EXCLUSIVE: Larry Fessenden talks to HMPod

larry-polaroid-2Punching Bill Murray

By Jerry Eberts

One of the busiest all-rounders working in the film industry is Larry Fessenden. Writer, producer, director and musician, he is probably best known as an actor. Three of the movies in which he appeared last year made multiple top 10 lists for 2013: We Are What We Are, You’re Next and Jug Face.

His latest directing gig was for Beneath, about a group of young friends who take an ill-advised paddle across a lake. Lurking in the depths of the lake is a rather large and extremely carnivorous fish.

“I have always loved Jaws,” says Fessenden. “It’s always been a favourite movie. And I love boating, so it seemed a good match. But making a movie on the water means you get half as much work done each day as you expect. If an actor wants to go to the bathroom, you have to send a boat to pick them up, take them back to shore. And everything is kind of tipsy.

“The idea was not to just use CGI, so we used a giant fish puppet that I designed myself. I wanted an oddball-looking creature. Those are porcupine spines on the back of the fish.”

Fessenden says purchasers of the Beneath DVD will find it “filled with delightful extras, behind-the-scenes stuff, how we did it. There’s also a short documentary about my love affair with Jaws — I even built a six-foot replica when I was a kid. Unfortunately, it fell apart when it went into the water.”

Glass Eye Pix, Fessenden’s independent film studio, has been in operation since 1985, backing a wide range of movies. A partial list of horror flicks produced by Fessenden & company includes The Innkeepers, Stake Land, Wendigo, The Last Winter and Hypothermia.

Wendigo is on a few of those ‘100 best movies you’ve never seen’ lists,” says the renaissance filmmaker. “It had a great cast, including Patricia Clarkson. She also recorded the voice-over at the start of The Last Winter.”

The Fessenden-produced Hypothermia stars horror staple Michael Rooker (The Walking Dead, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) as a family man whose family is put at risk as they try to enjoy some ice-fishing.

“I knew that Michael Rooker had a reputation as being batshit crazy,” says Fessenden. “And it turns out he was. But he was great. I liked making that movie. I like B-movies — I’ve produced a number of them! There is usually a redemptive part of the story. I like that. Even Hypothermia is sort of a cautionary tale.”

The outdoor themes of several of Fessenden’s directed movies — Wendigo, The Last Winter, Hypothermia, Beneath — begs the question: Is Larry an environmentalist?

“I’m not a great outdoorsman,” he says. “But I think human society is very disrespectful of nature, of the planet. It’s a nonstop loop of idiocy.”

A few movies in which Fessenden appears that might surprise the casual movie fan include the psychological horror of Session 9, the Jim Jarmusch-directed Broken Flowers (“I got to punch Bill Murray in that one. He was a delight”) and the Martin Scorsese film Bringing Out the Dead.

“I was only on the set for a day, but Marty was great,” says Fessenden. “He was very funny and he knew my movie Habit. I could not have been more flattered. Habit is an underground-vampire-New-York-love-story, but I tried to make the colours of the city look like they did in Taxi Driver.”

Commenting specifically about his acting roles, Fessenden jokes that he’s been killed in “so many movies” — a recent count put his cinematic deaths at close to 120.

The 51-year-old Fessenden is also a mentor, making small but often tasty appearances in movies for up-and-comers such as Chad Crawford Kinkle’s excellent Jug Face (“I’d worked with one of the producers”) and Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are (“Jim and I had worked on Stake Land previously”).

Glass Eye Pix also produced the recent Birth of the Living Dead, a feature-length documentary about George A. Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead. It’s an entertaining movie about making a super-low-budget horror movie in Pittsburgh, with Larry giving his insights about the flick both as a moviemaker and a die-hard fan.

“I’ve loved that movie since I was little,” says Fessenden. “I didn’t choose to make this documentary; it chose me.

“There are many aspects of horror that resonate with me — including the outsider status. There is a certain amount of outrage at life’s arbitrariness. You just have to look at the classic Universal horror movies. Those monsters had a tragic aspect. I love the genre.

“Take the movie You’re Next,” he says. “That’s about revenge, that experience. It’s about what we wish we could do, wish fulfillment — like Django Unchained.”

In between acting, directing, editing and producing, Fessenden also makes music and has an ongoing audio series called Tales from Beyond the Pale, creating online dramas. But much of his time is spent raising money for his next movie production. “Nothing is certain till the money is in the bank,” he says.

Though Fessenden does not discuss movies that are still in the planning phase, he says his work on We Are Still Here for director Ted Geoghegan included “a good shoot in New York City, Rochester and upstate.” The haunted house movie costars horror vet & scream queen supreme Barbara Crampton. Expect a release later this year.

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Finally, some days after the interview, my cohost of The Horror Movie Show podcast Mark and I watched I Sell the Dead, a laugh-out-loud horror-comedy about two 18th-century nitwits (Fessenden and Dominic Monaghan) who start the story as grave-robbers and eventually move up the ladder of that profession to ghoul. Below is the e-mail question and answer between Larry and myself regarding this highly recommended movie.

HMPod: I watched I Sell the Dead a couple of days back & hoped you might e-mail me a line or three about that very funny movie. Was it tough doing the English accent?

LF: I grew up doing British accents so I felt pretty comfortable with it. Glenn [McQuaid, the director] is Irish, which is a different accent of course, but he knew a few tricks too, and wouldn’t stand for anything too phony.

HMPod: Is Dominic as funny as he seems? Apart from Lord of the Rings, I am a big fan of his from Lost. He seems able to do drama and comedy equally well.

LF: Dom is such a smart guy and very passionate. He’s acted since he was a child, so he has an ease about the camera which lends itself to comedy. He’s got an impish charm and felt at home on our informal set. We started shooting the day his character on Lost was killed, so I think we caught him at a relaxed transitional time.

Check out his nature show, Wild Things. Dom is using his celebrity and smarts to celebrate the wonders of creepy crawly things. His exuberance is infectious.

HMPod: I Sell the Dead reminded me of Monty Python. Loved the alien bit. Anything you’d like to tell us about the movie would be appreciated.

LF: Love Monty Python! Everyone involved with I Sell the Dead has a special fondness for it.

I Sell the Dead has a very unusual tone for this day and age, and that all comes from Glenn’s sensibility. Also it was a good time for my production company, Glass Eye Pix. We were all finding our way and we knew we were making something unique and outside the box.

Movie vets Dom, Ron Perlman, Angus Scrimm and Eileen Colgan joined our cast of local players. It was the first big film for my associates, producers Peter Phok and Brent Kunkle. It’s when we met makeup man Brian Spears, who we’ve worked with ever since (he did Beneath). We continued our run with composer Jeff Grace, upping the ante with this score.

We all came together and hit a stride, figuring out how to make original films on our own terms. This movie led to The House of the Devil, Stake Land,  and everything since.