Larry Fessenden is, by definition, a dreamer. His passion for larger-than-life tales began as a child and would ultimately led him to become a master of storytelling. Known for his dark edge, Fessenden has breathed life into some of the most captivating genre films of the past three decades. While he may not be a household name, his extraordinary work has not gone unnoticed. The winner of the 1997 Someone to Watch Spirit Award, and nominee for the 2010 Piaget Spirit Award for producing, Fessenden is the writer, director and editor of the award-winning art-horror trilogy “Habit” (Nominated for 2 Spirit Awards), “Wendigo” (Winner Best Film 2001 Woodstock Film Festival) and “No Telling.” His 2007 film, “The Last Winter” (Nominated for a 2007 Gotham Award for best ensemble cast), premiered at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival and is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
As a character actor Fessenden has appeared in films such as the forthcoming “The Mountain” (Rick Alverson), “In A Valley of Violence” (Ti West), “Bringing Out The Dead” (Martin Scorsese), “Broken Flowers” (Jim Jarmusch), “The Brave One” (Neil Jordan), “Animal Factory” (Steve Buscemi), “Wendy and Lucy” (Kelly Reichardt), as well as dozens of independent horror films including “We Are Still Here,” “You’re Next,” “I Sell The Dead” and TV shows including “Louie” and “The Strain”.
Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix, one of the indie scene’s most productive and longest-running companies, has produced numerous critically acclaimed films in and out of the horror genre, including “Markie In Milwaukee” (Matt Kliegman) “The Ranger” (Jenn Wexler), “Most Beautiful Island” (Ana Asensio), “Darling” (Mickey Keating), “Birth of The Living Dead” (Rob Kuhns), “Late Phases” (Adrián García Bogliano), “The Innkeepers” (Ti West), “Stakeland” (Jim Mickle), “I Sell The Dead” (Glenn McQuaid), and “The House of The Devil” (Ti West), just to name a few. Glass Eye Pix produces the audio drama series “Tales From Beyond The Pale,” created by Fessenden and Glenn McQuaid, now in its fourth season and recently launched as a podcast in Spring of 2019.
With his latest stylishly disturbing film, Larry Fessenden is behind the camera once again to take on the legend of Frankenstein with a provocative modern update. Suffering from PTSD following his stint as an army medic, Henry (David Call) now works feverishly in his Brooklyn laboratory to forget the death he witnessed overseas by creating life in the form of a man cobbled together from body parts. After procuring a brain from an unwitting victim, his creation—Adam (Alex Breaux)—is born. But it soon seems that giving life to Adam was the easy part; teaching him how to live in a dark and troubled world may be perilous. A complex, emotionally shattering tale about what it means to be human, “Depraved” brings Mary Shelley’s immortal fable fully into the 21st century.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Larry Fessenden to discuss his passion for filmmaking, and his journey as a storyteller and the making of “Depraved,” which hits theaters on September 13th, 2019.
How did you get involved with the arts early on in life?
Well, it just happened, sometimes kicking and screaming! I grew up in a very supportive family, but they weren’t really in the arts in any way. I did love to draw as a kid and make models. I obviously had a fantasy life and I watched monster movies, as well as other stuff. I was the third youngest brother, so my brothers had control over what was on television. When they would finally get out of my way, I would always watch scary movies. I took to acting and I did a lot of that in school when I was growing up. I thought I would just become an actor of some sort but there were so many other aspects of show business that I loved, like building sets and so on. Then I discovered, through the Super 8 camera, that the way you tell a story is where you put the camera. That just blew my mind! I became aware of what a director does and Hitchcock, Scorsese, and all of these heroes that I became exposed to. This was in the 70s, so it wasn’t so obvious how to become a movie maker or even how movies were made. That’s something that the younger generation can’t quite imagine because everything is out in the open now. It used to be a complete mystery and it was fun to try and figure it out! “Oh, you mean they do the scene from this side and then they do it again from that side? That’s so crazy!” It was stuff like that fascinated me!
What went into finding your creative voice as a young artist?
I think I loved the idea of these stories that I had grown up with and trying to show how real they could feel. That’s still what I do! With “Depraved” for example, I made “Frankenstein” as if “How would it really happen?” I also made an old movie called “Habit” as if “What would it be like if you really met a vampire?” Well, first of all, no one would believe you, so that would be a problem! “And that makes me feel the way I felt in high school…” or something like that. It was always to sneak attack the genre element into everyday life because I loved the details of everyday life but, God forbid, one would make a movie that’s boring! [laughs] When you have a vampire there, it all seems so exciting! A vampire movie typically starts with the heavy music and you just know what you are getting into. It feels like they are tipping their hand. It became my aesthetic to blend these two ideas of natural realism and then the more gothic archetypes. That’s how my life felt! I saw the world through these gothic experiences. Everything was melodramatic to me and I always felt there were werewolves, ghouls, and bad intentions lurking all around me! [laughs] I want to make other people feel as uncomfortable and afraid as I feel! [laughs]
When do you feel you came into your own as a storyteller?
You never really do because, until you’re being set up with one movie after another by a studio, you just don’t know if anybody is getting the mission or whether the public is interested. And then, quite honestly, you simply get older and you’re no longer fresh meat, even if you are doing the same thing. I do feel that I have been making these kinds of movies for a long time and I can look back and say, “This is a trend that is now somewhat accepted — the idea of an artful horror movie.” Obviously, we have “Midsommar,” “It Follows,” “The VVitch” and the forthcoming film, “The Lighthouse.” This is because horror is finally taken seriously and though I really had no part in that, because no one ever paid any attention to me, I know that is what I was doing as well. So, I’m part of that history, whether they like it or not! [laughs]
Like anyone, you’ve certainly encountered highs and lows in your industry throughout the years. What has kept your creative fire burning bright?
My only answer sounds pretentious, but it’s cinema. I love the way movies fit together, especially because I have to discover it for myself. I had to learn to edit, learn how stories work, read Hitchcock, and love Polanski. I just saw how movies work, at least in the way I want to think about it. That is very sustaining! It makes me want to make another movie because you never get it right. You might get some part of it that you were after but, let’s remember, there are so many aspects to filmmaking. There is the music and how it plays with image, which is so amazing. There is how sound and sound effects have an impact on the audience that they can’t even tell because you can’t see the sound work, but you can see the picture. There are so many things! Then there is the issue of leadership behind the camera and how you motivate a bunch of people that are basically preposterously low-paying, yet so magical when it works! There are these elements and it’s a lovely thing to be involved in. All the heartache and humiliation of not getting stuff done is sort of worth it! [laughs] However, you do wake up on certain days and you go, “Fuck. I’m going to sell shoes. That would be so much easier. I would know what my mission was every day!” [laughs]
What lessons learned in your early years had the biggest impact on you over the course of your career?
The first big movie I made was called “No Telling.” For one reason or another, it got rather large. I worked with a crew that was used to shorter formats. In other words, it all got a little too big and it was a very crushing experience. I was also trying to bring environmental considerations onto the set, so in many ways I felt very vulnerable. The themes of the movie are about animal experimentation. I felt very exposed and I felt like the story got away from me. I still like the way it’s designed. You can see the shots are very carefully composed and there are great dolly moves and stuff like that. I think it’s amazing what we did pull off. I learned that I like a more intimate set. It’s given me this yin and yang between trying to make it to Hollywood and make a big film, yet also knowing that I love the very tactile experience of making a no-budget movie. That was a lesson that has haunted me because maybe it’s caused me not to engage with Hollywood but it’s also been great solace, when I can’t get something made through that system, that I can always still make the art. Nowadays, with the camera and equipment, you can still make art without too much approval from the higher ups.
‘Depraved’ is your latest film and it’s one that’s really stuck with me. Tell us a little about the genesis of this project.
As I’ve said, I’ve also loved the Frankenstein story and I had made a vampire movie. I think I was always interested in how I would re-interpret these classic stories that I loved as a kid. I have all the models, all the magazines, and I’ve read all the source books. It was just very intuitive. I wanted to see what it would be like if it really happened. It might happen in a Brooklyn loft! Who would do that? Maybe it would be a guy coming back from these preposterous wars. Remember, I wrote this script a long time ago, in the early 2000s, when our country was meddling about in Iraq. I re-approached it after 9/11, so there is a political aspect to it and a real awareness of what our soldiers are doing, the stress they are going through, and how they would come back damaged. That motivated me, along with the simple idea of what it would be like to wake up as Frankenstein’s Monster. I wanted to tell a story about that and also look at all the different relationships that would be involved with this kind of scenario — the enablers, the motivators, the manipulators. I also wanted to focus on the story of old friends who got in over their heads.
There is no shortage of dynamic characters in this film. What went into finding the right players to bring them to life?
For a long time, I was trying to get name actors because that’s really how you get your financing. That went on and on and on. Maybe famous actors didn’t want to commit to a Frankenstein movie and maybe that’s not what they were going to do with a director of my stature, which is to say, “almost no real track record.” At that point, I one day woke up and said, “Ya know what? I don’t care.” One of the reasons I was able to say that was because I had met Alex Breaux, who I wanted to play the monster no matter who he was surrounded by, in terms of name actors. I loved Alex and I thought it was appropriate that the monster would be a discovery of sorts. With that anchor, I had the strength and I decided to make a version with no-budget. I was able to get local actors through meetings and hearsay. That’s how I met David Call and Ana Kayne. I already knew Owen Campbell, who plays the hapless fellow who gets murdered. Of course, I had worked with Chloe Levine. I wanted a character to play Polidori. It’s a very precious role that when I wrote the script, I wanted it to be Philip Seymour Hoffman. I had also considered David Bowie. This was when the movie was a big movie. When I realized it was going to be a more intimate affair, I thought about people I knew with that quality and I instantly thought of Josh Leonard. I’ve always very much enjoyed his work and he is a pal. He did a movie with us years ago called “Bitter Feast” and has also been in some of our radio plays. I was able to call him personally and say, “Hey, man. Want to read this?” He was into it and he’s just the right flavor — a lovable asshole!
[laughs] I think that is a great description of that character. I think we all have a Polidori in our lives in some form.
Well, we do. We know a lot of blowhards and a lot of people in the public sphere are blowhards but to see the vulnerability in a character like that is what I think makes it interesting. You realize he is just playing out his part and trying to stay above water. He doesn’t have the brains that Henry has or the moral compass that Liz has but he is wily and he’s getting by. It makes you think about who in society is operating with those personality traits and the mess it can make! [laughs]
What did this talented group bring to the characters that you might not have expected?
Of course, Alex brought everything to this role, and he was very much what I’d hoped for. That was a daily revelation but also everything I believed he could do from my feelings with him, his audition and the work we put in discussing the makeup. You know, we had a little bit more extreme makeup. We had teeth, a fake arm and a lot of those things seemed to get in the way of this more direct, organic performance. So that was a process. I must say that David Call was also a revelation! His brother is in the military, so he brought a seriousness to that character when it was unclear what was exactly on the page. I think that his innate personality and a certain precision he brought to the role that I think really made sense for the character. That really elevated the part or at least did real service to it. Then, as I discussed, I think Josh Leonard brought a lot of nuance to a rather bawdy character. Ana Kayne had the difficult task of being the woman in the film, but I was trying to convey someone with real decency and kindness, which is such a rare quality that is never celebrated in our culture. I just wanted to show that she really had the monster’s interests at heart, and she was punished for it by fate. That’s just what happens, the good people are often trampled underfoot! [laughs] That’s my worldview! So, everyone really brought the characters to life. That’s a real privilege and something you forget when you are trying to cast famous people. They are also fantastic professionals, who we know for a reason, but they may be out of reach and you can’t imagine that’s the only way to make a movie. That was an important reminder. It’s the kind of advice I give to filmmakers all the time. If you want to make a movie, stop playing around with agents and phone calls and get onto a set and make it with your smarts.
I’m sure you take a little something away from every project you take on. What’s the biggest lesson learned from bringing “Depraved” to the screen?
This is my advice. I don’t know if it’s a lesson I learned this time, but you learn it every single time — you have to fight. You have to fight every single day for every single shot. You have to keep reminding yourself, “What is this scene about? Why am I doing this?” I say that because there are things that get away from you because you have to deal with practical realities. You have to deal with creative input from people, which is fantastic and can help elevate things, but you always have to try to remind yourself of the essence of why you are doing this. Meaning, “What is that story beat that I had here?” To any filmmaker, I would say, try to find the time to reflect on what you are going for. Some things in “Depraved” I won’t speak about because it would be giving it away that I didn’t quite get it! [laughs] It’s why you make the next one if you do or why you stop! [laughs] It’s better if you have a tolerance for suffering. I do believe that’s why you keep making films because you want to get it right. You learn the same lesson every time, which is that filmmaking is tough!
You have done it all when it comes to making a movie. What speaks to you most about the process of filmmaking?
I really have the same mission and same interests. There are two or three things going on. You care about the themes of a movie because you want to speak about the state of the human condition as you see it, so you’re interested in stories that connect and have a resonance with what’s going on now. It doesn’t mean they are political or topical, it just means that there is some real, driving element, even if it’s very, very subtle, of course. It doesn’t mean that it has to be aggressive, but you want it to matter, what you are doing because you’re going to spend a couple years on it. Then you want an aesthetic relationship to the material, be it a color or a lens choice. It’s something you get to develop and live with for a couple of years, so that is very important. Then you have to figure out what team is best going to help you do this. It’s all those things and the different relationships you are going to develop during the movie, either with your actors, your DP or maybe an art director, animator, colorist or the musicians. All of those relationships are going to help you find something that never existed. That’s what is so cool. This is the great privilege of making movies. Today, it doesn’t exist. In a year, I will have created something, literally out of nothing. That’s a beautiful thing. Only cobblers and cabinet makers know what that’s like! It’s a beautiful thing to make something!
Indeed! Thank you for all you have created, and the time spent bringing it all to life. You’re definitely an inspiration.
Thanks, Jason. I appreciate that very much.
Larry Fessenden’s ‘Depraved’ hits theaters on September 13th, 2019 via IFC Midnight. Craving more Fessenden goodness? Check out all the magnificent genre films from Glass Eye Pix and and the mind-blowing audio dramas of Tales From Beyond The Pale.