by Clay McLeod Chapman and Craig Macneill
W.C. Fields sure was onto something when he uttered this immortal
warning nearly a century ago: “Never work with animals or children.”
was awarded the Audience Award for Best Short Film and went on to
screen at dozens of festivals including the 2005 Sundance Film
Festival. LATE BLOOMER was about a seventh grade sex-ed class that
goes terribly wrong. The cast was predominantly comprised of
pre-adolescents, and in spite of this fact, everything went very
smoothly on set. Based on that experience, we were very confident,
perhaps overly so, about working with just one younger child in our
next short, HENLEY. In fact, for HENLEY we decided to double-down:
not only would our lead be even younger than anyone we’ve ever worked
with before—we’d throw animals into the mix. Live animals—Deer and rabbit
to be exact.
We lucked out with our young lead Hale Lytle, who plays nine-year-old
Ted Henley. Hale has a preternatural quality about him—a magnetic
screen presence. Nine years old at the time of shooting, this kid had
more energy than the rest of the cast and crew combined. When all the
adults started to wane, losing energy around the 3 AM stretch, Hale
would be still jumping around the set, ready for his close-up.
The deer, however, is another story.
HENLEY is the story of Ted Henley who considers himself something of a deer whisperer. His ability to cajole fawns from the neighboring woods is a skill that he puts to dubious use. No spoilers here!
Two key segments in our film revolved around prolonged shots of deer:
a deer grazing in a field; and a deer stepping onto a highway at night only to be caught in the headlights of an oncoming car.
W.C. Fields was likely rolling in his grave as the script was being written.
We shot in Virginia during the summer and had all been told many times by many locals that the streets are flooded with deer. We would have no trouble finding lots of deer—alive, dead or otherwise. Just wait a couple minutes; they’ll step
out from the woods and startwaving their SAG card at you.
Nothing led us to believe we wouldn’t be able to get one
—if not dozens—for a couple shots. Until, we didn’t.
All those deer ready for their big break just disappeared. Poof.
Okay—so we’ll hire an animal trainer we thought. Use a professional.
Nope. Turns out the state of Virginia considers deer a nuisance and
has a law that states you can’t keep deer as pets—or, train them for
miracle. On our last day of shooting, with no divine intervention to
speak of, we rushed to an antique store looking for mounted deer
legs. Hoof to knee. Our production designer sawed the legs off and
attempted to puppeteer the shot of our hapless animal strutting onto
the street from the knees down. It looked like a deer-of-the-night in
high heels waiting for some john to pull over and pick it up. Or, as
some suggested, like a moon-walking dead deer. Fortunately this
footage never made its way into the film.
Luckily, a month later, one of our crew members just-so-happened to be
working on a feature in upstate New York that just-so-happened to have a
deer in it. The feature had hired a professional wrangler and this
deer was legit. It had a trailer and everything. With a little
begging, we were able to convince the animal’s handler to “borrow” the
deer between scenes on the feature to shoot the necessary bits for our
humble little short.
The amount of screen time taken up by our kidnapped deer adds up to
only a few seconds. Blink and you might even miss it. That’s pretty
minuscule compared to the days of anxiety and frustration spent trying
to find the deer in the first place. But ask us if we’ve learned from
our lesson or not, if we’ll work with animals (or kids) ever again—and
we’ll have to shake our heads no: As it stands, we’re planning to
expand and adapt our short into a feature film. That’s ninety minutes
of deer whispering. That’s more kids and a hell of a lot more deer.
HENLEY screened in competition at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
The film premiered at the 2011 Gen Art Film Festival where it was awarded
the Grand Jury Prize for Best Short Film.
This June 14-16, the Lake Placid Film Forum is pleased to welcome Craig and
Clay back and screen this award-winning short film.
Hey look, it’s a deer!