Director Larry Fessenden‘s thriller “The Last Winter” is set in the Arctic tundra of Northern Alaska where an advanced team working for a petroleum exploration company is engaged in a massive project to exploit the oil resources of the pristine land. After one crewmember is found dead, a disorientation slowly claims the sanity of the other members of the team as each of them succumbs to an unknowable fear. Actor/director/writer/producer Fessenden won the “Someone to Watch” Award at the 1997 Independent Spirit Awards for “Habit,” which he starred and directed. He has continued to pick up nominations and awards at other festivals, including the Austin Film Festival and the Maverick Award at the 2001 Woodstock Film Festival for “Wendigo.” IFC First Take opens “The Last Winter” on Wednesday, September 19 in limited release.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
I had an interest in acting from an early age and did a lot of school plays from grade school to high school. By the end of high school I had become engrossed in all the other aspects of production besides acting: the writing, directing, building sets, the music, lighting and promotion. Round about then I got a super 8 camera and began filming friends and landscapes, simple things, but I became engrossed with the way the camera tells the story by interacting with the subject. I made an hour-long film in 1979 and some shorts in the early eighties. The films were very crafted, existential slices of life; among other things I thought I invented the jump-cut. I found a particular affinity for camerawork and editing (and none for lighting). At New York University I made full length movies in video, which offered an amazing freedom, having sync sound and electronic editing. I made two features in video and had a regular public access TV show. My approach to story has remained consistent throughout: searching for mythic themes in everyday life.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
I have been involved in all aspects of filmmaking, I would like to do all of them better.
How did the idea for “The Last Winter” come about?
I tend to read non-fiction primarily, One Christmas my brother said he had a present that cost $12.95 and it will be the best present of the day. He was right. It was a book by Alfred Lansing about the adventure of Shakleton and how he lead his shipwrecked men to safety through canny leadership in the bitter cold of the Antarctic. My fascination with that story of leadership and morale melded with a desire to sequalize “Wendigo”… shoot in the snow and deal with global warming in a story. Ultimately I wanted to show how an individual’s worldview affects how he or she deals with reality.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.
I hired a friend, Robert Leaver to write the script with me. I would relay on my ideas and concepts and we would riff from there. We had a back and forth and the writing was fruitful. The next installment was when producer Jeff Levy-Hinte took me to Alaska to scout the real locations. This changed a lot and brought an authenticity in the script. Our goal for the film was that it work on its own terms and reach as wide an audience as possible. We did not design the film for the marketplace–clearly!
How did the financing and casting for the film come together?
We started by going to the mini majors with the script in 2003, and most were positive but wouldn’t commit to what they described as a “tweeny.” Eventually Jeff started looking for equity money and tiling together a deal with the Icelandic Film Commission and Katapult foreign Sales. Jeff is a ruthless and shrewd hands-on producer and he kept the budget down by challenging every decision from the size of the nails used to build the set to the kind of hard-drives we used to build the effects.
We cast the film with Laura Rosenthal and her team and this was a very good experience. I had seen Ron Perlman in “Hellboy” and responded to the pathos he brought to that tough character. I was very excited to use James Le Gros who is consistently good in movies and deserved more screen-time. Connie also, hadn’t had enough movie exposure I thought. And Kevin Corigan is an old favorite from the neighborhood. Joanne Shanendoah was a remarkable find. All the cast; it was great to see the script come alive.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution?
Every step making this movie was a challenge, from finding the locations to casting to securing the money. Then on a creative level, finishing the film took a while, doing special effects with a tiled together team, getting the music and mix right as the money dwindled, and agreeing on the final edit. We premiered at Toronto and I wanted to do trims and finesse the mix after I saw it. Selling a movie while you’re re-cutting can cause confusion and might have lowered the heat on the film. We had the high-profile John Sloss of Cinetic representing the film, but there was no biding war. In October, Ryan Werner from IFC came up to me during the Woodstock Film Festival and said he had been haunted by the film, and from then on I worked to get IFC to buy it. The top dog Jonathan Sehring had long been supportive of my work; my earlier films play regularly on the channel. Eventually, prevailing over a few counter offers, IFC made the deal.
Who are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
I have always stubbornly attempted to draw from life and non-fiction when building a story. I have never sought to imitate a film or sequence in my own work. At the same time, I have absorbed a great deal of media since I was a kid, and always experienced movies very acutely, and imitate them instinctively. I watched black and white films from the ’30s and ’40s on TV when I was little. I loved horror movie most of all, but eventually hooked in to the Warner Brothers films starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. New York City in the ’70s had great revival houses, and you could see all the old movies projected: Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Hitchcock.
The revival houses also played recent films, so I was able to see “Midnight Cowboy,” “Eraserhead,” “Mean Streets,” “Night of the Living Dead,” “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “A Clockwork Orange” and hundreds of others in the theater. Eventually I got old enough to see first run movies: I saw “Taxi Driver,” “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Shining” the first week they came out. It was an awesome time for movies in New York City. And so I am influenced by Scorsese, Polanski, Hitchcock, Kubrick. With these filmmakers I feel a kinship of purpose and style. As a New York kid I went to museums and was very influenced by David, Caravaggio, Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, DeChirico and more recently, Andy Goldsworthy. I spent a lot of time at the Museum of Natural History, and once helped mold dinosaur bones. I went to Cape Cod in the Summer. I was always afraid of the dark. Maybe it was childhood itself that influenced me most.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker, and what is your next project?
I think of every film as my last, so I try to bring all genres into every one. Every time I try to stray from horror, I am drawn back to it by my natural bleak outlook. For the first time, I have three projects developing at once, maybe a forth. Only one of them isn’t scary.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
Independent film is a broad term stretching many budget ranges. My main observation about Indie film is that low-budget productions have become more regimented and officious, and everywhere there is more self-awareness about the venues and visibility a film can achieve. We live in a capitalist, goal-oriented society and that mind-set has permeated the arts.
What are your interests outside of film?
The future of the planet, the political circus, trees, nature, the uncanny, growing food, cooking, alternative energy, monsters, movies and music.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Don’t spend a lot of money on your first films. Take your time, this is an art-form. Explore and discover. Do every job. Learn to edit so you know how to shoot. Have something to say. Have LIVE events and screenings, you can project on that wall right there. Or set up 15 TVs in a bar and show your feature film. That’s what we used to do.
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
Sticking to it.