The Zellner Brothers Talk Their Sundance Movie ‘Sasquatch Sunset’: “Growing Up, There Was A Lot Of Ape Cinema That We Were Exposed To”

EXCLUSIVE. When the alternative book of film trivia is written, a page will be dedicated to the influence of Leonard Nimoy’s paranormal-themed late-’70s TV show In Search of… on director siblings. It was here that Albert and Allen Hughes first heard about Britain’s most notorious serial killer, Jack the Ripper, beginning an obsession with Victorian London that resulted in their 2001 horror-drama From Hell. And for David and Nathan Zellner, the cultural impact was very similar.

“We loved that show,” recalls David. “As kids, there wasn’t much out there, that we were exposed to, that covered those sorts of things. They’d cover the Loch Ness monster, everything. I remember one about plants, wondering if they were able to think and what kind of music they’d like to listen to. They got really obscure with some of the subjects, but we loved that show. We loved the vibe of it. And that’s where we first learned about Bigfoot…”

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As shown in In Search of…, the only “proof” of the Bigfoot, aka Sasquatch, is 60 seconds of jerky footage, taken in Northern California in 1967, that appears to show a tall, ape-like man sauntering into a forest. It’s known as the Patterson-Gimlin footage, and it’s the Rosetta Stone for the Zellners’ new film, Sasquatch Sunset, which stars Jesse Eisenberg and Riley Keough, both unrecognizable, as part of a Sasquatch tribe. Presented in four segments — the four seasons of the year — it imagines the quotidian life of the Sasquatch as David Attenborough might report on it in one of his acclaimed nature specials: funny, tragic, and, like the best of us, subject to the violent whims of fate.

Before the film premieres on Friday at the Sundance Film Festival, Deadline sat down with David and Nathan, the quiet one, to discuss the genesis of this extraordinary film.

DEADLINE: When did this idea first come to you?

DAVID: Well, we’ve just always been obsessed with Bigfoot since we were kids, and then did a couple shorts about it. But I think what initially got us going with it was that the only footage available was just of it walking, which was fascinating. We were like, “What else is it doing? What is Bigfoot doing, along with all the other animals of the forest, out there in the wilderness?” We began with a short, and then we just kept going from there. We wrote the script years ago, and then went off and made some other things in between, but we kept coming back to it. We were just obsessed with it, and it seemed impossible to make because of its set-up, but we just kept at it.

DEADLINE: So what was the script like? There’s no dialogue in the movie…

DAVID: It was pretty specific, just because we knew that if we wanted people to get on board with this, they needed to be really dialed into the tone, and we couldn’t have big, broad strokes about what we were going for. I think the more specific it could be, the easier it would be to get people behind it. We rewrote it several times over the years, and, until shortly before we made it, it kept evolving, but it was very specific, both structurally and also with the comedic beats, and the grunts. There’s no formal dialogue in it, or, if there is, it’s in the form of Sasquatch grunting. So, we needed it to be as clear on the page as possible, in terms of what their intentions were and what was going on. So there was more description than maybe a normal script, but less dialogue, obviously.

DEADLINE: And was the trajectory always the same? In a funny way, it’s a little bit like Planet of the Apes, in the sense that they’re journeying into the forbidden zone.

DAVID: [Laughs.] We had a lot of influences on this. In hindsight, a lot of it was subconscious, just things that we’d absorbed growing up. But Planet of the Apes was definitely an inspiration, and the Dawn of Man sequence in [Stanley Kubrick’s] 2001. Growing up, there was a lot of ape cinema that we were exposed to.

DEADLINE: And so Jesse was the first on board?

DAVID: He was the first, yeah. Yeah. Square Peg got involved first. They were the first in, just in terms of being part of the team. They got on board early. We’ve known Lars Knudsen for a long time, and have always wanted to work together. He really connected with the script. But in terms of cast, Jesse got on pretty early. We’ve known him a long time, but we hadn’t worked with him. Well, we had acted with him, but hadn’t worked with him in one of our films before. So, yeah, we’d known him for years, but I was still nervous about sending it to him. Why? because I didn’t know how he’d respond. I mean, he’s in [full body] makeup and he’s grunting. But he read it right away and he was all in.

DEADLINE: And how much persuading did Riley Keogh need?

DAVID: Oh, not much. Not much. Yeah, we’d met before, but we didn’t know her. We hit it off very quickly once we talked, so she didn’t need a lot of persuasion. She was dialed into the tone of the script. In general, with anything we do but especially for this, if everyone is dialed into the tone — the cast, the crew, everyone — then it makes our job a lot easier. It was a very collaborative process because of that. We all knew we were making the same movie, and we kind of had these parameters within which we had to play, but then within that there was a lot of freedom.

DEADLINE: Nathan, you’re directing, writing, and you also play a Sasquatch. How was that for you?

NATHAN: Well, first of all, that’s just kind of how David and I work. David wrote this script, and when I first read it, I had the same reaction that everyone else did, because it’s so specific. We knew that when we sent it out to people, they’d either get it or they wouldn’t, and if they got it, we’d know right away that they would be good to collaborate with. With the acting, David had written the part with me in mind, and in our original short, I had played the original Sasquatch in a suit.

Once everyone was cast, we had a lot of Zoom calls and Sasquatch camp where we were sort of coming up with their mannerisms and the way they grunted and communicated with each other, because what we wanted to do was make sure that everybody had the same sort of baseline and the same sort of structure so that you’re looking at a species that feels consistent. All four actors feel like they’re talking the same language and moving the same way. That was really key to the believability of what we were trying to do. So, we practiced eating things. We practiced walking. We practiced grooming each other. Once we did a full makeup test, and we had a lot of fun in the office for a couple of days, just kind of improv-ing. And then once you get on set and you’re in that costume, it’s really easy to [get into character]… There’s something about putting on that type of makeup — you really feel totally different to the way you’re supposed to.

DEADLINE: What kind of reaction would you like to see at the Sundance premiere?

DAVID: Obviously we want people to enjoy it, and laugh, and be emotionally engaged. I think we really tried to make it work on both the comedic and a more poignant level. And so, hopefully, people can connect on both those fronts, but, ultimately, we’ll be happy just as long as they’re engaged with it. We like to make stuff that people can take what they want from — two different people might take two very different things from it. And so we would love it if that’s the case with this as well.

DEADLINE: Is that same for you, Nathan?

NATHAN: Yeah. I think it’s always been an interesting project, and we couldn’t be happier with how it all turned out and came together. And seeing it with a thousand people is going to be an exhilarating experience as well as an experiment. We’ve had this with all of our films. Like David says, when people talk to us afterwards, they’ll notice something or come up with their own theory about it. And they’ll be absolutely right — even if we didn’t think of it.

Bleecker Street will be releasing Sasquatch Sunset theatrically later this year…

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