Sunday Geekersation: The many horrors of Larry Fessenden
05:00 AM, Jun 25, 2013
“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.)