BENEATH RELEASE (2013)
USA TODAY June 23, 2013 by Brian Truitt
STAKE LAND RELEASE (2011)
NEW YORK TIMES ARTS AND LEISURE April 15, 2011 By ERIC KOHN
WALL STREET JOURNAL Oct 21, 2010 by Steve Dollar
SACREFLIX SLATE (2009-10)
THREE FILMS BY LARRY FESSENDEN 22 March 2010 by Giles Edward
GOLDEN HAMMER AWARD Dec 09, 2009 by Mike Ryan
FEAR ZONE December 02, 2009 by Brian J. Showers
FILMMAKER MAGAZINE October 2009 - Lauren Wissot
ALL THINGS HORROR October 29, 2009 - Chris Hallock
I SELL THE DEAD (2008-09) press
ONION A.V. CLUB August 31, 2009 - Sam Adams
QUIET EARTH Oct 28, 2008- Dr. Nathan
ICONS OF FRIGHT July 2008
FEAR ITSELF (2008) press
FANGORIA - Michael Gingold
FEAR ZONE - Gregory Lamberson
THE LAST WINTER (2006-07) press
HOLLYWOOD REPORTER Sept 6, 2006 - Greg Goldstein
CINEMASCOPE Dec 2006 - Adam Nayman
FANGORIA, August 2007 - Don Kaye
THE NEW YORK SUN Sept 14, 2007 - Steve Dollar
THE REELER Sept 17, 2007 - S.T. VanAirsdale
RAY PRIVETT BLOG Sept 19, 2007
INDIEWIRE INTERVIEW Sept 19, 2007
L.A. WEEKLY Sept 19, by Judith Lewis
FILMMAKER Sept 18, 2007 by Damon Smith
SHOCK TIL YOU DROP 2007 by Edward Douglas
MAN OF NEW YORK CITY CINEMA 2007 by Ray Privett
IFC NEWS 2007 by Aaron Hillis
ENTERTAINMENT INSIDERS Sept 9, 2007- Adam Barnick
FEAR ZONE 2007 by Joseph Fusco
THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR 2007 by Jeremiah Kipp
PHILADELPHIA CITY PAPER 2007 by Sam Adams
HABIT (1997-98) press
VILLAGE VOICE, June 10, 1997 - Amy Taubin
BACKSTAGE WEST, May 1, 1997 - Jamie Painter
L.A. WEEKLY, Oct31-Nov 6, 1997 - Hazel-Dawn Dumpert
TIME OUT New York, November 13-20, 1997 -Andrew Johnston
CUPS, October 97 -Alexander Laurence
FANGORIA, November 97 -Steve Puchalski
ALBANY TIMES UNION, April 17, 1998 -Amy Biancolli
VENT MAGAZINE May 1998 -Don Philbricht
GUERRILLA FILMMAKER Winter 99 -Bruno Derlin
JUNE 23 by BRIAN TRUITT
With a giant man-eating fish in tow, the maven of indie horror returns to the director's chair for the first time in six years with "Beneath."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS Larry Fessenden returns to the director's chair with the horror film 'Beneath' Fessenden started Glass Eye Pix in 1985 and it has helped careers of upstart filmmakers While 'Jaws' was seminal, 'Frankenstein' was what got Fessenden really into monster movies "I would not have told you a year ago I was going to make a movie about a giant fish. I can guarantee that much."
Nearly 40 years ago, that could have been Steven Spielberg talking about Jaws. Here, though, it's indie horror guru Larry Fessenden, who is just as much an American original.
Since the 1980s, he has been an actor, producer, director, mentor to other filmmakers and entrepreneur of the strange with his Glass Eye Pix production company, which has put out recent films such as Stake Land, Bitter Feast and The Innkeepers.
Fessenden blends the old school with the new in most everything he does, and always with fans in mind — the guy even put out a set of throwback Web radio shows called Tales From Beyond the Pale, with a second season coming this summer.
"Why not do audio programs in the age of YouTube and video!" Fessenden, 50, says with a laugh. "Part of it is just to re-engage the imagination of the kids and get them to enjoy stories in different mediums."
But back to that giant fish. A lover of the low budget, Fessenden returns to the director's chair for Beneath (in theaters and available on demand July 16, and on Chiller TV this fall), which features a group of recent high school graduates headed up to a lake to party and, in a leaking boat with an unfortunate lack of oars, find a man-eating, catfish-looking creature ready for a several-course meal.
It's Fessenden's first directorial effort since the 2007 environmental horror flick The Last Winter, and the latest in a career that started in the early 1980s.
"I've always wanted to direct, that's my priority," says Fessenden, who also has acted in films such as Bringing Out the Dead, Happy Accidents, Broken Flowers and even a modern-day adaptation of Hamlet with Ethan Hawke.
Fessenden talks with USA TODAY about the new film, the Jaws influence, what he doesn't like about today's horror and what favorite movie of his might polarize the viewership.
Q: What are you up to today?
A: I'm producing a movie in upstate New York called Late Phases, a werewolf movie. I think people are looking around for the next best thing but I tell you, werewolves have always had a special place in my heart.
Q: What's your favorite werewolf movie?
I had some fondness for the transformations even in the recent The Wolfman (2010), which was a fairly unsuccessful movie otherwise. And I grew up on Lon Cheney (in 1941's The Wolf Man). I love all the classics and more recently An American Werewolf in London. But I have loved the comic Werewolf by Night since I was a kid, and that's really the movie I want to make.
Q: What got you back in the director's chair for Beneath?
A: I've got several scripts I'm trying to raise money for, but I do make arty horror films and it's hard to engage the financiers. It's quite a dance to get movies made of the ilk I'm trying to do so I produce a lot in the meantime and always look around for material.
I went into Chiller to pitch a series of possible directors and low-budget projects and they pulled this out of the drawer. I said, "That one I would like to make," because I do love the giant fish in the water and I loved how contained this story was. I'm into pursuing horror with an allegorical quality, and this one had that.
Q: Was it always a large catfish hounding teenagers?
A: I had to do the sketches early on so that's what it was from the outset. As for the script, it was nondescript — the one thing in the script was that you could see it above the water with the oar stuck in it, so there are all those references to the shark element but obviously we weren't going to have a shark in fresh water.
Q: You can't talk about giant fish and not mention Jaws. Was that a seminal movie for you?
A: Everything about Jaws is deeply resonant to me. It's just in my DNA now. I was at the right age — I'd guess I was 12 or 13 (when it came out in 1975). I'd always liked monster movies and I'm old enough that I grew up on the old black-and-white movies. The effects were always a little awkward but you got into the vibe, everything from Godzilla to giant ants. When I saw Jaws, the genre seemed to grow up along with me with a more character-based story and this awesome creature.
I always laugh, though. Jaws' characters are deeply likable and in Beneath it's a different paradigm. I knew I'd never be making a movie that could gender the same sort of affection. It's funny to think of what makes a classic.
Q: Did it freak you when you were a kid or were you pretty used to horror at that time?
A: I really was obsessed with great white sharks. I wrote papers on them when I was little and there was a movie called Blue Water, White Death that was actually a documentary. I had seen that in a theater, and it blew my mind. I was deeply haunted by the idea of a great white shark and I used to go to Cape Cod, so I was always in boats.
It was a perfect storm for me to see this popular movie with great characters. I could tell even at that age that directing was unique. I had already seen Duel (in 1971) so I was already prepped to love Spielberg and his style, and there it was with a shark.
Q: Beneath also turns into a little bit of a Lord of the Flies situation with the kids as friendships go south very quickly. Is that what you wanted to explore, too, that the attacking fish isn't actually the worst thing in the movie?
A: If you've seen my films, usually nature is menacing but not really the bad guy, and here is a perfect example. This is really a movie about their complete inability to come up with either an ethical or a moral or even a practical survivor's decision. They're so entrenched in their petty grievances at each other.
To me, this is like the United States Senate — nobody gets along anymore to figure out how to come up with solutions, even when it is a matter of saving our (butt). "We're all in the same boat" is the cliché I would like to evoke here, and somehow humanity has lost the ability to work together to find solutions. You'll find that I speak loftily because I think that way, and I love to tell stories and use horror to expose the folly of our society and our goings-on.
Even more than the fish in Jaws, the fish in Beneath is not really a malevolent force. It's just doing what it does, which is eating anything it can find. It's actually not particularly menacing. And another thing is we chose to film in the daytime. In other words, there's nothing in the movie borrowing from the gothic clichés of darkness or mist. All of that is gone, so you're left asking the audience, so what's scary about this? The answer is clearly the (expletive) people can't get along. That's the horror.
Q: One of the kids is filming everything with his video camera. Is that analogous to teenage Larry Fessenden?
A: Not literally. Of course, in my day we had Super 8 cameras. I did make movies, including Jaws. If you go on IMDB, you'll see it under "Larry Fessenden." I wasn't trying to punk Spielberg or edge in on his glory, but I started making a little Super 8 movie of Jaws back in the day. So I was that kid.
Funnily enough, I was an actor on the stage in high school. I only learned about the camera in the mid-'70s and then I did start making a lot of Super 8 movies.
Q: You've also been in front of the camera over the years — your acting résumé is littered with the occasional cokehead, junkie, father, etc. Is there a favorite role in there?
A: Honestly it would have to be Habit, which is actually my own film (from 1995, about a man who is dragged into addiction by a seductive vampire). I only say that because it's the lead and I got to be naked, but look, it's also very autobiographical and I feel like there's some subtlety to the performance that you don't get when you walk onto a set for a day or two to play the maniac, which is the kind of roles I get. I'm fonder of the things where I had a little time to develop a character beyond "the freak."
But it's fun to do those and I do like it when people cast me in straighter roles. It's fun to show that side because I'm naturally associated with druggies and pimps and (Jack) Nicholson types. It's fun to surprise people.
Q: John Carpenter, George Romero and other genre legends are still making movies, but you have a whole new crop of filmmakers too. Right now, is horror a young man's game?
A: It's a good question. It is probably a young man's game in that there's a freshness and anger and an appreciation for the fast edits and gore that the youngsters like. In the one hand, horror moves forward with a new aesthetic, but the really deep themes should and can be explored by any artist.
I take horror very seriously as a way to express national anxieties. Some of the modern films, that's not the agenda — the agenda is to shock and titillate. That's something that kids can do well, but to me, a really great recent film is The Mist by Frank Darabont. He's sort of getting on and is an older, more mature director, but of course he's given us The Walking Dead.
Romero, you could say his zombie movies are getting tired but he's always got the deeper themes in there, and to me that's what resonates in the end is when the horror is actually about something.
Q: What really got you hook, line and sinker into horror when you were a youngster?
A: Well, that's where I'm going to just alienate half the viewership because my answer is Frankenstein. I'm talking about the real old films you saw on TV as a kid and I thought that was the most awesome concoction. I still stand by that. Karloff's Frankenstein (in 1931) is just an amazing piece of pop art.
More recently I was incredibly struck by The Night of The Living Dead and the hopelessness that that movie put forth. I've gone so far as to help make a whole movie (Year of the Living Dead) celebrating that film, so that's seminal, as well. And then you get into Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Shining, so there were always touchstones all along. Even The Omen was a great film when I was little to start seeing things in theaters and be blown away.
I liked B-movies as a kid, as well. I loved Them! and The Crawling Eye, In my generation, you didn't rent videos — you actually waited for these shows to show up on TV at 2 in the morning. You'd sneak out of the bedroom when your parents were asleep and watch these things, and they would freak you out.
The other thing that happened to me was I departed from horror. In the '70s I was a Scorsese fan. I would say One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was an incredibly vital film to me because it's actually more about fighting authority and the other things that I'm engaged in as an artist and a person.
Q: What's the one thing about today's horror culture you would change?
A: It sounds self-serving, and let's just say that it is, I don't care. The fact is I'm sick to death of remakes when there are a lot of original scripts (to be made). You know what's wrong with remakes? It's that a good movie comes from its time and even the movies I don't favor like Saw, that felt right for its time.
Do you even remember these movies? What was The Thing remake? It doesn't feel like it comes form anywhere except the mind of a bean counter in Hollywood. And it's an insult to all the original material that the kids have ready to shoot that really springs from their lives now. Let's make a horror movie about Facebook. Go for it. Let's get on with this.
I actually don't mind the Paranormal Activity movies. They're cool. I'll tell you another thing about these movies is they force an audience to slow down. It's quite ironic that one of the biggest franchises is a celebration of a locked-off camera where nothing happens but a little weird sound. I'll take it.
Q: The Purge wasn't a remake and it really hit big recently, but Hollywood seemed bewildered by its success. To me, a hallmark of the horror genre has been original movies done on a low budget like Insidious that end up with a nice profit margin. Even with all the redos, horror seems to be the place with the most originality.
A: Horror comes from the fringe, and it used to truly come from the fringe, and now you have Hollywood embracing it occasionally. As you say, what are the movies that really stick out? It is a Paranormal, which was a completely unique film. So was Saw. So was Insidious — though (director James Wan) had a reputation by then, he still chose to make an original film.
I agree with you. The Purge has some problems but it's an original film. The irony is I am in You're Next, which is coming out in August, and that might be a more successful, similar people-with-masks-attacking-other-people movie. But we'll see.
The cool thing about horror is you can truly have expressionism in moviemaking, which has been drained out of the mainstream. If you watch old '70s movies, the editing is far bolder than what you see now. With superhero movies and all of this, it's all gotten very regular. CGI has also leveled the component of wacky imagination because you just create something that looks very real on a computer whereas in the old days you had to use the medium very creatively. Horror still does that to some degree because it's trying to take you into a dream state or disorient you. It really uses the language of cinema to disorient and freak out.
But I'm not a huge fan of gore. I loved gore when it was actually shocking and when it first made its appearance, and I find it redundant. To remake Evil Dead with just more gore is not the agenda, folks.
Q: You started Glass Eye Pix in 1985. Was the goal just to create your own thing, maybe even anything at that point as a youngster?
A: That's exactly what it was. Honestly, I was looking for something to copyright a movie I made and I came up with this idea of Glass Eye Pix. A friend had given me a glass eye. "Pix" came from Yankee Doodle Dandy — I was a huge James Cagney fan. The spelling of pix is from the old Variety speak. You used to talk in tongues when you read Variety headlines.
I started the company and then would make videos with performance artists in the '80s and then started doing my own films. It started turning into a little shop for up-and-coming filmmakers really in the 2000s when I started helping other filmmakers get their low-budget movies started. I was sick of hearing about format and people waiting to raise money, and I was a big believer in "Let's shoot video then if we can't raise money for film." I got a couple of kids inspired like Ti West and it went from there.
Q: Do you have plans to do more projects like Tales From Beyond the Pale aside from the indie films?
A: I love the genre and I grew up in those days where even the movie poster was an essential component to the experience. There were no making-ofs, no video rentals — you had the Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines that showed you stills from movies. Sometimes you never saw the movie but the still would live in your imagination.
I'm obsessed with creating a little world where the posters matter, where there's a comic spinoff, where you tell the story in different ways. It also speaks to the Rashomon life that we all lead where there are different versions of the same story and they have different reverberations.
When we made Stake Land, I had several directors make webisodes that connected to the feature, and I feel like it just enriches the world. On the one hand, I feel like a man out of step with the current culture, but actually this is exactly what transmedia is and it's what everybody does and something I've been doing since the 1990s. It's fun to realize that you actually do have your finger on a certain pulse. That's why there are so many incarnations and spinoffs even in my own little, very low-budget world.
I'm always imagining that there's fan out there who's getting it. That's the real motivator. I think of what I do is for that fan, that collector, who is actually putting the pieces together, That makes it all fun to imagine somebody going, "Oh, that's so cool they did this!"
(Sunday Geekersation is a weekly series of Q&As featuring luminaries, mainstays and newcomers of geek culture discussing their projects, influences and pop culture.)
Fessenden bio | "Someone to Watch Award" | top
Interview by Danny Trudell (from 2009; published 2012)
A number of years ago, I rented the movie Wendigo by Larry Fessenden, mostly by chance. I was stunned at how beautiful it was – the entire movie was astounding from start to finish. I would watch and re-watch this movie for years. Loving Wendigo made me want to know more about the director and the other projects he had been involved in. After some research, I found that not only did I love the movies Larry was making, but I would draw parallels between his ethos and that of the punk rock/hardcore scene I grew up in. Larry is an uncompromising filmmaker who exemplifies the do it yourself attitude. He eschews the Hollywood model for how films are made, and makes movies his way, without compromise. He doesn’t see budget restraints as a hurdle or stumbling block, but rather as a chance to more creatively take the viewer where he wants them to go. Larry works outside of the mainstream, while making movies that are better written, better looking and more engaging than 90% of the crap playing at your local theatre. I was thrilled when Larry granted me this short interview, allowing me a peek into the mind that has conceived so many films I love.
How old were you when you realized that making movies and acting was something you wanted to do with your life?
I was pretty young. I remember in the third grade play I played the dragon that fought Perseus. It was a tiny role, I basically walked on and roared and then got killed, but the tumble off the stage I took was the talk of the school for days. I never got the leading man roles, but I made the most of character parts. I did play Marc Anthony in Julius Caesar in 8th grade, but by then I’d already made some movies and was very into the performing arts. In those days (the 70’s) it wasn’t clear that you could actually aspire to grow up and be a film maker. I came from a conventional family and we just didn’t think that way. Hard for kids to understand now.
How did you get your start in filmmaking?
I helped my brother’s friend make an elaborate animated movie with all my GI Joes when I was very young, like 9 or so. Then when I was 12 I used the school super 8 movie camera to make a version of DR. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but none of it registered, and I was mostly into acting in plays until I got a super 8 camera of my own and that’s when I discovered that the camera was the story-teller in movie making. That is when I moved from acting to film making.
I know a lot of people absorbed in mainstream movies are looking simply to escape and be entertained, and though I do enjoy your movies as entertainment, there is also an honest communication in your films. How do you find the balance between your artistic vision, entertainment and the message you are conveying?
I don’t know if I have found the balance. All I know is it takes so long to make a movie that, for me, it has to be about something that sustains my interest and something that actually matters. But I grew up on horror and main-stream films, so the movies that influence my stories are very genre-based. I think of film as a medium of communication. I am trying to convey as directly and honestly as I can the sensations I have being alive, afraid, pissed off, sexed up, confused, vulnerable and awed by the world. I want to convey that with candor and skill. That is a huge personal undertaking. I don’t know how else to approach the medium.
Do you ever worry about what the audience will think, or do you simply make what you think is right and hope the audience is open to what you are bringing?
I worry about the audience in a very particular way: I wonder about each choice I make in terms of how it will psychologically affect the audience. This is the way in which Hitchcock talks about audiences. Nowadays, there is a new concern: is the audience too jaded to even accept the offerings one is making? There is so much media and so many opinions about it that these concerns creep into the equation. But ultimately, one must find a passion for the material that blinds one to all these concerns.
A lot of people would discard horror movies as garbage, but you tackle real life issues with your movies. What is it that made you pick horror as your vehicle to express these ideas and feelings?
Nowadays, horror movies are grotesque gore spectacles, and I wouldn’t really defend the genre myself. But everyone on earth deals with fear, and is to some degree motivated by fear. And that is what the horror film can explore. I did not pick horror. Horror picked me.
I read an interview with you in the past where you talked about how you really make your movies three times – can you explain what you mean, and what your favorite part of the process is?
Well, it’s not an original idea, I lifted it from someone, but it is a simple truth: when you write a film, it has a life on the page and its own integrity. When you film the script, everything changes — the actors bring unexpected readings and nuance to their roles, and the weather and time constraints and money and sets and so on — all of this alters to some degree the script. And then any filmmaker worth their salt knows that when you edit, you must respond to the material that was actually shot and remake your film a third time. That’s the one that counts.
You state clearly that movies do not have to cost a lot; do you feel the limited budget you have worked with stimulates a more creative output than if you were handed all the money in the world to create your films? Also just to show people what can be accomplished with sheer passion and drive, would you tell us the lowest budget you have ever worked with on your movies?
I don’t want to romanticize having no money to make a film, because there are very real considerations such as feeding, housing and paying crew members, and there are things like special effects, locations and post production that all cost money. However, I do equate low budgets with more creative freedom, and more physical mobility, and yes, I enjoy the challenge of solving story and technical problems with ingenuity rather than money. I made a movie in 1985 called EXPERIENCED MOVERS for $10,000, my own film HABIT was shot for $60,000 in 1994, and some of the films I’ve produced, like TRIGGER MAN and AUTOMATONS, cost around $30,000 each. My intention in speaking about low budgets is to inspire would-be filmmakers to go out and make a movie, rather than wait for a budget to materialize that might never come. Learn the craft; it can be done with a flip camera.
You started your production company Glass Eye Pix in 1985, and here you are, still working and growing in 2009 – did you expect things to take off for you on the level that it has, and to have survived as a company for so long?
I don’t know what I expected, but I did hope to be a working filmmaker by now, making films like the ones I loved. I doubt I expected to produce as much or have a band of brothers that makes movies together, but that’s what’s happened and it makes sense to me.
I know in this day and age, people often feel things like making movies, releasing music or communicating their ideas are out of reach of the common person. What drove you to start your own production company and make your own movies?
Now more than ever, you can make art and have it seen by the whole world through the internet and, thankfully, there are still supportive networks of coffee shops and clubs on every corner of the planet, so being an artist is possible. Making money at it, making a living, there is no guarantee for that, but if it is what you love, what you must do, then there are more opportunities now than ever to get your voice heard. Real financing is very tricky right now, so it takes a certain ingenuity and drive to get something produced in this economic climate.
One of the things I loved is reading about was what a sense of community and family you have established with Glass Eye Pix. Can you tell me a little about the importance of the collaborative effort in making your movies, and giving a leg up to filmmakers you see coming up?
I always say I am a bit of a lone wolf creatively – I am quite shy and secretive about my own work. But what I believe in is the artistic collective, where a group of like-minded artists form an identity that gives strength against the corporate voice. A bunch of rag-tag artists with a shared vision can establish an identity that resonates with the public, and a company name can become a reliable brand. When I was growing up, as a fan of movies, I knew that each studio had a style of movie they were associated with: Universal made horror; Warners made gangster pictures with social realism, MGM musicals and spectacle and so on. Same with the record labels of the 60’s and 70’s. I always enjoyed learning of how different artists were connected to each other, and imagining how they related: Lou Reed and Andy Warhol, or how Coppola and Lucas helped each other. There is a comfort in knowing these giants of the arts had rivalries, loyalties, and insecurities like the rest of us, and that you can’t do it alone.
I know that your concern for environmental and animal rights issues have manifested themselves directly into the subjects of your movies, what brought these issues to light for you?
Some time in 1986, my friend Alex Wolf gave me a copy of Silent Spring. He must have known it would affect me. That, and subsequent environmental literature, has had a profound and lasting effect on me: I gave up eating red meat and birds in ‘87, and have generally been plagued by my outrage over the misuse of resources and the hubris of humanity. This outlook has literally poisoned my outlook on life, and it has become the source of my horror stories, not because I am a propagandist, but because I am so hurt and outraged by these conditions.
As an actor you have starred in movies by Martin Scorsese, Neal Jordan, Jim Jarmusch and Steve Buscemi -a pretty impressive group of filmmakers. Did working on these projects help you or teach you anything that translated to how you work on your own movies?
These associations have made me very grateful and humbled, and yes, you learn something on every project, observing how each director approaches the process. I learned a great deal acting in Kelly Reichardt’s film RIVER OF GRASS years ago, because I’d made a bigger-budgeted film, and had lost touch with what I liked about filmmaking. RIVER OF GRASS inspired me to make HABIT for very little money. What I loved about Scorsese is how he could see moving shots intercut in his mind, I could watch him build the movie right there on set. It has been a great privilege working so close to these remarkable auteurs, seeing how each one builds a scene and the confidence that success has brought them.
Would you name a few directors that influenced you, and subsequently could you name a few directors you see coming up that you are excited about?
I am highly influenced by Hitchcock, I am inspired by Scorsese, Polanski, Kubrick, Kurosawa. Recently, I was excited by Neill Blomkamp’s debut film DISTRICT 9. And of course, I am inspired by my collaborators and the directors whose work I have produced.
Finally, if you had all the money in the world to work with, would it change at all how you make your movies?
It would make a difference to be able to plan when to go into production based on the weather, the time of year. You could hire the actors you wanted and generally have the creative freedom that time affords. But there is no point in thinking that way, because no one has enough money, your budget expands out of your grasp at every level of filmmaking, and ultimately filmmaking is about solving problems and working with and defying your limitations.
CVLT Nation would like to thank Danny Trudell for letting us publish his rad interview with Larry Fessenden!
Fessenden bio | "Someone to Watch Award" | top
Larry Fessenden is a prolific figure in the world of horror. As a director, he has made only five full-length films, but he has produced and starred in over 40 other features. As actor and producer, Fessenden’s films range from B-movies, best watched after several drinks on Halloween night, to cult classics in the making by up-and-coming directors. However, as an auteur filmmaker (he produces, writes and stars in most of the films he directs) he has brought a refreshing new voice to a genre that seems too often unwilling to experiment – ironic for a type of storytelling that is all about the fear of the unknown.
At this year’s FrightFest, he spoke on stage as part of a panel of his peers (Ti West, Lucky McKee, Adam Green, Joe Lynch and Andrew van den Houten), who are almost exclusively directors of slasher movies and ‘torture porn’, and, with the exception of McKee, have done little to innovate. Hilariously, these directors had the arrogance to complain about big-budget horror remakes in recent years being helmed by ‘unknowns’ – second-unit directors and editors of Hollywood schlock. But the truth is, their own output is barely known outside of the cultish clan of aficionados with a high tolerance for the drivel often found at horror festivals.
Fessenden’s work is also little known outside of the pages of Fangoria or independent video shops, but in his four horror films (his 1985 Experienced Movers has rarely been seen since its year of production) and one TV episode, he has established himself as a terrific filmmaker. First was a thoughtful trilogy that commented on the classic tropes of horror films – Frankenstein in No Telling (or The Frankenstein Complex, 1991), vampires in Habit (1995) and werewolves in Wendigo (2001) – followed by The Last Winter (2006) and Fear Itself: Skin and Bones (2008), in which he further explored the myth of the Wendigo.
In Native North American folklore, the Wendigo is a kind of cannibalistic spirit with a shape-shifting exterior. In Fessenden’s films, the Wendigo’s appearance changes, depending on who is telling the narrative. In Wendigo, it first appears (or rather, doesn’t appear) when the members of a family who survive a car crash all encounter different aspects of an animalistic shape, one part sticks rustling in the wind and one part fur-covered Arctic predator. Here, the Wendigo has some kind of amorphous role in protecting its environment, but the link between the creature and the land is made more explicit in The Last Winter. As a multinational company starts drilling in the Arctic tundra, the humans who have braved the lethal environment encounter the spirit: first as a flock of birds, ready to peck out the eyes of anyone crazed enough to stay outside to the point of hypothermia, then as madness that drives the men into the cold, then as an enormous shadowy figure made of smoke that stalks the land at night. Finally it appears as a flock once more: dark, velociraptor-style predators gorging themselves on the human remains. In The Last Winter, Fassenden presents the monster as a monitor and destroyer of the men who encroach on its territory or endanger the planet. In his TV episode Fear Itself, Fessenden reveals it to be the animal within, as a character in the show transforms into the Wendigo.
Fessenden is interested in the ambiguity of horror and of storytelling, and in unreliable narrators. Fessenden challenges every aspect of mankind, from our position at the top of the food chain, to being subservient to an eco-system we try to master, to the unreliable perception of the environment itself. Science fiction wouldn’t be a challenging enough genre for this kind of storytelling – although the director flirts with it in No Telling when a mad scientist experiments on the animals in his care. Fessenden wants to disrupt, to unsettle and to disturb, while keeping an ecological leitmotif in all of his horror films, except Habit (and even then, perhaps, the transformation of man into vampire is a type of evolution).
Since 2001 his films have been beautifully shot and thoughtfully directed, evolving from his more underground, ultra-low-budget roots to slick verisimilitude, which seems comparable to the work of the Coen Brothers (if they only worked in horror). The only flaw in the director’s tales is his unwillingness to provide his films with a definitive or satisfying ending – but if horror is to disturb and unsettle, perhaps one should leave the cinema with the sense of a drama left unresolved. Certainly with Fessenden, the journey to a final door left ajar is always one worth taking.
I spoke to Larry Fessenden immediately after the panel discussion on modern horror at 2011′s August FrightFest.
Alex Fitch: You spoke eloquently on stage about how you had a love of classic horror films as you were growing up, of RKO films like King Kong, and then in the 1960s, films like Night of the Living Dead. But, as well as an interest in those classic horror tropes, something that’s very prevalent in your movies is your anger about how man is destroying our environment. What sort of experiences in your formative years created that anger?
Larry Fessenden: I’m not impressed with people who put on airs, and I think the whole of humanity has that element. I had a passion for thoughtful and eccentric people – I went to a great school when I was young, and I thought that was the way of the world. Then when I went out into the real world, I saw that many people were faking it, and were un-genuine, and would call on the name of a religion in a false way. So it’s an anti-authoritarian thing. I also grew up going to Cape Cod and liking nature, respecting it. I’m not an outdoors man, I just believe in respect for your elders, and there’s nothing older than the Earth. Although some in America would question that, too.
In films like No Telling, humanity has manipulated evolution for our own survival. When it comes to presenting that on film, horror is a very good way of doing it, but how do you avoid making it just an issue movie?
Well, some people would feel that I do preach – at least in No Telling, I think things got carried away. There’s a central scene where they’re arguing at a dinner table, and the point I’m making in that scene, which the casual viewer sees as preachy, is how we can’t communicate. You go to parties and people do talk about politics, and you walk away and you realise you can’t change people’s minds. I find that fascinating. So, in a way, I try to have movies where there’s some dialogue about a situation. But then there’s the reality that you’re showing cinematically, and then the one that trumps it – because reality will trump all this conversation. You can say something like global warming is not true, but the fact is, there’s going to come a time when it simply is true and then you have to deal with that.
That basic betrayal of our potential as a species and as individuals is really what drives me. Habit is about how that guy cannot rise above his alcoholism, cannot find his better self, and that’s the tragedy of humanity, I think. That’s why my movies are personal, even though they have this political veneer. If you deal with the environment, people will be defensive, because in our heart of hearts, we all know that we are part of the problem, which I also find interesting and horrific. It’s really what I love about horror – it’s the truth-teller of the genres. I don’t want to make movies that preach about politics, I find that uninteresting, so I have a monster come along, and that vindicates nature!
I suppose the supreme example of that is Wendigo, because it’s very much about the myth of a creature on whose description no one can agree.
It seems very brave of you, that unlike a lot of filmmakers, you will show that it looks different to many people. To the audience that can be frustrating, but there’s an honesty there.
I believe that if you show the monster in different ways, you’re getting at the essence of another theme that interests me, which is the subjective nature of reality. I mean, to one character in Habit, his girlfriend’s a vampire; to his friends, she’s an interloper, taking away his attentions from their party life; and then in the end, there’s a very subtle thing where you realise that both stories are true. He’s either fallen out of the window alone, or he’s fallen out with her. I love this slippery reality. I believe in a very deliberate ambiguity in storytelling because that is how life is. It’s appalling, sometimes, when you talk to someone and realise they hold a different view, and they’re absolutely coming from a genuine place. You realise it’s hard to connect, and it has to do with their upbringing, and every subtle thing that creates a human personality is in play – I like to show that in movies. I think the nature of horror is that it allows you to delve into issues of split personalities, of unreliable narrators and untrue, slippery reality.
The ambiguity of horror films seems to be an antidote to the encroaching apocalypse presented constantly in the news. You spoke on stage about the August riots on the streets of London – but if society is going to collapse, maybe it’s these communal myths that can bring us together again?
Well, that’s also my business. In my films, I’m trying to show not which myth to follow, but how important myths are to give us meaning – because otherwise you’re left with a very bald, desperate reality that is amoral. So I celebrate, and I want people to acknowledge, that if you are clinging to mythologies and your world view is formed for a reason, then you can at least get a window into someone else’s world, and that gives you some hope. I really think the pinnacle would be to make a film that created a new paradigm for people to get behind, and that’s why I’m trying to suggest that could be nature in some way. It’s funny, most people think that my movies are about nature getting revenge and being threatening, but I’m saying: ‘Have awe. Have respect.’ I’m not really saying it’s a baddie. But you realise you can be easily misinterpreted when you’re dealing with something so primal as our relationship to the rest of the world. That’s why I’m not interested in The Exorcist type of film, because it’s dealing with God and the Devil, and I’m like, ‘Let’s stop talking about good and evil and let’s look at this whole other paradigm.’ So, while I’m not going to single-handedly save the world, that is my preoccupation, to sort of put forth a new way of looking at our reality, and if we could agree on that, then maybe we could get to this business of saving ourselves!
Interview by Alex Fitch
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A Kingmaker in the Realm of Cheapie Horror
By ERIC KOHN
LARRY FESSENDEN knew something was wrong with “Stake Land,” a bleak horror movie about the survivors of a vampire outbreak, before the filming even began. Mr. Fessenden, a producer of “Stake Land” through his Glass Eye Pix company, worried that an early outline for the movie lacked emotion and resembled a cold, action-driven blockbuster, the kind with a histrionic soundtrack. So he invited the movie’s young director, Jim Mickle, out for a drink.
“Give this a heart,” Mr. Mickle said Mr. Fessenden told him. “We didn’t hire you to make ‘Terminator 5.’ Go make the only movie you can make.” The result, an evocative post-apocalyptic tale that emphasizes feelings of isolation rather than bloodshed, won an audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival in the fall and has garnered unlikely comparisons to the work of the director Terrence Malick.
Mr. Mickle, 31, gives much of the credit for how the film turned out to Mr. Fessenden. “Larry could see that I was trying to force it into something that it wasn’t,” he said recently.
Mr. Fessenden, 48, a staple of the New York underground scene as a writer, director, producer and actor, says his advice about “Stake Land” was merely practical. “It’s a road movie and a western,” he said recently over coffee in Union Square. “It should never be horror for horror’s sake.”
A scraggly-haired man easily recognizable by a missing front tooth, Mr. Fessenden has produced around a dozen micro-budgeted movies in half as many years. He advocates a form of eerie storytelling that he says Hollywood abandoned long ago in favor of blunt scare tactics. “The horror should creep in,” he said. “That’s how it happens in real life.”
When advising Mr. Mickle, Mr. Fessenden spoke from experience. He has also directed a vampire movie, “Habit” (1995), an allegorical story in which he starred as an East Village resident inadvertently dating a fanged bohemian.
Mr. Fessenden has shared his filmmaking secrets with like-minded directors for decades. “He’s really great at being able to not impose what he would do, but he can figure out your aesthetic and talk to you about it,” said Kelly Reichardt (“Meek’s Cutoff”), whose 1994 debut feature, “River of Grass,” starred Mr. Fessenden.
But since 2004, when the filmmaker James Felix McKenney convinced him to create a low-budget production arm of Glass Eye Pix called ScareFlix to produce Mr. McKenney’s ghost story “The Off Season,” he has formalized that mentor status and gained a reputation as a modern-day Roger Corman.
“Larry validated us by thinking we were talented,” said the director Ti West, whose first feature, “The Roost,” was among ScareFlix’s initial offerings and brought Mr. West a cult following of his own. “The movies have done well, but mainly I really enjoy having Larry as a part of my life.”
Mr. Fessenden’s varied themes as a director have included addiction and the gradual destruction of the human race. Among his influences are Universal monster movies from the 1930s and ’40s and the New Hollywood cinema of the ’70s, and his films often reflect his ecological concerns. (He runs a conservation awareness Web site called Running Out of Road. “We’ve lost our great potential to be a cool species,” he said of global warming. “The horror that really interests me is this horror of self-betrayal.”)
Mr. Fessenden speaks about his mission to foster emerging horror filmmakers with the same ferocity he brings to environmentalism. “I absolutely insist the marketplace make room for these types of movies,” he said, lauding films like the original “Night of the Living Dead” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” for their critiques of excessive human behavior. “If not, we’ve lost our souls. These are personal films, not cookie-cutter filmmaking for a brain-dead mall culture.”
He reserves particular disdain for the “Saw” franchise. “It’s just exploitation and titillation for kids,” he said. “I don’t buy it. It’s not about anything.”
Despite that anti-consumerist streak, Mr. Fessenden and his team are successful businessmen, most recently establishing a relationship with the distributor Dark Sky Films. After the two companies produced Mr. West’s satanic thriller “The House of the Devil” in 2009, they announced a three-movie slate that included “Stake Land.” Budgeted at just $625,000, it was the most expensive of the lot. That tight rein on costs has kept investors satisfied. “It’s nice to see this family of people Larry has put together,” said Greg Newman, executive vice president of MPI Media Group, which owns Dark Sky. “They’ve been so consistent. I think he’s doing something fairly unique by filling a niche market for the elevated, smart genre film.”
Still, most of the Glass Eye directors say they would like to try bigger projects. “We’ve gotten a little older and slightly exhausted by low budgets,” Mr. West said. “But maybe the frustration of waiting for the next thing will spawn more smaller movies.”
Mr. Fessenden can relate. “I’m very schizophrenic about it all,” he said. “I’m pleased to be doing this with the young fellers, but I also need to get back on track as a director.”
A few years ago, he tried to do just that. Handpicked by Guillermo Del Toro in 2007 to write and direct an American remake of the Spanish horror film “The Orphanage” for New Line Cinema, Mr. Fessenden immersed himself in the project, jetting off during the shooting of “Stake Land” to meet with potential cast members.
By late 2009, however, he was dropped from the project. “My clock ran out,” Mr. Fessenden said with a hint of anger. “The studio decided that, because of my unproven status, they couldn’t cast it.”
Mr. Fessenden, however, has plenty to keep him busy. In addition to the numerous Glass Eye Pix movies, he enlisted 10 filmmakers and writers to produce “Tales From the Beyond the Pale,” audio recordings of 10 short stories in the mold of old radio serials, due out this summer on CD and iTunes. And he has been talking to a distributor about releasing a restored version of “Habit” and re-releasing his overlooked debut, the 1991 ecological Frankenstein shocker “No Telling.”
On a recent evening, Mr. Fessenden participated in a public discussion about his career at a small theater on the Lower East Side. Before it began, he held court at the bar. “I really believe in the no-budget model,” he said to a fan, his voice rising above the crowd. “My life ambition is to give a million dollars to someone like Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese and have them return to their roots.” He paused to let the idea settle. “This is what I want for Glass Eye Pix,” he said.
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NEW YORK'S MONSTER IF INDEPENDENT FILM by steve Dollar
Thursday October 21, 2010
As a kid, Larry Fessenden didn't idolize all-star athletes or astronauts. His heroes were Frankenstein and the Wolfman.
"I'm of a generation that watched movies on TV," the New York-born filmmaker said. "I loved the outsiderness of the monsters. Very often, you had an affection for the creatures."
These extraordinary beings weren't disposable bogeymen, but occasions of uncanny wonder. "Some jerk stole horror and turned it into meaning slasher movies. When I was little, horror meant great stories of mythic proportions, about playing God and science and nature and werewolves and drinking potions and giant tentacled creatures coming out of the ocean. That's what I wanted to see."
Since 1985, when the East Village resident founded the independent film studio Glass Eye Pix, those have been the kind of films Mr. Fessenden has made—although conceived with a contemporary, urban perspective. Whether shooting his own efforts or producing the work of other filmmakers under the company's banner, Mr. Fessenden, 47, has shepherded more than 20 movies to the screen, some with budgets as low as $20,000. The body of work will be celebrated in a two-week retrospective, "Larry Fessenden: 25 Years of Glass Eye Pix," opening Friday at reRun Gastropub Theater in DUMBO.
The program features several of Mr. Fessenden's unpredictable twists on genre—vampires in "Habit," weird science in "No Telling," Native American lore in "Wendigo" and "The Last Winter"—as well as sharp-witted turns by directors Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Graham Reznick and James McKenney. As a producer, Mr. Fessenden said, he's also been heavily influenced by the social realism of American films of the 1970s, when films like "Mean Streets," "Straw Dogs," "The French Connection" and "Dog Day Afternoon" embraced complex situations and characters informed by the tensions of the post-Vietnam era.
"All of it comes from a fairly unique, auteur-driven place," he said of the films he now champions. "They're not opportunistic cabin-in-the-woods films where you set out to make a horror film. I feel they're usually driven by someone's inner demon. They very often have a sense of humanity to them. They're really not pure exploitation films. They're exploring the dark side of life as it exists."
At reRun, the series will skew toward Glass Eye Pix's genre efforts, excluding titles such as Kelly Reichardt's "Wendy and Lucy," on which Mr. Fessenden was a producer, in favor of more Halloween-appropriate fare. But as Mr. Fessenden stresses often, the formula elements in each film are always secondary to original yarn spinning. "Someone like Ti West ("The House of the Devil"), he's telling the tale of a babysitter-Satanic cult situation gone awry. But it doesn't telegraph the horror. It's very much how it would unfold. I'm looking for genuine voices as opposed to people who are trying to use genre to advance their careers."
Mr. West, whose films "The Roost, "Trigger Man" and "The House of the Devil" will be screened, has become one of the most successful members of the Glass Eye crew. He credits Mr. Fessenden's laid-back approach with fostering a creative environment for emerging filmmakers. "Larry doesn't have this ego problem," he said. "In fact, he places an exceptional amount of trust in his directors and their collaborators."
Jim Mickle, a young filmmaker whose post-apocalyptic "Stake Land" will open next year, suggested that Mr. Fessenden has remained in touch with youthful enthusiasms that most adults set aside. "Larry is like a little kid who hasn't fully grown up," he said. "I mean that in the best possible way. His love of Hitchcock and Polanski is equal to his love for 'The Karate Kid' and the Wolfman. He wears his affections proudly."
Perhaps Mr. Fessenden's best-known attribute is his habit of getting killed in mainstream Hollywood movies. His shaggy hair, jutting forehead and absent front tooth—knocked out by a gang of Brooklyn street toughs in 1984 when he came to the defense of his then-girlfriend—frequently gets him cast as a creep du jour. Jodie Foster iced him in "The Brave One," although in Jim Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers," he plays a biker who punches Bill Murray in the face. Win some, lose some.
"I've lost track of how many times I've been killed," said Mr. Fessenden, who has been shot, ice-picked, defenestrated, mauled by rat zombies and chainsawed, among other fates. He assembled a short video of the various death scenes called "The Assassination of Larry Fessenden," and will show it on Halloween. "I think it's nine or 10. I was telling ["The Last Winter" actor] James LeGros this, very proudly, and he told me he'd been murdered 18 times. The difference is, he has real roles. I come on and I get murdered."
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Three Films By Larry Fessenden / 22nd March 2010
Three Films By Larry Fessenden
As driven as Roger Corman; as authentic as John Cassavetes; as subversive, bold and transgressive as Stuart Gordon. In the early 1990s rush of independent film revelry, while the world was rightly fawning over the collective visions of a new band(e) of vibrant, cine-smart filmmakers -- among their number Allison Anders, Whit Stillman, Richard Linklater and, of course, Quentin Tarantino -- one name was lost in furore over the free ideals, cultured formalism and rampant creative frivolity of this post-Soderbergh Sundance set. The name was Larry Fessenden.
It would be disingenuous to ever imagine that he would *really* be included on such a striking role-call. Yet looking back at the down-and-dirty-pictures epoch with eyes that are two decades older, it’s strange that Fessenden’s dramatically bold, genuinely unkempt mindset wasn’t at least latched upon with the same fervour that champions of the indie movement afforded less-resilient talents like Nick Gomez or Alexandre Rockwell.
Three pictures in particular, a trio that would become Fessenden’s Trilogy Of Terror, sum up his slightly feverish outlook on the world. It’s a world stuck between twin pillars: ennui at the emotional upheavals of simply living in contemporary society; and a basic fear of it. The world is a deeply unsettling place and those who inhabit it make it so.
I wrote in my Underrated Film of the 21st Century column in July of last year about the third of these films, WENDIGO. Released in 2001, WENDIGO was the final part in the Trilogy Of Terror. These were a series of otherwise unrelated films that took on horror archetypes, reinventing them in a smart, sharp fashion that bridged their literary pasts with their more prevalent (and over-exposed) cinematic present.
WENDIGO was, to all intents and purposes, his Golem picture wherein a family in the embryonic stages of marital discontent are terrorised by something from within the woods in which they are vacationing. The more unnerving intimation is that what’s terrorising them is perhaps made from those woods.
WENDIGO enveloped the essential primal fear which the enduring Jewish anthropomorphic talisman possessed, but from a distinctly pagan perspective. This tree-demon seems generated by the awesome power of nature itself; the rural beasts of nature striking back at the urban(e) beasts from the city.
Deconstructing the iconoclasm of fear, Fessenden asks what it takes for an icon, be it beast or bogeyman, to survive in a contemporary age where everything is accessible, where knowledge is a mouse-click away and where fear and superstition have been usurped by reason and rationale born of technology and science. Out in the wintery wild woods, none of the trappings of modern civilisation can be relied upon to explain the uncanny occurrences that terrorise our heroes. The journey that follows, complete with a terrific Quay Brothers/Jan Svankmeyer-style stop-motion monster, is as neat and nihilistic as anything from the glory days of Val Lewton’s tenure at RKO.
WENDIGO was a technically polished production, the most mainstream yet from the remarkably industrious Fessenden and his Glass Eye Pix production outfit and a move away from the feel of his earlier pictures. These initial features, after a series of shorts, may have been more rough hewn but they were no less invigorating, imaginative or fiercely intelligent, traits which more visible low budget horror pictures of the early 90s were more willing to spurn in favour of gore gags, T&A and ever more quip-laden post-modernism (taking more obvious cues from that previously mentioned auspicious list of cine-savvy filmmakers from which Fessenden was noticeably absent).
His first feature was 1991’s NO TELLING. Ostensibly a retelling of FRANKENSTEIN (by way of Herbert West) it sees a modern couple, Lillian and Geoffrey, spurn the lights of the city for the quiet life in the country. She’s a free-spirited artist; he’s a research scientist with some deeply divided ethics on the treatment of animals in the quest for an elusive and lucrative grant. Muddying the waters with dramatic tension is a nefarious conglomerate raping both the land and the health of local farmers -- forerunning such big budget portraits of scandalous corporate misdemeanour as A CIVIL ACTION and THE RAINMAKER. Lillian befriends activist and neighbour, Alex, whose job it is to monitor and take action against the hazardous chemical influx on behalf of his fellow citizens. (And, like a loveably hippy dippy liberal, promote organic farming! This was before it became hip to do that very thing, I suppose.)
Naturally the mad doctor’s hubristic quest gets the better of him and before the credits roll, more than a little blood has been spilled in the fight to rectify the natural order of things.
If it sounds didactic for a horror film, well, to some extent that’s true. Somewhat crude but imaginatively shot, it’s a picture of its time -- the early 90s when such environmental concerns were at an apex of scientific advancement and popular activism -- but also a picture of a very old fashioned persuasion.
Like another low-budget maven I’ve championed at Frightfest, Jeff Lieberman, Fessenden is a cultivated genre fan and nowhere is this more evident than in NO TELLING, which owes as much to the stern-faced sci-fi pictures of the 1960s and 1970s as it does to the more apparent mad scientists beloved of gothic literature.
Somewhere between 1950s sci fi of THEM and the following decades’ PHASE IV and THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, sci-fi/horror pictures became less hysterical and more gravely austere. As society came to terms with the 20th century’s fantastical technological progressions, things that were once the stuff of crazy, b-movie nightmares were an empirical reality. The 20th century’s greatest irony is surely never forgotten; that as advances of modern science brought about wonders of hi-tech communication, healthcare, and commerce, the Faustian pact meant there was an exponential descent into chaos, suspicion and conspiracy as we irrevocably lost our collective innocence. As the Cold War descended and we progressed past Korea, past the Bay Of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, past Vietnam and Nixon, society realised that just because a government was in power, they and their associates weren’t necessarily doing things in the best interests of the people. They weren’t to be trusted. Nowhere was this paranoia more viscerally exploited than in genre film.
NO TELLING, though a contained, intimate shocker, honours this inquisitive, intelligent fiction of mistrust in a quietly compelling manner.
Perhaps the most interesting of Fessenden’s Trilogy Of Terror is the least traditionally “horror”. 1996’s HABIT is a modern day retelling (and regendering) of the basic Dracula story in which Sam, an out of work actor and bar manager in the bustling artistic haven of Greenwich Village, is seduced by a predatory female partygoer. It is written, directed and edited by and stars Larry Fessenden himself.
A died-in-the-wool thespian before he turned to directing, all Fessenden’s projects from then until now are marked by a fidelity to basic craft, from the ground up. This means his pictures are the best produced be on such meagre means; there was no frazzled consumer video once this low budget auteur got into feature length, it seems like 16mm all the way, which immediately marks him out from other DIY filmmakers of the era like J.R. Bookwalter or Scooter McCrae. Fessenden’s pictures also foreground performance and are devoid of breathless model types, stilted best friends or smug teens awaiting ghastly and/or supernatural reprimand. They feature actors culled from Fessenden’s old theatrical troupe as ordinary people in mostly extraordinary circumstances. The nature of “ordinary” is somewhat subjective but it’s what drives Fessenden’s work. The performances maybe stylised, verging on melodrama, but they’re emotionally true, reacting to the horrors seeping into everyday situations as characters in an Abel Ferrara picture might: baroque, heightened, but recognisably (and fallibly) human.
Fessenden, as the tragic Sam, is an intriguing presence. In this fifteen year old picture, he has the dangerous, insouciant swagger of Jack Nicholson through which we glimpse the same brand of loveable, coiled mania with which Bill Paxton endears his many fans: he’s like the sensitive, beatnik brother of NEAR DARK’s Severin.
HABIT is a simple tale of ‘guy meets ghoul’ that follows in the boot-heel prints of CRONOS and THE ADDICTION to present a filth-encrusted urban fairytale. While it lacks the gothic poetry of the former, it embraces the endearingly pompous gravity of the latter as Sam’s slight wastrel of an artistic schlub descends into the darkness of his own curious undoing. It also does -- as indeed all of Fessenden’s pictures do -- what Del Toro and Ferrara’s pictures both achieve so skilfully: edging the horror from that darkness into the light of the everyday.
When we meet Sam, he has lost the unconditional love of a parent (his father’s just died) and the conditional love of a neglected now-ex girlfriend; he’s the perfect vampire prey, the victim of his own pathetic desire to be needed. Fessenden’s spare, emotive screenplay equates emotional isolation with the isolation a monster might feel from humanity and our base securities of love, of family, of warmth and reliance on kindness and benevolence. When we first meet Sam, he’s a shambles, but he’s hard-working, affable and open. When he quickly realises how cut off he is, that’s when the horror takes him.
New York, the city that never sleeps, is as much of a dark mistress as Anna the vampire who arrives (in one of the picture’s frequent beautifully elegiac shots) in the Hudson on a ship that might as well have The Demeter emblazoned on it decrepit hull. It appears that New York’s intrinsic allure is as irresistible as any creature of the night since Anna’s lusty initiation of Sam includes spontaneous sex in memorable NYC landmarks, on funky tenement rooftops with a view to die for, and, in one memorable equating of sex and death, in a downtown medical centre as the perpetual wail of ambulance sirens deposits corpses within sniffing distance of the secreted couple’s merry rutting.
There’s a gentle, rumpled elegance to Fessenden’s gaze, both literally as actor and figuratively as director. Playing the doleful victim, his strong presence lends weight to the filmmaker’s recapitulations of some enthusiastically recalled cult moments; from WOLFEN’s baying dogs to KING OF NEW YORK’s mournful neon sleaze to SALEM’S LOT’s repugnant nocturnal spooks (given a THE SHINING make-over here).
All doesn’t end well, as you might imagine, but in line with Fessenden’s fidelity to the emotional truth of an unreal situation it’s with quiet resignation, rather than an unambiguous or gratuitous monster show, that the story reaches its climax. Better than most vampire films of the 21st century, HABIT is an invigorating, wonderfully scored minor key treasure.
Only post-WENDIGO did Fessenden really gain fair acknowledgment as a filmmaker, and even then quite marginally. His early work is unavailable in the UK (or outside of the US, I think) but WENDIGO (High Fliers) and THE LAST WINTER (Revolver) are on Region 2 DVD and out-of-print Collector’s Editions of both HABIT and NO TELLING can be tracked down in the US on the Fox Lorber label. To sweeten the deal, they both contain terrifically engaging ‘Making of…’ features in the tradition of Robert Rodriguez’s invaluable Film Schools.
Vindication for all that time in the wilderness may soon payoff as Fessenden has also been selected by Del Toro and the producers of THE ORPHANAGE to bring that tale to the screen in the inevitable and now much more intriguing English language remake.
Seen as a quirky on-screen presence in an odd assortment of roles from SESSION 9 and I SELL THE DEAD to BROKEN FLOWERS and HEADSPACE, it’s Fessenden’s unrelenting dedication to low-budget cinema as producer with Glass Eye Pix and to fostering nascent talent from his New York base that is his legacy.
At very least, this means we continue to experience films from Ti West, Jim Mickle and Greg McClean, to name just three Glass Eye Pix alumni. But so much more, it means Fessenden’s stamp on genre film remains assured.
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THE GOLDEN HAMMER AWARD:
9 December 09 —
The indie film industry has imploded, due to reduced demand, the decline of DVD sales, the folding of theatrical distributors, and the drying up of funding sources caused by the economic crash. The industry as we once knew it has in effect vanished. However, that statement is applicable only toward your own take on the term. If your definition of ‘indie film’ starts with Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Spike Lee and Kevin Smith, then yes, that industry has died. The sale of Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 breakout hit inspired the major studios to create “indie sub-companies,” some of which were distributors and some of which were content developers. Over the years, between Sex, Lies and Hamlet 2 (the last eight-figure Sundance deal), the indie industry grew to embody not maverick ideas and techniques but instead tepid warmed over sub-par industry drivel. Fueled by the box office success of films like Napoleon Dynamite and Little Miss Sunshine, the American indie film movement ossified into the indie-quirk-pseudo-grunge-alt-maverick business defined by such recent films as Sunshine Cleaning and Arlen Faber (aka The Answer Man). As we step toward the first Sundance without Geoff Gilmore all I can say is:
THE AMERICAN INDIE FILM INDUSTRY IS DEAD… HALLELUJAH!
While all that hullabaloo was going on over at Sundance, while people made more and more money and the films got blander and more ‘commercial,’ there was a toothless NYC curmudgeon toiling in the shadows of the East Village. Amazing feature after feature, like Habit and Wendigo, blew my mind with their classical yet aggressively pointed spins on the horror genre. It was clear to me, and most everyone who saw the work of Larry Fessenden, that there was a fully accomplished voice working within the genre, saying something significant about what it means to be alive today.
It was always clear to me that though Larry works in the horror genre, his voice is as authentic and as passionate as the first pioneers of true indie cinema, people like Oscar Micheaux, John Cassavetes and Kenneth Anger. The fact that these earlier films of his never played in the Midnight section at Sundance is criminal. Late night after late night I sat in the Egyptian theater watching some bland Tarantino wannabe or some slick piece of crap like Donkey Punch wondering, “Why isn’t Larry Fessenden here?”
Well, that period of indie film, marked by those go-go Sundance years, is gone. I say good riddance. I hope some of the ’stars’ of that period have returned to selling real estate, because it was their drive to make money that sidetracked the authentic indie film spirit. I’m glad their game has gone bust. In its wake will rise true independent visions, films made by people who have something to say, and all the soulless LA sub-companies of the Hollywood industrial entertainment mind-melt industry can go to blazes as they watch the future rise out of the gutter. It’s great that the ‘industry’ is dead because maybe now the crap that these companies forced onto the small screens will go away and true indie film companies like GLASS EYE PIX will rise to the foreground.
In the past few years GLASS EYE PIX—and now Fessenden’s low-budget horror banner SCAREFLIX—has been responsible for some of this past decade’s best work, from the films of Kelly Reichardt (that was Larry acting in her first film River of Grass as well as her most recent Wendy and Lucy) to the Ti West mindbenders The Roost and The House of the Devil, to Larry’s own The Last Winter. This year alone has seen an amazing batch of new releases, including Graham Reznick’s startling one-two punch of the camping trip-gone-awry feature I Can See You and the amazing hand-made true 3D short The Viewer.
My favorite 2009 effort from the GLASS EYE PIX stable, however, is Glenn McQuaid’s I Sell The Dead, a film savvy journey through horror history that gleefully combines a graveyard robbing Hammer film from the mid-1960s with a brash high contrast classic lurid Zombie movie of the ‘80s. Wrapped up in dark humor and creepy shocks, I Sell the Dead has it all. But Larry and his collaborators do more than just make excellent films on micro-budgets. They hype the heck out of them, with great viral and old-fashioned three-dimensional merchandising tactics (playing cards, comic books, posters, etc.).
A company like GLASS EYE PIX—and, in turn, SCAREFLIX—is the future of indie cinema, a small, individually run force, driven by passion and an aesthetic vision that can embrace both pure character driven pieces like Wendy and Lucy, as well as informed, intelligent genre films such as The House of the Devil and I Sell The Dead. Mark my words, this is a company that will eventually have a Paranormal Activity-level breakout hit. In the meantime, keep track of their releases and get stunned, rocked, shocked, and transported. Welcome to the new world, where GLASS EYE PIX is the model. For all of these reasons, for being such an inspiring force in the industry, we give Larry Fessenden the 2009 GOLDEN HAMMER AWARD. He’s the past, present, and future combined. He is American Independent Cinema. — Mike S. Ryan
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Fear Zone's Final Filmmaker Interview: Larry Fessenden
December 02, 2009 by Brian J. Showers
Larry Fessenden has been working in the margins of the horror genre since the mid-80's. In 1985 he founded Glass Eye Pix, an independent film company with the goal of assembling 'like-minded artists interested in the collaborative and resourceful process of filmmaking'. Through Glass Eye Pix, Fessenden has acted as producer, editor, actor, and director on a number of short and feature length horror films. More importantly, Fessenden's company has provided opportunities for and helped to launch the careers of his many collaborators.
Those who do not pay full attention to the fringes of horror might recognise Fessenden's distinctive junkyard hillbilly visage, which pops up in movies like Jim Jarmusch's BROKEN FLOWERS (opposite Bill Murray!), Martin Scorsese's BRINGING OUT THE DEAD, or indeed any film that may need a toothless and slack-jawed oddball. A few readers may have even spotted Fessenden's brief appearance as the ill-fated abator Craig McManus in Brad Anderson's SESSION 9. More recently Fessenden was shot in a convenience store by Jody Foster in THE BRAVE ONE, and a starring turn in Glass Eye's I SELL THE DEAD.
Fessenden's most notable achievements to date are a pair of films that have more in common with the uncanny tales of Algernon Blackwood than they do with the modern graphic horror. WENDIGO (2003) is a meditation on a child's interpretation the complex and often violent nature of adult relationships, while his most recent film, THE LAST WINTER (2007), uses similar themes to explore man's relationship with the environment. Shortly after the release of THE LAST WINTER, I corresponded with Fessenden about his films, career, and philosophy of horror.
Who are some of your influences as a writer and director?
I read a lot of non-fiction, read a few newspapers and blogs through the week so I'm daily infused with the immediate hysteria of the day. But I don't watch much TV. I admire Algernon Blackwood, Saki (H. H. Munro), the short stories of Roald Dahl, and Dickens. But films have had the greatest influence on me. I grew up watching the old black and white horror movies from the 30's and 40's, and then graduated to the more visceral movies of the 60's and 70's, horror and otherwise. I am influenced by Polanski, Scorsese, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Kurosawa . . .
You've long been associated with horror, and some of your earliest short films can be labelled as such. What attracts you to the genre?
I honestly think some people are more obsessed with death and the existential reality of life, and those with that frame of mind tell stories with death and fear and metaphor in them, and that is horror.
I don't know if this is the same for you, but some of my earliest childhood memories are a fondness for all things ghostly and monstrous. I even had a Wolf Man action figure like Erik Per Sullivan's character in WENDIGO. Where do you think this horror-inclined frame of mind comes from? How does it develop?
I can only say it was utterly intuitive for me. As a kid I was very melancholy and sensitive and phobic, and I also related very much to the monsters who in those days were portrayed as outsiders: Frankenstein's monster, Wolfman, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Years later, I saw the stories as cautionary tales, with metaphors about social ills and human arrogance, so the genre has worked for me on so many levels. Only now, where so many films called horror are in-your-face-fast-cut depraved pointless shock fests made with studio money for brutish teens do I lose my mojo for the genre.
The horror in both WENDIGO and THE LAST WINTER do not rely on gore and cheap scares. Instead they invoke awe and wonder--reminiscent of Blackwood, Machen and Lovecraft--and from that, a sense horror. Do you see yourself working in any particular tradition?
I am aware of the traditions I'm following, even when I'm not deliberately emulating any one artist. I write from intuition and personal experience. It means a lot to me that I am compared to other artists because it gives a context to my work.
Which artists do you find yourself compared to? Have you ever been surprised by any of these comparisons?
I am often compared to Val Lewton, which is funny because as a kid I couldn't bear the slow moving "subtle" horror stories and now of course that's precisely what I am creating myself. I have been compared to Polanski, which seems more apt, as I am very inspired by his sense of realism and use of surrealism in films such as REPULSION, ROSEMARY'S BABY, THE TENANT, CUL DE SAC, and MACBETH.
Do you have trouble finding funding for films that challenge the viewer's perception of horror or that isn't necessarily seen as 'pop horror'?
Yes. No one wants to fund my films. I have been lucky to work with the producer Jeff Levy-Hinte who has found me funding.
The unreliable narrator is often used in strange tales to leave loopholes for both natural and supernatural explanations. Do you feel strongly about either such reading in WENDIGO?
Absolutely. I want both to exist. All my movies are plotted to have two truths living side by side, the real and the imagined. I believe that is how people are naturally wired: to take in reality through a filter of metaphor. It is our coping mechanism. The problem is when our metaphors become our reality, then things get scary and twisted. All my films explore the subjectivity of existence.
Do you think a fantastical reading of THE LAST WINTER could potentially detract from its real-world environmental message?
If it does, so be it. The film is first and foremost an artistic expression, an exploration of mood. But that mood is a response to the existence of global warming and a planet in duress. Just because this topic is discussed in Congress, doesn't mean it is "political". Global Warming is personal, it is happening to our planet, our home. That elicits a personal, emotional response. This topic does not belong to politicians.
How closely do the final cuts of your films resemble your original ideas?
I'm lucky if I capture the mood I imagined. In every way the film changes from the script and that abstract object floating in your head that is your film. But it is still thrilling to make a film, and some of what you get, by virtue of being real, is satisfying. Still, you leave a part of yourself behind, that pure vision. To answer more specifically, the film is very much like the script with maybe 10 pages of dialogue cut and five scenes cut.
A major theme in WENDIGO is how a child experiences and interprets the adult world, but despite this the film almost seems to have been marketed as a monster movie. How did this happen?
The film business is run by simple-minded sheep trying to appeal to consumers being treated like simple-minded sheep so they act like simple-minded sheep. I fought the company over the cover--I believe to this day the guy who deigned my American DVD cover never saw the film--anyway it's a big topic, and yes, WENDIGO has been mis-marketed. And the people who suffer are the consumers who are not getting the movie they expected, and the filmmaker who garners a backlash.
Not to mention you lose those who may be looking for your particular style of horror, but are put off by daft advertising! If it's any consolation I felt I had found an undiscovered gem when I first watched WENDIGO. I know others feel the same way.
Though in all fairness, the British DVD cover was the poster I designed for the U.S. theatrical release, and that seemed subtle enough: a blurred shot of a kid running through snowy woods.
In WENDIGO, Jake Weber, who plays the father, says, 'A lot of people make up stories to make sense of the world. It's a big world after all and nobody really understand how it all works . . . That's what myths are. They help us talk about stuff.' How closely does this resemble your own view of storytelling?
That would be my way of explaining myths to a kid. I wrote that when I didn't have a kid, and I talk to my son differently, but that's the message.
It may be simple, but it's succinct and I think sums up WENDIGO's theme. This line also defines the root of the horror, like you said, it's when metaphors become reality that things get scary.
That in a nutshell is what my films are about.
Both WENDIGO and THE LAST WINTER utilise the wendigo myth, the former as a way to address internal tension, the latter to address external. How did your fascination with this myth start and what continues to draw you to this motif?
I was told the story of the wendigo by a third grade teacher during "story hour". I never forgot it. Before writing the first film about a childhood memory, I researched what the Wendigo means in native culture and what I read played into other themes that interest me: insatiable hunger, (spiritual) cannibalism, madness, retribution--and aesthetically, the wendigo is a wind spirit, an antlered spirit, a giant, it's very allusive, and I find it compelling.
The Algonquin myth of the wendigo has been invoked in many mediums, but one of the most popular is Algernon Blackwood's well-known story. Do you have any comments on this story or Blackwood's other writings?
Blackwood's 'The Wendigo' is exceptional. The mood he creates with natural phenomena is unique and outstanding. 'The Willows' is his masterpiece.
I think some themes from 'The Willows', the great and unknowable projections of the environment, overlaps with parts of THE LAST WINTER. Was this intentional?
With The Last Winter I was more conscious of trying to evoke elements of Blackwood's 'The Wendigo'. There are a number of allusions to this story in my film. But when I began writing the script with Robert Leaver, the first thing I handed him to read was 'The Willows'.
The Last Winter is a supernatural film with strong environmental themes. Was tying your environmental beliefs with the uncanny a natural step for you?
Completely natural. Tuning into nature, the uncanny, the great mysterious trip of existence, and then its potential poisoning and end, this is all related in my mind.
What's the reception for THE LAST WINTER been like so far?
After a long and difficult period trying to land distribution, the film came out in limited release September 2007 in the U.S. and got a very good critical response. I have no complaints.
It (came)out exclusively at Blockbuster with its own set of DVD 'extras' on 20 May 2008 and then (came)out to the rest of the vendors with a whole new set of 'extras' on 29 July 2008.
You are a supporter of independent horror films, generally as a producer and actor. How do you choose your projects and what sort of talent appeals to you?
I do not seek out projects. I tend to work with people I know and the people they know, and that roster of people expands enough that we all stay busy. With acting, I know some casting agents in town and they keep me in mind when they need someone with a missing front tooth.
Although I hesitate to use the term 'torture-porn' (because people can't agree on a definition), how do you view the current trend of sensational gore in popular horror cinema?
My main regret is that because of the torture-porn conversation, we are no longer talking about the other types of film under the horror banner. The problem is that violent horror has become mainstream because it is very lucrative and there is something unseemly about major corporations putting out smut. Horror used to be a subversive genre, challenging bourgeois assumptions and expressing outrage. It has been co-opted.
Has this trend noticeably affected financing or production of the type of films you want to make?
As a filmmaker you have to believe that the next film you want to make is just what the public and the marketplace are craving, and you have to convince everyone around you it's true.
Are there any modern horror directors that you admire? Anyone in particular that you think is forging new paths in an old genre?
I am totally unqualified to answer this question. I am very busy and haven't kept up watching movies. I know there are remarkable films being made in the genre and despite my moaning about co-opting and torture porn, there are good scary films being made, you just have to find them. I loved THE HOST, PAN'S LABYRINTH, DIARY OF THE DEAD, MULBERRY STREET [in which Fessenden plays a small role]. There's plenty of good stuff going on.
Do you have any upcoming projects you can talk about?
Not that I wish to talk about. I am very private when I start out with a project: I don't want to jinx it. I have a few ideas that could be made at different level budgets.
I hope you keep us updated when you're ready to share any of your forthcoming projects. Many of our readers will undoubtedly be interested.
I will be honoured to keep you posted.
Are there any books or short stories you would like to adapt? Or perhaps any film you would like to remake and brand with your unique vision of horror?
There are a few things, but I'm primarily interested in doing original work. There's a book called HOUSE OF LEAVES by Mark Z. Danielewski that is beyond my abilities, but there is a fine evocative work. It chilled me when I read it.
Do you intend to keep making films within the horror genre?
Without a doubt. Link
Fessenden bio | "Someone to Watch Award" | top
Elbow Grease & Ingenuity: Interview with Larry Fessenden Interview by Chris Hallock | October 29, 2009
I’m delighted to have had the chance to briefly correspond with one of my favorite filmmakers Larry Fessenden. He's currently working on the Guillermo Del Toro produced remake of Juan Antonio Bayona’s Spanish ghost hit The Orphanage (El Orfanato). He also heads up Glass Eye Pix, a collaboratively run independent film production company that is churning out thoughtful horror and genre films. I’ve been a huge fan of Fessenden since I first saw Wendigo several years ago at a Pittsburgh film festival. His character-driven work is drenched in metaphor, but anchored by realistic situations, believable characters, and contemplative dialogue. Fessenden is not afraid to get his hands dirty, and is considered a true auteur in the realms of independent film. He not only wears many hats on his own productions, but can often be found producing and acting in the works of many other filmmakers.
Larry, thank you for taking time out of your hectic schedule to answer a few questions for the readers of All Things Horror. I believe you are currently working on a remake of the surprise Spanish hit The Orphanage while acting as the go-to utility man for nearly all the Glass Eye Pix productions. How do you stay sane in all that chaos?
That is what keeps me sane, being overworked. Long before it was fashionable I had some form of ADD, I always had to be many things at once to feel like I had any worth at all. When I was a kid I wrote books and acted and drew and tried to convince myself that I was good at playing soccer and every other damn thing you can think of.
I'm a big fan of allegory, and your films are a great example of every day human problems manifesting in the guise of frightening supernatural evil. What are your favorite ideas to explore thematically when you’re writing a screenplay?
I love allegory. I believe the human mind operates at the level of metaphor. In everything from our religions to our superstitions, but also science and mathematics, these are all symbols representing reality. Joseph Campbell observed that things can be both true and not true at the same time, meaning, the truth of an allegory can be illuminating without it needing to be literally true. This is why a literal interpretation of the Bible for example, is a waste of time, and alienates people who might otherwise learn from its teachings. To my mind vampires and werewolves are not much different from Greek Gods and Christian Saints: they all help us cope with an indifferent reality populated by stupefying cruelties and arbitrary terrors.
Anyway, what interests me is the intersection between our mythologies and realities; the power of our subjective perception, the tendency toward self delusion, both personally and on a societal scale. That is what always creeps into my screenplays.
In a lot of your work, there is way more to fear from the human characters than the supernatural elements. Do you have a healthy distrust of humans (wink)?
I deeply distrust humans. I am appalled at the avarice and greed, nastiness, deceitfulness, narcissism and violence in humans. It goes without saying that there are great feats of altruism and simple kindness all over the world but as a species I see little redeeming qualities.
Your films require patience and reflection, and you explore every day horrors such as addiction, environmental devastation, even childhood rites of passage. With socially conscious films like Habit and The Last Winter, do you get accused of being too liberal, having an agenda, or more rudely being called “preachy”?
I do get called preachy and liberal and all those nasty things, especially on the internet where everyone with a grudge has a say, but in truth horror has always had a cautionary element, from the story of Frankenstein to Jekyll and Hyde, there is a tradition of calling attention to human hubris, a warning to those who would play God or go against the laws of nature. How is it I woke up in a century where one political party has decided that destroying the earth and letting corporations destroy our society is the right and noble path and anything different is left wing propaganda?
Seems in most of your work, the characters themselves are the driving force, more so than the narrative. Meaning, their actions seem natural with the integrity of the character in mind. You don't ever portray people as stereotypes or mere fodder to move the plot along to a shocking or gory scene. Do you base your characters on people you’ve met, or are they usually inventions of your mind while you’re writing a story?
I appreciate this observation about my work. When an actor plays a role, he or she must identify with the character, and if you play a villain, you must see the role from the villain’s point of view. This is how I approach writing as well. Every character in a drama believes they are coming form a justifiable place. If you approach material this way, you will avoid clichés because you are not objectifying people or their actions. Of course things get fun when you approach “archetypes” this way because then they behave with more dimension. In my own work, I try to make villains sympathetic and protagonists flawed. Even in my so called “preachy” films (which ones aren’t?) the environmentalists are flawed people. I believe Otis, the “villain” in WENDIGO is given ample justification for the resentments that lead to his homicidal behavior. In a case like that, I am also issuing a warning: do not presume you are always on the “right” side, for your arch enemy feels the same.
As for plot, never could follow plots or mysteries or games with twists. Maybe it’s the ADD again, but I get lost in the details and textures in storytelling. I am never so bored and frustrated as when I am supposed to be tracking plot points in a film and am not being allowed to watch everything else. Hitchcock always said he didn’t care about “Content”, by which he meant the plot. He cared about the psychological effect of the filmmaking on the viewer. I am of that camp. Of course I care very deeply about themes, but those come out of the complete experience, the color, camera moves, acting and sound and music— not the plot!!
Clearly you’re an auteur, and your films look like you’re very much in control of a singular, untainted vision. What’s the most compromising thing you’ve had to do to get a particular film finished?
I have had very little interference in my films so far, and films that I am producing are auteur driven. I believe in the individual communicating to an audience through the medium of film. Most of the compromises I’ve dealt with have come about by the inevitable input one gets when making a movie, and my own inability to absolutely demand what I want. So it is perhaps my working style and sense of inclusiveness that has led me to end up with things that weren’t what I wanted, so that’s no one’s fault but mine. In writing The Orphanage I had to defer to Guillermo Del Toro as well as New Line and Warner Brothers, but honestly, I did not find it oppressive; they let me work things out and the script in the end grew out of a collaboration.
A lot of your work is described as a “slow burn” which allows for contemplation between the moments of action and horror. Do you ever feel pressure to add more action because of the waning attention spans of some audience members?
No. I believe if a film is crafted well it can be riveting even when very little is going on. Meanwhile I can see a blockbuster where there are cuts every single fucking second and be bored to screaming. WARNING TO READER: This does not make me a film snob. It has to do with what what is truly exciting: mystery, imagery, long takes, not knowing what predictably will happen next, being disarmed, being drawn into the little details that in life can have a deep effect. The transcendent moment. It is an insult to movies to imagine they can not captivate without being loud and brutishly stupid. Who doesn’t like Doritos Flavor Blast, but that’s not the only food we want, I hope— who doesn’t want a quick bang in the bar bathroom stall, but there’s romance and tenderness too.
One final question for you, Larry, and I thank you so much for donating your precious time. If you had all the time and money at your fingertips, what would be your dream project?
If I really did have all that money, I would make a lot of little movies, cool unexpected movies that would rattle people’s cages and inspire them and make them cry and make them want to change the world or kiss their loved ones or just stay inside on a rainy night and get spooked. I would pay my crew well and hone my craft and work efficiently and not waste a lot of shit. I would work with the best actors-- my favorite movie stars and people you’ve never heard of. We’d have the coolest collaborators in every department and everyone would have the time to live and breathe the projects and when it was over we’d know we had brought something good to people and not taken too much to do it. That would be my dream project. How’s that for some liberal shit? LINK
Fessenden bio | "Someone to Watch Award" | top
COMMUNITY OF FEAR
With Ti West's The House of the Devil hitting theaters, Larry Fessenden's Glass Eye Pix has become one of the most active independent production companies around.
By Lauren Wissot, October 2009
"I've always felt like a lone wolf creatively. I've been forging this odd path of making thoughtful scary movies, more sentimental than they are gory," horror auteur Larry Fessenden told me recently when I met up with him at an appropriately dark and cavernous East Village bar. In fact, the way Fessenden tells it, the horror genre he is most associated with found him, not the other way around. From the beginning of his career Fessenden has telegraphed political, social and philosophical issues in his stories. While they may initially appear to be B movie-styled monster movies, his films invariably evolve into meditations on the role of fantasy and mythology as survival mechanisms and humanity's relationship to the Earth. Appropriately then, Fessenden seems to have more in common with foreign arthouse horror auteurs like Guillermo del Toro, a longtime supporter who is now producing Fessenden's planned Hollywood writing and directing debut (a remake of The Orphanage for New Line Cinema), than he does with the current wave of torture-porn directors like Eli Roth.
And yet Fessenden's "lone wolf" analogy doesn't apply to Glass Eye Pix, the production-company-as-utopian-socialist-collective behind such Fessenden features as Habit, Wendigo, and The Last Winter, as well as numerous other independent features, including Ti West's upcoming The House of the Devil and non-horror films from critically acclaimed auteurs Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy) and Ilya Chaiken (Liberty Kid). In a time of independent film "crisis," when so many filmmakers are having problems getting their films into production much less on screens, Fessenden's Glass Eye Pix has quietly become one of the indie scene's most productive and longest-running companies.
The company has produced or co-produced around 30 titles going back to the mid '80s, but let's just take a look at some of the most recent. Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy was released in the spring on DVD by Oscilloscope following a healthy theatrical run. Glenn McQuaid's period horror film I Sell the Dead was released in August by IFC following a Slamdance premiere where it won the Cinematography prize and an acting prize for Fessenden. This fall brings the Magnolia Pictures release of West's The House of the Devil, a period 1970s-styled shocker that plays as a cross between Rosemary's Baby and When a Stranger Calls. (West has been in the Glass Eye Pix fold for almost a decade, having directed The Roost and Trigger Man for the company. The high-six-figure budget of The House of the Devil was financed by home-video distributor MPI, with whom Glass Eye Pix subsequently signed a three-picture deal.) James Felix McKenny's Satan Hates You is heading out on the festival circuit while Glass Eye Pix preps his next film, Hypothermia. Jim Mickle's Stake Land is currently in production through the MPI deal while James LeGros and Joshua Leonard star in Bitter Feast, a thriller that marks director Joe Maggio's first foray into genre filmmaking. And these are just from 2009.
Many of the above films are part of the Scareflix banner, a slate of ultra-low-budget (under 100 grand) films that started when James Felix McKenney was working at Glass Eye Pix as an office manager in 2004. He approached Fessenden with a challenge: "Why don't you give me some money and I'll make a no-budget horror film? I've already got a cast, a crew, a location and a script." Fessenden agreed and thus Glass Eye's Scareflix arm was born, spawning six feature films including West's debut, The Roost (killer bats), McKenney's Automatons, (killer robots — a kind of cross between Fritz Lang and David Lynch) and Graham Reznick's I Can See You (a killer campfire tale). Currently, three more Scareflix are being produced through the MPI deal.
The irony, then, is that in a time in which everyone is searching for a new business model, Fessenden's damn-the-system, freewheeling ethos seems to have yielded a more productive result than most of the bottom-line-oriented companies that have launched and shuttered in the last 25 years. "Our budgets have hovered between $30,000 and one million bucks," Fessenden explains. "There is no business model, because what we do flies in the face of any commercial instinct. Our films are built out of a love of the process and a commitment to each other as artists and as citizens."
Indeed, the loyalty Glass Eye Pix employees and directors demonstrate to one another and to each other's films is near cultlike. In the course of researching this article I often felt like I was in the middle of a Laurel and Hardy routine — "After you, Stan. No, after you, Ollie" — with Fessenden insisting Glass Eye Pix is a community and not just one man, and the community swearing that "Glass Eye Pix is Larry!" In fact, these filmmakers seemed to harken back to a more radical era when politics and change, actual process and building an artistic community trumped any individual film. Wondering if I'd somehow gotten slipped the Kool-Aid, I shared my thoughts with Fessenden. "There is something utopian in the mission, whether we achieve it or not, whether it's relevant in this nasty world," he agreed upon reflection. "I have always felt that in life, as with art, it is the journey and how that is handled more than the destination. Again, I don't know if this leads to great art, but it is a philosophy I hold dear."
Fessenden founded Glass Eye Pix back in the 1980s when, after discovering the video department at NYU and the downtown performance art scene, he bought two three-quarter-inch decks and started his own editing house, opening his doors to whatever projects needed cutting and dubbing. Fessenden's eventual rise to become the scruffy, NYC Lower East Side's answer to Roger Corman — or the "Jack Warner of the 21st Century," if you ask producer Mike Ryan (Liberty Kid) — was a natural progression that began when his own filmmaking career didn't go according to plan. While considering remaking on film his 1981 video feature Habit as his first proper movie, Fessenden came across Rachel Carson's environmental tome Silent Spring. "My partner Beck Underwood and I became obsessed with animal rights and environmental ills so we made this movie No Telling — not what I'd recommend making your first film about," Fessenden added wryly as he sipped from a pint of beer. "An animal-rights horror film is not going to be popular. It didn't do well at festivals, and it didn't get bought until seven years afterwards."
Discouraged by the unenthusiastic reaction to his 1991 feature, Fessenden was plotting his next move when he met Kelly Reichardt, who invited him to act in and eventually to edit her debut feature, River of Grass. By no-budget necessity, Fessenden discovered another filmmaking hat to wear. "I basically turned into an associate producer on that film by accident," he laughed as he reminisced — "just by sticking with it so long." Not only was River of Grass accepted warmly into Sundance it received distribution to boot. "Maybe it comes from working with the performance artists, or maybe it's a personality defect, but I've always had as much enthusiasm for other people's work as for my own," Fessenden continued. "I've always felt like, 'Come on, let's do it! Let's put on a show!'"
Ti West, a fan of Habit, which Fessenden finally did remake in 1997, was a student of Reichardt's at the School of Visual Arts, and after she introduced him to Fessenden, he jumped at the opportunity to intern for the director's small but growing production company. "Larry says he believes in making B-movies with A-movie themes," West says. "He is that rare producer who places absolute trust in his filmmakers. Fessenden's 'notes' boil down to his opinion followed by, 'I don't really care. Do what you want to do.'" In other words, this was Fessenden's way of saying that he does indeed care passionately, enough to let his directors try and, yes, maybe even fail — a dirty word in Hollywood. Or as Glass Eye Pix office manager and Scareflix producer Brent Kunkle says, "He's excellent about knowing when to give advice and when to let you just drown in the muck."
That doesn't mean Fessenden, currently casting The Orphanage, is removed from his productions. "The man gets into it up to his elbows," wrote Bitter Feast director Joe Maggio in an e-mail. "He loves production. The entire Glass Eye team" – producers Peter Phok, Kunkle and an array of repeat offenders in cast and crew positions — "is on set every day, fretting away alongside the director, busting their collective ass long after everyone else has gone to bed. Larry pulled out all the stops in making Bitter Feast, calling in favors, getting his friends, including James LeGros, to participate. The film is shot almost entirely in Larry's own home, which meant literally tearing the place apart and occupying it for several weeks. His son Jack helped with the props. Beck Underwood, Larry's wife, is responsible for the amazing production design. Larry acted in the film and often cooked for the entire cast and crew. He's a fabulous cook and takes as much pride in his breakfast eggs broiled in dill butter with smoked trout as he does in his film work. For reasons I cannot fully comprehend, Larry puts as much energy and passion into the films he's producing for other filmmakers as he does his own films, which in my opinion is the most remarkable thing about Glass Eye Pix."
Whereas other production companies move up the food chain, signing union or studio deals that force them into specific production models, Glass Eye has retained the freedom to allow each film to develop in its own organic way. "We try to keep an open mind about how to shoot a film," Fessenden says. "Habit shot over the course of 45 days. I Sell the Dead was shot over the course of eight months. Stake Land is being shot in 27 days over three months. Bitter Feast was shot in 14 days plus we owe one more." But try to pin him on financing and you'll get the weary, stream-of-consciousness response of, "Every film is different. Habit was self-financed. Jeffrey Levy-Hinte's Antidote Films financed Wendigo and The Last Winter. The original Scareflix were financed by me, and the first ones doubled their money, so there was more in the kitty to self-perpetuate. A film like Liberty Kid was financed with equity investors, raised by my co-producer Roger Kass. Wendy and Lucy also was financed by a group of equity investors. I was the primary investor in I Sell the Dead along with one other equity partner; our recent films are financed by MPI/Dark Sky. I've been the primary benefactor of Glass Eye Pix over the years, which makes it an unsustainable enterprise."
"There is no illusion that we should all carry on working this way," Fessenden continues. "Glass Eye Pix is a fertile starting point where a self-motivated filmmaker can learn about every aspect of making movies from script to promotion. I have always encouraged people to move on as soon as the Glass Eye approach becomes oppressive or limiting. My own career as a director has led me to bigger budgets, more mainstream opportunities. I would expect the same of the stable of directors, producers and crew members that pass through the Glass Eye boot camp."
Fessenden is clear-eyed about the challenges of sustaining an enterprise that has been founded on sweat equity, especially as marketplace demands begin to intrude. "MPI/Dark Sky Films has allowed us to keep the wolves from the door for another year," he says. "They have given us financial backing to make three films and cover our overhead, and have given us a remarkable amount of autonomy. At the same time, we are accountable to them, we have to consult with them on every major decision, and of course they own the movies. This is not the equity deal we have had on previous projects, but in this financial climate, we feel lucky to have it." Thinking ahead about Glass Eye Pix overall, Fessenden says, "We are making incredibly ambitious films at very low budgets, and are still dependent on low pay, favors and good will to accomplish that end. This reality, when butted up against the business side of filmmaking, causes a friction. The question then is whether we should take what we've built and try to expand it, grow the company, make bigger films with more appropriate budgets, and take a deliberate step towards a more traditional approach. My own answer to that question is that if it happens organically and we can maintain our basic principles, then we are up to the challenge. But as I always say to the filmmakers that pass through our company, be careful what you wish for, because with bigger budgets come a new set of problems that makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of."
"What can be learned from Glass Eye Pix is that filmmakers can band together to help each other," Fessenden concludes, echoing ideals that resonate with his interest in activism and the ecology movement. "They can make films with integrity, embrace new technologies and low budgets, pursue their singular point of view, be resourceful in all aspects of making movies from script to screen, be responsible to the greater culture they are a part of, and build a movement that respects talent and hard work."
Check out GlassEyePix.com, where in addition to handmade DIY filmmaking you can find a global warming site, political comic books, or buy Low Impact Filmmaking: A Practical Guide to Environmentally Sound Film and Video Production. In other words, salves for the nightmare fodder that make up a Fessenden scareflick. Link
Fessenden bio | "Someone to Watch Award" | testimonials | top
THE ONION A.V. CLUB — LARRY FESSENDEN by Sam Adams, August 31, 2009
Larry Fessenden’s acting résumé is a rogue’s gallery of brutes, wastrels, and all-around psychopaths, but beneath his scruffy hair is one of the sharpest minds in modern horror. As a writer and director, he fuses classic genre themes with a passionate devotion to environmentalism, most recently in The Last Winter, a dystopian chiller about Arctic oil drilling. He also mentors up-and-coming horror directors like Ti West (The Roost) under his Scareflix imprint, and under the less-genre-specific Glass Eye Pix banner, he’s produced several films by Kelly Reichardt, including Wendy And Lucy, where, true to form, he played a deranged homeless man. Fessenden does double duty on his latest film, I Sell The Dead: He produced, and also stars opposite Lost’s Dominic Monaghan as a 19th-century grave robber who takes a particular interest in the undead. The gonzo horror comedy marks the feature debut of Glenn McQuaid, who previously did effects work on several Scareflix productions. It also and co-stars several veterans of previous Fessenden projects. Fessenden recently spoke to The A.V. Club from his home in New York.
The A.V. Club: In I Sell The Dead, you play a character similar to the one you played in a short for the same director. Is it basically the same guy?
Larry Fessenden: The footage when we first encounter Willie Grimes is from the short, shot in Super 16, and the rest of I Sell The Dead was shot on 35mm. So the sequence when I’m mentoring the young kid and we uncover a corpse, all of that is from “The Resurrection Apprentice.” Glenn had brought me in as an actor, and I had tremendous fun with that. We bonded. And then I think it was a year or so later that he came with a script and said, “Let’s make a feature.”
AVC: It seemed like it must have been an enjoyable performance to give. He’s a real Dickensian character.
LF: Oh absolutely. It’s just funny in a way that it’s taken so long. This is where I’m most at home, in that kind of character: slightly bumbling, slightly grumbling. As a kid, I just loved the whole Dickensian world, the Fagins and the pirates and all that. The Robert Shaw kind of performance from Jaws—always my favorite kind of character acting. So it’s just a testament to the fact that they don’t make this kind of movie much anymore that I’ve never played such a role.
AVC: It’s definitely very Fagin-esque.
LF: Oh yes, I would be quite at home in The Pirates Of The Caribbean: Part Seven.
AVC: Looking at your acting career as a whole, you’ve ended up playing a lot of what, for want of a better word, might be called lowlifes.
LF: Yes. Ne’er-do-wells and lowlifes.
AVC: I don’t imagine that as a kid, you thought, “When I grow up, I’m going to play a succession of total scumbags.” Do you get to a certain point where you wonder, “Why do people keep seeing me as these awful characters?”
LF: I’ve gotta be honest, it is a little of a mystery to me. I consider myself very sentimental, very sensitive, but obviously my outward appearance is a bit scruffy-haired, and I have a general tendency toward snarling at people, and a sort of misanthropic nature. Maybe that is what people actually read. I do actually believe that misanthropy and sensitivity go hand in hand, because I have a tremendous disappointment in the ways of the world. You realize, these things combine. I met Neil Jordan to audition for The Brave One, and I didn’t make a particular effort to dress down, but he apparently said to the casting agent, “Wow, that guy was a total freak. He really went all-out to dress up for the audition.” He said, “No, that’s just Larry.”
AVC: What part do you think your outward appearance plays in all that? You have a missing front tooth you’ve never gotten fixed.
LF: I was mugged in 1985, and I never replaced that tooth, because I was afraid of the dentist drilling into my skull, which would have been the only way to attach it. I was not interested in that extra bit of horror in my life. So as a result, I’ve had no tooth since. I always say “I’ll show up on time, but I look like a hobo.” It’s funny, even before I had no tooth, I hated the pretension that I saw around me. I went to good schools, and I’ve just always had an allergic reaction to snobbishness—always found myself preferring to blend into the woodwork. I have an affinity to those who, in a sense, failed. I do understand how easy it is to fall through the cracks and become one of those characters. It’s a traditional artistic sentiment, to identify. That’s in there. The unfortunates, I think. It’s an old tradition. Like the Tom Waits tradition of romanticizing the rails, as it were.
AVC: You’re open about having come from a fairly privileged background: Your father was a banker, and you went to Philips Andover Academy, the boarding school George W. Bush went to.
LF: I went to Andover, although they tossed me out. And my brothers went to [its sister school] Exeter. So I come from this rarified environment, and I was always suspicious of it. Though I think in my heart of hearts I also appreciate some refinement of thinking, as opposed to the refinement of lofty country-club kind of lives.
AVC: There’s a sort of liberation in growing up rich, because it removes any suspicion that money might buy happiness.
LF: I always found it profound that there was great unhappiness, that riches weren’t the answer to anything. Obviously we all seek comfort, and I don’t pretend to want to live in squalor, but it was just my tendency to dislike that pretension—and, you know, the scum. Exeter actually, in a weird way, tolerated eccentricities, which was kind of its charm. But Andover was very much a sports-centered school, and I was in the drama department.
AVC: You said you have an allergy to pretension, and you have chosen to work pretty frequently in—and I say this with due respect and love—one of the most disreputable genres.
LF: Oh absolutely. I love it. I always say it’s only next to porn that you find the horror section in people’s minds. That’s what was beautiful about horror, is it really came from the underground and was the alternative storytelling until, basically, Halloween, when suddenly the studios recognized you can make a lot of money off of low-budget horror. At that point, it became co-opted, and most of the horror we see now is studio-based. That’s what’s so depraved, because they now, the studios themselves, are making these hideous images, where it makes much more sense when it’s coming from the alternative world. There is something about horror now that is rather disquieting. Though I would say most of the great horror directors still come out of the alternative world—like Saw, or something like that. Even though we can disparage the franchise, it was obviously a resourcefully made film.
AVC: The Saw movies are hardly great, but there is something oddly compelling about them.
LF: Well, like all good horror, the premise is awesome. Would you cut off your leg to unshackle yourself from the wall where you’re certain to die? That’s what is great about horror: It’s based in philosophy and the choices we make, albeit writ large. In that regard, I appreciate even the torture-porn movies. It’s just odd when you figure that Warner Bros. and the executives are behind this kind of truly awful imagery. That just is a little queasy-making. It’s one reason I enjoy being independent and low-budget. It feels like that’s where the stuff belongs.
AVC: Great horror works because it taps into real fears. The shower scene in Psycho is terrifying because there’s a real vulnerability to that situation: You’re naked, your eyes are closed, you can’t hear what’s happening on the other side of the curtain.
LF: The only horror that is worth going on about is that which comes from a genuine place and taps into our real fears. If it’s got a sheen to it, I must say, even a lot of the remakes, some of which are certainly well-constructed, chic-looking affairs, you just feel that it’s not the genuine exploration of dark places. It’s all laid out as spectacle. I feel that it makes the fans crave more horrific imagery, and doesn’t illuminate them. It’s really just like every other damn piece of our culture, just bludgeoning us and sickening our insight.
AVC: It’s the Atrocity Exhibition. They just keep expanding the facilities.
LF: The movies we’ve made at Glass Eye Pix are firmly in the horror genre, but I like to say we celebrate all the different textures that exist therein. We’ve made black-and-white robot movies, we’ve made movies about killer bats, and now we’ve made a horror comedy that celebrates friendship and work. These guys are trudging through their daily lives with the ultimate nightmare job, so to speak. Digging up graves is backbreaking work. So I just like that the genre of horror can embrace so many different styles and textures.
AVC: Given that director Glenn McQuaid comes out of an effects background, the characters are surprisingly sharp and pungent. The movie doesn’t lean on effects.
LF: Well, he’s also an Irishman. He grew up with these wonderful women in his family, his mother and sisters and aunts. It’s a culture of storytelling and a great love of dark humor, how you get through your drudgery to laugh at your misfortune. All that is in this movie, much more than any effects titillation. Although of course we were able to expand the palette of our imagery with nice, old-fashioned matte paintings and things like that.
AVC: Most of what he did for The Last Winter was CGI, right?
LF: Yeah, we had a CGI monster in that. Much to everyone’s chagrin.
AVC: Whereas most of the effects in this movie are practical.
LF: Yeah. Mostly the CGI stuff is just compositing, where we put a London skyline in the background, or an extra bit of fog here and there. All the rest is rubber. And of course the end, which we can’t speak of because it’s a spoiler, that was a very nicely built kind of CG with old-fashioned visual tricks working together.
AVC: What did you like about Glenn or the script or this idea that made you want to come on board as a producer?
LF: I really responded to the atmosphere. Being of my generation, we had the movies that were on TV, the old 1930s and ’40s horror movies, and then later on, the Hammer films. So I grew up thinking that was horror: Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi and the Wolf Man and the Creature From The Black Lagoon. I was already set up to like this atmosphere. And then we’ve spoken of Dickensian England, which appealed to me. I watched the BBC, Tom Brown’s School Days, and all this. This all dates me. But the point is, that being my background, this story made perfect sense when I read the script. Glenn had sort of livened it up. The original short was fairly serious-minded; this one was a little more of a riff on it. He always likes to say it’s influenced by Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which is another genre that I love. Despite the endless horror in my movies, I do like comedy, so I love those films. So really old-fashioned influences led me to completely relate to this script.
I’ve been making and producing these low-budget films because the timing between getting my own films financed was so arduous. Furthermore, I have a principle, which is, “You say you want to be a filmmaker. Well, let’s go out and do it!” Let me not hear about your budgets and your fucking formats and your cameras and all your moaning and groaning about why it can’t happen. I say it can. So I run my ship trying to encourage newcomers to roll up their sleeves. Glenn had had plenty of time working in an ad firm, and he’d done effects for some of our little Scareflicks, most notably The Roost. And then later on, he did come on board The Last Winter. I always said, “Come on, give me a script.” He actually had a number of other things, a lot of them quite serious-minded. He knew that it had to be in the horror genre; that makes sense to us. Then eventually he just reverted back to this short that he loved that I had been in. I think I told him, “Listen, Glenn, stop straying so far from your heart. Just write an extension of that thing. We had so much fun with that.”
AVC: How much strategy goes into it, in terms of what seems more likely for you to be able to finance and pull off a distribution deal for?
LF: I’ll be honest. That’s the irony of our little company. There’s no strategy at all. It’s entirely from the heart. It’s very organic. There are scripts that have come our way that are much more likely to be hits, but we don’t really think that way. Is this guy dedicated? Can he wear many hats? What equipment do we have? Who does he know? Who does she know? It’s really about extending a hand into the community and seeing if we can get this thing done, and what’s the smartest way to do it. I like to think of it as, we’re constructing something. It happens that it’s a movie. We’re just making connections. And that’s how I operate as a producer. Just seeing what’s possible.
AVC: Looking over the Glass Eye filmography, there are a lot of recurring names. Just from this movie, Glenn and Brenda Cooney and Angus Scrimm have been in other Scareflix moves, and Ron Perlman was in The Last Winter. Is that your little gang?
LF: Exactly. It’s our troupe, our band of brothers. Each one comes in, through one way or another. Angus got involved because my friend James McKenney, who’s made three movies with us, he always wanted Angus in a film. So Angus responded to his script, and he had a good time working with us, and we brought him back for Automatons and I Sell The Dead and Satan Hates You. We called Angus and said “We have a small role in I Sell The Dead, and we’ll make it worth your while if you fly in and do these two movies.” This kind of thing. It’s the old Roger Corman school, where you’re like, “We got a box of props here. Let’s see what we can make of this.” I don’t work quite that way. I don’t really believe in just making movies for the sake of it. But we do make the connections. I’m very tickled that there’s a rabbit in Glenn’s movie—the kid chomps on this rabbit, and that’s the same rabbit that was in No Telling in 1990, and we used it again in a movie we finished two weeks ago, called Bitter Feast. It was on the cover of The Montreal Mirror in connection with I Sell The Dead, so I say that rabbit has an IMDB page coming to it.
AVC: That seems fair.
LF: It’s just a matter of making these connections. I don’t think it was a rabbit in Glenn’s script, but I said, [Adops Roger Meyers, Jr. voice.] “Listen—we’ve got a great rabbit!” We try to make it a good time and have it be about camaraderie. That’s why we got Ron Perlman to come back, because we all had a good time in Iceland. Glenn was there, as well as myself. So we were able to talk to these guys. We just made a film with James LeGros. Two weeks ago, we wrapped. He came back because we had a good experience.
AVC: I Sell The Dead looks like it had a slightly larger budget than some of the things you’ve worked with. And The Last Winter was a significantly more elaborate production. Does that make things easier, or does the financing just bring bigger headaches?
LF: The bottom line is a very difficult business plan to prey on people’s—you need enthusiasm to make their first movie. I do have to keep buttressing morale and telling people, “This is great.” Luckily, we have film festivals and a certain amount of ink spilled about it. It gives people a sense of community, being with Glass Eye. But honestly, the difficult thing is asking them to come back and do another movie where they sleep on the floor with low pay. I always say, “Please, leave Glass Eye as soon as it’s a strain.” Because it’s supposed to be a good experience, maybe something you did when you were young, and off you go. Nowadays, the irony is, people aren’t making $3 million movies anymore. So you either make a $20 million movie, which takes an endless amount of time and a huge embrace of the system, or you make a really low-budget movie, and by chance, we are equipped to do that. But as I say, you can strain people. And obviously my agenda is not to exploit people, but instead to feed off their initial naïve enthusiasm for making movies.
AVC: Are you reconciled to being the farm team? Someone like Ti West makes a movie with you, and then he goes off and does Cabin Fever 2.
LF: Ah, but let me remind you: After Cabin Fever, he came running back home and made The House Of The Devil [for Scareflix], which is a far better film and a far more genuine Ti West film. So that’s an example of, “Go off, good fellow. Go make your movies. Go follow the dream. But you’ll come back. Even if your budget will be smaller, we’ll give you freedom and respect, because we are primarily about the auteur and the whole notion of an individual voice in cinema.” Which is an old, arcane notion from the previous century.
AVC: There’s a saying that out of time, money, and freedom, you can have any two, but you can never have all three.
LF: That’s true. We basically have allowed money to be the casualty in that formula. What I’m always trying to bust open is the schedule. This is something that is imposed on films, mostly because of the [equipment] rental houses. But nowadays—and it’s not their fault, it’s just the reality—there is the potential, with new cameras and equipment that can actually be owned by the consumer, to bust that open. If you film something, maybe live with it a little bit, explore it, maybe edit a little, and then go back. That’s exactly what we’re doing with our next film. Over the course of August to December, we’re shooting. Mostly it’s for practical reasons. We want to have all the seasons. But the opportunity there is to learn as you go. With I Sell The Dead, we did the same thing, because we needed to wait for Ron Perlman to finish Hellboy 2. So we filmed the majority of the film, and then, as you see, there’s the framing device where you’ve got Perlman and ol’ Dommie there, so we filmed that six months later. Glenn was actually able to live with the material, and I think his best sequence is a vampire scene, which is early in the film, but was the last thing we shot.
AVC: What are you working on now ?
LF: It’s currently called Bitter Feast. Fun little pulpy movie. It’s by MPI, and it’s got James LeGros starring in it with Joshua Leonard, who’s currently in Humpday. And it’s a lovely little tiny, tiny film. But we have a lot of hope for it. And it was directed by Joe Maggio, who is actually not known for horror. But there is an example of me just playing devilish host and inviting him to do a scary movie and tap into his scary places. And it turns out Joe has many scary places.
AVC: If you can get Kelly Reichardt to make a horror movie, I’ll be really impressed.
LF: Then I’ll really have arrived.
AVC: Your relationship with her goes way back, and she’s really stuck to being independent. She teaches at Bard College for a living, then makes her movies when and where she wants.
LF: Absolutely. She started out and River Of Grass was very heralded, but of course it didn’t make money for anyone. It was very critically adored for its tone, and I think Kelly’s sensibility was immediately apparent. She did get a lot of opportunity rather quickly, but I think she felt uncomfortable with a lot of it, and the strings that were attached. Eventually she went off to make several shorts and just reassess what she thought about the medium. I was there for all of that, always lending her equipment and such. Then eventually she made Old Joy.
Kelly’s approach, she really has intimate advisors. Todd Haynes is one. I’ve been one. Mike Ryan. Just people that she goes to. She very much wants to talk things out. She always asks for counsel. And yet of course she’s extremely strong-headed and has her own course to follow. I think she knows and truly believes that the only way she wants to make movies is in an extremely organic fashion. A lot of the things I’ve talked about, we aesthetically share. She’s making a Western now, and she’s off building the characters. It’s still a no-budget movie, but she’s got artisans on board to help her and fulfill that vision. I know the movies she loves and the actors she loves, like Warren Oates. Something about a truth that’s in the films. You know, she’s not a snob. She likes Hitchcock and Sergio Leone. She likes a lot of the great entertainments. But she can smell bullshit a mile off. And she chooses to avoid it, even though she’s had a certain amount of success.
AVC: Warren Oates is just one of those people who makes you quote Norma Desmond: They had faces back then. Actors don’t have that lived-in look any more.
LF: They don’t look that weathered. The whole film business was built on immigrants: Billy Wilder and Michael Curtiz and all these hefty lads. They all came from Europe for one reason or another, and they all had life experience. The last great generation of Marty [Scorsese] and Coppola and those guys, they were sort of the new breed. They were students, but they still came from a vibrant time, so we can’t credit them with the downfall. But after that, we’re talking about like Ivy League kids who are wanting to get into the entertainment industry as opposed to making pictures. And there’s a huge difference. So now you have intellectual effetes making movies. It’s just not the same thing. They’re looking at bottom lines. They’re scheming. There are charts. It’s not like a robust character like a John Huston, you know, telling tales. I still have that aesthetic, where I’m really just telling tales. It’s a robust business, that’s why we still have people like [Werner] Herzog. [Adopts Herzog accent.] He’s out there, film or death, fighting the jungles. You know? He’s a fucking lunatic. And that’s what you need. The Terry Gilliams of the world. Fucking freaks. It’s gotta be about that. Let’s have some robustness, not these fucking paper pushers looking at the IMDB chart.
AVC: It’s hard to imagine Billy Wilder thinking, “Maybe if I work as a gigolo at a hotel, I’ll get to be a director.” The worst thing that could happen to a filmmaker is growing up wanting to be a filmmaker.
LF:, It’s sad but true. And then of course there are movies about wanting to be a filmmaker. Movies about writer’s block. And on and on it goes. There’s always the exception. These things can sometimes be fine. But primarily it’s always too, too tiresome. Of course there’s a greater complaint about the culture, and I don’t know how to fix it.
AVC: While we’re talking about cultural problems and things you and everyone else don’t know how to fix, environmentalism is an issue that runs through all the movies that you’ve directed, and you even have a website, Running Out Of Road, devoted to the subject.
LF: You must have been the second person who visited this month. [Laughs.] I’m primarily preoccupied with the fact that humanity is destroying the planet. What I’m really trying to say is, it’s destroying our home. It’s not that I care about the planet. The planet will be fine. It’ll be a big ball of rock floating in space. But if we want to live here and enjoy the incredible riches that nature offers us, such as whatever kind of strange panda bear and strange toad and frogs and trees, well then we’re really, really fucking up. It’s a bitter scenario. I find that most of my films are about self-betrayal. Habit’s about a guy who’s a total drunk, and he’s convinced his girlfriend’s a vampire. They’re all about the illusions and delusions we live with. I’m obsessed with humanity’s grand illusion. And these clowns in Congress who continue putting up roadblocks to a practical solution. I have just so little respect and faith for humanity as a race. I may love individual people, but I am contemptuous of the arrogance of this species, and in a way, it’s both ruined me and fuels me. It’s ruined me because nobody cares about these issues, and then it’s the source of most of my storytelling now, because I am so preoccupied with it. It fuels me, because this is my outrage. I do believe in that great tradition of literature and storytelling. You know, the downfall and the folly of it all.
Also, it’s just like anything else, where there will be a headline that says “Americans losing faith in Obama.” And then you look down and you see “Seventy-three percent this and that” and “Thirty-three agree percent with Republicans,” and you’re like, “Where did this headline come from?” As soon as I take that in, that’s all I’ll remember. And now I’m actually reading the article, and I don’t see how that’s the summarizing element. I mean, look at this: We’ve been babbling on here. Imagine the headlines you could clip from what we’ve just been talking about. “Fessenden’s love of Dickens is his motivating factor.” I mean, the tiniest portion of what we were talking about, and on it goes. So I don’t know. It’s truly hopeless, and it’s louder and louder. I don’t know. I don’t see the end, and that’s why I continue to make horror. It’s just really horrific to see someone going down the tubes, and in this case, someone is the fucking species. It’s just so crazy. I appreciate it on a personal level, struggling with one’s own sanity, one’s own addictions, so I am not holier than anyone. I am completely among the nearly dead. It’s just, could you have a little dignity on your way down? And we’re pointing fingers at everybody.
AVC: That brings us nicely back on track.
LF: But the real track is these discussions. I mean, it sounds tiresome; I’ve argued with all my friends forever. I’ll write a song and it’s political, and they’re like “Oh, politics in songs?” And, you know, I don’t draw a line between discussing these issues. I mean, of course you don’t want to write a song about [global-warming denier] James Inhofe, but you can write a song about idiocy. And that’s a worthwhile song. Bring on Pete Seeger. It’s not all about love and cupcakes. I’m telling you, man. These are issues, and this is the human condition. And then people would say “How does I Sell The Dead fit in?” Because it’s a great embrace of humanity, and it doesn’t have to be one or the other. It’s not all gloom and doom, or you’re off making Will Ferrell movies. It’s all things at one time. Link
Fessenden bio | "Someone to Watch Award" | I Sell The Dead press | top
Dreaming Alone: The Larry Fessenden Interview by Dr. Nathan, October 28, 2008
QE: The guys at Quiet Earth consider The Last Winter to be your magnum opus. We are wondering what you think of the film two years later. Have you changed your mind or do you still like it?
LF: I am very loyal to my films. You know what they are part of my life and I do put a lot of passion into the making of them. But also it is important to me that they have themes that will outlast even the craftsmanship, so I believe it's an important movie, meaning, ahh, thematically.
QE: I agree with you. Global warming. You don’t think of the movie being two years old, that you were onto this two years ago.
LF: Well, of course the reality is that we wrote this in 2001. But I have been on this topic for a long time. I've always sort of been an environmentalist. And with the global warming, I wrote a book about this in 1991 about how to make films environmentally. It is actually online now: lowimpactfilmingmaking.com -- it's funny to read that -- I'm complaining about global warming then. So it really is a sad reality that this issue’s been out there, the information's been out there, and we continue not to do anything about it.
QE: And you still feel bad about it now?
LF: I feel worse than ever. In fact, the news is that it is going faster than people originally thought. And it’s just unbearable to see that the conversation is at the very beginning right now, in the public sector. In fact, in America we are having these elections and because of the economic crisis and a bunch of crap that they focus on, because there is so much noise in the news, no one is really addressing this as a major topic. And I believe, not to get too political here, but the way out is also positive for the economy for jobs, which is to say, the shift to a green economy -- there is a lot of opportunity there, and it's sort of what's going on in the movie, in The Last Winter, in the argument between the two guys. One guy is essentially wanting to drill our way out…
QE: I thought one guy is Palin the other guy is Obama…
LF: The prescient thing I think is that Abby, the character played by Connie Britten, is really quite like Sarah Palin – she’s very attractive and she’s rather cutthroat as she handles the two men…
QE: …that’s right -- and she’s still pragmatic at the same time
LF: I think she’s oddly the central character, even though perhaps the film doesn’t take full advantage of that. But the idea is that she sees both sides and she’s just hedging her bets.
QE: I think that’s a good move. I don’t think you want to get too complicated – you have a major thrust for the plot, anyway. I’ve seen a lot of movies where guys toss so much stuff in after awhile you don’t know what they’re talking about.
LF: Well, that’s interesting, and I have been accused of that…
QE: I like the single-minded stuff, personally… in The Last Winter you’re allowed to do the slow build, which is one of my favorites.
LF: Yeah, I love that…
QE: Like, there’s no stuff at the beginning to set us up… for a long time you have really no idea what’s going on…
LF: Yes, that’s interesting… There’s the Jaws approach to movies, which we all love, where there’s the attack at the beginning and you know what you’re getting into, but there’s that other approach which I’ve tried in a couple of films, where you think… well, am I in a drama? What am I up to here? And then the slow, creeping decay sets in… and my thought is that this is the way life truly unravels. And then suddenly you notice out there – hey, that’s weird – what’s that guy doing walking around, he just got hit by a car and then slowly you build up from there.
QE: That’s true – we do ignore a lot of foreshadowing, a lot of stuff…
LF: And that’s why global warming is such an interesting topic – it is the stuff of horror because you can basically go day-to-day and you don’t experience it. And yet it’s slowly creeping up on us, and one day we’ll realize, shit, the oceans are dead. (Laughs maniacally)
QE: If they’re not dead already.
LF: Well, exactly… I mean that’s the problem… we could all stop driving tomorrow and there’s a lot of stuff already underway.
QE: One of the things that crossed my mind, in terms of a horror scenario, is that stupendous bundle of little bits of plastic that’s floating in the ocean between Japan and Alaska. That’s really scary to me – plankton are eating it and plastic is getting into the seafood chain.
LF: That’s so intriguing, and it just shows there’s so much opportunity for horror in the things that have happened, and people always say, you know, am I preaching, am I trying to change minds?, well, no, it’s just what I think to be quite horrific right now, and it’s all about self-betrayal. Like, I made a film called Habit which is about a delusional alcoholic who thinks his girlfriend’s a vampire, and there’s a more direct example of a theme that I love, which is the theme of self-betrayal. But, society-wise, that’s where we are. We literally live in denial.
QE: Yes. The ending of The Last Winter I found… interesting. To a certain degree it looks like either a setup for…
LF: (laughs) the sequel?
QE: Yeah… the Really Really Last Winter – it’s tough to do a sequel when you’ve used the word “Last” – but I was interested in the last shot, where Abby comes out of the clinic. The doctor has hung himself, and she walks outside and she’s standing in some water… and I really thought there would be some kind of pullback there, so we can get to see that everything is under water.
LF: Well, the idea is just that – it’s amazing… that location is just a place in Iceland where we were filming anyway, but it looks exactly like the little hospital in Prodou Bay, which is what would have happened… someone would have rescued her and brought her to this little clinic. But, as you say on the news there’s a guy giving a roundup of how bad things are everywhere, and of course, he’s talking in a very jovial fashion, the way they do.
QE: That’s odd, too.
LF: But that’s what happens – it’s on there now – oh, there’s been another hurricane here and there, and it’s like don’t you understand: if you put that all together, there’s something sinister going on.
QE: That’s interesting, because don’t you think to a certain degree that the News has been almost completely fictionalized by the mass media? I watch the news like people watch sitcoms.
LF: Funny, I’m the same way. I’m quite addicted to the news – I watch it on the internet – but basically, it’s just so interesting, because what you’re really watching is the way information is conveyed… you can call it entertainment, you can call it a horror film, it’s just amazing how little substance there is, and how much opinion, and so on. I mean, it’s really where we are. But to finish, you know, the idea of the ending… well, she steps out and instead of the snow landscape we’re accustomed to it’s all turned to water and of course you want that pull-up, but when I was editing I realized just to hold on – it’s so stressful – and then you go to black… it’s sorta like: you all know what’s out there, or, if you don’t, you better think about it.
QE: Our imaginations are better…
LF: Exactly, and you know, all you do is pan up to a CGI shot… of what? You know?
QE: Right… you’d be right back to Planet of the Apes with the Statue of Liberty…
LF: (laughs) If you had that, that would be cool… but, ya know it was done well before…
QE: No kidding… OK, here’s another question. Was there any issues bringing Dominic Monaghan onboard for I Sell The Dead, considering he’s coming from such a hugely-popular TV program?
LF: It was a great experience. My co-producer, Peter Phok, he really had this notion we should try for Dom, and we sent the script to Dom’s representation and they got it to Dom over the course of several months. He really gained an enthusiasm for the script, and he was just finishing up Lost… we ended up waiting for several months just to work with his schedule, and as it turns out, our first night shooting was the night that his last episode broadcast, so he was in a great sort of mood – a chapter had ended in his career, and moving on to our little film. So we were very honored to get him. They were really generous to us, and really stuck with it, and Peter and Glenn, once they realized it was possible, were very enthused.
QE: Is that really part of the challenge you face, as an indie filmmaker… how the heck do you approach and convince people? Is it all script-based?
LF: It really is. It’s very much script-based. We’re lucky that Glass Eye Pix has a bit of a rogue reputation, so I think people become aware of our previous work. In the case of Ron Perlman, of course, he and I worked together on The Last Winter, and we just had a blast, and I was able to convince him to show up for what was a three-day shoot for him. Ron was finished with Hellboy 2, and that was a grueling experience under the maestro, Guillermo Del Toro, and I think he was ready to have a little palate cleaner, and so he just popped in and did our shoot. We had been waiting for him for six more months after our original shoot with Dom, so our shoot was spread out over a year. The beauty is that Dom was dedicated enough to the project that he came back – these are very busy people. So it’s all about having good relations.
QE: No kidding. I haven’t seen Ron in I Sell The Dead yet, but he is great in The Last Winter, which you shot in Iceland. That must have been pretty crazy.
LF: It was a great experience. Iceland is a very cool place and we all walked away after having a really good time… except a little hard on the liver, actually.
QE: I’ve heard good things about Icelandic women…
LF: They’re awesome.. it’s quite a soup over there: a lot of alcohol, beautiful, gorgeous women who either fit into the Broom Hilda blonde category, or the Bjork category, so everything you could hope for… and then the guys are very robust... Vikings… and we were out in the dead of winter in a very remote area filming half the thing, and it was just my style, very Werner Herzog, we were really out there, you know – film or death – with blizzards and blistering sun – it was very good. Wonderful.
QE: Just as an aside, I gotta tell you that I had trouble suspending my disbelief on one funny thing – everyone is talking about the tundra melting, but everything is still under three feet of snow!
LF: But that’s part of my point. You can’t just look at the facts in front of you – there’s actually a greater reality.
QE: But the snow does diminish as the movie progresses, so it does work out…
LF: Which, incidentally, was true up there. I had pictured a pure white film and in fact there were occasions where it was melting. And the day that it rains in the movie. That was scripted, and was supposed to be this appalling weather event – and it rained! That was so freaky, which is why you have such beautiful clouds in that scene. Of course, we had our rain machine – we were prepared – and then it rained, so it really was freaky and that is really happening, and the warming effects the colder areas first, oddly enough. At the equator it’s essentially the same temperature, but in the arctic things start changing faster and more erratically. But that’s a good point and it’s part of the paradox of the film that everyone is basically in fear of freezing to death, but the problem is the warming. This is what makes for a complex film, whether you like it or not.
QE: OK, let’s change direction again – what’s it like working with Angus Scrimm?
LF: Ahh… a dream! Angus came into our world thru James McKenney, who is one of my henchmen, and he’s also a director…I’ve made like, three of his films now, The Off Season, Automatons, and Satan Hates You, and when we were preparing to make The Off Season I was traveling in Alaska to scout for The Last Winter, and I had told Jim, please, if you have imagined Angus Scrimm when you wrote the script, then why not reach out to him, we can make it happen, and Jim had figured out that Angus was going to be on the East Coast to do a Fangoria convention, and so we literally scheduled ourt whole shoot around Angus’s trip to the East Coast and we got him the script and Angus loved it – for one thing, I think it wasn’t the usual cliché horror, it was a much spookier ghost story…. So, he joined our camp and I think he enjoyed the experience. Then Jim hired him for Automatons, which we shot in LA, and some time later we invited him to come east and do two films at once: Satan Hates You and I Sell The Dead. So, he’s just a great team player, and I think he’s had fun with our group, because it’s all about The Love… (laughs) And Angus is joining us tonight… he’s here in Toronto… the great Angus Scrimm will be at our World Premiere.
QE: World Premiere? Hasn’t this been shown?
LF: Absolutely not. This is our World Premiere. This is for us, the big screening. Well, that’s not true, we played at Sitges, but with Angus coming, and Glenn’s Mom, this feels like a World Premiere. That was just a sneak preview.
QE: Great! Can’t wait. I’ve heard you’re going to be producing Jim Kivkles and Nick Damici’s Stakeland, and we’ve heard that it is going to do for bloodsuckers what Mulberry Street did for zombies. Considering we love Mulberry Street we were wondering what was in store for us?
LF: I can honestly tell you were had the scripts in my bag, intending to reads it on the plane – of course, we spent too much time enjoying our in-flight beverages to actually get to it – but the point is, having read the previous draft, look, I just love Mulberry Street and I’ve been trying to work with Jim for quite awhile, even before that, I really admire his approach and I think he shares my interest in the different textures in horror, beyond just the bloodletting and scary bits, there’s an awful lot of heart in Mulberry Street and I think he’s going to bring that to this one. I can only tell you its kind of a kung fu style thing, where there’s a vampire hunter, and this kid he’s mentoring, and they’re traveling the country in kind of a post-apocalyptic scenario. It’s really going to be great – very spare…
QE: Set in the future?
LF: A little bit in the future, but not very far in the future, probably a couple months, when things are really going to shit. But we’re very excited. It’s going to be one of our very low-budget pictures so we’re going to take advantage of Jim’s talents to put a lot of that whatever money we can find on the screen, and we’re also going to have a web component so people can see some stuff on the internet. We’ll be getting underway quite soon with that.
QE: Will you start shooting in November?
LF: Yes, we want to capture some of the seasons before we head right into winter, but the majority of the shoot will be January, and then we’ll be posting in the spring. And, as I say, we may have some web presence as we bring it out.
QE: Do you have a timetable for release?
LF: Not a present, but you can see if we get it finished in the spring… you know, all these films that we’re coming out with, none of them have distribution at first, but each movie has its own life path, and we’ll see what happens.
QE: Just as an aside on that, have you noticed it getting any tougher to raise dough with what’s going on in the economy right now?
LF: Oh, absolutely. It hurts every business. Everybody’s hurting. I will say there is the cliché which so far seems true: that showbiz does OK in a recession, because going to a movie is cheaper than a vacation – it’s cheaper than a lot of things. We’ll see what happens – it’s not pretty. The only good thing about all of this is that the planet may get a little, tiny break when human activity slows down.
QE: That may just be prolonging the inevitable, because sooner later, we’re going to run out…
LF: That’s the truth and that’s why we need to move off of it… there’s a great book called The Long Emergency, which is about the end of oil, the absurdity of suburbs… basically the entire plan that was laid out makes no sense…
QE: It was all based on cheap oil…
LF: Exactly, so we need to re-assess. And the politicians who are dragging their feet are going to become unpopular and go the way of the dinosaurs. And second of all, they’re only harming us. We need to get on with his, and the more pro-active we are as a society, the sooner we’ll be at the head of the game. Canada and America need to wake up to this fact.
QE: Ok, another question. You said you take your inspiration from no-fiction. Was that the inspiration behind I Sell The Dead?
LF: No, that was pure fiction. That’s Glenn. Glenn is a very inspiring character. He has a very wonderful Irish sense of humor and sense of writing and he’s very inspired by everything from Joyce’s Dubliners – that sensibility of the small town – but in actuality there are these things called “gallows speeches”, where people would give confessions and either proclaim their innocence or explain themselves before being sent off to the gallows… and Glenn was very inspired by those, and they’re chronicled in whatever books and so on, and that’s when you say, you know, “humble me, I did indeed rob Mrs. Jones’ corpse, and I did it for this reason”, so there’s some historical truth, but let’s be honest, the fact is I love the genre in many ways and it’s not all seriousness. My own films tend to come from a somber place of the collapse of society, and as I said, of the betraying of the individual, but I also love the artifice of it, and I love the old Hammer films, and I love the Universal films in particular. So when Glenn came up with this – it’s like a warm cozy blanket – it’s why I loved the movies when I was little – you just want to be in that world.
QE: Yes, but you’re a storyteller, as well.
QE: Storyteller is a wonderful occupation…
LF: And I Sell The Dead is also a buddy movie, which I think is essential, because with all this despair and horror that I’m interested in, there’s also the redemptive quality of the human experience which is why we love and work together…
QE: But you point that out in The Last Winter. Things would have been completely different if the drillers and non-drillers had both taken a step back and said there’s something going on here… but then, you wouldn’t have the same story.
LF: I wish we didn’t. I wish I didn’t have to tell that story. It’s our problem in America. It’s so partisan, we’ve lost this sense of coming together. I have a great yearning for that… in fact, my horror is based on why can’t we literally get along. Because there’s a yearning for things to be better. Look, we have a short and brutish life and you wish that you could find camaraderie and that’s really the desire. In fact, I have another script that is a non-horror movie and it’s a much sweeter telling of that same sort of theme.
QE: I agree completely. Our uniqueness as individuals is both our blessing and burden. If you look at our society, you note right away how much energy we use simply communicating with each other.
LF: Well, habit is based on that idea. “We live as we dream alone” is from Heart of Darkness, and I’m interested in that theme because, as you know, you can really never know the other person’s experiences and we’re all locked into our own self-perception, and from there you have the idea of delusional perception and it gets very scary if you start seeing demons and so on. Well, it may not be true objectively but it’s absolutely true to you, so I find that very interesting, and that’s one entry into the horror genre. But the other thing you said reflects more on my approach to making movies, which is the sense of community, and I really believe in building… well, we have a little group of filmmakers and I produce some of their films, and a lot of people work on each other’s things. Glenn, who directed I Sell The Dead is also an effects guy and he’s done a lot of work on the other movies, and it’s the sense of camaraderie that is important. And I believe in putting that out there and building movies that way.
QE: Fantastic. It seems part of that team is Ron Perlman. Is he the DeNiro to your Scorsese? He’s actually damn good. He seems to understand his roles in ways different from the other actors.
LF: He brings so much… but he’s like an old vaudeville guy, he’s an old school dude and I really enjoy that about him. He’s a lotta heart, a lot of crusty, a little bit of bitterness in there… and I can relate to all of it. Look, it has to be said, Ron Perlman is Guillermo’s guy, really. I’m just a side product of my affection for Guillermo Del Toro’s movies with Perlman in them, and Guillermo discovered Ron and brought him to this certain level in his career, although Ron was doing fine without either of us, but anyway I’ve enjoyed my associations. When I asked Ron to do The Last Winter my conceit was, Ron, you’ll get to play a real character – you won’t have a lot of make-up – you’ll bring whatever monster elements, your understanding of those kinds of characters, to a fully normal person, but you’ll show the vulnerability and how there’s a kind of bitterness to the character of Perlman. Sometimes the psychology of these kinds of characters – you reveal that they’re kind of like children, that they’re stubborn and they’re not behaving expansively, and I thought Ron would be able to capture that. It was fun to work with him, you know because you realize there’s one scene after he almost gets killed in the ice water… the vulnerability…
QE: Yes, but I thought it was his relationship with Abby is the telling point, that’s where his vulnerability comes out. He is jealous.
LF: He’s smitten, yeah, and he’s so pissed that this smarmy little prick, Hoffman…
QE: Right. And it’s great that you have him and Hoffman together at the end…
LF: Yes, exactly…
QE: And I’m correct in assuming these guys are killed…
LF: Thank you. You know the movie is totally misunderstood, which is a funny thing to go through life – talk about feeling alone. You know there’s no monster in that film. It’s in Hoffman’s mind. Everybody’s obsessed that I have said global warming is caused by caribou monsters – well, that’s absurd. All I’m saying is that we all live in our own perceptions. Hoffman pictures these monsters, and he’s carried away by one, but he’s really dying. He’s fallen off a cliff and Ron and him die together, and its really how each one interprets death – one guy returns to his childhood memories, and in his way dies peacefully, the other guy is torn to ribbons because he has spent his whole life resisting nature and death. If you fight against the realities of the world, they will crush you. Nature will win out. If you, on the other hand, are attuned to it, you will see demons but you may, in fact, be delivered to the bosom of your own sweet memories. End of story. And I gotta say, people who snark my movie say all that nonsense about monsters and ghosts and bad CGI… it’s like, f*** you, baby, I lost you long ago.
QE: Well, I though it was great because it was so understated. For me the whole thing became crystal clear when the first guy dies and they retrieve the video. That sequence is very revealing because you see that he sees nothing.
LF: Exactly. Thank you. Exactly.
QE: After that it became obvious this was a mind disease and not a physical thing.
LF: Well, I must say it’s incredibly refreshing when people do get it…
QE: It’s always about the storytelling…
LF: Then I think you’ll appreciate the structure of I Sell The Dead, because it’s all about storytelling, which is what comes from Glenn’s Irish traditions – sitting around in a pub. It’s really stories within stories, so I think you’ll get a real kick out of it.
QE: I’m looking forward to it. But in Sell The Dead you act, not direct. Which do you prefer, acting or directing?
LF: That’s a good question. I love acting, but I didn’t pursue it… I found it nerve-wracking and I realized also that I had too many ideas beyond just acting… like I think it’s very important where the camera goes, how the thing is edited…
QE: Why would you find acting nerve-wracking? It seems to me if you know your lines…
LF: You just said it… I don’t trust my brain… once you know your lines…
QE: Do you ever use cue cards?
LF: No, I don’t use cue cards.
QE: No cheating?
LF: I actually believe very strongly – you have to know your lines, backwards. Literally – the Kubrick tradition, you know, he used to torture his actors…
QE: So there’s no ad-libbing when you’re directing… no one is messing around
LF: Not really. No, I write it out.
QE: When someone directs you, do you mess around with them?
LF: No, in fact the funniest thing is, my greatest acting experience was in Habit, where I knew the lines intuitively because I’d written it, and in fact written it in the past, and I sort of knew the character because I’ve lived it, and then to be able to be in the scene with the other actor, and to loosen him up and almost move the… you know, I was the director so I could sorta throw in stuff, and it made for a very organic and loose experience – I think for everyone, and that was fun. But, you know, when you’re on someone else’s set you don’t have quite that kind of liberty. But I do love acting, but I also love art direction and all the other details so I honestly, in the end, I feel like I’m more of a director, because I like to oversee it all.
QE: Can we extrapolate that to saying you basically like the control aspect of it?
LF: It is the control. I really enjoyed my experience with I Sell The Dead. I was actually a producer and an actor, so as a producer I had not so much control, but a lot of influence in how to make Glenn find his way, and that was very rewarding, and then as the actor doing whatever.
QE: And you were both actor and director in Habit.
LF: That’s why I keep referencing it… it’s relatively obscure, I suppose... but it is what got me my initial attention.
QE: Do you spend a lot of your life wandering around film festivals like this?
LF: Actually, I don’t enjoy… flying. So I’m just as happy not going to festivals. It’s always fun, and you meet other filmmakers… speaking of directing, I love the idea of putting together a festival – the curatorship of it, so I very much appreciate how these things unfold, but honestly, it’s just night after night of drinking and wagging the tongue… I can do without it; I’m very happy at home, writing in New York. I have a place in upstate New York where I retreat to and that’s my favorite, just to be out in the country.
QE: Sounds great. Have you ever sat out there and asked yourself about the psychological basis of the appeal of these kinds of stories?
LF: Oh, there’s no question about it. Horror is one of the more enduring genres – compared to what? Well, romance will always be in the stories – but the fact is horror…
QE: as in Freud’s work on the uncanny?
LF: … yes, the uncanny. That’s my favorite word, and that’s what kind of horror I’m interested in…
QE: … where the confusion causes the fear…
LF: … he actually speaks about not being able to orient yourself back home, which is one of my themes – you can never go home. That’s what the uncanny means – that you’re basically disoriented from your home and yourself. All of those are my favorite themes, much more so than an axe through the head…
QE: … the gore…
LF: … the gore is almost a burden. It’s as if you wanted to tell romantic stories of people falling in love and people were like, saying, “where’s the cum shot?” You say, yes, I understand the cum shot, but I want to talk about people’s yearnings…
QE: It ceases to be a story and becomes special effects…
LF: Precisely. Spectacle over other stuff. I’m a theme and atmosphere guy... I can’t understand mysteries, you know. I can never figure out who is the murderer. My brother used to love those things, and I could never figure them out. My wife leans over to me at movies and says it’s obviously the butler and I say what, was I supposed to be figuring that out, cause I was watching how the actor was holding the glass, or, you know, how the fog looked in that scene… I was just enjoying the atmosphere..
QE: that’s uncanny…
LF: Oh yeah, (laughs) look, I think fear is the ruling emotion. It’s all well and good to imagine that people conquer with love, but the real truth is that we’re still the reptile brain, which is guiding our thinking, and there’s much to be afraid of…
QE: Fear… and perhaps greed?
LF: I agree, but I think that is fear. I had this Russian literature teacher and he made the correlation between greed and fear and I loved it. If you’re sitting at the table and you’re just consumptively eating all the lamb chops and whatever, it’s because you feel like you’ll be wanting, or you’ll be without, and so I think greed in its own way, the sense that you must have this, and I think it’s almost fear displaced if you think you need stuff to protect you from the inevitable. That’s why the opposite is this beautiful place of acceptance and all the Zen teachings are about letting go, and accepting and that, to me, is the journey – to see how much you can dispel fear and dispel greed and become a generous person. The truth is, I believe all of that is in us, or can be… that’s what it’s about – you‘re trying to show the appalling things in order to, in a sense, be released from them.
QE: Thanks, Larry… we appreciate your time. And now I release you! Well, after you autograph my Last Winter dvd... link
Fessenden bio | "Someone to Watch Award" | The Last Winter press | top
No Road Home
by Adam Barnick
The work of American director Larry Fessenden, like life in general, resists simplification and being grouped into a single category. His previous hand-crafted independent films No Telling, Habit, and Wendigo are often dubbed his ‘trilogy of horror’ but are so much more than simple scare or monster pictures, with the intention of existing, as described by their director, as "B-movies with A-movie themes." Said films emphasize character over special effects, naturalism over melodrama, earned emotions as well as essential scares, and are always filled with food for thought. "Socially conscious" would be a label that would fit, if we had a real reason to place one on them. His newest film The Last Winter continues this tradition albeit on a much larger scale, and the result is a deeply felt, emotional, and certainly scary tale about the ultimate loss happening under our noses while we argue: the destruction of the environment and the last semblance of stability and balance we claim to have in our world.
EI: Can you give us a synopsis of the film for the uninitiated?
Larry Fessenden: The Last Winter takes place in Alaska, where a small advanced team is set up in a remote station to prepare for bringing in the rigs to drill for oil in ANWR (the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge); something begins to go awry, and it’s very unclear what it is. But there’s an environmentalist who begins sounding the alarm who seems to believe it’s associated with climate change; and the story begins to veer out of control, into an apocalyptic nightmare.
There are many links in this film to your previous film Wendigo. Were you originally thinking of directing a straight follow-up to that film, or was it more of an interest in continuing some of the themes from that film, like man vs. nature, and not respecting the land?
Very simply and practically, there was a clause in the contract I had (to distribute Wendigo) with Ed Pressman’s company that said IF they want a sequel, it had to be delivered by a certain time and we’d be paid such-and-such an amount. So I thought, as an exercise, I would conceive of what my idea of a sequel to Wendigo would be. It turned out to have nothing to do with the family (featured in that film,) that family had been so shattered, it didn’t seem appropriate(to return to them). I realized thematically you could take the idea of this nature-spirit, and just all those strange soup of themes- we translated it into what might be called a strange sequel.
Are there still plans for the Wendigo animated series?
I’m very fond of this animated series, we’ve written nine treatments, three scripts, and done a little teaser; I just haven’t been able to give it the attention that’s needed to launch an animated show yet. It’s much more geared towards kids; There’s more humor, it would also be more environmentally educational for kids, which is a beautiful thing.
This film had more direct references to the Algernon Blackwood (Wendigo) story – the shoes left behind, being carried away at great speeds, Defago Express..
The feet on fire..
That’s my favorite one.
THAT is what I caught on my second viewing. That and the striking image of footsteps in the snow that suddenly stop. It was a great symbol of everything mankind’s doing…eventually our ‘imprints’ will stop because we won’t survive the backlash.
There’s a book out now called The World Without Us, which proposes what happens to the infrastructures we’ve built, and the trash, etc. if we disappeared. When I wrote Wendigo, it was based on my childhood experience, a number of things from my youth tied together. And I wasn’t really paying attention to the actual Blackwood story. I read it maybe just before production, and I realized the mood that Blackwood creates, and the power of his story- I wanted to revisit when we decided to get back into the Wendigo business. I took what is very metaphoric and beautifully abstract in Blackwood’s thing and I made it very literal. Whether that’s the right thing to do, is another matter. For example- the characters in the story scream ‘my feet of fire!’ which is so eerie and bizarre in his story…I wanted to create something that IS that bizarre- so I conceived that when Motor’s(Kevin Corrigan) hangar gets blown up, for whatever bizarre reason, his feet catch fire.
You’ve set up a moment that could rationalize it, I feel. As a child the Wendigo tale and creature is an intriguing image visually, and an interesting story, but you may not necessarily be thinking of environmental issues at that age..what appealed back then versus now?
It was very much an image planted in my head by my teacher, of this “deer man” which was sort of his concept of it- he doesn’t remember telling the story, which is funny because I did catch up to him and tell him how it influenced me. But in any case, it was my own research into the Wendigo myth, which is Ojibwe-and not Blackwoods’ invention-he borrowed it from these tribal legends. When I did the research, I saw that in tribal vernacular, it has to do with rapaciousness, and consumption and cannibalism, and an Earth out of balance, which is my favorite theme. That’s what I think is going astray in the world, so it serves as my interests, as you say, as an adult. But, I still just like monsters(laughs) and I’ve never been able to depict it closer to what I’ve imagined in my childhood telling.
In Habit you’re using vampirism to explore loneliness and perception, in Wendigo you explore how a child interprets violence and how we all make sense of the world through myth. In this film’s writing, did you start with a certain theme that sparked the need to explore it through genre?
In terms of embracing a horror trope, I often start with that- I’m using the Alien model, though it’s often compared to The Thing because it’s a snow movie. In terms of the actual theme, it was more about people’s inability to communicate. When they have their own sort of worldview. Which, when you look at it, is what Habit is about. That’s about two drinking buddies, and when one of them cries out for help, the other guy isn’t there for him…I guess I’m just obsessed with the idea that people don’t communicate and all the reasons for that, and the psychology of individuals; and how profound it is that we’re all living in a subjective world.
We have our upbringing, so we believe our own mythological tropes- and that’s how we make decisions and respond to reality. That’s why it’s hard to convince a conservative that global warming is happening; they think this is a conspiracy of the Left to combat corporatism. Of course the irony is that it serves that as well; which is why the Left is doubly passionate, they feel there’s a weakness in the argument- if you’re destroying the world, surely you still can’t defend this rampant capitalism! And so the corporate mind, the conservative mind is going to say- wait a minute, I don’t want to be painted into this corner- I can’t accept your premise that the world is going to shit. So that’s a very dangerous situation; that you can’t discuss encroaching danger.
The genre element is more the remote lab/station, the tradition of movies that I’m dealing with is more like The Edge, with Anthony Hopkins; one guy has knowledge, one guy is out of place, these two guys are marooned together in the woods and they have to survive. There’s a movie called Dersu Uzala by Kurosawa, where similarly one guy knows how to deal with the land and the other doesn’t; so they’re more these sort of survivor movies, and the whole idea of your mindset being your resourcefulness in a time of crisis. And of course I’m very fond of the Shakelton story, which is not directly related. But the idea of surviving and leadership issues is what I was exploring.
The more I deal with The Last Winter, just the more confusing the ‘horror’ label is. I would hope that people can accept something outside(it).
Just saying ‘horror’ can be kind of a box.
Yeah, more and more of a box too! The reviewers are desperately pairing me up with Val Lewton now, because he’s the only guy in the horror canon that made clearly subtle films. I’m very honored to be compared with him because he’s a classic; still, it’s confusing, I don’t really claim to make horror films, that’s just- they ARE horror films...or what are they otherwise?
“Films with horrific elements.”
Yeah, whatever! (laughs) I’ve actually resisted it. Even (the upcoming film Larry produced) I Sell The Dead, we couldn’t pigeonhole in two words what that movie is for a (Dead's lead actor)Dominic Monaghan article, for Entertainment Weekly. I wrote this fun little sentence, ‘it’s a horror romp with boisterous this-and-that’, and their response was "No, please, TWO words! Is it a comedy or a horror film?" It’s really tiresome. A lot of the great movies out there defied genre, that’s why we love them.
They touch on whatever they need to touch on to tell their story.
What about painting; is it a landscape, or is it a still life? What is Guernica? A horse painting? It’s not helpful, it’s just so they can put you on the special section of Moviefone.
Is it an attempt to understand the work or an easy way to NOT have to think about it?
I don’t know. It’s restricting.
In the times you’ve written your scripts with a collaborator, has your process been varied? Do you prefer collaborating to solo writing?
Solo I enjoy, but I have my limitations. I’ve enjoyed my partnerships. Basically when they’re ultimately going to be my films, I need to have the control. I wrote No Telling with my wife; who was my partner/buddy back then, Beck Underwood. In the case of Robert Leaver, my new writing partner..he was paid, that was the deal where I was the ‘boss.’
Directing the writing?
Yeah, and similarly with Beck, I continued to tinker with the script; but our collaboration was immensely important to the story, and she and I wrote another script (Hector Dodges) which I continue to tinker with. So I enjoy writing with other people. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say there are a lot of disgruntled writers in film, because (the process) does continue on. But we’ve had good times; Robert and I are working again on something. Beck had a lot to do with talking about Habit initially, she was involved in rethinking it. (Habit was created as a video feature in the early 80’s when Fessenden was a student and reenvisioned in 1997)
Was this originally intended as a smaller-scale picture? I know in the grand scheme of things it’s still a “low budget” film but it’s a much bigger production (costing roughly ten times what Wendigo cost) than you’ve done before.
It’s funny, I’ve read a couple of reviews now- I’m doing this interview in the time when I’ve had reviews(the film had been released the previous day)-so I’m reflecting in a different way about one’s movie because now it’s being reacted to. One thing I observe is that it’s called a low-budget movie. Of course I felt honored to have THIS amount of money to play with, we had a crane most of the days, and dollies, and helicopters In truth, we were still stressing and straining with our time; if the CGI is something that can be criticized, I assure you we used up our CGI budget. (laughs) So the fact is there were a quite a bit of restrictions in the grand scheme of things..though I felt very grateful for the money we had- it seemed ‘lavish.’
But had you intended originally a budget closer to Wendigo’s?
I suppose, but if you make a movie to shoot in Alaska…
Can’t really do a grassroots indie in that climate.
Yeah, and you start fantasizing you’re gonna have Ron Perlman in it, you’re having to look at a certain level of budget. I think if someone would really asked me even back then, I’d say it would have been my biggest film. So it probably came in about where we needed to, and I don’t think it was indulgent at 5 million. I mean, people make intimate dramas at that cost, and this was extremely ambitious.
How did Iceland become involved, in terms of the location and financing?
We went to Alaska, and realized it was implausible to shoot in the real ANWR-I don’t even think it’s allowed. I know there are oil drillers there, but a film crew is just as destructive as any oil crew. So we weren’t even thinking about that once we thought about it clearly. We looked at Canada, and then Iceland came up because Jeff Levy-Hinte, my producer, knows Joni Sighvattson, who’s an Icelandic producer who works out of Hollywood now. Joni got involved, and it became a bigger production. And Iceland has financial incentives; so it became the right idea to shoot there.
Tell me about your cast.
We were writing with kind of a “Gene Hackman archetype” as our(lead character) Pollack; and a few other names were floating around when I started working with a casting agent; I saw Hellboy, and was just enamored of Ron; he carries that picture. Often he’s in an ensemble picture and I hadn’t thought of him as the lead. But Hellboy brought him back to mind. I just loved the blend of machismo and vulnerability he brought to that character, even under all that makeup. I started really gunning for Ron. I hadn’t thought of James LeGros, but he came up as we were thinking of what kind of interesting leading man we could find; I was very entranced by a few of his recent features. When he said he would do it I was thrilled. He’s a very interesting actor but not in any way overexposed.
Connie Britton’s character was a difficult search. I became aware of Connie and really liked her from the reels that were made available to me, and then as we had conversations, it got more and more interesting. She seemed to really respond to the movie. Kevin Corrigan I’ve always loved, I’ve known him from the old days, even though he doesn’t remember it (laughs). Native talents are always difficult to cast, it was an amazing thing to find Joanne Shenandoah, she’s an Emmy-winning singer/songwriter- was a thrill to have her. Jaime Harrold is a great character actor, so you know- in a movie like this your selections are VERY important- I felt very fortunate working with (casting director) Laura Rosenthal.
Has your process of working with your actors varied over the years?
I was never formally trained in acting but my approach to acting has been very intuitive, I don’t always know the formal language- I prefer the Hitchcock model of hiding in the closet naked, and then they open the door and really show surprise on their face! (laughs) These are the kind of tricks you end up using. And of course I’ve worked with kids, which requires a certain way of speaking.
Ultimately I try to work with candor and empathy. And because people know I’ve acted, at least they know I understand where they are. I try to give them a space to be creative because I know even a powerful movie star is still intimidated by the process, or should be; Olivier said if you don’t have stage fright, you shouldn’t be doing it anymore, and I believe that to a degree –the actor’s a vulnerable person and you have to treat them as someone you’re trying to coax into a journey. Let them be themselves, which is to say their character, and let them make their choices. It’s a great process.
You mentioned Hitchcock at a recent Q+A in terms of pre-designing the shots; one of the things I enjoyed the most about this was instead of letting the camera tapdance to ‘create interest’, often you found the best place to put it and left it there and let the actors tell the story.
I love an engaged, moving camera when that’s appropriate. I love Scorsese, his fast edits, that’s passionately crafted but it 100% makes sense. There’s never a sense he’s rescuing himself from something; it’s just his exuberance. I’ve taken a little more of a restrained approach, because I’ve been reacting a bit against the chaos of film language; it’s been so hysterical that I think it’s kind of effective to slow things down and not to be cutting constantly. Certain scenes I’m taking my time, and letting those scenes play out. That’s always been my aesthetic.
I grew up on the 30’s and 40’s movies (where shots were) framed head-to-toe, you enjoy seeing the actor fully and his body language. My co –writer Robby was always reminding me “remember the close-ups, Larry!” And I’m not a close-ups guy. Hopefully there are enough to engage the audience in my films, but I’m interested in the landscape; a person in their context is what interests me. I’m interested in the whole thing; all my films have very specific environments. Habit is the city, Last Winter is this Alaskan wilderness, Wendigo is this upstate environment. To me that’s also what I’m making films about. I’m not only interested in the human drama; I’m interested in the human drama in the larger context.
In this picture, it’s most strongly represented; you HAVE to show them interacting in their environment. Do you rigidly plan out the visual setups ahead of time or discover them on the day?
A little of both- I always storyboard in my mind, make shot lists, but I felt a great deal of simpatico with this crew, and this cast. We were able to do some spontaneous work; plus, we’d run out of time and would have to make a quick decision. The example I use where they’re all standing (in the environment) talking, at various distances/plains, and the crew kept saying “We’re talking a lot of time on the master, we haven’t done any of the close-ups.” And I said “no, this is all we’re doing. We do this right, we get to go home.” And we got it. That’s my favorite scene. (laughs)
I like that you had to burn the house down, so to speak, to have Pollack and Hoffman, the two distinct points of view, to not be distracted, to have an ATTEMPT to have a conversation/communication. You have to take everything away and put them in this white void. (the film’s two leads venture off for help after an accident destroys most of their shelter.)
I love that idea, yeah! I really appreciate that –to me, the structure of the film, it’s the journey of the film, and I was very excited by the idea that halfway through the movie it breaks off into this other thing. I’m intrigued that some people think that the tension is relieved there, or are disappointed when it changes; I’m just saying you make your commitments to it, and you go with it. But I very deliberately wanted that structural break. Something you’ve become accustomed to is no longer there, that’s certainly one of the themes of the movie. As you say, it was great to isolate them.
Two people and their consciences, even their political leanings have been removed- what they talk about shouldn’t even BE a political issue. And even then, Pollack can’t totally let his guard down.
No he can’t do it, he tries to.. And that’s what I call the partisan impasse- something has happened in this country where it’s expected you have to choose a side, and that defines you and to cross that side is to betray everything that you are. It’s very tribal, very North and South. It’s funny, we’re supposed to be a global society, and even within our country the tension of choosing sides dominates.
We think even less of outside our borders, we’re too busy butting heads.
It’s true- there’s accusations that people are terrorists that support “green politics.” It’s really disappointing.
You were speaking about a strict genre box and its responses; few would think of this as a scary element, but it’s true that the fact that we still can’t communicate or agree up to now is horrifying. I just thought of it occurring in Wendigo as well, the fact that the mother thinks of the upstate locals as an “other” causes a lot of the problems when she needs help and they’re happy TO help, but she can’t see it.
Exactly. In that movie I’m criticizing her mindset. She can’t distinguish in her mind between the “boogeyman” and the nice hunter who’s more that willing to help. And he then brushes it off.. “Whatever, city people.” That is ultimately the theme of my films; the sad, tragic and potentially horrific fact that we can’t communicate.
While the environment crumbles down around us.
Yeah! While our lives are crumbling, in one way or another. Each film has some sort of texture for that. LINK PART 1
EI: What’s really hit me lately is how much loss of control factors in as a primal fear in this. Especially with Ron Perlman’s character. He’s obsessed with it. From his bladder to his team. (laughs) His jealous streak with Abby(Connie Britton) shacking up with James LeGros- at first I thought this was a basic love triangle, and then I began to think she and Pollack may not have had anything between them, but in his mind there was something. Just another thing slipping out of his grasp.
Larry Fessenden: I just did the commentary for the DVD and pointed that out.
I’m not sure they were ever sleeping together!
I don’t think they were, I talked about it with Ron, and I don’t think he felt Pollack had either. One of the additional potential tragedies of his character is that-and also it’s an insight into her-I imagine that she kind of used him, and titillated him, and he was able to promote her and help her get up the ladder without ever consummating something. He sort of has that hurt- That scene where she says she feels she has Hoffman where she needs him, well..is she sort of conniving? I do feel there’s more things to think about in those ‘relationships.’
Speaking in a sense of degrees of control, your next project or projects: do you have one planned that you’d like to create on this ‘bigger level’ again, or would you prefer one that’s like a ‘Habit-style’ production with a few people, a couple of cameras and lights?
I’m hoping to go to Mexico and make an absolutely no-budget movie. It’s odd that this is the first time in my experience that I have three different things worth pursuing, but the budget range is enormous within those choices. I love the idea of working no-budget again, but I haven’t really BEEN spoiled. Last Winter was just what it was, and I found there to be some pitfalls with that, and I’d love to have the so-called freedom.
Have you ever considered directing science fiction? It’s another area outside the ‘normal’ world that can be used to comment back on ourselves.
I think horror’s still more my vibe-I’m so lame with genre labels that I barely know how to answer the question-(laughs) One thing I’m very interested in is the uncanny; maybe you’d consider that sci-fi . The idea of an alternate reality that maybe you’re able to tune into or not.
In general horror narratives, if the artists have developed them and done their jobs, we mourn the loss of the characters. In this film there’s such a heavy melancholy I’ve taken from it each viewing, are you generally getting that kind of reaction from viewers? It is entertaining and it is suspenseful, but I thought of it and realized the other character whose passing I mourn in the film is our planet.
I’m obsessed with death, that’s just something in my nature. I take the global warming idea very seriously, as this deeply sad thing. Looking at a potential death. Now I don’t believe the planet will die, but will become increasingly hostile to us, to our little zone in which we survive comfortably. And if you watch these (documentary) films like “Living With The Dinosaurs”, you get an incredible sense of history, the expanse of history. Here is a period where the Brontosaurus thrived, and then the weather changed and they died off, and then the Velociraptors came in, and you just see the scope of history.
Who’s to say there’s this period of history where “the humans flourished, and they built cities and made movies, and then something happened, and they became nomads and wore fur again.” You’re just amazed, the scope of history is so broad and I think we’re so narcissistic and engaged in everyday concerns with bills, our jobs and our fantasy lives that we forget that history can turn on us; and so with the weather and the planet. So it’s a sadness for ourselves! People say I’m a tree hugger, that would be the accusation. Well, no, I romanticize a society that we imagine we’re living in, a stable society where there’s the notion of progress and we can work through our political differences.
You also have more of a true sense of history, not even present cultural or brief American history; of the scope of the planet and our impact.
This is why the discussion is so impossible; if somebody believes people are only as old as the Bible you can’t even have this conversation- “What do you mean, dinosaurs?” “Whatever, you’re right, forget it, we can’t have this conversation.”
That’s a problem! And of course my movies are about that, they’re about religions, and these mythologies we buy into, we cling to them and start living our lives based on them; these false gods, I’m obsessed with the whole idea of the false god.
It’s funny, when I made No Telling, I was suggesting (in it) that science was this false god and there was more than that; there was the empathy to the land, and the kindness to the creatures, and a harmony in the world, and invasive science had to be kept in check..it’s interesting how your allegiance can shift! Now I would say please, let’s rely on science- let’s take science seriously. I’m not gonna villianize science anymore, we have these bigger problems now; we need to actually take counsel with science. So you see the little shifts in one’s focus as you get older and more specifically as the political and cultural life changes.
I believe movies should respond to that. Hopefully they’re philosophical enough that they remain timely. Not just the work that’s all today’s news, but that hopefully have a resonance; it is about global warming but it’s about much bigger things, of which global warming is an example of.
Respect for the earth was important 1000 years ago too.
Exactly. Jared Diamond wrote a book called Collapse. That’s about a number of complete obliterations of society, like Easter Island- how could all these people have flourished and then vanished? The fact is that this could collapse. And what I’m saying ultimately is it’s very difficult for people to perceive their own death. This is precious, this tiny time on earth. I’m not going to spend it fighting and bitching and moaning, and that’s sort of what my horror movies are about. Appreciate this, and be full of care for what is dear to you, and think about the repercussions of what you’re doing. So that’s where my horror comes from. And it’s fairly pansy, but it’s deeply felt. (laughs)
Can you tell me about working with Jeff Grace, your composer? It's one of the most emotionally stirring scores I've ever heard in this type of film, if I have to put it in a type (laughs)
Jeff Grace is a young guy, he mentored with Howard Shore, worked on the Lord of the Rings movies and Spider and other films so he’s been a serious member of the film community. Peter Phok, a producer on many of our films, discovered him and brought him to Ti West for The Roost. He did an amazing job there. Ti was good enough to bless him working on my stuff, which is good, to share the wealth(laughs). He did Ti’s other film Trigger Man; he did Liberty Kid, which is a non-horror film, and composed a lot of Salsa for that.
What’s remarkable about Jeff is he’s a consummate musician, and he knows excellent musicians. So he can access different genres without it feeling false, because he goes to those other musicians who play those other genres. He’s done remarkable work. The simplicity of the main Last Winter theme, 'Footsteps', is why it’s so strong. There are some composers who would feel the need to overwhelm you with the material but Jeff has the confidence to be very spare.
My impression in the film was that that piece, showing up about 30-40 minutes in, was the first piece of pure composition in the film.
Oh, absolutely. There is one other one before that.. And Anton Sanko did great work for me, he did the soundscape; which I think of as almost the emotional track that people are on, the psychological track. Each of them did some things..Anton did some things that were quite musical too, it was great to work with them both. I am a bit of a collagist so it made sense that they would bleed together.
For someone who’s interested in seeing the film- Without restricting it to one thing, since this is so layered-but I want to ask if there's something in particular you like seeing people take from the experience of this film.
You answered that saying you came away with a feeling of deep dread and melancholy, and I would want to infuse that artistically in the sense that that’s the mood I’m trying to convey. I really think in the end film is about mood, and color, more than dialogue and even acting. Of course that’s very important, but to me I think a film can sit in your mind, like this 'object'. Even though it’s a two hour time-based medium, it sort of sits there, and the colors sit there with you; and I would hope this would sit there as a sort of a white movie with black and a little yellow, a spot of rust color.. And that’s just what it is.(laughs) And yes, there’s that feeling of melancholy; as for what you would do with that emotion, yes I would hope you would go out, and join Greenpeace and march in the streets and demand our government do something to save our ass. But that’s secondary, it’s not propaganda. It’s an art piece.
That environmental awareness website featured on Glass Eye Pix’s site, Running out of Road is one you compiled, right?
On the activist topic, I do have a running site (www.runningoutofroad.com) which is global warming news. It tries to be a fairly easy summary of what global warming is, what the issues are, there’s pages and pages of solutions, there’s a little bit of writing by some people, I try to update it every day with this column which is just one more alarmist article from the mainstream press- but if you look at them one after the other, you see this pattern of alarmism, and then 'do-nothingism'. It’s kind of gut-wrenching. I was interested in this stuff in the early 1990’s, wrote a book on it (Low Impact Filmmaking, detailing how film shoots can reduce waste and ease their strain on the environments they shoot in) and I read the book recently; it says very urgently that we must address this problem. And it’s very heartbreaking to see 17 years later, to know that it’s still like “well, there’s some debate” and it’s been on the cover of Time a few times, but then so has Angelina Jolie.
There’s this sense of stasis in our culture. Even with the Iraq war, it’s unbelievable: it’s always “six more months.” No one wants to solve any problems so we’re gonna “six more months” it until the end of time. That’s the problem with global warming. And most of all, there’s so much that can be done right away- that’s what the site encourages.
I do believe individuals can make a difference, doesn’t mean changing your bulbs will solve the problem- but it’ll be a movement, and then the corporations will see those bulbs are selling better, these are small movements but consumer does rule in a capitalist society, and until we change the capitalism, let’s use it and support the right things. Gotta do something. You can’t just be a fool and pretend it’s not happening.
The real reason government needs to be involved is we need to set up systems so people can do that. Part of the problem is there’s no education- I myself am still confused… “Can you recycle those plastic things that salad comes in or not?” I’ve been reading about this for two decades, why don’t we all know about that? Everything’s unorganized.
With most solutions as you know, first has to come admitting there’s a problem, defining of the problem, and the beginning of understanding and finding a solution. We’re not even really through step one- THAT’s a problem. LINK PART 2
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This Is The Way The World Ends: an Interview with The Last Winter Writer/Director Larry Fessenden
By Jeremiah Kipp
After completing a trilogy of independent horror films that used the archetypes of the vampire (Habit), the werewolf (Wendigo), and Frankenstein’s monster (No Telling), filmmaker Larry Fessenden widens his scope in the global warming parable The Last Winter. Set against the backdrop of wide open Alaskan snow country, an oil drilling expedition has been stalled by ecological scientist Hoffman (James Le Gros) in response to the erratic temperature shifts and melting permafrost. The bigwigs send in aggressive team leader Pollack (Ron Perlman) to resume production immediately. As tension grows between the environmentalist and the company man, an eerie paranormal force seems to monitor them. Soon, members of their party believe there’s “something out there” in the increasingly chaotic wind and storms, and it’s unclear whether it’s avenging phantoms rising up out of the ground or that their isolation has led to a maniacal cabin fever.
The mood of slow creeping dread builds to apocalyptic proportions. Hoffman and Pollack eventually form an uneasy alliance to work together to save themselves and their team from whatever force besieges them, and the film ultimately reveals itself as a grand scale tragedy where Hoffman, the sensitive man of philosophy and science, and Pollack, a bold and confident man of action, reach a terrible impasse as the world collapses around them. The specters Fessenden creates, which at the climax resemble powerful and impassive beasts, are ultimately stand-ins for the real-life nightmare of global warming. The hard-hitting resolution appeals to the conscience of the viewer, as does Fessenden’s lingering mood of introspective melancholy.
Jeremiah Kipp: How did you conceive of The Last Winter?
Larry Fessenden: I always say my films are mosaics of ideas, with a number of elements that come together. I originally imagined a Muslim and a white guy stuck out in the middle of nowhere with some forced interdependency between them, just to show the humanity beyond the labels. And then I had a long-standing preoccupation with global warming, and with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)—which is constantly being disputed in Congress as to whether they can drill oil there. In addition, I was disappointed the snow melted while I was making Wendigo, and wanted to go to somewhere far north where I would have guaranteed snow for the duration of the shoot. I had a lot of other ideas and was curious to see if I could develop them with someone else, so I invited Robert Leaver to be a co-writer on the project. I had known him for a couple of years, and found him to be a great dynamic spirit. We would meet and talk. He would take vigorous notes of the day’s work. I would critique them, there was a back and forth. This was right after 9/11, so we were in a specific mood: very tenuous, despairing, fraught with angst, and determined to make sense of the future.
JK: What was your relationship to the landscape, which one of the characters describes as “pure white nothingness”?
LF: Robbie and I imagined Alaskan pine forests being threatened by the oil companies—but when my producer Jeff Levy-Hinte and I did our location scouting up in Alaska, we saw this vast, barren white landscape. That’s what inspired my sense of claustrophobic horror, that oxymoron of feeling claustrophobia in great open spaces. I found it as frightening and desolate as any moonscape. When we flew in this tiny airplane over ANWR, it was just endless white. Mind you, in the summer it is beautiful, with a diverse ecosystem and subtle in its colors. That’s where the caribou roam, and fish are flowing in the streams. It is in fact a rich environment. “Pure white nothingness” is a direct quote from a senator with his own asinine criteria of what defines beauty, and therefore what is worth protecting. This is an essential place in that it is literally unaltered by humans.
We ultimately filmed in Iceland as opposed to Alaska or Canada, which were the logical places to look. Alaska has no film infrastructure to speak of, and Canada was not as flat or as snowy as I envisioned. The one great thing about our Canadian scout is we actually got onto an oil rig and were able to soak in the atmosphere. The workers were wonderful and welcoming and we got a lot of Super-8mm footage of the rigs that I wasn’t quite able to incorporate into the movie. But they were great people. This wouldn’t have happened in Prudhoe Bay in Alaska. The oil companies up there were paranoid and secretive like they know they’re doing something wrong. We were there two days into the Iraq war and they were all gung-ho in the hotel where we stayed. It was Fox news in the mess hall 24/7 there. I guess that’s why we chose Iceland.
JK: Nature seems to be as important a character as Pollack and Hoffman.
LF: Some filmmakers are intrigued by human interaction. I am interested in human activity against a larger context, against the backdrop of nature. I do feel in our current reality, where human arrogance has discounted nature and is perhaps only now waking up to the repercussions, this is becoming a more viable theme. Nature is making our lives more difficult with more erratic storms, more blistering heat and vicious cold, drought, flooding, and so on. Environmentalism has always been not about protecting the planet, but about protecting the circumstances in which people, plants and animals can flourish. We are talking about making a sustainable future for people. The Iraq war and the terrorist threat can come and go, but if we lose the hospitality of nature, we are lost as a species. If you think about in most films, from Lord of the Rings to Gone With the Wind, no matter how devastating the slaughter, there’s always some character who wanders off and looks at the sunrise as the new day begins. Renewal is possible. Nature is constant. Well, what if you didn’t have that assurance? When you don’t have that replenishing of spirit, you’ve lost all that humankind has shared throughout history.
JK: One could assume you side with Hoffman’s arguments against Pollack. How do you go about giving dimension to the other side?
LF: I understand Pollack’s psychology, and relate to certain things like his enthusiasm, his impatience. As a filmmaker, I am very impatient with union rules when you want to get the job done. You don’t want to hear about 12 hour days or meal penalties. Imagine translating that to some nudging environmentalist telling you not to do this and that. Pollack is a wonderful character. But in the end, we can see that he makes decisions that are not thought out; he is reactionary. He’s in a great American tradition that has run its course. We need to rethink how we approach problems. On the other hand there’s Hoffman, who seems to have the knowledge or the inkling but not the authority. Hoffman says in many scenes the same thing: “I think there’s something wrong. I’m not sure quite what.” We all laughed about these redundancies in the script. But that’s part of my point: Language doesn’t have much impact in real life. These are the problems with global warming, because nothing can be scientifically proven beyond a doubt. People aren’t feeling it day to day, though maybe that’s changing. But for Hoffman, this frustration leads to a melancholy, and his musings about monsters.
JK: What did Ron Perlman and James Le Gros bring to their roles?
LF: I saw Hellboy while I was thinking about casting The Last Winter, and Ron brought humanity, humor and gruffness to the red giant. These were qualities I wanted in Pollack. When he showed up for our movie, it was such smooth sailing. There was a great exchange of ideas. He challenged me on some things; not about the character but about the script and certain redundancies. I told him I wanted those waves of communication that don’t work, and you can’t just say something once because it never gets through. Ron is at a stage in his career now where he has played the beasts and the monsters — I think he was happy to just play a real character, without makeup. As for Hoffman, well, in every movie I make, there’s always a character that might have been played by myself, and the actor doing him becomes self-conscious. Le Gros kept teasing me: “I know you could do it better,” but of course I couldn’t—he brought great subtlety to the part that I wouldn’t have done. He’s also a smart collaborator when you’re actually talking about the script with him. After chatting recently, he told me that every role he does is based on another person. Hoffman was based on a friend of his. It’s a very specific performance. I like that because Hoffman is not Le Gros. He’s in a different zone.
JK: Can you describe your use of monsters as metaphor in The Last Winter?
LF: In all my films I am exploring the tension between reality and perception. It’s possible that I didn’t push the spectral qualities of the monster element far enough [in The Last Winter] because some people still take it all so literally. They look at the creature as an explanation, as though I were suggesting that global warming is perpetrated by mean looking deer creatures. Honestly, I can’t help these people. My hope is that audiences see these elusive phantoms as a manifestation within Hoffman’s mind. The world is collapsing because of CO2 pollution that has been created from years of industry, and characters perceive phantoms coming out of the ground. In my earlier film, Habit, the main character is a confused, despairing alcoholic who is losing his mind, and slowly comes to believe his girlfriend is a vampire. You could say my movies are ultimately about how we create an alternate storyline to the reality that is actually happening. It is like imagining there is a God by your side during your darkest moments. It’s that human desire to create myths to make sense of an arbitrary world.
Fessenden and I also briefly touched base on a few topics related to environmentally sound film and video production. His book, Low Impact Filmmaking, is a guide for filmmakers and producers to “have access to environmentally conscientious and money saving resources that offer a way to reverse the trend toward waste in the motion picture production business”. - JK
Environmentally Sound Moviemaking
Environmentally Sound Filmmaking is feasible and necessary. In all walks of life there has got to be a change. Practically speaking on a film shoot, it requires a Production Assistant (PA) with the right personality to oversee that whole aspect of the production. In general, independent filmmaking is a stressful, rushed and imperfect enterprise and the first thing to go is the planning and protocol essential to low impact approach.
Print all scripts double sided. Recycle old schedules and scripts when printing “sides”. If people aren’t using their sides or call sheets, don’t print them.
Craft service and catering is where the most difference can be made. The greatest offense is bottled water. Ten years ago there was no such thing. Each production can come up with a solution. On a recent film I produced, I Sell the Dead, we had a water cooler on set and encouraged people to refill their bottles. Eventually we provided cast and crew with sports bottles to refill.
The wood for The Last Winter set was all purchased by a country club and every last splinter was reused. When you live on island and have to import every two by four, you come to treat it as a valuable commodity. Meanwhile in NY, you can find enough wood to build a whole set in any construction site dumpster.
Filmmaking is wasteful by definition because it is impermanent and systems take time to perfect. Plenty of people in the arts want to participate in helping the world but people are not informed. What is recyclable anyway? That’s why you need to designate a PA to oversee the environmental efforts.
Low Impact Filmmaking
I wrote a book on the topic in 1992. It’s dated now, but sadly, the topic is more urgent than ever. Please visit www.lowimpactfilmmaking.com
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Something in the Air
In the horror films of Larry Fessenden, what you can’t see will kill you
By JUDITH LEWIS
Wednesday, September 19, 2007 - 3:15 pm
It was 2001, a few weeks after hijackers flew planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. The Bush administration had withdrawn its campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. U.S. delegates had walked out of international climate-treaty talks at Kyoto. And horror auteur Larry Fessenden began to notice something strange about the weather.
“In New York and New England, you could see it in the leaves,” he says. “They used to give us this glorious display of color in the autumn. But they didn’t seem to be doing that anymore. It was happening because the nights weren’t getting cold enough but the light was still dying; they just turned brown and fell off.”
Then came the hurricanes, the tornadoes ripping through the Midwest, the reports of melting glaciers and thawing permafrost. “The Inuit call it Ugianaqtuq,” he says. “OOG-gi-a-nak-took — ‘like a familiar friend acting strangely.’ What happens when storms are raging, when you don’t know when the harvest season is anymore, when you can’t turn to nature for rejuvenation? What happens when you can’t trust the weather?”
The mainstream media, in their boneheaded quest for balance, had failed him; the political world was in denial. So Fessenden, a “middle-aged angry guy” (he’s 44), decided to address this surging catastrophe by doing the thing he does best: He made a horror movie. With the Uggianaqtuq as the monster.
“Horror for me has always had a cautionary tenor,” says Fessenden by phone from his home in New York. It’s a week before the opening weekend of The Brave One, the Jodie Foster vigilante movie in which Fessenden plays the Foster character’s first kill. But Fesssenden is far better known — in some rarefied circles, revered — for his idiosyncratically creepy ghost stories about reality gone awry: stories that depart from other horror movies in their philosophical underpinnings, and a view on the world that implicates humans in their own monster fantasies.
“All my favorite stories — Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example — are about our place in the spheres, and how arrogance will be our downfall,” Fessenden says. “How can we be just going about our business and driving our SUVs when there are all these dire warnings about our future? What do I say to my 7-year-old son when he talks about wanting to have his own children?”
Indeed, you may find yourself leaving the theater after Fessenden’s new film, The Last Winter (which opens this weekend), and staring, as I did, into the horror flick playing itself out on Wilshire Boulevard, with its parade of Range Rovers, Escalades and Armadas locked in traffic purgatory and its lines of buildings powered by carbon-huffing coal plants. You may look at all this and think: I see dead people. Because if you’re thinking clearly, you actually do. “We’re smokers who can’t quit while the cancer’s spreading,” is how Fesssenden puts it. “I take it personally.”Although Fessenden set The Last Winter on the souring tundra of Alaska, he shot the film in Iceland with an Icelandic crew, including director of photography Magni Águstsson, whom he credits with giving him “my best D.P. experience ever. They know how to jump off their Skidoos and catch just the right light,” Fessenden says of the crew, who all had their own stories of climate strangeness to tell. The film tells the claustrophobic story of an oil-company crew sitting out a preternaturally warm winter as they wait for equipment that may never arrive. Their leader, Ed Pollock (Hellboy’s Ron Perlman), pitches the work as partly God’s will and partly a relief from U.S. dependence on foreign oil. But the environmental scientist James Hoffman (James LeGros), whom the oil company has hired to monitor the project’s impact, has another theory: The site where the company has chosen to drill has already been battered by strange weather; it’s too fragile to take the strain. When events take a dark turn, as they do almost immediately — even a pickup football game in the Arctic evening seems to bode ill — these two opposing forces, bigger than the men themselves, battle not just for the Earth, but for an earth-mother-ish beauty named Abby (Connie Britton).
Fessenden admits that he’s “interested in archetypes, almost to the point of cliché,” and his two central characters — the ego-driven pro-industry cowboy and the sensitive land-wise scientist, a sort of modern-day Daniel Boone — are almost mythic stand-ins for the contemporary forces warring to rule the land, one in deep denial and the other so connected to the Earth he thinks it can fight back. Caught between them is young Maxwell (Zach Gilford), whose father has sent him up to come of age on the oil fields. Terrorized, starving and prone to long, barefoot walks into the frozen night, Maxwell offers the most bone-chilling explanation for Uggianaqtuk: Ghosts are emerging from the oil as we pull it from the Earth.
“We’re grave robbers!” a panicked Maxwell mutters when Hoffman tries to settle him down with a hot dinner. “They’re coming out of the ground . . . ghosts! What is oil anyway, but fossils — plants and animals from whatever million years ago?”
This is the product of Fessenden’s own singular imagination. “When you really research what oil is, that’s what you find,” he says, “that it’s truly crushed living matter. It’s dead animals! It’s so titillating, that theme, it’s so evocative to think that oil is a ghost haunting us!
“We’re burning dead animals to build our cities. There’s got to be a payback.”But does the payback come from the Earth itself, or from the way we feel about what we’re doing to it? A theme that runs through all of Fessenden’s movies is that we can never be sure whether the beast that haunts us comes from the external world or from our own telltale hearts. In his 1997 film Habit, the dark, unpredictable Anna may be a vampire or simply the screen on which her lover, Sam (Fessenden), projects his alcoholic demons; in Wendigo (2003), a deer hunter named Otis turns cop-killer just before the shadow of a vengeful buck runs his car into a ditch. Did the creature really exist, or did Otis’ conscience finally catch up with him?
“My brand of horror is about not really understanding reality,” Fessenden says. “That’s what I find intriguing, and that’s the source of horror in my films. We don’t know what’s true. Our morality and our religions cloud our interpretation of reality, because we have a need to perceive reality through mythological filters. We create demons and gods and religion as a way of categorizing an existential reality that we don’t know how to live with.”
The inhabitants of The Last Winter’s deteriorating landscape have their own demons and gods to explain their eruptions of nosebleeds and paranoia. But the most persuasive of those theories suggests that, in our deepest collective unconscious, we know we’re destroying our home.
“I think we have a collective guilt about how we’re treating the Earth,” Fessenden says. “What if that guilt started manifesting itself in this dark north of the Arctic, where you imagine you could see things with the northern lights to help you? What if the guilt and horror we feel over what we’ve done to the planet starts to consume us?”
Worse, perhaps, what if it doesn’t? Fessenden, the rare New York City native with a long-standing affinity for nature, becomes mildly apoplectic when you start talking to him about climate-change deniers, including “you know, that awful guy, Björn-what’s-his-fuck” (he means Lomborg, the Danish political scientist whose books Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It! attempt to argue that our carbon-coated atmosphere isn’t really so big a problem).
“These people are criminals,” he spits. “Criminals. If people were being raped in the streets and people were insisting it wasn’t happening, we’d be outraged; we’d put them away for good. But in this perverted society, we can sit in a building while people burn it to the ground and continue sipping our cocktails. I’m telling you, there’s nothing more frightening than that.”
Mark Fessenden’s words: The Last Winter will not be the last horror movie to feature a climate in chaos. “World events are going to start us down this path of telling these stories about how scarcity and the weather have become prominent elements in our daily lives,” he predicts. “As we start to face what we’ve done with our bad planning and selfish behavior, we’re going to experience a horror we never imagined.
“And suddenly,” he concludes, “an ax murderer is going to seem very quaint.” LINK
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LARRY FESSENDEN on THE LAST WINTER
By Aaron Hillis
The future of modern American horror can look mighty grim when considering how little originality there is to all the remakes of far-better films (listen up, Rob Zombie) and how little suspense there's been in the hopefully waning trend of torture porn. So thank goodness we have actor-producer-director Larry Fessenden ("Habit," "Wendigo"), whose smart and unconventional take on indie horror tackles larger human issues in ways that draw easy comparisons to George Romero, John Carpenter and Larry Cohen. His latest is "The Last Winter," an arctic frightmare set in Northern Alaska in which an oil company advance team (including Ron Perlman, James LeGros and Kevin Corrigan) find themselves slowly being offed by an ambiguous creature that could just be the environment itself. Think "The Thing" meets "The 11th Hour" and you'll realize that Fessenden may have found the best way to address the global warming issue in a film — by scaring the crap out of us. I sat down with Fessenden to talk about the film, climates both environmental and political, and other terrifying topics. [WARNING: Minor spoilers follow!]
I've been waiting for a new Fessenden film for a few years now. Where have you been?
No one wants to make my movies, so it just takes forever. It's tough. I wrote this in 2001 when "Wendigo" was coming out. It took a year to really get it going, to get Jeff [Levy-Hinte] enthused and willing to produce again. Then we traveled to Alaska and made more adjustments to the script while we looked for money. It took a year to look for money, [another] year to realize we weren't getting it from the mini-majors, and then we had to wait for the season. Once you're between $3-5 million, you have to get it from somewhere. [Execs] sort of liked my script, they thought it was admirable, but it's a "tweenie": in between genres, nobody knows what it is. The whole business model of making a horror film is that it's going to deliver the kind of gore and extremism the fans are expecting. It's funny, there's a cliché in Hollywood: We all want to make the next "Rosemary's Baby," but they don't, really. They want to make the next "Saw"; that's what they're looking for. And global warming, does it get any more dreary than that? [laughs]
Why do you feel the need to include social or more universal issues in the form of a horror film?
I can't help myself. I love the horror genre so I'm inclined to write scary films filled with dread, and the things I find dreadful are where we find ourselves as a society and as individuals. You know, "Habit" isn't really a critique of anything but addiction and self-deception, so I don't know if that's considered social commentary; that's just what comes out. As for global warming, I consider it an extremely potent symbol of our failings as an entire species, that we've come to the point where we're destroying ourselves and unwilling to do anything about it. I find that fascinating — that is horror. So it's really the same theme as "Habit," [which] was once going to be called "Denial," and denial is what's certainly in play with global warming. To me, it's all really the same theory, and it's all very personal. Self-destruction is something I've been experimenting with my whole life. [laughs]
Besides scaring your audience shitless, are you hoping that your genre approach to environmental issues will transcend the preaching to the choir of "An Inconvenient Truth" or "The 11th Hour"?
Basically, my films are about conveying an emotion. In this case, it's dread and deep, deep sadness coming from the feeling of not being able to go home. That's a theme in the movie; it's even visually tagged in the end when Hoffman is being dragged away to his doom. His last memory is as a kid, almost making it to [his front] door. The centerpiece of the movie is that sadness: if we change the planet irrevocably, we can't go home. We can't return to the fall leaves in New England if they're now palm trees. So, there's something emotional about it, and that's what interests me. I mean, I would like people to change their light bulbs to compact fluorescents, but I'm just trying to express my feelings of fear and sadness about a train wreck that seems to be happening in slow motion.
Do you live green?
I'm extremely aware of green, and I'm a complete hypocrite like so many people. I drive to the country on the weekends, end of story. However, I drive a hybrid. I don't buy water bottles. I try to avoid that. The irony is that I've been using compact fluorescents for 15 years, so I've probably contributed something to my carbon footprint. I'm a vegetarian — or [at least] I eat fish, I'm a pescetarian — and I think it's a huge contribution because I love meat. I used to suck the marrow out of bones, but factory farming is atrocious, and I'm going to take a stand. That was a personal sacrifice of some merit to me. I could still sit down to a T-bone right now. [laughs] Whatever, I do my best. There are things you can do, and I have a whole website about it: runningoutofroad.com. I make the effort. But I don't want to be a propagandist in my films.
How did you come up with how "The Last Winter"'s entity would look? Did you ever attempt to make the creature more ambiguous, or had you always intended it to be wendigo-like?
In the writing, if you read the script, it's constantly saying you can't quite see it. It's just a blur. It was fun to work with CGI this time because I'd have the ability to deliberately make it transparent. Maybe I lost my focus, but it became more corporeal than I had written it to be. But that's because there's a part of me that loves to see the monster. The more blurry it got, I was like, "C'mon guys, let's make it a little clearer." It's a shortcoming, but at the same time, to me, the monster is in the mind of [LeGros' character] Hoffman and each character as they cross the line into this sense of dread about what they've done to the planet. They anthropomorphize this dread and it looks like this weird caribou thing.
I don't mind seeing it. It's brief enough, and it grew out of the original wendigo creature, which you'll see in mythologies and comic books and so on. I'm particularly drawn to the wendigo with antlers, which is sometimes how it's depicted. Oddly enough, it's also depicted as an abominable snowman. He fights Spider-Man in a comic, and he looks like a goofy, white ape. I love it because there's this sort of side mythology that is in the public imagination, but not completely. And it's by no means owned; there's no one depiction that's definitive, which is part of its charm. It's very elusive in body. Mine always has antlers, and we basically varied it from the one in ["Wendigo"] to something more caribou-like because now we're in the North. It's just nutty.
How do you think the film will go over when most American horror films today have been going in a direction of envelope-pushing gore?
Well, as you know, there are a lot of articles saying that that movement has come and gone. I think historically it will be relevant that, in an age of torture, that's what our horror movies were about. So I don't condemn the "movement," so to speak. But it's not what interests me. I'm interested in another type of horror, which is the idea of self-betrayal, all the issues of reality and imagination and how they interact. Mythology, if you will; the more metaphysical elements of horrors. As far as how I'll do with it, people pay a lot of lip service, that they wish that horror had other textures besides extreme gore. We'll see if it's true. I have a different kind of a gore — an Al Gore vibe. Hopefully, it'll go over. I don't calculate what my movies will be in terms of the marketplace, because then I'd just pack it up and become a plumber, which might be more fun anyway. [laughs]
I'm just jaded by the genre today. For every "The Last Winter," there's a half-dozen subpar efforts.
Listen, it's because the studios are involved, it's about the bottom line, and if they're taking risks, it's in other genres. Look at this slew of remakes. It's almost boring to complain about it, but it's stupefying, the amount of unique, original films that come out compared to the staggering quantity of remakes. That doesn't mean you can't do well with a remake — I thought "Dawn of the Dead" was very cool, and forgive me if I can't list all the others that were successful. But in general, I get this feeling of deep cynicism in the marketplace. What the fuck, do we really need the sequel of a remake? It's also devastating because you get great film directors who have made some strange nugget, and then they're immediately brought to Hollywood and forced to make a remake, instead of "We like you because your movie was a smash hit coming out of nowhere, and now what else do you have to offer?" No, no, there's none of that. It's right back to the cookie cutter.
Is that the main reason you're supporting some of these up-and-comers by producing their smaller films through your production company, Glass Eye Pix?
Absolutely. I believe in the original voice, the unique voice in the movies. I believe you can do stuff cheaply and make a good show of it. Now, look at my guys: Ti West, he made two movies with me, and the first thing that happens is he makes a sequel to "Cabin Fever." Mind you, that came organically out of meeting Eli Roth, so be it. Still, that's not what Hollywood wanted him to do. They didn't want him to write an original script, which he had done, and he was trying to find the money and eventually came to me, and made a second small feature for me. Douglas Buck, another auteur if you will, his lot in life was to make the "Sisters" remake. It's a unique film, and thereby it's fine that it exists and so on, but why not his own original movie, you know?
There's one particularly dazzling scene in "The Last Winter" — a single, unedited take with four characters, two snowmobiles and a measured, Antonioni-like choreography against a snowy backdrop so edgeless that it looks like a soundstage — which made me think: Why isn't there more artfulness in horror films today? Why aren't even the slasher flicks looking to Argento and Bava for inspiration?
It's such a cliché to even say it, but it's the MTV-inspired style of filmmaking, where you have the 45-degree shutter, or what we might call the "Private Ryan" look. It's used in "300" as well. Anyway, it sort of stylizes everything, but to me, it fetishizes the horror. It makes it an object. You can't wait for the next kill. That's why I think "torture porn" is an appropriate term because, in porn, you're waiting for the next cumshot, and you're going to get it in about 12 minutes. Or, in the movies I get, it's every six minutes. [laughs] But that's the point, you're just waiting for that. To reduce horror to the body count and the next kill — Is the stake going to go through the heart, or maybe the eyes will be gouged out first? — it just becomes this sort of clinical, ADD-objectifying of the experience. So you're never really in the moment, experiencing it, and so the agenda is [artless] by definition. Any number of us would think, why aren't there really great sexy movies, where the sex is treated in this more erotic way? It's weird, sex and violence are categorized in our culture so that they're these things you peer in at. They're not integrated into the story the way life is.
Could a change in the sociopolitical climate pave the way for more challenging, artful horror films?
It's a really puritanical country. There's something screwed up about the country, and I'll tell you what. The country is a certain way which leads to our sociopolitical climate. The way we think as a culture is why we can have such bozos saying complete mistruths and have people buy it. "Support the troops!" Excuse me, "support the troops" means blindly following some clown in the White House who is sending our boys and girls into battle for no reason. How is that supporting the troops? And yet it works. You kind of think: "I guess I don't support the troops because I'm not for the war." This is madness. So what's happened to our culture that we can do that? I think it has more to do with advertising, the pummeling of subtlety, the erasure of magic realism — which is a quality in films I admire, like a Buñuel film where things are literally absurd, where you're not quite sure what the truth is. Americans don't like that. They like it clear and simple, short and sweet, and so I believe this has happened through a culture that is all about immediate satisfaction, upheld because of the corporate agenda to advertise consumer goods. We're just in a pickle, and I don't know how we're going to get out it. That's why the movement that I prefer is the progressive movement, as opposed to the liberal movement, because "liberal" has been turned into a dirty word. I like the notion of progressiveness because we need to progress here into a mindset. Maybe we should all take a powder, slow down, ponder the lilies — that's what Jesus the Lord said, and everyone thinks he's the cat's pajamas. LINK
Fessenden bio | "Someone to Watch Award" | The Last Winter press | top
indieWIRE INTERVIEW | "The Last Winter" Director Larry Fessenden
by indieWIRE (September 18, 2007)
Director Larry Fessenden's thriller "The Last Winter" is set in the Arctic tundra of Northern Alaska where an advanced team working for a petroleum exploration company is engaged in a massive project to exploit the oil resources of the pristine land. After one crewmember is found dead, a disorientation slowly claims the sanity of the other members of the team as each of them succumbs to an unknowable fear. Actor/director/writer/producer Fessenden won the "Someone to Watch" Award at the 1997 Independent Spirit Awards for "Habit," which he starred and directed. He has continued to pick up nominations and awards at other festivals, including the Austin Film Festival and the Maverick Award at the 2001 Woodstock Film Festival for "Wendigo." IFC First Take opens "The Last Winter" on Wednesday, September 19 in limited release.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
I had an interest in acting from an early age and did a lot of school plays from grade school to high school. By the end of high school I had become engrossed in all the other aspects of production besides acting: the writing, directing, building sets, the music, lighting and promotion. Round about then I got a super 8 camera and began filming friends and landscapes, simple things, but I became engrossed with the way the camera tells the story by interacting with the subject. I made an hour-long film in 1979 and some shorts in the early eighties. The films were very crafted, existential slices of life; among other things I thought I invented the jump-cut. I found a particular affinity for camerawork and editing (and none for lighting). At New York University I made full length movies in video, which offered an amazing freedom, having sync sound and electronic editing. I made two features in video and had a regular public access TV show. My approach to story has remained consistent throughout: searching for mythic themes in everyday life.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
I have been involved in all aspects of filmmaking, I would like to do all of them better.
How did the idea for "The Last Winter" come about?
I tend to read non-fiction primarily, One Christmas my brother said he had a present that cost $12.95 and it will be the best present of the day. He was right. It was a book by Alfred Lansing about the adventure of Shakleton and how he lead his shipwrecked men to safety through canny leadership in the bitter cold of the Antarctic. My fascination with that story of leadership and morale melded with a desire to sequalize "Wendigo"... shoot in the snow and deal with global warming in a story. Ultimately I wanted to show how an individual's worldview affects how he or she deals with reality.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.
I hired a friend, Robert Leaver to write the script with me. I would relay on my ideas and concepts and we would riff from there. We had a back and forth and the writing was fruitful. The next installment was when producer Jeff Levy-Hinte took me to Alaska to scout the real locations. This changed a lot and brought an authenticity in the script. Our goal for the film was that it work on its own terms and reach as wide an audience as possible. We did not design the film for the marketplace--clearly!
How did the financing and casting for the film come together?
We started by going to the mini majors with the script in 2003, and most were positive but wouldn't commit to what they described as a "tweeny." Eventually Jeff started looking for equity money and tiling together a deal with the Icelandic Film Commission and Katapult foreign Sales. Jeff is a ruthless and shrewd hands-on producer and he kept the budget down by challenging every decision from the size of the nails used to build the set to the kind of hard-drives we used to build the effects.
We cast the film with Laura Rosenthal and her team and this was a very good experience. I had seen Ron Perlman in "Hellboy" and responded to the pathos he brought to that tough character. I was very excited to use James Le Gros who is consistently good in movies and deserved more screen-time. Connie also, hadn't had enough movie exposure I thought. And Kevin Corigan is an old favorite from the neighborhood. Joanne Shanendoah was a remarkable find. All the cast; it was great to see the script come alive.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution?
Every step making this movie was a challenge, from finding the locations to casting to securing the money. Then on a creative level, finishing the film took a while, doing special effects with a tiled together team, getting the music and mix right as the money dwindled, and agreeing on the final edit. We premiered at Toronto and I wanted to do trims and finesse the mix after I saw it. Selling a movie while you're re-cutting can cause confusion and might have lowered the heat on the film. We had the high-profile John Sloss of Cinetic representing the film, but there was no biding war. In October, Ryan Werner from IFC came up to me during the Woodstock Film Festival and said he had been haunted by the film, and from then on I worked to get IFC to buy it. The top dog Jonathan Sehring had long been supportive of my work; my earlier films play regularly on the channel. Eventually, prevailing over a few counter offers, IFC made the deal.
Who are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
I have always stubbornly attempted to draw from life and non-fiction when building a story. I have never sought to imitate a film or sequence in my own work. At the same time, I have absorbed a great deal of media since I was a kid, and always experienced movies very acutely, and imitate them instinctively. I watched black and white films from the '30s and '40s on TV when I was little. I loved horror movie most of all, but eventually hooked in to the Warner Brothers films starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. New York City in the '70s had great revival houses, and you could see all the old movies projected: Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Hitchcock.
The revival houses also played recent films, so I was able to see "Midnight Cowboy," "Eraserhead," "Mean Streets," "Night of the Living Dead," "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "A Clockwork Orange" and hundreds of others in the theater. Eventually I got old enough to see first run movies: I saw "Taxi Driver," "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" and "The Shining" the first week they came out. It was an awesome time for movies in New York City. And so I am influenced by Scorsese, Polanski, Hitchcock, Kubrick. With these filmmakers I feel a kinship of purpose and style. As a New York kid I went to museums and was very influenced by David, Caravaggio, Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, DeChirico and more recently, Andy Goldsworthy. I spent a lot of time at the Museum of Natural History, and once helped mold dinosaur bones. I went to Cape Cod in the Summer. I was always afraid of the dark. Maybe it was childhood itself that influenced me most.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker, and what is your next project?
I think of every film as my last, so I try to bring all genres into every one. Every time I try to stray from horror, I am drawn back to it by my natural bleak outlook. For the first time, I have three projects developing at once, maybe a forth. Only one of them isn't scary.
What is your definition of "independent film," and has that changed at all since you first started working?
Independent film is a broad term stretching many budget ranges. My main observation about Indie film is that low-budget productions have become more regimented and officious, and everywhere there is more self-awareness about the venues and visibility a film can achieve. We live in a capitalist, goal-oriented society and that mind-set has permeated the arts.
What are your interests outside of film?
The future of the planet, the political circus, trees, nature, the uncanny, growing food, cooking, alternative energy, monsters, movies and music.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Don't spend a lot of money on your first films. Take your time, this is an art-form. Explore and discover. Do every job. Learn to edit so you know how to shoot. Have something to say. Have LIVE events and screenings, you can project on that wall right there. Or set up 15 TVs in a bar and show your feature film. That's what we used to do.
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
Sticking to it.
Fessenden bio | "Someone to Watch Award" | The Last Winter press | top
By Damon Smith
In 2005 indie director Larry Fessenden was troubled by the state of the world—specifically, by our leaders’ callow response to the threat of global warming. So he did what he does best: He made a horror movie. The Last Winter, about a skeleton crew of oil-dredge workers afflicted by madness and other disturbing phenomena in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, revisits some of the tropes in Fessenden’s spooky 2001 feature Wendigo, including a fearsome, shape-shifting deer-spirit. The film was overlooked when it premiered at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, later acquired by IFC First Take (releases September 19), and recently earned enthusiastic comparisons to John Carpenter’s The Thing as well as the socially conscious art-horror of George Romero and David Cronenberg.
Macabre and disquieting, Fessenden’s films have always had an existential bent, dealing with loneliness, spiritual isolation, and psychological affliction. Anyone familiar with his decade-in-the-making horror trilogy (No Telling, Habit, Wendigo) knows he’s handcrafted a tradition of chilling films more reliant on anomie and flesh-creeping atmosphere than bodily mutilation. Winner of a 1997 “Someone to Watch” Independent Spirit Award for Habit, his melancholic, AIDS-haunted twist on urban vampirism, Fessenden likes to work in the realm of myth and lore, updating creaky old stories (Frankenstein and Algernon Blackwood tales, for instance) to reflect contemporary anxieties about everything from rogue science to romantic disillusionment. So the impulse to grapple with climate change suits him, and given the film’s subtle, harrowing mix of eco-consciousness and claustrophobic dread, The Last Winter could bring Fessenden his widest audience yet.
As the film opens, bullheaded foreman Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman) arrives at a remote base station operated by North Industries ready to begin drilling. Almost immediately, he locks horns with James Hoffman (James LeGros), an activist hired by North to do the environmental impact assessment. He’s concerned that erratic temperatures are causing the permafrost to melt, making the ice roads unusable. Pollack is undaunted. As the camp is plagued by unseen forces Hoffman begins to suspect there may be something — sour gas? enraged fossil-fuel spirits? — emanating from the warming tundra. The excellent cast is rounded out by Connie Britton and Zach Gilford (of Friday Night Lights fame), Kevin Corrigan (Superbad), Jamie Harrold, Joanne Shenandoah and Pato Hoffman.
Apart from helming psychological horror movies, Fessenden is an actor (The Brave One, Broken Flowers), producer (Ilya Chaiken’s upcoming Liberty Kid), and passionate advocate for sustainable living. In 2006, he launched a Web site dedicated to educating the public about global warming, and has even written a how-to book on carbon-neutral film production. All the more reason to take seriously the green politics of The Last Winter, a shrewdly paced thriller whose Gore-y, apocalyptic finale makes An Inconvenient Truth look downright cheery.
Filmmaker spoke with Fessenden about monsters, the politics of global warming and the pleasures of filming in Iceland.
When you began work on the script in 2001, did you know this film was going to have a strong environmentalist current?
Fessenden: It was designed to be about global warming, and the setting was the controversy over drilling in ANWR [Arctic National Wildlife Refuge] and our obsession with oil. So yes, in a way, that was the context in which the characters were going to act.
Filmmaker:Did you and co-writer Robert Leaver want it to have an Arctic setting, specifically?
Fessenden: Yeah. When Fargo came out I remember being jealous and delighted by how beautiful that was as a snow film. And I liked A Simple Plan, too. So for as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with making a snow film. With Wendigo, which was filmed in upstate New York, we had good snow coverage and to most eyes it’s a successfully snowy movie. But at the end of the shoot the snow melted and disappeared. So I wanted to make a movie where it was truly cold, and that brought to mind northern Alaska. I went there when I was a kid. The way I work is these elements all come together into some kind of strange soup: I wanted to make a snow movie, I was interested in the global-warming problem and the drilling in ANWR and so on.
Filmmaker: The Last Winter seems to synthesize a lot of themes — nature’s vengeance, for instance — that you first explored in Wendigo. Was that a conscious decision?
Fessenden: My deal with Ed Pressman at ContentFilm — they took on Wendigo for distribution — was that I would have a sequel. And I wanted to show up with something if they ever followed through on their contract. Of course, they didn’t, which was fine, because I was able to have more control over the project. Initially, I thought, well, what would a sequel look like? And of course I didn’t really sequelize it in terms of the family or anything — I just took the premise and the themes and expanded on them, took them elsewhere.
Filmmaker: One of the things I admire about your work is the subtle use of special effects, especially since these are genre movies.
Fessenden: It’s something I’m always fighting in myself. When I was a kid, I was very impatient with movies like mine. I’d have been driven mad by it because I wanted to see the monster as soon as possible. But I have conflicting agendas as I make films. My producer, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, was always encouraging me to think again about the monster, to make sure not to overstate it, so it was really a process. I showed the movie at the Toronto Film Festival. It was the first time I’d seen it with an audience and with the effects finished. And I actually pared down some of the creature effects. So it’s a combination of my love for the monster and the knowledge that the less you see of it, and the more elusive it is, the more you really convey how monsters exist in our lives — which is to say, on the periphery or in our troubled imagination.
Filmmaker: At the heart of the film is the conflict between Hoffman and Pollack, which is a swatch, I guess, of a larger political discussion we’ve been having in the U.S. Pollack is blustery, brutish, and determined to do things “North’s way,” to “stay the course” regardless of the consequences. He reminded me a bit of Dubya, of that mentality, of pushing ahead regardless of what the evidence coming back at you is.
Fessenden: In 2001 I was already infuriated with Bush. More to the point is the mindset of the people who want to drill in ANWR and who want to pursue oil at the expense of alternative fuels. I wanted to show the partisan impasse, and how the premises of your mindset really determine how you try to solve problems. I have a great affection for Pollack as well, and I think that’s important. He has this gung-ho spirit that we associate with America and he gets the job done. But there’s a point at which that mindset runs its course and maybe his solutions are no longer viable in the modern world. The best leaders are able to bring people together and see their common goals.
Filmmaker: Pollock is also quite a vulnerable figure, almost childlike at times.
Fessenden: I think Perlman does such a great job showing that with sympathy and humor. But then you realize people [like Pollack] are leading our country, our expeditions, and they’re really just like kids. They aren’t able to listen, they’re stubborn, and they’re going to contradict what the advice is just for the sake of being in charge. One of my favorite scenes is when they’re discussing how they have to leave the station after the plane crash. Everything that Hoffman suggests, Pollack is opposed to, just to be the guy who came up with the solution. I feel that’s very well drawn, and you see it everywhere, even in the schoolyard. We all have a little Pollack in us.
Filmmaker: Hoffman’s journals, which we’re privy to in LeGros’s voiceover, are an important element in the film. It’s where he surmises that these weather disturbances have a supernatural cause, yet he never voices that fear to others.
Fessenden: Maxwell proposes something Hoffman has thought of himself. He says, “What if they’re ghosts? Oil is ghosts.” There’s a great moment in LeGros’s performance where he twitches and goes, well no, and you realize he’s denying his own inkling. To me, it’s very subtle and it really works in that scene. [Gilford and LeGros] are both really good. I also like the theme in the film that when you start to see the beasts, you’re doomed. I’m not proposing that they’re there, but that you’re crossing into a frame of mind which leaves you vulnerable to madness and to this sense of dread which is everybody’s undoing.
Filmmaker: Pollack is the only one who never sees what everyone else sees.
Fessenden: Well, speaking of Bush [Laughs]. I think it’s a mindset. Ultimately my films are about the psychology of people, and the level of self-delusion is what interests me.
Filmmaker: At one point, both Abby and Pollack accuse Hoffman of wishy-washy alarmism, which seemed to encapsulate some of the broader attitudes people have typically had toward environmentalists over the years.
Fessenden: It’s a deep irony that we’re supposed to prove global warming beyond a shadow of a doubt, and yet we had absolutely no proof whatsoever that Saddam was up to anything. The argument is, you have to have proof before we’re going to pull up our tent. Proof of what? The future? I don’t have it. But I think we have some questions. And whatever happened to caution? Whereas, somehow, preemptively going into another country makes perfect sense to the same mindset. We’re in a pickle.
Filmmaker: Did anything unplanned happen during filming in Iceland, weatherwise?
Fessenden: We did have a terrible blizzard that shut us down for a day. We had one scene where it rains, which was supposed to be a complete anomaly. We had our rain trucks ready and everything—then it rained that day, and even the Icelandics were weirded out. Honestly, everyone talked about global warming. But some days it was blistering hot, in terms of a pitiless sun shining down on us. There was vigorous activity day to day out there. You put this beautiful 35mm camera up on a skimobile and off you go with six guys following on another skimobile, and that would be your shoot.
Filmmaker: You and cinematographer G. Magni Agustsson really utilized the arctic landscape, which added so much to the film’s visual and tonal environment.
Fessenden: The whole way the movie was produced by Jeffrey-Levy Hinte was really smart. It was fun to be solving problems and getting the most out of our budget. We built that set up there—it’s just a shell, there’s nothing inside. Jeff figured out that we’d have to do our aerial shots the first day, before we built our base camp where the actors and the food would be housed. Wonderfully simple solutions like that. We had this incredible helicopter pilot and his right-hand man who could do these amazing maneuvers. We were shooting helicopter to airplane [at one point]. It was all crazy and quite dangerous. But it was done intelligently and everyone knew what they were doing. I love the whole Icelandic vibe. Everyone did different jobs and pitched in. If a car got stuck in the snow, it wasn’t the end of the world, just something you deal with and move on. I found them to be robust, which I think is great. The spirit was very high.
Filmmaker: Was Werner Herzog aware that you used footage from Lessons of Darkness?
Fessenden: I was in Toronto and he must have been showing Rescue Dawn. It was a year ago, so I’m not that far behind the masters, taking a year to get my film out! Anyway, I saw him in the street and stopped him and was almost speechless. I just said, “I love your work.” But I like to say that me and Herzog collaborated. [Laughs] His documentary about the Kuwait fires is very powerful, so I was really excited to be able to snatch that footage, to even know that it was possible. We made the inquiry and they said [lapsing into full-blown Herzog imitation], ‘It’s available for a price, you know,’ and then you deal with Herzog’s brother, who’s also crazy.
Filmmaker: Do you find it hard writing for horror audiences considering that you’re not giving them the gory stuff most fans are clamoring for?
Fessenden: It’s terrible to admit, but I don’t really think about the audience in that regard. I want to convey my ideas because I’m convinced they’re interesting, or even fun. I’m actually a B-movie maker, I always say. If I wanted to explore these things in a more intellectual way, I’m sure I’d make dramas that would be all over The New York Times. I love monsters and the fun of that, and I have a deep relationship to dread and fear. If that isn’t the horror genre, I don’t know what is. I can’t worry about the gore guys. They’ve got plenty to entertain themselves with.
Filmmaker: Do you have any models for your brand of socially conscientious filmmaking?
Fessenden: No. [Laughs] Costa-Gavras maybe, but all that is political. By chance, I’ve made two movies about environmental issues and I can honestly say that is quite rare. There is a tradition in some horror movies of the revenge of the beasts — with frogs and God knows what — but my model is much more traditional. I’m influenced by Scorsese’s movies and Roman Polanski, who has that subtle sense of dread in his films.
Filmmaker: How do you think people will respond to The Last Winter?
Fessenden: I’ve really carved a very strange place for myself — the pursuit of the uncanny. I really think the uncanny is what we live every day, and to express that is so cool. The axe murder in an absolutely shocking and horrifying event, but it only happens to a few of us. We can obsess on it, and that’s fine, but what’s intriguing is the peculiarity you live with every day. The little nicks and cuts, as opposed to the huge axe murder—those are things that we do to ourselves and we’re doing right now. There is no more symbolic feature in our lives than the fact that we are ignoring this thing that is killing us. It’s just madness. LINK
Fessenden bio | "Someone to Watch Award" | The Last Winter press | top
It's been ten years since Larry Fessenden made his urban vampire film Habit, a movie that's been kept alive thanks to the amount of airtime available on cable television, but since then, he's continued his career as one of New York's maverick indie film stalwarts, producing and appearing in some of the scarier independent horror films of the last few years. (He also appears in a studio movie from time to time, as he did in Jodie Foster's The Brave One.)
His new movie The Last Winter takes on the larger topic of global warming in an Arctic horror tale that stars Ron Perlman as an oil worker who refuses to stop drilling despite the deaths and disappearances plaguing his crew and warnings by an environmentalist, played by James Le Gros, that the damages being done to the land are unleashing spirits bent on revenge. It's a surprisingly bigger budget film than what we've seen from Fessenden in the past, but a lot of his sensibilities are retained.
ShockTillYouDrop.com had a rare chance for an extended conversation with the eclectic New York filmmaker about his latest movie and other things going on in his world and ours.
ShockTillYouDrop.com: It's been five years since you made "Wendigo" and there's definitely some references to that in this movie, so is this part 4 of your "trilogy of horror"?
Larry Fessenden: Yeah, I'm moving on, but the irony in a way is "The Last Winter" is sort of a distillation of the other three. I mean, I see it that way, as having elements from the other three movies, the echo message of "No Telling" and the sort of subjective madness of "Habit" and then of course the Wendigo presence, the revenging spirit presence from "Wendigo." To be honest, it was written first as an attempt to try to make a sequel of some sort to "Wendigo." It was in our contract with Ed Pressman's company Content Film, so we thought, "Sure, what would a sequel look like?" Not really using the same characters or setting, but just the same thematic, vengeful comeuppance themes.
Shock: Because of the location, you get more into global warming, which is a hot topic right now.
Fessenden: Yeah, hot topic indeed!
Shock: You actually wrote this years ago, but it must be fortuitous that it's being released now.
Fessenden: Well, you know I've been interested in global warming and all sorts of environmental elements since the ‘90s when I read a book called "Silent Spring" and I first started reading more and more and a book called, "The End of Nature" started to present this idea of global warming and then Al Gore's first book "Earth in the Balance", so I've always been interested. I even wrote a book called "Low Impact Filmmaking" which was a little thing to help people make some good choices on the set. In that book, written in 1990, I have a paragraph talking about global warming, so it's sad because I'm speaking with great urgency about something that hasn't been dealt with for 17 years now. (chuckles)
Shock: At least this will reach another audience who might not go see a documentary on the subject.
Fessenden:Yeah, and similarly maybe the global warming crowd would come to a horror film which they might not do otherwise, so it's good for everyone.
Shock: You worked with a new writer on this. Is this the first one you've collaborated with another writer on?
Fessenden: My first movie "No Telling" I wrote with Beth Underwood who is my wife now, and in the past I had, so it's not a big deal. The fact is that "Habit" was my own story to tell so I did write that. I give the primary credit to myself, but I had written with a couple of other writers over the years. That story I've been telling for a long time. "Wendigo", I just wrote very fast and very much on my own and so it was sole credit. This is my first time working with Robert Lieber and it was a great collaboration. I knew him as a friend, and I knew that he was interested in writing screenplays. He's written a couple of his own that hadn't been produced and I just felt his energy would be a great way to fuse my ideas and just have somebody to talk to about the project.
Shock: What was the process like? Was it a matter or you had something already written and then you brought him in?
Fessenden: I didn't have anything written, but I had a strong idea of what I wanted it to be and we would sit for a couple of hours every other day and we talk things through, every detail, like what are the names of the characters and what are the nature of characters, and then he would go off and write stuff down and then feed it back to me. Then I could critique it as if it was sort of a fresh thing. It was a really great process. I had hired him, so I was still the boss, and I could direct the story in a way that was true to my thinking. Which is important, because when I direct the film, I have to understand it. So worked for me naturally, you get this strange feeling when the movie goes off and gets made. I think Robbie had his own issues of separation and you know, loss of control, but in the end I think we're both happy with it.
Shock: Would you do another movie with Robbie in this way?
Fessenden: In fact, we're talking about writing another movie together, which would be a non-horror movie and that will be a fun project. Once again, Robbie just has a very robust imagination, and it plays well with mine. I have just very specific things that interest me, so it works together.
Shock: However it worked out, I think it worked really well. Did this movie have a bigger budget that you normally work with?
Fessenden: No, it was much bigger. It was my first in 35 mm, and of course we had to go to Iceland to film, so there's a lot of just practical things that raised the budget, and then we had a crane everyday.The crew was actually the same size as "Wendigo" but as I say, in a whole different environment, so it was much more expensive. I don't know… it cost ten times as much as the last movie.
Shock: How are Icelandic crews to work with as far as shooting up there?
Fessenden: I loved the crew. They were a very robust group and everybody shares in all the tasks. It's not as delineated as American crews, who are very conscience of the union rules, even when their not making a union film. They sort of have been trained that way in their thinking, whereas in Iceland, everybody sort of pitched in. It's an interesting community. They all know each other from childhood, so there's old rivalries and old affections that play out in this arena of filmmaking. Everybody knew the DP who was actually a very young guy, who was like 26 I think, and it just was a lot of affection and warmth on the set and I work best that way. We have a really have a fun time on the set, even though we're telling a somber story, and Ron Perlman was a gas and we all had a lot of laughs. I like to run a ship that way, because it keeps the morale up and you actually get more out of people.
Shock: The DP did a really great job with the look of the film. Do have any sort of film school up in Iceland?
Fessenden: Well, I don't know if they have a film school actually, but I think Magni (the DP) went to England and did a lot of commercials throughout Europe and even in America, but more specifically they have a great film community and of course, Clint Eastwood shot both his war movies there, the recent Batman, the whole beginning scene. They are constantly hosting Hollywood films and a lot of independent, Hal Hartley made a movie there called "No Such Thing" and they have their own filmmakers, so it's a great film community actually.
Shock: I was going to ask you if you did any research into global warming but you answered that before with all those books. Did you go back and reread some of them for this?
Fessenden: It's a good question actually. The research element of this movie was my producer--which was awesome and not everyone would have done this--he financed a trip, he and I went to Alaska. We went to Prudhoe Bay, which is the very tippy-top of Alaska where the oil pipeline starts, and very few people go there, citizens I should say. There's a lot of oil guys there and every now and again, an environmentalist will go through on their way to the pristine landscape called Anwar. It was just a very unusual trip and there I learned that the landscape Robbie and I had written about was not accurate. We had beautiful pine trees and all this, because it was Alaska, but in fact it was a very flat landscape, which is why they want to drill up there. It really affected the script and I learned a lot about oil drilling and actually more about that stuff and sour gas and a lot of the things, even ice roads. Everything in the movie was sort of revised once we got up there. You can read about stuff all you want, but until you're actually there, you don't soak it in. It was a great trip and really affected the script, and of course I researched global warming and what might happen and so on. In the film, all that stuff is happening basically…
Shock: Right, except for that giant creature…
Fessenden: No, that's happening, too!!! You just don't see it yet!
Shock: You found that out as part of your research.
Fessenden: Yeah, exactly. You can't imagine, but they're just wandering around the plains out there. (laughs)
Shock: James Le Gros' environmentalist is a very interesting character, and the relationship between him and Ron Perlman is also interesting, having this love triangle amidst all of the deaths and strange occurences. Can you talk about how that developed?
Fessenden: Well, that came out of me and Robbie's--I have no idea who thought of it--but we just knew that we wanted that element because it would really eat away at Ron Perlman. It's funny. I never in my mind was sure that Perlman had actually had a relationship with her. He clearly always pined away for her and I pictured that Abby, played by Connie Britton, had somewhat climbed through the corporate structure by kind of leading him on. I don't know if any of that comes through, and most people just assume they had an affair in the past, and that's fine, but I think I was trying to point out that Abby, who's kind of a neutral character--she's kind of on both guys' sides—that she was also kind of an operator and an opportunist and maybe had used Perlman's affections to get where she was. You can tell he has a tremendous soft spot for her. But in any case, the triangle is at least an emotional one. I also wanted to say that in a way we're all, as the everyman citizen, hearing about global warming. We're kind of in Abby's position. We kind of believe Perlman's take, which is that progress is essential and you must go forward and be bold and we were certainly hearing the other side, which is the concerns. The movie's kind of like "Where's she going to land?" and she pretty much stays on Perlman's side until things get really bad and then she seems to kind of come to the belief that maybe Hoffman is right. The movie plays on the fact that Hoffman can't quite define what's wrong, which of course the way that the global warming deniers, if you will, play on the fact that you can't predict the future, so that's a very important element in the national debate. It's also on a personal level what happens when you're not quite sure that something's wrong, and you're not sure, like I'm trying to express anxiety here, I think we should look into this. It's easy to dismiss that and say, "Well, you're a coward or a fool."
Shock: I just saw the global warming documentary "The 11th Hour" which deals with that a lot.
Fessenden: The first half of the trailer, you're absolutely horrified and the second half the music changes, and it's like, "And this is what you can do." Even Al Gore's movie didn't really have a solution. (laughs) I think it's good that Leo's turned that corner…I didn't see the movie yet.
Shock: He does a good job, but it's very deep, though you might appreciate it having read all of those books.
Fessenden: I'd probably recognize half the characters.
Shock: Probably. I personally think that most people won't have any idea what they're talking about, including myself half the time.
Fessenden: Well that's interesting. Then you have to ask, "Was it a good movie?" in terms of…do you personally believe that global warming is happening? I think these movies are great. It's important for people to get with the program.
Shock: As far as Ron Perlman, I thought that was great casting. He hasn't appeared in that many movies, although he does have the background doing horror movies for Guillermo del Toro. What made you think of him?
Fessenden: Well, I'd have to admit, it was seeing "Hellboy." I mean I've known Perlman from all the way back, he's in "Cronos", "The City of Lost Children." I remember him of course from the Alien movie he's in, and I was aware of "Beauty and the Beast" which was on TV. So Perlman, he's a movie star that you're aware of, but I saw "Hellboy", and I just thought he was immensely charming and sympathetic even as a gruff character and even as obviously this grotesque red creature, and I thought that's the vibe I want for Pollack. I want him to be sort of repellent and robust and a blowhard, but I want him to be kind of like a kid underneath and show his other side. I really thought Perlman would deliver that, plus it's a nice reference to the genre. Look, here's our genre favorite and let's see him in this other kind of genre movie.
Shock: You've kind of become almost like the poster child for the indie horror movies, where you appear in all of these movies like "Session 9" and "Headspace." You're going to be in Ti West's sequel to "Cabin Fever."
Fessenden: Yeah, well it's funny, because I'm not also everybody's cup of tea. My kind of movies are quite subtle and so on, and maybe when I appear in these other movies, they're actually more of a favorite. I know Ti's movie is going to have plenty of blood for the gore fans. It's absolutely appallingly grotesque and that will be fun and I get to die in that movie like I do in all my others. Then "Session 9" I think is a beloved film. It's definitely one on the creepiest films ever, so it's just great. I love being invited to do these things.
Shock: Do you feel that TI is one of your graduating class, having produced and released most of his early films?
Fessenden: Yeah, I mean quite honestly I did support him when he was young, and I knew that he was going to be great and he's proved it. I don't know if he'll stay in the horror genre, but he's going to be a filmmaker for sure that we'll reckon with. I think he's a really good filmmaker. I knew that from the start. His shorts are great, and it's pure cinema. That's what I like about Ti. He's not as much about the writing, though he's a good writer. He writes what he needs to film, but he's just a really good filmmaker.
Shock: So we now know you die in the movie, but who do you play? Should we keep that a secret?
Fessenden: Nah, I play the guy who drives the delivery truck over the water, which causes the virus, so I'm obviously affected because I'm drinking my own product, and then I just perish early on and start the whole thing going, so it's a great role.
Shock: You kind of have to die if you started it all.
Fessenden: Absolutely! Ti lives in a highly moral universe. Ha ha!
Shock: What's going on with Scareflix these days? I know you have a couple of movies in the works, so have you finished shooting them?
Fessenden: We are in the middle of shooting one ("I Sell the Dead"), which is where we took a hiatus while we're waiting for Ron Perlman to come back from the Hellboy shoot. That's a great movie in the tradition of the Hammer films from the ‘60s, and it's a beautiful period piece by Glen McQuaid, who's done a lot of the effects on my own films. I'm very excited about that. That's not even finished and we're just finishing up a movie called "I Can See You" by Graham Reznick, who is Ti's sound man, so if you know Ti's work, you know how important the sound is so imagine Graham having control over a whole movie. It's going to be very special, and then Jim McKinney made this robot movie we're just going to release this year called "Automotons", a release on video. They're slowly trickling out on DVD now. The first two are already out and then two more are coming out this year, so it's very cool. It's a great project, the Scareflix thing.
Shock: Are you going to go right into another movie yourself?
Fessenden: I'm going to try to have a faster turnaround than before, yeah. I want to shoot in the spring, a very small film and just get that under way and then maybe next fall, meaning in a year, have something a little more substantial, but it's hard, man. It's hard to find the money and the backing, especially when you're a strange filmmaker like myself. It's not guaranteed that this is what people want. I'll make my way, but it's always a mystery. Look, even Martin Scorsese used to have trouble raising money and he made some of the best films ever. It's not an easy gig…filmmaking.
Shock: So in thirty years, we'll see you at the Oscars when you're 70 years old?
Fessenden: Yeah, yeah, exactly. I mean, look at that. He had to wait that long. I don't know, it's weird. As for the Oscars, I only take you up on that question because well, it'll be interesting. The great goal is to make a truly great movie or even a really good movie and you know, that's a very elusive goal. (chuckles)
Shock: Well, what's ironic is that he went back and made the same type of movie he made in his early years and that's what won him the honor.
Fessenden: Yeah, it had the same flavor, but we all know he got the award for being Marty and you know not specifically "The Departed", though it's perfectly good.
Shock: Going back to Iceland. We talked about the crews, but what about the actual environment? Did everyone have to go through some sort of survival course to know how to survive out there?
Fessenden: Not for the Icelandics. They live that life. We were very safe to the degree that we could be. (chuckles) We were up in the northern part of Iceland filming the exterior scenes, and we all lived in these remote hotels and we'd drive 20 minutes in the morning down this one single road. At a certain point, you veer off to the left and you're off road and you're driving over lava flows with a thin coat of ice and snow. That's where we had our little base camp. We ate in these school busses, that was the accommodations and then, we'd go out and film and we'd carry the 35mm camera around on these skidoos. It was just great, very much the way I like to work and very adventurous. I'm a fan of Herzog, and though we weren't in the jungle, we were in the cold and it was really like an adventure. It just keeps things real. You're not acting like your cold--you are cold.
Shock: The movie is set-up in a way in that it does ask some questions that are left unanswered and open-ended for some sort of sequel. Did you envision continuing the story or doing something else in that same setting?
Fessenden: Mm. Well, I think my movies are like... they all could fit together. You could have a film festival. The only one that's out of order is, I'd make "Habit" before "No Telling", which I don't know if you've seen but that's more about a couple, so they sort of almost take you through the stages of life. Like in "No Telling", they're not married yet. I'm not saying they're literally sequels, but there is this kind of growing up going on, and I do have in mind my next film is perhaps what happens after "The Last Winter," what's the world look like then. It's not a sequel at all, and certainly we've had enough "Wendigo" for now. I think I'll take a break from the Wendigo.
Shock: Are we going to give the CGI guys a break also?
Fessenden: Oh, I can't say that. (laughs)
Shock: Having mentioned Herzog, do you think you might continue doing more man vs. nature type horror films like these last two?
Fessenden: You know, I'm really a misanthrope. That means I'm very discouraged with the human species, and I always include nature in the backdrop of things. I find that to be essential. Then again, "Habit" is a city film and it has a great affection for New York City, but I would argue it's also about the night, and it's still about something bigger then just the people. That's just my approach.
Shock: The horror in this movie is based on stuff going on in the real world, something that George Romero shepherded along with his zombie movies, though his politics was more subliminal. Do you feel that this is the direction where horror is going?
Fessenden: I don't know that that's where it's going, but that's where I'm taking it. I'm with George on this topic. I really think that the best horror is derived from real life and the fact is, real life is filled with issues. I don't know if they need to be partisan issues, but they're political and that there are solutions and there's debate as to how to address things. Wendigo" is about a class struggle and the usurpation of the land by the Indians, and then by the white settlers and then by the rich people from the country people, so that's political, but I'm not telling people what to do. I'm just saying this is the way it is and this is where violence and sudden violence comes from. It comes from resentment. In the case of "The Last Winter", we can disagree all we want about how to solve problems, but the problems don't change. They can get worse and worse and you can keep arguing all you want, but the fu*cking world can collapse around you. You can do something or not, but the world ain't waiting for us to come up with solutions. It's going to do what it's doing and it's moving in a very scary direction. LINK
Fessenden bio | "Someone to Watch Award" | The Last Winter press | top
Larry Fessenden: Man of New York City Cinema
by Ray Privett, Halloween 2007
Larry Fessenden is one of the most important figures in New York City cinema today. Period. Here is a truly generous man of cinema: one who constantly supports visionary filmmakers, in part by making a community of them, and for them.
Fessenden is perhaps best recognized as a character actor in such studio and “indiewood” films as Bringing Out the Dead, Broken Flowers, and The Brave One (this last one directed by Neil Jordan, starring Jodie Foster, and currently in release). In these and also in many lower-budget New York based productions, Fessenden typically plays uncouth and slightly amusing supporting characters, who often are killed off to advance the plot. Among films released within the last year alone, Fessenden has been killed at least five times; several other deathscenes are currently in post-production. In The Last Winter, the new environmental horror film he wrote and directed which opens this week, Fessenden even kills himself off.
Fessenden’s sacrifices before the camera coincide with enormous sacrifices and efforts behind the camera, and also in the audience.This support is partially as a financier. Despite his tendency to play lower class characters - capitalizing on his wild hair, offbeat fashion sense, and missing front tooth - Fessenden seems to come from a higher-class background. Details are vague, but that background seems close to that of the melancholic, alcoholic Columbia University Professor’s son he portrays in his breakthrough writing/directing effort Habit (1997). Most likely drawing from that background and also from his own mid-level successes as an actor and producer, Fessenden has invested in several notable dramatic filmmakers through his production company Glass Eye Pix, among them Kelly Reichardt (director of River of Grass, Ode, and another forthcoming project), Jeff Winner (Satellite), Ilya Chaiken (Margarita Happy Hour, the forthcoming Liberty Kid), and Ira Sachs (The Delta, Forty Shades of Blue). He has also funded a stable of wildly talented and resourceful directors of horror and science fiction, who create intellectual genre films under Glass Eye’s Scareflix banner. In forty years, film historians will probably speak of the Scareflix stable as they now speak of Roger Corman’s American International Pictures. Corman had, among others, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, and Joe Dante; Fessenden now has James Felix McKenney (writer/director of The Off Season, Automatons, the forthcoming Satan Hates You), Ti West (The Roost, and the forthcoming Trigger Man and Cabin Fever 2), Douglas Buck (Family Portraits, the forthcoming Sisters), Glenn McQuaid (the forthcoming I Sell the Dead), Graham Reznick (the forthcoming I Can See You), and many others.
Money is important, of course, as is the willingness to be killed off to advance plots. But Fessenden’s support is stronger, more foundational, because money for production fuses with cultivation of a collaborative, interactive community for filmmaking and film-viewing. Glass Eye and Scareflix directors regularly work on each others’ projects. Beyond writing and directing I Sell the Dead, Glenn McQuaid has done visual effects or title design for at least six other Scareflix titles. He has also designed the internet and marketing presence for Automatons and Trigger Man, while modernizing the Glass Eye and Scareflix designs originally created by Fessenden’s wife, the artist Beck Underwood. James Felix McKenney and Ti West have appeared in and worked on each others’ productions. Douglas Buck shot the “making of” video for The Last Winter; and most Scareflix filmmakers were involved one way or another with The Last Winter. Meanwhile, Fessenden and McKenney are perfectly willing to work with office and production manager Brent Kunkle to create and send out materials to venues and critics.
One venue with whom they often work is the Pioneer Theater, where this writer works. The Pioneer is in the neighborhood where Fessenden has lived since 1981: New York City’s Lower East Side, part of which is also known as the East Village. Fessenden’s relationship with the Pioneer is profound. His friendship with Phil Hartman and Doris Kornish - the theater’s controversial owners - has endured over more than two decades. Indeed, Phil and Phil’s brother Jesse both appear in Habit: Phil in a bit part and Jesse in a supporting role; Fessenden had also worked with Jesse on River of Grass. The Fessenden family had supported the Pioneer at its opening, Beck Underwood even created the graphics the Pioneer still uses seven years into its existence. The theater’s main logo, a filmmaker with a camera looking out over the city, is in fact a stylized version of Fessenden himself looking out over the East Village from a nearby rooftop.
Fessenden’s support is not “purely” generous: the Pioneer has shown many Glass Eye / Scareflix productions in ways that have increased the value of those films. However, the relationship is gentle and generous: Fessenden does not force programs onto the theater, but instead is respectful and deferential in all negotiations. He also functions as a sounding board and constant source of moral support for theater administrators.
Despite this deep relationship, the Pioneer cannot, should not, and does not claim exclusivity over Fessenden’s work. He has strong, long-standing relationships with several other theaters across the city. Cinema Village, on 12th street, opened Habit, and the Film Forum on west Houston opened Wendigo. On East Houston, the Landmark Sunshine - now owned by the same company as owns Magnolia Pictures - last night offered a free public screening of The Last Winter, which IFC Films opens today at its theater on Sixth Avenue in the West Village. The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theatre has now also offered its screen to Fessenden, giving The Last Winter its New York City premiere this past Monday in an event the Film Society’s magazine Film Comment presented. Movie theaters have their rivalries and their battles; their bureaucrats come and go and interest in various programs fluctuates. However, Fessenden’s relationships endure - and evolve.
Nonetheless, Fessenden’s identification with the East Village runs deep, as does his cultivation of community there. Habit, with which Fessenden made his breakthrough, also takes place mostly in the neighborhood, and that film’s metaphysical vampirism serves in part as a commentary on and lament about the heroin and AIDS epidemics that killed many there through the 80s and 90s. For Captured: A Film / Video History of the Lower East Side - the mammoth, nearly 600 page book, edited by Clayton Patterson and published with some support from Phil Hartman - Fessenden wrote an essay called “Notes from An East Village Filmmaker.” That piece includes numerous tidbits about the last thirty years. Fessenden recalls “making the 140-minute caper movie Experienced Movers  with a Sony video camera and Beta II porta-pac,” and also working with such neighborhood performance artists as Pat Oleszko, Penny Arcade (with whom he shot Jack Smith’s apartment), and David Leslie (aka The Impact Addict). He also references screening X-Movers in 1986 “in bars and storefronts around the East Village on 11 TVs hooked in an RF cable daisy chain. We never got any press; it was neither art nor cinema, but it’s how I learned to make and distribute movies,” and recalls screening films at Anthology Film Archives (”that crazy fortress on 2nd Avenue”), PS 122 on 9th Street and First Avenue, and elsewhere around the neighborhood. The piece closes with a reference to Habit’s triumphant return to the neighborhood: “When Habit came out on video [through Fox Lorber video], the Blockbusters [sic] on Houston Street had 24 copies for rent. Now that’s a small-town feel.”
A small-town of Glass Eye Pix and Scareflix, within the Lower East Side: a fascinating, nurturing, generous, and talented community, whose mayor offers more to his constituency than could ever be expected of anyone. Unfortunately, that mayor does get killed off with alarming frequency. But he just keeps coming back, making more films and more community.
Fessenden bio | "Someone to Watch Award" | The Last Winter press | top
The Last Winter's Larry Fessenden envisions the end — with monsters.
by Sam Adams Philadelphia City Paper
Published: Oct 3, 2007
DOOM ZOOM: "There's going to be this slow decay of everything we hold dear."
Call Larry Fessenden's The Last Winter an environmental fable, or call it the scariest thing since An Inconvenient Truth. Just don't call it a monster movie.
Set at a remote Alaskan outpost, the movie unleashes a long-buried spirit on a team of oil-company researchers, whose exploratory drilling has awakened its wrath. As the tension mounts between Ron Perlman's cigar-chomping despoiler and James Le Gros' enviro-minded scientist, the people around them are slowly losing their minds, messily killing themselves or simply vanishing into the Arctic wastes.
Fessenden doesn't shy away from creature-feature shocks, but the movie deliberately holds out the possibility that the team's encroaching madness has a scientific basis. And while horror-movie characters usually cling to rational explanations to shield themselves from the terror of the unknown, in this case the real-world threat is far more terrifying than its paranormal counterpart.
"Our psychological mechanism to deal with a troubled reality is that we start creating monsters and myths and angry gods," Fessenden says. "You always look for a scapegoat. It seems so hard to believe that the world could be utterly indifferent. You can imagine this avenging force all you want, but what it is is a collapse of the environment that we can function well in. Nature is just going about its business. We're the ones who are disrupting the patterns that have made life livable."
Fessenden's previous movies are stories of individual horror, but in The Last Winter, the perspective is objective, even alienated. Le Gros' scientist describes humanity as a malignant virus, one the earth will inevitably repulse. "It's a rather distant view of human behavior which is causing its own end," Fessenden says. "In a way, I didn't want to ally with any one character, since I felt they were all doomed, as we all are."
Fessenden is almost sanguine about the inevitable extinction of the human race. What terrifies him is the potential for social collapse triggered by vanishing fossil fuel reserves and escalating changes in climate. "It's not that we're all going to die someday," he says. "It's that there's going to be this slow decay of everything we hold dear. The death of the species — whatever. But there's going to be panic in the streets."
Despite his dire predictions, Fessenden laughs as he talks; the death of the planet is serious business, but that doesn't mean it has to be talked about in glum tones. Or addressed only by serious-minded documentaries and not, say, covertly brainy B-movies. After all, Fessenden admits, he could have simply dispensed with the monster altogether.
"I just love monsters," he laughs. "Can't I have any fun?" LINK
Fessenden bio | "Someone to Watch Award" | The Last Winter press | top
Horror on Ice
Reeler Interview: NYC scare maestro Larry Fessenden returns with global-warming terror The Last Winter
By S.T. VanAirsdale, September 17, 2007
Cold truths: Larry Fessenden's The Last Winter, opening Wednesday in New York
A glance at filmmaker Larry Fessenden's feature output over the last 16 years may not suggest the most prolific style; the native New Yorker whose gruesome 1991 animal experimentation allegory No Telling drew admiration even among those it revolted followed up with 1997's East Village vampire drama Habit, 2002's upstate gothic Wendigo and this year's enviro-horror saga The Last Winter (opening Wednesday in New York). But it's not as though he hasn't been busy, having also acted in films by directors like Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese and Neil Jordan and, through his indie shingle Glass Eye Pix, co-produced nearly a dozen projects by horror upstarts including Ti West, Douglas Buck, Dave Gebroe and James Felix McKenney.
Certainly the most ambitious project yet to emerge from Glass Eye Pix, the Iceland-shot Last Winter chronicles an American crew whose oil drilling operation in Alaska is besieged by a succession of cruel phenomena that may or may not be hunting them. At the root of their internecine squabbles is a fundamental disagreement over when and how to pursue Alaska's resources, epitomized by the gruff company man Pollack (Ron Perlman) and the sensitive, calculating scientist Hoffman (James Le Gros). Fessenden's thematic horror echoes that of No Telling in particular; the consequences of man's perversion of nature are rendered here against one of the starkest backdrops on Earth, where the clarity of self-destruction is as disturbing as any of the unfortunate who burn to death, freeze or are consumed by crows.
Fessenden will be on hand tonight at Lincoln Center to discuss a Film Comment Selects screening of The Last Winter. The Reeler recently spoke with the actor/filmmaker about the film and his ongoing stewardship of independent horror in New York.
THE REELER: Your projects have gotten farther and farther from the city since you made Habit downtown in 1997. How did you wind up in Iceland?
LARRY FESSENDEN: I wanted to make the movie in Alaska. I pictured it in Alaska; I'd been there as a kid, and I'd always had a romance for the wild landscape out there. I wanted to make a snow movie in particular. Then I was researching the oil drilling, and all of these themes came together. I really wanted to film up in ANWR (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge), which was completely impractical. So then the job was to look for a location that would even approximate that, and oddly enough, Canada didn't suit us. Then my producer found some financial opportunities through Iceland, so we looked there very deliberately and found everything we needed.
R: How did those opportunities free you up as a filmmaker, and how did you also adapt to the conditions imposed by shooting in such unfamiliar territory?
LF: I like a bit of adventure. I'm a fan of Werner Herzog, and I love the Ernest Shackleton story and the idea of leadership against all odds in adverse conditions. So I'm usually up for it, even in though in my heart, I'm just a homebody. But once you step out, you might as well make it vigorous. So the weather I was up for. The Icelandic people I found to be a very generous and robust group; I felt very at home with them, even more so than with certain crews I've worked with here. We had a completely Icelandic crew, and I think it helped morale.
R: Your previous film, Wendigo, was also set in the dead of winter. What is it about the season that appeals to you creatively? Is there something unnerving about the season itself?
LF: Well, I love the snow, but in Wendigo, when we were shooting in upstate New York, a lot of the snow started melting away. The whole end of the film is in sort of wet brown leaves and forests instead of what I wanted, which was very graphic trees in the white woods. One of the motivations to make The Last Winter was to find a place where there really would be a enough snow throughout the shoot. As far as the significance, with the notion of global warming, I've come to romanticize the winter as something that's not always going to be there. Artistically, it's just a very graphic season. I'm a huge fan of Fargo and lots of other snow movies, but I think they fall into their own category because there's something very graphic that starts to happen photographically. Finally, there's the essence of untouched snow with single footprints being forged on camera. There's something really present about that. It's not like the seventh take you're watching.
R: Is that the type of awareness you have to explain to your cast and crew as the shoot wears on -- to keep them engaged in a way under such inhospitable conditions?
LF: There are endless jokes about how our next movie will be a beach movie with topless babes and the sun and the Coppertone. But the truth is that most actors enjoy being put in the place of their characters. The cold is one thing that will do that; I think the actors enjoyed it. And then when it became really severe -- and we did have a couple of blizzards and whiteouts -- there was a feeling that the Icelandics were responsible and could help us out of a pickle. But we don't need to overdramatize what we went through to make this movie. It was a cold shoot. Sometimes it was glaringly hot in the sun.
R: You're a very thematic filmmaker. What's the challenge of integrating Big Ideas like global warming or class conflict into your work while avoiding heavy-handedness or didaticsm?
LF: No Telling had similar themes about science and animal experimentation -- another thing that America generally rolls its eyes at the mention of. I have my own passions for these subjects. I feel that America needs to wake up to the damages it causes as we engage in our modern lifestyle, and I find that a fascinating subject. To bring those themes into a narrative -- let alone in the horror genre -- I find that intriguing. But I'm not doing it all terribly deliberately; it's because those things really captivate me. In fact, I'd say it's ruined my life, because I otherwise could be making slasher movies very happily. I just naturally am engaged with these subjects, and I do consider them scary.
R: As someone who makes strong horror films with unmistakably thematic interests, how do you react to directors like Eli Roth and others who retroactively attempt to defend their own work with such metaphorical or thematic values?
LF: It's funny you ask. I just watched Hostel for the first time; I didn't enjoy or find the merits of Cabin Fever, so I had somewhat written Eli off. I know he's always whining in the press, defending his movies, so I thought I should see Hostel. In fact, I was asked to write something about my movie versus torture porn. I watched it and I didn't find it offensive the way I thought I would. I thought I would find it contemptible. Sure, it's homophobic in the sense that he's got some issues, but it's not like he's not aware that he's not dealing with that sort of thing. The sexual politics and the hatred of Americans was interesting enough, and the torture did not seem extraneous. It was obviously the point of the movie, and it was scary and doled out pretty tastefully considering the whole thing is repugnant. I think some of the later Saw movies are truly perverse, and a lot of the remakes have no agenda whatsoever.
I've been thinking about it a lot, because some people hate The Last Winter, of course, and you get into this thing where it becomes hard to discuss. My movies have themes; I present them without shame. I'm a sincere filmmaker, and fuck it if you can't take that. As for Eli, he does protest too much. I do find him unappealing as a public figure, but he's making his money, so whatever. He can always say that, and he always does, and I also find that tiresome. The worst pieces of shit make money; it's hardly an excuse. It hardly represents how well he's doing. But I couldn't completely dismiss Hostel.
R: Glass Eye Pix has established you as sort of a godfather of independent horror, working with up-and-coming filmmakers like Ti West, James Felix McKenney, JT Petty, Douglas Buck and others. Was that kind of institutional influence always part of the plan?
LF: I've always had an instinct to work with other people and to celebrate their struggles, perhaps just because I recognize how hard it is to be an individual artist. I felt that a lot of people think it's easy to make films. At a certain point I wanted to say, "Listen, it's not just about having the money. It actually takes dedication." So I challenged first-time filmmakers to make a movie with very little funds. That's how Scareflix (Glass Eye's micro-budget sidebar) started; because I had some money to offer, I set up the challenge to see if they could do this. Ti West delivered quite impressively, and so has Jim McKenney -- with very oddball projects that couldn't have gone through the studio system. Ti is a buddy of Eli Roth's and gone on to make the second Cabin Fever. We were hired to produce JT Petty's film, but I think he did want to come and have a taste of the Glass Eye Pix experience, which is ragtag, but we get things done. That's always been the motto; we don't moan and groan about our lack of funds.
R: Your back catalog features loads of video and eight-millimeter work that dates back almost 30 years. Do you plan to release any of that on DVD?
LF: I would. All of those things have terrible music rights problems; I didn't even take music rights seriously until the '90s. I made some interesting films in the old days, but a lot of it is pirated music. It makes the whole thing difficult, and I don't know that they're that remarkable. I think my best early work is my Super-8 movies, because they show that right out of the gate I had a point of view. A lot of the themes and the style are unchanged -- which may be a terrible thing, but it's kind of true. Those I would trickle out on DVD, but let's face it: There's not a demand.
The thing that's always unspoken in an interview with me is that I'm not a player. I have never had a financial hit that puts me on any real maps. Nobody's really asked for my early work. I have about four Super-8 movies out of 150 that I think would be worth showing to the world.
R: You also do a ton of acting, most recently in The Brave One, where you're a killer on the receiving end of Jodie Foster's street justice. How did you get linked up with that?
LF: Laura Rosenthal, who cast The Last Winter and No Telling, gave me a call and said: "You should come in; Neil Jordan is looking for ne'er-do-wells and so on." I sat down with him and we met, and I told him I was a filmmaker. We chatted about that. The funny part of it is that he said, "Oh, you're all dressed up to look like a killer for this meeting, right?" And Laura said, "Actually, that's just the way he looks, Neil." They styled me almost exactly as I really was; I had rings on, and they made me wear rings. It was the Hollywood version of my own outfit.
But it's awesome to be on a big shoot like that, because once we were in the deli (where we shot), it's just like you're on the set of an independent film. There's just a few guys working. Neil is thinking on his feet. I was amazed how much stuff he made up as he went along. I haven't seen it, so I'm not sure how it plays out, but I can tell you I spent a whole 12 hours in a pool of blood being the corpse. "Corpse, take lunch!" LINK
Fessenden bio | "Someone to Watch Award" | The Last Winter press | top
He Knows Horror When He Sees It
THE NEW YORK SUN
By STEVE DOLLAR
September 14, 2007
Horror becomes Larry Fessenden. But as the late afternoon light struggles to find its way past the oaky shadows of a bar on Avenue A, the 44-year-old filmmaker looks less like the boogeyman he often is cast as, and more like a neighborhood character. He's the kind of guy bartenders greet by name. His shaggy appearance, characterized by a prominent forehead and a missing front tooth, was more the norm for the East Village when he settled there in the early 1980s.
But it's also what keeps the actor and director in folding green. America's been seeing a lot of Mr. Fessenden lately, as his brief, menacing appearance in the new Jodie Foster film, "The Brave One," has been highlighted in TV spots.
"It's a very arbitrary moment," Mr. Fessenden said, sipping on a pint of draft beer. "I'm her first vigilante move. I start stalking her and she does away with me in short order. I'm not a real character. I'm first blood."
Mr. Fessenden began training early for what he calls "corpse work." As a child, he said, "I used to spend hours trying to hold my breath and keep my eyes open as long as possible, I loved horror so much." Such skills have long won the affection of casting agents. So has that missing tooth, which got knocked out by a gang of street kids who were harassing his thengirlfriend at a party in Brooklyn 23 years ago.
"It wasn't a big violent deal," he said. "It was arbitrary. Which fits my view of life." Much like his friend Steve Buscemi, Mr. Fessenden's rejection of cosmetic dentistry has been a boon. His bit parts in big movies help support his more personal efforts as a producer of independent films that skew the horror genre toward intensely psychological terrain. His new film, "The Last Winter," which opens Wednesday at the IFC Center, locates fear in an unlikely subject: global warming.
Set amid the vast white expanse of a Northern Alaskan encampment where a team of oil company employees are preparing to drill, the film tracks a lurking dread that grows lethal as mysterious things begin happening in the ice. It's impossible to watch without flashing on John Carpenter's fatalistic remake of "The Thing," but for Mr. Fessenden, the impending threat is not so corporeal. As the crusty, bushwhacking team leader Pollack ( Ron Perlman) fights the doomsaying scientist Hoffman ( James LeGros), who wants to shut down hisoperation, acrewmemberwanders naked into the frigid void, hallucinating … something.
"I still want to give people the sense of how you create a myth by anthropomorphizing nature," Mr. Fessenden said. "I'm not saying the ‘creature' created global warming. It's more something that the characters are going through. I find the world to be a threatening and mysterious place. And the interactions and self-betrayal that goes on in society and relationships is just so potent. That's where I derive my horror. I guess that's why people call them personal films. Rather than the encroaching guy with the axe, I'm more interested in the grasp of reality being a tenuous thing. It's a frightening place to be. That's existence."
Mr. Fessenden noted Mr. Carpenter's influence, as well as what he calls a great "ice movie," Akira Kurosawa's "Dersu Uzala." And if audiences want to infer that the film's combative male leads are stand-ins for President Bush and Vice President Gore, then they are welcome to the notion. "The film really is about partisanship in America," he said. "That's what's so sad about our country. It is a cartoon struggle. It's not about searching for common ground and truth. I always say a character like Pollack's is what made this country great and if he sticks to his guns he'll destroy it."
Despite appearances, the filmmaker is a home owner and a family man who has long been engaged in environmental concerns. When he begins talking about hurricanes, floods, and the improbable thunderstorm that crashed down on his rugged Icelandic set — on cue, no less, though a rain machine had been set up for the occasion — it all begins to sound like a series of biblical plagues. Freakily enough, the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" ("Ooh, a storm is threatening…") plays in the background of the bar.
Mr. Fessenden finds a profound melancholy in this. "I think horror has to do with loss and the end of something you call home," he said. "It's a sad thing. What if this is no longer the world we grew up in? If you grew up in New England, what if the leaves don't turn brown anymore and the syrup doesn't flow? That's what we're looking at. I would love it if this was all a liberal fantasy." LINK
Fessenden bio | "Someone to Watch Award" | The Last Winter press | top
CINEMA SCOPE: The Last Winter feels to me like an enlargement of Wendigo—the same idea of a vengeful spirit getting bigger and hungrier and angrier, is now taken to an apocalyptic extreme.
LARRY FESSENDEN: It did develop in my mind as a sequel to Wendigo, or as a continuation of that film. I wanted to re-imagine the creature. But this movie borrows more from the original story from Algernon Blackwood than Wendigo does—anyone who’s read that story will recognize certain images, like the feet in the snow.
SCOPE: I always appreciated that the special effects were deliberately low-fi in Wendigo. The title character was supposed to look like a child’s idea of a deer-ghost-spirit. And I suspect the same thing applies here despite the bigger budget. The malevolent entities, when they finally do appear, are hardly seamless. They’re these barely tangible phantoms.
FESSENDEN: I did want something that was intangible, yes. When we’re talking about global warming or climate change, these are things we can’t get our minds around. But even in using CGI, I’m still going for a more hallucinogenic experience than anything literal: the creature still lives primarily in the characters’ minds.
SCOPE: There’s no doubt that this is a more explicitly environmental horror movie than Wendigo.
FESSENDEN: My curse is that I’m obsessed with the political issues of the day—the struggles that we have in America. I have a great melancholy about our treatment of the environment. So these themes always creep into my movies. I’m trying to make these nice B-movies that people can enjoy, but they get burdened—or haunted—by these very important issues. It’s totally intuitive.
SCOPE: It feels that way. When George Romero makes Land of the Dead (2005)it’s not really a B-movie: the subtext consciously overwhelms the main text. It’s a more of a determined sociological critique. Your film reminded me more of something like The Host, or maybe something by Kurosawa Kiyoshi.
FESSENDEN: I haven’t seen these films, but I’m aware of them. You’ll find that I’m very film illiterate these days. I’m still feeding off the movies I saw as a kid—I’m more engaged in the issues of the day. My friends make fun of me because I never go to the movies. It’s nice to know that there are kindred spirits, though. I kind of work in a filmic void, and so I sometimes wonder if there’s any place for what I do.
SCOPE: Is one of the movies you’re feeding off here The Birds (1963)?
FESSENDEN: Well, you can’t put a crow in a movie without someone thinking of that…
SCOPE: Maybe more in the sense that the characters are at the mercy of larger forces looking to punish them for their transgressions? And also, putting a murder of crows in a horror movie is a pretty suggestive homage.
FESSENDEN: Yes. There are a lot of hallway shots in this movie, and so The Shining is evoked. And there are menacing birds, so it invokes The Birds. That’s my love of cinema, even if it’s been truncated. I’m regurgitating the movies I grew up on.
SCOPE: Your style certainly isn’t truncated. The fluid camera movements and unusual editing decisions that felt slightly affected in your earlier films now seem less tentative or experimental, and more confident.
FESSENDEN: It’s always a struggle. I never know if I’m getting it. I know that my themes can be hard to master. But I do have intuition about how to make a film. The medium is something I understand.
SCOPE: You mention that your themes are difficult to master, but what really got me about the film is the directness of it. It would be hard to miss the point, although maybe I shouldn’t underestimate horror movie audiences. Is it frustrating to make demanding movies for a largely undemanding constituency?
FESSENDEN: Well, I’m trying to make B-movies with A-movie themes. Believe me, I come to some festivals and feel like an outsider. Like, “Why couldn’t I have just made Hide and Seek?” You know, with Robert De Niro? It’s an awful film, but…there is a feeling sometimes of wanting to fit in and be loved. All I can say is I’ve stayed true to my original impulse to make films that express my impressions of life, and my affection for genre.
SCOPE: Wendigo ends on a shot of a pair of boots in a hallway waiting to be filled—there’s this sense of taking responsibility. It’s sad, but it’s also hopeful. In The Last Winter, there are also boots, but they’re left empty. They’re not going to be filled. It’s just such a mournful image.
FESSENDEN: I’m obsessed with the shoes. I’ll leave it your interpretation, but it’s definitely there. My movies are mostly about loss, I think, more than the horror or the fear. Most horror films focus on fear, and that’s the last emotion they give you. But I’m focused on the melancholy that comes after the horrendous crime. If we have destroyed our planet, than of course it’s terrifying. But it’s also so sad. We can never go home again —we can never be young again.
SCOPE: Which is what Hoffman scribbles in his notebook, except that he actually does get taken home.
FESSENDEN: It’s the house from Wendigo, actually…
SCOPE: Yes. I couldn’t believe that you were doing that.
FESSENDEN: At that point in the movie, you see that the monster isn’t necessarily all bad. Or it depends on where you’re coming from. It is bad for Pollack, but with Hoffman, there’s some gentleness.
SCOPE: And yet they’re both at its mercy lying out there in the snow. They’re equally prone and helpless in its presence. It’s another very direct statement.
FESSENDEN: The monster is not serving a traditional monster function in the story. It is a presence more than an antagonist. I love the creature in Sexy Beast (2000); it haunts Ray Winstone’s character. I’m interested in monsters as metaphor, the way they really do exist in our lives, haunting or crushing us, or maybe keeping us company. We all know that horror has always brought up the big issues. The giant ants in Them! (1954) were about the anxiety around the atomic bomb. Same with Godzilla (1954). In David J. Skal’s book The Monster Show, he talks about how Frankenstein (1931) and Freaks (1930) were made after veterans came home from World War I horribly maimed. Horror has always addressed anxiety, so I thought it was time to address this great big elephant in the room—global warming. We can’t quite grasp it because we’re so complicit.
SCOPE: As in Wendigo, you’re playing with Native mysticism in The Last Winter, but in a way that’s not exploitative or condescending. How do you skirt cliché with something like that?
FESSENDEN: You have to tread carefully. But I’m not pandering to some liberal imagery: it’s a fact of history. The Native peoples did look after the land, and the white man has not. All my films deal with the excesses of the white man’s perspective and his narcissism and destructiveness. Read Vine Deloria’s God Is Red for some perspective. There’s real righteous outrage there.
SCOPE: It’s a nice move to cast Ron Perlman, who is one of the most likeable genre-movie actors around, as this unrepentant, faintly Dubya-ish environmental rapist.
FESSENDEN: There is one scene around the campfire where we see Pollack soften a bit. He’s making an effort to understand the other side, but then he retracts and goes off on a God tangent.
SCOPE: And if you break down his antagonistic, futile relationship with Hoffman—this meek conservationist—it starts to fall across the basic political lines that have been drawn in the US.
FESSENDEN: During the shoot we talked about having a picture of Bush in the background somewhere. But I thought that long after Bush, this battle for hearts and minds will still be happening. Let’s
not tether it to a passing figurehead. Let’s keep it more iconic: the bald eagle, the fetishizing of oil and drilling.
SCOPE: A lot of liberal movies oversimplify things by having infallible progressive heroes and clearly evil conservative bad guys—the way so many documentaries use George Bush—but Hoffman is a uniquely troubling figure. He’s right about what’s going on, but he’s very passive, very ineffectual.
FESSENDEN: I believe that Hoffman is a weak character in many ways; he’s melancholy and conflicted, while there’s something very gung-ho about Pollock—he’s getting the job done, and although his choices are often wrong, there’s a lot of conviction to them. There’s something compelling there, a real American spirit. But that gung-ho spirit isn’t enough, of course, we have to start making more intelligent decisions, and to accept confusion and ambiguity and fallibility. One trope in the film is that there are a lot of scenes where the same discussion happens: Hoffman in various ways stating, “I think we have a problem.” But as long as he can’t define it precisely, Pollack can resist acting upon it, and challenge Hoffman’s assertion. We have to agree there is a problem if we want to solve it together. I think the film offers a portrait of partisan impasse.
SCOPE: The most interesting character, though, is Abby. She’s literally in bed with both Pollack and Hoffman. She’s caught between them. She endures the longest of any character in the film by taking a middle position, but eventually, she’s swept up, too.
FESSENDEN: That’s very critical. The middle ground won’t do.
SCOPE: You just talked about how Pollack’s gung-ho spirit isn’t sufficient. The settler mentality was one thing when the landscape was actually being settled, and another at this point in time.
FESSENDEN: Absolutely. We now have tools that resonate far louder than the axe to the tree. History is linear. We are continuing. We have to take responsibility for where we are now. We’re not just finding food for our families or building roofs over our heads—we’re devastating rainforests to print the Victoria’s Secret catalogue.
SCOPE: But can you ask people to give up their Victoria’s Secret catalogues?
FESSENDEN: Good God I would never say that. But if they could just use recycled paper…
SCOPE: There have been rumours that you’re re-cutting the film. Does this have to do with audience responses in Toronto? Is it an attempt to make it more palatable to distributors?
FESSENDEN: I have in the past been lucky enough to revisit all three of my feature films between their festival play and their ultimate distribution. With No Telling I cut 20 minutes, with Habit I cut seven, and with Wendigo I actually re-shot some scenes after my Slamdance premiere and a glowing review from Variety. There are many types of artists, and I seem to be in the category of those who are compelled to revisit and refine the same material over and over. I believe in the expression “a work is never finished, only abandoned.” I saw The Last Winter for the first time on the big screen in Toronto, and I had an immediate desire to tinker with the edit again, and especially the mix. I don't believe these changes will secure distribution so much as inspire those companies that were already interested. As for the changes, I believe they help clarify the film, and strengthen the impact. I am, at last, ready to move on.
Fessenden bio | "Someone to Watch Award" | The Last Winter press | top
Indie veteran takes eco-horror film to Toronto
By Gregg Goldstein
6 Sept 06
NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Among New York filmmakers, Larry Fessenden is something of an underground legend.
He's been writing, producing, directing, editing and acting in independent films for over a quarter century -- films like "I Sell the Dead" and "Zombie Honeymoon," which often pile up Big Apple corpses and have titles that can belie a surprising artistic merit.
But the B-movie renaissance man may finally get his big break September 11 with the premiere of his first Toronto International Film Festival entry, the existential eco-horror flick "The Last Winter."
His new film's "Alien"-style setup tracks eight men building oil drill sites in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, only to succumb to "a slow descent into an unknowable fear," climaxing with a showdown between the group's pro-oil and environmentalist leaders. In an age when "An Inconvenient Truth" is a surprise hit and filling up the gas tank can cost more than one of Fessenden's early projects, it may be the right horror film at the right time.
It's also a milestone for this native New Yorker from the Lower East Side, but it's far from his first shot at a breakthrough hit. He's probably best known for the 1997 vampire flick "Habit," part of a "philosophical horror film trilogy" including 1991's "No Telling" and 2001's "Wendigo" made through his production company, Glass Eye Pix. "Habit" earned him the Independent Spirit Awards' "Someone to Watch" honour, though not as many have been watching his films as he'd like.
"I've tried to sell out," he laughs. "I've had meetings with the Weinsteins. I wanted to make 'Werewolf by Night,' a comic I read as a kid and I still covet. But sometimes these executives laugh at me and say, 'We've read your interviews. What are you doing here?'"
Such interviews include quotes like this one: "I really am intrigued by this metaphysical reality that exists in our lives and how the mythology exists in the basic stories of our lives." And his movies often say more about what's going on in the characters' minds than the evil lurking in the dark.
"My films tend to always tread the line between what's real and what's imagined," he says. "In 'Habit,' the guy believes his girlfriend is a vampire, but it could be that he's just a delusional alcoholic."
Fessenden has received many critical accolades. But while working in horror has helped him earn money, it hasn't always earned him the respect of the art house crowd. "I've never kissed the Sundance ring," he says, though he's been submitting films there for more than a decade. "Toronto is the biggest festival I've ever been accepted into, by far."
On the acting front, Fessenden's own facade has had the same effect. "I was mugged in 1984 in Brooklyn and had my tooth kicked out, so all the casting agents think of me when they need to hire a ne'er-do-well," he laughs. "Even though I can play lawyers and heads of state. I end up playing the local bum."
It's made him the go-to guy for seedy roles since his debut as Man Who Looks Through Trash in 1980's "White Trash," or recent parts like Junkie and Inmate. "And dose were da res-pec-ta-ble pic-chas!" he says, in a Jimmy Durante-esque voice he sometimes slips into between serious musings. "At least I wasn't raping anyone!"
Since beating up Bill Murray in Jim Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers" last year, he's wrapped Neil Jordan's "The Brave One." "I play a guy killing my wife, and then I spend a day playing a corpse for Terrence Howard to pick over. It was great!" he says. "I think I'll have to remain in the movie because I'm first blood for Jodie Foster. She's the vigilante."
All this bloodshed has helped pay for Fessenden's upstate country home and paved the way to his artistic freedom. "I have a great passion for the idea of the singular voice, the individual artist, and that's why I'm still in New York," he says. "I want to play the game on my own terms."
Larry Fessendens trio of horror films unleash the beast within
By Maitland McDonagh
photo: Robin Holland
TIME OUT NY Feb 7-14 2002
Its late on a cold December night in 1997, and writer-director Larry Fessenden joins distributor Michael Ellenbogen in postering Houston Street. Fessendens vampire picture, Habit, is booked at Angelika, and theyre taking the DIY route to spreading the word. Enter three undercover cops, who hustle them off to the pokey for defacing public property. "Were sitting in the back of the cop car, and one of them says, Whats the matter, you didnt get into Sundance? You have to do your own postering?" Fessenden remembers. "I almost committed cop-icide." The moral: Doing it your own way is cool, but its not all parties and photo-ops.
But Fessenden, 38, has always taken the downside of his guerilla approach in stride. For 20 years, hes been making movies his way: low-budget, independently financed pictures about addiction and self-delusion, ecology, medical ethics and the consequences of living a life out of balance. Not that all of his films are earnest: Fessenden is best known for his loose trilogy of horror pictures, and theyre as much a twist on the genres usual fare as everything hes done. No Telling (1991) is an animal right-oriented riff on mad-scientist stories. Habit (1997) rethinks the delicate dependence between vampires and victims, while the icily anxious Wendigo (2001) mixes Native American myth and Deliverance-style backwoods anxiety. Together, the trio take horrors three major bogeymenvampire, man-made monster, shape-shifterand rethink them in fiercely unusual ways. For the next week, Anthology Film Archives gives audiences a chance to see all three (including Wendigo, in a sneak peek before its release February 15) in "Larry Fessendens Trilogy of Terror," which started February 6 and runs through Tuesday 12.
Naturally, the director has a cult following as a horror guyunless you know him as the star of Kelly Reicherts River of Grass (1995); the director of Hollow Venus: Diary of a Go-G Dancer (1989); or performance artist David "Impact Addict" Leslies longtime video collaborator. Then hes an indie-arty guy. Which is it?
"I was at a Fangoria convention talking about Wendigo," says Fessenden, "and this guy asked, "Whats the body count? Im thinking, I dont know, dude, but youll be bored to screaming. I can easily talk in front of a sophisticated film audience and be the bad boy who makes horror films. But when I speak in front of horror audiences, I feel Im really not delivering." True, Fessendens films dont ladle on the gore, but they corner the market on pervasive dread. "I think everything is scary," he says. "I remember as a child hearing about a woman who was slashed to ribbons in her Upper East Side apartment, and Id never imagined a safer place."
Although Fessenden looks as though he came up the hard wayhe resembles a bedraggled Peter Fonda, minus a front toothhes a born-and-bred Upper East Sider. His father was a banker and his mother served on various charitable committees. "I think its important to admit when you come from privilege," he says. "I always despised the airs that go with it, but film is a hard medium and its helpful if you have something to start with." Fessenden attended Andover prep school until he was thrown out for "an accumulation of crimes, the last of which was drinking," he says. Admitted to NYU in the early 80s on the strength of his Super-8 shorts, Fessenden seized on video as a detour around entry-level film projects, and got involved with public-access TV. "We did everything from cooking shows in drag to existential dramas," he says. "Long before Jim Jarmusch, we were doing movies where people from the Lower East Side stared blankly at each other and nothing happened."
Fessenden went on to make an early version of Habit and an ultra lowbudget feature called Experienced Movers, whose cast included Riding in Cars with Boys author Beverly Donofrio. He co-wrote No Telling with artist Beck Underwood, who is now his wife. The film tanked, but its images of animals sacrificed to the gods of mad science are hard to shake. "Its a point of perverse pride" he says "Of all the violence in all the films the Independent Film Channel has played, they get more calls about No Telling than anything else." Habit, by contrast, garnered passionate reviews both pro and con. "My films inspire that polarization," he says. "The great thing about horror is that its a genre that has almost always addressed things that we cant really talk about. Wendigo is serving up heavy themes in a fun little package." Fessenden chuckles wryly. "You know what really shows the disparity between my hopes and reality? I had hoped to show Hollow Venus at Film Forum back in 89. And now Im arriving at Film Forum with Wendigo in 2002."
Fessenden bio | "Someone to Watch Award" | Wendigo press | top
Giving Filmmakers Hope and Money
Art and Industry
by Amy Taubin
photo: Robin Holland
Village Voice, June 10, 1997
In both his films and his person, Larry Fessenden defies expectations. With the independent film world now driven by marketing conventions imported whole hog from Hollywood, it's no wonder Fessenden fears falling through the cracks. Even he isn't sure what to put on the poster for Habit.
Three years in the making, Habit is "the other Downtown female vampire flick," the one that was just starting post production when Abel Ferrara's The Addiction and Michael Almereyda's Nadja bombed at the box office. Fessenden never worried that the film, which he wrote, directed, and edited, and in which he also stars, might be mistimed. "In my own twisted mind, I believed that since Habit was a remake of a feature I made on video in 1980 when I was at NYU film school, it had preceded all of them. It even preceded The Hunger as an updated realism-based revamping of the vampire story." Try telling that to the festivals (Toronto, Sundance, Berlin) and the dozens of distributors and sales agents that passed on the picture.
To be perfectly honest, having mistaken Habit for an exploitation venture, I avoided it until Fessenden won this year's Someone to Watch Award, a $20,000 cash prize jointly created by the Independent Feature Project West and Swatch watches. The award is given to "a filmmaker of exceptional talent and unique vision who hasn't yet received sufficient recognition for her or his work" Like the previous recipients Lodge Kerrigan and Christopher Munch, Fessenden fits the bill disconcertingly well. Accepting his award, Fessenden, who looks like a runty Jack Nicholson minus one front tooth, said the check would go to pay his crew, who worked on deferment to support his filmmaking, um, er, habit.
Habit, which I finally saw in a new 35 mm incarnation, turns out to be the most vivid of the Downtown vampire movies - as evocative of New York-Style paranoia as Rosemary's Baby, Bad Lieutenant, or Taxi Driver. "In a way, it's too bad that people know about the vampire aspect in advance, because otherwise for the first half hour, you wouldn't know what kind of movie it is, " says the sweetly perverse Fessenden. "Maybe it's a movie about a drunk. It's designed to have a cumulative effect. It's about what you project onto it." And in fact, I didn't think Habit was the least bit scary, until the screening was over and I found myself, in broad daylight, fleeing across University Place, to avoid a group of perfectly ordinary people gathered outside a pizza place.
Fessenden grew up in a well-to-do Upper East Side family. He went to prep school at Andover, didn't graduate, got his G.E.D., and enrolled at NYU, where he was torn between filmmaking and acting. In 1985, he set up Glass Eye Pix, an indie production company. Under the Glass Eye banner, he directed The Impact Addict Videos (a collaboration with high-risk performance artist, David Leslie), Hollow Venus (1989), a one-hour video based on actress Heather Woodbury's experiences as a go-go dancer, and No Telling (1991), a smart, spare, skewed update of the Frankenstein story. Otherwise known as "the animal rights, anti-pesticide movie," No Telling was never released in the U.S. "Harvey Weinstein was interested," says Fessenden, "but then he decided that it was too complicated to market."
Tapped by Kelly Reichert for a leading role in her directorial debut River of Grass, Fessenden stayed on to edit the film as well. "By the end, it was just Kelly and me. It was a good experience - a reminder of how to make films cheaply and intimately, and in that way an inspiration for Habit.
"So in the spring of '94, I rewrote Habit and got in touch with Dayton Taylor, who had been a production manager on No Telling. I had about $50,000 in place, and we devised a way to shoot it for that. Frank DeMarco, who DP'd Theramin, got hooked on the project and committed. Our concept was to invite people to participate. We offered them deferments obviously, but they also could participate in the enormous wealth that would come from the release. They're still waiting."
With Fessenden playing the leading role of a Loisaida alchoholic who becomes sexually obsessed with a woman whose taste for blood blends with his own, Habit was shot on and off from September 1994 to February 1995, a total of 45 days. Fessenden edited the film himself, finishing in October 1995, just in time to get into the Chicago Film Festival. "We invited Roger Ebert to the press screening and he gave it a nice blurb. So things looked good. But then we didn't get into Sundance or Berlin. And now we're into the spring of 1996. We had a great screening at Indie Night at the Walter Reade, but it was typical of Habit's timing that everyone in the industry was in Cannes so none of the distributors saw it with that fabulous, enthusiastic audience. I sent tapes to the usual suspects from October to Sony Classics to Trimark and to about 30 foreign sales agents, and they all passed."
Based on the response at the Walter Reade screening, Fessenden decided to trim a few minutes out of the film and do some work on the sound before bumping it up to 35mm. "It got to be a humiliation that I was still working on Habit every day. I finally finished the 35mm print in 1997" (Total production cost: $190,000, plus deferments.) Meanwhile, Facets had been asking us to show it in their art house in Chicago. We opened there on April 21. Roger Ebert came back to see the new cut and we got a full-fledged review from him and others, and they were pretty good." Fessenden's being modest-they were money reviews for sure. "Then the next day I got the Swatch award. I felt that after working for 17 years, I'd finally been welcomed into the film community." Fessenden hopes to get Habit into theaters in time for Halloween. As of yet, no distributor has bit.
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by Jamie Painter
Backstage West, May 1, 1997
For New York-based filmmaker Larry Fessenden, the love of moving pictures entails far more than catching the stray Sunday matinee; film is his way of life. Since graduating from NYU's undergrad film program in 1985, Fessenden has dedicated years to struggling in the independent film circle.
The results? A missing front tooth from a Brooklyn mugging and several low-budget videos and films, including his second and most recent feature, Habit, which Fessenden, wrote, directed, edited, and stars in.
Shot in a gritty documentary style, Habit is a contemporary horror story about an alcoholic who becomes intimately involved with a mysterious woman (Meredith Snaider) who may or may not be a vampire. While there are some graphic moments, Habit is more about a psychological nightmare and the self-destructive behavior displayed in someone suffering from addiction.
"I really was inspired to do something different from the expectations of the genre," said Fessenden in a recently interview. "I always liked horror movies but I felt there was something missing or that they were overly Gothic. I wanted to update those themes and show them in a modern setting." Indeed, Fessenden cited Roman Polanski's The Tenant as a major influence in shaping his own tale of a man' spiraling descent into madness.
While Fessenden had previous acting experience-including Kelly Reichardt's 1993 feature River of Grass and an early video version of Habit, shot in his film school days-Fessenden had no formal training in acting and did not initially plan to cast himself as Habit's tormented lead. It was not until he held a reading of Habit in the spring of 1994 that he decided to take the plunge.Making his Mark
As for juggling so many responsibilities, Fessenden welcomes taking on multiple tasks.
"I just love so many aspects of the arts - everything from graphics to music to composition and then to the emotional reality of the actors," effused Fessenden, who is also a musician. "Film has so many facets to it that it seems overbearing that one person would be involved in all those elements, but in a way, that is why film is the most exciting medium, because it is all those things. I like to inspire my collaborators to contribute things, but I also like to be right in there, doing it, physically."
Shot in 45 days in the fall of 1994, Habit was made for an inital $50,000 (the final cost was $190,000). While raising the financing was relatively painless, getting the finished film to be seen in theatres has posed a far greater challenge.
"It was the smoothest movie I've ever made in terms of the warmth of the crew and the cost," Fessenden recalled. "Once it was finished was when the difficulties began. It's a little movie without a home."
While Habit received positive response at the 1996 Slamdance and L.A. Independent Film festivals, and was recently released in Chicago, it has yet to be picked up for distribution.
"Distributors don't know how to market it," he said. "There are no stars and they can't just summarize the plot as 'a bad day at the office."
Ironically, Fessenden was presented last month with the Swatch "Someone to Watch Award" at the Independent Spirit Awards. The prestigious honor, which includes a $20,000 prize, is given annually to a filmmaker who deserves wider recognition in the film community.
"I don't know if it will help Habit, but the award means a great deal. I've made movies for a long time, so for me it's a marker." commented the filmmaker, who plans to give the award money to his hard-working crew.
Whether or not Fessenden ever becomes a household name remains to be seen. But his relative obscurity is in no way discouraging him from pursuing his passions. Through his production company, Glass Eye Pix, he is trying to attract financing for two of his scripts and recently aided in post-production on Ira Sach's The Delta, which played at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
Fessenden's advice for independent filmmakers is simple: "Make films as cheaply as you can - not as resume pieces but a real offerings - and build a career with or without the spotlight and the accolades. One day, they'll either discover you or you'll discover that you've created your own oeuvre. I'm very hopeful about my future because I believe in my movies."
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The Reluctant Auteur
by Hazel-Dawn Dumpert
photo: Debra DiPaolo
October 31-November 6, 1997
Larry Fessenden is the very picture of intensity-gaunt, frowzy yet strangely handsome despite a missing front tooth, the New York filmmaker sits in a Hollywood pub downing near beers at the same steady clip as he smokes his Marlboros. Fessenden's in town for the L.A. release of his feature, HABIT, a grim tale about compulsion and salvation built on the framework of classic vampire legend. Although he confesses he's reached his "saturation point" with the film (it's taken five years to get to theatrical release), Fessenden is ready to talk. At length. About many things, with passion and no small amount of humor.
About HABIT: "I wanted to make the scariest movie since Night of the Living Dead, and in a strange perverse way I succeeded - not in making a scary movie, but in making one that was perverse beyond my dreams." About Hollywood: "A problem with the corporatizing of entertainment is that it doesn't allow or invite people to create themselves - it's all about watching other wildly successful people, and it's drummed into our heads how fanatically wonderful these people are. I think that's utterly corrosive to the human spirit, and that's why there's violence and horror in the streets." About giving up childhood dreams of Speilbergdom. "Well, it was yesterday afternoon, and I saw the Jurassic Park ride was available at Universal Studios and there's no HABIT ride, and that's when I knew I'm not this man.
Born and raised on Manhattan's Upper East Side, Fessenden is very much a New Yorker -- his work and the way he goes about it are products of the city's propensity to generate tightly knit scenes in real life, an element Fessenden treasures and refers to again and again as "community." "The spirit of the independents," he explains, "is about people outside the system who together form a community and make something of immediate fucking value to them. And it should be screened through some magic of exhibition for like minded people who will feel empowered by a sense that communities can make stuff that can be seen and valued, rather than a few chosen ones who'll be drawn away from the community and made national products."
In fact, Fessenden's body of work reveals a self-professed workaholic who's less interested in being a star than in making art with his peers. It includes a cluster of features, do-it-yourself screenings in basements and bars, a cable-access show, reels for actors like Steve Buscemi, and a video series called The Impact Addict, made with performance artist David Leslie, who'd "jump off buildings, light himself on fire and so on."
Peter Broderick, president of the film-financing company Next Wave Films, calls Fessenden "one of those indie heroes." Broderick chaired the committee that bestowed the filmmaker the 1997 Independent Spirit "Someone to Watch" award. While previous winners had been on their first or second films, Broderick points out that "Larry's been making films for 17 years without the recognition hew deserves."
"You know," Fessenden says, "I think I should be in the ring with a lot of the filmmakers out there now, making it." But this sort of recognition has not always been a priority, nor does it sit easily with him even now. In his case, "indie hero" goes beyond soldiering on and breaking out, and into "empowering" fellow filmmakers under his pen name Glass Eye Pix -- filmmakers such as Kelly Reichardt, whose film River of Grass Fessenden edited and acted in, and Ira Sachs, who edited his feature The Delta on Fessenden's Avid. Fessenden even wrote a booklet after completing his environmentally aware Frankenstein riff No Telling in 1991, advising conscientious auteurs on ecologically sound filmmaking.
The beautiful paradox of Larry Fessenden, and perhaps the most powerful ingredient of his work, is that his embrace of community is born of his sense of himself as an outsider.
Kicked out of only the finest prep schools (Andover, for drinking), the adult Fessenden is "kissing away" his grandfather's inheritance on his "own indulgences," namely, his obsessive output. "In a way, I'm racked with guilt over being a blueblood," he admits. "And when I speak of being an outsider, it's partly that I turned my back on my own background. In general, you are completely a black sheep if you are in the arts." All of which is what first attracted Fessenden to the classic horror that informs his work. "When I was a kid, I watched Frankenstein and The Werewolf," he explains, "I related to these alienated creatures."
It shows. Dark and quietly chilling, HABIT is more lamentation than horror, suffused with a mournful sense of isolation and otherness. Fessenden plays the lead in the film, an artist named Sam who's drawn away from his "community" by Anna, a woman who may or may not be more than she appears. She's a dangerous mystery, but it's clear that Sam's refusal of lover, friends and art is far more dire. It's no coincidence Fessenden is ambivalent about moving beyond the artistic realm he's inhabited thus far. His community is conducive to creation, if not necessarily ambition. "In a way, I was a little shielded from the reality of breaking into the film business," he says, aware that the time has come to take the next step, but equally aware that his brand of idealism may not be suited to the world of the big picture.
"I'm a romantic," he insists, eyes wide and only half kidding. "I'm a bleeding romantic, and it's killing me."
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You're so vein
Larry Fessenden goes for the Jugular with HABIT
interview by Andrew Johnston
TIME OUT New York
November 13-20, 1997
Is it still possible to make a relevant vampire movie? Director Larry Fessenden sure hopes so. "I wanted to get at a character who was lost in the modern world -- who felt sort of overwhelmed by reality all around him," says Fessenden over coffee and cigarettes at a health-food restaurant near his Soho office. The result was Habit, an independent feature he wrote, directed, edited and stars in. Over the past decade, movies like The Hunger, Nadja and The Addiction have made the urban-hipster vampire as much of a cliche as the courtly old-world bloodsucker. But by focusing on a willing victim instead of an angst-ridden predator, Fessenden's movie proves that -- as far as metaphors go -- there's still some life left in the undead.
Habit focuses on Sam (Fessenden), a lower East Side barfly who meets an eccentric woman named Anna (Meredith Snaider) at a party. As they start seeing each other, Sam finds himself drifting away from his friends--something that the friends attribute to his drinking but that Sam gradually begins to suspect is due to nocturnal bloodletting courtesy of his new squeeze.
Fessenden's movie feels more like the work of Hal Hartley than like a conventional horror movie, and the emphasis on the world Sam inhabits makes the film's metaphorical treatment of alcoholism and obsessive relationships seem fresh. "I wanted to capture a lifestyle where there's a blurred line between what's really going on and what's affected by your hangover," says Fessenden. Other vampire movies have exploited the East Village for the sake of exoticism, but Fessenden, a longtime neighborhood resident, aimed instead to "demystify the hipness of New York and show how the bohemian lifestyle has a lot of anxiety and human frailty beneath the hip exterior."
Fessenden made an early version of his film on video when he was a student at NY's film school 17 years ago. " I wanted to bring more realism to the genre and explore its modern implications," he explains, adding that the original version was "even more existential and pared down." During the following years, he worked as a film editor, made videos and in 1991, directed No Telling, a sort of antivivisection riff on Frankenstein that was distributed overseas but never sold in the U.S. The notion of returning to HABIT was always "percolating in my mind," he says, but it wasn't until he starred in Kelly Reichardt's 1993 indie River of Grass that he became jazzed about making a low-budget movie on the streets of New York. Fessenden decided to cast himself as the lead after a staged reading of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe (in which another actor played Sam) made him realize just how personal the script was. While it's not autobiographical, Fessenden says with a wink that he's been "a drinker in my time" and that some of his own relationship experiences are reflected in the film.
Fessenden financed his film himself and makes no bones about the fact that some of the money came from his family. "You need a lot of money to make a movie. That's one of the common myths--that you can come from nowhere and start making movies--but there's always some story that isn't told about where the money comes from."
Habit being yet another East Village vampire movie made it a hard sell to distributors and some festival selection committees, so Fessenden is distributing the film himself "to see if we can make a movie successful through the integrity of the piece and grassroots marketing." So far, it seems to be working: Roger Ebert championed Habit when it premiered in Chicago earlier this year, and it won Fessenden the Independent Feature Project West's Someone to Watch award, placing him in the company of past winners Lodge Kerrigan (Clean, Shaven) and Christopher Munch (The Hours and Times). Fessenden isn't quite sure what he's doing next, but another movie involving horror tropes is definitely a possibility. "It's a fun way to discuss heavy issues."
Fessenden bio | "Someone to Watch Award" | Habit press | top
OF A BLOOD HABIT
An independent filmmakers talks about the blood, sexual hunger, paranoia, and the East Village hangover
actor/director/writer Larry Fessenden Interviewed by Alexander Laurence
photos by Victoria Staube
Larry Fessenden has been lurking in the independent and underground film scenes for many years. He is an actor, director, writer and editor. An early version of his new movie Habit was actually made as a video when Larry Fessenden was still at NYU film school in 1980. He formed Glass Eye Pix in 1985 and got involved with performance artist David Leslie. Together they made a few videos including The Impact Addict Video which documented the risk taking stunts of Leslie. Fessenden then moved on to documenting strippers in 1989 with Hollow Venus. This movie starred Heather Woodbury who was a dancer and wrote the script. She later turns up in the film Habit. After doing No Telling and River of Grass, Fessenden was still involved with editing, and soon decided to work on his first real feature as writer/director/actor in true Orson Welles fashion. He soon hooked up with Frank DeMarco, and started shooting in 1994. Fessenden plays an East Village loser who has a drinking problem. His girlfriend leaves him and he looks for some replacement but this only gets him in trouble.
Alexander Laurence: How did you get involved in film?
Larry Fessenden: My first movie I was the animator on a GI Joe caper film. Then when I was 11, I did a live action Dr. Jeckyl & Mr Hyde. I did mostly acting during high school. And I started making films and videos as an undergraduate at NYU. The video program was much looser. In the video department there were no limitation so you could make feature-length videos. I made the first version of Habit in 1980. It's just me in a paired down version, but it's the same basic story.
AL: How did you meet David Leslie and Heather Woodbury?
LF: I was editing for people at that time, actor's reels and that sort of thing, and then I met David, and got involved in the performance art scene. I documented his crazy stunts. We started intercutting movies and all his childhood influences into these pop-myth collages. The videos were seen in performance spaces and some film festivals. While I was making those films and getting known in the performance world, I met Heather Woodbury, who was also a performance artist. She did one-woman solo acts. She was also a go-go dancer. She had a story to tell which was her life as a go-go dancer. It was one drunken evening where we decided to made a film about it, and that turned into a project that lasted from 1986 to 1989.
AL: When did you start thinking about doing a new version of Habit into a full length feature?
LF: Around the time that I was making No Telling, I had envisioned this trilogy of movies: Habit, No Telling, and Hector Dodges. I ended up doing No Telling first instead of Habit, but it has always been on my mind to re-do it. It's a story that's really close to me. Even at the time of its original conception, it hadn't been done. Now we can say that there are other "Lower East Side-Vampire films." At the time, when I thought of re-doing it, it was still a fresh idea. After doing No Telling I was hired on a movie River of Grass as an actor. That was a great experience and reminded me of doing low-budget film. So I was hungry to get started with Habit. I wasn't going to play the lead in the beginning. We did a reading at Nuyorican Poets Cafe. I got inspired to put it together with a small crew.
AL: Who was involved in the beginning?
LF: I found my freind, Dayton Taylor, who's a producer and production manager on everything from commercials to features. We devised a plan to work with this small crew of volunteers. He wasn't intimidated by the more ambitious parts of the script like the wolf scene and that there were so many locations. I could see that Dayton was a man who I could work with. We went forward and made a general invitation to people to work on this project. That's when we got involved with Frank DeMarco who had recently shot a documentary called Therimin. He became the Director of Photography. WE shot the movie in our own apartments and on the sly all over the city.
AL: The main character of Habit is a drunk who breaks up with his girlfriend and then gets involved in this obsessive sexual relationship....LF: This was a very intuitive story for me. It's an obsessive affair about blood and cutting. Sam is obviously on a downward spiral and then he meets this woman who's fabulous. She makes him feel important. I think you can tell a story about a more marginal character if you root it to a tradition, like the vampire story. You can look at this guy's specific life and see what's universal in it through the vampire story. We all have demons that cause us despair. Habit is a portrait of the little things that add up and lead to Sam's undoing, and it's about how this kind of self-destruction is in our myths, its quality in human nature, that's the real moster. I'm interested in re-examining that nugget of truth at the core of a genre that I love. You know, the horror movie, the vampire mvie.
AL: What is Glass Eye Pix and who is involved?
LF: Glass Eye Pix is me, and some editing equipment. It's a dwindling bank account. I work as an editor. I rent out equipment. Glass Eye Pix has its hands in various little projects. I made a book that went along with the film No Telling which was about environmental issues. Glass Eye Pix is the people I'm working with right at this moment, and the people I've worked with in the past. I'm working with Mike Ellenbogen right now to distribute Habit. I have helped other filmmakers through Glass Eye Pix. It's an umbrella for indy filmmaking, mostly my own.
AL: What do you think about Independent filmmaking in New York now?
LF: It's all over the place. New York still has museums and literary traditions as a base, but film has infiltrated everything. New York will always be resilient, but there's moments when it feels like LA, and what I mean by that is that every waiter and bartender wants to be an actor or writer or director. It's good that video is more accessible and makes people able to make their own films. My worry is what people really have to say. I think that really needs to be discussed. I think that there's too much discussion of celebrity and people's financial packaging and what have you. In Hollywood films it's all about special effects and the celebrity's machismo and how many vans they have shipped around the world. I think that in five or ten years, there will be a resurgeance of interest in authentic cinema or single-voice cinema, because the price will go down, so that people with a vision might be able to get their movies made. It's really where they're distributed and how they're exhibited that becomes difficult. There's a tendency now of being so hyper-aware of your place in the hierarchy of showbiz. I can't believe that a guy like Cassavetes sat around and talked about the numbers he was getting. I think they were really interested in making dramas that reflected their lives.
AL: What about some of these kids who are cutting themselves and drinking blood? Do you think Goth kids are going to be attracted to Habit?
LF: It's all part of a milieu of self-destruction, but it's also a visceral world where one is living a little closer to the edge, and that's the world I was trying to create in Habit, this bohemia which is sort of dying out now as everyone is so career-oriented and gets serious at age seventeen. In my day, you take a little time to deal with the bigger issues and if it lead you to despair, "Well, you pull out the old pocketknife and express yourself!" As far as the Goth culture, I hope that they would appreciate my film because I think that I'm talking about things that they're concerned with and consumed with. I'm not in that world directly though I've been there.
AL: Who are some of your influences?
LF: In terms of movies, I'm one of the guys who's really influenced by the 1970s when I was first being turned on to moviemaking. Well, Scorcese, who I always call Marty. It's like knowing someone through their filmmaking. I love Roman Polanski. His early movies. Up to his American departure. I loved Cul de Sac and The Tenant. Rosemary's Baby. Chinatown too of course. But in Rosemary's Baby I think that he has this perfect blend of realism and something surreal. In that way I like Bunuel. I like Godard for his breaking the medium. Polanski has an incredible attention to detail and the story unfolds very realistically. Rosemary's Baby for example, there's not a lot of indicators during the film that are saying this is all very spooky. It's really the unfolding of events. That's what I really love about Polanski. Bunuel just had a nasty sense of humor, but even he would just throw in strange events in an overwise straight-forward narrative. I'm interested in breaking narrative. Having the accumulation of events form the narrative, rather than the signposts of drama which you expect and are now overused in Hollywood films. I'm interested in detail, and an accumulation of detail forming the narrative, and therefore character-driven.
AL: What is the link that connects all your films?
LF: All my films are about how you create your own truth in a crazy and chaotic world. And the truth that you make becomes your reality. Obviously Sam in Habit focuses on the dark side and it leads to his demise. In No Telling, it's about what are we calling progress? Are we really entrusting oursleves to science and the market to determine our reality? Even in Hollow Venus, it's about the way she rationalizes being a go-go dancer and how much is she kidding herself? David's stuff is all about pop culture and how it drives you mad, which is a theme that is still relevant today.
AL: Why are you so interested in the truth?
LF: I just think when you're educated you're supposed to ask questions. You read all this stuff at fine schools as I did anyway. Then you have information, then you're pursuing truth. Then when you grow up you realize that no one wants to hear the truth, and the media suppresses the truth. So there's this total contradiction between the potential for growth and understanding and the way the world is run which is counter to that, because everyone has their agendas. Within that comes a feeling of alienation and horror. My films are about alienated horror.
AL: You won this award recently?
LF: It was the "Someone To Watch" award. Mostly for Habit but I think that they were excited to see that I had done a lot of movies, and I would probably go on making movies.
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Albany Times Union
April 17, 1998
by Amy Biancolli
Larry Fessenden thinks big thoughts. Make that huge. He chews hard on life, death, morality, redemption, the future of the species and the maleficient influences of corporate culture on the human soul. A conversation with the lower East Side filmmaker is speckled with philosophizing, ruminations on myth, reality, false gods and personal demons. he talks in dense paragraphs fat with ideas, a graduate student drunk on theory.
"I'm very interested in philosophy and the meaning of it all and what world view guides us into the future," said Fessenden, speaking n a phone interview from his home in alphabet City. "I think, as we turn the corner on the millennium, those are things we should be talking about. And maybe from disappointment with our culture, our attention drifts elsewhere.
"There's so much minutiae to discuss - what Bill Clinton did last week, rather than what is this world we're building."
He chomped on this for a while before swallowing it whole. "Of course," he opined, "life is complex, and you don't have to be the guy at the party who's always ranting and raving."
Ranting, no. But Fessenden's movies are literate and sharp, low-budget independent works that take swipes at convention without knocking it over. His most recent, the unrated "Habit," is a sexually graphic '90s update of an ancient gothic legend that waits 90 minutes before uttering the word vampire and at least as long before baring a fang.
Garnering good reviews and close attention from the independent film community, the film has made a minor splash since its New York release last year. It earned Fessenden a directing nomination and cinematographer frank DeMarco a photography nomination from the 1998 Independent Spirit Awards, which last year gave him a Someone to Watch Award. It's premiere Albany Screening will be at 7:30 tonight at the Spectrum Theatre, Delaware Avenue, Albany, followed by a question-and-answer session with Fessenden.
PLENTY OF PROBLEMS
"Habit" has been roundly characterized as a vampire film. And it is, to a point. The protagonist, Sam, has an affair with an enigmatic woman who bites him during lovemaking and ravenously sucks his blood. But Sam is a troubled guy. He drinks heavily, he subsists on rewarmed coffee, he has a screwed-up relationship with a former girlfriend, and his father just died on a binge. This vampire thing, it turns out, is only part of the problem.
The film, Fessenden said, "is definitely about the breakdown of character - what he's going through and what his perception of reality is. That's the concept," said the writer-director, who stars as Sam. "I think at its heart the movie is about how we look for scapegoats and excuses for our own shortcomings and our own inner demons - and how his own sort of subconscious conjures up the vampire and the evil, but in fact it's just his life and his own problems and his failing to confront his drinking."
Fessenden, 35, himself grew up in a well-to-do family on the Upper East Side, the son of a homemaker and a businessman (who makes a brief appearance in the movie as Sam's deceased dad). "My parents were very, whatever the word - conventional," he recalled. "I think they're intrigued that I veered off into the arts... It was nature vs. nurture."
As a kid he was involved in music and acting; in high school he started to direct and, armed with a Super 8 camera...
...characterized as fantasy stuff," Fessenden attended (but never finished) prep school at Andover, earned his G.E.D. and headed off to study film and acting at New York University.
He later started Glass Eye Pix, writing and directing a variety of short videos and feature films - including 1991's unsettling animal-rights spin on the Frankenstein legend, "No Telling." Never released theatrically, it's set to be released on video in June.
In case you hadn't noticed, Fessenden has a fondness for Gothic archetypes. "I grew up mired in old 1930s Universal horror films ("Invisible Man", "Frankenstein"), and I was very turned on by the milieu and the atmosphere," he said. "I related to the creature's outsider stance - and then as I grew up, I became more engaged in real issues and the problems of communication between people."
Fessenden counts among his idols Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski, whose twisted psychological horror is referred to, in big ways and small throughout "Habit." The claustrophobia of a character trapped be demons recalls "Repulsion"; the distant sound of a neighbor (actually Fessenden's wife) practicing cello conjures the faintly tinkling piano in "Rosemary's Baby."
Filmed in 1994, "Habit" had a tough time finding audiences. Distributors wouldn't touch it - it was too graphic, too ambiguous, and its subject too similar to Abel Ferrara's "The Addiction." Festivals passed. But random screenings got good reactions, and a few critics stuck their necks out to praise the film.
Finally, Fessenden joined forces with Passport Cinemas, a production entity run by his longtime friend and associate (and former director of the now-defunct Albany International Shorts Film Festival) Michael Ellenbogen. Together they distributed and publicized the film.
"I think Larry is just a very intelligent filmmaker," said Ellenbogen, whose company is developing an update of "The Brothers Karamazov" from a script by Greenville native Michael Brophy. "He's got very unique ideas and a very artful way of putting his ideas and his themes (on film)," Ellenbogen said.
Ideas drive Fessenden's movies. "I think movies are a way to define a very chaotic world," he said. "Every choice in a film is presumably by design - and therefor, you're presenting an articulation of reality - which, I think, is just a beautiful art form, and certainly it combines other art forms, everything from graphics to music to pictures. I'm interested in movies that have an arc like music, some sort of psychological depths that might not even be apparent from the story but affect the audience after the fact."
Fessenden is, in fact, a musician. He plays sax in an eclectic blues-folk-roots-rock-jazz band, Just Desserts, and his films reflect both a keen musical sensibility and a conviction that sound is in many ways as important as image. I the days before video he audio-taped movies off of television and played the recordings over and over, memorizing the slam of a car door, the clink of a glass, the swells of a rich orchestral score.
"Nowadays a lot of movies hang their hat on existing pop songs, and while that can be a pleasure, with some of the great films you can hear the scores in your mind - and I think that's something I want to explore further," said the filmmaker, who hired composer Geoffrey Kidde to score "Habit." "I really insist on original music."
Current projects include two screenplays: "Hector Dodges," a "sweet romance" that promises a stylistic departure; and a monster film "that I'm very secretive about" that explores, once again, the intersection of myth and reality.
In Fessenden's work and life, dark and light meet, entwine and eventually part ways. Like his character in "Habit" he lost a tooth in a mugging; and, like his character in "Habit," his arms show the scars of self-inflicted cuts. "I was into alcohol-induced scarification and other brash acts that were just sort of defiant..., no harm done to others," he says with candor. "Very PC in that regard - and you know, who knows, there could be deep psychological roots to it all. Yes, I'm out of it for now. But it's something one can always return to."
He is not, however, determined to shock for shock's sake. "I'm just interested in confronting people with what I perceive as a starkly real view of the human condition," he says, "and suggesting that if we were to look that in the eye, then we could begin to discuss the problems ... I think we buy into false gods - the media and all the hullabaloo. So I think what I'm trying to do in my films is try to address certain realities - if that comes off as stark and raw, it's shocking."
"I think a lot of people have psychological sadness and fear, and I think if we were to be more open about that, then maybe we could find a place to start the healing - which is my agenda: tough love," he concluded with a laugh. "And wouldn't we all like that?"
Fessenden bio | "Someone to Watch Award" | Habit press | top
Ask Questions Later
by Bruno Derlin
It was a chilly late afternoon in autumn. The scattered, yellow-reddish leaves that flew about provided an eerie atmosphere in the otherwise busy, urban setting that is New York Citys Lower East Side. I walked slowly and glanced around myself to take in the somewhat surreal sights that surrounded me, sights that would seem ordinary on any given day, but had a very special texture on this particular day. I guess that the anticipation of sitting in a bar to have a chat with filmmaker/actor Larry Fessenden was enough to provide me with that certain spooky feeling. Not that Larry himself comes off as a spooky guy, but heres a filmmaker whose credits include the modern-day Frankenstein variation No Telling, and the bone-chilling vampire flick Habit, a film that has enjoyed a slow, but growing following as it has gone from its original conception (Fessenden originally shot it on video while going to film school at NYU), to its birth on 16mm film and consequent 35mm theatrical blow-up, and finally to an imaginatively packaged DVD release. Showered with many awards and kudos, Habit is the one film that instantly caught my attention at the 1999 Williamsburg-Brooklyn Film Festival. It has a riveting story, which involves Sam (played by Fessenden), an alcoholic trying to kick his habit, and Anna, a mysterious young woman he meets at a friends Halloween party. The two become romantically entangled, but Anna has more than just a few biting secrets to her nature, and their relationship quickly becomes tainted with doubt and mystery. Larry is the founder of Glass Eye Pix, a New York-based development, production, and post-production facility that prides itself on bringing unique, somewhat unusual independent fare to the silver screen, and in some cases, on the smaller tube be it your TV or computer monitor. Larrys company website, www.glasseyepix.com, presents a wide array of information on many of his past credits, as well as his upcoming projects. Larry can also be seen as an actor in the upcoming film Margarita Happy Hour and in a small role in Martin Scorseses Bringing Out The Dead. Okay, well back to my chilly late afternoon. I finally reached my destination, Dempseys Pub, our bar of choice, with about ten minutes to kill. Of course, I refrained from committing such crimes and opted to relax and have a drink instead. The surrealism continued to envelope me, as I chatted briefly with a regular who had just downed another drink in honor of the upcoming, new millennium. Within minutes, I was drawn from one world to yet another, as Larry entered the bar. He sported a smile and was definitely ready to spill the beans on his latest doings.
BRUNO DERLIN: What was the inspiration for your film Habit? In it, I saw elements of Nosferatu, Dracula, and even the Sheridan LeFanu story, Carmilla. Did you specifically structure your story to include these elements?
LARRY FESSENDEN: I think it was just intuition at that point. By the time I started writing Habit, I had absorbed so many of the great Dracula films and other classic vampire movies. I really set out on another tactic, which was to tell the story of a drunk who doesnt have a grasp on reality, and a lot of the vampire elements just presented themselves. I wanted a relationship story; a guy meets this unusual woman and is immediately drawn to her. Of course, because of the vampire lure, the whole thing was intuitive to me. The subtle references to other stories just started to surface, and these were not necessarily from one particular story, but from a variety of old vampire tales and legends.
BRUNO: You made Habit on a very low budget. Was any part of your film shot guerrilla style?
LARRY: Theres this one scene, when Anna and Sam take a wounded kid to a nearby hospital, where we totally went guerrilla style. We scoped out the area. I wanted to be very true to the geography of New York. I knew that the wolf scene (which comes immediately before this one) would take place up there on Central Park West and 116th street. I found a hospital that we could go to and we peeked into the window and figured the only way we could get this shot was to just grab it. Its always a major undertaking to get permission to shoot in a hospital. So, we got a Bolex, which wasnt our usual camera, and went in for the shot. It was just me, Meredith Snaider (who plays Anna), and the kid. We just went into the emergency room and told a nurse that this little kid was in trouble. She was very concerned and was like, "Oh, that way to the emergency room." The camera guy was there, but that didnt really get anyones attention as the entire shot was handheld and we werent really using any lights. We went through the doors and went all the way in, where there were all these gurneys and all these people. The sad thing, however, is that the camera had jammed and when we got our film back from the lab, we discovered that none of it was usable, and so, the shot was completely absent from the final film. The one we did use, we shot from outside the hospital. Also, the street festival scenes were done in the same fashion. The Ferris wheel sequence, all that was grabbed, it wasnt arranged. Nat, the guy who runs the thing, started saying: "No more cameras, I cant deal with you guys You MTV guys, you came here before and you never paid me or anything." The following day, I brought him the dailies and told him, "Nat, youre part of our production, we want you to be involved, and heres a great shot of your beautiful Ferris wheel." A lot of the guys at the festival were really good to us. We also asked random people to be extras and they were real nice about it, and we put all their names in the final credits.
BRUNO: In the DVD version of the film, during the Making of Habit featurette, you state that you may, at some point in your career, want to make a mid-life crisis version of the film, kind of your own 42 Up. Now, why would you choose Habit and not one of your other films?
LARRY: Habit really is a self-portrait. Sam is this dude who is addictive in one way or another. Hes obsessed with Anna, but he also has a drinking problem. Its my archetypal story. Not knowing what the reality is and if this woman is preying on him, or if its all in his mind, is what attracts me to that story. But Ill tell you, Id remake all my movies. I always figure it out once its over what I really wanted to do. I say, oh, so thats how I should have done it!
BRUNO: Tell us a little about your crew. How did you get everyone to commit to your project, considering its rather miniscule budget?
LARRY: I figured, if we paid people nothing, then they could never say they werent paid enough. Our concept was to just invite people to participate, so that if somebody had a paying job, they could go off for a couple of days and make some money. But ultimately, this would be the project that they were lovingly checking in with.
BRUNO: How many people were on your crew?
LARRY: At its fullest, the crew was made up of seven people, including the costume designer. (He chuckled.) Dayton Taylor, our producer, doubled as our sound guy. Hanging off one shoulder, he had his laptop computer, for scheduling and stuff. On the other shoulder, he had his little DAT recorder. Three other guys played "swing everything," going from department to department. We would drive around in my little Honda, the one thats in the film as a picture vehicle, of course. And that car was also our cube truck. Originally, we thought of having more than one director of photography, since it would be difficult for anyone to commit to the film for a long period of time without pay, but then our DP, Frank DeMarco, agreed to fulfill the mission, and he wanted to do everything himself.
BRUNO: On your companys website, you mention a film titled Hector Dodges as your next project. Is that ready to go into production?
LARRY: No, Hector Dodges is a big movie; Ive budgeted it at about five million dollars. I think I want to hold that one off for a while. My instinct is to do things cheaply because then theres always a potential to make money. So what Ive decided to do instead is another monster movie and Im very secretive about it.
BRUNO: Whats the secret? (Larry smirked and took a sip from his glass.) Is it the subject matter? (He took another sip.) Are you going to tell us what its about?
LARRY: Something about movies has been de-mystified in recent years. There is so much information about how theyre made and what goes into making them. Audiences then come in as judges of whether things were successful. If you think about Kubrick, for example, all his works were shrouded in mystery. Im curious to see if I can try that approach. But I will tell you a couple of things. Im calling it an analog film, which means there are no computer effects; its all going to be real, photographed images. I plan to do lots of in-camera stuff. I want to continue to celebrate celluloid and the process and just the illusions that can be created through just the slight of hand. I also have puppeteers involved
BRUNO: But youre still not going to tell us what its about?
LARRY: (This time, Larry finished his drink and took a deep breath.) All Im going to say is that its a werewolf story. It takes place in the snow; it should be quite chilling.
(By this point, it was time for refills.)
BRUNO: You grew up watching the films of Scorsese, Polanski, and Cassavettes, just to name a few. These are filmmakers who have managed to keep their independent voice even while making bigger, Hollywood studio-financed movies. How would you make that transition if you were offered a big studio project, and what steps would you take to keep your own, independent voice?
LARRY: What I think my films portray, is the "day in the life approach" to genre. I try to maintain some sort of realism. Im not driven by the classic, Greek three-act story structure that is often used by conventional Hollywood formula. I like the accumulation of information becoming the plot. I will always look for that in a script. Not so much plot driven, but character driven stories, fascinate me. Im interested in the themes that lie underneath the action. Theres a certain formality to Hollywood filmmaking that I resist; I like (the process) to be as organic as possible. You can maintain spontaneity even if youre trying to adhere to schedules and budgets. You can go out and interact with the world. There should be a feeling of intimacy with the theme and your environment, and thats something I never want to lose, no matter what budget. I know its possible. Its just a matter of who your team is and how well everyone works together.
BRUNO: In most cases, one can easily associate a signature with a given director; and this is especially true when it comes to indie directors. What is the Fessenden signature?
LARRY: Relativism and ambiguity, and how there are different points of view. Im interested in how western culture just fucked everything up. I like to think that my movies take another view at things that we assume. For example, even with the vampire genre, I tried to re-examine it and see whats really relevant. Theres always this awkward tension between myth, genre, and reality. On a technical end, I like point/counter-point, handheld scenes, and strong, compositional steady shots to use in contrast. I like to go from extreme close-ups to wide shots. I also like to use jump cuts a lot. Im into subjective filmmaking. To me, objective is the indifferent camera seeing the steadier, wide shots. The subjective approach, which is why I use a lot of handheld stuff, allows me to get up close and personal with my stories. But I feel that a directors signature is not always deliberate; its intuitive.
BRUNO: Are you interested in bringing other writers works to the screen, or do you prefer developing your own stories?
LARRY: I try to encourage single vision movie making and Im always ready to lend a hand to anyone who is ready and willing to commit to a dream project. I recently took a co-producer credit on a documentary called The Gods of Times Square, and that was a great experience. However, Im not powerful enough, financially, or even reputation-wise, to truly godfather movies through to the next level. But if I could, I would set up a production facility to help new filmmakers express their voices. Im especially grateful to anyone who has helped me in the past and would do my very best to return the favor.
BRUNO: How do you feel about Digital Video? Are there any immediate plans for you to embark on a DV project?
LARRY: Ive shot on (analog) video for about ten years; I did some actors reels and had a cable access TV show for a while. I love video as a way to learn, especially since video allows you to have instantaneous sync sound. For me, personally, it has been very exciting to now graduate and shoot on film. I mean, DV is beautiful looking and a lot of the secondary projects I might get involved with projects that are not features Id probably opt to shoot on DV. But, I have sort of a romance for film, and I want to be making movies on film for as long as, well for as long as that is available to me. Im not against DV, but I do feel that it is pretty much being shoved in our throats. Why not let the filmmakers decide on the format? Let the material youre working with be the deciding factor. Of course, DV is great for documentaries.
BRUNO: Lets switch gears for a moment. If you were asked to bring a literary classic to the screen, what story would you choose?
LARRY: One of my favorite stories is Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. I also love the Scrooge story. I do a Christmas Carol puppet show every year at my Christmas party. My thing though, is to try and update these stories to modern-day settings, kind of what they did with the Bill Murray Scrooged from a few years back. But these are two stories Id definitely consider. However, I do prefer making movies that are meant to be movies; screenplays written directly for the screen and not necessarily adaptations compel me.
BRUNO: In 1997, you were honored with the "Someone To Watch" Independent Spirit Award. How did winning that award make you feel?
LARRY: Ive made movies for so long and Ive never gotten into the game of it all. I dont even have an agent. Getting that award truly made me feel like I was being welcomed into the industry. It was really important for me at the time. Here, finally, was some acknowledgement for my film (Habit, which up until that moment had been shunned by many festivals) that made me feel like it was really worth all the effort I had put into it.
BRUNO: The following year, Habit also granted you nominations for direction and cinematography at the Spirit Awards, as well as winning other honors at various other festivals. What do you think happened there? How did your film finally get the attention you were hoping for?
LARRY: For one thing, Im very grateful to one very kind review that was written by Roger Ebert. I love that guy. He got many other people to reconsider the films artistic value. As for the Spirit Award nominations, it was quite special to be nominated with directors like Victor Nunez and Robert Duvall. And ultimately, I was really happy about Frank DeMarcos cinematography nomination. He truly deserved it. All the other awards have been an added bonus. Thanks to those awards and recognitions, Im able to have my films out there and get my next film made.
BRUNO: Is there any particular genre that you would want to try in the future?
LARRY: I really would love to make a musical. I grew up watching a lot of old movies on television, catching reruns of Fred Astaire movies and even James Cagney. But even later on, I was a big Rocky Horror Picture Show fan. A western would probably be my least-likely choice, although I do love some of those Sam Peckinpah films. I think I would probably like to try different genres, but Im definitely not the right man to make a Harry Met Sally type movie. Romantic comedies are not my thing; even if Hector Dodges does have a lot of romantic elements in it, it still has a lot of darker elements. I think those will always be lurking in my movies.
BRUNO: Do you have any advice for new, upcoming directors who are getting ready to tackle their first film or are diving into their own guerrilla project?
LARRY: Dont feel you need a whole lot of money to make a film. Figure out your means. Shoot on DV if that is whats available to you, and dont get all worried about the size of your crew and things like that. Figure out what your story is, and tell it with integrity. Plan your shots so that your audience is carried by your storytelling the way youre depicting your story. Think visually. There needs to be something cinematic going on. But, most importantly, celebrate collaboration. Try to bring the most out of other people, because you cannot make your movie alone. You have to learn how to delegate, and to involve people so that the project becomes their own something they want to do, to be a part of. Follow your own vision and try to find it Find it in your heart and spend lots of quiet time alone and ask yourself why am I doing this? God forbid its just to get into Sundance. Do it because you feel you have something to say. Find out what that is and be true to it, and try to get your collaborators to see it. Everyone involved should be making the same movie, which should derive from one vision. Doing this will produce a stronger offering. Dont worry so much about distribution or how youre going to get your film into the next festival. Those are things that will happen or, maybe they just wont. But dont let that stop you. Ive made many movies that remain unseen by general audiences, and thats okay. The experience of having made them cannot be erased. It stays with you. Take your time. Be patient. There are ways to make your movie cheaply. If you have a nine to five job, be sure to leave yourself some time at night to spend with your movie. Eventually, it will turn into something, and thats well, thats guerrilla filmmaking.
Fessenden bio | "Someone to Watch Award" | Habit press | top