Beneath Director Larry Fessenden Talks Big Fish, Rubber Puppets, Lake Monsters, and Much More!

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Beneath Director Larry Fessenden Talks Big Fish, Rubber Puppets, Lake Monsters, and Much More!Veteran horror contributor and all-around cool guy Larry Fessenden has a lot of acting, directing and producing credits to his name. But he’s never worked with anything quite like he did on Beneath. Fessenden recently sat down with Dread Central to talk about his new film.

First he gave us a brief synopsis of what viewers can expect when they hitch their anchor to Beneath. “It’s a stylish little horror film about six teenagers stuck in a rowboat with a malevolent force under the water trying to get them,” Fessenden said.

“It’s a movie about the decisions they make to get out of the dilemma, and they’re not all pretty decisions.”

Indeed the film, which at first glance appears to be a monster movie, certainly has other, more devious intentions for viewers as they get deeper into the story and the characters become much less friendly with each other. “I’m a director with that sort of agenda on my mind. Life is what it is, but it’s how you respond to it. So I make movies about people behaving badly. I find that to be an interesting topic,” Fessenden said. “And the script sort of leant itself to that. I always say Jaws is a movie about a malevolent fish and three guys you really love. For one reason or another they’re very charming. Whereas in this movie, the fish is just doing what it does. It doesn’t have quite as much malevolence. But the way people react, that’s kind of the story in this case, and that worked for me. I think that’s what the original writers had in mind.”

But the first thing that will grab viewers’ attention in Beneath is a giant lake fish which terrorizes the teens stuck in a rowboat. And the veteran monster movie viewer will quickly realize the creature is a practical prop, not computer generated. “I pitched to Chiller that we’d have a real puppet. I had no interest in doing a CGI monster,” Fessenden said. “It’s not that I don’t love CGI; it works in a lot of movies. But quite honestly, you need a lot of money to sell that stuff. I think it’s tougher to sell than a rubber puppet, personally. So they agreed, just because it’s sort of charming. People think, ‘Why not? We’ll have a big prop fish.’ Well, then, of course, we had to make it.”

And the making of the fish was a story in itself. “We hired our guys out of LA, and I sent them some sketches of the creature I pictured in my mind. It was pretty vague. It just said…giant fish,” Fessenden said. “So we did some sketches and I did some Photoshop compositing and I sent them that. Then they had to build an enormous clay sculpture and they’d send me photos and I’d send them notes like, ‘I think the gills should be more like this…’ I’d draw on the pictures and we eventually got to where we made a mold, but it was really the talent of the sculptors that created this beautiful prop.”

Fessenden continued on the adventures of the fish. “Then it got shipped to New York and it went in the water with two puppeteers who would wear wetsuits and they’d go under the water and drag this fish around on a little line. It was incredibly old school,” he said. “It was just basically a huge inanimate object. Each shot required a different approach. If you wanted the jaws to move, maybe you had to be on a platform manhandling that. It was arduous but cool because you’re forced to break down the exact shot you wanted and get the fish to behave the way it has to just for that shot, and that was the toughest part.”

And although the giant prop is all handmade with good old fashioned elbow grease, the filmmakers did use just a dash of CGI for a couple finishing touches. “I think a lot of the last-minute details were accomplished though a little bit of CGI on top,” Fessenden said. “It gives it some life and the eye was sort of our main focus for that kind of thing. And they don’t make practical monsters so much anymore. I’m reminded of the Jurassic Park days, which were notoriously CG…but, of course, they really aren’t. They were enormous puppets. Beautiful creatures, huge armatures and even quite heavy and dangerous, and I came from that tradition.”

Fessenden drew from knowledge of the creation of the greatest giant fish movie of all time to help him decide where to film Beneath. “At first, you say, ‘Are we going to film in a tank, in a controlled environment?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely not!’ I drew from the experiences of Spielberg on Jaws, and of course, he had a miserable time and I don’t think he ever recovered, but it made the movie so wonderful and we wanted to have a similar relationship to the set and really be out on the water on this lake,” Fessenden said. “So we built this huge platform and we dragged it out into the middle of this lake and we’d have to take a boat out every day, four guys at a time, to get 30 people out there, and then we’d be out there, stuck. If you wanted to go to the bathroom, it’d be 15 minutes back and forth. It slows down production.”

“Then we decided to put that beautiful crane on there, which was also ill-advised, but we went for it. I wanted the high-angle shots that made the whole thing look kinda dreamy. I didn’t want to do the traditional handheld for that. I wanted something a little more elegant and stylized so we got the crane out there. And then every day at the end of the day the fish guys would swim that huge prop out into the middle of the lake, and we’d have an hour or so to do three seconds of film.”

Beneath Director Larry Fessenden Talks Big Fish, Rubber Puppets, Lake Monsters, and Much More!

Beneath Director Larry Fessenden Talks Big Fish, Rubber Puppets, Lake Monsters, and Much More!The original script has one of the characters filming all the action with a handheld camera. To add additional style to the movie, filmmakers tapped into that camera and used it to add a found-footage element to Beneath. “I think it does add realism because that’s footage that’s not going to be controlled,” Fessenden said. “As I said, I deliberately told the story with our movie camera with an elegance and almost a distance so I loved having the immediacy of the GoPro footage. And also I chose, for better or worse, to have the only kill onscreen be filmed by that camera.”

“It’s a stylistic choice, and I’ve always liked mixing formats. Even when I was a kid, I’d make videos and have an entire robbery scene that was in Super 8. It sort of helped transport the viewer into another reality and so was sort of the agenda there. And it was in the script as well that he was filming them all. It was part of the story.”

And although the conditions were not stellar, Fessenden was blessed with a cast that knew how to get things done. “The actors were awesome,” he said. “They’d sit in the little rowboat. They had umbrellas so they didn’t get sunstroke. They would sit there while the crew dicked around, and then we’d be ready for a shot and be off and running. We shot pretty much in order, which is cool. And as each character actor died, they would go home. I feel like the actors had this real sense of loss as each one of them left the shoot until there were just the two left.”

Fans of 80’s horror will certainly watch Beneath and recall another group of teens trapped in a similar situation in Creepshow 2. Fessenden discussed this film and other influences. “I watched a lot of the lake monster movies and stuff, and honestly, ‘The Raft’ segment in Creepshow 2 is really one of the best,” Fessenden said. “It’s got the creepiest vibe even though there’s no real monster, just this goop, or whatever it was. It’s almost my favorite of all of them. In that regard, it was an influence. Obviously Jaws was an influence and a movie called Lifeboat by Hitchcock. Different movies have approached these problems in one way or another. What I didn’t find particularly helpful were things like Lake Placid and Shark Night 3D.”

Finally, the idea that Beneath had a sort of 70’s feel to it was brought up, and Fessenden discussed why that might be. “I think a lot of that comes from personal tastes, even the colors,” he said. “As the director, you choose the costumes, and oddly enough, in a movie like this, there’s only going to be one costume on each character, which really limits that. It could just be my tastes, honestly.”

“And even the boat. I wanted an old, wooden boat as it had to do with the grandfather and have a sense of history living in the frame. I also think, in a novel way, movies that spend a lot of time on character already feel like 70’s movies because they don’t do that as much anymore.”

Beneath is now available on Blu-ray/DVD and VOD.

When a group of young friends commemorating their high school graduation take a trip to the remote Black Lake, their celebration turns into a nightmare with the sudden appearance of a bloodthirsty, underwater predator. Stuck in a leaking boat with no oars, the teens face the ultimate tests of friendship and sacrifice during a terror-stricken fight for survival. Beneath is written by Tony Daniel and Brian D. Smith and directed by horror icon Larry Fessenden (The Last Winter, Habit). Produced by Fessenden and Peter Phok for Glass Eye Pix (Stake Land, The Innkeepers, I Sell The Dead).


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