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TIFF Report: Interview With The Chickening Co-Director Nick DenBoer

As always, TIFF’s Midnight Madness is set to start with a bang. For opening night, programmer Colin Geddes has lined up Green Room, director Jeremy Saulnier’s much-anticipated follow-up to Blue Ruin. But before festivalgoers experience that film, they’ll be subjected to five of the most extreme minutes of cinema screening anywhere this year, namely The Chickening. Applying all kinds of special effects to radically re-shape footage from Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining, this unforgettable oddity promises big things for filmmakers Nick DenBoer and Davy Force. We spoke to DenBoer about the film’s unusual backstory, its surprising path to TIFF, and the duo’s ambitious plans for the future.

SPACE: The Chickening has a very unique aesthetic. How did you develop this style?

Nick DenBoer: A lot of years of remixing, animating, editing, and generally messing with video brought us here. We are both video remix artists. We met years ago when I saw Davy’s name on the credits for Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! I got in touch with him after seeing more of his work. We became fast friends and started collaborating on projects together. Our first big collaboration was a DC Shoes remix for Ken Block, and we worked together on a web series called NewsHit for Mondo Media. I’ve also spent the past few years working for Conan O’Brien on TBS where I wrote, edited, and remixed current events as a bit creator for the show. This daily grind really sharpened my pencil and helped hone the skills needed to make The Chickening. Davy is also a seasoned animator and multi-talented director and remixer, so it really is a culmination of both our work experience and passion for manipulating video. We’ve been talking about doing this film remix project for years, and we finally found some time.

Did you always expect The Chickening to play at festivals or did that success come as a surprise?

No, total accident. It is a proof of concept that got thrown in the right people’s hands. It has now been invited to over 12 festivals, which is totally insane. We never expected this at all. The overwhelming positive feedback from film nerds across the board has been incredibly inspiring. We have giant film boners now and want to expand on this idea in a big way.

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What are the main tools you used to put The Chickening together?

We did a lot of motion tracking and compositing to swap out character’s mouths to create a new narrative. After Effects was the main tool for sure. We used Cinema 4D and LightWave for 3D modeling and match moving, Mocha for rotoscoping, Cubase for music production, and Premiere for editing. We did a lot of green screen work, shot on DSLRs. Since we collaborated from different cities—Toronto and L.A.—we shared video files online on Google Drive and bounced shit off each other. We also write together on Google Docs. It’s a really awesome way to collaborate and jam, writing on the same doc at the same time.

Are there other films that helped you find this approach?

Maybe not so much films as internet videos, and remix culture as a whole. We feel like this regurgitation/remixing of film as an art is still pretty new in the film world. It’s really cool that it has been launched onto the platform of TIFF when this kind of content is really native to the web. We just took it a little further and took YouTube poop up a notch with some digital Ritalin. I think web and remix culture had much more of a significant influence than any one film in terms of style, although The Shining itself was a massive influence. We loaded this thing with Easter eggs and symbolism in true Kubrick fashion. Room 237 is also a big influence. So yeah, the Kubrick influence is inherently huge.

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The Shining and poultry seems like an unusual pairing. What made you think this was a good idea for a movie?

I think Davy first suggested that we take a fast food angle. I’m not sure how it turned into a full-fledged poultry meltdown, but it just sort of happened. I grew up on a chicken farm and spent my adolescent years working in my dad’s poultry butcher shop, which might have left mental scars. Not too long before The Chickening, I made a music video for my pal Friendly Rich, where I took Star Trek TNG footage and added sausages. This was really inspiring because I found that just adding sausages to unrelated footage, it totally created a new narrative. This is what our goal was in The Chickening. So I suppose chickens were the next step from sausages—in a backwards kind of way.

Is this made with love for The Shining or do you have mixed feelings?

We love The Shining, but we also love weird. We love VFX, we love remix, and we love comedy. It’s a mix of all these things, and I think you can love something and poke fun at it at the same time. Pop culture is like that. One day everyone loves something, the next everyone is making fun of it. The hive mind is a fickle thing, full of contradictions.

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The Shining has been extensively parodied and dissected elsewhere. Did this factor in your decision to build a film around it?

A little bit. We always thought that we were taking a different, more in-depth approach that is much more transformative than all the other Shining parodies. We are still paying homage to the film, but we think we made something new here, more than a parody.

Did you need permission to use the footage from The Shining or does this fall under some kind of satirical fair use?

That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? We actually made The Chickening as a proof of concept, a pitch piece to show Warner Bros., in order to expand on the idea and get permission to do the end-all-be-all official classic film remix meltdown project. This whole film festival thing is a total accident. It fell into the hands of Colin Geddes at Midnight Madness, and things are now getting out of hand in the best possible way. I think it is transformative enough to argue for fair use, but for now we are happy to show it in the non-profit film festival world. We are now heading into the stage of adapting this commercially, and our goal is to work with those who own properties like The Shining to reinvent, remix, and regurgitate everyone’s favourite classic films. We have some exciting prospects in the works, and when we actually get a budget to do the next one, it will be five times better and really blow the lid off the remix game.

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Have you had any interaction with the Kubrick estate?

Not yet. A Warner Bros. exec saw The Chickening, and told us it made his brain hurt. He loved it, but we haven’t tried to reach out to the estate. I hope they see it. We think Kubrick would have liked this thing—it’s intense, it’s powerful, it’s iconic, it’s weird as hell—or maybe he would hate it, and say we ruined his art. Who knows? Either way, it is an honour to have The Chickening associated with The Shining. We feel like we made something new out of this classic film while paying homage. It is a beautiful and ridiculous thing, and we’d want the Kubrick estate to know that this comes from a place of respect for Stanley’s work and innovative film making.

Are you planning larger projects in this style or do you think it’s only suitable for shorts?

This can totally be done in long format. You just need enough source material to drive a new narrative. A trilogy would be a perfect amount to make one remixed feature. A season of a TV series could be remixed into a feature film. The pacing would have to change, but it’s totally what we are gearing towards. The Chickening is actually designed to be 22 minutes. We have more scenes complete, and a longer storyline written, but for impact we edited it into five minutes of pure poultry mayhem. We want people to want more.

The Chickening and Green Room screen tonight at midnight at Ryerson theatre as part of TIFF’s Midnight Madness programme, then on Saturday, September 12 at 2:15pm at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. Tickets are available here.

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