THREE OAKS — A true behind-the-scenes look at the making of the full-length movie “Prancer” that has become a holiday tradition for many was given to viewers with the premiere showing of “Lights! Camera! Three Oaks! The Making of Prancer” on July 20 at the Vickers Theatre.
The 13-minute documentary is the latest in a series of films produced for The Region of Three Oaks Museum by board member Nick Bogert, himself a former network TV news producer who recently moved full time to Lakeside, a spot he has spent many summers over the years. “Prancer” was filmed in Three Oaks in the winter of 1988-1989. Over the years, it has become a Christmas favorite for many as it relates the story of a young girl who believes the injured reindeer she finds is Prancer, one of Santa’s reindeer.
Additional insights into the village’s winter with Hollywood came after the July 20 showing when Bogert was joined by “Prancer” director John Hancock to answer questions from the audience, including the fact that he had nothing to do with the sequel production “Prancer Returns.” Hancock is best known for his 1973 film “Bang the Drum Slowly,” starring Robert De Niro and Michael Moriarty.
During his traditional welcome and opening movie trivia quiz for a box of popcorn, Vickers co-owner Bill Lindblom revealed that Berrien County has been the sight of 11 feature films, with five of them by Hancock including the soon-to-be-released “Girls of Summer.”
Hancock said Three Oaks was chosen for the “Prancer” production over other locations because “it hasn’t changed since the 1950’s.” Also, he was familiar with the area and Three Oaks, having visited Drier’s and other Three Oaks landmarks as a kid while visiting his grandfather’s nearby apple orchard. Hancock said he was pleased when the casting call attracted hundreds of hopeful actors. From this, he chose many extras “who were very important to the film but were paid only $3.35 an hour.”
There were many insights about the live reindeer who took on the role of Prancer. Housed in a nearby Galien horse farm, these stand-ins came from Alabama, “bordered on being untrainable,” were either camera-shy or downright stubborn in their refusal to look into the lens and, at times, dangerous when they aimed their antlers at whoever was nearby. Bananas on set were the only thing that seemed to calm them down at times.
Hancock recalled letting the camera roll through 1,000 feet of film trying to get shots of a reindeer looking directly into the camera. He didn’t get any. However, Bogert noted that reindeer must be allergic to gluten after Hancock recalled that the “apple pie” eaten by “Prancer” had to be made with a special crust that didn’t include flour.
Hancock revealed how the crew dealt with the below-average amount of snow, using both an indoor set built in LaPorte that recreated downtown Three Oaks which was built by a talented carpenter crew as well as “manufactured” snow on-demand from cotton bunting on the rooftops, the foam carncinol which also is used for emergency airport landings and instant potato flakes blown into the air with large fans.
“The potato flakes had to be swept up after shooting because if the reindeer ate them the flake would swell in their stomachs. But it looked totally real in the movie,” Hancock said.
When asked from the audience if “Prancer” made money, Hancock was quick to say, “Oh yes, it still is. I’m still getting checks from it.”
According to Wikipedia, the box office revenue was $18.6 million.
Hancock said voices of the local Methodist Church choir singing Christmas carols were used in the final edit, dismissing a popular rumor that they had been dubbed over using a professional group.
“Three Oaks has a lot of talent,” Hancock said. That, and the cooperation he got from all the local officials and townspeople, are reasons why Hancock said he would like to return once again to make his sixth movie in the area.
Copies of “Lights! Camera! Three Oaks! The Making of Prancer” are being offered by the Museum as a fundraiser, along with Bogert’s other films document the life of E. K Warren, the contributions of the Pokagon Tribe to the area and the colorful life of Three Oaks Native Joe Savoldi.
Other upcoming museum events include: “Winemaking in Michiana,” a history and tasting on Saturday, Aug. 24, at 5 p.m. at Café Gulistan (site of the old Molly Pitcher winery); and a history tour of Elm Street in September. For further details, visit www.regionofthreeoaksmuseum.com.