Frozen pests, failed political campaigns and other behind-the-scenes dispatches from the making of Travis Irvine's would-be cult classic
Before Travis Irvine started filming his debut feature film in 2005, he struggled with locating the movie's villains.
Thankfully, Irvine's father stepped in with a last-minute tip that set the stage for production to begin.
“He was like, ‘Oh, you need dead, frozen raccoons? How many do you want? I can get you as many as you need,'” said Irvine in an early December interview. “And that's when it all started to fall together.”
According to Irvine, dead raccoons can be procured from pest-control companies for a nominal fee — far outstripping the cost of employing taxidermy, which can run in excess of $600 per animal — allowing him to purchase six frozen critters from a Delaware, Ohio-based company to serve as the terrors at the heart of “Coons! Night of the Bandits of the Night,” which he filmed in and around Athens and Bexley on a $5,000 budget during his junior year at Ohio University.
Yet somehow filming a movie with dead, frozen raccoons doesn't stand out on Irvine's oddball resume, which includes everything from a pair of failed political campaigns to stints filming undercover videos for conservative activist James O'Keefe of Project Veritas and serving as the traveling comic warmup for a presidential candidate.
“Travis is like a mythical creature. He's like a Pegasus. You see him, and then you see the details surrounding the things he does and you're like, ‘How did that happen? How?'” said Ervin Ross, a college friend and cast member from the original “Coons!”
Now, a dozen years later, Irvine, 34, is set to follow-up the cult flick, which received distribution via famed B-movie horror production house Troma Entertainment, with “Killer Raccoons! 2! Dark Christmas in the Dark.” Filming started in Nelsonville on Saturday, Dec. 9, and runs through early January, with post-production hopefully concluding sometime next summer and a full release following in December 2018. Fitting, considering the sequel doubles as a Christmas movie.
With the film, Irvine hopes to not only find individual success, but to bring attention to a fledgling Ohio film scene that he sees as lacking in institutional support. “Killer Raccoons! 2!” boasts a cast and crew of Ohio natives and expats, including a number of actors who will be reprising their roles from the original movie, and will be filmed largely in and around Nelsonville and Bexley, funneling a bulk of its estimated $25,000 budget back into the local economy. (The budget is a combination of personal funds, private investment and money raised via an online crowdsourcing campaign.)
“The whole idea with doing this movie is to enable more movies to be made in Ohio,” Irvine said. “There are whole political things that can happen down the line with tax credits. … Ohio sucks with tax credits. We're losing hundreds of millions of dollars to Pennsylvania, and now Kentucky, because they've enabled [better] tax incentives. … It's a silly movie, I get that, but filmmaking is a serious endeavor, and the fact we're losing out on so much business to surrounding states blows my mind.”
Ohio offers $40 million in annual tax credits to film productions, an amount that tends to dry up almost instantaneously. In 2017, for example, the entire credit was dispersed on the first day of the fiscal year, with two Cleveland-area productions accounting for $30 million of the total. (Ohio is one of the few states that does not include a per-project cap on credits, meaning, in essence, a single large production could absorb the entire yearly credit.) Pennsylvania, in contrast, budgets $65 million in tax credits, while the Kentucky program is uncapped. Both states institute a per-project limit on credits.
“[The 2017 credit] was used up by six films, and there were 26 in the queue behind those films,” said Film Columbus executive director John Daugherty, who oversees one of six regional Ohio film groups (others are located in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dayton, Youngstown and Hamilton).
Film Columbus is currently lobbying to grow the tax credit within the state, pointing to its 2016 annual report, which showed an economic return of $1.91 for every $1 invested in the program. The group is also pushing to reinstitute a per-project cap to allow funds to be distributed to more projects each year. Additionally, Daugherty would like to see bonus tax credits established for Ohio-based, brick-and-mortar film businesses such as production houses or soundstages that employ locals in the industry year-round.
“A film coming in and working for a month or so and then leaving is not a way to grow the film industry in Ohio,” Daugherty said. “I want to create jobs and keep people working. I want to give new graduates opportunities to stay here. I want to give graduates who have moved out of town but want to come back opportunities. … If I had three to four films a year and a TV series [being shot] in Columbus, I could keep 300 to 400 people employed full-time year-round, which is a huge number.”
Irvine's “Killer Raccoons! 2!” crew is decidedly smaller, numbering roughly 20 individuals — or 28, if you count the eight dead, frozen raccoons that were lined up on a bench in the backyard of the Irvine family home in Bexley on a recent Friday. Wrapped in plastic shopping bags, the critters initially resembled a row of frozen turkeys, a placid visual that quickly dissipated as Irvine unsealed the bags, revealing a team of mangy, matted raccoons, each curled in the fetal position, mouth at a grimace. Most had a paw raised to the eyes, as if shielding themselves from bright sun. “This is what they look like when they know they're going to die,” he said.
Irvine's plan is to thaw the raccoons enough that they're pliable. He can then position them like they're typing on computer keyboards or holding automatic weapons before refreezing them for filming. Oh, and the raccoons, which were procured from the same Delaware pest-control company as the first film, will also be decked out in infant Christmas pajamas, owing to the movie's seasonal theme. Costuming them in their still-frozen state, however, proved difficult. “It's like trying to dress a child,” said a gloved Irvine as he attempted to stretch an elf onesie over a balled-up raccoon.
The filmmaker and his eight frozen bandits were joined on this day by numerous human counterparts, including director of photography JT Schindler, first assistant camera Dylan Dyer and cast members Mitch Rose, Michelle Weiser and Drew Ullman, among others.
While the scene is grisly, it could be much worse, according to Colin Scianamblo, an actor on the first film who recalled working with the raccoon corpses in the August Athens heat where the thawing process was greatly accelerated and (there's really no graceful way to put this) leakage was possible.
“When you take [the raccoon] out of the cooler, it's pretty stiff, but you shoot for hours at a time and they became posable at the end, if you know what I mean,” he said. “It was pretty gross, so it was best not to think about [what you were actually doing].”
Irvine, for his part, compared the filming process to taking part in a “messed up ‘Muppet Show'” where crew members were positioned below the raccoons, which weighed anywhere from six to eight pounds for the so-called “foot soldiers” to more than 20 pounds for the massive mama raccoon, which required two crew members to manipulate and appeared onscreen mostly in close-ups due to the effort required to lift her.
This odd scene is just another day-in-the-life for Irvine, a standup comic, freelance journalist and occasional political candidate whose resume can make him appear akin to a Forrest Gump of modern controversy.
In 2006, Irvine interned with “The Today Show” in New York City, occupying a slot that, prior to his recent firing, disgraced anchor Matt Lauer held open for students from his alma mater, Ohio University. And beginning in 2012, Irvine worked as a freelance contributor filming undercover video footage for James O'Keefe, who recently made headlines when The Washington Post published an account of Project Veritas' failed attempts to run an undercover sting on the paper. And this just scratches the surface.
“For years, I'd be hanging out with friends and we'd be like, ‘Travis is headed to the Bahamas for a year. How? Travis doesn't have a job,'” said Ervin Ross, who managed to parlay his two-line role in “Coons!” into a career as a working actor in Hollywood. The actor has appeared on “Parks and Recreation,” “Fuller House” and “Trial & Error,” a new season of which concluded filming with just enough time to allow Ross to return to Ohio and reprise his role for “Raccoons! 2!” (“My manager and agents are like, ‘Why? This really won't further your career in any way,'” he said.)
In 2007, Irvine ran for mayor in his hometown of Bexley, capturing his losing campaign in the documentary “American Mayor,” which Amazon Prime added to its streaming platform earlier this year. Following that, he moved to Washington, D.C. to intern with U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, eventually leaving the post to take a job with Matthew Lesko, who Irvine described as “the infomercial guy with the question mark suit.” Irvine still has a question mark suit of his own from the gig, although when he breaks it out at costume parties most tend to mistake him for “Batman” villain the Riddler.
Irvine also did, in fact, live in the Bahamas for a year prior to launching his mayoral campaign, working at an internship with Ohio-based, educational nonprofit International Field Studies while trying to raise funds for a screenplay he'd written about a murder mystery unfolding on the set of a seaside reality TV program.
The filmmaker returned to Ohio in 2010 to mount a second political campaign, this time running as the Libertarian candidate for U.S. Congress in the 12th District, where he lost to Republican Pat Tiberi, pulling in 3.2 percent of the vote. Irvine's political campaign did generate some national attention, however, with his TV spot advising voters to “give the two-party system the third finger” airing in a clip on “PBS NewsHour.”
In recent years, Irvine has served as the traveling comic warmup for presidential candidate Gary Johnson (both in 2012 and 2016), blogged for the Huffington Post, conducted man-on-the-street interviews for Viceland and created humorous global warming videos for British news site The Guardian. He also founded and ran the anti-John Kasich super PAC, Central Ohioans Countering Kasich, targeting the Ohio governor during his failed 2016 run for the Republican presidential nomination.
Many of Irvine's career moves have an underlying motivation. With “Raccoons! 2!” he's trying to bring further attention to the Ohio movie scene and the tax policies he believes are hindering its growth. And with his failed mayoral and congressional campaigns, he was attempting to instill in the public the idea that politics doesn't have to solely exist as a playground for the wealthy or the connected.
“I was trying to inspire more millennials to run for office, really,” he said. “There's no harm in normal people running. That's all part of the political brand: Run. Run for the sake of running.”
Through these admittedly circuitous years, Irvine held onto the idea of one day making a sequel to “Coons,” finally sitting down to hammer out a script roughly two years ago — a process he described in less-than-scientific terms.
“The script process was literally, turn on ‘Under Siege 2,' watch a scene, pause it, rewrite the scene with raccoons,” Irvine said. “Then, hit play again, pause it, rewrite the scene with raccoons.”
While the first film was inspired by a camping trip to Florida where a gaggle of chattering raccoons surrounded the filmmaker's tent, the follow-up is heavily steeped in a trio of action sequels: “Under Siege 2” (obviously), “Die Hard 2” and “Speed 2.”
“The first movie was supposed to be the ultimate man-vs.-nature horror movie, but terrible,” Irvine said. “Now, with ‘Killer Raccoons! 2!' we're taking all the terrible action sequels and the elements that made them shitty and putting them into this one. … ‘Speed 2' and ‘Under Siege 2' were so terrible that they ended those franchises.”
Scianamblo, executive producer on “Raccoons! 2!' and Irvine's business partner in Overbite Productions (the media company takes its name from a faux music documentary the two made while attending Bexley High School together), said the concept was further influenced by the 2006 Samuel L. Jackson film “Snakes on a Plane.” “Around that time we started thinking, if you have ‘Snakes on a Plane' why not ‘Raccoons on a Train'?” he said.
Hence the Nelsonville shoot at the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway, with exterior footage of an in-operation train captured in early December and a week of scheduled film days picking up at the engine house on Saturday, Dec. 16. (Irvine obtained permission to film on-site following an August presentation to the railway board and a follow-up meeting in September.)
After initial filming concludes in early January, Irvine has budgeted three months for post-production work, with late-spring targeted for completing special effects, color correction and sound mastering, among other processes. “So hopefully by the end of summer 2018 my two jobs will be running for governor and shopping [‘Killer Raccoons! 2!'] to distributors to get it out by Christmas,” he said, with Netflix standing as the prime distribution target. There will also be limited theatrical engagements in locales such as Athens, Columbus, Cleveland, Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C.
Oh, and about the whole “governor” thing. Irvine said he was recently tabbed by the Libertarian Party of Ohio to run for governor in 2018, assuming the party is able to obtain enough signatures to get a candidate on the ballot. (Harold Thomas, deputy political director for candidates and campaigns for the Libertarian Party of Ohio, confirmed Irvine's statement.) If Irvine does run, expect the filmmaker tax credit to factor into his campaign. “With my political track record, I'd love to insert that into the conversation next year,” he said.
Beyond that, who knows? Maybe there's a senatorial run in Irvine's future. Or even a presidential campaign. Or, failing that, maybe all that's left to do is launch a cadre of dead, frozen raccoons into outer space.
“Maybe we'll make a third one and we'll change the name again,” Irvine said. “It'll be sci-fi, and it'll be called ‘Homicidal Trash Pandas: Moon Base on the Moon.'”
Someone ready the tiny space helmets.
Correction: An early version of this piece listed Irvine's father as a biology professor at Capital University. Alive regrets the error.