Larry Fessenden’s acting résumé is a rogue’s gallery of brutes, wastrels, and all-around psychopaths, but beneath his scruffy hair is one of the sharpest minds in modern horror. As a writer and director, he fuses classic genre themes with a passionate devotion to environmentalism, most recently in The Last Winter, a dystopian chiller about Arctic oil drilling. He also mentors up-and-coming horror directors like Ti West (The Roost) under his Scareflix imprint, and under the less-genre-specific Glass Eye Pix banner, he’s produced several films by Kelly Reichardt, including Wendy And Lucy, where, true to form, he played a deranged homeless man. Fessenden does double duty on his latest film, I Sell The Dead: He produced, and also stars opposite Lost’s Dominic Monaghan as a 19th-century grave robber who takes a particular interest in the undead. The gonzo horror comedy marks the feature debut of Glenn McQuaid, who previously did effects work on several Scareflix productions. It also and co-stars several veterans of previous Fessenden projects. Fessenden recently spoke to The A.V. Club from his home in New York.
The A.V. Club: In I Sell The Dead, you play a character similar to the one you played in a short for the same director. Is it basically the same guy?
Larry Fessenden: The footage when we first encounter Willie Grimes is from the short, shot in Super 16, and the rest of I Sell The Dead was shot on 35mm. So the sequence when I’m mentoring the young kid and we uncover a corpse, all of that is from “The Resurrection Apprentice.” Glenn had brought me in as an actor, and I had tremendous fun with that. We bonded. And then I think it was a year or so later that he came with a script and said, “Let’s make a feature.”
AVC: It seemed like it must have been an enjoyable performance to give. He’s a real Dickensian character.
LF: Oh absolutely. It’s just funny in a way that it’s taken so long. This is where I’m most at home, in that kind of character: slightly bumbling, slightly grumbling. As a kid, I just loved the whole Dickensian world, the Fagins and the pirates and all that. The Robert Shaw kind of performance from Jaws—always my favorite kind of character acting. So it’s just a testament to the fact that they don’t make this kind of movie much anymore that I’ve never played such a role.
AVC: It’s definitely very Fagin-esque.
LF: Oh yes, I would be quite at home in The Pirates Of The Caribbean: Part Seven.
AVC: Looking at your acting career as a whole, you’ve ended up playing a lot of what, for want of a better word, might be called lowlifes.
LF: Yes. Ne’er-do-wells and lowlifes.
AVC: I don’t imagine that as a kid, you thought, “When I grow up, I’m going to play a succession of total scumbags.” Do you get to a certain point where you wonder, “Why do people keep seeing me as these awful characters?”
LF: I’ve gotta be honest, it is a little of a mystery to me. I consider myself very sentimental, very sensitive, but obviously my outward appearance is a bit scruffy-haired, and I have a general tendency toward snarling at people, and a sort of misanthropic nature. Maybe that is what people actually read. I do actually believe that misanthropy and sensitivity go hand in hand, because I have a tremendous disappointment in the ways of the world. You realize, these things combine. I met Neil Jordan to audition for The Brave One, and I didn’t make a particular effort to dress down, but he apparently said to the casting agent, “Wow, that guy was a total freak. He really went all-out to dress up for the audition.” He said, “No, that’s just Larry.”
AVC: What part do you think your outward appearance plays in all that? You have a missing front tooth you’ve never gotten fixed.
LF: I was mugged in 1985, and I never replaced that tooth, because I was afraid of the dentist drilling into my skull, which would have been the only way to attach it. I was not interested in that extra bit of horror in my life. So as a result, I’ve had no tooth since. I always say “I’ll show up on time, but I look like a hobo.” It’s funny, even before I had no tooth, I hated the pretension that I saw around me. I went to good schools, and I’ve just always had an allergic reaction to snobbishness—always found myself preferring to blend into the woodwork. I have an affinity to those who, in a sense, failed. I do understand how easy it is to fall through the cracks and become one of those characters. It’s a traditional artistic sentiment, to identify. That’s in there. The unfortunates, I think. It’s an old tradition. Like the Tom Waits tradition of romanticizing the rails, as it were.
AVC: You’re open about having come from a fairly privileged background: Your father was a banker, and you went to Philips Andover Academy, the boarding school George W. Bush went to.
LF: I went to Andover, although they tossed me out. And my brothers went to [its sister school] Exeter. So I come from this rarified environment, and I was always suspicious of it. Though I think in my heart of hearts I also appreciate some refinement of thinking, as opposed to the refinement of lofty country-club kind of lives.
AVC: There’s a sort of liberation in growing up rich, because it removes any suspicion that money might buy happiness.
LF: I always found it profound that there was great unhappiness, that riches weren’t the answer to anything. Obviously we all seek comfort, and I don’t pretend to want to live in squalor, but it was just my tendency to dislike that pretension—and, you know, the scum. Exeter actually, in a weird way, tolerated eccentricities, which was kind of its charm. But Andover was very much a sports-centered school, and I was in the drama department.
AVC: You said you have an allergy to pretension, and you have chosen to work pretty frequently in—and I say this with due respect and love—one of the most disreputable genres.
LF: Oh absolutely. I love it. I always say it’s only next to porn that you find the horror section in people’s minds. That’s what was beautiful about horror, is it really came from the underground and was the alternative storytelling until, basically, Halloween, when suddenly the studios recognized you can make a lot of money off of low-budget horror. At that point, it became co-opted, and most of the horror we see now is studio-based. That’s what’s so depraved, because they now, the studios themselves, are making these hideous images, where it makes much more sense when it’s coming from the alternative world. There is something about horror now that is rather disquieting. Though I would say most of the great horror directors still come out of the alternative world—like Saw, or something like that. Even though we can disparage the franchise, it was obviously a resourcefully made film.
AVC: The Saw movies are hardly great, but there is something oddly compelling about them.
LF: Well, like all good horror, the premise is awesome. Would you cut off your leg to unshackle yourself from the wall where you’re certain to die? That’s what is great about horror: It’s based in philosophy and the choices we make, albeit writ large. In that regard, I appreciate even the torture-porn movies. It’s just odd when you figure that Warner Bros. and the executives are behind this kind of truly awful imagery. That just is a little queasy-making. It’s one reason I enjoy being independent and low-budget. It feels like that’s where the stuff belongs.
AVC: Great horror works because it taps into real fears. The shower scene in Psycho is terrifying because there’s a real vulnerability to that situation: You’re naked, your eyes are closed, you can’t hear what’s happening on the other side of the curtain.
LF: The only horror that is worth going on about is that which comes from a genuine place and taps into our real fears. If it’s got a sheen to it, I must say, even a lot of the remakes, some of which are certainly well-constructed, chic-looking affairs, you just feel that it’s not the genuine exploration of dark places. It’s all laid out as spectacle. I feel that it makes the fans crave more horrific imagery, and doesn’t illuminate them. It’s really just like every other damn piece of our culture, just bludgeoning us and sickening our insight.
AVC: It’s the Atrocity Exhibition. They just keep expanding the facilities.
LF: The movies we’ve made at Glass Eye Pix are firmly in the horror genre, but I like to say we celebrate all the different textures that exist therein. We’ve made black-and-white robot movies, we’ve made movies about killer bats, and now we’ve made a horror comedy that celebrates friendship and work. These guys are trudging through their daily lives with the ultimate nightmare job, so to speak. Digging up graves is backbreaking work. So I just like that the genre of horror can embrace so many different styles and textures.
AVC: Given that director Glenn McQuaid comes out of an effects background, the characters are surprisingly sharp and pungent. The movie doesn’t lean on effects.
LF: Well, he’s also an Irishman. He grew up with these wonderful women in his family, his mother and sisters and aunts. It’s a culture of storytelling and a great love of dark humor, how you get through your drudgery to laugh at your misfortune. All that is in this movie, much more than any effects titillation. Although of course we were able to expand the palette of our imagery with nice, old-fashioned matte paintings and things like that.
AVC: Most of what he did for The Last Winter was CGI, right?
LF: Yeah, we had a CGI monster in that. Much to everyone’s chagrin.
AVC: Whereas most of the effects in this movie are practical.
LF: Yeah. Mostly the CGI stuff is just compositing, where we put a London skyline in the background, or an extra bit of fog here and there. All the rest is rubber. And of course the end, which we can’t speak of because it’s a spoiler, that was a very nicely built kind of CG with old-fashioned visual tricks working together.
AVC: What did you like about Glenn or the script or this idea that made you want to come on board as a producer?
LF: I really responded to the atmosphere. Being of my generation, we had the movies that were on TV, the old 1930s and ’40s horror movies, and then later on, the Hammer films. So I grew up thinking that was horror: Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi and the Wolf Man and the Creature From The Black Lagoon. I was already set up to like this atmosphere. And then we’ve spoken of Dickensian England, which appealed to me. I watched the BBC, Tom Brown’s School Days, and all this. This all dates me. But the point is, that being my background, this story made perfect sense when I read the script. Glenn had sort of livened it up. The original short was fairly serious-minded; this one was a little more of a riff on it. He always likes to say it’s influenced by Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which is another genre that I love. Despite the endless horror in my movies, I do like comedy, so I love those films. So really old-fashioned influences led me to completely relate to this script.
I’ve been making and producing these low-budget films because the timing between getting my own films financed was so arduous. Furthermore, I have a principle, which is, “You say you want to be a filmmaker. Well, let’s go out and do it!” Let me not hear about your budgets and your fucking formats and your cameras and all your moaning and groaning about why it can’t happen. I say it can. So I run my ship trying to encourage newcomers to roll up their sleeves. Glenn had had plenty of time working in an ad firm, and he’d done effects for some of our little Scareflicks, most notably The Roost. And then later on, he did come on board The Last Winter. I always said, “Come on, give me a script.” He actually had a number of other things, a lot of them quite serious-minded. He knew that it had to be in the horror genre; that makes sense to us. Then eventually he just reverted back to this short that he loved that I had been in. I think I told him, “Listen, Glenn, stop straying so far from your heart. Just write an extension of that thing. We had so much fun with that.”
AVC: How much strategy goes into it, in terms of what seems more likely for you to be able to finance and pull off a distribution deal for?
LF: I’ll be honest. That’s the irony of our little company. There’s no strategy at all. It’s entirely from the heart. It’s very organic. There are scripts that have come our way that are much more likely to be hits, but we don’t really think that way. Is this guy dedicated? Can he wear many hats? What equipment do we have? Who does he know? Who does she know? It’s really about extending a hand into the community and seeing if we can get this thing done, and what’s the smartest way to do it. I like to think of it as, we’re constructing something. It happens that it’s a movie. We’re just making connections. And that’s how I operate as a producer. Just seeing what’s possible.
AVC: Looking over the Glass Eye filmography, there are a lot of recurring names. Just from this movie, Glenn and Brenda Cooney and Angus Scrimm have been in other Scareflix moves, and Ron Perlman was in The Last Winter. Is that your little gang?
LF: Exactly. It’s our troupe, our band of brothers. Each one comes in, through one way or another. Angus got involved because my friend James McKenney, who’s made three movies with us, he always wanted Angus in a film. So Angus responded to his script, and he had a good time working with us, and we brought him back for Automatons and I Sell The Dead and Satan Hates You. We called Angus and said “We have a small role in I Sell The Dead, and we’ll make it worth your while if you fly in and do these two movies.” This kind of thing. It’s the old Roger Corman school, where you’re like, “We got a box of props here. Let’s see what we can make of this.” I don’t work quite that way. I don’t really believe in just making movies for the sake of it. But we do make the connections. I’m very tickled that there’s a rabbit in Glenn’s movie—the kid chomps on this rabbit, and that’s the same rabbit that was in No Telling in 1990, and we used it again in a movie we finished two weeks ago, called Bitter Feast. It was on the cover of The Montreal Mirror in connection with I Sell The Dead, so I say that rabbit has an IMDB page coming to it.
AVC: That seems fair.
LF: It’s just a matter of making these connections. I don’t think it was a rabbit in Glenn’s script, but I said, [Adops Roger Meyers, Jr. voice.] “Listen—we’ve got a great rabbit!” We try to make it a good time and have it be about camaraderie. That’s why we got Ron Perlman to come back, because we all had a good time in Iceland. Glenn was there, as well as myself. So we were able to talk to these guys. We just made a film with James LeGros. Two weeks ago, we wrapped. He came back because we had a good experience.
AVC: I Sell The Dead looks like it had a slightly larger budget than some of the things you’ve worked with. And The Last Winter was a significantly more elaborate production. Does that make things easier, or does the financing just bring bigger headaches?
LF: The bottom line is a very difficult business plan to prey on people’s—you need enthusiasm to make their first movie. I do have to keep buttressing morale and telling people, “This is great.” Luckily, we have film festivals and a certain amount of ink spilled about it. It gives people a sense of community, being with Glass Eye. But honestly, the difficult thing is asking them to come back and do another movie where they sleep on the floor with low pay. I always say, “Please, leave Glass Eye as soon as it’s a strain.” Because it’s supposed to be a good experience, maybe something you did when you were young, and off you go. Nowadays, the irony is, people aren’t making $3 million movies anymore. So you either make a $20 million movie, which takes an endless amount of time and a huge embrace of the system, or you make a really low-budget movie, and by chance, we are equipped to do that. But as I say, you can strain people. And obviously my agenda is not to exploit people, but instead to feed off their initial naïve enthusiasm for making movies.
AVC: Are you reconciled to being the farm team? Someone like Ti West makes a movie with you, and then he goes off and does Cabin Fever 2.
LF: Ah, but let me remind you: After Cabin Fever, he came running back home and made The House Of The Devil [for Scareflix], which is a far better film and a far more genuine Ti West film. So that’s an example of, “Go off, good fellow. Go make your movies. Go follow the dream. But you’ll come back. Even if your budget will be smaller, we’ll give you freedom and respect, because we are primarily about the auteur and the whole notion of an individual voice in cinema.” Which is an old, arcane notion from the previous century.
AVC: There’s a saying that out of time, money, and freedom, you can have any two, but you can never have all three.
LF: That’s true. We basically have allowed money to be the casualty in that formula. What I’m always trying to bust open is the schedule. This is something that is imposed on films, mostly because of the [equipment] rental houses. But nowadays—and it’s not their fault, it’s just the reality—there is the potential, with new cameras and equipment that can actually be owned by the consumer, to bust that open. If you film something, maybe live with it a little bit, explore it, maybe edit a little, and then go back. That’s exactly what we’re doing with our next film. Over the course of August to December, we’re shooting. Mostly it’s for practical reasons. We want to have all the seasons. But the opportunity there is to learn as you go. With I Sell The Dead, we did the same thing, because we needed to wait for Ron Perlman to finish Hellboy 2. So we filmed the majority of the film, and then, as you see, there’s the framing device where you’ve got Perlman and ol’ Dommie there, so we filmed that six months later. Glenn was actually able to live with the material, and I think his best sequence is a vampire scene, which is early in the film, but was the last thing we shot.
AVC: What are you working on now ?
LF: It’s currently called Bitter Feast. Fun little pulpy movie. It’s by MPI, and it’s got James LeGros starring in it with Joshua Leonard, who’s currently in Humpday. And it’s a lovely little tiny, tiny film. But we have a lot of hope for it. And it was directed by Joe Maggio, who is actually not known for horror. But there is an example of me just playing devilish host and inviting him to do a scary movie and tap into his scary places. And it turns out Joe has many scary places.
AVC: If you can get Kelly Reichardt to make a horror movie, I’ll be really impressed.
LF: Then I’ll really have arrived.
AVC: Your relationship with her goes way back, and she’s really stuck to being independent. She teaches at Bard College for a living, then makes her movies when and where she wants.
LF: Absolutely. She started out and River Of Grass was very heralded, but of course it didn’t make money for anyone. It was very critically adored for its tone, and I think Kelly’s sensibility was immediately apparent. She did get a lot of opportunity rather quickly, but I think she felt uncomfortable with a lot of it, and the strings that were attached. Eventually she went off to make several shorts and just reassess what she thought about the medium. I was there for all of that, always lending her equipment and such. Then eventually she made Old Joy.
Kelly’s approach, she really has intimate advisors. Todd Haynes is one. I’ve been one. Mike Ryan. Just people that she goes to. She very much wants to talk things out. She always asks for counsel. And yet of course she’s extremely strong-headed and has her own course to follow. I think she knows and truly believes that the only way she wants to make movies is in an extremely organic fashion. A lot of the things I’ve talked about, we aesthetically share. She’s making a Western now, and she’s off building the characters. It’s still a no-budget movie, but she’s got artisans on board to help her and fulfill that vision. I know the movies she loves and the actors she loves, like Warren Oates. Something about a truth that’s in the films. You know, she’s not a snob. She likes Hitchcock and Sergio Leone. She likes a lot of the great entertainments. But she can smell bullshit a mile off. And she chooses to avoid it, even though she’s had a certain amount of success.
AVC: Warren Oates is just one of those people who makes you quote Norma Desmond: They had faces back then. Actors don’t have that lived-in look any more.
LF: They don’t look that weathered. The whole film business was built on immigrants: Billy Wilder and Michael Curtiz and all these hefty lads. They all came from Europe for one reason or another, and they all had life experience. The last great generation of Marty [Scorsese] and Coppola and those guys, they were sort of the new breed. They were students, but they still came from a vibrant time, so we can’t credit them with the downfall. But after that, we’re talking about like Ivy League kids who are wanting to get into the entertainment industry as opposed to making pictures. And there’s a huge difference. So now you have intellectual effetes making movies. It’s just not the same thing. They’re looking at bottom lines. They’re scheming. There are charts. It’s not like a robust character like a John Huston, you know, telling tales. I still have that aesthetic, where I’m really just telling tales. It’s a robust business, that’s why we still have people like [Werner] Herzog. [Adopts Herzog accent.] He’s out there, film or death, fighting the jungles. You know? He’s a fucking lunatic. And that’s what you need. The Terry Gilliams of the world. Fucking freaks. It’s gotta be about that. Let’s have some robustness, not these fucking paper pushers looking at the IMDB chart.
AVC: It’s hard to imagine Billy Wilder thinking, “Maybe if I work as a gigolo at a hotel, I’ll get to be a director.” The worst thing that could happen to a filmmaker is growing up wanting to be a filmmaker.
LF:, It’s sad but true. And then of course there are movies about wanting to be a filmmaker. Movies about writer’s block. And on and on it goes. There’s always the exception. These things can sometimes be fine. But primarily it’s always too, too tiresome. Of course there’s a greater complaint about the culture, and I don’t know how to fix it.
AVC: While we’re talking about cultural problems and things you and everyone else don’t know how to fix, environmentalism is an issue that runs through all the movies that you’ve directed, and you even have a website, Running Out Of Road, devoted to the subject.
LF: You must have been the second person who visited this month. [Laughs.] I’m primarily preoccupied with the fact that humanity is destroying the planet. What I’m really trying to say is, it’s destroying our home. It’s not that I care about the planet. The planet will be fine. It’ll be a big ball of rock floating in space. But if we want to live here and enjoy the incredible riches that nature offers us, such as whatever kind of strange panda bear and strange toad and frogs and trees, well then we’re really, really fucking up. It’s a bitter scenario. I find that most of my films are about self-betrayal. Habit’s about a guy who’s a total drunk, and he’s convinced his girlfriend’s a vampire. They’re all about the illusions and delusions we live with. I’m obsessed with humanity’s grand illusion. And these clowns in Congress who continue putting up roadblocks to a practical solution. I have just so little respect and faith for humanity as a race. I may love individual people, but I am contemptuous of the arrogance of this species, and in a way, it’s both ruined me and fuels me. It’s ruined me because nobody cares about these issues, and then it’s the source of most of my storytelling now, because I am so preoccupied with it. It fuels me, because this is my outrage. I do believe in that great tradition of literature and storytelling. You know, the downfall and the folly of it all.
Also, it’s just like anything else, where there will be a headline that says “Americans losing faith in Obama.” And then you look down and you see “Seventy-three percent this and that” and “Thirty-three agree percent with Republicans,” and you’re like, “Where did this headline come from?” As soon as I take that in, that’s all I’ll remember. And now I’m actually reading the article, and I don’t see how that’s the summarizing element. I mean, look at this: We’ve been babbling on here. Imagine the headlines you could clip from what we’ve just been talking about. “Fessenden’s love of Dickens is his motivating factor.” I mean, the tiniest portion of what we were talking about, and on it goes. So I don’t know. It’s truly hopeless, and it’s louder and louder. I don’t know. I don’t see the end, and that’s why I continue to make horror. It’s just really horrific to see someone going down the tubes, and in this case, someone is the fucking species. It’s just so crazy. I appreciate it on a personal level, struggling with one’s own sanity, one’s own addictions, so I am not holier than anyone. I am completely among the nearly dead. It’s just, could you have a little dignity on your way down? And we’re pointing fingers at everybody.
AVC: That brings us nicely back on track.
LF: But the real track is these discussions. I mean, it sounds tiresome; I’ve argued with all my friends forever. I’ll write a song and it’s political, and they’re like “Oh, politics in songs?” And, you know, I don’t draw a line between discussing these issues. I mean, of course you don’t want to write a song about [global-warming denier] James Inhofe, but you can write a song about idiocy. And that’s a worthwhile song. Bring on Pete Seeger. It’s not all about love and cupcakes. I’m telling you, man. These are issues, and this is the human condition. And then people would say “How does I Sell The Dead fit in?” Because it’s a great embrace of humanity, and it doesn’t have to be one or the other. It’s not all gloom and doom, or you’re off making Will Ferrell movies. It’s all things at one time.