Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.
2014, the year of the...Bigfoot found-footage movie?
With two first-person POV horror flicks releasing this year about the hairy mythological monster, Sasquatch is having a moment. Brace yourselves for the eventual announcement that some poor, paycheck-seeking director has signed on to remake Harry and the Hendersons—actually, let’s not even indirectly will that into existence.
Besides, filmmakers should leave Bigfoot alone at this point—both of this year’s movies are, believe it or not, really good. The first, Willow Creek, was from comedian-turned-actor-turned-director Bobcat Goldthwait, and it’s the kind of slow-burn horror flick that appeals to highbrow critics and doesn’t actually show Bigfoot; the other Exists (in limited theaters and on VOD today), however, is strictly for the crowd who want to actually see the monsters in their monster movies. Even better, adding to the latter’s pedigree is its director’s resume—Exists comes from Eduardo Sánchez, one-half of the duo behind the most influential found-footage movie ever, The Blair Witch Project.
Opening 15 years after Blair Witch, Sánchez’s second POV horror film shares Blair’s woodsy setting and camcorder aesthetic, but that’s where the similarities end. Blair Witch is quiet and subtle; Exists, on the other hand, is fast and ferocious. The set-up is Found-Footage 101: five twenty-somethings head into the woods to party and film some bicycle trick videos with their Go Pro cameras when they manage to piss Bigfoot off and fight for their lives against the beast. But it doesn't take long for Sánchez to abandon the usual found-footage M.O. and go for the jugular. After some brief story-building, Exists becomes a 70-plus-minute action sequence, one in which Sánchez isn't afraid to show off his vision of Bigfoot. You'll quickly understand why, too—here, Bigfoot is a non-CGI monster that's impressive in both design and performance (veteran creature-actor Brian Steele wears the furry suit).
Exists is a found-footage horror movie for people who are bored by found-footage horror movies. And in this loose, candid interview, Sánchez breaks down why the guy who made The Blair Witch Project needed to ignore all of that classic’s blueprints.
Not long before I watched Exists, I saw Bobcat Goldthwait’s Bigfoot movie, Willow Creek, which is strong but very slow and restrained. It sticks closer to the Blair Witch template, going for mood over actually showing the monster. Exists is the polar opposite of that film, in a good way.
It was important for us to actually show the creature. We knew we were making a monster movie, and, to me, the best monster movies tease the monster and don’t give you the monster as soon as you start watching the movie, but you do have to give up the goods. You have to give them the monster. That’s what everybody loves about Jaws—there was just enough shark.
So for me, with Exists, I knew we shouldn’t blow our wad early, but but the end of the movie you will have seen Bigfoot like you’ve never seen him before. It was about trying to accomplish that with the small budget we have and within the quick 20-day schedule we had. I wanted to put as much action in there and make it as much of a roller-coaster ride as possible.
It’s not only just about showing the creature, though, but also making the creature believable. Don’t shoot it in a way that makes it obviously look like a guy in a suit. We’re really happy with what we did.
Considering your history with found-footage and The Blair Witch Project, was the plan from day one to make this a found-footage POV film? Even though people would be expecting you to go that route.
Obviously I’m really sensitive about the whole found-footage thing, since Dan [Myrick] and I did Blair Witch, so my whole thing is, if I’m going to do a new found-footage movie, there has to be a justifiable reason for it. For us, it wasn’t only the idea that we could shoot some stuff that we weren’t able to do with Blair Witch’s budget and schedule, it was also the idea that Bigfoot is made to be found-footage. All we’ve seen of Bigfoot is found-footage, if you believe the photographic evidence and video evidence. It was very natural to say it’s found-footage, with these kids going into the woods to shoot some tricks and hang out for the weekend before the shit hits the fan.
It was a tough choice at first, though. It was a question of, do we really want to make another found-footage movie? But once we made that decision, it was pretty obvious to everybody that we’d made the right choice. Everything started clicking into place.
Unlike other found-footage movies, Exists has a steady musical score. Why’d you want to give it more of a cinematic feel than a realistic one?
When we didn’t put music into Blair Witch, it was a natural reaction to the film’s sensibility. To us, that film was supposed to be a firsthand account of these three people dying, and disappearing in the woods. So you couldn’t do a soundtrack for that. Even as a filmmaker assembling that footage, it would be very tough to work music into it. We decided that film wouldn’t have music, which was weird, because most movies, if not all movies at the time, had music.
I don’t think we’re the first people to have a soundtrack in a found-footage thing, but it’s kind of a different thing now than it was with Blair Witch. With Exists, I’m not trying to sell you this idea that it’s real footage of Bigfoot. It’s obviously actors and someone in a Bigfoot suit. It was about capturing the creature and making a fun, non-stop action monster movie. Because of that, the music couldn’t be John Williams full orchestra, but I think our composer [Nima Fakhrara] did a great job of making the music feel organic and not distracting. A lot of times the music sounds like just noise—composed noise. He found the perfect blend of melody and obscure sounds.
You bring up a good point. Way too many found-footage horror movies take themselves too seriously, and seem to distance themselves from the audience. It’s like everyone watched Blair Witch and decided they all need to follow that template. The filmmakers want us to buy into the “realism,” but we all know we’re watching a movie.
Yeah, exactly. The thing about it is, with Blair Witch, it was the first of its kind, so it was very important to say, “OK, why are you still videotaping?” And things like that. We have a little bit of that in Exists, but the camera in this movie is clearly there to capture the movie; without the camera we don’t have the movie.
But you’re right, man. Found-footage, whether it’s this or it’s [REC], is, by its very conceit, something you can’t really take 100% seriously. It’s not real. It’s a movie. It’s like trying to prove something that’s silly to be right. Just the idea that somebody is going to continue to videotape themselves and bother shooting a movie while being chased by Bigfoot, or being chased by whatever monster it is, is silly. Even though you want the stakes to be real and the action to mean something, at the same time you kind of realize that you’re doing something that should exist at a certain level but not take it completely seriously.
With their woods setting and gritty camerawork, those early videos that supposedly captured Bigfoot, and how much you loved them when you were younger, seem to lead into what you guys did with The Blair Witch Project.
Absolutely, man. Without the Patterson-Gimlin footage, The Legend of Boggy Creek, and especially the show In Search Of, Dan and I would have never come up with Blair Witch. I don’t think it would’ve registered in our heads, All that stuff that preceded it definitely made Blair Witch possible, and just by natural circumstances, Exists wouldn’t exist without that stuff as well.
Bigfoot, to me as a little kid, was my monster. Ghosts were scary, but to me Bigfoot was real. He looks like a Missing Link or something, but he’s obviously not human. He’s more animal than human and it’s out in the woods. I totally believed that thing was out there. It was the scariest thing in my life as a kid, but, at the same time, I was fascinated by it. I watched the Bigfoot documentaries and specials and they would freak me out, but I also couldn’t stop watching them.. From that, a weariness of camping and being out in the woods alone at night grew within my mind. It’s like the Boogeyman is out there.
So, in a way, finally getting to make Exists must be a nice full-circle moment for you. It’s like you’ve finally reached your professional life’s purpose.
[Laughs.] Definitely, man. I loved making this film. This was the third Bigfoot movie I tried getting off the ground. When we were on set, there were many times my partner Gregg [Hale] and I would look at each other and say, “Man, we’re making a Bigfoot movie!” We’ve been wanting to do that since before Blair Witch. It’s definitely been a lifelong ambition to put this creature I love into a film, and put him on film in a way that reflected how I grew up with Bigfoot. Even though I love the beef jerky ads and I love Harry and the Hendersons, there are a lot of people who’ve never seen the darker side of Bigfoot. I wanted to thrill people with this creature that had thrilled me so much as a kid.
Is it true that hardcore Bigfoot fans hate Harry and the Hendersons?
[Laughs.] Yeah, and I didn’t know that until I went to a Bigfoot convention. It’s kind of like the movie that nobody mentions, you know? I think the reason they’re angry at it is it definitely de-legitimized Bigfoot. It’s supposed to be a scary creature and all the sudden it’s this plaything that these people run into. That movie did a lot of damage to the Bigfoot culture, but, honestly, I don’t think anybody’s that upset about it. But if you ever go to a Bigfoot convention, I wouldn’t go with a Harry and the Hendersons T-shirt or anything like that.
Personally, I’m not too knowledgeable on Bigfoot, so the sound effects you use in Exists are all really creepy and fascinating. Did the creature’s sounds and movements all come from research, or did you make any of that stuff up yourself?
Yeah, it’s a fictional character. I know that people feel that it’s really out there, but I don’t know if I believe in it anymore or not. I hope they find something, but I’m still fascinated by just the idea of the creature. But, yeah, we tried to be as scientific as possible while building the creature. Even the sounds—we asked ourselves, “OK, what would an ape that’s maybe a couple feet taller than the biggest gorilla sound like?” And, also, you’re making a horror movie, so it has to sound scary.
Our sound designer was the same guy who did the sound for Lovely Molly, so I’m really happy with how the sound design turned out. I sent him a lot of Bigfoot references that are on YouTube, of the howls and stuff like that. They then came up with their own take on it. And for the physical makeup of it, we wanted to make a powerful creature but not a creature who can lift cars up over its head. We wanted to keep it rooted in, as much as possible, the physical reality.
While I’m not a super Bigfoot geek, I’ve definitely read the scientific accounts that examine what, if Bigfoot were real, this creature would eat, and how strong it’d be. That’s the approach we took, to be as scientific as we could.
They had it much easier with Jaws because, ultimately, they were making a shark. But a lot of monsters in movies look progressively less scary the more you see them. In Exists, though, that doesn’t happen. The film’s closing shot includes a close-up on Bigfoot’s face, and he’s just as impressive and scary looking as he was the first time you showed him.
Thanks for noticing that. That was the big thing. I’ve seen the creature in my head for a long time as a filmmaker, but I know that a lot of times what you see in your head, you just can’t pull off—it’s just not the right time, or you didn’t have the right tools or the right vision. Once we did the test, though, with [actor] Brian Steele in the suit walking around and running, as a director I knew I could go in close on him and we wouldn’t lose the integrity. That wasn’t something I’d planned to do—if you’d asked me 10 years ago, “If you do a Bigfoot movie, are you going to be able to go in close on the actor’s face playing Bigfoot?” I would’ve been like, “I don’t know, man.” It’s very rare that I see that work in any kind of movie.
We wanted to show the creature off, man. We spent a lot of money on the suit and our art team spent a lot of time designing it. The last thing we wanted to do was hide it. It was really gratifying in the end to be able to pull that shot off.
That final close-up comes seconds after we see what Bigfoot’s motivation has been all along, and, though I won’t say what is here, it surprised me. I didn’t expect you to end the film by giving Bigfoot a sense of humanity.
Another thing the Bigfoot community hates is when movies show the creature as just this crazy monster killing people for the sake of killing people. The creature I grew up with wasn’t like that. The creature I loved as a kid was scary, but it was mostly scary because the humans were reacting negatively towards it. The humans have always been the bad guys for me. [Laughs.]
Exists is a monster movie, right? So I knew that, eventually, Bigfoot would have to kill some people—we couldn’t get around that. But I didn’t want to make it a one-dimensional monster who just wants to kill. I wanted the creature to have some depth. This movie is about Bigfoot, basically. The main character is the creature. For me, I wanted to be respectful, in a way, and cool with the original conceit that I had as a kid. It’s not a killer or a man-eater. It doesn’t kill for sport—this thing just tries to stay away from people. It felt logical, then, that it’d need a motivation in the end as to why it’s been acting so violently and irrationally.
It adds a nice extra layer that most other directors making Bigfoot monsters movies probable wouldn’t bother with.
Look, Jaws is a great film, but the creature in that movie is just a mindless killing machine, and it worked because Spielberg built up the characters and there was so much interesting stuff in there with the human characters. But in Exists, Bigfoot itself is an important character. It was a lot of fun to start the creation and writing of the movie with that in mind. I knew it wouldn’t be a monster these people ran into and it just started killing them. That’s why it’s important that at the beginning of the film you can hear the creature crying, and you don’t know what exactly is going on with that. And then, the ending is a cool little beat to have, especially when he shows mercy. It’s cool to give a creature a real character arc. That’s what Bigfoot means to me, man—there is a lot of humanity in this creature, at least in my head.
So Exists is, essentially, the ultimate love letter to Bigfoot.
It is, man. As silly as it sounds, it is. [Laughs.] I’ve been in love with this creature ever since I was a kid.