Larry Fessenden Talks I Sell the Dead, Its Sequel, and More!
Larry Fessenden and his production company, Glass Eye Pix, along with their low-budget horror sideline, Scareflix, have been making some of the best indie horror to come out in recent years.
From Ti West’s The Roost in 2005 and the highly acclaimed The House of the Devil in 2009 to Glenn McQuaid’s current period horror/comedy I Sell the Dead, voted Best Indie Film of 2009 by Rue Morgue magazine, Fessenden is on course to being one of the most in-demand producers/directors as well as actors in the 21st Century (check out his IMDb resume – he’s been in everything from the mainstream hit The Brave One with Jodie Foster to the cult horror favorite Session 9).
Dread Central recently interviewed the affable Fessenden about I Sell the Dead as well as future projects which, according to Larry, just may include his script for the remake of The Orphanage.
Elaine Lamkin: First off, once again Larry dies in a movie he either produced, directed, and/or acted in. What IS it with the “death wish”, Larry? Ti said he was heartbroken that he couldn’t find a way to work you into The House of the Devil and kill you.
Larry Fessenden: Yes, all my friends and associates want to kill me.
EL: How did you and fellow producer Peter Phok come to find this hilariously amazing story, I Sell the Dead? According to your commentary, Glenn McQuaid had written the script for I Sell the Dead four or five years prior to the film being made. When did it catch your eye, and what was the allure of doing a period horror/comedy?
LF: In 2003, around the time I started producing these ultra low budget movies called Scareflix, I met Glenn McQuaid and brought him on to do CGI effects and titles, most notably the rabid bats in Ti West’s film THE ROOST and eventually the snow and apparition effects in my film THE LAST WINTER. At some point in all that, Glenn cast me in a short he was producing called THE RESURRECTION APPRENTICE, and I played Willie Grimes the grave robber for the first time. Glenn started pitching a number of feature ideas to me around then, and I found many of his pitches to be too dark or too ambitious, but in one meeting we talked about expanding the short we had made together and he worked it into a script called I SELL THE DEAD. Peter Phok had been producing a number of the Scareflix out in the field, learning the ropes, and when I got Glenn’s script I showed it to Pete, and he was very enthused to get it made so the two of us set out to figure out how to do a period piece with no money.
EL: How did you manage to collect the cast you have: Ron Perlman, Dominic Monaghan, Angus Scrimm? All iconic in various genres and all seeming to be having the time of their lives. As do the Glass Eye Pix gang of John Speredakos, Brenda Cooney, Heather Robb, and several others. What was the shoot like, given the use of fog machines and what seemed to be some pretty cold weather?
LF: Once we agreed to make the film, we went to Ron Perlman and invited him to play the clergyman. Perlman and Glenn and I had all been in Iceland together working on my own film THE LAST WINTER, and we had a good rapport. Ron read the script and liked it but thought the clergyman was a bit of a throwaway role. This inspired Glenn to rework the script, and his changes benefited the whole story immensely. Peter Phok had the brainstorm to cast Dom Monaghan, who was at the time on LOST, and we sent Dom concept sketches and the script, and he and his agents and managers were very receptive.
Pete and Glenn and I flew out to L.A. to get Perlman and Monaghan together, and that meeting lead to them both agreeing to do the film. We determined to delay the shooting of the film several months to accommodate Dom’s schedule, and then we ended up waiting several more months to do the scenes with the two of them because Ron was tied up on HELLBOY 2. As for Angus, we knew him from the other Scareflix, but even so he had to be coaxed to travel for such a relatively small role. We ended up making it worth his while by scheduling two film shoots during one trip East: SATAN HATES YOU and I SELL THE DEAD. As for the others, we are always eager to work with our regular crew: Brenda Cooney, John Speredakos, Heather Robb, and don’t forget James Godwin, who played the Wendigo in my film and has three roles in I SELL THE DEAD.
The shoot began in the spring when it was very warm indeed, and that’s when we shot on the beach and in the graveyards, but the second half of the shoot occurred many months later just before Christmas, and it was frigid and brutal, especially for our scantily clad vampiress. I recall that for Dom and I a nip off a flask of whiskey was the best way to keep warm and in good spirits.
EL: For those not in the know, how would you describe I Sell the Dead?
LF: I SELL THE DEAD is a fog-drenched Dickensian buddy movie about two bumbling grave robbers earning a day’s wage by any means necessary.
EL: And how would you describe those two scallywags, Willie Grimes and Arthur Blake?
LF: "Scallywags" sounds about right. Working class stiffs dealing with stiffs. They come from a world I knew from the movies I loved as a kid.
EL: What sort of budget were you all working with?
LF: Our budget started at no - and ended at low: We finished the film for under a million bucks, still the costliest of any of our Scareflix.
EL: When I interviewed Ti for The House of the Devil, he described you as very genuine, passionate, and very hands-off as a producer. Would you say that is a fair assessment? And why the hands-off method of producing, which seems to be the complete anathema to other producers who often end up ruining a film by their over-involvement?
LF: I am especially “hands-off” with Ti because he won’t listen to me anyway. I always put in my two cents and make emphatic suggestions to all the directors I work with, but in the end I make it clear that the director has the final say on any film I am producing. The reason I am “hands-off” with producing is I don’t think of myself as a producer; I am an advocate for the artist, I am the enabler. I want original voices to be heard. My greatest influence as a producer is in choosing the material. I am not there to conform someone to my vision. In the end I am trying to be the kind of producer that I myself would hope to work with when directing my own material: supportive, proactive, and out of the way with strategic suggestions that sharpen the vision.
EL: I was really surprised when I first read that the film was to be shot in and around New York City (Naw, they’ll never pull it off) and then shocked when you all actually DID recreate 19th Century Ireland on Staten Island, Long Island, and in the East Village. Everyone talks about movie magic - what was your secret?
LF: The secret to the look of I SELL THE DEAD is: locations, an amazing art department, an awesome wardrobe department, Glenn’s genuine feel for the settings, a lot of fog, and just plain balls-out producing as well. Peter Phok and our co-producer Brent Kunkle disguised themselves as history students and toured all the landmark forts in the New York area to find the best locations. They discovered this ancient fort in Staten Island and turned it into our mini studio. Then we turned our local bar into the tavern by completely rebuilding the interior and shooting in the off-hours from four in the morning to two in the afternoon. When we dismantled the set and restored the bar, even the regulars where disappointed to lose that “ye old” vibe.
EL: Bear with me for a moment as I figure the Six Degrees of Separation of Glass Eye Pix: Jocelin Donahue was in The House of the Devil, which Glass Eye Pix produced. She was also in JT Petty’s The Burrowers with Karl Geary, who owns The Scratcher pub, the interiors of which were used in I Sell the Dead. Glenn McQuaid, who directed I Sell the Dead, has been working in visual effects since The Roost, which was directed by Ti West, who also directedThe House of the Devil. You and/or Peter Phok produced The Roost, The Off Season (which co-starred I Sell the Dead’s Angus Scrimm), etc., etc. Quite a tight bunch of folks at Glass Eye Pix, and I didn’t even include Jeremiah Kipp or James Felix McKinney. Why do you think Glass Eye Pix and Scareflix are becoming known for the family atmosphere which seems to permeate every shoot (your son Jack was even an extra in I Sell the Dead)?
LF: Nice detective work, and you’re only just scratching the surface. That is just how we do it. We all work on each other’s films and try to stand united against a torrent of mediocrity coming out of the studios and purveyors of corporatainment. The plan is to extend the family far enough that soon we are running the whole damn business.
EL: Speaking of period horror, of all of the horror sub-genres, the period-horror and the horror-comedy seem to garner the least popularity (with exceptions like Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead and Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead). Why did Glass Eye Pix decide to tackle not one but two not-always-lucrative sub-genres?
LF: I don’t like the breed of horror comedy that nudges and winks at the viewer. It is an extension of the smug know-it-all culture that is killing reverence and wonder in everything. But SHAUN OF THE DEAD was an awesome buddy movie and almost scary tribute to the great Romero zombie flicks, and I would like to believe that the humor in I SELL THE DEAD comes from the characters and not from the filmmakers making fun of them.
EL: I mentioned before that your son, Jack, was an extra in I Sell the Dead as well as one of the chief wood hackers behind-the-scenes (and an absolutely adorable young lad). Are you grooming him to work in the film industry? He seemed to be having a blast.
LF: Well Jack’s grown up in the family atmosphere that is Glass Eye Pix. His mom is Beck Underwood, who is an animator (CREEPY CHRISTMAS) and the art director on I SELL THE DEAD, BITTER FEAST, and STAKE LAND, and we’re often building props or shooting movies in our house, and he’s grown up working in the art department and doing bit parts. But if he does get into film, I want to teach him to get more lucrative work than I ever have.
EL: As far as you know, will there be a sequel to I Sell the Dead?
LF: Glenn’s written a 160-page script that needs some trimming. I know he wants to shape it into another comic book first, to find the story, and from there we’d love to explore the further adventures ...
EL: What is coming next from Glass Eye Pix? According to the ALWAYS unreliable IMDb, you have three films either in post or yet-to-be-filmed? Can you talk about any of them?
LF: We’re very excited about BITTER FEAST by Joe Maggio, about a maniac chef who tortures a blogger, that’s being finished right now. Then there’s Jim Mickle’s epic STAKE LAND, that should be released next Halloween. Jim McKenney’s undefinable SATAN HATES YOU will creep into theaters and drive-ins as the year unfolds, and we’re shooting a monster movie called HYPOTHERMIA in February, also by McKenney. We’re talking with Ti West about another movie as well, and then of course, I am hoping my own script of THE ORPHANAGE remake that I wrote with Guillermo Del Toro will get made in Hollywood, and I have a couple of scripts of my own I intend to shoot now that I’m freed up from that project.
EL: You have been on both sides of the camera –- what is your opinion on the state of horror these days as an actor, director, and producer?
LF: Horror seems alive and well. It is an amazingly enduring genre, let’s face it, because horror is with us every day, lurking around every corner.
EL: Have you seen any horror films recently that really impressed you?
LF: I don’t see a lot because I won’t allow myself a break from work, but recently I’ve enjoyed aspects of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, I loved THE MIST, DISTRICT 9, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, THE HOST, THE BURROWERS, and the shorts OFF SEASON and I LOVE SARAH JANE.
EL: When I interviewed you a few years ago, I asked you what was one thing no one knew about you that you thought they should, and your response was that you should be making comedies. Well, you have, Larry! Congratulations! NOW, what is one thing no one knows about you that you think they should?
LF: Well, what’s left? I should be making musicals!
EL: Thank you for your time, Larry. Always a pleasure speaking with you.
Big thanks to Larry for taking time out of his busy schedule to chat with us, and keep your eyes open for the further misadventures of our corpse shilling duo in the (hopefully) near future!
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