A glance at filmmaker Larry Fessenden's feature output over the last 16 years may not suggest the most prolific style; the native New Yorker whose gruesome 1991 animal experimentation allegory No Telling drew admiration even among those it revolted followed up with 1997's East Village vampire drama Habit, 2002's upstate gothic Wendigo and this year's enviro-horror saga The Last Winter (opening Wednesday in New York). But it's not as though he hasn't been busy, having also acted in films by directors like Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese and Neil Jordan and, through his indie shingle Glass Eye Pix, co-produced nearly a dozen projects by horror upstarts including Ti West, Douglas Buck, Dave Gebroe and James Felix McKenney.
Certainly the most ambitious project yet to emerge from Glass Eye Pix, the Iceland-shot Last Winter chronicles an American crew whose oil drilling operation in Alaska is besieged by a succession of cruel phenomena that may or may not be hunting them. At the root of their internecine squabbles is a fundamental disagreement over when and how to pursue Alaska's resources, epitomized by the gruff company man Pollack (Ron Perlman) and the sensitive, calculating scientist Hoffman (James Le Gros). Fessenden's thematic horror echoes that of No Telling in particular; the consequences of man's perversion of nature are rendered here against one of the starkest backdrops on Earth, where the clarity of self-destruction is as disturbing as any of the unfortunate who burn to death, freeze or are consumed by crows.
Fessenden will be on hand tonight at Lincoln Center to discuss a Film Comment Selects screening of The Last Winter. The Reeler recently spoke with the actor/filmmaker about the film and his ongoing stewardship of independent horror in New York.
THE REELER: Your projects have gotten farther and farther from the city since you made Habit downtown in 1997. How did you wind up in Iceland?
LARRY FESSENDEN: I wanted to make the movie in Alaska. I pictured it in Alaska; I'd been there as a kid, and I'd always had a romance for the wild landscape out there. I wanted to make a snow movie in particular. Then I was researching the oil drilling, and all of these themes came together. I really wanted to film up in ANWR (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge), which was completely impractical. So then the job was to look for a location that would even approximate that, and oddly enough, Canada didn't suit us. Then my producer found some financial opportunities through Iceland, so we looked there very deliberately and found everything we needed.
R: How did those opportunities free you up as a filmmaker, and how did you also adapt to the conditions imposed by shooting in such unfamiliar territory?
LF: I like a bit of adventure. I'm a fan of Werner Herzog, and I love the Ernest Shackleton story and the idea of leadership against all odds in adverse conditions. So I'm usually up for it, even though in my heart, I'm just a homebody. But once you step out, you might as well make it vigorous. So the weather I was up for. The Icelandic people I found to be a very generous and robust group; I felt very at home with them, even more so than with certain crews I've worked with here. We had a completely Icelandic crew, and I think it helped morale.
R: Your previous film, Wendigo, was also set in the dead of winter. What is it about the season that appeals to you creatively? Is there something unnerving about the season itself?
LF: Well, I love the snow, but in Wendigo, when we were shooting in upstate New York, a lot of the snow started melting away. The whole end of the film is in sort of wet brown leaves and forests instead of what I wanted, which was very graphic trees in the white woods. One of the motivations to make The Last Winter was to find a place where there really would be enough snow throughout the shoot. As far as the significance, with the notion of global warming, I've come to romanticize the winter as something that's not always going to be there. Artistically, it's just a very graphic season. I'm a huge fan of Fargo and lots of other snow movies, but I think they fall into their own category because there's something very graphic that starts to happen photographically. Finally, there's the essence of untouched snow with single footprints being forged on camera. There's something really present about that. It's not like the seventh take you're watching.
R: Is that the type of awareness you have to explain to your cast and crew as the shoot wears on -- to keep them engaged in a way under such inhospitable conditions?
LF: There are endless jokes about how our next movie will be a beach movie with topless babes and the sun and the Coppertone. But the truth is that most actors enjoy being put in the place of their characters. The cold is one thing that will do that; I think the actors enjoyed it. And then when it became really severe -- and we did have a couple of blizzards and whiteouts -- there was a feeling that the Icelandics were responsible and could help us out of a pickle. But we don't need to overdramatize what we went through to make this movie. It was a cold shoot. Sometimes it was glaringly hot in the sun.
R: You're a very thematic filmmaker. What's the challenge of integrating Big Ideas like global warming or class conflict into your work while avoiding heavy-handedness or didaticsm?
LF: No Telling had similar themes about science and animal experimentation -- another thing that America generally rolls its eyes at the mention of. I have my own passions for these subjects. I feel that America needs to wake up to the damages it causes as we engage in our modern lifestyle, and I find that a fascinating subject. To bring those themes into a narrative -- let alone in the horror genre -- I find that intriguing. But I'm not doing it all terribly deliberately; it's because those things really captivate me. In fact, I'd say it's ruined my life, because I otherwise could be making slasher movies very happily. I just naturally am engaged with these subjects, and I do consider them scary.
R: As someone who makes strong horror films with unmistakably thematic interests, how do you react to directors like Eli Roth and others who retroactively attempt to defend their own work with such metaphorical or thematic values?
LF: It's funny you ask. I just watched Hostel for the first time; I didn't enjoy or find the merits of Cabin Fever, so I had somewhat written Eli off. I know he's always whining in the press, defending his movies, so I thought I should see Hostel. In fact, I was asked to write something about my movie versus torture porn. I watched it and I didn't find it offensive the way I thought I would. I thought I would find it contemptible. Sure, it's homophobic in the sense that he's got some issues, but it's not like he's not aware that he's not dealing with that sort of thing. The sexual politics and the hatred of Americans was interesting enough, and the torture did not seem extraneous. It was obviously the point of the movie, and it was scary and doled out pretty tastefully considering the whole thing is repugnant. I think some of the later Saw movies are truly perverse, and a lot of the remakes have no agenda whatsoever.
I've been thinking about it a lot, because some people hate The Last Winter, of course, and you get into this thing where it becomes hard to discuss. My movies have themes; I present them without shame. I'm a sincere filmmaker, and fuck it if you can't take that. As for Eli, he does protest too much. I do find him unappealing as a public figure, but he's making his money, so whatever. He can always say that, and he always does, and I also find that tiresome. The worst pieces of shit make money; it's hardly an excuse. It hardly represents how well he's doing. But I couldn't completely dismiss Hostel.
R: Glass Eye Pix has established you as sort of a godfather of independent horror, working with up-and-coming filmmakers like Ti West, James Felix McKenney, JT Petty, Douglas Buck and others. Was that kind of institutional influence always part of the plan?
LF: I've always had an instinct to work with other people and to celebrate their struggles, perhaps just because I recognize how hard it is to be an individual artist. I felt that a lot of people think it's easy to make films. At a certain point I wanted to say, "Listen, it's not just about having the money. It actually takes dedication." So I challenged first-time filmmakers to make a movie with very little funds. That's how Scareflix (Glass Eye's micro-budget sidebar) started; because I had some money to offer, I set up the challenge to see if they could do this. Ti West delivered quite impressively, and so has Jim McKenney -- with very oddball projects that couldn't have gone through the studio system. Ti is a buddy of Eli Roth's and gone on to make the second Cabin Fever. We were hired to produce JT Petty's film, but I think he did want to come and have a taste of the Glass Eye Pix experience, which is ragtag, but we get things done. That's always been the motto; we don't moan and groan about our lack of funds.
R: Your back catalog features loads of video and eight-millimeter work that dates back almost 30 years. Do you plan to release any of that on DVD?
LF: I would. All of those things have terrible music rights problems; I didn't even take music rights seriously until the '90s. I made some interesting films in the old days, but a lot of it is pirated music. It makes the whole thing difficult, and I don't know that they're that remarkable. I think my best early work is my Super-8 movies, because they show that right out of the gate I had a point of view. A lot of the themes and the style are unchanged -- which may be a terrible thing, but it's kind of true. Those I would trickle out on DVD, but let's face it: There's not a demand.
The thing that's always unspoken in an interview with me is that I'm not a player. I have never had a financial hit that puts me on any real maps. Nobody's really asked for my early work. I have about four Super-8 movies out of 150 that I think would be worth showing to the world.
R: You also do a ton of acting, most recently in The Brave One, where you're a killer on the receiving end of Jodie Foster's street justice. How did you get linked up with that?
LF: Laura Rosenthal, who cast The Last Winter and No Telling, gave me a call and said: "You should come in; Neil Jordan is looking for ne'er-do-wells and so on." I sat down with him and we met, and I told him I was a filmmaker. We chatted about that. The funny part of it is that he said, "Oh, you're all dressed up to look like a killer for this meeting, right?" And Laura said, "Actually, that's just the way he looks, Neil." They styled me almost exactly as I really was; I had rings on, and they made me wear rings. It was the Hollywood version of my own outfit.
But it's awesome to be on a big shoot like that, because once we were in the deli (where we shot), it's just like you're on the set of an independent film. There's just a few guys working. Neil is thinking on his feet. I was amazed how much stuff he made up as he went along. I haven't seen it, so I'm not sure how it plays out, but I can tell you I spent a whole 12 hours in a pool of blood being the corpse. "Corpse, take lunch!"
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