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EXCL: A Chat with Larry Fessenden

Tackling the horrors of global warming in The Last Winter

It’s been ten years since Larry Fessenden made his urban vampire film Habit, a movie that’s been kept alive thanks to the amount of airtime available on cable television, but since then, he’s continued his career as one of New York’s maverick indie film stalwarts, producing and appearing in some of the scarier independent horror films of the last few years. (He also appears in a studio movie from time to time, as he did in Jodie Foster’s The Brave One.)

His new movie The Last Winter takes on the larger topic of global warming in an Arctic horror tale that stars Ron Perlman as an oil worker who refuses to stop drilling despite the deaths and disappearances plaguing his crew and warnings by an environmentalist, played by James Le Gros, that the damages being done to the land are unleashing spirits bent on revenge. It’s a surprisingly bigger budget film than what we’ve seen from Fessenden in the past, but a lot of his sensibilities are retained.

ShockTillYouDrop.com had a rare chance for an extended conversation with the eclectic New York filmmaker about his latest movie and other things going on in his world and ours.

ShockTillYouDrop.com: It’s been five years since you made “Wendigo” and there’s definitely some references to that in this movie, so is this part 4 of your “trilogy of horror”?

Larry Fessenden: Yeah, I’m moving on, but the irony in a way is “The Last Winter” is sort of a distillation of the other three. I mean, I see it that way, as having elements from the other three movies, the echo message of “No Telling” and the sort of subjective madness of “Habit” and then of course the Wendigo presence, the revenging spirit presence from “Wendigo.” To be honest, it was written first as an attempt to try to make a sequel of some sort to “Wendigo.” It was in our contract with Ed Pressman’s company Content Film, so we thought, “Sure, what would a sequel look like?” Not really using the same characters or setting, but just the same thematic, vengeful comeuppance themes.

Shock: Because of the location, you get more into global warming, which is a hot topic right now.

Fessenden: Yeah, hot topic indeed!

Shock: You actually wrote this years ago, but it must be fortuitous that it’s being released now.

Fessenden: Well, you know I’ve been interested in global warming and all sorts of environmental elements since the ‘90s when I read a book called “Silent Spring” and I first started reading more and more and a book called, “The End of Nature” started to present this idea of global warming and then Al Gore’s first book “Earth in the Balance”, so I’ve always been interested. I even wrote a book called “Low Impact Filmmaking” which was a little thing to help people make some good choices on the set. In that book, written in 1990, I have a paragraph talking about global warming, so it’s sad because I’m speaking with great urgency about something that hasn’t been dealt with for 17 years now. (chuckles)

Shock: At least this will reach another audience who might not go see a documentary on the subject.

Fessenden:Yeah, and similarly maybe the global warming crowd would come to a horror film which they might not do otherwise, so it’s good for everyone.

Shock: You worked with a new writer on this. Is this the first one you’ve collaborated with another writer on?

Fessenden: My first movie “No Telling” I wrote with Beth Underwood who is my wife now, and in the past I had, so it’s not a big deal. The fact is that “Habit” was my own story to tell so I did write that. I give the primary credit to myself, but I had written with a couple of other writers over the years. That story I’ve been telling for a long time. “Wendigo”, I just wrote very fast and very much on my own and so it was sole credit. This is my first time working with Robert Lieber and it was a great collaboration. I knew him as a friend, and I knew that he was interested in writing screenplays. He’s written a couple of his own that hadn’t been produced and I just felt his energy would be a great way to fuse my ideas and just have somebody to talk to about the project.

Shock: What was the process like? Was it a matter or you had something already written and then you brought him in?

Fessenden: I didn’t have anything written, but I had a strong idea of what I wanted it to be and we would sit for a couple of hours every other day and we talk things through, every detail, like what are the names of the characters and what are the nature of characters, and then he would go off and write stuff down and then feed it back to me. Then I could critique it as if it was sort of a fresh thing. It was a really great process. I had hired him, so I was still the boss, and I could direct the story in a way that was true to my thinking. Which is important, because when I direct the film, I have to understand it. So worked for me naturally, you get this strange feeling when the movie goes off and gets made. I think Robbie had his own issues of separation and you know, loss of control, but in the end I think we’re both happy with it.

Shock: Would you do another movie with Robbie in this way?

Fessenden: In fact, we’re talking about writing another movie together, which would be a non-horror movie and that will be a fun project. Once again, Robbie just has a very robust imagination, and it plays well with mine. I have just very specific things that interest me, so it works together.

Shock: However it worked out, I think it worked really well. Did this movie have a bigger budget that you normally work with?

Fessenden: No, it was much bigger. It was my first in 35 mm, and of course we had to go to Iceland to film, so there’s a lot of just practical things that raised the budget, and then we had a crane everyday.The crew was actually the same size as “Wendigo” but as I say, in a whole different environment, so it was much more expensive. I don’t know… it cost ten times as much as the last movie.

Shock: How are Icelandic crews to work with as far as shooting up there?

Fessenden: I loved the crew. They were a very robust group and everybody shares in all the tasks. It’s not as delineated as American crews, who are very conscience of the union rules, even when their not making a union film. They sort of have been trained that way in their thinking, whereas in Iceland, everybody sort of pitched in. It’s an interesting community. They all know each other from childhood, so there’s old rivalries and old affections that play out in this arena of filmmaking. Everybody knew the DP who was actually a very young guy, who was like 26 I think, and it just was a lot of affection and warmth on the set and I work best that way. We have a really have a fun time on the set, even though we’re telling a somber story, and Ron Perlman was a gas and we all had a lot of laughs. I like to run a ship that way, because it keeps the morale up and you actually get more out of people.

Shock: The DP did a really great job with the look of the film. Do have any sort of film school up in Iceland?

Fessenden: Well, I don’t know if they have a film school actually, but I think Magni (the DP) went to England and did a lot of commercials throughout Europe and even in America, but more specifically they have a great film community and of course, Clint Eastwood shot both his war movies there, the recent Batman, the whole beginning scene. They are constantly hosting Hollywood films and a lot of independent, Hal Hartley made a movie there called “No Such Thing” and they have their own filmmakers, so it’s a great film community actually.

Shock: I was going to ask you if you did any research into global warming but you answered that before with all those books. Did you go back and reread some of them for this?

Fessenden: It’s a good question actually. The research element of this movie was my producer–which was awesome and not everyone would have done this–he financed a trip, he and I went to Alaska. We went to Prudhoe Bay, which is the very tippy-top of Alaska where the oil pipeline starts, and very few people go there, citizens I should say. There’s a lot of oil guys there and every now and again, an environmentalist will go through on their way to the pristine landscape called Anwar. It was just a very unusual trip and there I learned that the landscape Robbie and I had written about was not accurate. We had beautiful pine trees and all this, because it was Alaska, but in fact it was a very flat landscape, which is why they want to drill up there. It really affected the script and I learned a lot about oil drilling and actually more about that stuff and sour gas and a lot of the things, even ice roads. Everything in the movie was sort of revised once we got up there. You can read about stuff all you want, but until you’re actually there, you don’t soak it in. It was a great trip and really affected the script, and of course I researched global warming and what might happen and so on. In the film, all that stuff is happening basically…

Shock: Right, except for that giant creature…

Fessenden: No, that’s happening, too!!! You just don’t see it yet!

Shock: You found that out as part of your research.

Fessenden: Yeah, exactly. You can’t imagine, but they’re just wandering around the plains out there. (laughs)

Shock: James Le Gros’ environmentalist is a very interesting character, and the relationship between him and Ron Perlman is also interesting, having this love triangle amidst all of the deaths and strange occurences. Can you talk about how that developed?

Fessenden: Well, that came out of me and Robbie’s–I have no idea who thought of it–but we just knew that we wanted that element because it would really eat away at Ron Perlman. It’s funny. I never in my mind was sure that Perlman had actually had a relationship with her. He clearly always pined away for her and I pictured that Abby, played by Connie Britton, had somewhat climbed through the corporate structure by kind of leading him on. I don’t know if any of that comes through, and most people just assume they had an affair in the past, and that’s fine, but I think I was trying to point out that Abby, who’s kind of a neutral character–she’s kind of on both guys’ sides—that she was also kind of an operator and an opportunist and maybe had used Perlman’s affections to get where she was. You can tell he has a tremendous soft spot for her. But in any case, the triangle is at least an emotional one. I also wanted to say that in a way we’re all, as the everyman citizen, hearing about global warming. We’re kind of in Abby’s position. We kind of believe Perlman’s take, which is that progress is essential and you must go forward and be bold and we were certainly hearing the other side, which is the concerns. The movie’s kind of like “Where’s she going to land?” and she pretty much stays on Perlman’s side until things get really bad and then she seems to kind of come to the belief that maybe Hoffman is right. The movie plays on the fact that Hoffman can’t quite define what’s wrong, which of course the way that the global warming deniers, if you will, play on the fact that you can’t predict the future, so that’s a very important element in the national debate. It’s also on a personal level what happens when you’re not quite sure that something’s wrong, and you’re not sure, like I’m trying to express anxiety here, I think we should look into this. It’s easy to dismiss that and say, “Well, you’re a coward or a fool.”

Shock: I just saw the global warming documentary “The 11th Hour” which deals with that a lot.

Fessenden: The first half of the trailer, you’re absolutely horrified and the second half the music changes, and it’s like, “And this is what you can do.” Even Al Gore’s movie didn’t really have a solution. (laughs) I think it’s good that Leo’s turned that corner…I didn’t see the movie yet.

Shock: He does a good job, but it’s very deep, though you might appreciate it having read all of those books.

Fessenden: I’d probably recognize half the characters.

Shock: Probably. I personally think that most people won’t have any idea what they’re talking about, including myself half the time.

Fessenden: Well that’s interesting. Then you have to ask, “Was it a good movie?” in terms of…do you personally believe that global warming is happening? I think these movies are great. It’s important for people to get with the program.

Shock: As far as Ron Perlman, I thought that was great casting. He hasn’t appeared in that many movies, although he does have the background doing horror movies for Guillermo del Toro. What made you think of him?

Fessenden: Well, I’d have to admit, it was seeing “Hellboy.” I mean I’ve known Perlman from all the way back, he’s in “Cronos”, “The City of Lost Children.” I remember him of course from the Alien movie he’s in, and I was aware of “Beauty and the Beast” which was on TV. So Perlman, he’s a movie star that you’re aware of, but I saw

“Hellboy”, and I just thought he was immensely charming and sympathetic even as a gruff character and even as obviously this grotesque red creature, and I thought that’s the vibe I want for Pollack. I want him to be sort of repellent and robust and a blowhard, but I want him to be kind of like a kid underneath and show his other side. I really thought Perlman would deliver that, plus it’s a nice reference to the genre. Look, here’s our genre favorite and let’s see him in this other kind of genre movie.

Shock: You’ve kind of become almost like the poster child for the indie horror movies, where you appear in all of these movies like “Session 9″ and “Headspace.” You’re going to be in Ti West’s sequel to “Cabin Fever.”

Fessenden: Yeah, well it’s funny, because I’m not also everybody’s cup of tea. My kind of movies are quite subtle and so on, and maybe when I appear in these other movies, they’re actually more of a favorite. I know Ti’s movie is going to have plenty of blood for the gore fans. It’s absolutely appallingly grotesque and that will be fun and I get to die in that movie like I do in all my others. Then “Session 9″ I think is a beloved film. It’s definitely one on the creepiest films ever, so it’s just great. I love being invited to do these things.

Shock: Do you feel that TI is one of your graduating class, having produced and released most of his early films?

Fessenden: Yeah, I mean quite honestly I did support him when he was young, and I knew that he was going to be great and he’s proved it. I don’t know if he’ll stay in the horror genre, but he’s going to be a filmmaker for sure that we’ll reckon with. I think he’s a really good filmmaker. I knew that from the start. His shorts are great, and it’s pure cinema. That’s what I like about Ti. He’s not as much about the writing, though he’s a good writer. He writes what he needs to film, but he’s just a really good filmmaker.

Shock: So we now know you die in the movie, but who do you play? Should we keep that a secret?

Fessenden: Nah, I play the guy who drives the delivery truck over the water, which causes the virus, so I’m obviously affected because I’m drinking my own product, and then I just perish early on and start the whole thing going, so it’s a great role.

Shock: You kind of have to die if you started it all.

Fessenden: Absolutely! Ti lives in a highly moral universe. Ha ha!

Shock: What’s going on with Scareflix these days? I know you have a couple of movies in the works, so have you finished shooting them?

Fessenden: We are in the middle of shooting one (“I Sell the Dead”), which is where we took a hiatus while we’re waiting for Ron Perlman to come back from the Hellboy shoot. That’s a great movie in the tradition of the Hammer films from the ‘60s, and it’s a beautiful period piece by Glen McQuaid, who’s done a lot of the effects on my own films. I’m very excited about that. That’s not even finished and we’re just finishing up a movie called “I Can See You” by Graham Reznick, who is Ti’s sound man, so if you know Ti’s work, you know how important the sound is so imagine Graham having control over a whole movie. It’s going to be very special, and then Jim McKinney made this robot movie we’re just going to release this year called “Automotons”, a release on video. They’re slowly trickling out on DVD now. The first two are already out and then two more are coming out this year, so it’s very cool. It’s a great project, the Scareflix thing.

Shock: Are you going to go right into another movie yourself?

Fessenden: I’m going to try to have a faster turnaround than before, yeah. I want to shoot in the spring, a very small film and just get that under way and then maybe next fall, meaning in a year, have something a little more substantial, but it’s hard, man. It’s hard to find the money and the backing, especially when you’re a strange filmmaker like myself. It’s not guaranteed that this is what people want. I’ll make my way, but it’s always a mystery. Look, even Martin Scorsese used to have trouble raising money and he made some of the best films ever. It’s not an easy gig…filmmaking.

Shock: So in thirty years, we’ll see you at the Oscars when you’re 70 years old?

Fessenden: Yeah, yeah, exactly. I mean, look at that. He had to wait that long. I don’t know, it’s weird. As for the Oscars, I only take you up on that question because well, it’ll be interesting. The great goal is to make a truly great movie or even a really good movie and you know, that’s a very elusive goal. (chuckles)

Shock: Well, what’s ironic is that he went back and made the same type of movie he made in his early years and that’s what won him the honor.

Fessenden: Yeah, it had the same flavor, but we all know he got the award for being Marty and you know not specifically “The Departed”, though it’s perfectly good.

Shock: Going back to Iceland. We talked about the crews, but what about the actual environment? Did everyone have to go through some sort of survival course to know how to survive out there?

Fessenden: Not for the Icelandics. They live that life. We were very safe to the degree that we could be. (chuckles) We were up in the northern part of Iceland filming the exterior scenes, and we all lived in these remote hotels and we’d drive 20 minutes in the morning down this one single road. At a certain point, you veer off to the left and you’re off road and you’re driving over lava flows with a thin coat of ice and snow. That’s where we had our little base camp. We ate in these school busses, that was the accommodations and then, we’d go out and film and we’d carry the 35mm camera around on these skidoos. It was just great, very much the way I like to work and very adventurous. I’m a fan of Herzog, and though we weren’t in the jungle, we were in the cold and it was really like an adventure. It just keeps things real. You’re not acting like your cold–you are cold.

Shock: The movie is set-up in a way in that it does ask some questions that are left unanswered and open-ended for some sort of sequel. Did you envision continuing the story or doing something else in that same setting?

Fessenden: Mm. Well, I think my movies are like… they all could fit together. You could have a film festival. The only one that’s out of order is, I’d make “Habit” before “No Telling”, which I don’t know if you’ve seen but that’s more about a couple, so they sort of almost take you through the stages of life. Like in “No Telling”, they’re not married yet. I’m not saying they’re literally sequels, but there is this kind of growing up going on, and I do have in mind my next film is perhaps what happens after “The Last Winter,” what’s the world look like then. It’s not a sequel at all, and certainly we’ve had enough “Wendigo” for now. I think I’ll take a break from the Wendigo.

Shock: Are we going to give the CGI guys a break also?

Fessenden: Oh, I can’t say that. (laughs)

Shock: Having mentioned Herzog, do you think you might continue doing more man vs. nature type horror films like these last two?

Fessenden: You know, I’m really a misanthrope. That means I’m very discouraged with the human species, and I always include nature in the backdrop of things. I find that to be essential. Then again, “Habit” is a city film and it has a great affection for New York City, but I would argue it’s also about the night, and it’s still about something bigger then just the people. That’s just my approach.

Shock: The horror in this movie is based on stuff going on in the real world, something that George Romero shepherded along with his zombie movies, though his politics was more subliminal. Do you feel that this is the direction where horror is going?

Fessenden: I don’t know that that’s where it’s going, but that’s where I’m taking it. I’m with George on this topic. I really think that the best horror is derived from real life and the fact is, real life is filled with issues. I don’t know if they need to be partisan issues, but they’re political and that there are solutions and there’s debate as to how to address things. Wendigo” is about a class struggle and the usurpation of the land by the Indians, and then by the white settlers and then by the rich people from the country people, so that’s political, but I’m not telling people what to do. I’m just saying this is the way it is and this is where violence and sudden violence comes from. It comes from resentment. In the case of “The Last Winter”, we can disagree all we want about how to solve problems, but the problems don’t change. They can get worse and worse and you can keep arguing all you want, but the fu*cking world can collapse around you. You can do something or not, but the world ain’t waiting for us to come up with solutions. It’s going to do what it’s doing and it’s moving in a very scary direction.

The Last Winter opens in New York at the IFC Center on Wednesday and in other cities over the next few weeks. You can read more about Larry’s other projects, including those for Scareflix at his website.

Source: Edward Douglas