There are no shortage of independent horror filmmakers but Larry Fessenden is the filmmaker who puts the emphasis on the “indie” part of the equation. As a writer/director, he’s take the classic horror genres and turned them inside out. No Telling was his take on Frankenstein as an environmental drama, Habit, a vampire story set in the drug addict culture of New York City, Wendigo, a monster movie of myth and imagination and The Last Winter, an eco-twist on the ghost story in the culture of big oil. Plus, in addition to his own directorial efforts, Fessenden has produced or co-produced dozens of films, including Kelly Reichardt‘s Wendy and Lucy and Night Moves, Ti West’s The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, and Jim Mickle’s Stake Land, through Glass Eye Pix, his own production shingle.
Beneath, Fessenden’s latest, is a fish story: six teens stranded in a rowboat in the middle of the lake without a paddle while a giant man-eating catfish prowls the water waiting to eat his way through the buffet. What begins as a classic horror film, complete with teenagers who do all the dumb, reckless, aggressive things seemingly designed just to get them stuck in the water, transforms into an insidious character piece that strips away all pretense of humanity and lays bare the envy, resentment, spite and animosity they’ve been burying all this time under snarky remarks and dirty looks. Though it was made as a horror film for a cable channel, it plays more like an American indie drama: Mamet in a boat with a teenage cast and a seriously savage portrait of survivalism at all costs. On the occasion of the release of Beneath on Blu-ray and DVD a few months back, I spoke with Fessenden about the film, his career as a director and a producer, his support of independent filmmaking of all genres and why he’s still so committed to making his brand of horror cinema.
Keyframe: Beneath is the first feature you’ve directed that is not from your own script. Why this project and why the cable channel Chiller?
Larry Fessenden: As you know, I am also a producer and I went there to pitch some of my directors and just to get in with the channel. It seemed liked a fun proposition to produce a film through Chiller. They had money and they were ready to make some original features, and I went through some of the projects that I thought were interesting that we had lined up and they said, ‘Well, those sound good but we also have this,’ and they pulled out this script and I read it and I said, ‘Well I want to do this one, because I love the fish genre, I love how contained the story is, and if you guys are willing, I’d like to try my hand at it.’ I’ve never been a snob about how the work is done. I did another TV show written by some dudes. That was called Skin and Bones [for the series Fear Itself] and it’s one of my better pieces. It’s always exciting to take something and adapt it and put your spin on it and see how you come out. Like doing a cover song.
Keyframe: Your previous features, Habit and Wendigo and The Last Winter, all originated from your own ideas and your own script. Does working with someone else’s script draw on something different from you?
Fessenden: A little bit. The real challenge for any director is to understand the material so you can advise everyone and know what every shot is for and know why every character does what they do. So there’s always a process, even if you’re working on someone else’s script, of going through and really owning it. In the case of Beneath I made plenty of changes with the writers and then on my own. But they were very willing to hear my ideas and we had a nice period where the baton was handed over. You never know with writers. I feel like they’re a little bit the bastard children of movies. They’re never invited on set, it’s a tough gig. I appreciate that they feel that their story has been taken away from them, but hopefully you treat them well and they feel that you fulfilled their vision. That was the case with Beneath. It was their story but it’s my spin on it. And as for my own films, in the end that will be always my favorite thing because I am really trying to get at very specific ideas and emotions that I feel. They are always going to be more personal, but as I say there are strange things that happen in the arts. Sometimes removing yourself a little bit can be beneficial so there’s no one answer. I do know that I’ll always want to make my own stories. That will be, if I’m lucky, part of the ongoing mission. Even when I produce, I get myself in there and I tell people how they should do stuff. I have a lot of opinions. That’s part of the problem dealing with me.
Keyframe: You’ve produced a lot of features but your last two productions as a director were for TV. Is that because it has become too difficult to finance a theatrical feature of your brand of genre cinema?
Fessenden: I feel that way. I’m feeling the burden of a more conservative financial sector out there. It’s not as easy as it used to be. I’ve also produced a lot of films and was able to sell them and generate the money to make more. My entire body of work from the early 2000s and bringing Ti West into the world with some small films, all of that seemed to me to be easier. Now you want to make films for less but you get paid less. It’s a difficult financial situation out there. I was also preoccupied for a couple of years on a bigger Hollywood movie that didn’t go, but that provided financial comfort and that was going to be a big movie. But I think people like TV now. I’m very loyal to the 90 minute or the two hour film, that is still what I enjoy the most, but I know that my family watches TV series religiously.
Keyframe: You mentioned nurturing Ti West. I’m a big fan of West and of Jim Mickle and J.T. Petty. I think they are three of the freshest and smartest filmmakers in American independent horror cinema and you were instrumental in bringing all of them to the screen.
Fessenden: That’s right, and I’m actually trying to get another J.T. Petty film made, and that’s vague enough that I can say that. We continue to work together, he does some of the audio dramas that I do, “Tales from Beyond the Pale,” and I make horror movies with Ti and saw his career blossom and Jim Mickle also. I love his film Mulberry Street and was dying to make a film with him and the opportunity came and I got help develop Stake Land with him and Nick Damici. I’m very proud of that movie, it will always be part of the Glass Eye canon, and I’m really happy to have been part of each of those guys story as they found their way. We all, I think, share this feeling that horror is an authentic genre to be taken seriously, we all like helping each other but are also dedicated to authenticity in the storytelling. That’s what we all have in common.
Keyframe: I love Mickle’s Stake Land and We Are What We Are and what makes them so strong is that they are stories about people framed within the genre of horror.
Fessenden: Exactly, that’s the agenda. And certainly The Innkeepers is an incredibly charming story about down-on-their-luck kids who work in an old inn. There’s a ghost story, but you could almost be entertained without the horror element. Except that’s like people saying my movies work without the monster. Part of me says, ‘Well that’s good, they’re supposed to,’ but I don’t want to watch them without the monster.
Keyframe: There’s a certain East Coast group you seem to be working with. Is it an aesthetic or because you are based in New York and that’s who you meet?
Fessenden: Basically anybody who will show up at a bar on 2nd Street where I hang out, I’ll make a movie with them. (Laughs.) No, I think it’s more a sensibility. It’s really this thing I was speaking of, treating the genre with a seriousness, whether there’s humor or not is not the point, but a seriousness of real characters interacting in potential genre tropes just becomes so refreshing. And in a way that same movement happened in the sixties with Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Those were, in their own way, seminal films that took the cliché horror monster guise and juxtaposed them with real dilemmas, real human conflict, and suddenly everything had more weight. And those are the movies that influenced me, more than Halloween or a movie like that just sets out to be a scary mood piece. Some of those are great, of course, but I like the ones that actually put you a little off-kilter because they were pushing some buttons.
Keyframe: I’m not going to try and stretch a point with Kelly Reichardt, who does not make horror movies, but you’ve supported her career since you starred in her debut feature, River of Grass, and you may just be the monster in Wendy and Lucy. You show up as the wild-eyed, ranting homeless guy and you are scary!
Fessenden: And also that is the fulcrum. After she encounters me, that’s when Michelle Williams’ character basically says, ‘What am I doing? I’m sleeping in a park, anything could happen to me, I have got to get my shit together.’ So yes, I am a catalyst in any case. But to me, and I know this sounds bizarre, but it’s not that much different, the agenda and the filmmaking. Kelly’s characters are very real, her situations are very small, like a woman who simply has her car break down and she’s trying to figure out how to get out of this town and she has this responsibility to her dog, the only other creature in her life. So it’s about taking cinema and bringing it down to the details, to remind people that every little thing matters in the world, and to me that’s no different than House of the Devil. Nothing happens in that movie, it’s just this woman babysitting in an empty house, but Ti manages to, through pacing and observation, draw you in and create a world of dread. So to me, working with Kelly Reichardt, it’s a love of the details and the authenticity of cinema that revitalizes any genre you’re working in. Her next film, which I was involved in, is called Night Moves and it’s about some kids who want to make an environmental statement by blowing up a damn. Most movies would take that plotline and in about six minutes you’d get to the explosion, but Kelly takes an hour to get there because it’s about the details. It’s an achingly intense film because you’re just watching these kids inexplicably go toward this goal that’s probably going to cause some trouble.
Keyframe: You have been producing a lot of films over the last decade. Did you ever see yourself as an independent horror mogul?
Fessenden: No. I wish I was a mogul. It would be great to have enough money to keep doing this. It’s a little bit tough. Mostly I’m just a cheerleader. One guy we haven’t mentioned is my pal Glenn McQuaid, who made I Sell the Dead, a lovely film. I like these different artistic sensibilities and people who are looking for a way to tell their stories. I get involved and if I can bring in some equipment or make some hook ups, like ‘You might want to work with this DP’ or ‘Maybe this guy has some money that can help,’ I do. So I’m really just sort of the grand puppetmaster. I’ve seen much better producers than myself and the guys I work with, Peter Phok and Brent Kunkle and Jen Wexler, these are all pals who come in and do the hard work, dealing with SAG and all that. I’m more of the cheerleader and I try to bring people together and make stuff happen. And in a way, it’s also a curatorship because hopefully the stuff that comes out of Glass Eye is going to have some strange cohesion, whether it’s from Kelly Reichardt or J.T. Petty or even Glenn, who makes slightly different types of movies but always with a big heart. That’s the other thing. It’s about heart and soul. I consider us to be doing pub rock or punk music, stuff that comes from the passion and the depths. We’re not designing the next big thing.
Keyframe: As an actor, you tend to show up in almost all of the films you direct or produce, and you also appear in films by your friends and colleagues. But there’s no part for you in Beneath.
Fessenden: Someone asked me where I was [in the film] and I said, ‘Well, my kid is in it.’ He’s fourteen now and he’s in the photograph. But it was a pretty full boat. The only way I could have done it is how Hitchcock got into Lifeboat, which is he was in a newspaper clipping. Which would have been clever but hardly worth the effort.
Keyframe: These kids didn’t seem to me the type to bring a newspaper to their graduation party.
Fessenden: (Laughs.) You’re absolutely right. I would have had to appear on Twitter.
Keyframe: I loved your bit as the grizzled, rumpled 1940s detective in Hellbenders. You looked like you stepped out of an old Batman comic.
Fessenden: (Laughs.) I was looking at that recently, with that slicked-back hair and broken nose from the first scene on. I got a chuckle out of that myself. I grew up on De Niro and the idea was to look different every time. The irony is I walk in and everybody always says, ‘Oh, keep your rings, those are really cool,’ and I’m like, ‘Well you realize they’re in another movie.’ So I try to have fun as an actor. I’ve always revered acting and believe in the whole idea of a character actor and getting into each role and finding the essence of personality you’re portraying and giving something different. I don’t like to just go on as myself, that’s just too redundant. But either way I guess I have a persona that people cast me as.
Keyframe: Do you have anything in the pipeline for yourself as a director?
Fessenden: I do but I’m not going to talk about it because it’s not real until it’s real. I have three scripts and I’ve always said that it’s a long haul for me to get the money. So if I do these three scripts in the next several years I’ll be happy because I’m also lucky enough to act and do some other things. But these are my three passion projects. And one of them isn’t even horror.