An Interview with Director Robert D. Krzykowski – Part 1

Robert D. Krzykowski’s feature directorial debut The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot premiered at Fantasia 2018 recently and was a huge success. His Q&A with star Sam Elliott was enlightening and fun. Here he is to answer a few of Cinema Crazed’s questions.

Robert, please tell us how the story of The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot came to be?
BOB K.: I’ve long admired the imagery of Norman Rockwell and the words of John Steinbeck. I was trying to create a straight-faced mythic in the spirit of these storytellers. Rockwell may have been a painter, but I believe he was every bit a storyteller too. Many of his paintings have a narrative element, and I tried to write moments that felt like they could live in that world. Being from a small town in Massachusetts, his paintings wind up in your bones. I tried to capture the visual language of the classic Rockwell caricatures—slightly exaggerated, hopeful, iconic.

Steinbeck’s gift was for mythologizing the unsung heroes—lionizing the little guy. In this tale, Calvin Barr’s heroism had no tangible impact on history, and he’s mostly a forgotten ex-soldier when we pick up with Sam Elliott playing him in a lonely barroom. Steinbeck could be really, really funny as well. His observations were honest, he had no fear of being too literal, or too figurative, or too surreal. He marched to the beat of his own drum, and I felt like this strange pulp adventure could do that too. Certainly John Gardner’s ‘Grendel’—which tells the story of Beowulf from the monster’s perspective—was in mind as I was envisioning this sad, miserable Bigfoot creature. I was thinking about a lot of these elements when I began the writing, and they kept coming back as the thing took shape.

What are the film’s central themes and what do they represent to you?
BOB K.: As I was writing, a couple close friends passed away and it changed the perspective of the story—from a young man looking forward full of hope and wonder, to an old man looking back with loss and regret. The secret antagonist of the story is pain, and how that can pain slowly consume us from within. I’m personally fearful of that corruption, and I was trying to write about that fear using some of these fantastical ideas. And in that, I wanted to find some glimmer of hope that was somehow honest to these two totally preposterous events that supposedly define him. I wanted to write about myths and myth-making, and the movie winds up looking in at itself regarding these themes as well.

There’s also the theme of monsters. The Bigfoot is a monster, yet good. Hitler is a monster, and he’s a man, yet he’s evil. There’s also the notion of ideas being monsters—ideas living on like a disease. That’s happening today, even as we speak. There are more themes at play here, but I’ll let people discover them as they will. I care a lot about letting the audience be a participant in the storytelling. Too much today puts the audience in a passive role, and that removes a lot of the joy of interaction. We have to be allowed to take something into a story, and away from it, and then there’s an exchange with the audience. That means a lot to me, and if that’s happening at all with this film, I’ll be content.

What do you wish viewers would take away from the film?
BOB K.: Without saying too much, I hope it gives people a little bit of courage to see such a strong and able hero confronting the same frailties and weaknesses we all endure. And still he forges on. In this case, he’s a soldier. And there are many heroes in many lines of work—be it a nurse, a caretaker, a teacher, a volunteer—and many of these people willingly exchange their lives in the service of others every day. I’d like people to consider that exchange.

The culture seems so fractured right now. I don’t think we’re as different as the loudest voices would have us believe. I believe there are a lot of decent people out there giving it their all every day. I believe Calvin Barr exemplifies that simple decency. We should be looking up to decent people right now. But our culture doesn’t always reward decency, so it’s putting us in a precarious spot. This movie is antithesis to a lot of the prevailing attitudes today, and it presents its case pretty gently. But I think it speaks just loud enough for those who seek to hear it. Time will tell. It belongs to everyone else now. In the grand scheme of things, I’m a bystander now. As it should be.

As a filmmaker, what or who influences you?
BOB K.: I so admire the films of John Sayles. ‘Matewan’, in particular. That film was one of two movies that made me want to make movies when I was a kid. It’s a cosmic miracle that he’s a producer on this film. I understand how that came to pass, and I still can’t believe it. He’s one of the best people I know. I encourage every young filmmaker to start digesting his work as soon as possible. It’ll change their film theory for the better. It’ll open them up to new narrative possibilities. It’ll give them a bit more empathy and insight. It’ll be some of the most fun they’ve had discovering a filmmaker because it’ll all feel so new. For many—discovering his films is a light bulb moment they’ve never forgotten. It was for me.

I love Hal Ashby and Robert Altman. These people all have something to say, but without preaching. And they never forgot to captivate and entertain. That’s important. ‘The Last Detail’ and ‘Being There’ are two of the most human movies ever made. ‘The Long Goodbye’ felt like a cinematic changing of the guard. I think that’s happening again as we speak. I’d certainly point to Paul Thomas Anderson and Tarantino as the last major guard change, and I find their movies very singular and invigorating. Somehow, Anderson tapped into this almost biblical, John Huston vibe with ‘There Will Be Blood’ and that’s really stuck with me in recent memory.

Steven Spielberg has always been a hero of mine, and he’s able to pivot from a rousing adventure to explorations our darkest or most noble selves. He has the biggest paintbrush, yet his work has incredible integrity—and a real closeness too. He and Kurosawa have the most elegant, alive, cerebral camera work. Hitchcock and Scorsese as well. Their cameras move and dance as visibly or invisibly as wish—weaving their stories with imagery every bit as important as the words on the page. Spielberg and Kurosawa can frame the perception of several edits without ever interrupting a single camera move. It’s nearly invisible. That’s a gift. And it can’t really be approximated. I think that’s because they utilize film as a language where most can only utilize it as a tool. Surely, there are many others. But these jump immediately to mind.

The Coen Brothers have written and directed several of the best American films of all time, and their sense of humor is singular and insightful. They study human beings like bugs in a jar. We all seem a little small and silly through their lens. And maybe we are? Maybe we’re not half as special or important as we think we are. So I love their work too, because their perception is a step removed from everyone else’s. Can you be lovingly intimate and coldly observational at the same time? If so—that’s them. And that’s another gift you just can’t replicate.

My grandfather passed away right before we began shooting the film last year. He was always kind, seeking out the best in people, and he was incredibly decent. He served in World War Two and had a huge family. He had a big influence on me, and on my family at large. He was proud of everyone individually for who they were—never what they had. I wasn’t disappointed he never got to see this movie because I think he was proud of who I was. Getting to make a movie would have been a nice pat on the head, but it’s not what would have made him ultimately proud of a person. So I admire that maybe more than anything else. He measured people’s worth by a different standard. I don’t want to forget that.

How do you think your experience with your short Elsie Hooper and with working on films like Carolina Low and The Woman have influenced how you work now?
BOB K.: ‘Elsie Hooper’ is a long-running newspaper comic strip I’ve been writing and illustrating since 2002. It taught me how to convey ideas through visual storytelling, and it let me interact with an audience and learn how to predict, subvert, and reward expectations. Since it was widely known to be experimental and kind of stream-of-consciousness, it let me try a lot of things without fear, and that readership always rewarded me with a lot of support and goodwill when I was focused and disciplined about delivering new strips. I loved working on that comic, and I’m probably talking to you today because that black and white comic slowly opened a few key doors that have led to a quiet career in film.

The short film is full of classic effects, noir lighting, full-size puppetry, a team of hidden puppeteers, lots of camera tricks, and it lovingly replicates the spirit of the comic in three dimensions. Diligently storyboarding that short and making it on budget and on schedule were the burden of proof that a lot of people needed to approve H&B for production. So ‘Elsie Hooper’ was critical in so many ways, and I owe a lot to it.

‘Carolina Low’ was more of a major restoration, having been shot on film in North Carolina back in 1997. The film required a new edit, color correction, sound, and a lot of new music. It’s a textured, lyrical period piece, so we had to be gentle with the look and feel of everything we were doing. I supervised that process for about a year, and I was able to stretch some editing muscles with my friend and collaborator Zach Passero. It was a great process—a really lovely gem of a film about Appalachian train robbers in the 1920’s written by and starring the brilliant Sean Bridgers who I’ve worked with on every film I’ve been a part of. He voiced and operated the lead puppet in ‘Elsie Hooper’. I hope people get to see ‘Carolina Low’ someday soon. The restoration is complete, so I think it will emerge on the near horizon. Reminds me of a lovely little Steinbeck novella, so that’s probably why I was so drawn to it in the first place.

Working with Lucky McKee on ‘The Woman’, I got to produce for someone who trusted me, and who I trusted, and it was the beginning of a great friendship, and years of collaboration. Lucky is incredible with actors. He’s open and respectful. He knows very much what he wants. He’s incredibly visual; studied on film from every era. His film knowledge is vast, and he can cite film theory like a professor. He’s an excellent communicator, and he cares deeply about his work and his crew. He’s been an incredible mentor and friend. And we worked really, really hard together to get this movie off the ground. It took hundreds of hours of work and planning. And he helped navigate that path brilliantly.

I co-produced ‘The Woman’ almost exactly eight years ago, and we now we’ve traded roles on H&B. Lucky and I are very honest about each other’s work, and we speak plainly, and we challenge one another to bring out our very best. And once we’ve spoken our peace, we trust one another to our convictions. As partners, we support each other’s vision above all else. I’ve learned more from him and John Sayles than anyone, I think. They’re just incredible filmmakers—and generous, generous people. At the end of the day, I’ve had the privilege to work with people that truly care about people—and their talents are amplified because that respect is reciprocal amongst their collaborators. That’s really something.

How did you select your cast, the lead of Sam Elliott in particular, and how did the selection process go for his younger self played by Aidan Turner?
BOB K.: There was a lot of discussion about who might play Calvin Barr. When Sam’s name entered the mix, John Sayles had a luncheon with Joel Coen who spoke very highly of Sam and recommended him to John for this project. John emailed me that day with that endorsement, and it seemed so obvious and exhilarating that Sam could lead the way here. Of course it should be Sam! So Kellie Roy, our casting director, reached out to his reps who loved the script and sent it to Sam. Sam called me right around Thanksgiving if 2016 and said he wanted to be a part of this. Sam and I had a lot of discussions along the way. We communicated openly—texting and calling one another with thoughts and ideas. It was a great partnership. Sam is about as good as people get, and a truly deep, thoughtful actor. I’ll never be able to repay him for wanting to be a part of this. I think he’s magnificent and heartbreaking in this role. More than that, I think he gives us hope. It’s so exactly what I’d hoped for, and that’s because of Sam’s incredible talent and humanity.

Aidan Turner was one of the first people we discussed for Calvin Barr’s youthful counterpart. There was something rugged, yet sensitive about Aidan. He had an unpretentious cool that matched Sam Elliott’s. They both have a voice in a lower register. They’re both excellent actors. I didn’t want to find a perfect visual match, and I didn’t want someone to ape Sam’s voice. That would feel like parody. I wanted two people who felt spiritually connected more than anything. Once Sam was on board, it became really apparent it had to be Aidan. If Aidan had said no, I think we’d have been in a real fix. But he loved the script. He was taken by the title. He had great questions. We had a really fun Skype conversation where we went over exactly how we’d pull this thing off, and how far to take the performance, and he committed shortly thereafter. Working with Aidan was some of the most fun on the shoot. We’re the same age, and we had a ton of laughs, and we both had just enough time to try things and explore. He turns in such a lovely performance here. It’s so subtle and honest. And restrained. That isn’t easy. He’s really in harmony with Sam, and they only had a short time to coordinate with one another. Yet it works brilliantly. Subtly. It was exciting to watch unfold in each timeline.

Once Sam and Aidan were in, I knew we’d have something special. One by one, all these brilliant actors gathered around for this one. And I don’t think of any one role as more important than the others. That’s the Altman way, anyhow. I was trying to bring that theory here. An ensemble. Caitlin FitzGerald, Larry Miller, Ron Livingston, Rizwan Manji. I couldn’t ask for a better, more supportive group of people. And they all worked some rare magic here. It’s a preposterous story, but they all make it real. A staggering about of talent.

Once the cast in place, were any changes done to film or was it locked in place script-wise from the start?
BOB K.: It was locked. The cast really gathered around the words on the page, and they didn’t seek to change them, so I was very, very fortunate in that. A lot of work went into that script, so once the cast was on board with that vision, it let me put all my effort and attention into the visual storytelling and the physical production of this little epic that we were all about to attempt.

In terms of festival run, how was it premiering at Fantasia in Montreal?
BOB K.: I was nervous, having never done this before. But the festival heads and the audience at large were so wonderful and supportive. It gave me a great sense of relief as I heard the audience audibly reacting to all the little moments you hope will draw their attention as you write the script or conceptualize the production. It was a jubilant experience hearing those big reactions, and that audience was very alive. I trusted the work of this incredible team, I relied on Sam’s years of experience with the press and crowded premieres, and just had a great time taking it all in. Everyone was really lovely and welcoming. You work in a vacuum for a long time on this stuff. It gets hard to see the forest through the trees, though you try your best to. It’s all surreal. That weekend—I’ll never forget it.

What are the release plans for The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot?
BOB K.: I can’t speak for Epic Pictures, but good things are afoot, and it won’t be long before we can say something more.
Editor’s note, it has now been announced that RLJE Films will handle North American distribution.

What’s next for you that you can tell us about?
BOB K.: I have a couple finished stories that are special to me, and a couple new stories that are speaking to me as I look at the world today. I look forward to getting back to the writing desk when this process is over. Back in Massachusetts, it’ll be a lovely return to normalcy, and I’ll get to return to my quiet writing routine. I was very fortunate to get to make this movie with this particular group of people, and if I ever get to do it again, I just want to be sure I’m making good use of everyone’s time—that we’re telling a story that’s worth telling and that I’m confident in the undertaking. That’s the most important thing. You ask a lot from a crew when you embark on a feature of this size, and you want them to be excited about the road ahead. You want them to believe in the endeavor. Whatever that is—I’ll make sure it’s worth the while.

Thank you Robert and we can’t wait to see what you release next!
BOB K.: My pleasure. Thank you so much.

Update: RLJE has bought the North American rights for The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot, so look for it soon!