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Interview: David and Nathan Zellner on Human and Animal Instincts in Sasquatch Sunset

The filmmaker brothers discuss how Bigfoot straddles the human and the animal world.

David and Nathan Zellner on Human and Animal Instincts in Sasquatch Sunset
Photo: Bleecker Street

The Austin-based filmmaking duo of David and Nathan Zellner have spent the last decade-plus upending genre conventions within the coming-of-age movie (2012’s Kid-Thing), the road movie (2015’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter), and the western (2018’s Damsel). With their latest feature, Sasquatch Sunset, the brother filmmakers have concocted a work that’s entirely sui generis. A film they billed ahead of its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival as “a year in the life of a singular family” is, in fact, a chronicle of four Bigfoot-like creatures roaming the forest without human interruption or intervention.

Sasquatch Sunset picks up a thread from the Zellner brothers’ 2011 short “Sasquatch Birth Journal 2,” which treats the American mythical figure as an unironic anthropological specimen. The feature takes their exploration even further as it tracks a mother and father (Jesse Eisenberg and Riley Keough), along with their two children (Christophe Zajac-Denek and Nathan Zellner), as they interact with the animal kingdom and natural world. The Zellners trust a language of grunts and other physical expressions to bring the audience into an emotional experience of the family’s adventures in all their silliness and sincerity.

I spoke with the Zellner brothers before their film’s theatrical opening. Our discussion covered how Bigfoot straddles the human and the animal world, what challenges their shooting style posed for the creature design, and why aligning on tone was so crucial to pulling off this project.

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As a fellow Texan, albeit now living in New York, I have to ask: Do you see the character of the state or the region reflected in your filmmaking?

David Zellner: It always is!

Nathan Zellner: It has to be somewhere.

DZ: Whether we know it or not.

NZ: Being from Texas, do you see it reflected in there?

I was at the Sometimes a Great Notion screening you hosted at the Museum of the Moving Image, and something clicked from the way that you all were talking about your eclectic approach to incorporating influences. That felt very Texas to me, somehow both everything and nothing at the same time.

DZ: Yeah, that’s interesting! That describes it well.

Why was family so important to explore as a theme of Sasquatch Sunset? Is that at all a response to your past three features dealing with individualism and loners?

DZ: It’s a good question. It’s not intentional. Our whole process, for better or worse, is less intellectualized and more intuitive. Hindsight, or people like yourself, can shine a light on things like that. It wasn’t designed directly or consciously in regard to anything else we’ve done. It could have been a pack of wolves, a group of chimps, or a herd, we felt like following the dynamic of a group was just the way to go. There were so many interesting things to explore in the relationship dynamics within them, and then the way they relate to the world around them, and how that indirectly relates to the human condition. It felt like the only way to approach it.

Writer-director David Zellner
Writer-director David Zellner. Fred Hayes

Were you all thinking about sasquatches along a spectrum ranging from the human to the animal? They channel both in the film.

NZ: Yeah, there’s some gray area in between. Sometimes we would shift it more toward the animal side, and then sometimes more toward the human side. I think that’s what makes Bigfoot so resonant and fascinating for so many people. It’s an animal, but it’s also very relatable. I see so many human qualities. It’s sort of like when you see that in your pet, or a chimpanzee or something. There’s something unique about reflecting [on] yourself in an animal that way.

DZ: That gray area between animal and human behavior is both relatable and extremely uncomfortable. I think, as humans, we like to think of ourselves as though there’s humankind and the rest of the animal kingdom. They’re all related and connected, but we’re superior in our own spot. But I think when we look at the aspects where we’re just another animal and look at ways that we’re connected, it’s both enlightening and uncomfortable. That’s where so much of the humor and poignancy come from with it.

It’s unclear for much of the first half of the movie when it’s taking place. Was that disorientation deliberate to make the audience question whether they’re watching the primitive origins of humankind or creatures existing in tandem with us?

DZ: We wanted a purity and innocence at the beginning in their world. Where we have them set is kind of like a Garden of Eden type of environment. We shot you know in these old-growth redwood forests that were almost primordial in feel; the trees are over a thousand years old. We wanted to kind of ground it in that, and then as the movie goes on have it shift inch by inch as their world becomes more complicated as hints of humankind encroach upon them.

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Was the structure at all designed to ease audiences into the complexity of the Sasquatches? You start with more primal urges like food and sex before moving into more complex emotions like our relationship with music.

DZ: We wanted to explore the full spectrum of the human condition through them. Starting with the familiar aspects of Bigfoot that everyone can agree on to some degree, and then from there, get into more complicated elements once you’re invested in them as characters.

How do you determine the structure of something like Sasquatch Sunset? Can you lean on your background in shorts and treat the scenes like atomized units?

DZ: Both. It was just a case-by-case basis, I think. We love shooting on location, which is a pain in the ass, but for this that was particularly important. We wanted to ground these creatures with a sense of naturalism in every way we could. Which is why we were shooting on location with natural light, and almost like a ’70s feel to the look. We wanted the creature design to not have their eyes covered up. We wanted to see their actual eyeballs and have so much emotion conveyed to them in a way that you wouldn’t get if they were in contacts or CGI-ed. Everything we could was to try and ground that with a certain naturalism.

Beyond the obvious need to make the sasquatches correct according to the research, what were the other challenges of designing the makeup and costumes?

NZ: We had a really good creature designer, Steve Newbern, who got the tone of the script, and we were able to work pretty closely with him. Starting with the baseline of what people think sasquatches look like, and that collective vision of them, and then [we went] into more nuanced design choices for Jesse and Riley’s characters and Christophe’s [Zajac-Denek] child character to deviate and make them feel like characters as opposed to just copies of the stereotypical sasquatch. Practically, they had a huge challenge because their creature work is usually on soundstages and controlled environments. Sometimes it’s in the background, or they’ll just work all day just for one quick shot. But we were four characters in makeup all day, start to finish, out in the elements, in close-ups. This variety of challenges was the big thing for them.

And then for us, on the acting side, Jesse, Riley, and myself hadn’t ever worked with something this complex before. We all had to learn how to try to express through the makeup and move our faces in a certain way: to move our noses, to jut out our teeth. To eat, to pick up things with these gloves so that it looked realistic, that was a learning curve for us, but we all enjoyed the experience. Part of the excitement, too, is learning that.

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Your aim was to have this consistency where these characters were the same species, but also that there would be a distinction between them as characters. How do you as directors know if you’ve threaded that needle?

DZ: We know it when we see it. It’s a very intuitive process.

NZ: During rehearsal, we spent a lot of time on the technical part of how they move and getting them to feel and look like the same species. Through that process, the actors started putting their personalities in there based on the character [they are playing]. You can see how my character was interacting with things differently than Jesse’s character or Riley’s character. Also, the family unit started to [take] shape. Having gone through that technical part, most of the directing on set was normal, where you’re not talking through all the technical things but [rather] the characters and what they’re going through during that scene. Then, the actors are just doing what they normally do, but with this added technical level of makeup on it.

DZ: From the script stage, we knew what the tone was. I think the most important thing for us is to know what the tone is, especially for something as specific as this. The second most important, maybe equally important, [thing] is to be able to communicate that to people so that everyone’s on the same page and we’re all making the same movie. Because there wasn’t an easy comp for this in getting people [to understand], whether it’s the actors, financiers, or crew, it was essential—maybe more than other stuff we normally do—to make the tone really clear on the page. It was not a horror movie; it was not a spoof; it was not a family movie. It was very singular and focused on the interior lives [of the sasquatches] and from their point of view.

Getting the tone clear on the page for them was a good blueprint for just getting everyone on board. The rehearsals helped so much, like Nathan was saying, so by the time we were all together on set, everyone was dialed in and knew what the movie was. There was never a question of people thinking it was a different kind of movie. That makes our job so much easier because then we’re not having to puppeteer anyone. Our job is just to maintain these boundaries of where the tone exists. Within that, it gives freedom for people to put their own stamp on it, whether it’s an actor, the production designer, or whoever.

Writer-director Nathan Zellner
Writer-director Nathan Zellner. Fred Hayes

During the pre-production “sasquatch camp,” you developed a specific language for the characters in their grunts. How do you massage the specificity of what needs to be conveyed in a scene without boxing the actors in?

DZ: It’s trial and error to find a balance. We try to come as prepared as possible and have a blueprint that we can fall back on. But [we] adapt, whether it’s in prep with the rehearsal or in the execution of the film. When you’re just seeing something carried out that on the page looks great but then in the execution feels like a false note, we adjust accordingly. Some of the most interesting stuff in every movie we do comes from those kinds of moments. It’s our job to be embrace those happy accidents. It always gives more depth. I’m really proud of the script, but the couple of weeks they spent in the sasquatch camp working out both vocalization and the physicality added so much to them, both as a species and then individually. They’re defined by their individual characteristics and [by] how those characteristics in relation to one another. That’s what really helps sell the film, and that was only accomplished through everyone together riffing on it.

Nathan, did anything about the characters open up from the page whenever you got inside the costumes?

NZ: Not necessarily from page to screen, but it’s like putting on a second skin or a suit of armor. You instantly feel in the character. It’s really hard not to act like a sasquatch when you’re wearing this 40-pound suit that’s covered in fur, you have this really long, flowing hair, and meaty hands that you just want to grab things with. And tromping around with these huge feet, part of the fun is disappearing into that costume. You put it on, and you instantly feel empowered to be as feral and disgusting as you want.

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How did you find the balance of music in the film? As silent comedy was a reference for physical storytelling, did the score function similarly by underlining the action without telegraphing it?

DZ: Definitely, in many aspects, it worked like a silent film score. Without the dialogue, the heavy lifting of moving the story along and expressing what’s going on with the characters on an interior level is done either through their facial expressions and physicality or the music. We’ve worked with the Octopus Project for years, and they’re very close friends of ours so we have a shorthand with them. They know the kinds of things we’re going for. We had a general idea where the music would be needed, but it’s not until you’re in the thick of editing that you’re trying stuff out. There were times when some music written for certain scenes didn’t work, but then it ended up working in a different part of the movie. You never know that until you try.

For this one, the point of reference was this band called Popul Vuh, who did all of Werner Herzog’s early scores. It fits into the genre of early ’70s Krautrock. It’s very ethereal and dreamy, just incredible music. That was a big influence as well as this Miles Davis album, Bitches Brew, that I loved growing up. They’re very different types of music, but they have this fever-dream quality. We liked the idea of grounding so much of the movie and the landscapes with a certain naturalism, but then adding this very dreamy, hallucinatory music to heighten it.

You hint at the larger cultural fascination with Bigfoot in the film’s final shot. Did this film shed any light for you personally on why this mythology looms so large in the American imagination?

DZ: Yes and no. It’s more interested in posing questions than giving answers, which is the kind of movies and art in general that we respond to most and aspire to make. It’s something that leaves some breathing room where the viewer can bring their own interpretation to it, to a certain degree, but still feel satisfied with the ending. It also makes the film feel bigger and infinite. One of the best compliments we can get when we show our movies and are present for the screenings is when you have two different people beside each other who would give very different interpretations of what they saw. Both of them are equally valid, and we never try to impose our views. To do otherwise, you box in and limit what the film can be.

Marshall Shaffer

Marshall Shaffer is a New York-based film journalist. His interviews, reviews, and other commentary on film also appear regularly in Slashfilm, Decider, and Little White Lies.

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