+ fight choreo.
RT: Yeah, our fight choreographer John Truei, he’s a great man. He’s also a horrible man.
MC: We should go wake him up. Just take the laptop. He’s passed out on the couch somewhere.
RT: We realized when we were shooting Hundreds of Beavers, it’s really fun to shoot fight scenes with your friends. That was like the most fun I think on set, was just having all our friends in the beaver costume, and us choreographing a fight scene. That was so much fun.
Because then just like the rest of the movie too – this was actually really good for morale – every day after shooting, Mike would pull the footage into the edit and just start editing, so it was good to see it the same night. So we’re all drinking beers, you know, having a good time and then Mike starts doing a rough edit or whatever and then you can just see firsthand, like, “oh that’s what we did today. Okay, I get it now”. I can see where Mike’s coming from, I can see his vision, all right, I guess I’ll stay out in the woods for another day.
MC: Yeah, it helps you get the trust of your team, to show them what you’re up to, because otherwise it’s so stupid feeling.
KM: When you are fighting and basically every hit has that huge plume of dust…
MC: We should wake up John. That’d be really funny.
RT: [Laughing] Let’s not do that.
MC: So John would say, “gimme 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 hit the screen just turns white, because he put so much baby powder in…
RT: That’s an old Hong Kong trick from the 80s, where every impact you’d have some sort of baby powder or something… it just gives it that nice quality. I don’t know what you’d call it?
KM: Gives it that “POW” quality…
RT: Yeah, yeah.
KM: It reminds me a lot of like, Fearless Hyena, Half a Loaf of Kung Fu, those very early Jackie Chan movies. It’s fantastic. So what’s next for you guys? Beyond the hopeful Kung Fu film…
MC: We’re gonna be going around the country, you can follow us @HundredsofBeavers on Instagram, and coming to a city near you, and probably VOD at that same time. That’s happening later on, but right now we’re doing the festival run and you can keep track of where we are. And if you go to a screening perhaps a beaver will show up.
If you’re interested in learning more about Hundreds of Beavers, you can read my full review of the film here.
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