When you slap a title like The Man Who Killed Hitler and then The Bigfoot on your movie, you’re making a bold declaration to the person pressing play. The label is a challenge. You want to get nuts? Let’s get nuts. For writer/director Robert D. Krzykowski, that is the entire point of the exercise. He’s putting it all out there on the poster. This movie has Hitler. This movie has Bigfoot. This movie has Sam Elliott. It’s an irresistible lure.
However, as you settle into the actual film, you discover a much more interior movie. Hitler, Bigfoot, Elliott are all present, and they all deliver, but Krzykowski is much more interested in how such a life of catastrophic adventure might affect a soul. His film tracks a decent man ripped from an apple pie lifestyle by World War II and forever psychologically altered by the horrific experience. Once a person faces a creature like Adolph Hitler only other ferocious monsters can fill the deepening emotional void.
I spoke to Krzykowski over the phone. We, of course, kick off the conversation discussing that most excellent of grindhouse titles and how it disarms audience expectations. The Man Who Killed Hitler and then The Bigfoot was an epic undertaking that took more than a decade to get before a camera, and it may not have ever happened without the likes of John Sayles, Lucky McKee, Douglas Trumbull, and Sam Elliott himself. On top of that, numerous works of literature, film, and television inspire the narrative. The most surprising of which might be Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Ah, but I don’t want to spoil that reveal just yet.
Here is our conversation in full:
What came first – the plot or the title?
I would say the plot started to come together first. I was writing the early pages of the script, it was just this notion of having the hero go kill Hitler. And in the first ten pages, it was kind of this Mission Impossible, espionage sequence and at the end of that, Hitler was killed, and I didn’t really feel like there was anywhere left for the script to go, but I really liked the hero that I was writing.
I felt like if Hitler were a monster, maybe this hero could go after another monster later in his life. Started thinking about what kind of mythic creature could that be – to juxtapose against the very real monstrosity of Hitler himself. That was the early seed of it. At the end of ten pages, I kind of stared at my screen for a while and realized that that’s what I was gonna do.
I went back, that day, and put “The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot” on the title page, and then kind of wrote my way toward that.
That’s fascinating. So, no Bigfoot till much later? No aspirations for a creature feature?
I had pretty much just written this big espionage sequence that opened the film. It was like the opening of a James Bond movie. I thought this would be this kind of pulp adventurer and he’d do this incredible thing in the beginning, and then I’ll figure out what his next adventures are. In my life at that time, my wife and I, who was my girlfriend at the time, had experienced some personal losses and it changed the shape of what I was writing. I started looking for answers to some of the deeper questions about who we are, and where we’re going, and how we treat one another, and loss and regret. It started to become about this much older character looking backward.
That’s what I was struck by, while I was initially watching the film. When you hear that plot or even if you just hear the title, you’re anticipating something that’s pretty gnarly, like a grindhouse film. But this movie is ultimately much more contemplative, or interior.
Yeah. I felt like the title ruins the whole story. It tells you what’s gonna happen, so I felt like that would kind of clue the audience in, but it must be about something more. So the title kind of became “The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot,” it’s really about the man. When the title graphically hits the screen, it’s separated by this line representing time, and these two big events that happen in it.
I think that the story, similar to all of our lives, has got that line in the middle. And Barr [Sam Elliott] is also kind of the dividing line between these two monsters. The title was really just to kind of get people to draw them toward it, and then hopefully be rewarded with the pulp elements, the adventure elements, even some slight exploitation, but then as the movie progresses, hopefully, it deepens for them on a few levels.
When you are shopping this screenplay around to get your cast, to get Sam Elliott involved, what was that process? Did it take coaxing or is everybody onboard immediately?
It took more than 12 years to get this movie made. I spent a lot of time working on other things, and I’d always come back to this one. This one was always in development at some stage with different groups and different people, and we just kept hitting the insurmountable walls with it. As the movie progressed, these really great people would come forward and they would encourage me to defend everything that it is and to not change it. That’s a very difficult thing to do with a script like this, to not change it to the thing that everybody else might think it should be.
Ultimately, after Lucky McKee came onboard, and John Sayles came on board, and even Doug Trumbull, we sent it to Sam Elliott and he read it and said that it really resonated with him and it said something about decency, which he feels is fading in the world today. You could say something with this movie, so when he came on board, it was this almost terrifying realization that it was actually gonna happen. It wouldn’t just exist in this bubble that no one could touch anymore. It was something that would get made, and this enormous amount of responsibility formed around that.
It’s inspirational hearing how long it took for this film to get going. 12 years is a long time to hold onto an idea and a story and to maintain that passion. Of course, I guess it helps to have guys like John Sayles, Lucky McKee and, yeah, Doug Trumbull, onboard –
And they weren’t all.
What do you mean?
They weren’t all there from the beginning.
It was years going by. I would send it to 20 people and one of them would say, “Yes.” Usually, it was the most exciting of those 20 people that would say yes, but it was a slow process. I don’t come from any money or any means, and I live way out in Massachusetts. I’m very far away from the studios and I was studying journalism at UMass. I was drawing comics, and piece-by-piece this movie very slowly came together. If there’s anything that I hope young filmmakers and aspiring filmmakers get from this is if they watch this movie and realize that a movie like this can happen, and you can tell this story.
I’m living proof. Again, I don’t really come from a deep background in those things, but I was encouraged to keep sticking with it. I had that group of people around of me that were very supportive and encouraging.
Well, once you get Sam Elliott on board, everything changes. I mean, he really does, from an audience point of view, he elevates it immediately. You see him on the poster, and whatever questions you might have with the title or what genre it’s gonna be, they fade away. The mixture of that title and that actor is incredibly compelling.
The casting was every bit as important as any other element of the movie would be to have somebody that audience would just inherently believe in their goodness and their humanity. Again, as you said, it elevates people’s expectations. When you know that Sam is attached to something like this, it creates an impression that maybe there is something a little more going on here.
That was supposed to be the surprise of this thing, that once you enter and you get 30 or so minutes in, this other layer reveals itself. Hopefully, that’s something that the audience starts to receive in a very different way than the thing that they initially walked into.
So, you have Sam Elliott, but then you need to find an actor to play Calvin as a young man. How did you end up landing on Aidan Turner?
A casting director, Kellie Roy, and myself had talked to a lot of people for that role, and we might have actually started looking at young Calvin Barr before we started looking at Sam Elliott. Once it wound up being Sam, it became very, very difficult to find somebody that matches that energy and could be some semblance of that very unique, unpretentious cool that Sam Elliott has. I was looking everywhere. English actors, Irish actors, American actors, and we came upon Aidan. I was watching Poldark and every few minutes in that show, I would see this little flash. I couldn’t quite figure out what it was that was striking me, but it was this very slight resemblance to Sam, and then the register of his voice, and also that just he’s terrific on that show.
He’s very, very likable and he’s very engaging. He’s a commanding actor, but he has a sensitive time and sweetness to him. I realized, if we could get Aidan Turner to play this part with Sam Elliott, we would really be on to something. So it really all started to hedge on, “Will Aidan say ‘Yes’ to this movie now that we have Sam Elliott?” Because we did not have a backup plan. There was nobody else.
When I first saw that cast I thought, “Huh. Aidan Turner’s playing a younger Sam Elliott. That’s kind of weird.” I couldn’t make it work in my head until I actually saw the film. They work.
Yeah. We weren’t gonna try to have Aidan do an impression of Sam. He would just play the character, and there would be certain mannerisms and certain little pieces of body language that Aidan would use, or a look or a tone of voice. But we didn’t want to go all the way into a full-blown impression, because then the audience starts studying that impression rather than just tracking the character.
It felt very important to just tell the story and let this younger, more innocent, more hopeful young man grow into what Sam Elliott becomes. Over a lifetime of all of the tasks that this guy would have done, I think that by the time you end up in 1987, you would get to a guy like Sam Elliott. I think that they’re united in a really great way without trying so hard to make it an impersonation. And again, that’s just Aidan’s talent.
And also, his ability and desire to be supportive of Sam in that role. He had no interest in trying to steal the show or be the star. He was very, very supportive of Sam and he was supporting the performance Sam had given in his first three weeks. The film was shot in 25 days.
Not much time to cram two separate timelines.
The first three weeks were Sam Elliott, and then the following two weeks were Aidan Turner. Those were five-day weeks. We had a basis to look back on, and Aidan could actually look at the footage and then kind of review generally what Sam was doing, and then just base little nuances on that.
Before I let you go, I just want to get back to the story a little bit. Inspiration wise, where does this come from? What art feeds you?
It’s coming from a lot. From books and movies. John Gardner’s “Grendel,” definitely.
Yeah. I can see that.
The Bigfoot is a kind of “Grendel,” which is the telling of “Beowulf” from the perspective of the monster. Bernard Malamud’s “The Natural,” which was turned into a Robert Redford movie, which has this kind of magical realism and, especially the book, is a very brutal depiction of heroism. That almost supernaturally good character and slowly deconstructing him over the course of a book.
“The Old Man and the Sea” was definitely an influence. “Moby Dick,” and then the Hal Ashby movies, Being There especially was a big influence. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation was a big influence, and then obviously, things like Raiders of the Lost Ark. There’s a lot of things that were rattling around in my brain when I was writing it. Then some of them became very apparent to me after I finished.
I’m a lifelong Mister Rogers fan, and who isn’t? I realized that I kind of written a Mister Rogers type character for Calvin Barr, where you have somebody that’s inherently decent and they just so happen to be forced into a life of violence, and how do we treat a person like that? How do we study that kind of a character and that type of an American hero? Those were all the things rattling through my head.
I love hearing all of that, especially the Mister Rogers and “Grendel” connections. I had not thought about that while watching it, but that is perfect.
I realized that as we were shooting it. I had Sam taking his shoes off at his bench at the bottom of the stairs and I wanted him to do it almost exactly like Mister Rogers, and then it came to me as we were shooting that moment that there’s a huge influence of Mister Rogers just over the course of the entire movie. Yeah. That decency.
The Man Who Killed Hitler and then The Bigfoot is now playing in select theaters, Digital HD, and VOD.