Below is my conversation with Mike Cheslik, the director and writer of Hundreds of Beavers, a silent comedy being screened at Indy Film Fest. We talk about the various influences for the gags in the film and the challenges of shooting in the Wisconsin winter. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ben Sears: Was Hundreds of Beavers always intended to be silent? Or did you get to a certain point when you were writing it when you thought it would be better silent?
Mike Cheslik: Well, it’s hard to remember the exact origins because it was 4 years ago, and the movie just grew out of bar talk, which slowly turned into coffee meetings, which eventually turned into a real project. Ryland [Brickson Cole Tews] and I, who went to high school together in Wisconsin, had just completed Lake Michigan Monster, and we were in the middle of festivals on that movie. That movie ends with a large, silent, animated sequence that’s kind of in a 1920 or 1930s style of live action, and we were able to do that for very cheap. Ryland directed that movie, but I got a lot of free reign on the storyboarded end sequence of Lake Michigan Monster, so with Hundreds of Beavers, the plan was really to lean into all these kinds of animated non-talking sequences. And the film just kind of grew into a full feature-length, entirely gag-driven comedy from that. So we wrote it in the beginning of 2019 and did all the storyboards that year, and the plan was to make something only we would do, which was this totally gag-driven, storyboard-driven physical comedy that’s got a thousand or fifteen-hundred effects shots, but also showcases Ryland’s ability to stand in the cold.
BS: When you’re writing a silent comedy, is it easier to watch other silent films, or did you find yourself watching more modern comedies?
MC: That stuff’s already in our heads from a lifetime of watching cartoons and silent movies and video games. So we didn’t really have to go back and comb through source material when we were writing – it’s just already been in there for years. We had a two page treatment and drew a whole bunch of storyboards out for that. We’d print them out and bring them out in the woods and we’d just cross out each shot as we’d go.
BS: I got a lot of Looney Tunes vibes while watching the film. Would you say that was an influence on you guys when you were coming up with the gags?
MC: Absolutely. And we didn’t even have to go back and watch those because they’re just so ingrained in everyone’s brains. But I do remember there was a Wile E. Coyote when an Acme rocket fails and comes back a few scenes later as a callback, and I just loved the idea of spinning all of these plates. So most of the writing was just spent trying to make this little web of gags that would come back and pay off in a cuckoo way.
It was really all about taking that self-serious wilderness survival story and spoofing it in the way that the Zucker’s spoofed various genres. It was below zero degrees for, like, 8 straight days at one point! We put so much post-animation on it that it looks kind of fake, but he was really out there. We shot for 12 weeks and I’d say 9 of that was outside in the snow. The physical comedy and the Looney Tunes thing was something that we love and felt nobody else was going to do, and you’ve gotta stand out if you’re making an indie comedy.
BS: You mentioned the abundance of jokes and gags that you had written and storyboarded. Were there any that didn’t make the final cut?
MC: Only two. Otherwise, pretty much every single idea we had is in the movie. And when you watch the movie you’ll really realize that these are guys that didn’t say no to any idea. It’s all in there, pretty much.
BS: Were those two jokes cut out because of practical reasons or time constraints, or was it something out of your control?
MC: We shot both of them. One of them, I was told by everyone that it wasn’t funny, so I removed it. The other one was Ryland trying to keep warm by putting a bunch of sticks in his coat and he basically looks like a giant bat suit full of sticks, and then he falls over and can’t get up, and he’s trying to get back up for a minute. We loved it, but it just slowed down the pace at the beginning. Otherwise, everything is in this movie. There were not any other ideas that we had and discarded. It’s all in there.
BS: I’ve got to ask about the costumes. Where did they come from?
MC: They were manufactured by our friends, the Chinese, who make all our costumes and clothing and props, and even the cameras and lenses! It was sent over by Mascot USA out of Beijing. We had a translator working with us at one point who helped us add an extra tooth for the beaver costume, and the costumes are not in good shape nowadays. They survived two winters with tons of different guys in them, and they’re smelly and moldy and torn apart. But we still take them to film festivals and try to entertain the crowds!
Hundreds of Beavers will screen at Indy Film Fest on April 22 at 4:30pm at the Kan-Kan Cinema in Indianapolis. Buy tickets here.