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Hipsters Illegally Kill Deer in Making of Tribeca Film Festival Movie

By Serena Solomon | April 17, 2012 6:45am

BROOKLYN — A Brooklyn filmmaker whose post-apocalyptic hipster survival flick premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival this week could be on the hot seat with state authorities after his actors shot a pair of live deer without a license as part of the movie.

Director Ben Dickinson and his crew recorded the dramatic deer-killing scene on a private farm in upstate New York in February 2011 for their critically-acclaimed debut feature-length film, "First Winter."

Not only did they not have a license, but the incident occured outside of deer hunting season.

"We are idiots. We didn't know how to do this [hunting] stuff," said director Ben Dickinson, whose film is scheduled to premiere at the prestigious festival on Thursday April 19.

Characters in the film
Characters in the film "First Winter" bury one of their own.
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Adam Newport-Berra

"There were so many deer weak from the winter and getting eaten by local dogs we didn't even think about it," Dickinson said.

The kill was part of a 23-day film shoot for Dickinson's feature about naive Brooklyn hipsters learning to survive in the wild after an apocalyptic event. It took them several days to find a deer, he said, and they had started to think they would have to revise the script to drop the scene.

The crew was practicing yoga inside the farm's main house one day when someone spotted a herd of deer in the neighboring field. They grabbed a rifle and camera and ran outside, Dickinson said.

Actor Paul Manza, a 34-year-old Brooklyn yoga instructor who plays "Paul" the yoga instructor in the film and had no prior acting or hunting experience, pulled the trigger. It was unclear who owned the rifle or whether it was registered.

The bullet pierced one deer and passed into a second one behind it, killing the first deer and wounding the second one, Manza and Dickinson said. The crew chased the second deer into the woods and shot it again to put it out of its suffering, Manza said.

"It was actually pretty horrible," said Manza. "I was forced to see what life was really made of, the weight and the value of things."

The crew skinned one of the carcasses, cut it up, and cooked it over an open fire — all in front of the camera.

"It was amazing to eat that meat and really feel the spirit of the animal," Manza said. "It gave me a different relationship to eating animals and animal products."

Dickinson said he didn't think about the legality of hunting and the crew did not secure a permit for the deer hunt — but he added that the film's publicist, Jenny Lawhorn, is currently in discussions with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

A spokeswoman for the state DEC said the agency is looking into the incident, but didn't immediately have additional details. She confirmed that a February deer shooting was outside of hunting season, and added that the penalties for hunting without a permit range from a $2,000 fine to imprisonment.

Spokesman for the Tribeca Film Festival, Robert Lawson, declined to comment.

Dickinson's movie, which was singled out as one of the criticially-acclaimed films of the festival, centers on a group of yoga-loving Brooklyn hipsters who have to tap into their survival instincts after an apocalyptic crisis cuts off power and communications to the outside world.

The film begins with eight Brooklynites on a yoga retreat whose power and cellphone reception are cut off. Assuming the disruption is momentary, the group continues their drug use and sexual romps — until their food supply begins to run low, and a search party does not return.

As the stakes get more dangerous, the characters' survival instincts kick in.

"You realize how difficult it is because you don’t have those [survival] skills," said Dickinson, who began growing his own food in 2008 in an urban farm in Brooklyn. "I am making fun of myself because none of us have the skills that are related to living on the earth."

Ben Dickinson at his Clinton Hill home.
Ben Dickinson at his Clinton Hill home.
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DNAinfo/Serena Solomon

He added that in "First Winter" he was aiming for a sense of "method filmmaking." He secluded the cast and crew on the farm for the entire shoot in an attempt to convey the weight of the story.

Dickinson also did away with energy-consuming film lights, instead relying on the sun during the day and candles at night. Electricity was only used to capture and play back the scenes, he said.

The result is a stripped-down, authentic image that falls in line with the film's story and message, he added.

Dickinson tapped his friends — many of whom had no prior acting experience — for the roles. He raised $15,000 on Kickstarter.com, and was given several additional $10,000 donations, he said. He used his own money to fund the rest of the cost, which was tens of thousands of dollars.

Despite the scaled-down and simplified theme of "First Winter," Dickinson said he has not escaped the reality of the film industry.

"I think it is ironic I made a film about these ideas and now I am marketing, hustling," said Dickinson, as he sat in his Brooklyn courtyard preparing to plant seeds in half a dozen garden beds.

"That paradox is something I am trying to enjoy."

Tickets for “First Winter” can be purchased from the Tribeca Film Festival box office. The film is being screened on April 19, 20, 26 and 28.