There's a dead mermaid in Anne Pickard's home studio. Headless, she's on a stand, propped in a chair, her tail cascading onto the floor. Behind her is a head---or at least hair---matted black and stringy, with bits of seaweed and beach debris tangled in its locks.
The carcass is at the centre of Cory Bowles' short film, The Scavengers, about three boys who discover what they think is a mermaid washed up on the shore, and then---as kids do---examine their find.
Last year Bowles saw a group of kids crowded around a dead pigeon. It reminded him of being young and poking at dried, skeletal fish in Digby. "I started thinking of a mermaid," he says. "The image of a dried mermaid was funny. But then I started thinking about it as a short narrative."
He spoke to Scavengers producer John Davies at an AFCOOP Film 5 information session. Davies got it immediately: "He lit up. He saw what I saw, what kids would do to the body---defile it, really." Although the team didn't make it through the program's production phase, they decided to go ahead, with freedom to make it longer and experiment more.
As Bowles wrote the script he had a pair of seal mittens sitting on his desk. He envisioned the mermaid as a long sea lion, an image that solidified when he was down south and saw a herd. "They're so gorgeous from far off but then you got up close, and they were smelly and hideous looking."
Artist Mirco Chen created the storyboard, inspired by deep-water creatures. He created an incredible world, almost Tim Burton-esque, that Bowles says visualized the scene "like a graphic novel." But he still needed a mermaid.
Through NSCAD University, Bowles hooked up with Pickard, a textile artist who makes eerie soft sculpture people. It took five minutes for her to agree to tackle the sea creature. First, she made a form for dancer Rachel Franco, who plays the mermaid, out of a thin dress and duct tape. Pickard put stuffing between her legs to help Franco move and make knee joints disappear, avoiding that Darryl Hannah-in-Splash look. Then, she took ragged, recycled wool, a forgiving material that would become the creature's torso. Pickard says, "I molded the wool on to fit her perfectly, otherwise it would be an off-the-rack mermaid."
For the tail, Pickard, who discovered an allergy to seal during production, pulled out seven seal pelts that she saved from dumpster death at an old film set. She estimates that she spent hundreds of hours working. "It's an animal hide so to try make it look seamless, you can't show stitches, so there's a lot of shaving of the fur that happens inside the costume. In many places you're looking at up to eight layers of hide to get the shape. That's an awl and pliers and a giant needle and sinew. But I didn't spend one penny."
The mermaid has a stinger, arms for carrying its young and even a fish pooper. Bowles and Pickard pick up the tail. "When you put water on this baby, and sand, and blood, it makes this great sound," says Bowles, letting it fall with a giant thwap.
After its big premiere at AFF (even Pickard hasn't seen it on film), the mermaid will appear in an art exhibition Pickard is planning for Ross Creek.
"It is an art piece," says Bowles. "It's hard not be invested in it. In the end, if something happens, we gotta cut it open. We have to be able to desecrate it. It's hard to let go, especially when it's not my piece. But it's such a lovely piece of work, I'm really happy and proud to have it in the film. It's a wonderful thing."