When you think about Bigfoot movies, you don't always think about character development. That's why director Eduardo Sánchez created a beast of a different stripe with Exists. He said, "It's very rare in a monster movie when the creature has an arc."
Set in Texas and filmed at Spiderwood Studios, Sanchez's latest is more eco-tragedy than straight-ahead horror. Five twentysomethings in the Pine Barrens are involved in a hit and run with something not human, and suddenly find themselves at the mercies of the Lone Star State's own Sasquatch, the Skunk Ape. Sanchez said, "This is a creature that's very good at staying out of the limelight, but it's driven out of its home, and something happens to its cub, and it's just reacting."
Winner of the SXSW 2014 Midnighters Audience Award, Exists is also Sánchez's feature-length return to the found-footage style of filmmaking he pioneered and popularized in 1999 with The Blair Witch Project. For him, Exists was a natural fit for the much-maligned genre. he said, "There's a lot of scenes that, if you just cut the beginning and the end of the action, it could totally be something somebody posts on YouTube about, hey, I had an interaction with a Sasquatch."
Austin Chronicle: Let's talk about the elephant in room. You pretty much created the found-footage genre with Blair Witch. Why come back now, with Exists and your segment in last year's V/H/S 2?
Eduardo Sanchez: Exists started off as a conventional, not-found-footage movie, but then the more we thought about it, and the more we broke it down and started looking at the scenes, and we only had 21 days to shoot, we thought, you know, this might work better as found footage. And it was an easy transition for me, because Bigfoot is basically a found-footage monster. The only time we've ever supposedly seen this creature, it's somebody out in the woods, videotaping or filming. The Patterson-Gimlin film is a guy with a Super8 camera, shooting and seeing this creature walking across a creek bed.
AC: A lot of people don't even know that Texas has its own Sasquatch legend, the Skunk Ape.
ES: We didn't think of Texas as a Bigfoot hub, and I don't know why because it's pretty clear that there's a lot of stuff going on here. There's an organization, the Texas Bigfoot Research Conservancy (now the North American Wood Ape Conservancy) that has a pretty advanced website with all the sightings. It's the only state that had that. Then a couple of years ago I saw a movie called Southern Fried Bigfoot, which is about Bigfoot being a creature of the South, and they have a big section on Texas. Then we realized that the godfather film of Bigfootology is The Legend of Boggy Creek, and that's right on the edge of Texas and Arkansas, and we learn about the Big Thicket and how many sightings there were there. It was a very easy transition to move from the North West to Texas.
AC: It's not just of Texas, but post-Bastrop fires, which feeds into the narrative of this animal being forced out of its natural habitat.
ES: When we came down to scout locations, the film office took us to the areas around Bastrop that had been devastated by the fires. Me and the writer, Jamie Nash, we went, we've really got to put this in here. It's so barren, and there's a primal pain looking at a forest like that. Even though it's the natural way forests are cleared, the fact that this was man-made, an electrical fire, drove home the impact that we have on the creatures we share the planet with.
AC: Most Bigfoot movies are either really coy about whether there's a monster or not, or they just have it as a ravenous killing machine. Yours is as rounded a character as any of the humans.
ES: That was very important to me. The Sasquatch is my favorite monster by far. I relate to it, not only because I'm six foot seven and have that lumbering quality. This is whether they exist or not – it's the classic story of the white man or civilization taking away the home of this creature that has been here way before us. Also the idea that this thing is an offshoot of humanity, some kind of missing link or dead end on the evolutionary trail. Kind of like neanderthals, this is a form of humans that existed hundreds of thousands of years ago, and it somehow survived to this day. I felt that, in telling the story, there had to be a big human element to the story. The creature couldn't just be a big killing machine. It had to have human characteristics, and react in a very human way to this tragedy.
AC: You also don't shy away from showing the creature suit up close and in detail, when a lot of filmmakers either hide it or use CGI.
ES: There was never a discussion of whether we go practical or whether we go CG. We were going to go practical the whole way. so we hired a company called Spectral Motion. They're very skilled artists, they've been nominated for Oscars, I've worked with them three times before, and we've been talking with them about doing a Bigfoot movie for a long time. So they built this suit, and we got this actor Brian Steele to be in it. He was their only choice, because he's Mr Bigfoot. And I knew I was going to have a good suit, but I didn't know how good it was going to be. You have to be very hesitant when you have a guy in a suit. You have to be very careful about the angles and how you shoot it, and I was very pleasantly surprised about how I could go into it, especially into the face, as close as I wanted to, and still have a very convincing looking monster.
Exists opened in Austin and on VOD on Oct. 24. For review and screening times, see listings.
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