Actor rarely get sent a script that is completely unlike anything else they've read before, but that was exactly the case when Jesse Eisenberg and Riley Keough received the screenplay for Sasquatch Sunset. The endearingly absurd comedy from directors David and Nathan Zellner follows a family of Bigfoot (Bigfeet?) as they roam through the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. "My first reaction when I read it was excitement," recalls Keough. "Anything that's out of the ordinary is always really appealing to me."

Eisenberg and Keough star as the Sasquatch, but viewers could be forgiven for not realizing that they were in the movie at all. Acting from under layers of prosthetics and dressed in full-body costumes, the two are unrecognizable in Sasquatch Sunset, as are their fellow Sasquatch played by Christophe Zajac-Denek and co-director Nathan Zellner. The film is also completely dialogue-free, as the mythical creatures communicate exclusively in grunts and roars.

"David and I have been friends for 20 years. When he told me about Sasquatch, I thought it would be great to read, but I never in a million years thought I would act in it, because I don't do creature work," says Eisenberg, who received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher's The Social Network (2010). "Usually, people who do creature work are more physically adept, like Andy Serkis, and are known for a specific kind of skill set that I just don't have."

"I thought I was just going to read it, tell David I thought it was amazing, and wish him luck finding any actors to do it," he admits. Instead, "Not only was it an immediate yes, but it was an immediate: What can I do financially and personally to make sure this happens?"

Though their Sasquatch are unnamed, each is fully realized as its own unique character: Eisenberg is the contemplative beta male, Keough the self-possessed but put-upon matriarch. (Nathan Zellner, meanwhile, plays the alpha of the family and Zajac-Denek is the sprite.) It took years for the film to come together, but Sasquatch Sunset was finally unveiled during this year's Sundance Film Festival. For Keough, that moment was a reminder of why she fell in love with filmmaking in the first place.

"It's why I started doing this job. It really represents the spirit of independent filmmaking, and it playing at Sundance in the Eccles Theater just re-lit the excitement in me that was there when I started doing this when I was 19 or 18," she tells A.frame. "It really feels like the future of independent film is unknown right now, so I don't take it for granted when I get opportunities like this."

In conversation with A.frame, Eisenberg and Keough open up about the making of Sasquatch Sunset.

Jesse Eisenberg in 'Sasquatch Sunset.'

Jesse Eisenberg first met the Zellner Bros. at a film festival in Poland in the early 2000s. They'd remained friends over the years but had never found the right project to work on together until David Zellner sent the actor his script for 'Sasquatch Sunset.' Eisenberg not only agreed to star in the movie but signed on as a producer.

Jesse Eisenberg: When I read it, within two pages I realized, "Oh, this is actually a performance piece." The characters are relatable, flawed, multifaceted beings. I'm the beta male in it, and in trying to take command of this troupe, I timidly walk over to the only female with a bouquet of ferns and ask her to mate with me, and she turns me down. So then I sit on a bench with a badger and I try to pet the badger, but the badger leaves! It's the most human story of being a nervous man in this world. You try to ask somebody on a date and they turn you down, so you go back to your best friend but even your best friend leaves you! Everything that could go wrong for this character goes wrong, and I just saw it in those terms. I was like, "Of course, I want to play this!" I think somebody of Riley's stature also jumped in headfirst, even at a time when she was very busy, because the film just had these incredibly desirable roles.

Riley Keough: I was very familiar with them and their sensibility when this script came my way. When I read it, I was just excited. It was incredibly well-written, and it's such a hard thing to pull off what they did, which is to write a script with no dialogue and no humans and still make it consistently compelling, and touching, and sad, and funny in all the ways that a "normal movie" does.

Keough was a longtime fan of the Zellners' work, so even though she would have no lines and you would never see her face, she jumped at the chance to make a movie with them. It was only after she'd said yes that she began thinking of how she would actually play such an unknowable character.

Riley Keough: The first thing I did was I looked at my husband and said, "I don't know if I can do this. How do I even test the waters here? I don't even know how to try!" Typically, when I get a script I'll have a sense of whether I can do something. Sometimes, I'll say some of the lines out loud and see how they feel and figure out if it feels like I can find the part. With this, I really couldn't do anything like that. I remember I went in my room at one point and was kneeling down with my husband, asking, "How would I even walk like a Sasquatch? Is it like an ape?" I walked around my room trying to move my body like an ape and I felt really overwhelmed. So, my first thought was, "Can I even do this?" It was scary, and then I realized that all of the actors were going to be in the same boat because no one has done anything like this before. That was comforting.

Jesse Eisenberg: I felt like the possibilities were endless in a bad way.

Ahead of filming, the cast met for "Sasquatch Camp." Eisenberg recruited his movement coach Lorin Eric Salm, with whom he'd work on 2020's 'Resistance.' (In that movie, Eisenberg portrayed the French mime, Marcel Marceau.) Over a week of rehearsals and movement intensives, Levin and the cast created a new language together.

Jesse Eisenberg: At first, we started out watching videos of apes. We also watched videos of people who played apes, as well as chimpanzees and gorillas, which are completely different and move in different ways. We were listening to sounds that were produced by people who claimed to have audio of Sasquatch, but those differed in so many ways. I just thought, "If we're going to do this, we need to be of the same species, of the same family, and yet individual." I asked Lorin to come in and work with us to come up with a kind of vocabulary we could all use together.

For the moments when we're calling out for another Sasquatch, we came up with this high-pitched shriek, but when we're foraging for food, we thought of this low grumble of hunger. It all became very consistent and legible to the point that we could believably feel like we were all part of the same group of Sasquatch. Lorin also worked with all of us individually. My character, for instance, I thought of as a poet, as somebody who contemplates the more beautiful parts of life. That meant that I would look at nature in a different way than Nathan's character, who's the alpha of the group and is trying to find food and shelter and always trying to dominate the world around him. My character is more hopeful and inquisitive. He's the bard. [Laughs]

Riley Keough: Working with Lorin is when I started to feel more comfortable, because he made this road map for us. We didn't have to just figure it all out from scratch on our own. Our process became about mixing together all of these different references, and from that, we were able to create this species together, which was really fun. Once we were there in person, we finally got in a room together and started interacting with one another, and that was a really funny experience. Learning how to eat, pick things up, move our fingers, react to objects, and interact with our environment like Sasquatch would was really fun — and hilarious.

Riley Keough in 'Sasquatch Sunset.'

To complete their transformation into Sasquatch, Keough and Eisenberg donned custom bodysuits and layers of prosthetics designed by visual effects artist Steve Newburn. The costumes and makeup took up to two hours to apply each day.

Riley Keough: It was the least self-conscious I've ever been as a performer. I wish I could feel that way all the time. It was really freeing. It was the feeling you're searching for as an actor a lot of the time, but you usually get in your own way. When you're on camera, you have to be mindful of all your expressions. There is so much to think about with what I guess you'd call "typical acting." With this, there was less to think about and just more doing and being. It was really, honestly, one of the most fun things I've ever done as an actor. I got to lose myself in a totally different way. It was like when you're a child and you're just pretending to be someone else. No one's watching you and you're kind of on your own. That was what it felt like.

Outfitted as Sasquatch, the cast and crew shot for 23 days on location amongst the Redwoods of Northern California. There, they braved the snow, rain and other elements during what would be simultaneously one of the most creatively freeing and physically strenuous experiences of their careers.

Jesse Eisenberg: When I read the script, I felt like it needed to exist in the world and I wanted to do whatever I possibly could to make sure it happened. But the truth is that the actual experience of shooting it was incredibly physically taxing. We were in these really claustrophobic suits with faces covered in glue and hair. It was impossible to drink water and walking just 20 feet was exhausting, because the suits were so tight. At the same time, they're such works of art. There was a constant push and pull nature to the film, because there'd be this incredibly arduous, physically exhausting day like nothing else I've ever experienced in my life, and then you'd look in the mirror and realize you were a standing, moving work of art. That made it all worth it.

Riley Keough: You had to just get through it in a sense. There was no time for overthinking. Everything was hard, because the suits were really difficult to move in. It was a funny combination of a lot of freedom and physical restriction.

Jesse Eisenberg: There are some scenes in [the movie] that are so funny that you couldn't help but have an absolute blast filming, and then there were also a lot of scenes that were just so physically taxing. My character, for instance, has a terrifying experience in water at one point. We were filming that scene in November in the Pacific Northwest — which is one of the coldest places in our country — and it was just excruciating in a way that I've never physically experienced. I like to think I'm a pretty physical person, and I've done some action movies, but there was just nothing to compare that to. I would go to the monitor in between takes, though, and I'd see what it looked like and just think, "This is the most incredible scene I've ever gotten to be involved with."

Christophe Zajac-Denek, Nathan Zellner, Riley Keough, David Zellner and Jesse Eisenberg.

As out-there as the prospect of playing Sasquatch once seemed, by the time filming had completed, Eisenberg and Keough were surprised by how human and even personal the experience had become. For the former, 'Sasquatch Sunset' is the rare film of his that he can tolerate watching, too.

Jesse Eisenberg: I have a personal level of anxiety and depression that I experience and when I can channel that into a character, it's really a relief for me. I don't want to do movies or roles that are just maudlin because that's not my artistic taste. In movies like Sasquatch Sunset, I get to be as emotional and anxious as I personally feel inside, but it's also in the context of something that is very funny. That's just a dream for me, because I get to do and feel all these things that I want to when I'm acting but never in something self-indulgent or boring.

Riley Keough: For whatever reason, I know it sounds really funny but I connected with my character in a way that I wasn't expecting. It felt very easy for me. I felt like I could inhabit that Sasquatch and bring her to life in a way that didn't seem hard to me. Maybe I have a future in creature work. I don't know. [Laughs] It was really a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Jesse Eisenberg: This is the only movie of mine I can watch because I don't physically see myself and all of my facial quirks in it. You don't see me in the movie, at least not in the way you usually do, so I'm actually not self-conscious when I watch it.

As 'Sasquatch Sunset' steps out of the woods and into theaters and audiences have the opportunity to experience it for themselves, the stars behind the Sasquatch find themselves reflecting on their journey and the meaning of it all.

Riley Keough: I feel a bit bittersweet right now because it's finally going out and into the world but there's also a feeling that, once it's out, that means the experience is over. That's always sad. With every film, there's a moment where you're like, "Oh, now it's out and I'm done." But I'm happy it's out there to see for all the current and future generations of Sasquatch lovers and Sasquatchers.

Jesse Eisenberg: The physically taxing part of it was so worth it. I would've done it all for a whole other year for this movie, because I love it so much. Personally, I'm so proud to have been part of this as a producer and as an actor and to have gotten to support what I think is the most unusual and singular creative vision I've ever been a part of. I just think, "Thank God I got to be part of this special thing that will probably be like nothing I ever do again."

By Alex Welch


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