Letters from the Big Man

Letters from the Big Man

Isaac C. Singleton Jr. as The Big Man in LETTERS FROM THE BIG MAN, a film by Christopher Munch. Picture courtesy Antarctic Pictures. All rights reserved.

Letters from the Big Man

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Letters from the Big Man (2011)

Opened: 11/11/2011 Limited

Limited11/11/2011
IFC Center11/11/2011 - 11/24/201114 days

Trailer: Click for trailer

Websites: Facebook

Genre: Drama

Rated: Unrated

Synopsis

Following a painful breakup, Sarah Smith (LILY RABE) embarks on a post-fire stream survey for the Forest Service in southern Oregon. A journey down a wild and scenic river leads her to a remote wilderness surrounded by scorched landscapes. Here she first senses being followed by a presence that will not reveal itself. Visitation from the "big man" (ISAAC C. SINGLETON JR.) continues, more overtly, at the remote cabin to which Sarah repairs to write up her fieldwork. A budding romance with a wilderness advocate (JASON BUTLER HARNER) she met on her trip leads to surprising revelations about the government and sasquatch, and conflicting agendas that culminate in Sarah leaving civilization behind completely in order to be close to, and observe, "the sasquatch people."

Director's Statement

When the screenplay for Letters From the Big Man was conceived in early 2005, I had no prior knowledge, other than awareness of a 40-year-old iconic but ambiguous moving image, of the subject of sasquatch-wildman-yeti. To begin to understand what I was writing required prodigious reading, consultation with a broad range of experts, and, most importantly, my own time in the forest -- as much as possible. The latter was, and continues to be, an immensely rewarding outcome of making the film.

Upon surveying 50-odd years of motion pictures devoted to the subject, it was plain to see that authenticity has never been high on filmmakers' lists of priorities. While there are quite a few excellent and scholarly books on the subject in print, filmmakers seemingly have not consulted them. The "glass ceiling" that sasquatch genre films have historically had a hard time breaking is, I believe, directly related to this lack of authenticity, and the insistence of filmmakers on depicting sasquatch as monsters. That audiences keep coming back for more is testimony to the deep and mythic hold that the idea of a "big man" has on our collective psyche.

The Klamath-Siskiyou ecoregion of southwestern Oregon and northwestern California is one of the most biologically diverse in North America. Proposed as a World Heritage Site and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the region escaped glaciation during the last ice age and is home to stunning wild rivers, relict species, and evolutionary stories that were elegantly chronicled by David Rains Wallace in his 1984 book The Klamath Knot. Wallace's exploration of myth and evolution influenced my decision of where to situate this story.

Another set of circumstances that came to bear on the story's geography resulted from a catastrophic wildfire which, in 2004, burnt half a million acres of the Siskiyous and could not be extinguished by man. The Biscuit Fire, as it came to be known, contributed to our national dialogue on the efficacy of longstanding fire-suppression policies that have resulted in millions of acres of overstocked forests denied their natural burn cycles. Moreover, salvage logging of Federal lands burned during Biscuit (which it was hoped would bring much-needed economic stimulus to the region) bitterly divided the community and spotlighted, at a national level, a growing and unhealthy politicization of the USDA Forest Service. The actions of all sides in this controversy eroded public goodwill.

Against this backdrop I envisioned an ordinary woman having an extraordinary interaction with a species at once taxonomically unverified and possibly closer to ours than any other. As Wallace speculated:

If such creatures exist, there is a certain logic to their existence. Civilization has explored the oceans, the icecaps, the moon, but it has not adequately explored the human consciousness.... So what wild animal would be hardest for us to discover? An animal very much like ourselves, perhaps.... What if another hominid species had emotionally outgrown Homo sapiens, had not evolved the greed, cruelty, vanity, and other "childishness" that seem to arise with our neotenic nature? What if that animal had come to understand the world well enough that it did not need to construct a civilization, a cultural sieve trough which to strain perception? Such a creature would understand the forests in ways we cannot.... There are places in the Klamaths where such a harmony between forest and hominid is imaginable, where the sense of aloneness and strangeness turns into something else.

Tales of interaction between our people and giant hominids are not unheard of over the past 150 years: the real-life antecedents of Harry and the Hendersons. One of the best known and most compelling of these stories occurred in the Caucasus in the late 19th century and involved a female, Zana, who, despite being untamed, wound up in the service of a noble household, where she was highly valued for her strength and physical prowess. While later generations of Russian scientists were unable to exhume her remains, the skull of her mixed-race youngest son, Khwit, who died in 1954, attracted considerable attention among anthropologists for its combination of modern and ancient features. There is, we are told, a Russian folk tradition, denoted by the word "domovoi," that involves the domestication of giant hominids.

Within the American academic community there exists a high disregard for the subject of sasquatch, even in the face of a preponderance of physical and circumstantial evidence. A few Ph.D.s bucking that dismissive trend (Krantz, Meldrum, Fahrenbach, Bindernagel, et al.) have contributed valuable insight into the physical leavings of the hominids: their inferred locomotor adaptations, their dermatoglyphics, and the diagnostic DNA sequences of their hair (which consistently match no known samples).

But their physical leavings are few and far between. In the realm of the social sciences even less is known about the giants, and few have attempted to broaden this knowledge base. Among those who have, author Kewaunee Lapseritis has persisted over the past 30 years, despite controversy generated by some of his observations, in characterizing the sasquatch as people rather than as great apes or relict hominids. He postulates that they are more akin to "primitive" tribes that have evolved a way of being so entirely different than ours that they have remained within our midst a "secret society," numbering perhaps 3500 in North America. His groundbreaking book The Sasquatch People (forthcoming in February 2011) is eagerly anticipated, exploring and expanding upon native North American traditions based upon his direct observation and eyewitness interviews.

Having boldly proclaimed her belief in the existence of the giants, ethologist Jane Goodall has stated that her ethnographic research into native cultural traditions is what convinced her. In his 2003 book Raincoast Sasquatch, J. Robert Alley intriguingly details the similarities in folklore among the various tribes of southern Alaska, British Columbia, and northwest Washington. Native informants (when they are willing to discuss the subject at all) tend to be more reliable than even police, because the unwavering presence of a sasquatch-like figure within their social fabric tends to preclude fear-based misinterpretation. While an exploration of native traditions surrounding sasquatch is beyond the scope of this essay, a consistent thread among modern native cultures is the appearance of sasquatch at times of imbalance in the community, signifying the need to cleanse or to change. In his celebrated and exhaustively researched document of the American government's assault on native peoples, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, author Peter Matthiessen reported that "Rugaru" appears to the Turtle Mountain Ojibway of North Dakota "[at] symptoms of danger or psychic disruption to the community."

Academic hostility to the idea of giant hominids has left the playing field open to lay researchers, and, although it is not always easy for a reader to sift through the chaff, it is significant that some of the most valuable findings have come from such individuals. Janice Carter, for instance, while growing up on a Tennessee farm, allegedly observed at close range the dangers of habituation that resulted from a 50-year-long acquaintanceship between her grandfather and a clan of sasquatch living on his property. Details of the character and physiognomy of "Fox," "Sheba," and their offspring are clearly set forth in the book that Carter co-authored with Mary Green, as is a dictionary of 200 words and phrases purportedly spoken by the giants. Although some details of Carter's account have not held up to scrutiny over time, it has generally been the opinion of those researchers who visited the farm -- chief among them the noted Russian hominologist Dimitri Bayanov, co-author of In the Footsteps of the Russian Snowman -- that something highly unusual and unprecedented took place there. The inability or unwillingness of researchers to imbed themselves in the Carter farm for purposes of observation represents a compelling opportunity lost.

Among both lay and lettered researchers, some are "pro-kill," meaning that they believe only a dead body will produce irrefutable evidence of the giants' existence, while others advocate a more humane approach to studying them. Still others who have purportedly been privileged to interact with sasquatch regard themselves simply as "experiencers," having no agenda or need to prove anything. But for any of our people to gain a deeper understanding of the cultural, social, and physiological peculiarities of the elusive beings, it would seem to require a willingness to question deeply held assumptions about intelligence, communication, and evolution.

For lay researchers like Carter, the road to legitimacy is nothing if not rocky. The very qualities that make them well suited to interaction with another primate species -- an overriding curiosity and willingness to observe, unobtrusively, over extended periods of time, a concern for animals and an ability to think like them, an ease with living close to nature, and often a disregard of convention -- are the same qualities that can easily be called into question by the media and academia, often in the most hostile manner.

Louis Leakey's foresight in developing and championing the work of Goodall, Fossey, and Galdikas sprang from his realization that only a researcher capable of meeting her subject empathically, on a level playing field, could pierce the previously impenetrable society of great apes. The emotional and intellectual dedication that allowed them to gain the trust of their subjects and glimpse their breadth -- surpassing scientific methodology without abdicating it -- can provide us, in the 21st century, with a blueprint for building bridges to what the Ojibway call our "closest brother."

The growth of the internet has made it possible for lay researchers easily to share information. Groups like the Bigfoot* Research Organization provide a forum for reporting encounters, and are actively engaged in assessing (for varying objectives, not all of them altruistic) the accuracy of such reports by way of field research. (One of the film's principal consultants, Thom Powell, author of the soon-to-be-published novel Shady Neighbors, in 2003 distilled his investigation of hundreds of such reports -- especially the ones that escaped initial publication -- into a far-reaching record of the giants' modern presence in North America, titled, simply and aptly, The Locals.)

Those people who have purportedly gained the trust of individual sasquatch want no publicity. In most cases, they realize that any disclosure of their interaction will bring it to an end, and may result in harm to individuals whom they have come to regard as family. Instead, the kooks, hoaxers, and "circus promoters" are often the ones who come forward and dominate the headlines and TV. In her capacity as amanuensis for the big man, Sarah writes in her journal of one well-known huckster:

We hope that his going so far over the edge will cause a shift in the thinking of others who would otherwise do the same. He is the one on exhibit. We never will be. Your people are understanding this more and more. They are also understanding that a circus is no fun without good performers. He is a performer, yes, but the only ones among your people who would pay to see him are ones of like mind, and it is they, we hope, who will change their minds.*

I have observed that filmgoers who possess even a passing interest in the subject matter of sasquatch-wildman will endure a third-rate genre film in the hopes of it containing even a kernel of truth. They hunger for a film that offers more substance than has been available so far. It has been my overriding goal, using a humanistic and unsentimental approach influenced by films as diverse as Barbet Schroeder's La Vallee and Robert Flaherty's Louisiana Story, to reach the audience by way of my heroine's emotional journey, while allowing the big man to remain to some degree -- as he must -- inscrutable, a shadowy and mythic figure.

-- Christopher Munch

 

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