In 2005, Greensboro native Dan Riesser moved to Los Angeles to pursue his passion for film. Since then Riesser has worked for E! Entertainment’s “The Soup,” first as a production assistant and currently as a show producer. While employed at E! Riesser also worked on countless film sets and written, directed, and produced many of his own short films. Despite finding success on the west coast, he did not lose grip of his North Carolina roots. In 2012 Riesser returned to shoot his first feature film, Stomping Ground, in the Uwharrie Mountains. Visit the film’s website and read our interview with Riesser to learn more.
Q. Let’s start with Bigfoot. When did you first hear about Bigfoot in the Uwharrie Mountains and why were you inspired to make a film that weaves in this legend?
A. My original idea was simply to make a small, character driven relationship film that existed inside of some kind of larger horror genre premise. I’m drawn to horror films for the most part, but I wanted to do something different than a standard run of the mill slasher movie, partly because I knew I’d be mostly self-financed and I would have a lot of budget restraints. I wanted to make a dramatic comedy with some underlying horror elements. And I wanted to shoot it in North Carolina. It wasn’t until I started researching what kind of story to tell that I discovered the Bigfoot-Uwharrie connection. Once I started researching that the story came together pretty quickly.
Q. Can you tell us a little bit about the story itself? Have you been imagining making a “kinda scary comedy” about Bigfoot for a long time?
A. It’s a story about Ben and Annie, a young couple living in Chicago, who take a weekend trip to Annie’s small North Carolina hometown. At the local bar they run into Paul, an old friend of Annie’s, and Ben learns that his girlfriend believes in Bigfoot and used to “hunt” for him when she was younger. Before Ben knows it, he’s off with Annie and her friends on a weekend trip deep into the Uwharries to camp out, reminisce on old times and maybe even find Bigfoot.
Q. Were you intentional about making the film “accurate” based on alleged accounts of Bigfoot sightings in the Uwharrie Mountains? How did you conduct research about Bigfoot?
A. I definitely tried to make it accurate. I went on a few location scouts in the Uwharries when I’d be home for holidays. The folks who were helping me get the movie going down there told me a lot of local Bigfoot stories, a few of which got incorporated into the script. I also researched some NC legends about “Boojum” (a local name for Bigfoot) and put those in the story. Additionally, I connected with some Bigfoot experts who guided me through the world of Bigfoot research. Some of them were reluctant to talk to me considering at my day job at “The Soup” we poke fun at “Finding Bigfoot” regularly. (I’m actually the one assigned to watching that show, and I love it.) But once I connected with the right people I learned a ton about Bigfoot, squatchin’ and everything else.
Q. You’re living out in Los Angeles, but you came back to North Carolina to film Stomping Ground. Why did you feel it was important to film in North Carolina? What role do the Uwharrie Mountains play in the movie?
A. I always hoped I’d get to come home to North Carolina to make a movie. I knew I’d be able to pull a lot of great resources that are hard to come by in Los Angeles (despite being home to Hollywood, it’s really hard — and expensive — to make indie films in Los Angeles). I wanted to tell a story about “coming home” and “re-discovering your roots” — Those themes are right there in the movie’s title. To be totally honest, I’d never been to the Uwharries before starting the process of making this movie. But I did grow up camping in the Appalachian Mountains and I definitely wanted the film to have that “autumn in N.C.” look. Once I started researching, and discovering all the things the Uwharries had to offer, it became clear that the film had to take place there.
Q. How do you think your North Carolina ties influenced you in making a film set in North Carolina? Did you feel like you were bringing the cast to a place that felt like home, or did it feel unfamiliar after years of living in Los Angeles?
A. North Carolina definitely still feels like my home. The theme of “home” and a person’s connection to their home is a big one in the movie. I was excited to bring some of my Los Angeles friends to North Carolina and show them everything I love about it. For some of the shoot the cast & crew slept in my parents’ house that I grew up in, which was fun. My mom’s car is in the movie and a good amount of the props came straight out of my family’s garage. Some aspects of the Uwharries felt unfamiliar — its definitely way more “country” than the middle class suburbs where I grew up — but it was still awesome to be there. You can’t beat Southern hospitality and some genuine Carolina barbecue.
Q. What was your experience like shooting in the Uwharries? How long did filming take? Did locals and Bigfoot hunters welcome you into their communities?
A. It was great! Couldn’t have asked for a better place to shoot. We were in the Uwharries for two weeks. The entire cast & crew stayed together in an amazing cabin that had everything we needed (we shot most of the movie in the woods right around the cabin). We spent a lot of time at the El Dorado Outpost, which is the central hub of activity in the Uwharries. Chris Cagle who runs El Dorado was a huge help — he helped secure a lot of our locations, helped get supplies; he even built a fence at our abandoned mine set. And Tricia Webb at the Montgomery County Tourism Authority was another integral part of the process — she was the first contact I made down there and her support really got the project off the ground. We didn’t meet a ton of “Bigfoot hunters” down there, but we did interact with a lot of locals and I think everyone got a kick out of knowing there was a Bigfoot movie shooting in the area.
Q. Searching for Bigfoot takes a lot of faith and instinct. Maybe the same could be said for filmmaking. Undertaking a feature film project like this requires years of work. What do you find rewarding about writing and filmmaking?
A. Telling stories is just really fun and kind of all I’ve ever wanted to do. Production is a total blast even though it’s incredibly hard. I was pretty terrified in the weeks leading up to the shoot. I was taking a fairly big gamble — leaving my job for a month and spending a pretty hefty chunk of my savings on my first movie, a low budget Bigfoot movie no less — but I think the gamble will pay off. Luckily I had an amazing cast & crew made up of friends who are equally passionate about telling stories. I would have completely screwed it all up without their help.
Q. How far in advance do you begin work preparing and writing a film? Do you have another project already in the works?
A. I started toying with the idea and script in early 2011. We shot in the fall of 2012 and it’s just now ready to be shown to people. So it’s definitely a long process. I have several projects I’m trying to get going, first and foremost is my feature length version of my 2010 short film Night of the Punks. It would be an awesome movie — it’s extremely different than Stomping Ground — so I hope I get to take a crack at it.
Q. Some North Carolinians proudly display bumper stickers that identify them as members of “Team Bigfoot” or “Bigfoot Believers.” At the beginning of the movie, Annie and her friends see nothing wrong with trusting the tale of Sasquatch, but Ben is skeptical. On the skeptic — believer scale, where do your personal beliefs fall?
A. Before making this movie I was a total non-believer. Now, I like to think of myself as an optimistic skeptic. I’m still not convinced Bigfoot exists, but I really like the idea of it, and would love to see all those die-hard believers get proven right. After this experience the big guy definitely holds a special place in my heart.
— Stomping Ground was a 2012 Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab – 2nd Round Finalist. Keep up to date with all of Riesser’s projects by clicking here.
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