Through a Glass Eye
Interview with Larry Fessenden
Interview by Danny Trudell
A number of years ago, I rented the movie Wendigo by Larry Fessenden, mostly by chance. I was stunned at how beautiful it was – the entire movie was astounding from start to finish. I would watch and re-watch this movie for years. Loving Wendigo made me want to know more about the director and the other projects he had been involved in. After some research, I found that not only did I love the movies Larry was making, but I would draw parallels between his ethos and that of the punk rock/hardcore scene I grew up in. Larry is an uncompromising filmmaker who exemplifies the do it yourself attitude. He eschews the Hollywood model for how films are made, and makes movies his way, without compromise. He doesn’t see budget restraints as a hurdle or stumbling block, but rather as a chance to more creatively take the viewer where he wants them to go. Larry works outside of the mainstream, while making movies that are better written, better looking and more engaging than 90% of the crap playing at your local theatre. I was thrilled when Larry granted me this short interview, allowing me a peek into the mind that has conceived so many films I love.
How old were you when you realized that making movies and acting was something you wanted to do with your life?
I was pretty young. I remember in the third grade play I played the dragon that fought Perseus. It was a tiny role, I basically walked on and roared and then got killed, but the tumble off the stage I took was the talk of the school for days. I never got the leading man roles, but I made the most of character parts. I did play Marc Anthony in Julius Caesar in 8th grade, but by then I’d already made some movies and was very into the performing arts. In those days (the 70’s) it wasn’t clear that you could actually aspire to grow up and be a film maker. I came from a conventional family and we just didn’t think that way. Hard for kids to understand now.
How did you get your start in filmmaking?
I helped my brother’s friend make an elaborate animated movie with all my GI Joes when I was very young, like 9 or so. Then when I was 12 I used the school super 8 movie camera to make a version of DR. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but none of it registered, and I was mostly into acting in plays until I got a super 8 camera of my own and that’s when I discovered that the camera was the story-teller in movie making. That is when I moved from acting to film making.
I know a lot of people absorbed in mainstream movies are looking simply to escape and be entertained, and though I do enjoy your movies as entertainment, there is also an honest communication in your films. How do you find the balance between your artistic vision, entertainment and the message you are conveying?
I don’t know if I have found the balance. All I know is it takes so long to make a movie that, for me, it has to be about something that sustains my interest and something that actually matters. But I grew up on horror and main-stream films, so the movies that influence my stories are very genre-based. I think of film as a medium of communication. I am trying to convey as directly and honestly as I can the sensations I have being alive, afraid, pissed off, sexed up, confused, vulnerable and awed by the world. I want to convey that with candor and skill. That is a huge personal undertaking. I don’t know how else to approach the medium.
Do you ever worry about what the audience will think, or do you simply make what you think is right and hope the audience is open to what you are bringing?
I worry about the audience in a very particular way: I wonder about each choice I make in terms of how it will psychologically affect the audience. This is the way in which Hitchcock talks about audiences. Nowadays, there is a new concern: is the audience too jaded to even accept the offerings one is making? There is so much media and so many opinions about it that these concerns creep into the equation. But ultimately, one must find a passion for the material that blinds one to all these concerns.
A lot of people would discard horror movies as garbage, but you tackle real life issues with your movies. What is it that made you pick horror as your vehicle to express these ideas and feelings?
Nowadays, horror movies are grotesque gore spectacles, and I wouldn’t really defend the genre myself. But everyone on earth deals with fear, and is to some degree motivated by fear. And that is what the horror film can explore. I did not pick horror. Horror picked me.
I read an interview with you in the past where you talked about how you really make your movies three times – can you explain what you mean, and what your favorite part of the process is?
Well, it’s not an original idea, I lifted it from someone, but it is a simple truth: when you write a film, it has a life on the page and its own integrity. When you film the script, everything changes — the actors bring unexpected readings and nuance to their roles, and the weather and time constraints and money and sets and so on — all of this alters to some degree the script. And then any filmmaker worth their salt knows that when you edit, you must respond to the material that was actually shot and remake your film a third time. That’s the one that counts.
You state clearly that movies do not have to cost a lot; do you feel the limited budget you have worked with stimulates a more creative output than if you were handed all the money in the world to create your films? Also just to show people what can be accomplished with sheer passion and drive, would you tell us the lowest budget you have ever worked with on your movies?
I don’t want to romanticize having no money to make a film, because there are very real considerations such as feeding, housing and paying crew members, and there are things like special effects, locations and post production that all cost money. However, I do equate low budgets with more creative freedom, and more physical mobility, and yes, I enjoy the challenge of solving story and technical problems with ingenuity rather than money. I made a movie in 1985 called EXPERIENCED MOVERS for $10,000, my own film HABIT was shot for $60,000 in 1994, and some of the films I’ve produced, like TRIGGER MAN and AUTOMATONS, cost around $30,000 each. My intention in speaking about low budgets is to inspire would-be filmmakers to go out and make a movie, rather than wait for a budget to materialize that might never come. Learn the craft; it can be done with a flip camera.
You started your production company Glass Eye Pix in 1985, and here you are, still working and growing in 2009 – did you expect things to take off for you on the level that it has, and to have survived as a company for so long?
I don’t know what I expected, but I did hope to be a working filmmaker by now, making films like the ones I loved. I doubt I expected to produce as much or have a band of brothers that makes movies together, but that’s what’s happened and it makes sense to me.
I know in this day and age, people often feel things like making movies, releasing music or communicating their ideas are out of reach of the common person. What drove you to start your own production company and make your own movies?
Now more than ever, you can make art and have it seen by the whole world through the internet and, thankfully, there are still supportive networks of coffee shops and clubs on every corner of the planet, so being an artist is possible. Making money at it, making a living, there is no guarantee for that, but if it is what you love, what you must do, then there are more opportunities now than ever to get your voice heard. Real financing is very tricky right now, so it takes a certain ingenuity and drive to get something produced in this economic climate.
One of the things I loved is reading about was what a sense of community and family you have established with Glass Eye Pix. Can you tell me a little about the importance of the collaborative effort in making your movies, and giving a leg up to filmmakers you see coming up?
I always say I am a bit of a lone wolf creatively – I am quite shy and secretive about my own work. But what I believe in is the artistic collective, where a group of like-minded artists form an identity that gives strength against the corporate voice. A bunch of rag-tag artists with a shared vision can establish an identity that resonates with the public, and a company name can become a reliable brand. When I was growing up, as a fan of movies, I knew that each studio had a style of movie they were associated with: Universal made horror; Warners made gangster pictures with social realism, MGM musicals and spectacle and so on. Same with the record labels of the 60’s and 70’s. I always enjoyed learning of how different artists were connected to each other, and imagining how they related: Lou Reed and Andy Warhol, or how Coppola and Lucas helped each other. There is a comfort in knowing these giants of the arts had rivalries, loyalties, and insecurities like the rest of us, and that you can’t do it alone.
I know that your concern for environmental and animal rights issues have manifested themselves directly into the subjects of your movies, what brought these issues to light for you?
Some time in 1986, my friend Alex Wolf gave me a copy of Silent Spring. He must have known it would affect me. That, and subsequent environmental literature, has had a profound and lasting effect on me: I gave up eating red meat and birds in ‘87, and have generally been plagued by my outrage over the misuse of resources and the hubris of humanity. This outlook has literally poisoned my outlook on life, and it has become the source of my horror stories, not because I am a propagandist, but because I am so hurt and outraged by these conditions.
As an actor you have starred in movies by Martin Scorsese, Neal Jordan, Jim Jarmusch and Steve Buscemi -a pretty impressive group of filmmakers. Did working on these projects help you or teach you anything that translated to how you work on your own movies?
These associations have made me very grateful and humbled, and yes, you learn something on every project, observing how each director approaches the process. I learned a great deal acting in Kelly Reichardt’s film RIVER OF GRASS years ago, because I’d made a bigger-budgeted film, and had lost touch with what I liked about filmmaking. RIVER OF GRASS inspired me to make HABIT for very little money. What I loved about Scorsese is how he could see moving shots intercut in his mind, I could watch him build the movie right there on set. It has been a great privilege working so close to these remarkable auteurs, seeing how each one builds a scene and the confidence that success has brought them.
Would you name a few directors that influenced you, and subsequently could you name a few directors you see coming up that you are excited about?
I am highly influenced by Hitchcock, I am inspired by Scorsese, Polanski, Kubrick, Kurosawa. Recently, I was excited by Neill Blomkamp’s debut film DISTRICT 9. And of course, I am inspired by my collaborators and the directors whose work I have produced.
Finally, if you had all the money in the world to work with, would it change at all how you make your movies?
It would make a difference to be able to plan when to go into production based on the weather, the time of year. You could hire the actors you wanted and generally have the creative freedom that time affords. But there is no point in thinking that way, because no one has enough money, your budget expands out of your grasp at every level of filmmaking, and ultimately filmmaking is about solving problems and working with and defying your limitations.
CVLT Nation would like to thank Danny Trudell for letting us publish his rad interview with Larry Fessenden!