Interview: Larry Fessenden on Leading a Cult in DEMENTER, Onscreen Deaths & SXSW 2021
Appearing in a creepy cameo that casts a devilish shadow across the new Chad Crawford Kinkle project Dementer, legacy artist and legitimate New York City film icon Larry Fessenden continues his steady ascent into true cult status. In our all-encompassing conversation below, we discuss the history of his company Glass Eye Pix, doing his voiceovers for Dementer in a car, early NYC run-ins with Jim Jarmusch and Steve Buscemi, and the Fessenden death reel that’s annually updated on his birthday. (It’s March 23rd if you were wondering.)
The actor/director/producer also has two films, Jakob’s Wife with Barbara Crampton and the very adult animated horror fantasy The Spine of Night, set to premiere in the midnight section of SXSW 2021 so we dive into those as well.
Synopsis: Dementer follows Katie, a young woman who flees a backwoods cult and takes a job at a care center for special needs adults in her determination to do some good with her life. But despite her best intentions, Katie can’t escape the signs that “the devils” are coming for Stephanie, a woman with Down syndrome she cares for, who keeps getting sicker despite Katie’s rituals to ward off evil spirits. Brandy Edmiston, Katie Groshong, and Eller Hall also star in the film, an official selection the Nashville Film Festival and the Chattanooga Film Festival.
Dementer is available on digital platforms March 2, 2021 from Dark Star Pictures.
Dread Central: I don’t want to turn this into a retrospective or anything but I also want this interview to be a sort of check-in for fans about what you’re up to and what you have coming up on the horizon.
Larry Fessenden: Fantastic, yeah.
DC: I wanted to know about the early days of Glass Eye Pix. Just starting the company and what was the first project that was made. Can you go back to that time for a second, around the mid-eighties in New York?
LF: Yeah, I came up with the name in 1985 because I was making a movie but a friend of mine had given me a glass eye and it had a nice little inscription…but I also thought of the glass eye as sort of a lens. My girlfriend at the time would give me these cool glass eye rings so that was just a groovy thing. So the bottom line is I just took the name and I liked it. There’s a whole history of why I came up with Glass Eye Pix but then I just put it on my movies. Then, eventually, I started mentoring kids. I always felt like, c’mon, we just have to do the work and I met Ti West. Before Ti, I was also working with performance artists and other people in the East Village in New York. It was just about a can-do attitude and let’s put things together. The weird thing, because I was always thinking about Scorsese, I wanted to be a filmmaker and yet it seemed like what I was really doing was just making media and we’d have performance events. So what I’m trying to say is it was a strange way towards becoming a filmmaker per se but I was always using film and the language of film. In the nineties I made another film No Telling. We just kept going and I started bringing these other guys aboard. So many great people came along with Ti…Graham Reznick, Peter Polk, these people became my producers. We just built this community and it was all about everybody doing the best work we could and we all had opinions about what movies could be.
I was a little older than them but I grew up when it was Godard and Bergman and all this kind of crap. So, yeah that was the thing. We really loved cinema, we loved the potential of telling stories and to some degree being political and outside the mainstream. So that was the vibe. I reference record labels from the old days. You’re a musician, you know, there was Motown…all these great record labels and you knew what you were going to get when you bought a record from them. You didn’t know the artist. So that’s really important, the idea of curatorship. I grew up, believe it or not even in the old days, when I was a kid you’d watch old movies and you knew that Warner Brothers was gonna tell street smart movies with James Cagney about gangsters. You knew MGM was gonna do musicals. With all of that history just because of my generation and Universal, excuse me, was gonna make the monster movie and then RKO was gonna do something weird. So, all of that mattered and I was oriented that way so that kind of helped me imagine the idea of sort of a label called Glass Eye and that you could trust what we were going to do. It wasn’t gonna be one thing but it was maybe gonna be something cool.
DC: We can maybe get back to Universal in a second but now I just think that people have been gifting you with glass eye presents over the years and you must have a huge collection that you don’t want of just rings and all kinds of stuff that represent that.
LF: Oh, I want them all! I always say, people come into my room and there’s a million little monsters and stuff and they’re always like, ‘You’re a maniac’ and I’m like, ‘Half of these were gifts!’ In my family I’m the easiest guy to buy a gift for. Just give me some random werewolf and I’m the happiest man alive.
DC: I was just revisiting my Larry Fessenden Collection on Blu-ray and No Telling is on there that you mentioned. Are there ever any films of yours you’ve thought about updating or revisiting now or are you always looking at the next thing? I feel like No Telling could be something that could be updated.
LF: Well, I appreciate you saying that. There’s a company called Participant. They’re out in L.A. and they do what you might call political or thoughtful movies but they do them in the genre. They did The Crazies remake which was actually good. They took a shine to No Telling. I’m not quite sure what aspect or what they thought was updatable. But I liked that and I’m always game. I spend a lot of time saying Hollywood is bankrupt and they shouldn’t keep making remakes and yet, at the same time, I’m a guy that loves remakes or reimaginings of things. It’s always specific. One’s complaint is when it’s just to promote the title and you don’t feel there’s an impetus why you’re doing it. But, at the same time, it’s great to see a revised version of one of the iconic monsters. The sad thing is something like The Last Winter which I made about climate change…I actually did write a sequel. It’s sitting there if anyone wants to make it.
DC: I love that movie.
LF: Thank you, thank you for that. Any movie you make has to be of the moment. If you’re going to revise something it has to now speak to the moment, and I don’t just mean woke politics. I mean what we’re really going through and therefore that has many many innuendos that are from the writers room.
DC: Speaking of the moment and the title, I want to talk to you about Dementer a little bit. It took me a second to realize that you were doing the cult member voiceover tormenting Katie.
LF: Oh cool.
DC: It’s like this creepy ASMR that must have been kind of fun to do for you.
LF: Oh, absolutely, and we recorded a lot of those voiceovers just in a car. I think I had done a scene or two and then Chad [Kinkle] said let’s do all your shit right here in the car. It was fun and intimate and that was pretty much the experience of the whole production. There was sort of a rag tag, catch-it-on-the-fly, and in a weird way, be in the moment. And Chad is such an oddly elegant fellow and then you’re doing something that’s very dark. And, of course, with his sister and with the non-actors involved there was an immediacy to it all. So it was a very intimate and cool production. Those voiceovers weren’t done in nice studio on a Zoom. It was right there in the thick of it and that was what was so cool.
DC: You guys are having a bit of a reunion and obviously Katie was in Jug Face as well. Also, I didn’t realize until just recently that Stephanie is actually Chad’s sister which is so incredible.
LF: Well, when he would write to me and say I’m thinking of doing this thing, he wanted to involve his sister. That’s what I think is just so profound. This is not an opportunist, this is truly an artist. When you’re in the lower depths of horror and indie filmmaking, you meet such great talents that maybe aren’t going to be immediately swept up by the Hollywood machine. Chad is such a sensitive smart guy who’s really exploring some deep shit. So, I think when he wanted to work with his sister it was really to feel something and explore something. That’s why I said, ‘Sure, I’ll hop on a plane, man.’ He had the absurd impression that I would help his film get promotion. Most of all, I want to be part of these things that are, you know, obviously Harmony Korine or whoever. People who want to really push the envelope of what’s possible in storytelling.
DC: We were talking about Universal monsters a little bit and I think that when you went down there for a couple of days, you were in the middle of editing Depraved. That must’ve been tough for you to kind of get out of that headspace and fly down for a couple days to even just do a couple of scenes.
LF: Well, I appreciate that, I don’t even know the timeframe. You know, the thing about the arts, you’re in one zone and then you kind of zip over to the other zone so maybe it was a good thing to take a break from Depraved. I believe that the idea of what I want to be part of is something that’s authentic and candid and maybe pushes the envelope of the audience. My films, I riff on classical stories like Depraved…like Frankenstein with Depraved. Then I meet someone like Chad and he’s interested in demonology and all that shit but he’s really genuine. That’s what I find profound and that’s what I want to support. We’re not just making movies. We’re really trying to understand what the deal is and that seemed like a good time to take a diversion from your own work.
DC: Sure, yeah. And you doing that voiceover…speaking of going to the next thing and always being in that artistic move forward, now you’ve got SXSW, you’ve got Jakob’s Wife coming out and then you’re doing animation in The Spine of Night. That’s got a crazy cast and I don’t remember you doing animation before.
LF: Well, that was a great treat. I’m not even sure how they found me. Ironically, during COVID there was no other gig to get as an actor than to hide in your closet with a microphone! In my case saying, ‘We’re doomed! We’re doomed! We’re DOOMED!’ which was pretty easy to come up with, I can tell you. I found my muse. I had a lot of fun, those guys are great. I’m an old-timer so I remember Ralph Bakshi and all those movies that had a huge impact. It was fun to be part of that kind of project.
DC: If you look at the relationships you’ve made over time with creatives like Chad and people like Jim Jarmusch, for instance, are those connections continuing to, even right now, provide work and artistic freedom for you versus new contacts and new talents you’re meeting leading to film work? I like seeing the cycle of filmmakers and how you’ve helped people to get their foot in the door and that’s kind of how it should work.
LF: Well, yeah. I mean my own project is to help young filmmakers and so that’s been my legacy. People have actually come up: Ti West, Jim Mickle, Kelly Reichardt. They have found their space and now they’ve kind of surpassed me in terms of getting attention. As for working with Jarmusch, that’s just a great blessing to be an actor and therefore somehow find a random moment where one of those guys takes note of you. And then you get to step in as an actor and you appear to be significant but that’s just because you’re a character actor. My greatest good fortune is that I sort of do a little of everything and if someone notices me I’m very blessed to step onto a Jarmusch set. That’s just been my privilege. I’m grateful for all of it but I just want to make my own movies. I’m kind of getting to a point where I’m not going to try and raise a lot of money, I just want to make enough money to make my next story. Like Depraved, that was a compromise of sorts where I said, ‘You know what? Fuck it.’ I’m just going to try and make the lower budget version. And to be honest, to bring us back to Dementer, that’s what Chad did. He believed in his story and he wanted to tell that story. And he ended up realizing, you know, you just gotta make the thing and then see where it lands. And then, at least you have this legacy of projects that define your artistic vision. That’s what I’ve encouraged to anybody, you’ve gotta just do the work. You can’t always expect to get a Netflix deal. Now we’re really in a situation where there are fewer and fewer people writing the checks.
DC: Yeah, I lived in New York for years. I like thinking that you just met Jim Jarmusch on the street. When did you meet him for the first time? I remember seeing him in the Bowery pretty often when I lived in Chinatown and it was like seeing a tiger in its natural habitat.
LF: Well naturally, and Jim’s such a striking character ’cause of his white hair. I did sort of meet him socially through one person or another in upstate New York. I also knew Buscemi. Literally, he was doing stand-up comedy in the days when I was playing music and recording performance artists in the eighties. And him and Mark Boone Junior who’s been in every movie including Mandalorian and what have you…so, that was the world. And yet, I felt like I was an outsider. I never felt like I could walk up to them but I did edit Mark Boone Junior’s acting reel.
DC: That’s great.
LF: You know, I met Buscemi here and there. We’re familiars. This happens because of timing and the city and the same with Jarmusch. In the end, it’s because they’ve seen something you did. As anybody, at least on the fringes, likes to dip into like, ‘Oh, we’ll get that weird guy.’ So, I think that’s how Jarmusch came to me. He was aware of my movie Habit or something and said, oh, well that guy’s kind of fun, let me dip in to that and bring people’s awareness to who that guy is.
DC: Do you know how many times you’ve actually been killed on screen?
LF: Well, I have a death reel. Actually, that’ll be a nice way to wrap up your interview. It’s on YouTube. I can’t remember where we are but the irony is that it’s out of date. I try to publish it every birthday which is March 23rd so I better get on with it. More to add! It’s funny, I have a very impressive imdb page with hundreds of performances but the reality is I’m on those movies for three minutes and then somebody kills me in some way or other. So, it’s not like I have any lines! I really gotta get an agent one of these days.
Dementer is available on digital platforms March 2, 2021 from Dark Star Pictures.