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Jeff Daniels’ “Escanaba in da Moonlight”: The Deer Camp Comedy That Lives On

Jeff-Daniels----Escanaba

Fall is in the air, and if you’re a deer hunter, that means thinking, planning and dreaming about deer camp. One good way to get in the right spirit is to watch a real gem of a movie that continues to “have legs” as they say in show biz, over 10 years after it came out.

Not only a time to get together with old friends and go after a big buck, a deer camp is a modern version of the secret society of the past, with its own set of rules, and often a lot of good-natured humor. Actor Jeff Daniels thought so. That’s why he created perhaps the funniest hunting movie ever made, Escanaba in da Moonlight.

Daniels has appeared in over 70 feature films and TV shows including The Hours, Blood Work, Dumb and Dumber, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Speed, 101 Dalmatians, Pleasantville, Arachnaphobia, and the television mini-series The Crossing where he played George Washington leading his men across the Delaware. Currently, Jeff is starring in The Newsroom series on HBO, and a sequel to Dumb and Dumber, Dumb and Dumber To, is in the works.

Like a lot of kids from small towns, Jeff took off for the big city when he decided he wanted to be an actor. But, after 10 years of film and stage acting in New York and LA, in 1988 Jeff brought his family back home to Chelsea, Michigan, whose only other claim to fame is being the home of Jiffy Mix.

When Jeff moved back to the Midwest, people said he’d lose his career. Hasn’t happened. People said that if he founded a theater company in Chelsea, an hour’s drive away from Detroit, it would flop. Daniels’ Purple Rose Theater is flourishing.

Daniels has guts. After he founded the Purple Rose Theater Company, he began writing plays, and performing them with local talent. They filled the house, night after night. Another success!

Jeff’s next step was forming a production company, Purple Rose Films. For his first film, he chose one of his most successful stage plays, Escanaba in da Moonlight, a comedy set in a deer camp in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

No one in Hollywood wanted to fund a movie set in a Michigan deer camp, so Jeff and his producer partner Bob Brown went out and raised $2.3 million from people in Michigan. Many of the investors were people who saw Escanaba in da Moonlight performed as a play, first at Jeff’s Purple Rose Theater, or at the Gem Theater in Detroit, where holds the record as the longest-running play in Detroit history.

“It’s basically the story of five people in a deer camp,” Jeff explains. “The lead character is Reuben Soady (played by Jeff), who is 43 and has never shot a buck, so he’s a ‘buckless yooper’ (“yooper” stands for resident of the Upper Peninsula or UP). If Reuben doesn’t get one this year, he will be the oldest person in the Soady family to not have bagged a buck, except for an uncle who is missing a few screws. His father, Albert, (Harve Presnell) and the others all want to help Ruben break his jinx. As a result, in Albert’s Finnish dialect, ‘Dat year camp was as tense as a moose’s butt durin’ fly season.’”

Jeff says, “I’ve described it as Jeremiah Johnson meets Dumb and Dumber, but Escanaba in da Moonlight is basically a hero’s journey, where Reuben is guided by his Indian wife, ‘Wolf Moon Dance’ (Kimberly Norris Guerrero), who is a better shot and very woods-wise. It’s not just about deer hunting, it’s a spiritual quest with hunting as a metaphor.”

“Comedy gives us license to be outrageous,” Daniels says with a chuckle. Escanaba in da Moonlight definitely has its outrageous moments — a father-son counseling session in a two-holer outhouse, a 10-minute fart joke, porcupine urine as a cover scent, visitations from aliens and spirits of ancient hunters, and a wild tavern scene that may influence dancing forever. The movie is wild and hilarious, but Jeff says this is really a “heart” picture that seeks to present a little-seen facet of modern American life.

Most of the film was shot in Escanaba, using a lot of locals. The music is scored by Alto Reed, sax player from Bob Seeger’s Silver Bullet Band. Ted Nugent supplied props for the hunting camp and a song.

Escanaba in da Moonlight premiered for a sell-out crowd October 22, 2000, at Detroit’s Fox theater. Daniels then took the film to Escanaba on October 29, for two more sell-out showings at the biggest space in the area — the 760 seat Chip-In Resort and Casino, owned by the Potawatomi Indian tribe. The reviews were great. It was time to get serious.

Copies of Escanaba in da Moonlight were sent out to distributors far and wide, but none would take it. Film festivals, like the Toronto Film Festival, where Jeff’s other pictures, such as Dumb and Dumber, have premiered, turned him down. Many would have given up at this point. Not Daniels.

Jeff and Bob Brown became their own distributors, making expensive copies of the print and contacting theaters. The general release started out in January 2001 in selected theaters in Michigan on Super Bowl weekend. It grossed $250,000 the first weekend, more than any big budget studio release playing in the same area. News spread, and so did bookings, stretching out into other nearby Midwest states. It’s per-screen average rose to higher than any top grossing film in the US. By early April, Escanaba in da Moonlight had made its way onto the Variety charts with a higher per-engagement box office than either of the Academy Award winning Traffic or Chocolat.

The theatrical release gross, with only a Midwestern showing, rose to well over $2.3 million. It became one of the top 250 grossing movies in 2001. Then, in 2002, it came time for the DVD release.

A distributor gingerly did step forward. The distributor said that they hoped to sell 20,000 copies of the DVD. Typical of the movie’s surprising spirit, to date, according to Bob Brown of Michigan’s Charity Island Pictures, over 120,000 copies of the DVD have been sold through normal outlets like Blockbuster, Circuit City, Best Buy and Borders, as well as Cabela’s, and Bob says that he continues to get orders for DVD’s every week. It has become a true “cult classic.”

You can rent this homage to Michigan’s UP deer camps through Netflix or buy a copy directly from Bob at charityislandpictures@gmail.com. The cost is $13.99 plus shipping and handling. Check out the film’s website at www.escanabathemovie.com, where you can see a trailer for the funniest deer hunting movie ever made, get a poster, and more.

Daniels admits that people living in big cities who have never seen a deer, let alone hunted one, may not get Escanaba in da Moonlight. But there apparently are a lot of folks who want to see a good, funny movie about deer hunting. Hopefully the success of this picture will convince Hollywood that money can be made from a movie that has a positive story to tell about hunting.

Image courtesy James Swan/Jeff Daniels

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