As the Tribeca Film Festival moved into its first full day of screenings on Thursday, it didn't take long for one of the festival's most buzzed-about films to also become one of its most controversial.
"First Winter," an apocalyptic drama from first-time director Benjamin Dickinson, had its world premiere on Thursday night at the AMC Loews Village 7, where it was received enthusiastically by a friendly crowd.
But the premiere came as news broke that the filmmakers behind one of the festival's most eagerly awaited films had illegally killed two deer while making the movie.
They did so while shooting the scene that drew the biggest audience reaction at the premiere. That reaction, which consisted mostly of squirms and groans, came when the characters shoot a deer and then skin, dress and cook the animal.
Before learning that the shooting violated rules from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservatism, Dickinson freely talked about it in interviews.
"At a certain point [we] even considered cheating in some way," he said in an interview on the Tribeca website. "But in the end, I was convinced that it had to be authentic, and I was prepared to change the story if need be."
New York state regulations require a permit to shoot deer, which the filmmakers did not obtain. The shooting also took place in February, which is not hunting season. Dickinson could conceivably face a fine and jail time, though the DEC is still investigating.
"We are idiots," Dickinson told Manhattan's DNAinfo.com website, which broke the news about the violations. "We didn't know how to do this [hunting] stuff. There were so many deer weak from the winter and getting eaten by local dogs we didn't even think about it."
Dickinson did not address the issue after his premiere screening. Earlier in the day, Tribeca had cancelled the red carpet component of the film's premiere, something the festival said it does frequently, and for various reasons.
Even without allegations of illicit hunting, the austere and slow-paced film divided reviewers.
At the Unseen Films blog, for instance, critic "dbborroughs" called the film "a long winded pretentious pompous piece of cinematic trash that is painfully dull and incredibly stupid."
New York magazine, on the other hand, singled it out as one of nine Tribeca nine films to watch, and lauded it for taking its narrative in unexpected directions.
To these eyes, "First Winter" is by turns intriguing and awkward, elliptical and evocative, beautiful and annoying. Think of it as an American indie filmmaker's attempt to make an Ingmar Bergman film on virtually no budget – or as an odd cross between Ben Nichols' "Take Shelter" (which dealt with the impact of apocalyptic premonitions, or maybe delusions, on personal relationships) and Bela Tarr's extraordinary "The Turin Horse" (which detailed the little rituals inside a house as the world winds down outside).
The film is set in a snowy unnamed location, where a charismatic yoga teacher who sports impressively idiotic facial hair and may well be a charlatan (Paul Manza) has assembled a group of devotees. Something happens in the outside world, the power goes out, and the carload of friends who are dispatched to find out what's going on never return.
We never learn anything about the event responsible for the blackout, for reasons that had to do with both drama and money. Asked why he didn't deliver more details in a post-screening Q&A, Dickinson said, "It was opening a can of worms that I did not have the budget to answer."
(The film was reportedly made for less than $100,000, some of which was raised on Kickstarter.)
A reluctant talker at the Q&A, Dickinson also said that the film was largely improvised based on a 20-page outline, and that he and his cast spent a month living in the upstate New York house during a brutal winter that some described as "snowpocalypse."
"The making of the film," he insisted on Thursday night, "was a spiritual experience."