In Hollywood, there are plenty of contrarians, but their time there is usually either long and extensive or mercilessly brief. While Larry Fessenden probably can't be called a full-fledged revolutionary challenging the industry's status quo, he's successfully built an empire working against the conventional wisdom that suggests that gimmicks outweigh great ideas and bigger budgets make better movies. In addition to a storied acting career that includes credits on movies by Scorsese, Jarmusch, Neil Jordan, and Brad Armstrong, he started Glass Eye Pix in 1985 and created a modest production company where he nurtures young and ambitious filmmakers as they bring their visions to the silver screen.
Wednesday evening at Los Angeles' equally storied Aero Theater, Fessenden is appearing in person to discuss two of his own directorial projects, Habit and Wendigo, which will be screened as a double feature. Additionally, Fessenden will be appearing in the Glass Eye pix production Bitter Feast, which is making its premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival this weekend.
Cinematical caught up with Fessenden via telephone this week to discuss his upcoming Los Angeles appearances. In addition to talking about the retrospective and Bitter Feast, Fessenden offered some insights into his experiences in Hollywood, and reflected on what has kept him going in an industry that typically spits out iconoclasts like himself.
Why in particular did you choose Habit and Wendigo as the two films in your double feature at the Aero theater in Los Angeles? Or did you choose them?
Larry Fessenden: I didn't. In fact, it was awesome that these guys called me from the American Cinemateque and they have a little sidebar called "Criminally Unknown," and they seemed to feel that my work fell into that category. They wanted to show Habit and Wendigo and I teased them and said, "are you man enough to show No Telling, which is truly criminally unknown?" It was my first bigger feature, but anyway, those two movies are dear to me, and they're flawed but they're my early work and I was happy that someone wanted to show them at all – of course on film as well.
I was looking on the Glass Eye Pix web site and it has your "philosophy" written out. I think it says that was written in 1993 and you maybe updated it in '99, but what drove you to conceive a personal or professional philosophy in the first place?
Fessenden: I appreciate that you read them. I can't quote them anymore but I know they say we have to make movies cheaply, they have to be genuine, and all of that I still actually believe. It's funny to wake up years later and really be living that; I mean, we've had financing from many different adventurous people, and the truth is that we're really just making these as low-budget movies and the only thing we get in return is some degree of autonomy over them. I try to instill that in [the filmmakers] and every project we make is clearly auteur-driven in the sense that every film is a personal film. Thank God for horror because there's still some hope to live in the marketplace if you make horror films just because there's a very vast, very interested fan base and some of these people really get the twisted visions that aren't always just gore and exploitation.
As a producer, how can you tell the difference between someone who has an idea and someone with a genuine vision?
Fessenden: It's very much how they pitch it - if they start talking about the gore or it's three chicks in a cabin in the woods. That's a red flag already if they're just setting up a premise you've heard a hundred times and they're just trying to make a low-budget movie because they have a camera and all this. Whereas if they say their childhood was haunted by this vision or if they start speaking about a character, and you realize they're coming at it from a genuine place. I mean, when people ask me why I do horror, I always say it's just part of how I see life. I can't even get away from it. I would love to put pen to paper and write a sweet comedy, not that it would (laughs). But already I'm envisioning when the guy comes through the door and slashes them all to ribbons! You know, I can't go on a nice country retreat without thinking I'll be bludgeoned by some swamp creature – it's just the way I think. But you can still tell someone who's bringing a genuine desire to tell a story, convey a world, bring a viewer into a specific landscape they have in their mind. That's what interests me, those kinds of filmmakers who want to create atmosphere and emotion from characters. And if they're tortured souls, it doesn't hurt.
Is it easy to separate what you might personally enjoy from what they want to make? Can you get behind a project no matter what, or do you have to have the mentality that a movie is something you would want to see yourself?
Fessenden: That's a very good point, and I have certain tastes and that's my job to have that taste and be aware enough of it that I can as you say choose what projects I'll have the resilience to get behind. Of course, I have supported Ti West because I believe he has an approach to filmmaking based on the details and rhythms of everyday life, and if there's a sense of dread that creeps in, it's a slow process that makes the audience sort of become increasingly uncomfortable. Now that's my kind of horror – that's the kind of movies that I make – and you might call them boring horror movies, quite honestly, but they don't pander. But very often they don't have that hook that you enjoy from a movie like Jaws and any other film that has the murder in the beginning and you're oriented in a horror film. I think Ti and I have in common the idea of drawing the viewer into a very normal world and then that starts going wrong, and that's an approach that appealed to me.
But we're making a movie called Stake Land that's directed by Jim Mickle, and he made another movie called Mulberry Street, and there, bang! You're in a post-apocalyptic world filled with vampires. So in a way I'm contradicting what I just said, but there it was so based in the characters and kind of an affection for the characters, my entrée into it is Mickle's sensitivity to portraying each character's role. If they had only not fallen into a post-apocalyptic vampire-killing world, they might be people you would enjoy in another kind of story. So it's texture and theme before concept.
From a producorial standpoint, how do you feel about the idea that there seems to be a kitsch factor to low-budget filmmaking today? How tough is it to make sure each project has a certain kind of integrity and isn't just appealing because it's cheap and quickly made?
Fessenden: That's a very good question and one is always on that fine line, and yet I keep reminding you it's about the intent – just don't make grindhouse films for the sake of scratching up prints once we spend our eight million dollars. I mean, look – Tarantino and those guys have done cool things, but there is something aggravating that they have all of the resources in the world and then they scratch the print. I always say our prints are scratched because we only have three of them, and we probably dropped one on the editing room floor. I do believe in something being genuine, and we're in a culture of total artifice – nothing is real anymore – and I reject that. The stories and filmmakers that I want to be involved with are still earnest; I know that's the most preposterous word in an interview about horror movies, but it's got to matter, you know? The stories have to matter, the violence has to matter. It's not a joke. And I don't make splatter films or gore films – that's one thing I'll say; if somebody gets beheaded, that is a very disturbing incident and I am only interested in the movies that will say that is unfortunate. Making a movie where that is an applause line, I reject that. I come at horror as a staunch objection to our culture and society and a movie like Night of the Living Dead, that's nothing but a delightful pleasure, and yet there's content there; there's a sense of genuine dread and horror. And that's what I want to emulate – something [where] people are committed to the seriousness of their stories.
What can you tell us about Bitter Feast, the movie you're in that's premiering at the Los Angeles Film festival this weekend?
Fessenden: My character is very secondary. I'm the proverbial gumshoe, mustachioed detective who is fairly ineffective. But the real story is between James LeGros and Joshua Leonard. LeGros plays a very principled chef who gets torpedoed in the food blog of Joshua Leonard and LeGros loses his standing – he has a TV show and a line of pots and pans, and he feels victimized so he kidnaps Leonard and begins to re-read his reviews to him and challenge him to various food challenges. So it's kind of a soft torture-porn movie, but it's beautifully written by Joe Maggio, the director. But it's interesting: there's an example of a movie that follows its own muse and we have the slight puzzle of placing it because it's not all of the way to torture porn. It's really just a thriller about two minds trying to outsmart each other, but to me it rings very true. It has a lot of themes of what is the role of the critic just snarking on the creative process, and how the creative process can go awry and lunacy ensues. So it's a fun little movie.
How tough is it to juggle all of your different projects as an actor, director and producer?
Fessenden: Well, ask my wife. I'm pretty scattered. I'm an older guy now but I think I have ADD; I move quickly through each project. I'm helping editing something now, my friend Glen and I have started a radio show so we're going to have a scary radio program, so we have all of that going. I have my own script [so] I'm finally going back to directing after the debacle with The Orphanage, and then I'm really babysitting about three or four projects at once. It's essential to point out that I have a great support system – there are other producers who work on these things – but we really are these kind of scattershot personalities. I mean, it's funny to hear us on the phone; I'll call them and we'll go through three or four projects which are all at different places in their process. But I don't know; the greatest gift is to be making movies and have a community of people and to be tending to these issues, so when you compare that to being a fisherman in the gulf right now or being in the f*cking other gulf, meaning Afghanistan, I won't even allow myself stress. It's just not appropriate because there's a lot of worse sh*t going on out there.
How tough is it to maintain a sense of resilience when you go through the kind of disappointment you went through with The Orphanage, and then how do you nurture that in filmmakers, like when Ti West dealt with the situation on Cabin Fever 2?
Fessenden: Well, on the one hand, it's truly heartbreaking. People have to know that what's tough about being a filmmaker is you're putting your heart on your sleeve and you're putting yourself out there, especially if it's your own script. I know that Ti's Cabin Fever 2 was carefully directed like everything he does and then it was just disrespected in the editing room and it became a shadow of what he had in mind and he had to detach and say "this isn't my movie any more." It meant that much to him, and he's neurotic, but in the best way; I mean, he cares about what he's doing. And then when I deal with Ti and people say what's he doing going off about this, I say Ti is always right – it's the best approach. Just believe him because he's committed and he's passionate about what he's doing and he's given it a lot of thought. That's how I try to approach each filmmaker, and sometimes they're not always right and they want your counsel, and they really want to get in there and talk it through. But each filmmaker is difference.
As for the resilience, it's tough, man – it's heartbreaking. But I wasn't destroyed by The Orphanage thing because so much of it was affirming. I wrote the script with Guillermo del Toro and he chose me and we had a great time, and I felt that every time the studio gave notes, I went back to the drawing board and we fixed it, and we got a film that both Guillermo and I felt was exactly the script that we wanted to make. So what's to complain about? You know, casting didn't go my way, and eventually the studio sort of lost its nerve. But that's just showbiz. They don't know who the hell I am and they've got a lot on the line and I'm sure I seem like a total freak to them (laughs). But look what Guillermo's just gone through – I mean, these are the titans of industry, and he had to have his own disappointment. So it happens at every level and it's all very hurtful, but you go forward because you're driven by this inner demon that tells you you've got to make these movies and tell these stories. So I try to create that environment with my guys so we all know we're all the band of outsiders and all of those images (laughs).