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An Interview with John Portanova, Director of Valley of the Sasquatch a.k.a. Hunting Grounds

by Mike Haberfelner

March 2015

Films directed by John Portanova on (re)Search my Trash

 

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Your new movie Valley of the Sasquatch a.k.a. Hunting Grounds - in a few words, what is it about?

 

Valley of the Sasquatch is the story of a family going through a rough time. After a series of unfortunate events, Roger and his teenage son Michael find themselves forced to move into an old family cabin on Mount St. Helens. Michael, a city kid, doesnít like being moved away from his comfort zone and Roger is faced with dealing with his son by himself for the first time in his life. As these two try, and fail, to get along in this new environment, they find themselves in the path of a tribe of Sasquatch that arenít too excited about the influx of humans into their territory.

 

Basic question, why Bigfoot?

 

I was fascinated by Bigfoot from an early age. It probably started with seeing Harry and the Hendersons on TV when I was a kid. That led to me reading books on the subject and becoming obsessed with paranormal investigation shows such as Unsolved Mysteries. Iíd devour any story or movie about Bigfoot that I could find. The reason they appealed to me was because Iím such a big fan of monsters, but I knew that things like werewolves and vampires werenít real. Bigfoot was a scary creature that I could believe in, and I am a believer. I just love the idea that there is this mythical beast out there in the woods just waiting to be discovered and change the way we think about the world.

 

With Valley of the Sasquatch being a monster movie, is that a genre at all dear to you, and some of your genre favourites?

 

Iím a huge horror movie fan and Iím always down to watch a good monster movie. My favorite horror film of all time is a monster movie: An American Werewolf in London. Give me an out of this world villain made out of foam latex and Iíll be happy. Some other genre favorites that fit in that mold for me are The Thing (1982), Gremlins, Fright Night (1985), Night of the Creeps, From Dusk Till Dawn, and The Return of the Living Dead.

 

Other sources of inspiration when writing Valley of the Sasquatch?

 

When writing I try to make sure that the characters and their relationships are just as important as the horror. If you donít give the audience the opportunity to become invested in the drama of the film, thereís no reason to expect them to care when the characters begin dying. So when writing the script I thought of films that did this well and also featured a small number of characters who find themselves out of their element fighting against an unknown enemy. The ones that immediately pop into my head that I was thinking about at the time are The Descent and 1977ís Rituals.

 

But the single biggest inspirations when writing Valley of the Sasquatch were the true stories of Bigfoot encounters that I had been reading about since I was a kid. The plot of the film is a fictionalized story containing many references to real life sightings. I wanted this to be a story that appealed to Sasquatch enthusiasts as much as horror fans. By taking inspiration from a handful of real life events, I hoped to craft a story that respected the history of the creature and didn't just treat Bigfoot as a rampaging monster and nothing more.

 

What can you tell us about your directorial approach to your story at hand?

 

My approach when directing was the same when writing, keep the characters and the sense of reality as the most important things in the film. If it felt real for the actors when they were performing, it would feel real for the audience when they were watching. In rehearsals and on set I would spend a lot of time talking with the actors about where their characters were coming from and what they had been through, and that includes our suit performer who played the Bigfoot.

 

This isn't a movie that exists in a heightened reality, itís happening in our world. Thatís why the monster they run into is Bigfoot and not something fantastical like The Mummy. These are real people, dealing with problems we can relate to, who find themselves face to face with a real monster. Keeping that fact in mind during every scene was the most important thing for me.

 

Bill Oberst jr

There are quite a few gruesome bits in Valley of the Sasquatch - so what can you tell us about the gore effects in your movie, and was there ever a line you refused to cross regarding violence (for other than budgetary reasons)?

 

Iím of two minds when it comes to horror: Iím a lover of character and story, but Iím also a gorehound who wants nothing more than to see a good death scene that is inventive and doesn't wallow in nastiness. I tried to balance these interests within Valley of the Sasquatch. I didn't want the film to devolve into a series of random death scenes featuring underdeveloped characters. At the same time, I didn't want the death scenes to feel rote. For example, thereís nothing worse than watching a slasher movie and every single death is a knife to the gut. It gets boring. I hope that when the death scenes happen in Valley of the Sasquatch theyíll mean something to the audience because they either care about the characters or because they havenít seen that scene before in a Bigfoot film.

 

You just have to talk about your actual creatures/creature suits for a bit!

 

Our suit was created by the same man who brought our gory scenes to life. His name is Doug Hudson and heís been working in makeup FX for over 20 years. Iíd heard of Doug because heís the only guy in the Seattle film scene who has a Bigfoot suit. He would bring this suit to horror conventions and it appeared in some local commercials. There are plenty of good Bigfoot films that have to constantly hide the creature because itís just a guy in a gorilla costume. Since I wanted the Sasquatches in our film to be real characters that I could go in and get close-ups on I knew the suit would be one of the most important things in the film. So thatís why I went to Doug. We made sure to put aside a good chunk of the budget for the makeup FX, so Doug was able to build a whole new suit and mold a new head based on specific looks we had both discussed.

 

D'Angelo Midili

But a good suit is only half the battle in making sure your creature seems realistic. If the performer inside the suit stinks then itís all for naught. Luckily Doug helped us out in this regard by recommending the suit performer he had used in the past, Connor Conrad. I had seen Connor in Dougís old suit and thought he brought a lot of personality to his creature performance. He was also comfortable with Doug and the entire process of wearing a hot suit for long periods of time, so it was a no brainer to go with him. A big thing that Doug and I decided with the suit was to use Connorís real eyes as the eyes of the Sasquatch. One of my favorite scenes in the whole movie is near the end, where we hold on a close-up of the Sasquatch. We didn't have the budget for animatronics in the suit, but by seeing Connorís eyes and the way he moves his tongue and his chin, you feel like this immobile mask is a living, breathing creature. You wouldn't have gotten that with a lesser performer, a lesser suit, or a CGI creation.

 

What can you tell us about your cast, and why exactly these people?

 

Iíll go in the order they were cast:

 

Bill Oberst jr [Bill Oberst jr interview - click here] plays Bauman in the film. Our producer Matt Medisch was a big fan of Billís and a film he had seen him in called The Retrieval. I looked up Bill and realized I had seen him in a bunch of stuff; the guyís been in over 100 movies in the last 5 years! So we reached out and Bill reacted well to the part, which was a change of pace from his usual villainous roles, and the script. He liked the fact that it was a more dramatic take on a horror film and enjoyed my enthusiasm for the subject matter.

 

David Saucedo [David Saucedo interview - click here] was someone that our other producer Brent Stiefel recommended. He had worked with David before and once he recommended him I remembered seeing David in Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones. I looked into his work, liked what I saw, and then we started discussing the part. One thing that people might not realize since the character of Sergio is such a jerk in the film is that David is super nice, so we got along well on set.

 

David Saucedo

The character of Will was the hardest to cast. I originally had an idea that all of the characters in the film besides Michael would be in their 40s. But after looking around at a bunch of performers in that age range we realized we weren't seeing what we were looking for with Will. So we opened up the age range and since the character is supposed to be this fit likable guy, DíAngelo Midili jumped right to the top of our list. I've worked with DíAngelo on everything I've ever directed, which up until Valley of the Sasquatch were short films and web series. He even played a major character in the first feature I wrote, The Invoking. As soon as I saw him reading the lines, I couldn't believe that I had ever considered anyone else. Casting someone younger also helped with the character dynamics since Roger and Sergio were supposed to be somewhat jealous of Willís success in life. Having him be younger than them and more successful just gives more fuel to their characterís resentments.

 

We ran into some trouble two weeks before production when our original Michael and Roger both dropped out of the film for different reasons. We had to act fast since there was no delaying production at that point and we didn't have our two main characters cast. Luckily we were friendly with Elias [Elias interview - click here], the director of the film Gut. We asked him about actors he would recommend us taking a look at and he introduced us to Miles Joris-Peyrafitte [Miles Joris-Peyrafitte interview - click here] and Jason Vail [Jason Vail interview - click here]. We asked them to submit audition videos and they were easily the most talented people we saw read for those parts. We also had the added bonus of the fact that they looked like they could be father and son, Miles had even played a younger version of Jasonís character in Gut. With such a quick turnaround between casting and production, I didn't get much of a chance to rehearse with Miles and Jason before we were on set, but they both fell into character quickly and knocked it out of the park.

 

A few words about your locations, and what was it like filming there?

 

We shot the film near Snoqualmie Pass in my home state of Washington. We chose a location that looked great and was also practical for us to shoot in. We had a cast and crew that we had to put up for a month and having a place close by the shooting locations was important for us to make our days. We couldn't waste an hour each day driving to and from a mountain location. Luckily we found Meany Lodge, a ski lodge that was off season since we filmed in the summer. We could house the cast and crew in the ski lodge and then walk a few hundred feet in any direction and find ourselves in a variety of locations. They even had an old telephone cabin that became the characterís home in the film.

 

Miles Joris-Peyrafitte

What can you tell us about the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere?

 

The shoot was great. We shot for four weeks from the middle of June to the middle of July. We didn't have a large budget, but it was important to me and my fellow producers at The October People that we have as much time as possible to bring the script to life. This urge probably comes from the fact that our first film The Invoking was shot in just 7 days. So for a month we had the cast & crew all living at Meany Lodge. We were never away from each other and this made it so people became very close. We were all stuck in an area with no phone reception or WiFi, working to bring this story to life. And when we weren't shooting we were talking, drinking, and watching movies. It was a lot of fun, like a gory summer camp.

 

The $64 question of course, when and where will the film be released onto the general public?

 

We just recently started our film festival run. Our next showing that has been announced will be at the Crimson Screen Horror Film Festival in Charleston, SC on the weekend of May 15th. Exact show times aren't available yet, but will be coming soon. There are also other festivals we've submitted to that we are waiting to hear back from, so weíll have some more screenings to announce soon. People can keep up with where weíll be playing over at valleyofthesasquatch.com

 

A few words about critical and audience reception so far?

 

The reception so far has been great. I wasn't quite sure about what the reaction would be since the focus of the film is really on the drama and the characters, but itís played as well as you could want a horror movie to play. Audiences I've seen it with have laughed at the rivalry between Will and Sergio, squealed at the gore gags, and even jumped a few times. Itís really a blast to watch with an audience in a theatrical setting.

 

Jason Vail

I've also been very happy with our critical reception. The cast are getting high marks and there have been a lot of good words said about the cinematography and Sasquatch costume. We even had a recent review say that Valley of the Sasquatch was the best film the Bigfoot sub-genre has to offer. I donít agree with that at all, but to even be spoken of in the same breath as the classics of Squatchploitation is a huge honor.

 

Any future projects you'd like to share?

 

The next thing you can look forward to from The October People is a little film simply called A. A is a supernatural thriller written and directed by Elias [Elias interview - click here], who hooked us up with our lead actors in Valley of the Sasquatch. Itís a character study about a man who is obsessed with the death of his sister when he was five. This obsession leads him down a dark path that threatens to tear his world apart. I will be acting as a producer alongside my October People cohorts. We currently have Tristan Risk (American Mary) and Nicholas Wilder (Gut) attached to star.

 

Beyond A, we also have some scripts ready to go for Jeremy Berg (Valley of the Sasquatch cinematographer and director of The October Peopleís first two features) [Jeremy Berg interview - click here] to direct. Iím also currently working on my next screenplay, which is an adaptation of a novel by a local Washington author. Itís a ghost story told through the prism of a dark domestic drama. Iím really excited about it because the novel freaked me out and I find the characters fascinating. Iím aiming for that adaptation to be my next project as a director.

 

Your/your movie's website, Facebook, whatever else?

 

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Iím on Twitter @October_John and you can find out all about Valley of the Sasquatch at valleyofthesasquatch.com. The film is also on Facebook (facebook.com/valleyofthesasquatch) and Twitter (@Sasquatchhorror). For information on The October Peopleís other films, a few of which I helped write, you can check out theoctoberpeople.net, facebook.com/theoctoberpeople, or @October_People on Twitter.

 

Anything else you are dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?

 

Iíd be remiss if I didn't mention some of my favorite Bigfoot films. This is a sub-genre that most people assume begins and ends with Harry and the Hendersons, but there is so much more out there! If youíre into docudramas (a precursor to found footage) you canít beat The Legend of Boggy Creek or Sasquatch: The Legend of Bigfoot. For straight narratives, Iím a big fan of Creature from Black Lake and Abominable. If documentaries are more your style Iíd recommend Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie and any episode of Unsolved Mysteries or In Search Of that covers the creature.

 

Thanks for the interview!

 

Thanks for letting me ramble!

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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