It’s always exciting when we see a project come into our submissions which strives for real ambition, embraces resources to create something confident and is well-executed. Such is the case with Beast – the coming-of-age tale of Daniel, a young boy in search of his father, set in a remote and homogenous fishing village. The film follows Daniel who resists the encroaching pressures of everyone around him as he doggedly pursues answers that he may not be able to find. It’s a story about isolation and the resilience of the human spirit, which saw Director Ben Strang win the Grand Jury Award for Independent Episodics at SXSW in 2018. DN is delighted to feature the online premiere of Chapter 1 of Beast on our pages alongside an interview with Strang who talks us through the complex and serendipitous creation of his pilot.
Beast strikes me as such a personal project, what’s the story behind your inspiration for it?
Beast came from a total fascination with small fishing islands. My visual inspirations were 1800s painters like Winslow Homer and photographer Marion Warren who captured small New England towns and maritime scenes. Growing up in Maryland, I had heard about this place called Smith Island. It was about 100 miles as the crow flies from where I lived, but to get there you had to drive three hours to the eastern shore and then ride a one hour ferry out to the island. One summer when I was 20 or so, my brother and I took a trip out there and met a bunch of fishermen. I became obsessed. The community there is 250-strong and didn’t seem to have changed all too much since the 1600s when it was established.
A few years later, I was driving across the country and in my travel journal wrote a poem called The Boy and the Beast, about a teenager’s obsession with the water and his eventual encounter with a mysterious creature that lives in the bay. About a year after that in 2015, I started writing a short film based on the poem. It was really just an excuse to shoot something on this island I was pretty much obsessed with at this point.
I read that Beast started out as a short film but became an episodic project instead, was there a certain point where you decided to shift the format of your story?
Our intention for Beast has always been to position it to get the broadest possible audience. When we initially shot the film, it was devised as a short film since we knew there was a bigger story we wanted to eventually tell but also wanted to produce this chapter as a short form piece. I hadn’t really thought about the medium of the web-series as a viable way to release Beast until we got to the edit and Manuel and I started looking at the film and saying, “Ya know this really has a pilot vibe to it”. We also started thinking about how over-saturated the short film market is and thought maybe we’d have a better chance at getting exposure in the episodic world. So, long story short, we finished Beast as chapter one of an episodic story and knew that in the festival circuit where you have to identify specifically what medium your project is, it would either be submitted as episodic or a short, but when we finally released it we would just call it an episodic short film. Now, we’re just excited to get chapter two of Beast underway!
Given the scope of what you wanted to shoot was it tricky getting it off the ground?
One of the craziest aspects of the development was how I met one of the core producers on the project. It was 2016 and I was back in Maryland writing in a coffee shop when one of the baristas walked by carrying this framed portrait photograph of a man I’d seen all over town growing up. I was totally mystified by this photograph for some reason, just kind of hit by this bizarre gut-punch feeling that this photograph was going to change my life. I tracked down the photographer who was a local portrait photographer named David Hartcorn. We had coffee the next day and just totally hit it off. About six months after that while I was writing the script, I told David about the project and that my pipe-dream was to shoot it on Smith Island and pay homage to all my maritime painter inspirations.
Movies can be incredible community building endeavours but also destructive if relationships aren’t prioritised.
He basically said on that phone call, “Book your plane tickets and set a start date… I’ll find you the money to shoot it”. I think I hung up the phone and cried. The next day I called the woman who ran the bed and breakfast my brother and I had stayed at a few years prior and told her about the project. I offered to re-build her bed and breakfast website in exchange for renting out all of her rental properties for the week of production and she was all in, she basically became the local producer of the project and I owe so much of the success of the shoot to her tenacity and generosity.
It really actually proves a really important thing about making movies, that cultivating and maintaining close relationships with all the people involved is just so important. Movies can be incredible community building endeavours but also destructive if relationships aren’t prioritised. David has become one of my dear friends and Michele who runs the bed and breakfasts and I still keep in touch. Similarly, around the same time David joined the project, I called our Producer Jonathan Maurer up and sent him an early draft of Beast. Up until preproduction Jonathan and I would have regular meetings to revise the script. I think we probably did 25 drafts together. Looking back on it now, Jonathan’s passion for this little script was such a blessing. His insistence that I keep tightening and distilling the story was absolutely crucial.
Did the remote nature of the island and your locations impact production?
Michele had gotten permission from the island elders (it’s actually a thing) to give us pretty much carte blanche to film anywhere on Smith Island if we could figure out how to get there. The vision for the pilot was always to shoot it in December and capture the starkness of the Atlantic coast landscape in the winter. In between Thanksgiving and Christmas we had a window of about two weeks where the island was going to let us film otherwise we’d have to either film in March which would be impossible due to Nor’easter storms or wait a year.
I had a rough idea where on the island I wanted to film all the scenes but hadn’t actually been there in several years. So, during the preproduction I turned my parents’ house in Maryland into a little office, ran around Maryland trying to put together all the transport, catering, and logistics support we needed for the shoot while Jonathan finalised all the casting and logistics back in LA.
The most insane part of this production was the logistics of getting to the island. We had four cottages on the island that were going to be housing the entire cast, crew and production staff but had to get the entire operation and everything we’d need for the week out there. Smith Island is about five miles long, has 250 residents, three churches, one school… but no grocery stores, no coffee shops, no restaurants, no alcohol allowed or sold, virtually no wifi, and barely any cell signal. Most of the houses still have VCRs as the best entertainment option. So, before we left Annapolis, we had to pack literally everything we could possibly need for eight days.
To get to Smith Island, we drove a donated coach bus from Annapolis out to the eastern shore of Maryland and two hours south toward Salisbury. We loaded the entire bus of gear, luggage and people onto a 40-foot fishing boat and motored out to the island where we had one pickup truck to shuttle everything to basecamp, which was a cottage doubling as both the picture-house and one of the crew lodges. We had one rain setup in the script, which was the breakfast scene at the beginning of the movie and it unfortunately rained the first day of the shoot, so we blew our cover location and that was the first scene we shot the next morning.
Given the lack of transportation on the island, did it make tricky for different setups in multiple locations?
Our transportation situation consisted of a pickup truck borrowed from Michele, a 1980s Buick sedan driven by the island pastor who was helping us out, and two golf carts from the bed and breakfast. The island stretched about five miles from the main town on the north end to a small outpost town on the south end, and on the north end where our lodging and base camp was, the crew houses were spread out enough that the only way to gather the entire crew for dinner was to do golf-cart shuttles between the houses.
The biggest limitation with our transportation situation was that at high tide, the road connecting the north side of the island to the south would flood and was impossible to cross via golf cart. I think the second day of filming, we wrapped at sunset on the south side but couldn’t get the golf carts back to base camp on the north side because 100 yards of the road had flooded about 18 inches deep.
There was one member of our team though who almost always turned down the golf cart pickup though. Jay Potter, who played John Barkley the fisherman, absolutely loved walking the island and when he wasn’t shooting, he’d wander the neighbourhoods and marshland. He was also incredibly invested in learning the Smith Island accent and on his walkabouts he would stop locals and inquire about their slang, lingo and mannerisms. It was such a joy for me to see him enjoy the island as much as I did, it’s a truly special place.
So much of the script involves shooting on water, were there any practical challenges when it came to actually filming those scenes?
The second day of shooting we shot the opening scene which had an in-camera practical effect where the buoy moved back and forth on the water. This gag had never been tested and the scene was aimed to be shot sunset-for-sunrise on the evening of Day Two. That morning, I went to the marina and met a local boat mechanic and asked if he would drive out to the buoy and tie a rope under it and tie the rope off at the dock. When we arrived to shoot the scene, it turned out the gag worked perfectly! The whole scene was shot in maybe 45 minutes and for most of it, I was standing off-camera knee-deep in freezing water and mud, tugging on the rope tied to the buoy. I think our backup for this gag not working was just to VFX it and I’m super glad we didn’t have to.
A few days later, we shot the scene where the canoe is dragged back and forth on the water. It was 15-degrees that day and my dad was in a wetsuit standing out in the shallow water holding a rope tied to the canoe underwater and dragging it back and forth. He’s the man! The shoot was just full of serendipitous moments where elements of the island worked their way into the script.
The scene where Michelle’s character finds her husband’s boat washed ashore was relatively uncoordinated. When we arrived on the island, we had no production designer and I believe the goal was to find a row-boat in someone’s backyard and haul it to the shore where it would become the ‘wrecked vessel’ for the scene. We actually found a row-boat in the backyard of the picture-house but it was waterlogged and weighed probably close to 1000lbs so was impossible to move with our limited hauling capacity. Then, while scouting one of the locations for the scene the morning before we shot it, David Bolen and I saw this old motorboat that was already beached maybe ten feet up from the waterline. We pretty much shot the scene with the boat right where it was. The close-up of Michelle reaching in and pulling the map out of the pocket was filmed as an insert months later with my mom’s hand in the leather glove and a black bucket of water with an old piece of wood across the top.
The shoot was just full of serendipitous moments where elements of the island worked their way into the script.
Speaking of the wrecked boat, another serendipitous moment was the storm/flashback sequence that Daniel imagines. This wasn’t in the script at all, it was originally just him looking out the window. But in the edit, we were going back through Sony FS7 footage from the tech scout and found this clip that David shot on the ferry back to the mainland, it was a perfect little shot of a motorboat that looked exactly like the wrecked vessel driving at full speed passed the ferry. We used it as a VFX plate and created this little flashback sequence in the edit.
Similarly, the scene in the middle of the pilot where John is out at night on his boat looking for the beast, that wasn’t scripted. While we were shooting the end scene, there was maybe a two minute pause where we were resetting the boats, and David was alone on the picture boat with Jay. I think David just directed Jay to explore the moment of being on the water and thinking about what might be out there. That’s one of my favourite things about David, he’s always on, always looking for beautiful little moments to capture, and ready to jump in and make them happen.
Did the complicated shooting structure affect the edit in any way or was that fairly straightforward?
Our Editor Manuel Crosby, is a long time friend of mine and an incredible director and human being. After two or three months of editing with Manuel, we picture locked the pilot in May of 2017 and then mixed/coloured in June. Strangely, two months later something was just not sitting right with me about how we decided to end the pilot. Despite the pilot being 100% finished at this point, I decided to follow my gut and we went back into the edit and re-cut the last scene.
I remember thinking back to initial conversations Manuel and I had about our vision for the ending, revolving around a simple depiction of Daniel and John the fisherman heading out to sea to look for the Beast and just painting the picture of how cold and stark their journey would be. In the shooting script, the ending was supposed to entail them leaving the harbour and driving out into the distance, but when we were recutting it we found these little moments of interaction in the dailies that had been overlooked and had the idea for Daniel to see another vessel in distress sending up a signal flare in the distance and the two of them making the decision to go check it out together.
That was pretty nerve-racking for me to think about un-doing the picture lock but I’m super glad we did. Manuel and I were always very clearly aligned on the pacing and tone of the edit and I think this decision to go back and re-do the ending was just a decision to stick to that initial vision no matter what.
So, reaching the end of your journey with Beast, was it always your intention to hopefully premiere at a festival like SXSW?
By the end of 2017 the project was in the can and we sent it off to a few festivals. I was pretty much ready for it to get in nowhere and just to be a calling card project that I’d try to release online independently so when we got into SXSW that was a huge surprise. When we premiered at SXSW and then played at a few festivals after that, the audience response was so gratifying to hear. A lot of people commented about the pacing and tone of the film so I give huge credit to Manuel for pushing us to stick to that all the way through to the end.