Director, writer, producer, and actor Larry Fessenden has slogged his way to becoming a prominent force in the horror genre over the course of more than two decades. His first film to really start turning heads was the provocative thriller No Telling (1991). He secured his place on the horror film map by writing, directing, and starring in the gritty vampire nightmare Habit (1995), which was followed by Wendigo (2001) and The Last Winter (2006).
His acting roles have ranged from brief glimpses in films like Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out The Dead (1999), Brad Anderson's Session 9 (2001), Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers (2005), and Neil Jordan’s The Brave One (2007), to leading roles in Glenn McQuaid's I Sell The Dead (2008) and Chad Crawford Kinkle's Jug Face (2013). Fessenden can also be spotted in this year's You’re Next, directed by Adam Wingard, Hellbenders, directed by J.T. Petty, and We Are What We Are, directed by Jim Mickle.
Mr. Fessenden is now adding a tantalizing new documentary to his lengthy list of producer credits. Birth Of The Living Dead, recently released on demand and rolling out theatrically right now, is about trailblazing filmmaker George Romero, his enormously influential zombie film, Night Of The Living Dead (1968), and the volatile social climate that spawned the macabre and bleak tone of the movie. The documentary is presented by Fessenden's production company, Glass Eye Pix, and is written, directed, and edited by Rob Kuhns, acclaimed television documentary maker.
Larry Fessenden generously took time to discuss with FEARnet the details of Birth Of The Living Dead, as well as some of his other horror film contributions - past, present, and future.
There is a lot of material out there about the making of Romero's Living Dead films - but Birth Of The Living Dead appears to approach the subject from an entirely fresh perspective. Can you describe how this documentary sets itself apart from the typical "making-of"?
What I liked about Rob Kuhns’ approach to the material was that it puts Night of the Living Dead in a historical context. We often spoke of the mission of Birth - to take the viewer back to 1968 to really understand the visceral power of a movie that by definition seems perhaps a little dated now. Birth shows the racial and cultural upheavals that were shaking the nation at the time the film came out, a time when the carnage of the Vietnam war was being seen on TV during the nightly news - truly unsettling images that had not been shown before with such immediacy. And then there were race riots and unrest in the streets back home. Americans were feeling a little like their world was coming unglued. Then along came Romero’s film. It was a shocking expression of the tumultuous times, and that’s what Birth was trying to convey.
What drew you to this project on a personal level? Were Romero and his Dead films influential to you as a filmmaker?
Well first of all, Rob and his wife and co-producer Esther Cassidy were keen to get me to simply do an interview for the film. I have often cited Night as my favorite horror movie. I feel like it is a fulcrum between the old black and white horror films of my youth, and the modern, gritty filmmaking that captured my imagination as a teenager in the 70’s.
The fulcrum itself happens in the film when the brother and sister visiting a grave site see a figure lurking in the distance. The brother teases his sister, saying, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara” in a Boris Karloff accent, referencing a half century of scary movies that had come before. Then, as if an old horror cliché actually leapt off the screen to do real harm, the figure attacks and kills the brother.
When I saw Night on TV, it was truly shocking because it didn’t conform to the quaint charms of the old horror films. In the old movies, the monster had an outsider quality - there was an element of pathos to the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man. With Romero’s zombies, there was none, making the movie more horrific. To the degree that Romero introduced the element of hopelessness into horror, he was very influential, because it meant you were never sure you were going to arrive at a reassuring ending any more. I certainly believe in causing that sort of upset in the viewer.
I'm sure you've seen Night Of The Living Dead numerous times. What new element do you now see in Romero's film that was not prominent on your radar before you produced Birth Of The Living Dead?
After I did my interview for the film, Rob invited me to watch a cut and I got more and more enthused about the mission of his movie: to contextualize Night Of The Living Dead. I am very interested in the function of horror in society and how trends in scary movies reflect the national anxieties of a given era. Certainly after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, our fear flicks were populated by freaks of nature brought on by nuclear fallout: Them!, Tarantula and all the Godzilla films. During the Bush years we experienced a wave of torture porn, and so on. So it was more that Rob’s film was trying to integrate the historical with the artistic efforts of some indie upstarts that captivated me and seemed an expression of my own interests.
Birth Of The Living Dead director Rob Kuhns is an accomplished editor with a filmography rich in highly acclaimed documentary work, most notably for PBS. How did you team up with him?
We had a mutual friend through director James McKenney (Automatons, Satan Hates You) named Matt Huffman (Tales From Beyond The Pale), so that was the hookup. I wanted to help Rob and Esther finish what was already a strong film. I found them some additional interviews to compliment what they had. I hooked them up with Gary Pullin, the artist who provided the poster and animations that helped tell the story, found them a mix facility, helped with the fine cut, helped them over the finish line.
Describe George A. Romero in terms of his contributions to the horror genre. What Romero reverberations are we still seeing in today's horror films?
Well the existence of The Walking Dead can be irrevocably traced back to Romero’s film. But I also remember The Crazies and Martin, all revisionist horror films that seemed to be of their time. All his films feel like they have something else on their mind than just gore or even scares.
We are now in the near future. I'm watching a feature film that is a collaboration between George A. Romero and Larry Fessenden. Is this one possible future - or just wishful thinking? If it happened, what do you think that film would be like?
It’s not impossible to imagine. George and myself seem to enjoy using the horror genre to critique our institutions and human hubris. But also, I like George’s attitude and humility. It would be a pleasure to work with him, I am sure.
Shifting gears to your own contributions to the horror genre... As a producer, your current film is Late Phases, directed by Adrián García Bogliano, which wrapped shooting this past August. If you want horror fans to understand one thing about this film in advance of its release, what would that be?
Late Phases is very offbeat. It has a strange tone, and is not even like Bogliano’s other films. It will take people by surprise.
Tell us about directing your most recent film, this year's Beneath. Did that shoot provide any revelations - or reminders of any particular joys or frustrations of making films?
I love being at the helm making a movie. There were many pleasures making Beneath, and some frustrations. In the end it is the craft of film that delights me, the simple act of conceiving of a series of shots and contemplating the effect they will have on the audience. I am always inspired by the art and craft of it. And the collaborative moments that happen on a set are very nourishing and joyous. Working with actors who place their trust in your vision, all of this is rewarding.
What does frustrate me is the formality that has crept into independent film, the sense of entitlement and self-importance that can corrode crew moral when in fact it is a rare privilege to make movies.
You've been acting up a storm recently. You're in six films out this year. You're in eight movies released in 2012. You're a lead in Jug Face, which burst out of nowhere, and was absolutely impressive - especially considering its very low budget and the fact that it was helmed by a first time director. Can you describe the experience of working on that film?
Make no mistake, in most of those films I appear for a minute before being murdered! With Jug Face, I was very happy that producer Andrew Van Den Hauten still thinks of me to do his films. I liked the director, Chad Crawford Kinkle, and the crew very much, and of course I got to work with Sean Young, which is always a hoot. The whole cast was a pleasure to be with. I think the movie came out very well. Chad has real chops and passion for his unique brand of neo-Southern Gothic.
You are a producer on another documentary called American Jesus, now hitting the film festival circuit. Are your documentaries and fictional narrative films completely different animals? Or do you feel your documentary work and your fictional films share much of the same DNA?
I don’t consider anything “Just entertainment.” It all has to be about something. I am fascinated by the way we construct meaning in an arbitrary world, and the subjectivity of life’s experience. Habit is about how we embrace lies to protect ourselves from scary truths. The Last Winter is about how we can’t communicate because we have our own subjective view of the world. Wendigo is about our need for myths to make sense of an indifferent reality. American Jesus is about how Americans fuse two powerful belief systems: capitalism and religion. All similar themes.
Your radio horror series, Tales From Beyond The Pale has evolved impressively since you and Glenn McQuaid conjured the premise while on a dark and foggy road trip. With two seasons now available, what aspect of the project's evolution are you most pleasantly surprised by? Are there plans for a Season 3?
Glenn and I are starting in on Season 3. We have high hopes to carry Tales on in one form or another. It is a very fertile ground, creatively, and everyone who gets involved seems to feel relieved to have found a respite from the normal bullshit of show business.
What is most likely going to be the next feature film directed by Larry Fessenden?
I used to feel like I had some control over what I was going to do next, but that’s all changed. I have a number of projects I’m trying to get off the ground, but I find it’s getting harder and harder. I’d rather not speak about a movie until it is real.
You're one of the directors contributing to the upcoming anthology ABCs Of Death 2. Can you give us a hint about the subject matter you'll be tackling in your few minutes of the film?
Sex, death, the pointlessness of it all. My usual concerns!
Birth Of The Living Dead details, images, reviews, and preview trailer can be found here at the official website.