Last month, the History Channel aired the first-season finale of Chasing Tail, a reality series about a merry band of deer hunters who stalk their quarry in the suburbs of Connecticut. Created and co-produced by Pete Vandall (MFA 2011 Social Documentary Film), the show had its origins in the thesis film he made while at SVA. SVA Close Up caught up with Vandall to find out how the project got started and then was turned into a series.
How did you get the idea for a documentary about deer hunters?
I grew up in Connecticut and there are a lot of members of my family who happen to be huge characters and avid hunters. But I grew up in the wealthy suburbs; my mother never wanted me to have anything to do with guns or hunting.
After college, I was working in television production and at one point, I moved in with my grandmother, because at that time she needed a lot of care on a daily basis. One night, I come home from work, my car headlights shine on my grandfather’s apple tree and there are seven dead deer hanging from it. I walk in the house, the TV’s on, there’s this thick cloud of cigarette smoke. I hear, “Hey, Petey, what are you doing here?” and turn and see my cousin Mike [Andronaco]. Mike is from Connecticut, but now he lives in Vermont. I learned that Mike and his friends come to Connecticut every fall to hunt, and in the early days they always needed a place to stay. It turned out that Mike and his hunting buddies used my grandmother’s house as their first “deer camp.” Every day after that, I came home to more and more deer hanging out back and coyotes running around, howling. I started to get to know everyone better and realized that what they do had the potential to either be a film or a TV show.
When you decided to make your thesis project about Mike and his friends, how did you go about doing it? Were they uncomfortable being filmed?
At first, Mike didn’t know what I was doing. He’s 20 years older than me; we’re from completely different generations. To him, I was the kid who never went outside and just played video games. But I spent the whole season with them. I got months and months of footage. We would wake up at 4:00am, it would be incredibly cold, just freezing. Mike would light a cigarette, we’d get ready, then we’d go outside, climb a tree and wait. I spent more time with them than I did my immediate family.
Did you ever assist with, say, dressing a carcass?
I’ve helped. It’s not pretty. But they give meat away to food shelters and pantries, so nothing goes to waste. [Cast member] Rob Lucas is the best at [butchering]. He’s a physician’s assistant who’s moved out to California, but he flies in for a few weeks every year to hunt. In the afternoon, when he’s done hunting, he goes out to give his East coast clients their Botox injections.
Chasing Tail is advertised, in part, as a show about culture clash. How come?
I always describe it as Fargo meets Leave It to Beaver. One time I was with Mike and he noticed a homeowner’s putting green. He said, “It’s funny, over there that guy is loving his passion—golf—while I’m over here loving my passion, bow hunting.” The fact is there’s an overpopulation of deer in Connecticut. The state has to manage the herd and the most cost-effective way to do it is to let hunters do their thing. Hunting season for deer is months long—September 15 until January 31 of the following year. But in order to hunt in the wealthy suburbs, Mike and his friends have to knock on doors and get permission to hunt on private land. Some people love to have them; others slam the door in their faces. My film or the show was never about trying to make fun of rich people. It was simply the visual of Mike and his friends dressed in full camouflage, knocking on the doors of ornate mansions that originally made this so humorous to me. They are just blue-collar guys, doing what they love in a white-collar world.
It’s also all bow hunting, no guns. A bow is not like a gun, where you’re going to miss a shot and have the bullet travel a mile and end up in some lady’s living room.
How did your thesis film become a series?
I always knew it had that potential, and I knew someone who worked for Leftfield Pictures—they’re a great production company, they make shows like Pawn Stars and American Restoration. I pitched him the concept and showed him some footage and he loved it. We partnered and pitched it to the History Channel.
Once it became a series, what was your role?
I worked in the field as a story producer and shooter, and helped with edits.
I wouldn’t have been able to make this happen if I hadn’t gone back to school. When you’re working, it’s hard to find time to work on your personal projects. But going back to school gave me the opportunity to take the time to follow my cousins around and develop something. The Soc Doc faculty encouraged everybody to work on projects they were passionate about and that were based on things they know. I love character-driven comedy, and I know my family. The rest is history.