A post from Larry Fessenden, November 20
FESSENDEN OFF THE ORPHANAGE: Old news to friends, the story broke during an interview on the set of STAKE LAND conducted the night of November 18th by Eric Walkuski for Arrow in the Head. Fessenden is noticeably tongue-tied when he realizes he's revealing information that's over three weeks old but not yet known to the public:
"THE ORPHANAGE was two years of waiting. Working on the script with Guillermo was a very exciting experience, but then I got into a casting miasma and that's where the thing is; I think they're gonna do it another way, actually. So I think I'm out of it. Hopefully they'll still use my script, but I'm not sure I'm directing it anymore. That's Hollywood for ya."
When I asked Fessenden if he knew what his next directorial effort would be, he said, "I have like three movies that I wanna do that are, ironically, at this level. Just because that project [ORPHANAGE] got my foot in the door with studios and managers, agents, all good people working hard - but the fact is I don't trust whether or not it'll work. You know, after you get bitten once, you're just a little more wary."
I woke the next day to a torrent of internet posts on the story, many speculating and inaccurate about the probable cause of the parting, relying on clichés about my rogue status and not getting along in Hollywood (with a couple of jabs about the Wendigo thrown in for good measure). For the record then ...
In October of 2007, I got a call from a fabulously proactive Hollywood agent (Renée Tab, now my manager) who informed me that I was remaking THE ORPHANAGE. The movie hadn't been released yet, but I knew it to be a Spanish film produced by Guillermo del Toro premiering that year at Sitges. I called Ron Perlman on the set of HELLBOY II and asked him what was up. He later reported back that Guillermo had an exciting proposal for me ...
It turns out that Guillermo del Toro had hand-picked me to do the English language remake of his beloved property. The first year was spent sorting out the details and contracts and during that time I wrote a draft of the screenplay based on the original script by Sergio G. Sánchez. My draft of the script gave the studio the confidence to agree to Guillermo's wishes and I was hired. In 2008 at Sitges, I met the original film's director J.A. Bayona, and he wished me luck with the project.
At the start of 2009 I met with Guillermo and we completely re-imagined the script again, in three intensive days where we discussed story points. The resulting beat sheet we pitched to the studio and it was approved. I then wrote the script again. At this time we hired the producers Beau Flynn and Tripp Vinson to oversee production and for the next five months we worked on the script, taking in studio notes. The final script I consider completely uncompromised, unique in its themes and true to the original. I was so happy with the collaboration that I invited Guillermo to accept co-writer credit and he agreed.
The script was very well received in tinsel town. World-class actresses where intrigued. The studio green-lit the project and we were on a fast-track to shoot in the Fall. I met many wonderful collaborators at this point and was in the early stages of scheduling and prepping the film. The only clue to rough waters ahead I might have picked up on, is that the studio did not wish to announce the film until an actress was attached: myself as director was not news enough. Eventually the story was leaked in August 2009, 16 months after I had taken the gig. It was a relief for me to finally reveal why for over a year I hadn't spoken about directing a film since the successful release of THE LAST WINTER.
The rest of the story I will not disclose in detail. If I have anything disparaging to say about Hollywood, it is that all decisions are based on intricate calculations of budgets and number-crunching back-room algorithms assessing various people's worth that removes the artistic impulse from the equation. Each actor we approached took up to a month from idea to response, and I saw the Fall deadline slip away, and with it the chilly autumnal New England atmosphere that I had envisioned for the film. We had some real highs with casting, and disappointments too, and as time slipped away, the studio seemed to get spooked and decided it would be easier to land an actor without the complication of pitching me to an established star. Guillermo called me one day in October and said they were moving on. It was no surprise. I had had a good run of it, and we agreed we would make a different film together one day. I had felt extremely well treated, even by the studio that eventually lost its nerve.
I said in my interview the other night that I was wary of working again in the Hollywood system, but that is only because there is a great uncertainty and prolonged investment of time when mingling with the studios. It is not a rejection of the opportunities that present themselves by that system. In some web posts about my moving on from THE ORPHANAGE that have cropped up in the last 24 hours, there is the cliché presumed and reported that the studio and I must have parted over creative differences because of my rakish independence or the studio's cookie-cutter demands. That was not the case. Guillermo and I got the ending we wanted and we loved and believed in our script. I myself enjoyed the formality and structure of the studio system, the professionalism of my collaborators and the access to incredible artisans and outstanding talent the gig afforded me. Most of all I was privileged by the warm and brilliant gruffness of Guillermo del Toro, the only mentor I have ever had. Where this story goes sour is in the corridors of power where the bean counters make their risk-assesments devoid of the passion and instinct that makes great cinema.
Guillermo del Toro told me along the way: "Fessenden, you must have supernatural patience working with the studio." I took his advice, and tried to remain steady and determined for the duration. But what I do is make movies, not dream of big budgets and stars. So in the time I worked on THE ORPHANAGE, I was producer on I SELL THE DEAD, THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, WENDY AND LUCY, SATAN HATES YOU, BITTER FEAST, STAKE LAND, and HYPOTHERMIA (now in pre-production); I directed SKIN AND BONES for NBC. I also wrote JAKE AND ELROY, PITILESS SUN (both with Robert Leaver) and DEPRAVED, all of which I hope to direct in the time frame it took not to make a Hollywood film.
THE ORPHANAGE gave me opportunities to meet a lot of industry professionals, and I look forward to working with them again when I step back into that arena with the big toys and high concepts. But meanwhile, I'll be holding down the fort at Glass Eye Pix, where we try to make pictures with guts and gusto.
As for THE ORPHANAGE, I wish it well, and look forward to seeing the fruits of the intense labor that goes into the production of every film, great and small.