• Through the Trees

Interview: Lake Michigan Monster

Director Ryland Brickson Cole Tews spills the beans on making his absurdist nautical monster movie

As told to Katherine McLaughlin

A hit on the festival circuit and a labour of love for writer-director-star Ryland Brickson Cole Tews, Lake Michigan Monster was shot on the fly on a shoestring budget of about $7k. Ryland gathered his friends and family together (his dad plays his brother in the film) and wrote the characters based on who was available, their traits and what they could bring to the table.

Erik West who plays weapons expert Sean Shaughnessy makes up one misfit crew member on the eccentric Captain Seafield's (Ryland) mission to slay the sea beast who killed his father, and brought his own artillery to the shoot. "My buddy Erik, in real life this man owns a lot of weapons, he owns a lot of knives and things...So I was thinking, we need a weapons expert in this crew so I’ll just get Erik because he lives close by and he already has a lot of weapons. Those are all real weapons you see in the movie, and they were probably illegal to bring down to the beach, but whatever!", laughs Ryland.

"I just asked whoever was closest to me, literally proximity wise, who I thought would be a good match for a movie and I wrote characters based on who was available and what I thought my friends could perform."

On the character of former N.A.V.Y. – Nautical Athletes and adVenture Yunit – officer Dick Flynn played by Daniel Long, Ryland says, "In real life he’s a bouncer at a nightclub, so he has this militant look and this presence about him so he has this 'Navy Man' look to him already so I’ll throw a cheap costume on him and he can play a seaman." Continuing enthusiastically he explains the look of sonar whiz Nedge Pepsi, played by Beulah Peters, saying "I wrote her character on how I thought she could best perform it and people really like her character. I just think people like that straight-laced, androgenous character."

Taking many liberties with where he shot, including a museum, a ferry and a private beach, Ryland states that no one really took much notice saying, "Let me tell you something, everyone has a camera these days and we used a little DSLR camera and so you can bring that on board, and as you saw on the ferry stuff it was just me and Beulah on board shooting it and nobody thought anything of it. We never got stopped or anything like that. We were only questioned once, and that was when we were on the beach because we technically were on someone’s private property. But they didn’t really care!"

On why he chose to shoot a monster movie as his first film, Ryland says, "It was like, we had Lake Michigan, let’s do it! It has this sense of mystery and intrigue to me. It’s like a movie set unto itself that’s just sitting there. You just go down to the beach and start shooting, who’s gonna stop you? That’s what we did. I thought, let’s put a monster in the lake and we can build a story around that."

"I’ve seen old 50s B-movies and monster movies but I’ve never been a big fan of them and I think once people have seen Lake Michigan Monster, they retroactively make that an inspiration for it…When in fact I don’t watch those movies! I totally see where they’re coming from when they write 'Creature from the Black Lagoon had a clear influence on Lake Michigan Monster'…like wellllll, it didn’t but I can see exactly where you’re getting that from!"

Casting himself in the lead role as Captain Seafield, who speaks with a fantastically garrulous tone, Ryland explains he was listening to a lot of old Orson Welles interviews, and that's partly where he took inspiration for the way the character speaks. "Welles has a certain way of speaking, he's very proper so I took that and I mixed it with Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood, and then with Leo DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby. If those three had a lovechild with a renowned charlatan you would get Captain Seafield!"

Described in festival brochures as, 'What if SpongeBob had been directed by Canadian experimental master Guy Maddin?' the director explains that Maddin was a huge inspiration, "In particular Brand Upon the Brain! I had watched that a couple of times. He’s so crazily creative and inventive, but specifically Brand Upon the Brain! has this 16mm B&W, grainy, scratchy style, high-contrast images and it inspired me. It seemed like it was low-budget enough for me to pull it off. In terms of camera movement, Sam Raimi and Evil Dead II, that was a big one. I’ve always been influenced comedically by Monty Python, The Simpsons and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was obviously an influence. You combine all these things and out pops Lake Michigan Monster!"

Post-production was the stressful part but as Ryland cheekily says, "Not for me! The editor and special effects guy, Mike Cheslik put in hundreds of hours just fine tuning all the visual effects. That was stressful on him. But in terms of filming the actual movie, and because it was me and my friends hanging out together, it was a good time!"

Lake Michigan Monster is available to watch now on The Arrow Video Channel and released on a special edition Blu-ray on 2nd November.

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