Josh Lambert, Yvonne Lambert and Toto Miranda of The Octopus Project on Bringing Out the Beauty of Bigfoot in “Sasquatch Sunset”

By the time the premiere rolls around for a David and Nathan Zellner movie, their longtime collaborators Josh Lambert, Yvonne Lambert and Toto Miranda, better known by their band name The Octopus Project, have generally seen the film enough to have a fair idea of what to expect, but with “Sasquatch Sunset,” it was anyone’s guess.

“More than any other movie, nobody knows what they’re going into the first time, so you can really feel the room adjust in a way that’s different and a lot of fun,” Miranda said of seeing the film for the first time with an audience at Sundance. “It’s interesting to see which way the crowd breaks, whether they’re into it or whether they’re maybe confused. Or both!”

“Yeah, [it was] pretty polarizing,” Josh Lambert added, not even needing to mention the film’s now-infamous debut at Sundance where the sight of a family of Bigfoots stumbling towards civilization, fornicating and defecating with abandon as nature calls, was either the biggest highlight at the festival or reaching the depths of depravity, depending on who you asked. (The latter was in the clear minority, though made a show of walking out.)

What both ends of the spectrum could surely agree on, however, was all the feelings that it stirred so strongly and when the film’s stars Jesse Eisenberg, Riley Keough, Christophe Zajac-Denek and Nathan Zellner were all but unrecognizable under heavy makeup and furry suits with nary a word of dialogue except for expressive hoots, the Octopus Project’s magisterial score takes on an equal starring role in the film, playing off the creatures’ curiosity about the world around them with piquant and peculiar instrumentation while conveying the soulfulness of their surroundings as they are just one part of an ecosystem that is always growing and changing.

Although their music takes center stage in “Sasquatch Sunset,” the Octopus Project has been at the heart of every Zellner Brothers’ film from their very first short films when all the artists came up creatively in Austin, Texas to features “Kid-Thing,” “Kumiko The Treasure Hunter” and “Damsel,” acoustically matching the adventurous filmmakers beat for beat in the finished films, doing so in literal terms when for instance on the last of those, a Robert Pattinson western, required Yvonne to replace her signature theremin playing with a more era-appropriate saw, but pushing one another to new places as the films develop from script to screen when apart from their screen credits, their capability at creating ethereal sonic landscapes you can easily lose yourself in is routinely demonstrated at their live shows.

If it weren’t for such a strong collaboration, there may have been a little less confidence to take on a full-length expansion of “Sasquatch Birth Journal 2,” a context-free glimpse of a Bigfoot delivering a baby without any fanfare in the woods that the Zellners slipped into Sundance shorts selection in 2011. But just as the found-footage film couldn’t leave the minds of audiences that saw it, the filmmakers were just as intrigued with the possibilities, gradually chipping away at an engaging narrative that is unlike anything they’ve done before, which is to say really unlike anything anyone’s done before and The Octopus Project’s pop sensibilities that have a knack for giving way to the profound perfectly complements the epic scope of the comedy that never loses sight of the personal idiosyncrasies and proclivities that emerge from just trying to endure. As the film starts its own journey across the country, opening in L.A., New York and Austin this week before expanding nationwide the next, the trio generously spoke about their two-decade-plus partnership with the Zellners, how they themselves could be inspired by “Sasquatch” shoot in the mountains of Humboldt County, and how they continue to challenge themselves with each project that comes their way.

This is such a special collaboration. How did you and Nathan and David Zellner first meet?

Josh Lambert: In the early 2000s, we had some mutual friends with the Zellners and they were like, “You’ve got to meet these guys and they’ve got to meet you because you would totally do something cool together.” And we met and they were right.

Yvonne Lambert: Yeah, we’ve been working together in some form ever since. The early days, they would make music videos for our band and in turn, we would write music for their shorts that they were putting out at the time and it just grew from there creatively.

Josh Lambert: As they started making more and more features, they dragged us along.

Has the process changed much over the years?

Toto Miranda: It’s pretty similar. We’re lucky that they usually bring us in pretty early where they’ll give us a script and some ideas and we’ll start writing stuff and send them small pieces or ideas. They’ll say, “Yeah, this works here, this works there, but what if we do this or that?” and we really start having a back-and-forth pretty early and [all the way through when] they’re editing the movie, which is really cool because that gives the score and the picture a chance to influence each other.

What were you thinking when they told you they wanted to expand the Sasquatch short to a full feature?

Josh Lambert: When they first told us, we were like, “This is a bold move. This is going to be amazing. I had every like faith in them for pulling it off, and I knew if anybody can do it, they could. But I also was just like, “This is going to be crazy. Nothing like this will ever exist before or since.” It was pretty exciting.

Toto Miranda: At this point, we’ve gone through the process a few times, and we know that anything that’s in the script is going to show up in a really convincing and visceral way on screen. They can really follow through with the idea once it’s on the page and once we saw the script, we knew this was really going to be something else.

What were the early conversations about?

Josh Lambert: Mostly about tone and styles. Before we started, they were like, “We really want like ’70s nature documentary music, very Disney, following wolves around…

Yvonne Lambert: Pastoral.

Josh Lambert: And we’re like, “Sure, that’s easy. Just acoustic guitar and flutes. That’s all you need.” [laughs] Then we wrote a bunch of that and as they started shooting and then editing, they [said], “Well, I think we need a grander thing.”

Was the fact there was going to be absolutely no dialogue in it put any additional pressure on the music?

Toto Miranda: It’s true of any movie that the score is going to have a big influence on the way it feels, but I think for the Zellners in general, they’re always trying to find this really particular tonal balance, and that puts even more weight on the score because what they’re doing visually can be a little, not ambiguous, but multifaceted.

Josh Lambert: That’s my favorite thing about working with them is that they don’t pander to anyone. They expect the audience will either get it or not, and to understand to feel sad or happy because it’s a natural feeling, not because it’s pounded into you. That ambiguity is so fun to play in, too, musically.

Toto Miranda: With this, to not even have dialogue, it did put even more weight on music in terms of how the audience feels. We really went back and forth a few times, trying out different score ideas against different scenes, and they would say, “Well, we like this music, but it’s not the feeling that we want.” That had an even greater impact than usual in terms of trying to dial it in for the tone they’re going for.

Josh Lambert: We hadn’t talked about this before they shot, but once we started getting footage, like the hoots [the calls that the Sasquatches make to one another], [we were] trying to take that and incorporate that into the music, [as well as] the hitting of the tree, so it all becomes one cohesive world together.

There’s some great video on your Instagram of making field recordings on set by actually pounding the stump on the bridge. How did that become a part of this?

Josh Lambert: During pre-production, they were up there in Humboldt County, so we went up and around to all the shooting locations and just recorded as much sound as we could. Like 99% of it didn’t make it into the film, but the winning thing was us banging on that bridge with the stick and it just turned out that you add some reverb to it and it’s this super epic boom.

Yvonne Lambert: Yeah, a lot of the percussive elements in the film were taken from field recordings during pre-production.

Toto Miranda: Technically, we could have made our sounds in a lot of other ways, but I think the psychic energy of the place comes through in the sound. Or it was at least inspiring for us during the working process.

Even given your close relationship with the Zellners, is actually coming to the set something that’s usual for you?

Josh Lambert: The only other time we’ve done it was with “Damsel,” their last film and we only went there because we were in the opening scene of the film, so we meanders around the sets a little, but we didn’t get to do any field recordings. This time, when they told us, “We’re going up to Humboldt County,” we were like, “We want to go up there just like vibe it out and see what we can find.” It seemed really fun, just to be there and get the feeling of the place.

Toto Miranda: It’s a really incredible and really unique part of the world. I’d done some stuff in the Bay Area, but I hadn’t ever been there exactly and it’s a totally unique feeling. It really helped us kind of be in the mind space of the characters.

From what I understand, the end song “Creatures of Nature” was actually sketched out in the script, but you fleshed it out and I know something similar happened on “Damsel.” Does that help set a tone for you in any way?

Josh Lambert: Yeah, the “Creatures” song started with David writing the lyrics and then he gave us like a recording of him talk-singing a melody. He’d be the first to admit that he’s not a very musical person, but I absolutely love his musical sensibilities. He’s like a genius when it comes to this…

Toto Miranda: He’s really good at conceptualizing songs. Even if he doesn’t [fully flesh it out] and he hands it to us, you can 100% know what he’s going for. He writes the lyrics and then we got to fill it in, in terms of notes.

Josh Lambert: And that was the first thing we wrote for the movie. When we were talking about it at first, he referenced a song from a “Twilight Zone” episode called “Come Wander With Me,” this beautiful, quiet, folky song, and that and “Rosemary’s Baby” and then Simon and Garfunkel were really what he was going for, a ‘60s, ‘70s haunting thing, and I do think it set the tone for everything else as this haunting blanket over everything.

At Sundance, I recall you talking about attaching flute sounds to mimic the sound of the Sasquatches’ hooves, which seemed really inspired…

Yvonne Lambert: And none of us are flute players. [laughs] We rented a flute early on, thinking, “Oh, we’ve got these flute parts.” And some of that ended up on the soundtrack. We also rented a cello, and also none of us are cello players. But some of that ended up on the soundtrack. In the end, we did consult with a professional flute player and a professional cellist. Like, “Ahh, we need people to actually nail these parts.”

Toto Miranda: In the movie, there’s the beautiful professional playing when we need to convey a melody, and then there’s the freaky kind of non-professional playing, doing more of a textural/tonal thing.

Josh Lambert: Sometimes it really needed that. Not bad playing, but just not perfect.

Yvonne Lambert: Experimental playing.

My guess is that’s probably some of my favorite stuff in the film now and I know you like to experiment. Was there anything you were excited to try?

Toto Miranda: Technique-wise, there was a lot of pitching things way down, and we found that when we were working on it, almost everything fit better with the picture and the world if we dropped it a couple of octaves, so there’s a lot of like slow down drums, slow down horns, slow down strings.

Yvonne Lambert: Yeah, even slowed down crystal quartz bowls, [which] ended up giving this eerie, haunting quality to some of the pieces.

Josh Lambert: Yeah, slowing down felt like it was like Sasquatches could be playing this, and it’s of their world more than like humans [where] it feels similar, but a little foreign.

Toto Miranda: Right, it stays recognizable, but at a distance.

Apart from the films you’ve worked on, your music is very cinematic or mind-expanding in what it conjures. Was it a natural fit when you started to compose for narratives or was it an adjustment to serve a story?

Toto Miranda: A lot of what we do has, not a narrative quality, but I often think about little parts in our music as being characters like going here or there, like the guitar experiences this or that — not quite that literally, but there is an element of abstract storytelling in what we’re doing already, so this is a little bit more literal, but not that big of a jump conceptually.

Josh Lambert: Yeah, though, it’s a little challenging when someone’s like, “I need a sad song in this part of the movie,” and that’s not necessarily how we [think] when we’re writing something. We just make something and then that’s what it is, so getting more specific on what it needs to be was maybe challenging at first, and I feel like we’re getting better.

Toto Miranda: On every project, the early success that we have in trying to come up with the score is when we can play around and take something that might have an ambiguous feeling and pair it with the scene and see where that works. And then needing to nail this or that emotion usually comes later after something hasn’t lined up already because that’s not necessarily where we start, and the more specific it is, the more it ends up later in the process, because it just takes us that much longer to get there.

You’ve been branching out in recent years and working with other filmmakers besides the Zellners on films like the Reading Rainbow documentary “Butterfly in the Sky” and “The Disappearance of Toby Blackwood.” Has that been interesting?

Josh Lambert: Yeah, we’ve done two other films with filmmakers other than the Zellners and both of them were awesome. It was just great to work with people that we love and “Butterfly in the Sky,” we came in right before they started shooting and the first cut we got was like an hour long, so it was pretty tight by the time we started putting music to picture. That was a totally different experience, but also very rewarding and we learned a lot working on that one, just because that was one of the first ones we’d done without the Zellners, but working with other people is super fun and I’m excited to do more of it.

“Sasquatch Sunset” opens on April 12th in New York at the AMC Lincoln Square, the Angelika Film Center and the Alamo Drafthouse Brooklyn, Los Angeles at the AMC Burbank 16 and Town Center 6, the Grove and the Century City 15 and Austin at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar before expanding nationwide on April 19th. The Octopus Project’s soundtrack for the film can be heard here.

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