John Portanova is the writer/director of the multiple award winning, Sasquatch horror flick, Valley of the Sasquatch which I had the pleasure of viewing last week via a secure screener. I have to say, this is my favorite “Bigfoot” horror film to date and I have seen just about all of them! The cinematography is excellent, the story is chilling and the cast is made up of some very strong, indie horror regulars including horror staple Bill Oberst Jr., Jason Vail and Miles Joris-Peyrafitte. The film has some genuinely scary moments and I don’t mean just the typical “jump scares” either. There is a particularly frightening scene midway through the film where our films protagonists spend a night out under the stars with only their sleeping bags to keep them warm. Needless to say, Sasquatch soon pays them a visit, hurtling our protagonists into a life and death struggle for survival!
Valley of the Sasquatch’s horror is very atmospheric and the camera lingers, producing a very uneasy but exciting tension for the viewer throughout the film. Not to mention the films Sasquatch design is fresh and unnerving. This films “Squatch” has a much more humanoid look to it as opposed to the overly fanged and ferocious Bigfoots of other films, which I believe makes this one much more frightening!
Anyways, that’s enough of my opinion on this excellent film, let’s get to the interview I had with John below!
Still of Miles Joris-Peyrafitte in Valley of the Sasquatch
EW: First off, I have to ask, do you believe in Sasquatch and why?
JP: I definitely believe in Sasquatch. There have been too many sightings and too much evidence found for it to be a hoax. I actually think it’s more unbelievable to say that all of the stories are hoaxes than it is to say Bigfoot is real. It would take a huge group of conspirators dating back hundreds of years running around the woods in monkey suits to account for all of the eyewitness accounts that have been reported.
EW: “Valley of the Sasquatch” is the first feature film that you directed, can you tell me what made you want to make this story your first feature?
JP: I’ve been a fan of horror and particularly the paranormal since I was a kid. My favorite pastime back then was watching paranormal investigation shows such as “Unsolved Mysteries” and “Sightings” and freaking myself out. The idea that there were creatures such as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster that could be real and watching true stories re-enacted scared me more than most horror films. That fascination never left me even when other passions took over, such as filmmaking.
I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker early in high school. I would make shorts on weekends and write down every script idea I had in a binder. One of those ideas was just one sentence that read “”Night of the Living Dead” with Bigfoot”. Years later I had graduated from film school and was figuring out how to navigate a movie making career. Instead of actually answering that question right away, I decided to take some time and write my first feature film script. So I flipped through that binder and the idea that jumped out more than the others was the Bigfoot story. It had so many things I loved: it was a siege film, it was a creature feature, and the plot boiled down to a few characters in the woods so I thought it’d be easy to produce. I was wrong about that, it would be another 8 years before we actually filmed the movie. So you can say I’ve been working on “Valley of the Sasquatch” my whole life.
EW: Can you tell me why you went with a much more “humanoid” look for your Sasquatch as opposed to other Bigfoot films?
JP: I was looking to tell a more realistic story about the creature than many had attempted in the past. I didn’t want to treat Sasquatch as just a bloodthirsty monster, I wanted it to be a real character. I also am a big believer in the “Sasquatch as missing link” theory so it just made sense to go with the hairy humanoid look for the film.
EW: How did you and your creature designer, Doug Hudson, come up with the look of your Sasquatch?
JP: Doug is just as much of a “Squatchophile” as I am so it was great to meet with him and discuss what we wanted our creature to look like. We had both seen many bad Bigfoot costumes and had to think around our low budget so that our Squatch didn’t fall into that camp. We discussed things to veto that looked too much like a gorilla such as a snout and a hairless chest as well as what we thought had worked in some of our favorite Bigfoot films. The design that has always stood out the most to me was the creature from “The Legend of Boggy Creek“. It had long hair that hung down in front of its face as it leaned forward so you couldn’t see the cheap monkey mask underneath (the face is always the hardest thing to pull off with a low-budget Bigfoot). We took this idea and gave our Sasquatch a shaggy look that could keep it mysterious while not going too far in the “dirty rocker” direction.
Behind the Scenes still of “Sasquatch” in Valley of the Sasquatch.
EW: Looking at the credits for your film I see what looks like the entire Hudson family worked on this film in the SFX department. What’s all that about?
JP: It’s true. Doug’s team consisted of his wife and his teenage son and daughter. Doug has been working on the FX teams of big movies for many years, so his family has been around that stuff forever. When we brought the project to Doug he asked if his family could be his team and we said yes. We thought it was a cool idea and it worked out great.
EW: One of your posters for the film features a black outline of Sasquatch set against a reddish/orange backdrop. Any chance that this is a nod to the infamous “Boggy Creek” poster?
JP: That was our second poster which was designed by Brandon Schaefer. It was created because our foreign sales team Devilworks had used Brandon in the past and they were looking for something new as they brought the film out to the international marketplace. I had no interaction with him during the design phase, but I love the poster he created.
Our festival poster by Paul Shipper was another great design. With that one the two of us definitely discussed our favorite classic Sasquatch posters. We referenced everything from “The Legend of Boggy Creek” to “Creature From Black Lake” to “Sasquatch: The Legend of Bigfoot”.
Poster #2 by Brandon Schaefer
Poster by Ralph McQuarrie
EW: Is this film based on true events?
JP: I basically took a lifetime of Bigfoot stories I’d heard or read about, picked my favorites, and then put my fictional characters into similar situations. So while the film is not an accurate account of a real sighting, there are nods in the plot and character names to some Sasquatch stories that I love. The main spine of the story, the whole “Night of the Living Dead” with Bigfoot aspect, came about after reading a story from 1924 about a group of miners who had to hole up in their cabin one night as a group of Sasquatch attacked. The character of Will played by D’Angelo Midili tells an exaggerated version of this story in the film. It really fascinated me and made me think about what would make a traditionally non-violent creature like Sasquatch attack someone. That question was really the impetus of the film’s plot.
EW: Being a Bigfoot aficionado myself, I noticed that a lot of the Sasquatch’s behaviors are taken from real life accounts. What kind of research went into making this film?
JP: As I mentioned before, just a lifetime of being a Bigfoot nerd. I think it helped that I was more a fan of actual encounters than fictional films growing up and that gave me a better understanding of Sasquatch as an animal and not just a boogeyman for my horror movie.
EW: Can you tell me a little bit about Valley of the Sasquatch’s journey from script to screen?
JP: The first draft was completed in 2006 and it was miserable. Halfway through I realized I had the setup all wrong and there were too many characters. Massive rewrites happened throughout the years until the script got to a place that I felt pretty good about. By that time I had teamed up with Matt Medisch and Jeremy Berg and formed our production company The October People. “Valley of the Sasquatch” was too big to tackle as our first film, so Jeremy directed our first two smaller projects: the psychological thriller “The Invoking” (which we shot under the title “Sader Ridge”) and the alien abduction story “The Device“. During the making of those films we met Brent Stiefel of Votiv Films. He was impressed by our micro-budget filmmaking skills and so we met with him to discuss what we wanted to work on next. We pitched him some more micro projects, but he wasn’t interested. Then we said we had a Bigfoot script and his eyes lit up. He was into the script and didn’t mind the fact that the film would not have the same director as the films he had used to vet us as a production company. So with Brent on-board I suddenly found myself making my directorial debut on the biggest October People production thus far.
EW: This seems to be a much more sympathetic take on Sasquatch than other films that portray him as a blood crazed, rampaging monster. Why is that?
JP: That’s personally what I believe Sasquatch to be like. If all Bigfoot was about was murdering folks like you see in the majority of films in this sub-genre then we would know it exists because of all the dead bodies littering the forest!
EW: Can you tell me about the struggles of shooting “on location” in the wilderness of Washington?
JP: We shot the film in the early summer of 2014. The hardest thing about that was how our shoot schedule interacted with the weather. Luckily we only had one day of rain, but about 2 1/2 weeks of our shoot took place at night. This meant we were trying to sleep during the day, during the hottest part of summer. It wasn’t terrible, but everyone definitely got too little sleep as either the heat or the bright sunlight woke up them a few hours after wrap.
The best part of shooting in the woods was the location we found. We shot the film around Meany Lodge, a ski lodge near Snoqualmie Pass. Being the summer the lodge had nothing going on so we were able to take it over. The entire cast & crew stayed there for the 4 weeks of principal photography. Any direction you looked from the lodge was a new location, so we never had to travel far to set up for a shoot day and still managed to get a wide variety of great looking spots for the film.
“Gem Lake” located near the Snoqualmie Pass in Washington State
EW: Did growing up in Poulsbo, Washington kickstart your interest in Bigfoot and how?
JP: Bigfoot is everywhere in Washington. I’ve stopped at gas stations and found spinner racks full of Bigfoot books, so the area definitely helped foster my interest. It also helped having woods nearby at almost all times growing up. Whenever I would visit friends or they would come over to my place, we would explore the nearby woods to try and spot a Sasquatch.
EW: What are some projects that you are working on right now?
JP: We just wrapped production on the fourth October People film “Ayla” a few weeks ago. It’s a supernatural drama from the director of “Gut”. It was our first time working with a writer/director who wasn’t a member of the company and it was a great experience. We got to work with an awesome Northwest crew and an outstanding cast including Tristan Risk and horror icon, Dee Wallace. That’s in post-production now for a release next year.
I’ve been working on new scripts since before we shot “Ayla” which I’m going to continue to refine now that I’ve recovered from production. One is a really intense ghost story based on a novel by a Washington author and the other is a fun monster movie in the vein of “The Return of the Living Dead“.
EW: Do you have any dream projects that you want to make in the future?
JP: It’s funny, my dream project was “Valley of the Sasquatch” and I got to make it as my first film. The craziness of that is not lost on me. Most directors go decades before getting to make their dream project and I got to do mine as the first one out of the gate. I was very lucky.
The only other project I’ve been tooling around with almost as long as “Sasquatch” is quite a bit different than anything I’ve ever done in the feature world. It’s a comedic romance in the vein of “Annie Hall” or “Chasing Amy”. I’d love to make that one day because as much as I love horror I also have a huge affinity for character-based comedy.
EW: What was it like working with Jason Vail, Bill Oberst Jr, Miles Joris-Peyrafitte and the rest of the cast of “Valley of Sasquatch”?
JP: The cast on “Valley of the Sasquatch” was awesome. The film had a slightly bigger budget than our first two and so we got to work with people from outside the Seattle area for the first time, some of whom had been in big productions. Jason Vail (“Gut”), Bill Oberst Jr. (“Resolution”), David Saucedo (“Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones”) and Miles Joris-Peyrafitte (“As You Are”) were all recommended to us by fellow filmmakers during the pre-production process and each of them dug the project and really brought out the best in the characters. The lone local in the main cast was D’Angelo Midili. D’Angelo is someone who I’ve worked with on everything I’ve ever directed, whether it be shorts or web series episodes. He also played a standout character in the first October People production “The Invoking”. It was awesome having him there for my first feature, it would’ve felt weird without him. We like to treat our cast & crew like an ever-growing family and bring people back as often as possible. For example, both D’Angelo and Bill appear in “Ayla”.
EW: If you could choose any actors/actresses currently working in the film industry to cast in your films who would they be? Why?
JP: There are so many great actors out there that it’s almost too hard a question to answer. I could go on and on talking about people I grew up watching or modern indie favorites. Basically I want to work with people who are excited about filmmaking and can bring something more to a character than what’s on the page. I guess that doesn’t exactly answer your question, but I can tell you two all-time favorites that I wish I’d gotten the chance to work with: the late Roddy McDowall and Darren McGavin.
EW: Who are some of your cinematic influences?
JP: There were three people that influenced my career path: John Hughes, John Carpenter, and Kevin Smith. I began collecting movies (on VHS at the time) after watching “The Breakfast Club”. I became obsessed with Hughes’ work as a writer and director and the way he was able to give real depth to his characters even if they were stuck in sometimes very silly situations.
Soon after my 80s teen movie collection was underway, I saw a double feature of “Halloween (1978)” and “Halloween II (1981)” on TV one Halloween night. I was completely terrified and entranced, especially with the original Carpenter film. That led me on the path of collecting every horror movie I could find and digging into Carpenter’s filmography. Watching those films was the first time I really began to understand what a director could bring to a project. It didn’t matter if he was doing a horror film, an action film, or a Kung fu/fantasy/comedy, you could always tell that you were watching a John Carpenter film from the shot composition, the way the behavior of the characters, and the music.
While I was digging into the filmographies of Hughes and Carpenter and the genres they specialized in, I never once thought that I could be a filmmaker. That all changed when I saw Kevin Smith’s “Clerks”. Not only was it one of the funniest films I had ever seen, but it was made for almost nothing. I became engrossed in Smith’s work for a few years after that. I was very inspired by his story of making films that he’d like to see and writing his first script based on what he had available to him to keep costs down. When I realized that a $27,000 comedy set in a convenience store could be more entertaining than a giant blockbuster I decided to start making films of my own.
Besides those three, some of the other artists that have influenced me either by their desire to tell simple, character-driven stories or their affinity for the horror genre are people like Sam Raimi, Fred Dekker, Richard Linklater, Woody Allen, Joe Dante, Judd Apatow, Bob Clark, and Darin Morgan (specifically his work writing for “The X-Files”).
EW: Favorite films?
JP: Of course the three that I mentioned in the question above are right near the top. For horror films my favorites are “An American Werewolf in London”, “The Return of the Living Dead”, “The Thing (1982)”, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)”, and “From Dusk Till Dawn”. Then there are the blockbusters that everybody loves because they are amazing: “Jaws”, the original “Star Wars” trilogy, “Ghostbusters (1984)”, “The Terminator”, etc. My favorite screenplay ever written is “Back to the Future”. It’s just a perfect story and an awesome movie. I’m a big fan of “Back to the Future Part II” as well. Beyond that there are the fringe favorites that I want to mention because they don’t always get enough love: “A Simple Plan”, “Raising Arizona”, “Lucas”, “National Lampoon’s Vacation”, and “Stand by Me”.
EW: What got you started in filmmaking?
JP: See above for the start of it. After being inspired by “Clerks” I spent all of high school making short films with my friends, mainly comedies. They looked terrible and were full of non-actors (I usually had to play the leads just cause I didn’t know many other people interested in film). Later I went to the Vancouver Film School in Canada and realized the reason all of my early shorts were bad was because I didn’t know anything. I assumed watching movies and special features would make me a good filmmaker by osmosis. It didn’t exactly work out that way, but spending that time in Canada taught me a lot.
EW: What are some recent horror films that you really enjoyed?
JP: Myself and the other October People enjoyed the coming of age slasher movie “Found” so much that we acquired the film and helped it get distribution. Beyond that I really liked “Bone Tomahawk”, “The Conjuring”, “Goodnight Mommy”, “The Witch”, “Cub”, “Late Phases”, and “John Dies at the End”. A couple that I enjoyed at festivals but haven’t heard any news on distribution were “Savageland” and “The Devil’s Candy”.
EW: What is some advice that you can give to filmmakers just starting out?
JP: Just get out there and do it. If you want to tell stories, write. If you want to make films, film. The first things you do will most likely be terrible, maybe even the twentieth thing you do will be terrible, but you learn something and you get better each and every time you go out and do it. Also, don’t think you’re above entry level jobs or internships because they can always lead to bigger things. I met Jeremy almost a decade ago when we were both PAs on a local feature. I didn’t make any money from that job, but I met my business partner as well as our future sound mixer and assistant camera in that PA department.
Be sure to check out the official “Valley of the Sasquatch” website to keep up to date with posters, trailers and local screenings of the film. Valley of the Sasquatch is expected to be released on Blu-ray/DVD and online streaming sites in late 2016.
Erick Wofford is a writer/director and independent filmmaker known for his award winning short film, “The Music of Erich Zann.” He is currently in production on his first feature film entitled, “Splatterpunk!“
Notify me of follow-up comments by email.
Notify me of new posts by email.