“On October 20, 1967, Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin emerged from a forest in Northern California with 59 seconds of grainy, shaky, silent 16mm film that supposedly offered documentary evidence of the Sasquatch, a creature of Native American folklore. Although neither Patterson nor Gimlin had any previous experience in filmmaking or zoology, they presented their remarkable footage as the first motion picture confirmation of the existence of the elusive Sasquatch.
However, not everyone was convinced by the imagery on the Patterson-Gimlin Film. Additional doubt was generated by the strange story behind the film’s creation. Over the years, odd rumors emerged about the film, including the story of an Academy Award-winning make-up artist’s alleged role in assembling the creature seen on camera.
Film journalist Phil Hall traces the convoluted history of how Patterson and Gimlin supposedly wound up in the right place at the right time with their camera, and how they brought their weird little film into the scientific community and American popular culture. While the debate over the authenticity of the Patterson-Gimlin Film continues to percolate, few would question the effectiveness of how this piece of celluloid brought forth an unlikely sensation lovingly dubbed Bigfoot.”
Phil Hall’s new book, The Weirdest Movie Ever Made: The Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot Film, out now from BearManor Media, traces the “convoluted history of the 59 seconds of grainy, shaky, and silent 16mm film that propelled Bigfoot into pop culture forever.” He does it well, too; there’s no sense of picking a side, here. The author does his level best to present every aspect of the strange, complicated 50-year history of the infamous film.
Hall looks at the celluloid not just as a cryptozoology landmark, but as a cinematic touchstone as well. How has the Patterson-Gimlin Film created an entire sub-genre of movies, literature, and entertainment in its wake, and what might we learn from it? By presenting what might be the most comprehensive story of how those 59 seconds came to be so omnipresent, Hall has crafted a book which appeals both to cinephiles and fans of the paranormal.
I spoke with Hall by phone earlier this month. The connection was a little rough, so the interview has been edited for clarity.
This is your first book where you’ve focused on just one particular movie, as opposed to looking at a series of them, like The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time or In Search of Lost Films. How’d you come to choose the Patterson-Gimlin Film?
It’s a funny story behind it — or, at least, I think it’s funny. [laughs] I had finished my last book, In Search of Lost Films, and wanted to go onto the next project. I pitched a book that was 100 Films That Changed the World. I put together a list of what I thought those 100 films would be and submitted it to my publisher, and he said, “That’s a terrible idea. Just pick one film.”
The Patterson-Gimlin Film was the one I picked because it was the one that really hadn’t been written about from the cinematic perspective. A lot of books about Bigfoot, a lot of books that focus on whether it’s real or if it’s fake — but not a lot about how much of an impact those 50 seconds of footage had in changing popular culture. So, I thought that it would be a good subject for a book, and my publisher agreed with me on that one.
What I really appreciate about the book is that you cover the entire history of the film, with the most in-depth coverage I’ve ever come across. You even get into the licensing of the film. What depth of research did you have to get into to track down some of this information?
I looked into Bigfoot itself, and the history of Patterson and Gimlin through newspaper and magazine articles on the subject, going as far back as 1967; even tracked down the first news report from the newspaper in Humboldt that had reported the footage was shot. It’s a lot of research, but I’m a professional journalist, and this is second nature to me. In many ways, the research is a lot more fun than the writing.
Was there anyone with whom you wanted to speak, but they declined or you just weren’t able to contact?
Yes, there is, actually. I have his book here on my bookcase, and I wanted to speak with him, because I did cite him in my book, and it was Christopher L. Murphy, who had the Bigfoot film journal, and he is a historian on the subject. I wanted to speak with him at length, and he was not interested in doing the interview. He’s the only one I couldn’t get hold of.
How did you maintain the balanced view throughout the book, not coming down on either side?
Well, as a journalist, I have to do that, because I’m mainly a business journalist when I’m not writing film books. So, I can’t go sticking my opinion into a news story, so that wasn’t too difficult. Also, I thought it would be unfair to the reader if I gave my opinion, because they’re not buying the book to hear what I have to say. They’re buying this book because they want to hear about how this film was made, and also, more important, how it go out into the world, which really baffles me.
As I said, I was a kid in the 1970s, and it always seemed that Bigfoot was always there. You turned on the TV, you opened a magazine — even if you went to the movies, there was Bigfoot or a reasonable facsimile. I thought, there had to be a period when Bigfoot wasn’t there, so how did Bigfoot actually get into the popular culture?
That was the thing that really surprised me: the really sophisticated way in which Roger Patterson was able to distribute the feature film he made, based on the 59 seconds of footage. Taking it city-by-city and town-by-town in the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest, and that’s how people started to see the footage itself.
The pictures of Bigfoot itself didn’t come out until about six months after the footage was shot, and that was in Argosy magazine, but people didn’t actually see until at least two years after it was actually shot.
The book takes these little interludes with stories of Bigfoot encounters across the ages. Were these fit in later, or were they intended from the beginning?
It was was never intended. I came across — when I was doing research, you go to Google News and you type in “Bigfoot,” a lot of stories came up. I wasn’t aware of these stories when they happened. They range from 2-8 years ago, but I thought that this was really very entertaining and it was being covered by major news wires and news agencies across the country, but I wasn’t aware of it. I figured that other people might be interested, and it would be fun to share. I mean, we wouldn’t be having these stories at all if you didn’t go back to the beginning with these two characters.
In terms of Bigfoot cinema, you present a massive list. How many of these films have you seen?
Not very many of them. I’ve seen a lot of the documentaries that came out in the ’70s. I was a little kid at the time, so it sort of dates me. There have been scores of films really recently. It sort of shocked me, doing research, just how many Bigfoot films have been coming out the last five years or so. It never goes away. As a matter of fact, it just seems to be more and more popular with each passing year.
Are there any non-documentary films which you particularly enjoy?
There was a comedy film from about ten years ago I feel never got its due, called No Burgers For Bigfoot. It was supposed to be about this not-very-talented filmmaker who’s trying to make a serious cinematic statement in a movie that involves a Sasquatch. It was funny at many levels, because it’s not only poking fun at the pretensions of independent cinema, but it’s also incorporating what many people consider to be lowbrow — which is Bigfoot — into something which is highbrow subject matter, which is creating an independent art film.
I love the likes of new films such as Willow Creek or classics like The Legend of Bigfoot, but wonder if the genre is tapped out at this point.
Oh, there’ll always be room for another Bigfoot movie. The funny thing about a lot of these films is that the Saquatch character — there’s no resemblance, either physically or emotionally to what was in the Patterson-Gimlin Film, because that was a female, and there’s something totally different to the human interaction, in that it was walking away from them.
Whereas, in a lot of the films that were made that involve the Bigfoot character, it’s almost always a male Sasquatch who is actively engaged, usually in a hostile environment or manner, with humans and has a rapacious sexual appetite for the young females who are in the movie. I don’t know whose Bigfoot inspired those movies, but it wasn’t what Robert Patterson or Bob Gimlin shot.
The Weirdest Movie Ever Made: The Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot Film is out now from BearManor Media.