I am sitting in the living room of Nick DenBoer's house and he's just served up the best tasting chicken wings I've ever had. Tender, not crispy, with a light dressing that only heightens the taste of the chicken itself. In case it wasn't clear to me before, DenBoer knows chicken.
It's not surprising. DenBoer, along with pal Davy Force, directed The Chickening, a five-minute short film that's kicking off Midnight Madness this year at the Toronto International Film Festival. The short superimposes images and animations of chickens, from realistic to psychedelic, over scenes from The Shining. The Overlook is replaced with Charbay's Chicken World and Restaurant Resort, and Jack's descent into homicidal madness is accompanied by a transformation into a giant chicken.
It's actually far crazier than it sounds.
DenBoer has been making insane internet videos for years (my fav is this one). Eventually his internet videos attracted the eye of Kenny Hotz, who hired him for Kenny Vs. Spenny. From there DenBoer found work on a ton of TV shows, culminating in a two-and-a-half-year-long gig working on Conan whipping up demented gems like this.
Read on Motherboard: What Happens When Wes Anderson Meets 'The Shining'?
It's from this time at Conan that The Chickening began its gestation. Conanaco, Conan O' Brien's production company, wanted a demo reel to pitch to Warner Bros. for a potential TV show. The Shining was selected simply because DenBoer thought it was the most iconic film in Warner's catalogue. DenBoer flew Davy Force up, they watched the great documentary Room 237—about people obsessed with The Shining—got messed up, and began wreaking havoc on Kubrick's classic.
The end result is five minutes of poultry-themed madness. There's all this crazy stuff like a gruff Italian man living in the tip of Danny's finger, and Dan Hallaron as a green-skinned alien. The bar where Jack is tempted by the spirits of the hotel is replaced by the ordering desk of the fast-food chicken restaurant in which the movie takes place, and every second of the five minutes is stuffed to the brim with chickens. The images are garish and frenzied, like if DMT made a short film. Your eye and brain struggle to take it all in, to make sense of it. Defining the aesthetic is tough. It's like if a professional wrestler tried to paint a masterpiece with a paintball gun, or if you tried to compose classical music with a dirt bike engine. It's nuts and absurd and it all takes place on the stage of one of the most iconic films of all time.
In promotional materials, DenBoer and co. describe this style as "video remixing," the equivalent of using films for sampling. I prefer the analogy Hotz makes, calling it "graffiti." That's what watching this feels like; like all of a sudden finding graffiti on one of the most famous buildings in the world. It also fits the vibe of the project. It's a five-minute middle finger to the idea of reverence and what's sacred. Art is a dump, a wasteland—why not party with all this garbage lying around here?
There's apparently a pretty complex plot that the directors scripted out, and a longer cut of the movie that reinforces said plot. Honestly, when DenBoer was describing the plot to me, I had no idea what he was talking about. None of that came through with my first viewing. My first reaction (and second, third, fourth, and fifth) was, "What the sweet fuck is this?" By the end, though, I was ruminating about how much I think Kubrick would have enjoyed The Chickening.
The short made me think of the aforementioned doc, Room 237, even before Nick told me they watched it before shooting. The doc profiles a group of Shining obsessives—people who have developed complex theories about the movie that range from plausible to psychotic. That the movie inspires such obsession is a testament to Kubrick's craft. In The Shining (as with all his movies), every shot is crafted with such care and detail that one can pore over every scene and still find more. In Kubrick's movies it is in the details where the real story is being told, what's in the background is just as important as what's in the foreground. You can obsess over his movies so much because that's what he did.
That's why I think Kubrick would dig The Chickening: The attention to details, albeit cartoonish and insane ones, is Kubrickian in its scope. DenBoer and Force's craft and imagery inspires one to project their own shit onto the piece, much like those obsessives in Room 237. I thought that the short must have some agenda in it, some sort of criticism of fast-food culture and corporate farming. DenBoer told me that I was not the first to see that, but that I was mistaken. According to him, there was no secondary agenda other than to fuck with this classic movie as hard as they could. The chickens came about because his parents own a chicken farm—they're just on his mind.
Like Kubrick, DenBoer is a craftsman. Though the results may be silly, there is nothing silly or amateur about the creation of The Chickening. We're talking full days of work for two weeks, hundreds of hours, for five minutes of footage. DenBoer's got a real command center of a studio: Multiple keyboards, huge screens, and batteries—so many batteries, it was like being in a scene from Enemy of the State. His process is complicated and tech-heavy. One sequence he was particularly proud of is the transformation of Danny meeting the dead twin girls, which in The Chickening becomes a psychedelic disco, with the camera zooming around what was formerly a static shot.
To accomplish this, DenBoer did whatever this means: "I took a still image of the empty hallway and projection mapped it onto a 3-D facsimile of the same architecture." (I'm a luddite. He showed me how it all works but if I had to explain it I'd think I'd use the phrase "computer strings.")
Then DenBoer dressed himself as one of the girls, filmed himself dancing, and "mapped the girls' heads and dresses onto my body and inserted them into the aforementioned 3D projection mapped hallway scene."
Now that's some commitment. The short also involved shooting new dialogue with actors positioned perfectly to the camera and syncing their lips onto the film, and using CGI to reanimate this chicken corpse into Jack Nicholson's most horrific transformation since Wolf (seen in the top image).
Again, all of this work was supposed to be for a demo. But DenBoer also needed somebody to replace the naked dead lady Jack finds in the tub. Enter Hotz, who comes stumbling naked out of the tub, wang tucked, in a truly horrifying vision I don't think Kubrick himself could match.
Hotz is a both an old friend (giving DenBoer some of his first television work) and his biggest fan. He praises The Chickening with the verve of an evangelical. For him the film is the first of its kind, the birth of a new genre, and when he got involved he made sure that more people were going to know about. He tells anybody who will listen that The Chickening was "a fuck you, like punk rock," and that DenBoer is a genius.
One person who listened is Colin Geddes. Geddes is the programmer of Midnight Madness at TIFF, a genre showcase for people tired of watching actors fake having PTSD and who want to see something more lighthearted, like a psychopath chasing a teen. As such, Geddes is the most powerful film geek in the world. After getting an undescribed link from Hotz, Geddes was immediately struck by what he saw.
"Nick and Davy have taken the concept of culture jamming and the mash-up into another dimension with a wild and irreverent take on a classic," he said. "I knew then that this was going to blow minds if I played it before the opening night film for the festival's Midnight Madness series."
So that's how The Chickening ended up as part of the fortieth edition of one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world, and I think the fest is lucky to have it. TIFF is, after all, the beginning of awards season, when the film world reminds us all how very important it is and how fortunate we are to have it. And The Chickening dumps a hot load of BBQ sauce all over this haughtiness. Not only is it technically mind-blowing, but it's a bizarre reminder that no art is sacred and that every classic film is only as important as what comes after it.
The Chickening plays Saturday, 2:30 PM at Hot Doc Cinema.
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