Deer, Guns & Videotape

The thrill of the kill is the name of the game for the Drury brothers, stars of Americas most breathless hunting videos

Nov 17, 2004 at 4:00 am
On the seventh volume of Dream Season, released last spring and available at hunting stores across the nation, Mark Drury sits inside a camouflage tent alongside his wife, Tracy, and their daughter, Taylor. The family is holed up deep within a northern Missouri forest. A rifle is mounted on a tripod, and eight-year-old Taylor, with shoulder-length brown hair and her father's explosive smile, has her finger on the trigger.

Taylor is seen moments earlier nearly taking down a strapping buck, but she hesitates, and it trots away. Her father, the narrator, comforts his teary-eyed daughter. She missed the year before too, he says -- but that's the way it goes. The 38-year-old Drury sounds excited as he reminisces about his own youth, when he hunted with his brother Terry, his partner and co-star in Drury Outdoors Productions, the Bloomsdale, Missouri-based company that creates and sells hunting videos.

"Now I'm entering a new stage of my life," intones Mark as a synthetic rhythm fills the background, "and I'm watching my daughter Taylor start hunting."

The video cuts to a shot of two deer chomping on clover, then to a close-up of Taylor peering through the scope, her father offering quiet guidance. The deer graze, snouts buried in the greenery, blissfully unaware of their impending demise.

From 40 yards, the third-grader shoots from within the tent, and fur and blood fly out from the deer's stomach. The animal jerks and convulses, its stride turning into a hobbled gait. "You hit it!" enthuses Mark as the deer continues its painful trot.

"No I didn't!" responds the confused girl.

The deer turns its head toward the camera. "Shoot it again!" urges Mark. Taylor aims, and boom! A bullet whistles into the deer's ribcage. The deer bucks its hind legs and wobbles as if on a listing boat. "She's going down!" shouts Mark. The deer collapses. "She's down! She's down!"

"Yeah!" shouts Taylor, beaming.

Mark Drury can't contain himself. "You got your first deer, Taylor! You don't know how proud I am of you. She! Is! Down! Good shooting. You hit her both times. Give me five!" He giggles, beside himself with glee. "I'm so pumped up right now. Are you pumped?"

The video moves to a shot of mother, father and daughter in neon-orange vests and hats. They're running through the field toward the fallen deer. "Look at this doe," exclaims Mark Drury, poking his finger in the bullet hole as the camera zooms in. The young girl gently kicks the dead beast in the belly and steps back.

In 1987 Mark Drury was a 22-year-old college graduate with a penchant for turkey-calling. He'd rented a few turkey-call videos and figured he could do better. He went to Terry, his older brother, and conned him into splitting the cost of a video camera. As Mark recalls, "Terry said, 'You do the calling, and I'll film.'" Drury Outdoor Productions' first release, King of Spring, arrived in 1989. Some 66 titles later the company's still going strong, with Dream Season, an all deer-hunting series, one of its best-selling lines of videos. The Drurys also do a good business in turkey-hunting videos.

The company gained steam in 1992 with the production of Monster Bucks, its first whitetail deer-hunt video. All the footage was shot in the wild, featuring graphic kills. The scenes combine hunterly advice with the Drury brothers' zestful personalities and guide viewers through the thrill of the chase.

"Neither one of us has killed a buck off-film since probably 1990," says Mark. "If we're out there hunting, we're filming."

Today the brothers and their fellow warriors are minor celebrities. One night, while Pevely police officer and sometime Drury freelancer Steve Coon -- a.k.a. Coon Dog -- was working at the station house, a fellow officer hauled in a drunk. "The guys screams, 'Hey, I know you,'" Coon Dog recalls. "'I just seen you on TV! I just seen you shoot a deer!'"

For the past fifteen years, the Drurys have been having the time of their lives on camera. Where Mark has the unbridled enthusiasm of Nicolas Cage's character in Raising Arizona, Terry's more Tim Robbins in The Hudsucker Proxy, an energetic spirit ready to carpe diem.

On one video, 48-year-old Terry sneaks in and awakens his brother from a deep slumber. Later they're in the car laughing while Mark chomps on cheese doodles. They're roaming the western prairies looking for game. They're dragging a monster buck to their truck. They're constantly bumping knuckles and high-fiving. Their brotherhood is infectious, and the camera's invisible.

Over the course of the hunting season, hunters send tapes of their kills to the Drurys' St. Charles production facility, where a four-man team of twentysomething editors polish them until they're ready for release. The company presses an initial run of 20,000 to 30,000 copies, which sell for fifteen bucks apiece.

In essence, these are hunting snuff films where men, women and children, decked out from head to foot in neon orange and camouflage, roam the woods, climb trees -- camera and weapon in hand -- and gun down turkey and deer.

With 13 million hunters in America, the market is ripe for the Drurys, who predict they'll sell between 750,000 and 1 million hunting videos this year to customers nationwide. The titles include Longbeard Madness, Whitetails Taking It to the Extreme, On the Move -- and their signature titles, Whitetail Madness and Dream Season. The covers promise plenty of action: "8 Awesome Wild Kills," "11 Dramatic Buck Kills," "20 Breathtaking Hunts from Across North America."

In addition to selling videos at retail outlets such as Bass Pro Shops, the company makes its oeuvre available through the National Rifle Association, where Drury Outdoors entices the 2 million members with offers of doorstep delivery. Terry compares it to a Book of the Month Club.

Since their first video, the Drurys have refined their output. In the early days, the two of them hunted and taped each other harvesting animals, piecing the footage together at a for-hire video-production facility. As sales rose, they needed more material and turned to freelancers -- a couple dozen handsome men, and a few women, who film each other shooting game. The money they earn more than pays for them to live out their hunting fantasies -- and, as an added bonus, sponsors eagerly shower them with state-of-the-art gear and weaponry.

Drury's main competition in the world of kill videos is a Georgia-based company called Real Tree. Combined, the two businesses represent nearly 80 percent of the market. But unlike Real Tree, Drury focuses on storyline and structure.

"If you watch a Drury Outdoors production," boasts Mark Drury, "number one, you're going to see the best graphics in the industry; number two, you're going to hear the best music. You're going to see the best wild footage, and you're going to see some of the best storytelling."

Some competitors, he adds, ensure ample kill footage by hunting deer in fenced pens, lessening the impact and the all-important drama.

Says Mark: "The best way to set the stage and have a really entertaining hunt, at the end of the day, is if it's in the wild.

"You can easily see it when someone's trying to fake it," Mark continues, "because most hunters aren't really good actors, you know. That is the common tie that binds the people in our videos, and the people sitting at home watching them -- when they see that passion and excitement raised to an unbelievable level. It's a level I can't acquire from anything else in life. And when you get that, then you've got something on video."

A mature buck is a powerful yet nimble creature without an inch of fat. Its coat shines and stretches tautly over a muscular frame. At the sound of a gunshot, it will hop through a thicket as though the ground were a trampoline.

When a buck wanders through the woods looking for a good patch of munchies in Whitetail Madness 7, it appears the most Zen-like of creatures, walking with a focused calmness, both hyper-aware and relaxed.

Twenty feet up in a tree, bowhunter Josh Phillips and cameraman John Frank are waiting -- and here the buck comes. John aims the camera at the deer. Josh can barely control his excitement.

He pulls the bowstring, slowly aims and lets loose, striking the buck in its abdomen. The animal, as if hit by lightning, races away as the camera wobbles toward the branches and sky before settling downward on Josh's face, which is now consumed with surprise and wonder.

"Thank you, God!" he says with a harsh whisper. "Thank you, God! Yes! He's going down right there! And oh, he's a beauty!" Phillips' face is flushed, overwhelmed by a smile. "I look over, he's 30 yards away, and I go, 'Big shooter buck over there!' It comes walking by. Perfect! The deer is down! The deer is downwind! Oh, that's the best buck of my life!"

The typical Drury video is structured much like a porno film, a series of escapades tied together by a loose narrative. The opening scene is away from the ultimate action: a fellow hunter's driveway, perhaps, or a diner or cabin. Then it moves into the woods with the hunter in a tree, the deer below. Finally, the gradual teasing builds to the money shot -- the hunter firing and killing his prey. The climax: the wild-eyed conqueror, breathing heavily, pumping his fist.

This breathless reaction to a clean kill is nearly universal among the Drury crew, and it comes across with such force that the viewer might feel like a voyeur. It's the thrill of the kill, but even more invigorating is the knowledge that the hunter's death shot will be recorded for posterity. In the Drury world, there are kills -- and then there are video kills.

"When you're out there by yourself, and you harvest an animal, there's a certain feeling that overcomes you," says Terry. "And it's not necessarily like winning a game as it is a spiritual event. This goes back to primitive times, because man really is the ultimate predator, so to speak. The pride that you get and the feeling -- or compassion -- that you have when you're by yourself is one thing. When you share it with someone else, it's totally different. You're in an elite group, and when you harvest a whitetail on video, you are at the top of your game."

To get to the Drury brothers' favorite hunting grounds, one takes Highway T through a timeless American village called Bible Grove, a dead ringer for Green Acres, the highlight of which could be the 1970 Pontiac hearse, the hawk roosting on a fence post or the rickety 1950s-era mobile home anchored to a plot of overgrowth by a weathered wooden porch.

Northern Missouri is a hunter's paradise where thousands of deer roam. On the eve of the November 2 election, an NRA billboard along Highway 61 features a poodle in a blue John Kerry sweater posing in a hunting-dog position atop a caption that reads: "That dog don't hunt." The Drurys do much of their shooting here.

In front of five cameras on a cloudy morning, Terry Drury points at a buck decoy on wheels 30 yards away. Hunters huddle in a semicircle around Terry. The shoot is for the first episode of the Dream Season reality show, broadcast during prime-time every Tuesday night on the Outdoor Life Network. The show's become a hit; last year it averaged 400,000 viewers per week.

It's your basic Survivor-style show, pitting amateurs against professionals over the course of a hunting season. Viewers vote for their favorite hunters, and the victor wins more than $30,000 worth of hunting gear and travel packages, including an African safari.

After Terry finishes explaining the rules, a father and son climb onto a five-foot platform above the crowd and string their arrows. The father nods, and the remote-control plastic deer on rubber wheels starts circling on a track the size and shape of a putting green.

It's a surreal sight worthy of a Monty Python skit: Lords cheering Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham as they track a lifeless object. A group of men, including the Drurys and the Philadelphia Phillies' hard-hitting first baseman Jim Thome alternately applaud and heckle as the father and son zip arrows at the faux buck. They hit the animal's torso with a thunk as the decoy keeps rolling. The bowhunters load up, aim and thwip once again, racking up impressive scores as the crowd hoots and howls.

The cameramen shoot the buck as it's wheeling around the pasture. Bearded, big-boned Aaron Crozier, the director, stands next to a tripod. The 25-year-old has never hunted in his life, but he looks more the hunter than most of Drury's lineup, a regular Grizzly Adams. Another cameraman sits in a makeshift dolly -- the raised scoop of a tractor -- pointing his Canon at the plastic buck.

Thome's a celebrity judge, and after the decoy-shooting round, the lean, silver-haired Terry interviews him, asking the athlete about the similarities of hunting and baseball.

"Everything has to go right," says Thome. "Whether [a deer] comes in at five or ten yards, and you have to get that shot, or it comes between thirty and forty. You've got to control your nerves. And that's like stepping in the batter's box. You've gotta control your nerves."

The rut is the one time of the year when does are in heat, a period when bucks lock horns, hit on a hot little number and hop aboard. During the rut, passion is in the air.

In the early fall, mature deer are couch potatoes, licking themselves, grunting, eating clover and occasionally wandering to the john. But for about ten days in late October and early November, all hell breaks loose in the woods as their buck juices boil.

"During the rut, bucks will run through walls, charge cars," says Drury Outdoors brand manager Scott Dieckhaus.

"It's the best time to see some really big deer," says Mark, "because they're covering a lot of ground looking for available does."

And the Drurys and their band of mercenaries are always there to take advantage.

The rut is a chaotic time for the freelancers, too. Although none of them supports himself solely on this income, the drive to snag a buck on film and make money is alluring. The freelancers get paid anywhere from $500 to $2,000 for videotaping a successful shoot -- not bad for a day's work. But they're responsible for their expenses, so if they don't capture a kill, they don't get paid. Most work in teams. Others, like Pevely cop Coon Dog, travel wherever the Drurys send them. Coon works overtime at his day job in order to take much of the hunting season off. Among the ranks are contractors, truck drivers, carpet installers, refrigerator technicians and an assistant principal.

Drury Outdoors has to pick its contractors wisely, as the company has a reputation to uphold. The last thing they want is footage of some amateur hack taking potshots at a little doe and only wounding her. They need full-grown trophies -- and clean kills.

The Drurys, who donate almost all of the deer meat to homeless shelters, preach hunting ethics and demand that their marksmen not shoot unless they have a clear bead on the correct target -- the heart or lungs. A clean kill is a quick kill. The goal isn't simply to snuff a deer. They could use a bazooka if that were the case. It's about sportsmanship and respect for the prey. Terry says he prefers using the word "harvest" to the more vulgar "kill," because the latter term "kind of demeans what we're doing."

Muses cameraman Crozier: "The ninja versus the samurai. They respect each other, but they're always trying to kill each other."

When he's not editing kill videos, Webster University film-school graduate Aaron Crozier directs oddball art films. One of his final projects at Webster was a musical spoof called Liontown, which featured humans in stuffed animal-head hoods singing about their dreary existence. Then they see an ad for a wonderful place, a leisurely utopia called Liontown, in which lions in disguise sing its praises. The animals are intrigued by the greener pastures, but when they arrive, they're devoured by lions.

His next short, 2002's Grumboon, was a silent film about a caveman who invents the toaster, with disastrous results. Currently, Crozier is in the beginning stages of his first feature-length script, which he describes as a "B-movie barbarian movie with a lot of blood and a lot of tits."

The bearded Crozier and semi-bearded Jeremy Mehrle, 26, also a Webster film school grad, greet visitors to the Drury Outdoors production studio. The unassuming office space, on the second floor of a stand-alone prefab Allstate Insurance building, is where the magic is made.

The two sit at Apple computers in a room adorned with Ansel Adams photos. Crozier's listening to hip-hop. A later glimpse at his iPod reveals that he rocks the Boo-Yaa Tribe, De La Soul, Kool Keith and the Danielson Famile while storyboarding the upcoming Dream Season show. Mehrle's wearing headphones.

To the extent that they can, the Drurys like to chart their upcoming seasons, and Crozier, Mehrle, Terry's son Matt and others are responsible for briefing the freelancers. At the beginning of each year, the brothers and the production staff hold a meeting with all the contract hunters, who fly in from all over the country. There the crew instructs the hunters on style, substance and technique. They outline potential theme shows and suggest storylines.

Mark Drury has learned something about hunting and filmmaking: Editors don't make for good cameramen out in the field. "We want hunters filming the hunt. Sometimes it's hard to take someone like Aaron or Jeremy and get them to hunt and do it correctly. You're much better off taking a hunter and teaching them how to film than you are taking a film guy and teaching him how to hunt." Conversely, hunters aren't very good editors.

During the season Crozier, Mehrle and two other editors receive the raw footage from the Drurys and the freelancers. They trim the individual hunts down to the basic parts: the set-up, the chase, the kill and the aftermath. They turn this footage over to Mark; it's his vision that turns it into a Drury Outdoors production. From the compiled footage, they release four new videos each May.

When Crozier started working here three years ago, he says he hadn't thought much about hunting. "I didn't have an opinion one way or the other about it. I figure hunting is sort of necessary, as far as population control, but I didn't really know anything about the actual hunters. My idea of a hunter was some backwoods shoot-'em-as-they-come-to-the-side-of-the-road hunter."

Watching a deer die in slow motion during the editing process doesn't faze him anymore, he says. "You really get desensitized to it. But occasionally a kill will be kinda weird. Either the animal will make a hideous noise, or it will fall and it will look real bad. Sometimes it's rough, but it really doesn't affect me anymore at all."

A man of few words, Jeremy Mehrle also has never hunted, even though he's been working for Drury for four years. Mehrle's specialty is graphics, and he's responsible for the tumbling logos and glistening mottos that roll across the onscreen landscape.

When he started in 2001, Mehrle had some catching up to do, but not much. "There's a learning curve of terminology when you first start," he says, "because you don't know what they're talking about when they say 'big buck' or 'the rut.'" Other than that, he says, he's simply doing basic video production, no different from a workout video.

"It's just a different theme. And now that we're doing the reality show, it's like we're doing the Real World, or any reality show."

Somewhere near the Missouri-Iowa border, five hours north of St. Louis, a late-model Chevy pickup drives down a rural highway. It's a late, overcast afternoon, and the stark autumn colors glow, turning the hay the color of mustard. The air is thick with mist, and the distant hills could be a slice of Scotland.

The Chevy slows as it passes a cemetery, turns onto a gravel road and stops a half-mile ahead. The cameraman is Coon Dog, a smaller version of John Goodman in The Big Lebowski. Coon Dog, a video camera propped on his shoulder, films the truck as it pulls through a gate. Its driver gets out, a handsome 57-year-old named Russ Michler, who, with his silver mustache and strip of silver hair around the back of his balding head, resembles Frances McDormand's dad in Fargo.

Coon Dog keeps rolling as Michler unloads his gear, and the two tiptoe down an overgrown path and enter a tiny meadow, which Coon Dog calls the "BioLogic field." Last month he planted seeds, a BioLogic-brand mixture of greenery that deer devour -- wheat, clover and brassica. The food draws the animals from the forest surrounding the meadow. In one corner of the field, Coon has set up a blind, a camouflage tent with half-moon-shape holes designed to shoot bows, rifles and shotguns at hungry bucks and turkeys.

Michler lifts his binoculars to his eyes while Coon Dog peers through a video camera. If it all works out, Coon Dog will capture this glorious kill on tape.

Coon and Russ sit in the claustrophobic tent and wait. And wait. An hour passes, and the only creatures spied are desperate squirrels collecting nuts. To the right there's a rustling in the long grass, and up pops a tiny head with a craned black neck: a turkey. The head jerks left, then right, and the bird steps into a clearing. Coon Dog quietly points the camera out the peep hole. Another turkey appears, and another, sneaking out into the BioLogic field. The biggest of them -- "about a 22-pounder," whispers Coon -- turns its back, stretches its wings and jogs toward the others.

Abruptly they freeze, point their heads at the same distant spot and skitter back into the woods. "Something's spooking them," says Coon. "They didn't like something."

Michler points the binoculars at the other edge of the clearing. Nothing. They wait some more. Each crackle or snap is pregnant with possibility. But by end of the day, their patience has yielded nothing.

As they drive past the cemetery, the last glow of sunset captures the silhouettes of a herd of deer walking among the headstones. So it goes.

"The odds of harvesting a mature whitetail are really extremely low," says Terry. "The odds of capturing that harvest on videotape are even more minuscule. To convert it into layman's terms -- it would be like winning the Powerball."

In Drury world, a great kill must have a stirring soundtrack, preferably something tribal, something urgent, something that plays to the beast inside. It is the exclamation point. All hail The Hunter, who has again prevailed.

Justin Dicenzo, 25, calls it "triumph music." A Webster jazz and music-technology grad, he currently studies traditional Japanese music in Osaka. When composing his first pieces for Drury in 2002, he says, he had to do some research since he's not a hunter. "So I checked out some reality TV over the holidays. While my family ate turkey, I sat with a drum machine and worked on drum sequences that were similar to the stuff on TV."

The secret to a good score, Dicenzo says, is gradually building tension. "Pre-deer-death music is usually a set tempo," he explains: a set of drum patterns -- conga, bongos and assorted industrial drums.

It reaches its peak at the moment of the kill. "The post-death music is usually a rock song representing triumph," he says. "I've had a really hard time with the triumph music because I've never gone out and killed a deer, so I'm not actually sure what the thrill is like. I guess if I bagged a deer, I would hear Van Halen's 'You Got the Touch,' or maybe 'Panama.'"

But Dicenzo's not anticipating a hunt anytime soon. "Not in Japan at least. The deer are considered sacred creatures here."

For many people in Missouri, they're sacred as well. Their psychology has been pondered, their sexuality considered and their grace admired. The world surrounding them has been examined -- from moon position to wind speed to barometric pressure.

"We grew up in the farms and fields. We grew up hunting," says Mark Drury during a break between hunts.

"As you go through life, there are just hunters, and it is part of the core of who they are," he continues. "And then there are people who aren't passionate about it. It's part of who I am, and I can't deny that. I can't change it. I could never stop. It would kill me not to be able to hunt. But then, the next guy could give two flips about it. Doesn't care. Doesn't want to kill anything. I would love for somebody to give me a scientific reason as to why that is. Where do our passions come from?"