‘Sasquatch Sunset’ Creature Designer Steve Newburn on Turning Jesse Eisenberg + Riley Keough Into Cryptids

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Photo Source: Courtesy Bleecker Street

Throughout his career, creature and prosthetics designer Steve Newburn has crafted anatomically accurate wounds, likenesses of historical figures, and an array of mythical creatures; he also built the prosthetics for Ari Aster’s 2023 film “Beau Is Afraid.” 

But it wasn’t until he worked on David and Nathan Zellner’s “Sasquatch Sunset” that Newburn had the chance to depict the titular cryptids. The film, which follows the daily life of a family of Bigfoots, presented a new challenge. “This one was a dream job,” he says. “[Our work is] in every frame of the movie, which is completely unheard of.” 

Here, he talks about conceiving the look of the sasquatches, played by Jesse Eisenberg, Riley Keough, Christophe Zajac-Denek, and Nathan Zellner himself.

RELATED: How to Become a Special Effects Makeup Artist 

What was your jumping-off point for approaching a film in which the only characters are sasquatches who don’t have any dialogue?

Sasquatch Sunset

I already had a relationship with Square Peg, which is Ari Aster’s [production] company with Lars Knudsen, so they brought me on board and connected me with David and Nathan. I’d never done a sasquatch for a movie in 30 years of doing this stuff, but [the 1987 movie] “Harry and the Hendersons” was the pinnacle of sasquatch [design] in my mind. I was like, If I ever get to do something [similar], I want to try my darndest to live up to something like that.

But [“Harry and the Hendersons”] is different; that’s a mechanical head controlled by three or four [or] more people. Here, we had to do the Tim Burton “Planet of the Apes” approach, where everything is [done with] makeup. It’s limiting because you have to do makeup that still performs; but it also makes for a more interesting challenge.

At times, Nathan directed while wearing his sasquatch suit. Had you taken it into consideration that he’d have to pull double duty while wearing it?

It was funny to watch, but the prosthetics are really thin and move well. They’re all foam latex, so there’s no weight to them. The feet had climbing boots built into them, and the feet were probably the heaviest single part, but [the actors needed them] because of the terrain. The whole suit was probably 7 pounds from head to toe—very lightweight. 

I remember when [Nathan] came in, because we did the life casting process and the body cast to make sure everything fit. And I’ve never seen anybody hold as steady as him for the body cast ever in my 30 years.

I commented to him, “I’ve never seen anybody do that.” He was like, “Well, it’s my movie; if I can’t do it right, how can I expect anybody else to?” That was his attitude about the whole thing. He was sitting in the makeup chair for two hours and did not say any sort of negative word.

How long did it take to apply the sasquatch makeup and get the actors into their suits?

Sasquatch Sunset

We had one test application, which was literally the day before we started shooting, because [filming was happening on] such an accelerated schedule. Normally [with] something like this, I’d say, “Give me three months to prep it”—and we had six weeks. We got to Northern California and set up; the next day, we had a test makeup, and the day after that, we were shooting.

The test makeup [took] probably two and a half, three hours to figure out and walk [the actors] through the process, because [Nathan, Riley, and Jesse] hadn’t been through anything as extensive as this. Christophe had done some creature stuff here and there, but the rest of them hadn’t. The more times you do it, the faster it gets; and we were doing it every day. So by the end of it, I think most of them were at about an hour and a half to two hours with the suit.

What were the challenges when it came to ensuring that the actors were comfortable and that their prosthetics would function correctly in the filming environment? 

Because we [were] shooting outdoors in the elements—not on a soundstage with heat and all that kind of stuff—actor comfort was probably the biggest single concern that we had. 

I think it was day two; we were loading out of one location into another, [and we had] dressed them all up and sent them over. [Production said,] “OK, so we’re gonna start shooting them. Are you cool with that?” [And we were like,] “Yeah, yeah, they look great. Just take them over. We’ll be over in a half hour or so.”

We got over [there], and they’re in the middle of a field of poison oak, rolling around and rubbing against stuff. It was like: “Well, now we just lost tomorrow’s shooting day because we have to clean all these suits thoroughly so your actors aren’t going to get infected and so that we, as the makeup people who are handling these things, aren’t going to get infected.”

It was a learning curve of being like, “OK, you can’t do that; you can do this.” We did make two suits for each [actor] that were fully finished. We also made an extra Jesse suit—three for him—because of the river work. [There were] nine suits total between the four characters. 

What advice would you give to an actor who’s new to being put in a body cast and may be nervous about the process?

I’ve done hundreds of body casts and probably 1,500 to 2,000 head casts in my career, and [I’ve] seen every circumstance. In that entire time, I’ve only had one person who barely got through it. You have a conversation with them [beforehand]. And I’m always somebody who’s [saying] to the production, “Give them my contact information. If they have any reservations, please tell them to call me, and I’ll tell them every tiny step of the process.” 

When they get there, you walk them through every step of the process. The big thing is remembering there’s a person in there; it’s not a thing. Tom Burman—one of the pioneers in our industry in the ’60s—once said to me, “If you can convey not just professionalism but calm, it brings down everybody’s tension, no matter what.” I’ve always taken that to heart.

Early test rendering photo credit: Steve Newburn