Horror Business: Larry Fessenden on DEPRAVED & Punk Rock Filmmaking
Larry Fessenden is an American director, producer, writer, actor, and overall force to be reckoned with. A true indie film pioneer in the horror world, Larry’s career highlights include 1995’s gritty vampire drama Habit, 2001’s Wendigo, and The Last Winter, Starring Ron Perlman.
Larry’s latest movie, Depraved, is a gritty and modern take on Frankenstein, which poses a number of interesting questions about the ethics of scientific advancements in medicine.
Larry is also a very accomplished producer, but beyond that, he is one of those rare mentors in the industry, who goes to great lengths to give new directors a start. Quite a few notable directors have bloomed under Larry’s guidance, including Jim Mickle and Ti West. Today, his company Glass Eye Pix continues to put out uniquely-voiced genre films that rock the independent horror world to its core.
Larry is a fellow native-born New Yorker and I really had a wonderful time speaking with him. Before the interview, here’s a summary of key advice for aspiring horror filmmakers from this conversation with Larry Fessenden:
- Find a cast & crew who are in it for the passion. When making independent films, the pay is low and the hours are grueling. Therefore, it’s critical that you find people who want to be a part of your movie for the right reasons: the desire and drive to create. The people you want to work with will be more concerned about the project and their creative contributions and less concerned about their contracts, hours, and overtime. That being said, you cannot abuse or take advantage of them whatsoever. As an indie director, you have to hold up your end of the bargain by ensuring that your cast and crew are always respected, safe and listened to. All of these elements are what make a creative and cohesive family unit on set. The spirit of independent filmmaking thrives on perseverance, not just from the director but from everyone around him or her. Find people who will willingly remain in the trenches with you, and treat them like gold.
- Embrace the Punk Rock ethos of filmmaking. As Larry says, work outside the system if the system won’t have you. This is largely why he embraced the DIY ethos of punk rock when he produced his films. This stresses the importance of working outside of the system; not constantly waiting around for someone to give you clearance and permission, but creatively finding a way to get the shots yourself with what you have access to. Which brings me to my next point…
- Embrace the challenge. Larry mentioned how the fun of making independent movies is finding a way to get the shots without the resources. Again, this speaks to how important the quality of resourcefulness is in directors and filmmakers. This partially requires taking a mental inventory of everything you have access to whenever you face a production challenge. Larry mentioned how on one movie he needed a crane shot that he couldn’t afford but remembered that he had a neighbor with a cherry picker, so he got the shot that way. Nearly everyone has unexpected advantages and access to unique resources. Discover what yours are and structure your script around them.
- Face your fears. Larry is noted for saying that horror is the only genre that unflinchingly faces reality; it’s been widely documented that horror genres throughout the years are effective because they serve as metaphors for current anxieties (Godzilla came from the fear of the atomic age, torture porn rose during a culture of disgust over military mistreatment of foreign POWs, etc.). The level of unflinching honesty that horror directors are able to achieve when confronting real fears and social anxieties is one of the reasons why horror matters so much as a genre. Larry’s advice is to really confront and face your own fears and sources of unrest, and to channel them into your work. The more honest you are about what scares you, the more your work will resonate with people on a gut level and the more effective the horror element will be. As Larry says, “Denial is dangerous.” The horror genre is there to not only entertain us, but remind us of reality and hard truths.
Dread Central: So, Larry, you’re a fellow native New Yorker.
Larry Fessenden: Yep. Born and raised here.
DC: You grew up during a time when there was a lot of great cinema coming out of New York. How did that shape you as a filmmaker?
LF: When I was young I was going to the rep houses, they played a lot of old movies regularly. There were double features all over the town, and you could go and immerse yourself in the cinema of the old days, like a Cary Grant double feature or recent releases like Little Big Man with Dustin Hoffman. So it was great. And then the city itself always spoke to me as a place where you could become anonymous. There was a great grit to it in the ’70s. A certain danger factor. But I also loved Central Park. I mean, it’s just a fantastic city. I think that’s why people are snooty if they came from New York, because they just have this rich experience growing up. CBGB’s was downtown. You could ride the subways. And just the whole thing.
DC: I miss CBGB’s.
LF: I knew Hilly. We played at CB’s ourselves, me and my band. And saw some great acts there. That whole culture—it’s definitely dissipated, but there’s still pockets of it. And I have very strong memories from the early ’80s, growing up with the performance art scene, the music scene downtown. I moved downtown to the East Village, and it was just bubbling up, and riots, and…
DC: Must have been a hell of a time to be in New York.
LF: It was a crazy time, yeah.
DC: Speaking of CBGB’s, punk rock is a big part of how you approach the filmmaking process. Could you talk about how you extend the ethos of punk rock into filmmaking?
LF: Of course, we made The Ranger recently, so it was particularly relevant. But punk as a do-it-yourself aesthetic and sticking it to the man, I really believe in working outside the system if the system won’t have you. Make no mistake, I’d be happy to make a large film with Hollywood execs. But until that time, you’ve still got to stand up for the art and make the art with your own hands, and get in there and build your own community. Very much that punk aesthetic of doing it yourself and having a strong engagement with the community.
DC: Right. It seems like now, things like video on-demand and the cinematic abundance that a lot of streaming platforms have brought, is a double-edged sword; on the one hand a lot of people can get movies out, who in the past would have been dependent on the studio and theatrical distribution, but it also floods the market with a lot of projects that are not so great. What’s your take on this age of streaming & VOD?
LF: When I was coming up and started producing movies and enabling other filmmakers as well, there were different marketplaces: DVD, TV, foreign, etc. So you could imagine getting your money back from a film, even a small film. There was also self-distribution and theaters had a little more oomph, because people went to the theaters. I think no matter what the age, you’ll always find that there are going to be gatekeepers.
Netflix does not take every movie, and they don’t even have a lot of my films... And then, festivals are extremely competitive. There are a gazillion movies made. So it’s the same relationship of being outside the shop looking at the candy inside and feeling like you can’t quite get your hands on it. That’s why I always say, “You’ve got to have a plan B, which has to be building your own community, your own reputation.”
Obviously now with YouTube, streaming, websites and the internet, you can access people and make them aware of what you have to offer. And in the end, though I think there are great artists who are overlooked, (because I’ve always had an affection for the suffering artist), I do think there are ways to get discovered and get your material out there.
DC: One thing I thought was really interesting that you said about horror is that people who are making horror are the few people who are actually facing reality. Horror, as a genre, is unflinching when it comes to reality. It seems to channel our national and cultural angst in a very raw, honest, visceral way, which partially is why it’s a genre that really matters, wouldn’t you say?
LF: Without a doubt. I appreciate that thought because that’s why horror is perennial. Every generation has touchstone horror movies that speak to their concerns. You know we had a lot of torture porn, as it was called, say what you want, but movies like Saw and Hostel. That was when we were in Iraq, and there was sort of a sense of guilt, like we were being accused of being torturers. It’s really interesting to see the zeitgeist of the times reflected in the horror movies.
Of course, when birth control came you have hippies running wild. That’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, chopping up the hippies. Rosemary’s Baby was also a response to evil children. Godzilla was a response to the bomb, obviously, and all the way back to Frankenstein, movies speak to the anxieties and fears of the nation. So yeah, they’re the truth-tellers. And especially in America, because we deny death. There’s this fear of facing that fundamental reality, and it’s brushed under the rug. So our mainstream filmmakers–even Spielberg always puts a spin on the end of his films to have a little bit of a happy ending, a soft landing, even though he’s a great craftsman of fear. I think that denial is going to get you into a lot of trouble. So horror is there, like punk rock, to scream at the kids and say, “Get real. The man is not your friend.” How’s that for some old-fashioned talk?
DC: Oh, yeah. I think it’s what the kids need to hear these days.
LF: Yeah, kids, come on. Get off of your phones, and let’s get real.
DC: Well, speaking of Frankenstein, I definitely want to talk about Depraved. Really, really enjoyed it a lot, a very interesting retelling of the Mary Shelley Frankenstein mythos with a real emotional poignancy to it. So I’m curious what made you want to do a Frankenstein movie, and what inspired it?
LF: Well, I always loved the creature. And I love the makeup. The Karloff makeup, from the James Whale film, 1931, is just so iconic. It evokes both pity and fear, which is a pretty cool line to tread. What I like to do with these horror tropes is personalize them and say, “Well, what if it was real? And how would the Frankenstein story unfold in the modern vernacular?”
And so I conceived of the doctor being in the endless wars of the Middle East, and he learns how to bring people back to life. And he comes back with PTSD, haunted by wartime memories, and just wants to make the mess right, the so-called unjust war. And so, what would he do? Well, he’d hole up in a lab, and he’d get some money from a friend, and he’d figure out how to get some body parts. And maybe he’d try to beat death in the lab. But the true impetus was to personalize the story and say, “What is the experience of the creature?” I wanted to make one of the few movies that tell it from the creature’s point of view.
There’s a Polanski film called The Tenant, where he says, “If I cut off my arm, I say it’s me and my arm. If I cut off my leg, it’s me and my leg. If I cut off my head, is it me and my body or me and my head?” In other words, where does your sense of self exist? In Frankenstein’s story, is it the brain or is it the body that is carrying the brain around? Those are just some of the questions that are already in the story, but if you come at the material with fresh eyes you realize, “Oh wow, that’s so crazy.” You’d be a brain. You’d have this weird body that you didn’t recognize. You wouldn’t know the face in the mirror. But you’d still have the memories.
So I just marinated on that concept, and then built the story. It’s not like I was referencing the book and going back and leafing through the pages. I know the book; I know the movies. I was just riffing on the setup that Mary Shelley and James Whale had presented.
DC: I’m curious how the strong theme of PTSD found its way into Depraved.
LF: I wrote it in the mid-2000s. At the time, we were in the Iraq War, in Afghanistan, and responding to 9/11, and just generally over there, and I was wondering what a doctor would have to deal with. And I thought about the soldiers who come back after these wars that don’t have a definitive mission. They don’t have a beginning and a middle and an end. We’re fighting a terrorist entity where you can’t really say, “Well, they’ve surrendered.” So that makes it very hard to come back and be welcomed and feel like it was a job well done. I think there’s an unfinished business aspect that would haunt you. And I think that’s what does happen to our soldiers.
So I’m thinking about the actual realities of the military experience, and how that would play into a fiction story. And the fiction story is sitting there waiting to receive these very real problems. Also, all the head trauma in the Iraq Wars; because of the bombs on the roadside where people would get their heads jostled. And because medicine is so sophisticated, they can come back. They’re alive, but they’ve had their brain rattled. And so they have real problems. The injuries of these modern soldiers somehow seemed to fit into the soup of this whole idea–the brain and all these themes that you see in Frankenstein.
DC: So as a producer, you’re kind of like a Roger Corman figure in how you’re birthing a lot of other really, really great directors like Jim Mickle and Ti West. What is the Larry Fessenden school of filmmaking like? What do you think that you’re giving these directors that’s enabling them further down the line?
LF: Just a sense of genuine enthusiasm for the craft and the problem solving that film is. And the minutiae of the effect of a wide shot versus a closeup, why a dolly shot is essential even though we can’t afford it; what you can do to get a crane shot since we can’t afford that. “Well, I know a guy down the road with a cherry picker, and maybe on Saturday we can use it.”
I love the practical reality of making movies with a smaller budget, when you have to be creative and solve problems. More like the real world, as if you’re building a shed in the backyard. And I believe very passionately in the language of cinema, so not for one moment do you compromise just because you don’t have the money. You figure out how to get the image that tells the story the way you want to tell it without maybe all the resources and bells and whistles.
Do you really need a steadicam? What’s wrong with being a good hand-held operator? Now, steadicam has its own language, and so if the guy says, “No, no, I want that floating feeling,” then you go, “Okay.” As long as it’s not indulgent.
I found myself hooking up with various like-minded people who were early in their careers, so they understood “no budget.” They understood the sacrifice of “caring is your greatest currency.” And so we were able to make the early films. Now all of them have graduated and become hotshots. They have the budgets and the cranes, and that’s great. And you can see their work is still good. I’m proud to have been part of their training ground.
I really like working with people who are still hungry enough that they’ll work for very little. Now, all of this implies that I don’t want the tools of cinema, and that’s not true. I love all the options and the equipment that you can use. I love cleaning up your movie with CGI, where it’s needed. So there’s nothing I’m opposed to, but I also believe you can tell great, visceral stories when you embrace the lack of funds, and turn that into an asset.
DC: I never went to film school, but from what I understand, they don’t typically teach this critical quality of resourcefulness that you’re speaking to. How do you ingrain resourcefulness into the directors that you mentor?
LF: Well, the directors come to me because they see what we’ve done, and then I can sense whether they’re simpatico or not. What I find is that a lot of the kids that come out of the schools are aware of contracts and professionalism. We were auditioning crew members for a movie, and the conversation was never about what their skills were and how they loved cinema, it was about the contracts and the hours. And I just felt that was a bad direction. And that seems to be what they’re teaching at some of these schools. I’m not going to name names, but…obviously, these people need professional skills so they can make their way in this business. It’s a business, after all. And I don’t resent that, but I don’t want to lead with that.
Because the first thing you’re doing is making art. You’re trying to contribute to the culture and have ideas out there. Otherwise, I don’t really see the point. I mean, you can get into the industry and make a living wage sewing costumes all the way up to directing, of course. But I’m trying to find people who really have a singular vision they want to advance, who have ideas, and want to advance the language of film and do something special that will resonate and be memorable. Like Ti West’s early film The Roost, these are cool movies. You can see craftsmanship in play. And that just excites me. That’s what I’m interested in.
DC: You’re looking for that palpable passion. Not people who are looking at hours and over time but the people who are like, “Yeah, let’s work all night. Because we’re making art!”
LF: Absolutely. And the other side of the bargain is that as a producer, I don’t abuse people. I work a 12-hour day, 10-hour day, whatever it is. That’s my side of the bargain. And that’s important, too. And I do mentor producers, it’s just rarely talked about because it’s not as glamorous. But the fact is that I work with a lot of great producers: Brent Kunkle, Peter Phok, Jenn Wexler–they all came up through Glass Eye.
They learned the paperwork and the aesthetic that you recycle on set: that you don’t endanger people, that you treat people with respect, and you get the most out of everybody because they feel they’re part of a family or a cohesive group. And so, there’s a whole aesthetic of living and working that is beyond the filmmaking. It’s about how a society should be built. Not to get too lofty, but this is the point. As Hitchcock would say, “It’s only a movie.” So you have to be living in the journey. It’s not just the destination.
So you treat people well. People have dignity, no matter what. I was saying earlier that the PAs on the last film I made were just fantastic. They were central. They were the foot soldiers, and they were making the movie happen so the rest of the people, the lofty, big-idea people, could have the space to do their work. So, it’s about community and respect.
DC: Are there any resources or books that were particularity formidable to you?
LF: Yes. I’ll give you three. First of all, you have to watch and then read Hitchcock/Truffaut. This is the greatest book on filmmaking, not because you have to like Hitchcock, but because he explains his intention in every shot. And you really get to understand. And the cool thing is, he talks about every movie. Everything from the casting to the art direction, of course, to the camera. And then he talks about his tricks and all his usual self-aggrandizement. But it’s a great education. You have the pleasure of watching the movie and then you can read six or seven pages about it.
Then I recommend Sidney Lumet’s book Making Movies. Lovely book by a great director. Really thoughtful, and just a nice glimpse into process. And last, In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch. He has so much insight into editing. Some of these guys are old-school, and there’s more poetry involved in their thinking, but poetry is good. My favorite thing he talks about is this: if you’re editing a scene and the actor blinks, that’s very often where there should be an edit. Because the actor sort of puts a close on an idea. And it’s an invitation to say, “Okay, I’ve done that idea. I’m blinking now. I’m resetting.” And it’s a clue as to where you might want to do an edit. I love that. So these kind of insights. Very strange, very helpful, and a great reverence for the art of film. It’s fun to read people who care.
DC: Interesting. Great. Larry, this is a tremendous honor. Thank you very much. Any parting wisdom for aspiring filmmakers?
LF: None at all. Just hang in there or find something much easier to do.
DC: Great. On that note, thank you again. This was great.
LF: Certainly. Thank you.
Depraved is available now on VOD. To hear the full interview with Larry, check it out on The Nick Taylor Horror Show Podcast.