I've been a fan of the Zellners since I had the chance to see Damsel premiere at Sundance in 2018, and they came onstage with a miniature horse that upstaged actors Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska. Others will probably know them best for their indie darling, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.

However you know them, they're back this year with another quirky story in Sasquatch Sunset, which was yet again a Sundance premiere, a film that follows a family of its titular creatures through a year of daily triumphs and tribulations. This one stars (if you believe it) Riley Keough and Jesse Eisenberg, who only speak in grunts and squeals. The film is very much slice-of-life, including the sometimes ugly details of being a creature on this crazy planet.

We were glad to be able to hop onto Zoom with the Zellners ahead of the film's release. Take a journey into the woods and observe their expertise.

Sasquatch Sunset | Official Red Band Trailer | Bleecker Streetwww.youtube.com

Editor's note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: I've read that both Jesse and Riley were on board with this pretty quickly, but it is a very unique idea. So what I would love to ask you is how do you pitch an idea that's a little bit more unusual to investors or to get people on board?

David Zellner: I think the most important thing is just with any project, but particularly this one is having a clarity of the tone, what you're trying to accomplish with it, and if it's a more conventional film, then you can use other films, pre-existing films as kind of comps for it. This one, its strength and weakness is we didn't have comps to rely on so much that were directly what we were trying to do. So it put a little more pressure on the script itself to help sell the tone, which was very specific in terms of this kind of mix of humor and pathos and making it clear that it's not a children's film, it's not a horror film, it's not a spoof, it's just its own singular tone.
And so it was essential that we have a script that people could read it and know exactly what they were getting both, I mean for all across the board so the actors could trust taking a leap of faith with an unconventional project like this and feel that they were in good hands for the investors to know that they were making the same kind of movie that we were.

And then for the crew as well. And that also makes our job a lot easier because then if everyone is dialed into the same kind of, if you're all trying to make the same movie and that is clear what the filmmakers are intending to do, then we don't have to micromanage as much. So you can give people certain boundaries of this sandbox to play in.

NFS: The film is also shot so beautifully. So how did you all arrive at the visual style that you wanted for the film?

Nathan Zellner: I think we kind of fans of that very naturalistic look. It has some similarities to nature docs, but we knew that we wanted to be in the world of these Sasquatches and be from their point of view, so it made sense for us to just make it as realistic and natural as possible. So no sound stages, all natural lighting, and just kind of working with what the environment gave us, have a really good plan for how we were going to shoot certain sequences, but being able to adapt to weather and the elements. And so sometimes you would have amazing sun rays and sometimes you would have rainy weather and you would just modify what your expectations were for the scene in order to shoot it and capture as much of the brilliance and the epic quality of that area as possible.

I think a lot of the heavy lifting was done in scouting and picking these places that were otherworldly and primordial looking and everywhere you turn there's another great shot, but we had a wonderful DP who, like David was saying about the tone, understood exactly what the tone was going for and really elevated the look of the film and gave it this natural yet epic quality.

David Zellner: By having the naturalistic approach, you feel like it made these kind of mythical creatures more relatable by grounding it with this naturalism, legitimize them the more, as opposed to doing something more stylized, which you might see in a horror film.

NFS: The sasquatch costumes themselves, they were amazing. I'd love to know about the process there and how you arrived at something you were happy with conceptually with the costuming.

David Zellner: Well, we had the foundation of what everyone is familiar with, your general Sasquatch, particularly with Nathan's character, but we needed that as kind of an entry point to the creatures. So people would just have this kind of shorthand with what, just as this element of American mythology and pop culture that they could just be dialed into. Then from there, there was room to personalize it in our own way for this film. We had the creature designer, Steve Newburn did a great job of giving individual characteristics to each of them while still making them feel like they were part of the same species.

And we wanted to, from the start, we knew we didn't want to do motion capture or augmented VFX elements to the creatures. We wanted to go old school prosthetics just to give that kind of natural, that time tackle quality to them and to also for the characters, for the actors to directly emote through them. And mo cap stuff is great for certain things for this. We wanted for the look with everything we could to kind of ground it in the real world. That was one element of it. And we also grew up just big being huge fans of creature effects, guys like Rick Baker and Rob Boutin and people like that. And just seeing the kind of magic tricks they pulled off was always such an inspiration. And so it was fun to do that in our own way with this film.

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NFS: What was the most challenging sequence for you all and why?

David Zellner: Well, there's a scene in a river that is by far the most challenging just because logistically, anytime you do any water work, even if it seems like it's going to be easy, it's going to be tough. Whether it's issue of safety or just how cumbersome it is to try to do things in that environment. It was just logistically very challenging and took much longer than other parts on land.

NFS: Do you have any advice for shooting water scenes?

David Zellner: Just planning—

Nathan Zellner: Plan, plan, plan. Plan as much as possible and be able to adapt because the shot that you might have planned something with whatever water's moving its own way and being able to roll with it and adapt your vision is really important.

David Zellner: And as many waterproof housing or waterproof elements as you can get, whether it's clothing or camera equipment.

Nathan Zellner: And that was actually one of the sequences that we had earmarked from the beginning of it's going to be difficult for all these different reasons. We've got stunts, we've got practical effects, and also then trying to tell the story. So we made sure that we gave ourselves enough time too, because when you're working with that, you don't want to be rushed in any capacity that can do something that causes you to lose the day or something like that. So it was pretty important to, we're going to give ourselves, I think we had three days to shoot it, and that was most of the days where it was scene after scene after scene, but we made sure that we took our time on that one.

NFS: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming directors?

David Zellner: I think it's good to be familiar with, to have some sort of film education to pull ideas from, but I think it's equally important of life experience that has nothing to do with that, just general life experience. It's all valuable. You'll all be, because the more personal you can make your work, the more it'll stand out. And if you're just trying to copy something else, maybe when you're starting out, you copy things as a process to learn, but that's just a step towards personalizing what you do in whatever way that means to you.

So I think, yeah, just don't be afraid to make it as personal as possible, even if it doesn't have to be literally. So I mean, and everything we've done is very personal, but it's not literal, whether it's Sasquatches or the old West or whatever. It is personal on a human level, but not literally in terms of plot elements or whatever.

So I think that's what will make the work stand out. And I think there's so much stuff made nowadays that is the same thing over and over again. And you can tell when someone is trying to chase something that it feels disingenuous in a way and can feel desperate too if you're trying to grab onto something that doesn't, just because you feel you're supposed to. And I think the more sincere you can make it from your point of view and whatever that means, there's a story or the approach, the better.

And then also just be willing to persevere. I think one mistake or a lesson for us when we start out just kind of thought coming up in the nineties in film school and trying to make things, there's kind of myth of you make, there's the myths with that. You make one film and you break out and then you're a superstar instantly and based on this one movie that you make when you're 23 or whatever.

And there are several examples of that, but for all those examples, there's tons of people where that was not the case and maybe you'll be one of the lucky ones. But for the rest of us, I think it's all about perseverance and don't put everything on one film you make in terms of it's all or nothing. I think just look at it, if you're really invested in wanting to make a life out of this art form, not being afraid of failure and just be in it for the long haul. And you can't control when something's going to break out, but you can control how long you persevere with it.

Nathan Zellner: Yeah, I would add to David's thing about being sincere with your work. I think when you're sincere, it gives you the freedom to really experiment and push boundaries because that sincerity gets—you just feel it on those films, and you're able to do stuff that's maybe more fantastical or a little bit daring or left of center or whatever.

But I think when those movies that are trying to do something different but don't have that personalization, it feels very, very surface level and just kind of style. But the ones that we always talk about and that last with you for a really long time are the ones that kind of take you to a different place but in a very personal way. And it's sincere to the filmmaker and then they're respecting the audience as well. And the audience subconsciously or consciously will reward that.