Gone Squatchin'

Life Among the Sasquatches

The brother directors behind Sasquatch Sunset reveal how their bizarre indie hit came to be.

Sasquatch Sunset
Bleeker Street
The Inverse Interview

One night, in the early 1980s, Nathan and David Zellner turned on an episode of In Search of… and discovered a new obsession. Leonard Nimoy’s supernatural-themed TV show had dedicated 22 minutes to Bigfoot, and the brothers couldn’t get enough. The pair grew up in Colorado loving the outdoors, taking family camping trips, and making movies in the woods. The idea of a local ape-like legend roaming the Pacific Northwest fascinated them.

“What’s interesting about Bigfoot is the way it represents the kind of gray area between human and animal behavior,” David tells Inverse. “We’re natural-born skeptics with everything, but we very much want to believe and understand the desire to believe.”

As they grew into professional filmmakers, the Zellners’ unique blend of fantasy and reality bled into their eclectic stories (Plastic Utopia, Kid-Thing, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter), but they never stopped returning to the mythic simian. In Frontier, one of their earliest movies about a group of explorers attempting to conquer a fantastical land, Bigfoot makes a brief appearance. Ten years later, the pair earned strong reviews at Sundance with Sasquatch Birth Journal 2, a four-minute found-footage effort that observes an adult female (played by Nathan) giving birth alone on a tree branch. The idea for the short came from a simple question:

“Bigfoot was always just sort of walking or lurking in the woods,” David says. “Why is that all they ever get? What else is it doing? What else is going on?”

David Zellner (front) and Nathan Zellner (right) with Sasquatch Sunset co-stars Jesse Eisenberg and Christophe Zajac-Denek at the movie’s SXSW premiere.

Robby Klein/Getty Images Entertainment

More than a decade after that, the Zellners’ persistent curiosity manifested into Sasquatch Sunset, their arresting new feature that explores the full wonder and interior nature of these magnificent furry creatures. Shot in the style of a nature documentary in Northern California’s misty forests, the movie follows a group of four Sasquatches over the course of a year. To make Sunset, the Zellners traded in motion-capture technology for practical effects, dressing their actors — including Nathan, Riley Keough, Jesse Eisenberg, and Christophe Zajac-Denek — in heavy makeup and fuzzy costumes. Together, they function as a grunting, bug-combing, berry-picking family, traversing the wilderness, building shelter, and encountering wildlife (and the laws of nature) with varying degrees of inquisitiveness and naivete.

It’s a serene, almost soulful viewing experience, lacking dialogue but furnished with an earthy score that reflects the roaming unit’s poetic, melancholic, and fragile lifestyle. It’s also a bit surreal watching well-known actors — and their gently recognizable prosthetic faces — tap into their primal instincts, immersing themselves into the forest, munching on potentially poisonous plants, and discovering traces of humanity’s imposing presence. The task was both daunting and rewarding, filled with specific challenges and unlikely experiences.

“Sometimes you get tired of an idea and you let it go and move on,” David says. “But this was one we kept circling back on. Eventually, we kind of willed it into existence.”

Getting Started

Eisenberg “legitimized” the project, attaching his name as an actor and producer. “Without that boost, the movie would have never gotten made,” David says.

Bleeker Street

“This was technically one of the hardest things we've ever done,” David says. “But everybody was on board.”

Sasquatch Sunset began around 2014 as a vague script; “one of the funnest experiences I've ever had writing something,” David says. In place of dialogue, he wrote a semi-novella with specific story beats and character motivations, many of which made him cackle to himself. “It's all description, but it's all very detailed in terms of what's going on, what their intentions are, what's going on in their interior lives.”

“We wanted it to be the Sasquatches’ points of view.”

Over the next several years, the brothers kept returning to the script, leaning on nature documentaries, Jane Goodall primate videos, old Looney Tunes episodes, and the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey to fill out its reality.

“We would reference other things that we had seen together,” Nathan says. “It’s just an organic process at this point.”

As David filled in more of the story, he made sure to exclude narration or subtitles. “We wanted it to be the Sasquatches’ points of view and really have the audience identify with these characters,” he says. “I think any sort of translation or narration would have taken you out of that.”

Eventually, Lars Knudsen, a longtime acquaintance, helped fund their endeavor under the banner of his production company, Square Peg, which he owns with Ari Aster. But it was Eisenberg who, after being enamored with the script, “legitimized” the project, attaching his name as an actor and producer. “Without that boost, the movie would have never gotten made,” David says.

Becoming the Sasquatch

Sasquatch Sunset was filmed in Humboldt County, California, the same area where the famous Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot footage was shot.

Bleeker Street

After Keough and Zajac-Denek signed on to play a Sasquatch mother and son, the quartet began developing how the creatures should act and sound. The Zellners hired a movement coach and went through a short boot camp, practicing vocalizations and ways to update the limited footage they had.

“Every actor was able to put their own nuance and layers on top of that that related to their character,” says Nathan, who plays the group’s alpha male.

It took some longer than others to grasp the Sasquatch essence, but Nathan remembers his “aha” moment came while zipping up his skin-tight, muscled-out costume, which took him about 20 minutes each day, in addition to the two hours of daily makeup application.

“It feels like a second skin.”

“It feels like a second skin,” Nathan says. “You have this fur and the feet are really big and you have long hair and a flowing beard and everything. You really felt like a hulking beast putting that on.”

The small unit spent 24 days filming in Humboldt County, California (the same area where the famous Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot footage was shot), immersing themselves into primordial landscapes and old-growth Redwoods. Though it became a slog to get a production crew into the mountains, it prevented interference from errant hikers walking into frame.

“We were very worried about that, but people kept to themselves up there,” David says. “We really wanted this film to feel as big and epic as possible. For all those reasons, it felt like the right place to go.”

“There's something magical about seeing the Sasquatch with the animals.”

Bleeker Street

In various scenes, the Sasquatches interact with local flora and fauna, eating various mushrooms, plants, and fruits while encountering a range of wild animals. Most of these natural interactions — some of which end poorly for Nathan — were researched by production designer Michael Powsner, who arranged taste tests for the Zellners before filming.

“There was a day where we were just sitting on the floor, dragging ferns in and feeding each other these berries and salmon and whatever else we could get,” David says.

Though they composited in some of the fiercer forest dwellers (namely, a mountain lion, brought in from a rescue zoo), Nathan enjoyed it when his Sasquatch could share ordinary moments with smaller creatures.

“There's something magical about seeing the Sasquatch with the animals,” David says. “Sharing the same space and passing each other, it really made it feel so legitimate to us.”

The movie is ultimately about humanity’s overreach into the natural world.

Bleeker Street

In some ways, the whole endeavor was absurd. Consider a moment when Nathan and Keough engage in Sasquatch intercourse (which later adds a pregnancy plot line) early into the film, or when the group begins hollering and territorially peeing when they discover an asphalt road for the first time. And yet, the project was always moving toward something more profound, an existential window into humanity’s overreach and commodifying tendencies.

“That was where it needed to culminate,” David says. “The tone was there from the start.”

Despite the daily challenges (weather, location, animals, makeup), the brothers agree their preparation and willingness to pivot fostered one of the most joyous sets they’d ever led. It’s only whet their appetites to keep finding similarly unique experiences.

“We’re interested in the adventure and the challenge of it all,” Nathan says. “No matter how hard it is, it just makes you want to do more.”

Sasquatch Sunset is playing in select theaters.

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