“It might not be too exciting to hear how few beavers there actually were, but hopefully the scale of the movie is giant and it feels like a big adventure.”

That’s director and Whitefish Bay native Mike Cheslik both downplaying and accurately describing his latest film, the endlessly inventive and deliriously zany Hundreds Of Beavers. A black-and-white, dialogue-free, live-action Looney Tune, the Wisconsin-made film follows a drunken 19th-century applejack salesman (Ryland Tews) as he sobers up and becomes North America’s greatest fur trapper. Does he ultimately face off against the titular hundreds of beavers? Yes. Did Cheslik and company actually have access to hundreds of beaver costumes? No. (They initially had five, but they eventually found another one.) Does the film still feel like a big beaver-filled adventure? Yes it does.

“We had the spirit of Jean Nicolet and Werner Herzog with us as we were attempting to make the greatest Wisconsin film of all time,” Cheslik says. “Hopefully.”

Hundreds Of Beavers premieres Friday, April 28, at 9:30 p.m. in the Oriental Theatre’s Abele Cinema, as part of the 2023 Milwaukee Film Festival. It’s a fitting setting, since the idea for Beavers was first hatched at the 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival, following a screening of the Cheslik-produced, Tews-directed Lake Michigan Monster.

“The idea basically began as bar talk,” Cheslik says. “I don’t have any early documents or anything like that, but it began as bar talk at the Milwaukee Film Festival in 2018. That’s where we met our production team, SRH, who eventually helped us find the money. It’s also backed by some other Milwaukee names you might know, people Ryland and I grew up around in Whitefish Bay. It’s a community movie, and all the beavers are played by our buddies.”

Similar to Lake Michigan Monster, Hundreds Of Beavers is a gleefully chaotic film filled with irreverent humor, cartoon violence, and a DYI energy that makes its modest production look positively big-budget. It’s laugh-out-loud funny. It’s wonderfully weird. It’s essentially one long special effect. (Cheslik says there are 1,500 visual effects in the film, all created in Adobe After Effects.) Live-action footage is combined with animation in a way that suggests an unholy but weirdly beautiful mashup of Buster Keaton and 8-bit Nintendo games.

“The whole movie is silent films, physical comedy, cartoons, and video games,” Cheslik says. “I’ve always felt there was a relationship between Buster Keaton’s camera and the Mario camera, where it’s very wide and locked off, showing the relationship of the character’s body to this space and obstacles.”

The live-action elements of Hundreds Of Beavers were shot in roughly 12 weeks—albeit 12 weeks spread out over two winters (2019 and 2020). Locations included small cities like Pembine, Wisconsin and Stephenson, Michigan (populations 1,036 and 862, respectively). Footage was also shot in even smaller locales, like Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin (population 566). The shoots, at times, were harrowing.

“We put our bodies on the line,” Cheslik says. “Ryland got frostbite. We totaled two cars. One guy got a concussion. It just went on and on and on. But we were on a mission from God to entertain, like it was Shackleton’s voyage.”

A particularly harrowing on-location encounter happened closer to home: Milwaukee’s Brown Deer Park. During an improvised action scene involving an Obi-Wan-like mentor character (played by Milwaukee’s own Wes Tank), things got otherworldly.

“We shot a very scary and strange fight scene in the dark and the rain in Brown Deer Park, and a power line arced or something,” Cheslik remembers. “The sky lit up green, like aliens were about to nuke the entire planet. There was this strange sound that we later figured out was a power line arcing. That was a weird night. There are a million weird stories from this shoot.”

Many of the weird events were thanks to the cold weather. Cheslik credits the film’s director of photography, Quinn Hester, for keeping the production on track despite the sometimes harsh conditions.

“Quinn is pretty much the only guy who could have shot the movie, because he’s just an athlete,” Cheslik says. “He has a military attitude, that we’re out there to do a mission. If you remember two winters ago, there were ten days in a row where it didn’t crack zero. And we were outside the whole time. We called in clemency one morning when it was negative thirty. But then it went up to negative five by noon, and we went out and shot. Quinn is pretty much the only person who could have done it.”

The bulk of the green screen elements were also shot on location, far from the comforts of a studio—or any other indoor enclosure.

“The shoot was a few days in nice studios, but mostly the green screen stuff is just a green tarp outside to save money,” Cheslik says. “So the green screen stuff is still cold and kind of miserable. There’s a lot of green screen in the movie, but the plates are usually some kind of real shot we got in the snow.”

As for Beavers‘ grainy, high-contrast, black-and-white aesthetic, Cheslik says it’s another choice that masks the film’s scrappy production.

“The idea is you pick a lo-fi style so that the location shooting and the effects all just sort of bleed together,” he says. “You make the real stuff look a little fake, and you make the fake stuff look as real as you can. I find that when I do my best, people say, ‘I love how you made it bad on purpose.’

“You don’t have to have a very good chroma key when it’s black and white and grainy,” Cheslik continues. “I can’t say the budget of the movie, but despite our wonderful backers, this is not a $50 million movie. This is a very, very small movie.”

And yet Hundreds Of Beavers scores big on its manic energy and its seemingly bottomless well of creativity. There are buddies in beaver costumes, but there are also folks in rabbit costumes, sled dog costumes, and raccoon costumes. There are animated fish and geese. There’s a log flume action scene and a tense beaver courtroom scene. There are lethal frozen snot icicles, video game menus and map screens, and at least one rustic cabin pole dance. The opening credits, hilariously, don’t occur until 30 minutes into the movie—and the title doesn’t appear until an hour into the movie. And what are those nefarious beavers building, anyway? It kind of looks like a damn, but could it actually be…

“We’re just trying to honor our founding fathers, Barnum and Bailey and the Ringling Brothers by making as entertaining a movie as we possibly can,” Cheslik says. “We’re making a movie that will make Wisconsin proud.”

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