Gavin Schmitt Interviews Larry Fessenden
If you want to talk about independent writers, directors, actors or producers in the horror genre today, you’re going to talk about Larry Fessenden. Inspired by the old Universal Monsters, Fessenden has run the independent film company Glass Eye Pix since 1985, with a mission of getting lower budget projects to the big screen.
In addition to feature films, his work has appeared on such television projects as the NBC horror anthology “Fear Itself”, directing the episode “Skin and Bones”. He wrote the screenplay with Guillermo del Toro for “The Orphanage”. These days, he may be best known for supporting the next generation of indie horror directors, Ti West (“House of the Devil”) and Jim Mickle (“Stake Land”).
It was a pleasure to speak with Larry at the end of 2014.
GS: I’ve been waiting for this one… Where can we see “Gray Matter”?
LF: (laughs) Which one was that again?
GS: The short Stephen King film…
LF: Oh my god, that’s crazy. Well, as you can see from my surprise, it’s not done yet that I know of. Do you know the director, Red Clark? He’s a great fellow, and I think it’s just a labor of love on that project.
GS: And the trailer came out almost two years ago…
LF: (laughs) Yes, I know. But I haven’t heard from him in a while. We had a great time filming in New York. We were in contact for a while, then he disappeared. I suspect he’s been working. Maybe at some real job. I hope he’ll finish it.
GS: Also appearing in that is Aaron Christensen…
LF: Yes, yes, Chicago’s legendary Aaron Christensen. Well, sadly, we didn’t work together. That’s what’s so strange about the way it was shot. It was very… the director was very visionary. It was pieced together in a very fractured way, which I think will be a very off-kilter experience. So unfortunately Aaron and I didn’t work together on the piece. Chicago is a great place, it’s where all my best “war stories” are from. My original film “Habit” (affiliate link) came out of Chicago, so I have a strong connection to the city.
GS: Among horror fans, you’re probably best known as a director, with films like “Habit”. But you also produce and do what seems like an endless amount of acting. How do you allocate your time?
LF: That’s a great question, actually, because I think I’m a little over-extended. I just enjoy different aspects, meeting new filmmakers, seeing what they’re up to. Help them get up and running. I have a great team of collaborators who are also producers that help me with the nuts and bolts of things. I take acting gigs when I’m able to and I’m always looking to direct one of my scripts… but they’re very unusual scripts and harder to get produced. So that gives me time, unfortunately, to do the other things.
GS: We’re supposed to be talking about “Worst Friends”, where you play the main character’s father. How did you get attached to that project?
LF: Well, I knew one of the producers, Erika Hampson, through another project. She called me. But I believe that Ralph Arend, the director, knew my work and they just felt I was an indie guy who would understand the nature of their project. Specifically that it was low paying and seat of the pants. The kids seemed to know who I was. Interestingly, they didn’t use scripts, they used iPads, which I found to be very professional. But it was a great team, and I was very impressed with Ralph, Noah Barrow and Richard Tanne. I was happy to do it. I was on set for a couple of days and I always like doing non-horror stuff, especially as an actor. I find it more interesting.
GS: Your character, Jerry, is something of an asshole. You’re not. So how do you get from one end to the other?
LF: The difference is pretty far. (laughs) It’s a type of person I’m used to dealing with; someone who is impatient and self-involved. But I’m not sure I ever allow myself to operate that way. I can relate to the character, I just can’t be such a dick in real life. At least not explicitly. And if you think about it, the whole movie is about how he has ruined his son. The main character is damaged, maybe even a bit of a sociopath. So it seems like it’s all because his father has been so selfish. And yet it’s funny. As I say, I enjoy doing comedy.
GS: The film is actually rather funny.
LF: Yeah. The filmmaking was a little adventurous, there were some clever moments. Nice framing, some good pans. It’s really impressive. And it’s hard doing low budget comedy when the audience doesn’t know the actors or director. It took a while to come out, probably because it’s a little dark, but I think it holds together. It’s a good picture. And, of course, Kathryn Erbe (“Stir of Echoes”) is someone I’ve always liked. And Cody Horn (“Magic Mike”) is kind of awesome, so there’s some reasons to watch it. I think the leads are very compelling. And Ralph has a lot of scripts for future projects. I’m not sure where he’s at, but I was very impressed with him and his team.
GS: An upcoming film lots of people are excited about is Ti West’s “In a Valley of Violence”. I know you have a role in there…
LF: I’m one of the thugs, named Roy. There’s a hierarchy of nasty people in this movie. Ethan Hawke comes into this town and has to deal with them. They’re all petty low-lifes, and I play one of them. Ethan makes the mistake of insulting one of us. Things don’t go well for anyone after that. And that’s probably all I can say since they were still working on the movie and I don’t even know when the release date is. I think they’re aiming for summer. Anyway, it was a great experience shooting it. Of course, I’ve made a lot of films with Ti, as well as Peter Phok and Jacob Jaffke, two of the producers. So it felt like a family affair and very much an extension of what my company does. In this case, there were big name actors and a bigger budget, so it was nice of Ti to invite me in. He even has the same composer I use, Jeff Grace. Heck, he even has the same DP, Eric Robbins, that we used for “The Roost” back in 2005. So it felt like a family affair, except that someone invited John Travolta. (laughs)
GS: Whether accurate or not, you’ve been labeled a mentor to Ti West, Jim Mickle and others. What has it been like to see them blossom?
LF: Oh, it’s been great. You see, I have a small company called Glass Eye Pix. We tend to make horror films, and just over the years I’ve built this ethos where I don’t want to spent a lot of time looking for money. I’d rather try to figure out how to make movies with the money we have. Through Glass Eye Pix, we helped produce some of Ti’s movies and watched him grow. He is a great filmmaker. With Jim Mickle, I helped produce and acted in “Stake Land”, but he had already established himself with “Mulberry St”. I don’t profess to be teaching Ti, Jim, or anybody anything… I’ve just been there at the right time to give them the opportunity they needed. At Glass Eye, we’re a whole team of people, from producers to art directors, makeup effects, music… it’s a whole community. So I may have been branded with the label “mentor”, but really all I am is someone who is supportive of filmmakers. I just told them to go out and do their thing. Beyond Ti and Jim, I’ve been a big supporter of Kelly Reichardt. Don’t forget to check out her films. So it’s just something I’ve built up to. I’ve had opportunities in Hollywood that have allowed me to sort of “pay back” and I’m just a firm believer of the individual voice in the arts. The auteur theory, if you will. I provide an environment to help people flourish before they venture on and sell out. (laughs)
GS: On behalf of horror fans everywhere, thank you for providing this service. Jim Mickle is amazing, and many would argue that Ti West is among the best directors working today.
LF: It’s great people feel that way… not so great that he’s left horror. (laughs) He’ll be back. I admired Ti from the start, and he’s had a lot of support from smaller, lesser known directors like Graham Reznick (“Chilling Visions”), who does all of Ti’s sound. He also made “I Can See”, and he and I wrote a video game that’s horror themed, “Until Dawn”. So we’re all in this environment where we can be creative and make cool things.
GS: With video game writing, does that mean you write an outline, a treatment, or is it more involved?
LF: Well, actually, I was brought in and immediately looked for a comrade who would be a good fit, work well together. The structure of the game was already laid out, because it was created by a super-massive company in the UK working for Sony. They would give us a basic structure, and that left Graham and me the job of writing dialogue and characterizations. So with all the possible twists and turns, it ends up being the equivalent of writing 40 or 50 feature-length scripts. It’s a lot of work to make all the stuff you’ll hear while playing the game. And then we had some consultation with storylines as it went along, but the basic structure was laid out. So I know we’re the dialogue writers, but I’m not sure what our actual credit will be. They seem to enjoy our work enough that maybe we’ll get in earlier on the next project, have more of an impact on the story as a whole.
GS: Thanks very much for your time. I hope we get to do it again.
LF: Certainly. Thanks a lot, Gavin!