World Champion taxidermist Ken Walker builds a life-sized Bigfoot, based on frames from an iconic 1967 movie, and unveils her at the 2015 World Taxidermy Championship.
While Walker would love to win Best in Show, his real hope is that putting "Patty" on display will prompt some hunter to open his freezer and pull out the proof that Bigfoot is real. Instead, it's Walker's love life that gets thawed out.
Hi Dan thanks for talking to TNC, you all set for the festival?
Thanks, Niger, it’s my pleasure! I’m mostly ready, but I’ve got some work to do on the Big Fur van, which I’ll be driving across the Rockies to Park City. Nothing major, but she needs a little attention.
Are there any nerves ahead of your screening at the festival?
I’m very excited. I mean, I always worry a little in the back of my mind that there may be some technical glitch, but I love watching it with a crowd and people generally dig it. It’s funny, entertaining, and has a few surprises so it’s great to see how audiences react to different scenes. And people who attend film festivals love movies, so they’re kind of an easy audience. At least, that’s been my experience.
Does being at Slamdance with Big Fur add any additional pressure on you?
I don’t think so. If anything, it’s a badge of honour and has already opened up some doors. I always thought it would be a good fit for Slamdance and I’m glad the programmers agreed!
What does it mean to see Big Fur nominated for Best Documentary Feature?
It’s a real honour to be selected at all. There are so many submissions I try not to think about the odds. The programmers and screeners have a very difficult job. I can’t imagine having to make those difficult decisions and I’m really grateful.
How did you get introduced to World Taxidermist Ken Walker?
I had been following Ken and a handful of other eccentric taxidermists on a forum at taxidermy.net. I got on there to learn about taxidermy, but quickly became more interested in those characters and the drama, stories and interactions. Then he was a featured character in Melissa Milgrom’s brilliant book called “Still Life, Adventures in Taxidermy” and I knew I had to meet him. I signed up for a coyote worksop he was teaching at a taxidermy convention in Indiana and sent him a PM to ask if we could have a beer together and talk about a potential documentary project. He called me up right away and we talked for an hour. When he told me he was going to make a Bigfoot, I found my movie.
"When I was young I thought I knew everything, but experience counts for a lot! Just being aware, present, with both eyes open."
Did you know much about the taxidermist scene before you started making Big Fur?
I had been spending a ton of time on that forum and went to a World Taxidermy Championship to check it out, so I was learning quite a bit before I began filming. But I learned so much more over the next few years.
The scene itself is fascinating. These artists are mostly outcasts. Most of them work alone and the public has a lot of preconceptions about them, that they’re a backwoods hillbilly stuffing deer heads in a garage, or a psycho like Norman Bates. When they get together at these conventions and competitions, it’s very cool to see the camaraderie and excitement. It was really fun to become part of that scene and I’m going to miss my taxidermy family, for sure.
What was it about Ken’s work that interested you so much?
Most taxidermists specialize in something, like birds or fish or reptiles or mammals. Ken’s specialty is re-creations, which are extinct or endangered animals made out of other animals' hides. It requires a lot of research and creativity. His Irish elk, saber-toothed tiger and giant panda made quite a splash and gave people the chance to see these fabled creatures up close. I knew Ken had a thing about Bigfoot, but I didn’t realize the depths of his obsession until our first conversation. And when he said he was going to build one and take it to the World Championships, I knew that would make a great story.
Can you tell me a little bit about Big Fur, how did this film come about?
As a photographer and cinematographer, I started spending more time at the computer as film transitioned to digital. I missed working with my hands and was craving something more tactile and old school. I’m an outdoorsman and was drawn to taxidermy – I love that marriage of art and science, and it’s weird. But I became more interested in the characters than in actually learning it and my storytelling instincts took over. I wanted to show people that it’s a real art form. I knew it had to be entertaining and character-driven. Ken’s really the perfect subject, because he’s so good at what he does and he’s really funny.
What was the experience working with Ken on this project?
Ken is a blast to hang out with and we get along really well. But it was a challenge, geographically. I’m in Kansas City and he’s in the middle of nowhere in Alberta, so scheduling and travel were tricky. Sometimes, we would plan to shoot for a week or two, like when he was going to carve the Bigfoot’s body, for example. I’d fly up there and Ken would be too busy. He’s running his taxidermy shop – he’s an artist, but also a business owner and has a mortgage and all those things that go along with it. So he’d say, “OK, I’ve got to mount this musk ox and deliver it before we can work on the Bigfoot” and I’d just hang out for a couple days and film him mounting the musk ox, or a bear, or whatever. And then he’d have to go into town to the bank or run errands, which would pretty much take all day. So it was tricky to get everything done in the time I was there and I often would end up extending my trips. I understand, of course, because he’s just building this thing for fun and has a freezer full of animals whose clients are constantly calling and wanting to know when they can pick up their mounts. It’s a tough business.
Do you find it difficult to ‘let go’ of a film once it’s wrapped or do you hold on to it thinking ‘I should/could have done that differently?
The last steps of post production took much longer than I expected and I was really glad when it was finished. I’ve seen it so many times that all I notice are the flaws, but I’m pretty happy with it and ready to move on. I’m sure I’ll tweak it a little more after watching it with audiences, but nothing major.
How important is the collaborative process of filmmaking?
It’s immensely important. I certainly don’t possess the skills to do everything myself. Everyone who works on it adds something indispensable. When you bring in animators and composers and sound designers, it becomes much more complex and interesting and complete. It may be my vision, but it would never amount to much without the contributions of a handful of incredibly talented people, who I was lucky enough to work with. I had a great team.
What was the most fun scene for you to shoot?
That is tough to answer because there were so many fun scenes. It was really exciting when he received the glass eyes for the Bigfoot and put them in. But also when Ken delivered the Bigfoot to the World Taxidermy Championships. He’s a celebrity in that world, but people were still surprised to see it. That was a really fun moment and thankfully I caught what I needed in camera.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
Yes. I’ve always loved movies. I studied photography first but always wanted to shoot film. I never thought I would direct, but that turned out to be the most direct path to shooting a movie!
How much has your background as a cinematographer prepared you to directing Big Fur?
Quite a bit. I’m comfortable with the camera and love having to be on my toes. Shooting, being in production, that’s my favourite part. Capturing sound is the most challenging thing for me and where I lack the most confidence. To be honest, everything I’ve done in my life helped prepare me for directing. When I was young I thought I knew everything, but experience counts for a lot! Just being aware, present, with both eyes open. When you’re shooting, shit is gonna happen and you’ve got to be prepared, you’ve got to capture it. It’s a constant barrage of decision making and it’s pretty exhilarating. I was less prepared for post-production, but now that I’ve got some experience with it I’m hoping the next one will go more smoothly.
Has there been any advice you’ve been give that has really helped you?
After a few years, a couple friends told me I had to get it finished. Finishing a feature is a colossal enterprise and it was tough sometimes not to just give up on it.
Do you have any advice or tips for a fellow director/cinematographer?
Don’t do it! I’m just kidding, mostly, but you’ve got to be realistic about your expectations. Even if you make a great movie, it’s a tough environment right now. There is a lot of product out there. Decide what your goals are and learn early on who your audience is going to be.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Big Fur?
From the beginning, I wanted to show that taxidermy is a true and legitimate art form. But things took a turn during filming and I began to wonder, what is the value of wilderness? The environmental theme of Big Fur is subtle and brief, but paramount. To me, the idea of Bigfoot became the idea of true, wild spaces – something that is increasingly rare and under appreciated. I hope people will take a hike, disconnect, and contemplate what is really important. And laugh.