It was within the first six months or so of trying this thing out professionally that I reviewed Larry Fessenden's third film (and masterpiece), Wendigo. I was moved, deeply, by its observation of childhood and innocence lost. I was taken by the care of its presentation. It was thematically tight. And technically? On point, including a fantastic stop-motion, practical conception of the titular bogie. It's a lovely bit of myth-making that understands why we make myths in the first place. Years later, when Fessenden directed his "aquatic" film Beneath for basic cable, certain wags would brand it his Jaws--knowing, famously, that Spielberg's maritime yarn was among Fessenden's favourites. The boat they missed is that his Jaws is actually Wendigo: childhood's end; death of the father; the parents' inability to protect their young; and, yes, the creation of myths to contextualize what it could and explain the rest away.
When Wendigo opened in Denver, Mr. Fessenden reached out to the Denver Film Society, still housed at the old Tivoli Brewery at that time, to let them know that if they were premiering the film, he would like it if I introduced it on opening night. It was the first time I'd moderated a screening/discussion. I've done hundreds since. But I don't know that I'd even still be writing about movies at this point without that early encouragement from an artist I admired then--and admire still. Fessenden, lately, is better known as a producer of great magnanimity and proficiency. I would say that I benefited from that largesse all the way back in 2002.
The first time I met Mr. Fessenden in person was at last year's Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. I'd never attended before, and I shouldered the dual identities of writer for FILM FREAK CENTRAL and freshly-minted General Manager of the Alamo Drafthouse location in my hometown of Denver. He was walking by. I tapped him on the arm and said, "Mr. Fessenden? I just wanted to say hello. I'm Walter Chaw." He said, "Walter Chaw? That name is legendary to me." Mr. Fessenden's generosity is rare. Rarer still are his intelligence and social awareness. He makes no bones about his films being political. Films, after all, are helpless but to be political. He's also extremely frank about the paucity of real critical thinking in the world of criticism, and how he's been wounded by that a time or two recently, here in the age of instant waggery and the digital art of scoring points. Although I wasn't the biggest fan of Beneath, his latest, I respected the hell out of it and spent time on its themes when I covered it for this site. He confided to me that my review was one of the ones that led him to reassess his own work after a series of withering dismissals.
Just like in 2002, Mr. Fessenden gave me a reason in 2015 to believe I should continue to write after all. That engaging someone in a conversation beyond the consumer reportage, the instant flippancy, the cruelty and sociopathy of the comments section, was still an end unto itself and could, perhaps, lead to the creation of more art that would inspire more conversations. He has that way with people. Evidence in his long line of mentees who have gone on to bigger, sometimes amazing, things. His legacy is tremendous, even with only five features under his belt (plus numerous shorts and an episode of the lamented/forgotten NBC anthology series "Fear Itself" that stands among his most effective pieces). We talked some of his personal output during the course of a chat that stretched across a few hours in the Green Room and bar (Glass Half Full) at Denver's Alamo Drafthouse. We started, however, with me stating a theme--an idea that arises in his films that self-interest in a closed system is a doomed strategy. Then I asked about that moment in Wendigo where a child wakes from a nightmare:
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Tell me about the scene where Erik Per Sullivan leaps across the top of the stairs in his dark house in Wendigo.
LARRY FESSENDEN: A lot of that movie is childhood recollections and that's the kind of thing that I would do. Honestly, I still have that, I'll be in my house alone, in the dark, and I still am convinced if I go around the corner that there'll be someone there--the guy with the knife or whatever. Even though I know that that's not very likely, the image is what's tormenting me, not the odds of whether that will happen. I'm gripped by these fears. Honestly, if something really were to happen, I'd either not notice it or instantly rationalize it. It's just these sudden images. I used to do that as a kid. I'd walk by a spiked gate and I'd immediately be able to visualize some horrible accident as though I were spellbound or something. Just, I think it's a trick of the imagination. I immediately go to the dark. It's so torturous for me. It's like that "Twilight Zone" episode, the Gremlin on the wing. I'm Shatner. The funny thing about Erik Per Sullivan is that he was a very adult kid and I had to explain to him these incidents where he was afraid of the dark, afraid of a noise, afraid of the attic trapdoor--my sort of tribute to The Exorcist. But this was a very distinct image that I wanted. I also, you know, shot it from the other side.
From the child's point-of-view?
Yes, I did. And it was one of the main struggles during editing, whether to show what he actually sees. I decided that it was more important that we stayed in the perspective of what he was fearing--that that was what was more important, is more important, in that scenario.
It's also all these images that try to suggest how it is we come up with these images and myths. He's looking at this book of Native American folklore--that whole scene with the sort of mystical Indian archetype at the store counter, you know. We tease the guy with the bullhead on. We suggest that religion comes from the things around us, things in indifferent nature, and we pull them all into a narrative in order to make sense of our scary, arbitrary world. In his case, he sees his father threatened, and maybe there's no other way that he can rationalize that emotion and fear so his mind weaves this legend. It's what we all do as people and always have done.
The film is without a villain.
No, indeed. I mean the father could have done better... You know, I take that back, he tries. He does his best. And there's also a little tension between the parents and that's another ingredient you know for the kid's need to make a myth for his world that's rapidly growing rather dark. I like that dynamic. The mother is trying through the whole thing to advise and fill her role but it's hard. But she's trying. It's why, I hope, that my films resonate to the extent that they do, if they do.
It happens in Jaws. The mother takes in images [from the shark book].
Oh yeah! Well that's brilliant. One thing I like in movies is to use other media and show how important that is in telling our history. Nowadays, when kids don't read books as much, I think there's something hard to define that's lost in that. Even at the hotel when I checked in, they were very proud to give me a little card that said that I could now download my newspaper in the morning, and I thought, Oh man, that was the best part--when you get the paper at the hotel in the morning, right outside your door. There was something magical about it appearing there while you slept. And it has the news. There it is. The Easter Bunny's been here. I don't have the drive for that progress. I want the physical thing. I think there's something about it. Books call out to you. You look up at your bookshelves and they pull you to the place where you got them.
I like when you show the kid drawing.
I wanted to show other textures, other methods, that we use to create the world. That's one thing--the depiction of the Wendigo in the picture is, let's say, aesthetically challenged. I didn't always get what I wanted. But what I will say is that the Wendigo each time that it appears is different and that's exactly as I wanted it. That it's a representative fear, not a tangible thing. The whole premise was to use jagged pixelation, weird puppets, sometimes it's just a tree with a face on it and that's in itself a Wendigo, perhaps. It's the childhood experience. I'm suggesting, too, that the brain is wired for narrative. It's a very base thing. Is this friend or foe applied to the story of some insensible object that you're looking at?
Is that why your films are hard for people?
Why they haven't been more popular? I do think that is what's going on. Even The Last Winter, the [common] read is nature getting its revenge but it's not about that. Nature is falling apart. It's not personal. One guy sees it, the other one doesn't, and then gradually, everyone else begins to see something. I always say that when they start seeing the phantoms is when they achieve enlightenment. Their interaction with them may be the means to some of their undoing, but it's much more oddly trying to suggest some sort of existentialism. In the end, James Le Gros is carried away in almost a happy way. He's enveloped in his childhood. He's enlightened. Whereas the Ron Perlman character has been fighting this objective thing for the whole picture and at the end he's treated as an aggressor because that's how he went into it. But, I agree with you. I try to be articulate about these things, but when I do too much of that it becomes pretentious instead of just sort of puzzling for a lot of people. That's why I like Algernon Blackwood more than H.P. Lovecraft, I think. It's something to do with the idea that we're just in the context of the natural world.
Definitely Kant. The natural world is going on about its business and we try to interpret it but there's nothing there to interpret. It makes me think of... You know, they're all dying of cold, but it's global warming. Even Roland Emmerich understands that. Did you ever see that episode I did for "Fear Itself" on NBC? It was essentially the last season of "Masters of Horror" after it left Showtime. Guys like Brad Anderson and Stuart Gordon, great guys, talented guys--and Mick Garris led it again. I did an episode on that called "Skin and Bone" that was another Wendigo story with Doug Jones, who is just an amazing, sensitive artist. The Wendigo is it for me as an all-encompassing myth. It's a devourer and it's always hungry. It's the perfect metaphor for us.
You were a new father while filming Wendigo.
Yes--he was three months. You should ask my wife about how that was. "Well, honey, I'm off to make a movie now, so long!"
Does the film speak to your fears for your child?
No, not in that sense. I didn't have those fears for him, then. It was a complete projection. I mean, perhaps the wife had opinions of my inner life (laughs)--my family may say different... It's funny, I've met people who don't like their kids or wish that they'd never become adults, but when I had kids I gave myself completely over to that. I love being with my kids. I don't suffer from the same anxieties as the dad in the movie does in that he seems to want to be somewhere else all the time. I'm the opposite of that. I love being a parent. I like the idea of passing on wisdom. I like the idea of that dad in the film trying to help the kid process things.
It must be frustrating, then, when no one seems to be processing things anymore.
When I was younger, one did buy into the theory of progress. That we would invest in freedoms. Not George Bush freedoms, but freedoms to flourish, freedom of sexual expression, you know: freedoms. That we would take council from scientific discovery. That we would stop putting DDT into our gardens. But the way that we're wired is so much more primitive. Intellectual considerations will not win out over some other more atavistic knuckle-dragging. The real tools that seem to have the most power are the media tools that are unfortunately just extensions of our narcissism.
Enablers of it, too.
Exactly right. To the point now that we have Twitter in Congress. This idea that we have to stand not just for these empty principles, but to stand so strongly.
Yes--they're simply creating a disconnected image.
From each other, but also from the natural world, which is what particularly offends me.
And from objective truth, too--science, what you call "intellectual considerations."
It's a real shitshow and that's the progression that I'm afraid that we're really on. It's not so much a progression to illusion--which is what America has always been about, really, the City on the Hill--but this march to a disconnected image.
Tomorrowland was a mess, but ideologically, it suggested that there was a time we aspired to be better and that that time is done.
Absolutely. There was a time. Who knew that a curmudgeonly old liberal would now romanticize the Fifties? I mean, rock-n-roll and that backlash against conformity, it all makes sense and it did then and does now, but there was the sense then that you aspired to the Ward and June Cleaver domestic fantasy--and that's all it was, this fantasy, but there was at least a social contract. It was a citizenship. Now they've institutionalized selfishness and you realize that we've actually lost our footing. What's the philosophy driving all of this? It's not freedom. That's just a word. It's a completely hollow word. It has nothing to do with the business of running society. You can't have everyone just on their own.
On the one hand, that's punk--on the other hand, that's a complete breakdown of empathy.
It's all such a punk rock aesthetic that's being embraced by fifty percent of the country without them even realize it. They're the ultimate nihilistic punk rockers.
There was a time that Battle Royale was contraband. Now it's teen fiction.
It's fast. And stark. Ten years' time. I don't know if I've read this book but I've certainly read the title, The Culture of Narcissism, and we've certainly entered into that at this point.
Yes, the book is very Sartre.
(laughs) Here we have the product of that too in a creation like Donald Trump, and you have the Scott Walkers thinking that they had it in the bag, and now there's this wild card. I don't know how it'll play out. Part of me barely cares, but we can't have that kind of silliness going on.
The Russians almost first-strike'd us to hell because Reagan seemed so unserious. Can you imagine what will happen with a President Trump?
I do think you have something there. It makes you realize what a blessing have been these years with Obama. I certainly have my problems with him as of course the Conservatives have, too, but at least here is a sober, measured, thoughtful person in the White House. If nothing else, he sort of kept things going. His accomplishments actually seem remarkable given the opposition placed upon him. The worst thing is that I weep for the culture. What are we in service of? There are lots of great books I've been reading about consumption and how it's affecting us: The Shallows--how deep thinking has become...
(laughs) VERBOTEN...and how your brain literally becomes rewired. I feel like for me, my concentration's been shattered. I was really quite on track--Future Shock, The Glass Ceiling, The Age of Missing Information.
The moment that Beneath became a Fessenden film for me is when the first girl dies and you treat it as loss rather than: yes and, next?
That's interesting. I think about that scene because that's where I wanted to go the opposite direction, opposite the expected tone. I didn't panic or to try to heighten everything, I wanted them to recognize that they lost one of themselves. Awareness of mortality. I wanted to juxtapose these different cameras for melancholy rather than madness, you know, enervation.
It brings us full circle to the idea that they're doomed, all of them, on this boat. When Hitchcock did this, there was only one person driven by self-interest.
Yes--and that person was a Nazi. That worked better for those guys. Lifeboat is a more palatable film for that. People make the leap, too, to Jaws with [Beneath], but I'd say that everyone in Jaws is so likeable. I wanted to do the opposite set up. All of these kids on this boat are really terrible. Of course the shark is pretty evil, whereas I tried to make my fish rather... indifferent. As nature is. Nature doesn't give a shit. It's not personal when an earthquake eats your house.
Parts of Beneath remind me of Stephen King's short story "The Raft". There's that nostalgia, melancholy--but also an element of the uncanny.
Uncanny. I love that word. It means... Well, there's a definition I wish I could call to mind, but it has to do with your home not feeling familiar.
And all of your films are about the home not feeling familiar.
They all are. Of course The Last Winter is very explicit in that it states the idea outright. The idea that the people that you know don't feel like people that you know anymore.
Trace it in the unreliability of the narrator, you, in Habit, and in the dinner scene in No Telling.
People don't like No Telling. They call it preachy, among other things, and I'm certainly not immune from that impulse, but the scene that you talk about, that goes on for a little bit. They talk about things and solutions and concerns and they have ideas and theories but then absolutely nothing comes of it. There are no solutions. But we have conversations around the dinner table. Opposing views are offered. Nothing ever gets done. There's the observation that none of this ever leads to anything. There's no resolution and no possibility for one.
You were the director for the Orphanage remake, produced by Guillermo del Toro. Feelings?
It was not... [Its failure] was not a blessing. I think it would've given me quite a leg up had it gone through. I wasn't devastated, though maybe I should have been. The experience really was so good all the way through. I got to write a script with Guillermo, which was really cool, and it's a script that I really love. I made some very distinct choices to separate it from the original and I made them as the result of perspective gained, I think, from being a parent.
If you recall the original, they lose a child and then a title card says "Six Months Later." And I said, No no no, every minute you've lost a child is an insupportable nightmare and that's what the movie should be about. So I made it take place over the next five days. And it's about every single day she wakes up and she's like, he should be having his medicine--I didn't want the medicine thing but the studio did, I thought that was weird--and it made it much more immediate. I wanted it to be in Boston, with an old lighthouse. I wouldn't have played it goofy. I wouldn't honour that bizarre tradition of bringing in goofy poltergeist hunters and such. But...Guillermo brought some of his personal experience with opportunists who gather around any family tragedy...
He was intimately familiar with that.
Precisely--and he brought that to the script, this sense that these people there to help were perhaps predatory, really. It was much more dark and wrenching than the original. And we kept the ending so it was all quite devastating. Obviously, the original is quite an elegant film but I wanted to make a more gritty film. Guillermo wanted to elevate it, I didn't. He's been so very supportive of me and all of my movies, but I'm not into the gothic and grand, I'm more... yeah.
Well, so now he's made Crimson Peak.
Right. So he got his Gothic.
But, The Orphanage.
The script was well-liked, but I couldn't cast it. I had a hard time. I feel like some of the people we tried to get were worried to be in the hands of an unknown director, afraid that I couldn't get them to the emotional place that they needed to go. It was disappointing. It was some of the best work I've done. I would love to see that script made.
Have you sacrificed too much of your own career for others?
Well, it's not like the desire wasn't there but the struggle is real and lately I've focused on helping young filmmakers realize their dreams of doing this. It's... It's spiritually rewarding, you know, but I do miss it and I do wonder about my legacy as an artist when I'm not doing my own work. I have something I'm very hopeful for lined up for the spring and I do hope that something comes of it. One of the side effects of not doing your own work for a while, too, is that I have a large accumulation of scripts.
What's happiness for you?
I had a wonderful filmmaking experience recently with my son, he's fifteen now. We shot a film together. No budget, very cheap, but we had a RED and a few of the crew that I've worked with before, and I don't want to be another one of those guys romanticizing no-budget filmmaking, but it was fun to find the shots and get there again. It sounds unambitious, but I just yearn for the actual art of it. Figuring it out. Working with my kid as a director with his ideas and being supportive of that. He's got a great sensibility. All I'm getting at is I do hope to do my own thing again, even if it's no budget. I don't really care. I'd rather be a painter or make stone walls, really, but unfortunately I really love the language of films.