CHRISTOPHER MUNCH, “LETTERS FROM THE BIG MAN”
American independent director Christopher Munch has been making movies now for over 30 years — longer if you count the award-winning short he directed for a PBS affiliate at age 15 about the San Diego Zoo — carving a niche for himself on the international festival circuit as a shape-shifting film artist with a highly idiosyncratic voice. In 1992, Munch won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for his 57-minute black-and-white feature The Hours and Times, a talky, speculative film about an erotically charged weekend that John Lennon and his manager Brian Epstein purportedly spent in Barcelona in 1963. Four years later, the California native won the “Someone to Watch” Award at the Independent Spirit Awards for Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day, a gorgeously photographed period film about a Chinese-American man’s deep historical and spiritual connection to the Yosemite Valley Railroad, an old-world relic which he attempts to save from extinction with the help of various eccentrics (including a flirtatious rail manager played by Michael Stipe). Desire manifests in myriad, often bizarre ways in Munch’s work, whether through some expression of muted longing (the parallel quests of a dying former radio DJ and the daughter she gave up for adoption in The Sleepy Time Gal) or headier entanglings (the estranged pop-star brothers in Harry and Max whose incest is presented with take-it-or-leave-it candor and the purest of intentions); love and the laws of attraction become strange in his hands, without ever seeming false or affected.
Munch’s latest film, Letters from the Big Man, is perhaps his greatest flight of fancy, a beautifully realized tale of the bond that develops between a sasquatch and a female scientist. In southern Oregon’s lush Klamath-Siskiyou coastal forest range, an artist and former government hydrologist named Sarah (Lily Rabe) ventures into the wilderness to collect data on a fire salvage for the National Forest Service. Having just split with her boyfriend, she chooses to go alone — refusing the offer of a park ranger’s cell phone — as if cleansing herself of the modern world. She spends several days canoeing, hiking, camping, taking samples, and sketching, always sensing a presence in her immediate environs, then crosses paths with Sean (Jason Butler Harner), an environmentalist who draws her interest even when she learns he is pressing a case against the agency that’s hired her to do field work. At a remote cabin, Sarah is more attuned than ever to her natural surroundings, communing from afar with the sasquatch (Isaac Singleton Jr.) that periodically reveals himself to her, a gentle, hairy, sad-faced giant whose spooky night shrieks and odd eating habits titillate the blonde newcomer. So often turned into grist for B-movie schlock horror, the Bigfoot legend becomes a thing of bewitching beauty in Munch’s fable (the film stayed with me for weeks after I saw it at Sundance), as his low-key, equable approach to such potentially absurd material makes Sarah’s transformative inner journey both enthralling and emotionally plausible. Rob Sweeney’s almost surreally fantastic shots of the verdant Oregon landscapes are a treat in themselves, providing the perfect visual complement to the film’s eco allegory about the age-old conflict of man versus nature. Only an artist with Munch’s preternatural gifts could have pulled it all off.
Filmmaker spoke with Munch about baroque music, creature effects, shooting in the Oregon wilderness, and the truth of sasquatch. Letters from the Big Man opens Friday at IFC Center in New York.
Filmmaker: I assume that you accept the reality of sasquatch.
Munch: I do, yes, but I set out to make a film for people who would see it more in metaphorical terms. I think the idea of sasquatch really does resonate deeply even through all the distortions we’ve seen in genre films that turn him into a bloodthirsty monster. At the outset, I was hoping the film would work as metaphor even for people who didn’t have a belief in the subject matter. And I think audiences have been able to appreciate it on that level as well.
Filmmaker: How do you think our view of the world and ourselves would shift if we were able to acknowledge the existence of these beings?
Munch: Profoundly, and I think that’s the reason they haven’t been more inclined to reveal themselves. They have seemingly been revealing themselves more to individuals, but on a grand scale that hasn’t happened yet, and I don’t know that it ever will. If we look back at the indigenous cultures in North America, there’s always been an honoring of sasquatch and an acknowledgment of their place in the world as guardians of the forest, perhaps, or as medicine people. That acknowledgment is consistent throughout nearly all cultures. If we were to acknowledge that they are as intelligent or evolved as we but in a different way, that would have big effects on various sciences, particularly. But I feel they never will accede to some sort of distorted interaction with us where they’re being less than who they really are. It really has to be on their terms.
Filmmaker: What is it about the lore of sasquatch that resonates with people?
Munch: On some fundamental, atavistic level, it’s about our divergence from the path of our hearts. As trite as it sounds, it’s that longing to reconnect with a part of ourselves that was lost many many years ago. The idea of a primate species who has lived alongside us but evolved a different way of thinking and feeling and reacting to the world — that’s a powerful idea, whether or not you are inclined to think seriously about their presence here.
Filmmaker: Tell me how you seized upon this old legend for the purposes of creating a narrative film, one that interweaves environmental and romantic themes.
Munch: I knew nothing about sasquatch before this idea just showed up on my doorstep, inexplicably, which is how everything has worked with my past movies as well. I quickly became interested in a particular region of southern Oregon and northern California that encompasses the Siskiyou and Klamath National Forests. At that time there was a controversial fire salvage taking place in this small community that had become very divisive during the 2004 presidential elections. The Forest Service had been looking at the salvage almost as a test to see how far its incursions into environmental policy could proceed. And there was a lot of drama. As I spent more time there, a real fascination with the uniqueness of the region took over me. The idea of grafting this somewhat fantastic story about a mythological creature — who turns out to be not so mythological — onto a realistic backdrop intrigued me. It grew from there.
Filmmaker: Did the story come together right away, too?
Munch: The script went through many drafts over four or five years and originally there was more emphasis on the subplot involving the Forest Service and sasquatch and Sean’s character. That ultimately receded as I realized that it was Sarah’s emotional journey that interested me, and how it was precipitated by her being in a particularly vulnerable place in her life. And how she comes to be receptive to this other being that she too knew nothing about before being “swept off her feet,” so to speak. [Laughs]
Filmmaker: Indeed, there’s a Beauty and the Beast current running through the film: Sarah’s a classic athletic-outdoorsy American blonde archetype. How specifically did this character come to you?
Munch: I knew people who had been close to the forest and a lot of individuals who had worked for the Forest Service and then became disillusioned as the agency became increasingly politicized. Sarah also expressed for me the economic disenfranchisement of a certain type of artist and dreamer, so her resolve and self-reliance were really attractive qualities to me. Her relationship to the idea of her own special receptivity to sasquatch was something that almost came fully formed. I didn’t really think too hard about that. I was fortunate when I finally met Lily Rabe. She found that [quality] was something she could easily home in on and express in a very internal way, even in scenes without other characters. It was a nice coalescence of a character with an actor and a storyline. There wasn’t much by design.
Filmmaker: Sarah bridges art and science: she’s a hydrologist as well as a sketch artist.
Munch: Yes, I think that’s what’s missing in people who purport to have an interest in or a desire to know sasquatch: a certain rigor combined with an openness and receptivity. She has both.
Filmmaker: I came across a fascinating article in Washington City Paper published in 2008 about a researcher named William Dranginis who has applied himself to verifying sasquatch sightings in Culpeper, Virginia, where he had a personal encounter near his home 13 years ago — along with two FBI agents. The writer mentions that Dranginis’ wife thinks the sasquatch has a crush on her.
Munch: That’s entirely plausible. People who have been living close to the land for long periods of time have reported this empathy with women and children. It’s been said that there are no surer attractants, as it were, than children’s voices singing. And women generally have been the people who’ve written most insightfully about their experiences with presumed sasquatch.
Filmmaker: Sean’s character has a flashback at one point of being a child who encounters one, and his impulse is to flee. You use stills to capture his panic, and yet as an adult he’s trying to find a way to keep the men in black from nabbing the Big Man.
Munch: Yeah, he always was intended to have that contradiction, precipitated by his own ambiguity from this childhood incident. I found him interesting for that reason. Ostensibly, he’s a crusader for wilderness, but he has this weakness that leads him down an unscrupulous path with Sarah.
Filmmaker: I love how you invert our expectations here — the environmentalist is the one who’s dicey and the folks in the timber industry are the ones who seem the most sensitive.
Munch: I consciously wanted there not to be traditionally defined heroes and villains, and [old-time logger] Barney emerged as one of the more sympathetic characters in the film. Our mutual friend Henry Gibson (Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day) introduced us to Jim [Cody Williams] and felt very strongly that he was right for the part. They had acted in a picture together and I’m very happy he introduced us.
Filmmaker: Did you deliberately seek out actors who came from theater?
Munch: No, we didn’t. Over the film’s long gestation we went around — it sounds so demeaning — chasing stars. [Laughs] When you have a picture with a larger budget, you go down the list of name actors who could make it possible. But as the script took shape, it became a smaller production in terms of its complexity, I guess. At that point, [casting director] Joseph Middleton and I felt it was important to go for the best actor we could find. Fortunately, Lily was available and she was at a place in her career where this film made sense. It was something she could sink her teeth into.
Filmmaker: When you’re dealing with something as potentially ridiculous, if I may put it that way, as Bigfoot, there is a delicate balance to be struck as to how you reveal this giant, physically and otherwise, to an audience. Can you tell me a little about your thinking behind that?
Munch: At the outset, I envisioned the sasquatch as a major character. He wasn’t this dramatic element who would be revealed fleetingly later on. Of course you sacrifice a bit of narrative tension when you have him appear so early in the movie. Through various cuts, we did try withholding more and it never worked. So it was clear he was to be presented in a nonthreatening way from the beginning, not withheld. In terms of credibility, I don’t think I attempted to answer a lot of questions that I couldn’t answer, so for that reason, it leaves a little more to the imagination of the audience, I suppose. My overriding objective was to avoid cliché and untruthfulness in what I believe to be the reality of sasquatch even while hoping the film would work for those who didn’t share that particular view. In terms of the makeup effects, that largely was the result of Lee Romaire’s work and instincts. I think we consciously wanted to avoid the monster types that had been created for other films—you know, the fangs and crazy washboard stomach that never moves. [Laughs] I think we did a sensitive job of sculpting and interpreting.
Filmmaker: It must have taken a lot of work to find the right model.
Munch: Fortunately, our actor Isaac Singleton had previously done a lot of so-called suit work, so he was acquainted with what was necessary to act with this cumbersome outfit. He was a wonderful collaborator for Lee, and together they were able to create a sasquatch who was at once distinctive but not threatening.
Filmmaker: His low-key appearances fit perfectly with the vibe of the film, which is quiet, reflective, and rather peaceful.
Munch: That was the hope!
Filmmaker: Tell me about the logistics of shooting in the wilderness and what your shotmaking plan boiled down to.
Munch: When it was clear we’d be shooting this on a very small budget, it made sense to use a small mobile crew that could travel far and wide to get what was needed. I personally like that model of filmmaking and had used it on my previous movies. But this was an especially cohesive, tight group of four to six people. I knew I wanted to base the production in southern Oregon in the area where I had spent time, so I made the acquaintance of people who very generously steered me to the right places. There was a spontaneity and a lack of control that resulted from being outdoors all the time. Because it was such a small crew, we were able to respond and make adjustments, whereas with a larger picture sometimes weather becomes factor that can really screw up your schedule and budget. In this case, it was about allowing the landscape and elements to be co-creators of the film. That aspect came together organically and I owe a tremendous debt to Rob Sweeney, the cinematographer, who was so capable and really well suited to this type of movie and was very much in his element.
Filmmaker: How do you go about financing a film about Bigfoot without courting all the wrong investors?
Munch: [Laughs] That’s a really relevant question. The answer is simply that I wasn’t able to do it through the obvious channels. It was just a small group of investors who believed in me and my work all coming together. I’m forever indebted to them for that belief. It’s probably fair to say that the subject matter for them was of secondary importance. [Laughs]
Filmmaker: The baroque music by Ensemble Galilei provided a lovely motif for the film. Did you decide on an appropriate style of music and then seek out a group?
Munch: Not at all! [Laughs] Their music had been with me throughout the making of the film. Originally, the subplot involving The Tempest was bigger and Sara got together with the actor playing Caliban. However, the idea of using Shakespeare-era music appealed to me and Ensemble Galilei had recorded an album years earlier that consisted of what they speculated might have been music to accompany the plays, variations on traditional themes as well as some original compositions. I met Carolyn Surrick at a concert of theirs and called her some months later. They were extremely pleased about how their music gives a timelessness to this idea of a presence in the forest.
Filmmaker: All of your features have premiered at Sundance, which has been very supportive of you and your work. How do you view the landscape of American independent film today?
Munch: I made two completely unsuccessful movies before The Hours and Times that were more learning exercises. Since the early ’80s, very little has changed in my process of making films, even though the business has. Now we see a huge number of films in the marketplace but much smaller fees paid to license them. The old distribution model is falling by the wayside more and more, particularly for emerging filmmakers who have no choice but to take things into their own hands. The accessibility of the tools of filmmaking today certainly has empowered some people who might not otherwise be making movies. What baffles me sometimes is that the films they make are patterned on others rather than on their own unique voice. It’s a mixed bag, but ultimately the artform is as vital as it’s ever been.
Filmmaker: You have such an idiosyncratic vision and your voice is truly unique, which is the hardest thing for any creative person to feel confident about. How would you advise filmmakers to find it?
Munch: I think it comes down to practicality, because filmmaking is expensive even if you practice at a very personal level. What’s become clear to me is that there’s really not much relationship between what we assume has a bearing on the commercial outcome of a film and those things that actually do. For any film to be successful, it’s about a subtle, almost alchemical relationship that grows with its audience. I feel the audience is a co-creator in the sense that the artist responds to this desire on the part of an audience to have a certain film made. I have certainly responded to that, especially with Letters from the Big Man. By having faith in the validity of that–and not diluting it–you have a better chance of ultimately connecting with that audience. The reality is that most films are not going to be successful, whether they’re good or bad, so you might as well make a movie you can feel good about for the rest of your life.