Arts & Leisure

‘Deli People’ bring dark comedy to YouTube

JACOB MORTON, WYNN McClenahan and Cole Merrell (left to right) act out a scene in a “The Deli People,” a new eight-part web series written and created by past and current Middlebury College students. The dark comedy series, shot primarily in Addison County last summer, premiers Nov. 14 on YouTube. Photo courtesy of Wynn McClenahan

By and large, Addison County is a pretty safe, scenic and uneventful place to live. The weekly police blotter still features entries about loose dairy cows meandering in the road and “stolen” cars that have actually been lost by drivers who’ve simply forgotten where they parked them.

But what if this tranquil, bucolic county had a mysterious underbelly?

Recent Middlebury College graduates (both class of ’21) Cole Merrell and Jacob Morton took a stab at that notion this past summer, writing and shooting an eight-episode web series called “The Deli People.” The dark comedy — available beginning this Sunday, Nov. 14, on YouTube — makes use of numerous Addison County backdrops and the considerable talents of several theater/film students at the college, as well as those of Alex Draper, an accomplished actor and chair of the institution’s theater department.

ALEX DRAPER, AN accomplished actor and chair of Middlebury College’s theater department, walks into the Starksboro Baptist Church during the filming of “The Deli People.” The eight-part web series, which debuts on YouTube on Nov. 14, is the work of past and current Middlebury College students. Photo courtesy of Wynn McClenahan

You thought “Snakes on a Plane” was the definitive hook for a film? How about this tag line for The Deli People: It follows a doomsday cult in rural Vermont known as “The Gardeners of His Immaculate and Gaping Chest Hole.”

While “The Deli People” title conjures images of pure farce, the series also delves into serious subject matter, delivering some jolts along with lots of laughs. Participants rate it “PG-13,” with no graphic violence. Thanks to ample character development, viewers will get to know a lot about the players.

“Ultimately, I think we just wanted to portray an accurate cult with real world parameters, and then deconstruct it with the comedy,” Morton told the Independent. “In that way I guess it’s more of a satire. I think the visuals also help balance the comedy and darkness. Visually, we were probably most inspired by non-comedic films because we thought it’d be interesting to present a comedy series through a cinematic style that’s usually reserved for dark thrillers and dramas.”

It’s clear they drew some inspiration from an actual cult called the Twelve Tribes, also known as the “Yellow Deli People,” so-named because they have a business arm to their movement.  The Twelve Tribes established a church in Island Pond, Vt., in 1989.

The fictional cult in “The Deli People” doesn’t espouse the same belief system as the Twelve Tribes. It’s the cult-deli combo that proved too deliciously quirky to resist.

Creators of “The Deli People” don’t want to give away any spoilers, but here’s a quick sketch of the series: There’s a cult, largely made up of college-age students, that runs a deli. The cult is structured around the notion that the older generation is done away with, to a certain extent. Over the course of the series, viewers get a taste of what the cult stands for, thanks to one of the show’s protagonists — Ruby.

GALEN FASTIE AND Wynn McClenahan ponder the future in a scene from “The Deli People,” an eight-part web series that takes a dark, satirical look at a fictional Addison County cult. The series premiers Sunday on YouTube. Photo courtesy of Wynn McClenahan

Eventually, word gets out that weird things might be happening in the cult. Enter bumbling detective Whit Dickens, played by Draper.

Merrell and Morton were a little mischievous — both in the tenor of their script and the way they doled out the parts. The duo approached prospective cast members not so much with an invite; it was more like, “We wrote this role specifically for you, please, you’ve gotta take it.”

It worked.

They even secured a modest $1,500 grant through the MiddChallenge program last spring to help pay for costumes and other basics.

“In the very beginning, when we got approved for grant funding, we were admittedly a little nervous about getting the help we needed,” Morton recounted. “That early in the semester, we were some of the only people who’d committed to staying in Middlebury over the summer. As the spring progressed though, more and more students decided to stick around. I think it was a reaction to the COVID semesters. A lot of people felt short-changed by that distorted college experience. Pretty soon, almost every single person who we dreamed of working with wound up sticking around for totally independent reasons. It was very lucky.”

Two of The Deli People’s stars — Gibson Grimm and Wynn McClenahan (both class of ’22) — needed little prodding to sign up.

“I’m a theater and firm major, so when two of my closest friends come up and say, ‘Hey, we want to make a movie, do you want in?’ I’m going to say yes,” Grimm said. “And that’s pretty much what happened.”

Grimm plays a sketchy deli owner named “Patorius.” “I’ve been in the cult for a while… and I’m very passionate about this deli being run correctly — it’s my way or the highway,” he joked of his role.

MIDDLEBURY STUDENT GIBSON Grimm plays a sketchy deli owner in the YouTube series “The Deli People,” which will be available online beginning this Sunday.
Photo courtesy of Wynn McClenahan

McClenahan, who plays the new cult inductee “Ruby,“ is a theater major. “They told me in the spring, ‘We’re doing something this summer that you’re going to be in,’” McClenahan recalled with a smile.

She wasn’t positive the project would get off the ground until Merrell and Morton put a script in her hand at the start of the summer. “It was like, ‘Oh, this is happening,’” McClenahan said. “Cole and Jacob are such amazing writers, so I knew this was something I wanted to be a part of.”

More than a dozen students and special guests participated in “The Deli People, including locals Clint Bierman, Craig Maravich, Ro Boddie and one very special guest — you’ll have to watch to see him or her. They all took their assignments seriously; this wasn’t just an excuse to have some summer fun. This was going to be a hands-on learning experience and resumé-builder for young adults committed to careers in stage and/or film.

McClenahan estimated she put in 10-15 hours per week (over the course of four weeks) on the project. Organizers scheduled shoots based on the cast’s diverse schedules, the time of day, and the availability of shooting locations. Those locations included Shafer’s Deli on College Street, the Marquis Theater kitchen, cross-country trails in Ripton, the East Middlebury gorge, Starksboro Baptist Church and Moss Glen Falls in Granville.

Grimm’s time commitment was somewhat greater than McClenahan’s, because he was also involved in production aspects of the project. “It was a busy summer,” he confessed.

Draper is proud of the cast, many of whom were or still are his students. Some aspiring actors wait for a big break, but these young go-getters decided to make their own.

“They grabbed the opportunity themselves, and were responsible for building the whole thing,” Draper said.

He was impressed how each member of “The Deli People” learned far more than their individual roles. Being part of a small ensemble means everyone has to be a Swiss Army knife. “Everyone on set contributed skills I didn’t know they had, but should’ve known they had,” Draper said. “It was a very collaborative space to be in. Also, it was the opposite of big, fancy filmmaking. It was unbelievably fast and efficient.”

Grimm agreed that the filming experience was eye opening.

“It was really a big learning experience in a lot of ways, but by the end of it, we took away a lot,” he said. “And there’s no better way to learn than by throwing yourself into it and figuring it out.”

McClenahan said being able to film “The Deli People” locally — with friends and colleagues — was a bonus.

A SCENE FILMED in Starksboro.
Photo courtesy of Wynn McClenahan

“It was great filming in Vermont, in Addison County,” she said. “We were outside most of the time. It was things I’d be doing in my leisure time anyway — going out and exploring — but I also got to act. As an actor, this was my first experience really being on a set and working with a camera for that period of time. I feel I learned so much by just doing it.”

Merrell and Morton are pleased with the final product, which will soon be available worldwide thanks to YouTube. Both continue to write as they hold down day jobs.

“I think it’s safe to say that Cole and I would be beyond grateful if we got to do anything like this for a career,” Morton said.

Perhaps “The Deli People” will be the duo’s appetizer lead-in to a buffet of writing assignments.

“Cole and I used to talk about how — worst case scenario — if nobody watches the series, we’ll always be able to use it as a calling card,” Morton said. “While it may not take up a ton of space on my resumé, I’m always going to include it in my application portfolio or try to bring it up in an interview. One thing’s for sure — even if we’re not working jobs that rely on the same skills that “The Deli People” did — we fully intend to team up for future projects on our own time. (Merrell is) my partner.”

All eight episodes of the “The Deli People” — each 12-16 minutes long — will be available on Nov. 14, making it possible to watch it in movie form. There’s a Deli People page on YouTube, and two trailers are up.  Learn more on Instagram: @thedelipeople.

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