Fantasia 2018: Sam Elliott And Robert Krzykowski On Bigfoot, Hitler, And Killing Both

An intimate chat with a legend and his director.

The Man Who Killed Hitler And Then The Bigfoot had its world premiere at this year's Fantasia Film Festival. We reviewed the film, but we also got a chance to sit down with its director, Robert Krzykowski, and star, screen legend Sam Elliott. Both were humble and talkative and absolute sweethearts, and we had a wonderful chat about the film and the themes surrounding it. Enjoy...

I guess we'll kick off with: what's it like to have killed Hitler?

Sam Elliott: It was wonderful. Although, I shouldn't say that it was wonderful, because that was me speaking - it wasn't [Calvin] Barr. I can't imagine that it would have been wonderful for him. But it was wonderful to watch him burn up in a movie theatre in Inglourious Basterds. I thought the way it was constructed, and the way that Barr killed him in the script, was a pretty brilliant piece of writing. That set the bar at the beginning. And I wasn't the man who killed him, literally. Aidan Turner did that. We actually shot in reverse. We did all the older stuff first, and then the younger stuff later on.

Robert Krzykowski: It's very much like shooting two movies - 1987 and 1942.

SE: I can't really reply, because I don't really know what it was like to kill Hitler. I haven't seen [the movie yet]. I just have to imagine what it was like. Very fulfilling. Great satisfaction. 

It'll be interesting to see how the audience reacts, because it's very much not the film that they'll be expecting from this title.

RK: We wanted to take these two big pulpy elements and find the humanity and the decency at the centre of that. Talking to John Sayles about the project, it was very much, "science fiction and fantasy can be used, as it has been all through the years, as a Trojan horse for deeper ideas. And so the goal was to subvert expectations, using the title as this big splashy notion of "the man who killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot." When you see it, it's very much about those two things, and then a whole lot more. We hope that that would be surprising and fulfilling, because you're still getting the thing that you came to see the movie for, but also you get this beautiful performance from Sam, and an exploration of decency and what it means to serve, and what you exchange in the service of others. I think that's what this movie was - an exploration those ideas. And we had to find the perfect person to do that. John Sayles had a lunch with Joel Coen and Frances McDormand, talking about who might be right for this movie. Joel and Frances gave the nod to Sam, so shortly thereafter, our casting director Kellie Roy and I reached out. 

SE: I can't even imagine that. My experience with Frances was zero - maybe we met at a screening - and my experience with Joel was two days on a set. 

When you first saw the title, what was your reaction?

SE: Probably like what you were saying - people would come in the door thinking one thing, and getting a lot more for their money than they bargained for. That was the way it was with the script. When I read the script, there were a couple of letters that came along with it, and I knew from reading the letters that this was going to be something to reckon with. It wasn't just this pulpy material. As I got into it, and started reading it, it was obvious right off the top that I was going to be involved with these people. It wasn't an easy thing - I was working at the time, and had commitments, I wasn't sure I wanted to work on my time off from this other job. It just had to do with logistics and spending time with my family - real life.

And it progressed to the day, and looked like maybe I wasn't going to do it, for a moment. Robert wrote a letter to my agent, thanking my agent for his support. There wasn't any desperation in there, it was just a really nice, honest letter. And my agent forwarded that letter on to me, and - even as I think about it now, it's stirring emotion. I couldn't not do this film after reading that letter. So I worked through my hiatus, and I'm so thankful that I did. I don't know what this movie's going to do. I don't know what Epic [Pictures] is going to do with this film. I don't know how we're going to be blessed by all this stuff. It may speak to an audience on a level that gets people's attention and gets a decent release.

That's really why we make movies. I make mine for the experience. I take a job for the experience of working as an actor and having an experience working with people that I respect. And if it works in the theatre, and works in the marketplace, there's nothing wrong with that. That kinda work brings work. Success brings other work. And it really was a joy working on this thing. I think I got really off base from your original question.

That's okay. There's this amazing speech in the middle of the film about how, "when I killed Hitler, I just killed a man, but his ideas continued to do damage," which coming in 2018, feels unfortunately...

RK: It shouldn't be relevant, but it is.

Did that factor into the writing or the directing of it? 

RK: I wrote the first draft of the screenplay in 2005, and that was just kind of sitting there until I met Lucky McKee, and started to actually make progress in making the thing. But there was no political agenda. There was no, there was. I wasn't trying to speak about right now. It shouldn't be political. I think this movie is about monsters. Bigfoot's a monster, but he's good. Hitler's a monster, but he's a human. I think that ideas can be monsters and I think pain and loss can be a monster. These are things that I was thinking about while I was writing it. This idea that an idea can grow and corrupt people. There was no intention there. I'm very surprised to see it have any relevance, because it wasn't intended to be that. 

SE: It's a great irony that it is.

RK: We were talking about it when we got together last summer. There were the riots. 

SE: Very strange. Amazing. [shakes head, frowns] Amazing.

There's a lot in the film about legends and how legends often turn out to not be what we think they are. When I took this interview, my colleagues were like, "oh, Sam Elliott, he's a legend." So what would you like your legend to be?

SE: I've never really thought about career in terms of legacy, particularly in the later years of my career. Early on, I wanted to work to work. It didn't really matter what it was, and there's a few stinkers out there that I'm not particularly proud of, from the early days. Not a lot of them. But I wanted to do this when I was a kid. Ten years old. How Green Was My Valley and The Creature From The Black Lagoon really made me want to get into this, funnily enough.

RK: It all comes back to the Creature!

SE: Early on, I woulda done anything just to work, to have the experience. And then, when you realise that maybe you've got a shot, I decided I wanted longevity. And the way you get longevity is to do good work, and not just work for money. I don't think I've ever worked for money. Never took a job just for a paycheck. And I think if I really think about legacy, it's that I want a body of work that I'm proud of. I've spent my lifetime doing it. In terms of [the film's themes of] "legendary," and all of that, I'd call it "mythic." It's a myth. That's always spoken to me. 

RK: I love parables, the American mythic quality of some of the older writers like Charles Dickens, and Washington Irving, and I wanted to try writing something that talks about what it means to be an American right now - can that feel classic and iconic and old fashioned, but still have something to say about today? I know that that's a tall order, a big swing, but it was something Sam and I talked about trying. How do you do something like that with a very small movie with limited resources? Can that work?

I think there's an experimental aspect to this entire movie that I don't have the answers for. I won't know until people see it. It's being seen in such a vacuum right now and made in a very supportive environment. Epic let this movie be exactly what it is, and I think that's incredibly brave and should be celebrated. The movie will be whatever it is, and people can judge it as they see fit. But companies like Epic taking big risks on something very different? There's a lot of similarity in things being made today. And I think that took courage on their part. And so as a filmmaker, I was hoping for relationships like the Coen Brothers had with several films, where they had freedom and autonomy, and could make the movie with the collaborators that they set out to make. And so there were never any roadblocks there. For better or worse, we got to make the movie we set out to make. I don't think that happens all the time.

There's a duality to the character. It's mostly this very quiet, meditative movie, but it has these moments of the character being totally badass. How do you kind of engineer the one to come out of the other?

SE: For my part, it's what's on the page. It's what I do. I try to bring some truth to it. My goal as an actor is to tell the truth. Or make it look like I'm telling the truth. Feel the truth in it. I often have problems, and there might've been a couple here, but I don't remember there being any. I'm always kind of a pain in the ass about material. Over the long haul, I might think, "that's not quite right. There's something wrong with the truth in that. That's not real. That could be tweaked a little."

RK: There was always a magical realism to this movie that I was going. When Sam arrived, he embraced that, but he always pushed us a little further toward how it could be a little more real. We'd talk about that and we'd find it. The entire movie got flavored by that. That that was really special to me because that was one of the big surprises for me. This thing was so specifically structured with hundreds and hundreds of storyboards and very intense planning from the entire team. And then Sam and I get talking about it, and it takes on a new shape, and you embrace that because you're not alone in the creation of the movie. 

I have to ask about this because like I'm an enormous Bigfoot enthusiast...

RK: Yes! More questions on this, please!

What are you feelings on Bigfoot? You don't get much more mythic than Bigfoot. 

SE: There's not enough good footage of him for me to totally buy into it. I'd like to buy into it. I live in Southern California, but I've got a place in Oregon where I'm hoping to live forever at some point, hopefully not too far off. We drive back and forth to it, and we go through this town called Mount Shasta. There's a giant totem pole of Bigfoot out on the main drag. And when my daughter first saw it, she loved it. She was freaked out. So every time, we take a little detour to see Bigfoot. It's very intriguing. And a lot of people take it pretty seriously.

RK: I want to believe. I have a friend, he's a detective at a local police department. On his time off, he'll travel to different states and join up with famous Bigfoot hunters and go hunting. He's convinced. He's presented all the evidence. It's very interesting. I love the idea of taking Bigfoot which everybody has in their head, and working with Spectral Motion, and making it more like Bernie Wrightson's Frankenstein, or Grendel, or some of these great movie monsters, or classic monsters from literature. We want to do something different and surprise people through that. It wound up having the spirit of the 2001 ape - which wasn't intended, but once it was on film...

There's a beautiful silhouette of him shot late in the film.

RK: That was pure happenstance. We were running out of time. We looked in the monitor, we thought we were out of light and out of time, and we looked, and he was just standing there, and [Bigfoot actor Mark Stegler] was just waiting for his moment, and we were like, we're not going to shoot all the coverage. We're just going to do this. That's the shot - one shot. I'm glad you saw that, because that's what I saw in the monitor. It was like, there it is.

SE: Curious - you being a Bigfoot aficionado, were you disappointed in the human aspect of the Bigfoot? That he wasn't a giant?

Oh no, no. I was fine with that. I adored the moment where Bigfoot's dying, and Calvin holds his hand and cries.

SE: Oh yeah. That's a killer moment. That just happened - one of those things that just happened.

RK: We were just rolling, and Mark had his hand out. Sam held his hand. There were two cameras - one over here, and one looking right at Sam. I'm watching both monitors and I didn't know where it came from, but he broke down. It was completely real. Then we just took a break. Because he believed it, everybody else on set started to believe it more and more. That happened every day. There's this fantastic element to the movie, and Sam took it totally seriously, and that made everybody else see it through a new lens. I hope that spread through the whole creation of the movie. 

I think it's going to move people and I think people will be surprised in the best possible way. This is the right audience to surprise. Thanks, guys.

SE: Pleasure.