INTERVIEW: Larry Fessenden's Arty Horror Picture Show Continues with "Wendigo"
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 02.14.02) -- No one makes a horror movie like Larry Fessenden, unless you consider Michael Almereyda, Hal Hartley, Abel Ferrera, or Brad Anderson. For these ultra-independent filmmakers, the fright-filled genre is more maniacs wielding knives -- it also provides ample opportunity to show thoughtful
explorations of modern angst. With 1991's "No Telling" (a riff on
"Frankenstein"), 1997's "Habit" (an East Village vampire tale), and now
"Wendigo" (an evil spirit legend), Fessenden has created a trilogy of
unconventional horror pictures that would make Roman Polanski proud.
Like Polanksi classics "Repulsion" and "Rosemary's Baby," "Wendigo" is more concerned with distorted subjectivities than scary monsters. The film stars
Erik Per Sullivan (TV's "Malcolm in the Middle") as Miles, an imaginative
boy on a weekend trip with his parents in wintry, upstate New York.
Threatened by local hunters and possibly a Native American spirit in the
woods, the family vacation turns markedly macabre. (Distribution partners
ContentFilm and Magnolia Pictures have fashioned a unique distribution model for this unique film: after opening in New York on 35mm film this Friday,
the movie will be the first feature screened using Windows Media digital
technology in Seattle and Dallas.)
A winner of the 1997 IFP Someone to Watch Award, Fessenden has been a
fixture of New York's East Village scene since 1980, "when you could get a
piece of liver for $4 and you thought you were in heaven," notes the
writer-director. He went to NYU, created dozens of video projects, and
recently turned to producing (Kelly Reichardt's "River of Grass") and acting ("Bringing out the Dead," "Animal Factory," "Session 9" and another New York indie he's especially fond of, Ilya Chaiken's "Margarita Happy Hour," opening in NYC next month). Anthony Kaufman recently sat down with Fessenden to talk about breaking into bigger budgets, genre, 16mm film, and comic books.
indieWIRE: Do you feel the energy of the New York community is central to getting your films made?
Larry Fessenden: I'm lucky to have been bathed in the performance arts
community. That's where you really have a sense of downtown zaniness, and I
really came out of that and made films out of those collaborations. It is a
voracious business and there is a sense that you're supposed to leave it all
behind and get into the big game: Sundance and then Hollywood down the line.
So I feel it's hard to hold on to community; it's always challenging. That's
why it was fun to see a whole new movie come out of that spirit, which is
what Ilya's movie ["Margarita Happy Hour"] is. A lot of the actors are
performance artists or just starting out and I have a real fondness for that
period of a career. Supposedly, I'm at the edge of another type of career
and I'll always be nostalgic for those earlier times.
iW: Do you feel like you're at a turning point?
Fessenden: There's some expectation, I think. How long can you keep making
mediocre small-budget movies? I think the next one will be more dazzling, or
commercial-minded, but I'll always have my spin on it. I can't give that up.
iW: So with "Wendigo," it may be a small movie, but there's a lot going on there.
Fessenden: I'm in a tender place right now where I'm reading reviews. If you
play with expectations and you're in the horror genre, you can get into
trouble with some people. Some will call it mediocre; others will see a
depth that I'm going for. I don't know if I've achieved it, but I'm going
for it. I deeply appreciate people who want to read a film, and actually
believe the artist is saying something and they're willing to look for it.
That's really the best viewer for me, especially in a monster movie, where
if you're preoccupied with the special effects, you will be disappointed or
distracted [with "Wendigo"]. My favorite mean review said, "This will
neither please the arthouse crowd, nor the horror crowd," and I think
there's a scary truth to that, and one that should be celebrated, too.
iW: You shot on Super 16mm, with a really grainy, saturated look. Why?
Fessenden: All of my films have been 16mm or Super 16mm. With the grain, I
was trying to say that in every moment, there are all these elements;
literally, the atoms are bubbling. The movie is supposed to be an
existential film about fate and nature and the presence of reality. And in
that sense, I wanted to go with this grainy, percolating quality. In
general, I like 16mm, because it's portable and you can use borrowed cameras
and stuff; you're not wed to 35mm. If you want to do a pick-up shot, you can
do that. With my aesthetic, I can use different cameras. Some DPs want to
use only one camera, but I'll pick up a Bolex and grab an extra shot. So it
iW: One of the strong things about "Wendigo" is the time you take in the beginning with the relationships in the family. There's that great scene with the father and son doing vocabulary flashcards.
Fessenden: The flashcard thing was actually the idea of a friend of mine,
Jeff Winter, who is a young filmmaker. It was a great idea. My whole agenda
is to really portray life with great humanity and detail, and then to see
things go sour, either with the introduction of a supernatural element or
more often than that, with the subjective mind misinterpreting reality in a
darker way. That's my scheme with the horror genre. I really love seeing
things go sour, because that's the way dread creeps into life.
A lot of horror films start with a great shock scene. I grew up on that
model and it's great fun, but very perversely, I'm interested in setting up
something else, where you're really engaged with the humanity of the
characters -- you could be in a normal drama with its own set of problems --
and then something else develops. I like this philosophical question: what
comes first, reality or your interpretation of it? However interesting that
is, and whether it fits in with the horror genre, I don't know, but I think
it makes perfect sense.
iW: In setting up the film, did you actually create a comic book before the film was shot?
Fessenden: During, actually. I knew this movie deserved a comic book.
Whatever my special effects would be, I wanted to have some version where
the monster was fully realized and thought that paper and ink might be the
best way to do it. So I met this artist, Brahm Ravel, and we figured it out.
We came up with the idea of an 80-page comic and I was gratified that the
script suggested the images and it was a really empowering thing. It was the
way I mapped out the movie. We went upstate and took photographs, so it was
like writing storyboards. We discussed everything, like costumes and
locations, so much of the movie was designed with the comic.
iW: So this was before you even had financing?
Fessenden: Absolutely. Even the creation of the monster was all developed
before we had a producer. So it was these pictures that I was able to bring
to [producer] Jeffrey Levy-Hinte and say, "Look, I'm under way, do you want
to come on board?" The truth is I was going to make it for absolutely
nothing and I intended to shoot film. Jeff said, "Let's put in a little
extra money, get a cast and raise the bar a little."
iW: What sort of expectations do you have with ContentFilm? They're producing movies, but what do they do with a movie that they buy?
Fessenden: I think they're experimenting. The story has it is that Ed
Pressman put the tape into his VCR, not expecting much, and he was quite
delighted and wanted to get into the "Wendigo" business. He's interested in
a sequel, he was open to the comic -- "The Crow" is his big comic project --
so it's just great fortune for me in having someone who is historically so
important. "Badlands" is amazing. That's part of my cultural history. If you
look at Ed's career, he started off De Palma and Oliver Stone and Abel
Ferrara. To be honest, I've been making movies for so long with a kind of a
strange, outsider feeling. For a long time, I didn't really feel connected
to anything and Pressman is a new sense of connection. So at least, I have
an opportunity. I can dream. That's all you need: some hope. And that's what
dies for a lot of people on a second or third film; it all evaporates. It's
so hard to sustain a filmmaking career -- unless you bust into that next
iW: How have you sustained your life?
Fessenden: Doggedly. I edit for people. And I have some money from my
family. I hate to really go on about that, but I think there's some secrets
among people who make films that they have some ways to do it. To take off
and not work for a while. I've never made a dime off my movies. With
"Habit," I deliberately committed the movie to the crew, so I've been paying
them for five years. Filmmaking is very expensive and it's not a realistic