Given that track record, the idea that he would work on a made-for-TV movie produced by Chiller, the sister channel of the Syfy Network, at first sounds a little off. Yet "Beneath," a killer fish movie that premiered at the Stanley Film Festival in Colorado on Friday ahead of its summer release, certainly fits the Fessenden oeuvre even while remaining tethered to the constraints of the format.
The story (of sorts) revolves around silent type Johnny (Daniel Zovatto), who carries an ancient tooth around his neck for some unspecified form of supernatural protection. When Johnny heads out on a reunion trip to an isolated lake with his ex-girlfriend, her new flame and a few other loudmouths, he finds himself fighting to protect the group against impossible odds. As a cow-sized piranha begins assailing their boat, the blood flows fast and the body count rises; before long, the remaining survivors enter into a shifty process of voting their peers off the boat and into the creature's jaws to create running distraction while the others peddle to shore.
The monster, which looks more than a little silly until its teeth clamp down, continues its pursuit indifferently while tensions rise. After a while, the lake itself takes on allegorical dimensions, the survivors trapped in an amoral purgatory of their own making in which virtually all allegiances fade in favor of cold, Darwinian logic. "I wanted to make it very, very spare," Fessenden told the audience after the movie's premiere, "almost classical."
In a post-screening Q&A, Fessenden explained the process of working within a new set of restrictions. He managed to scrap several network suggestions, including an insistence that the action take place at night (which would have made it impossible to see the blood in the water). He also pared down the original screenplay, which included extraneous flashback scenes, in order to keep the drama within the claustrophobic boat. Most significantly, he refused CGI in favor of practical effects, and avoided turning the fish into a speedy assailant. "Why does every monster fish have to be fast?" he said. "This fish is like fate, just drifting along."
In that regard, "Beneath" also functions as Fessenden's wry answer to the lack of ideas in so many cheap monster movies (the dialogue even contains a blatant stab at "Shark Night 3D," spoken by one of the ill-fated characters). In "Beneath," the people are ultimately as depraved as their aquatic attacker. Fessenden broke down their plight into bite-sized parables dictated by the format. He relished the opportunity to shoot in eight acts "with a little climax every nine minutes" for commercials. The restrictions, he said, were simply a part of the same creative challenges he has faced over the years. "It's all a game of seduction," he said. "I was very appreciative of the network's concerns." He compared it to his experiences with MPI Media Group, which has financed some of his previous efforts. "There's always someone you're answering to," he said. "At least in my world, there's no real autonomy."
Chiller has already established its interest in collaborating with indie filmmakers, having released the documentary "The American Scream" last fall, though its work with Fessenden hints at broader intentions with the sorts of filmmaker relationships it hopes to create. The company has expressed an intention of releasing "Beneath" theatrically in July alongside its broadcast date.