Go backBack to selection

“A Lifetime of Loving Ape Movies and Primate Documentaries and Bigfoot-Adjacent Things”: David and Nathan Zellner on Sasquatch Sunset

Sasquatch Sunset (courtesy Bleecker Street)

Since the dawn of man, there have been anthropomorphic recreations of the lives of primates (they are our evolutionary ancestors, after all). And since the legend of the Sasquatch was first told, there have been numerous recorded sightings of the elusive “Bigfoot,” albeit with most footage deemed a hoax carried out by opportunistic fraudsters in possession of hairy full-body suits. The most infamous came in 1967 in the form of footage shot by Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin in Northern California—fleeting frames that, depending on whom you ask, could either be easily debunked or serve as ineffable proof of the creature’s existence. Nonetheless, Bigfoot, like the vampiric Chupacabra or the sea-based Loch Ness Monster, remains something of an urban legend, famously photographed but not proven outright to exist. A picture can tell a thousand words, but not all of them have to be true.

David and Nathan Zellner approached their latest narrative feature Sasquatch Sunset with an appreciation for and fascination with the legend of Bigfoot. Following a family of four Bigfoot as they roam Northern California’s woods over the course of one year, the film is (human) dialogue-free and structured around daily activities the group partakes in for recreation and survival. Starring Riley Keough, Jesse Eisenberg, co-director Nathan Zellner and Christophe Zajac-Denek, much of the film’s charm comes from watching acting exercises carried out with total commitment by a game cast (you’ve never seen such famous faces lacking such vanity!). At times crude and heartfelt, obvious and sincere, Sasquatch Sunset commits to its bit and then some. 

Their first film since the 2018 feature Damsel (featuring Good Time’s Robert Pattinson) and first project since directing several episodes of The Curse (featuring Good Time’s Benny Safdie), the Zellner brothers are clearly passionate about discussing Sasquatch Sunset and Bigfoots in general. I recently spoke with them about their long history with the phenomenon, shooting in Humboldt County, collaborating once again with the band The Octopus Project and much more. Sasquatch Sunset is now in wide theatrical release, courtesy of Bleecker Street.

Filmmaker: You’ve cited an episode of In Search of…from 1977 that focused on the Bigfoot phenomenon as being influential for you both growing up, so I was curious how deep your interest in Bigfoot and Sasquatch lore goes.

David: We’re big fans of that show in general. [During] the 1970s, whether it was Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster or UFOs, there was a lot out there regarding paranormal phenomena, all of which we loved. But we found ourselves particularly into Bigfoot and how it’s become such a big part of American folklore and a fixture in pop culture. It was on so many [television] programs [back then]—even The Six Million Dollar Man had an episode on Bigfoot. [Airing the first of February in 1976, the two-parter, The Secret of Bigfoot, featured professional wrestler and occasional actor Andre the Giant as the behemoth Sasquatch]. There were so many Bigfoot-adjacent things. We loved the show Land of the Lost when we were kids, and there’s a character named Cha-Ka that we definitely pulled a lot from for our movie too.

Filmmaker: Your 2010 short, Sasquatch Birth Journal 2, revealed your interest in exploring this material further in your own work. Even in its brief few minutes, it shares a similar sensibility with Sasquatch Sunset, a somewhat anthropologic study with a surprisingly humorous, deadpan undercurrent. When you made that short over a decade ago, did you have ideas on the backburner about potentially exploring this further? Did a feature seem possible?

David: It was all a very organic process. We’d seen so much footage online [of various Bigfoot sightings]. In the age of YouTube, there’s a lot more footage out there today — sightings that are very accessible. Nonetheless, the footage is always the same thing, showing a Bigfoot walking around or running away or being elusive. We always wondered, “Well, what else would it be doing?,” in the same way any animal tends to have a full spectrum of existence. That led to us making Sasquatch Birth Journal 2. We made two [shorts], albeit in reverse order. Sasquatch Birth Journal 2 is a three-minute, very succinct short, whereas Sasquatch Birth Journal 1 is a 22-minute film that’s all one shot and the birth doesn’t happen until the last 30 seconds. It’s more of an installation than a film [laughs] and we’ve never watched it through entirely ourselves. But the success of the short—the short short—got us thinking more about building on the world. Again, initially it was just a joke, but then we became more and more obsessed with the idea. Just for our own curiosity (which is how a lot of this stuff starts), we built out a story and then tried to get it out into the world, but it took a good while after that.

Filmmaker: You’ve spoken about not having any dialogue written into the script—and there isn’t any in the finished film—so I was curious how you wrote out the screenplay. Maybe you created a lookbook in tandem with the script to drive home the look and feel of the narrative? Were you writing out long descriptions documenting characters’ intent, emphasizing each by describing actions, etc?

David: There isn’t any dialogue or grunts or anything like that written into the script. It was very much about, as much as possible, trying to get into their interior world via description, through how they feel about [a situation] and how they’re reacting to it. Yes, the script was also about building out the visuals as much as possible to give people a sense of the feel of the film, to make the tone very clear and show that it’s not a family film or a horror film or a spoof. There’s absurdity to it, yes, but we approach it with a sincerity and earnestness.

Nathan: And part of the inspiration came from nature documentaries, especially the ones from the 1970s, and the Disney movies released [back then] that would follow a family of…

David: …a pack of wolves.

Nathan: Or a group of monkeys or whatever. You would follow them over the course of a year.

David: The Incredible Journey from the ’60s is another [example]…

Nathan: The Incredible Journey was the same way. We didn’t think about it until we started making our film, but when you break it down, this is a family survival drama. How does this family survive in nature? How do they get their basic needs met? So, from the storytelling side of things, we organically followed the same model of those [nature dramas]—i.e. we’re going to show a little bit of their lives, how they interact, while also being about this family that’s trying to get by, as any animal would, over the course of a year. That’s key to making the film believable and relatable, showing the same struggles that everyone goes through. I think that’s why those kinds of movies work. The viewer sees humanity in the animal kingdom and can relate to it.

Filmmaker: The film is pretty much completely made up of grassy exteriors, shot in Humboldt County in California, an area that, along with the accompanying Willow Creek, is well known for its Sasquatch sightings over the years. When you were locating scouting, were you able to participate in Bigfoot walking tours? Do those exist? Did you want to shoot on the exact site of the Patterson-Gimlin footage, or at least close enough in the vicinity?

David: Our location scout, a guy named Rowdy Kelley, is a Bigfoot enthusiast and something of an expert on the Patterson-Gimlin film, and found the exact location where it was filmed [alongside Bluff Creek]. It’s very remote and isn’t exactly a filmable location; [it’s] more of an adventure you’d spend a day getting out to. But we picked Humboldt [for shooting] for a number of reasons, partly because it is the epicenter of modern Bigfoot lore, and it’s where the highest concentration of sightings have taken place. 

From a visual standpoint, [the area] has the most beautiful, primordial forest, with old growth redwoods that are over a thousand years old. It has this timeless, ancient feel. Especially with the front-end of the movie, we liked setting [the film] within this epic and mysterious landscape.

Filmmaker: The first time we see the Sasquatch family, they’re walking in a line, one right after the other, with the camera at a slight distance. For me, that shot also echoed the Patterson–Gimlin footage and, come to think of it, all of the other visual documentation we have of Sasquatch sightings throughout history. Was that intentional on your part?

Nathan: A hundred percent. The opening of the film, especially with that first shot, introduces the world this family lives in, then we have these nature shots and [recreate] our collective memory of what [a Sasquatch] is. Everybody has seen “that silhouette” from a distance, so we wanted to introduce the characters in a similar way: you’ll see them from a distance, in profile, walking across this field. There’s a familiarity, even if just subconsciously, for the audience and what they’re going to look at. From there, we jump into more intimate shots and move the [camera] closer as the film goes along.

David: Working from the baseline of a viewer’s familiarity with the subject was [important]. The one way people are familiar with seeing a Sasquatch is through various photographs and videos, and so we used that pre-existing familiarity as an entry point. Once we get past that, then we pull the viewer into the distinct details.

Filmmaker: In choosing to not have your cast wear eye contacts (which may not seem like a significant choice), you also continue the tradition of previous portrayals of Sasquatches or primates on screen, whether from, for example, William Dear’s Harry and the Hendersons, Hugh Hudson’s Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, or other titles. Whenever I think back to those films, I remember the actors in ape suits retaining their human eyes (and thus, how their eyes focus), and acting through them. That choice does stand out, albeit in a subconscious way. What was your intention there?

David: There’s this indescribable quality of communication done through eye contact that, even on a scientific level, is very hard to quantify. Yet everyone knows it, even though, like right now, I can’t completely articulate why. It felt essential to have that though, as the whole point of this [exercise] is for the viewer to find some way to connect to these characters on a human level (in the ways that we are related to them). Since the characters aren’t speaking dialogue, this was a crucial way to communicate, and they’re all so expressive, so telegraphed, and it winds up giving them a soulful quality. When you start doing stuff with contacts, suddenly they’re dead behind the eyes and you’re shutting them off from any nuance, stuck with the broader strokes of their physicality to work off of.

Nathan: As you guys were talking, I remembered that one big influence for us was the Dawn of Man sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and as you were asking that question, I was remembering the nighttime scene where the group of apes are hiding in the cave/under the rock and listening to the predators [howling] in the night. Kubrick gives us some close-ups in that moment and all you pretty much see are [the apes’] eyes [going] back and forth as they listen intently. It’s a very human eye that you’re looking at in the scene, and even though you’re looking at something that doesn’t necessarily look like you, you connect to it almost instantly through their expressions.

Filmmaker: Part of the film’s humor is derived from, in my opinion, observing actors implementing their own human characteristics into the performances. A facial expression or particular body movement feels unmistakably human, and the [disconnect] there added something I wasn’t expecting.

David: It was important to find that mix, yeah, and it was an intuitive process for us. We never forced it and that was true whether [we were filming] the comedic [moments] or the ones more on the side of pathos, it was to intuitively go with what felt truest in the moment. On a human level, it felt authentic to let those [feelings] dictate the characteristics and to which direction the tone went.

Filmmaker: You also incorporate some real animals into the film, sharing scenes with your costumed cast. Watching them, I couldn’t help but wonder what that experience was like for the non-humans of your cast. From their point of view, they see these beast-like creatures coming[into their space and standing upright for long periods of time directing and acting in a movie. There Nathan is and the rest of the cast in full makeup and grunting a ton. I wondered what it was like for you to act with them and them to act with you.

David: Putting [the actors] amongst real animals was essential for grounding it in the naturalism and realism we wanted. We lucked out with some of the animals we were able to get as it made everything feel so much more legitimate, to see our Sasquatch creatures interacting with other animals in the forest. What’s funny is that we had been wondering how the animals would react to seeing these sasquatches but they were just so nonchalant about it. They were indifferent to it. The animals in the film are a combination of a lot of different tricks: there are some real animals in there, then a mix of VFX and some compositing, that sort of thing, and we [structured their scenes] based on what the animal wanted to do at that given moment, which often meant building it around them just eating some food.

Filmmaker: The film takes place over the duration of a year, with title cards marking the introduction of a new season. By the time snowfall arrives, I was curious if that was an element you added in post or if you scheduled out your shoot so that you would film for a few days, come back the following season, film for a few days, etc.

David: No, we had a tight shoot, but we timed it, of course. It was obviously very specifically planned but, as you always have to do, we left room to adapt to the elements because we didn’t have a cover set. There was no set for this film at all (it was all exteriors), so we would constantly monitor the weather and adapt accordingly as much as we could. Not everything goes exactly the way you want, especially as it pertains to dealing with weather, but we would adjust and that helped us cover all seasons. The time of year we shot the film in was also intentional. We shot from late fall going into winter and that allowed us to get a range [of seasonal change] in a short, condensed amount of time. 

Nathan: The seasonal breaks were written into the script, so we knew what sort of emotions would, for example, take place later in the winter, [asking ourselves] “What really fits the fall season and what really fits the winter?” We planned for getting lucky and we did [as it pertained to a] storm that came through at a higher altitude of the one location we were planning to shoot those winter scenes at. The area got dumped with snow the day before we planned to shoot there. For a film that’s supposed to be about animals embarking on a journey, it made this feel that much more epic, to see them in the snow and watch how they react in it.

Filmmaker: The Octopus Project returns as composers on the film [the Austin-based experimental band has worked with the Zellners since Kid-Thing (2012)], and on a film like Sasquatch Sunset, where any trace of music has to blend in with the diegetic sounds of the natural world, I was curious how the collaboration worked on this project.

Nathan: The blending of score and sound design is one of the reasons why we’ve loved working with them across all of our films. We love that blend and yes, this film needed that, especially as we’re dealing with so many quiet moments and nature and finding the sounds of that environment. We took from some of the things we’ve been working with them on in our previous films and now went even further. It’s a fun collaborative process. They get hold of the script before we even start shooting, and while we were in prep, they came up to Humboldt to go out into the woods and record a bunch of sounds, [of the characters] knocking on trees and other fun technical stuff they could use later on [to blend in] with some of their instruments. In this film especially, the score becomes its own sort of dialogue, helping to push the emotion to newer heights, and sometimes it’s more dramatic or, when Jesse’s character experiences his “sexual awakening,” there’s a specific moment in the score that helps him emerge from that slumber. I feel like they really elevated the storytelling with this film in particular.

Filmmaker: I live in Queens but unfortunately missed your recent appearance at the Museum of the Moving Image where, in addition to presenting Sasquatch Sunset, you introduced a screening of the 1971 Paul Newman film, Sometimes a Great Notion, a film which is also about family and features an outdoorsy nature setting.  How was that film was an influence on a film like yours?

Nathan: I guess this would be a spoiler for people that haven’t seen, well, either film, but there’s a scene in Sometimes A Great Notion (you’ll know it when you see it) that we took a lot from for our movie. So much of this film is by osmosis, just from a lifetime of loving ape movies and primate documentaries and Bigfoot-adjacent things. Our movie is an amalgamation of all of those, but there’s a sequence that we love so much from Sometimes A Great Notion that we took directly from.

Filmmaker: With Sasquatch Sunset being released via Bleecker Street, the company is also re-releasing your 2014 feature, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (which was the cover story of our Winter 2015 issue), another film about a kind of urban legend. I know the film had experienced some rights issues [since its previous distributor, Amplify, closed] and was unavailable for some time, but I’m glad this partnership with Bleecker Street has extended beyond just Sasquatch Sunset.

David: It’s always heartbreaking when you’ve made something that people write to you all the time wanting to see and they can’t find it anywhere and you’re not able to help them get it. That film was kind of in limbo for a few years, in terms of the rights issues [it faced], but we’ve loved working with Bleecker Street and are so grateful that they went through the trouble of obtaining the rights and getting the film out there, because we’re really proud of the film. It’s meant so much to us over the years, especially how it’s connected with people, and it’s great to be able to now get it out there again.

© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham