It’s nearly two in the morning in Benzie County when the quiet of the forest is pierced by a woman’s shriek.
She discovers one of her puppies is dead. That’s when the coyotes start to circle… It’s another night of filming for Rich Brauer and his team. The Traverse City filmmaker— whose directing credits include “Deadrise,” “Frozen Stupid” and “Mr. Art Critic,” to name a few—is in the middle of wrapping up his latest film, “Dogman 2: The Wrath of the Litter,” a follow-up to his 2012 horror flick, “Dogman.”
The film crew is familiar with scenes like this: night, screams, death, shock… but what they didn’t plan on were coyotes.
“When Kimberly (an actress) did her shriek in the woods, these coyotes just came closer and closer to try to investigate,” Brauer recalls. “The script advisor, Amber, and I later went up into the woods we spotted the scout just sitting there, barking at us… just this rhythmic bark. He was not afraid. Not concerned. Just watching us. It was a beautiful time to just be in the woods and see how nature has a system out there.”
CREATING THE CREATURE
That system, from the cycle of the moon to the dance between predator and prey, can also be haunting – particularly this time of year when the legend of the Dogman comes to life.
Based off author Steve Cook’s original song that first aired on WTCM radio in 1987, both Dogman films tell the tale of a Northern Michigan creature, a “large dog that appears to walk upright.”
“It’s not your typical werewolf,” says Buzz Smith, in charge of special effects and animatronics for the creature. “The dogman can’t speak but is smart enough to operate and manipulate things. It’s mostly a dog with human traits.”
Pulling off such a look requires careful attention to detail and a costume with 23 moveable parts.
“Because of the costume’s thick fur, we can hide the zippers and joints,” Smith explains. “Our goal was to build an outfit a person can wear and not have it look like a Muppet.”
In order to add to the realism, actors stand on stilts, specially designed by Smith, which serve two purposes: making the dogmen taller while creating a dog leg effect.
“It’s like the movie Avatar,” says Walt Who, one of a couple actors who gets to work in the dogman costumes . “I feel like I’m in a different body. I’m 5’10’ but with helmet and stilts, I’m eight feet tall. It’s pretty amazing.”
“He’s actually only this tall,” Smith chimes in, leveling his hand off at Who’s waist and laughing.
You’ll find the crew joking like this often during the film’s three-week shoot.
“Rich operates this set like a family,” Smith says.
“Yeah, Buzz is like a brother to me,” Who adds.
While there may be 27 people on set joking and laughing between takes, it’s all business once the camera starts rolling; but it’s not because Brauer runs it like a drill sergeant.
“I love the collaboration and overtone of this thing. I don’t make this stuff alone. I rely on all sorts of people with all sorts of skill sets,” Brauer says, adding the people he recruits are naturally driven and passionate about what they do.
“Everybody can turn to somebody for help,” Smith says. “You pitch in anywhere you have to and if you have a suggestion, Rich listens. He may not use it,” he adds laughing, “because he has his own vision, but there’s been several times people will chime in like, ‘There’s a weird reflection in that shot and he’s like, ‘Thanks, I missed that!’” Laura Burnell, the first assistant director, describes her own role on set.
“This is the best way I can explain it, I’m responsible for everything and in control of nothing, whereas Amber (Elliott) as the script supervisor, has control of everything and is responsible for nothing. She’s making sure we get what we need and I’m making sure we get it in a timely manner.”
EMBRACE THE DOG
This mentality of a solid pack carries throughout the crew, maybe a bit too literal for the guys playing the lead role.
“It’s drummed into them,” Smith says about embracing the role of a dog. “I’m behind them saying, ‘Don’t lock your head. Weave! Weave! Think about going after that shot like you’re going after your favorite ball!’” “It’s gotten to the point where I’m even peeing on trees,” says Dan Hall, a martial artist who was recruited for the role that requires agility and stamina.
“The reason I got Dan is because I’ve seen videos of him going up six feet in the air, doing a spin kick and landing on his feet,” says Smith. “I know he can fall the four feet he risks on the stilts.”
With the combination of the right look and movement, the crew hopes to pull off a menacing creature – which is a new element in the follow-up film.
“We successfully played the Hitchcock card in the first movie and showed only the reaction, not the action,” Brauer explains. “This time, people are going to see the creatures. That’s where Buzz and his team came into the picture and created those great beasts.”
A CHANGE OF PACE
Although many things remain the same— such as returning crew and cast members, like Larry Joe Campbell (“According to Jim”) and Mariann Mayberry (“War of the Worlds”)—there is one thing significantly different about Brauer’s latest film compared to previous works.
“We’ve ramped up the violence,” Brauer greatly understates.
As their lunch break wraps up, the crew gets ready to start filming a scene involving local and national actor/author, Benjamin Busch.
His character, a cyclist transporting his bike along an isolated country road, is about to get a surprise.
“Five minutes!” Burnell yells into the hand radio. “Alright,” she starts to explain of the shooting schedule for that evening, “We’ll be killing our driver here and that shouldn’t take long. It should be a pretty nice special effect. And then from here, we’ll be heading up to the hill to kill a couple more people.”
She thinks about the comparisons between this film and the others.
“I think Rich has to confirm, but this has to be the first Brauer movie where we’ve actually killed anybody. Ever.”
Unlike most horror/thriller film directors, Brauer is particular about violence.
“This film is man against nature. I don’t like the man-versus-man concept, there’s too much of that already in the real world,” he notes. “There’s enough of that going on.”
The dogman is as close as Brauer will go to crossing that line.
So, the question may not be, ‘does the dog man exist?’ but ‘does the dogman exist within us?’
Rich Brauer’s film, “Dogman 2: The Wrath of the Litter,” is set to release Spring of 2014. Stay tuned by visiting brauer.com.