“Larry Fessenden has been one of the most important figures in indie horror over the last decade. Not only does he lend his acting talent to movies like You’re Next, Jug Face and Session 9, but his company Glass Eye Pix produced The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, Bitter Feast, Stake Land, and many, many more. He’s basically been a bit of a godsend to many young filmmakers looking to make the kinds of horror movies Hollywood doesn’t.
Fessenden is also a director in his own right, and his latest film hit Blu-ray and DVD this week. It’s called Beneath, and it’s about a group of friends who find themselves trapped on a lake by a giant, man-eating fish. And if that premise sounds delightfully old school to you, you’ll be happy to know the production is as well. Beneath is not a Syfy movie with a bunch of people fighting bad CGI. The toothy fish at the center here is a practical creation, and it’s an impressive one.
Also, Beneath is particularly noteworthy as a low-budget horror production because the majority of the movie takes place on the water, which isn’t exactly the easiest place to make a movie even when you’ve got millions and millions of dollars. That’s why, when we were able to chat with Fessenden on the phone earlier this week, we wanted to know all about why he took on such a difficult task, and what’s his overall impression on the horror industry today now that he’s been a part of it for so long.
Movies.com: What motivated you to make a movie that would be such a nightmare to actually shoot?
Larry Fessenden: Ah, but these are good nightmares to have. I come from the school of Werner Herzog putting himself into impossible situations in the jungle and so on. I made a film in Iceland in the freezing, freezing winter. I like that sort of adventure as a filmmaker, because in my normal life I just sit cozy by the flat-screen TV. I think when you go out and make a movie the place should be essential to the movie. I’ve also made a movie in New York where the city was a character, in Iceland the snow was a character, and to go out on the water was delightful and a blast. The challenges were very really, though. They did make the movie much harder to control.
Movies.com: Did you secure a location first and then work backwards, or did you have the script first and then try to find a suitable spot?
Fessenden: Well the story is that I went to Chiller, the TV network, and pitched them movies from my stable of guys, and they said, “That’s all great, but we’ve got this script and this amount of money.” I read it and I said, “Well, let me do it.” I love Jaws and water movies, and I’m very comfortable on boats, so it all made sense to me. I liked how contained the story was. In fact, I stripped out some of the scenes that didn’t take place on the boat. I wanted it to be a single-location exercise.
Movies.com: And how long did it take you guys to actually find a place that you could film it?
Fessenden: I appreciate you asking that question because the truth is it was a real pain in the ass to find it. We had so many certain requirements. We essentially needed to be alone on the lake, and while we found several places that would work, there’d be summer activities going on so we couldn’t do that. This was an abandoned reservoir. There were some people walking their dogs along the shore, but there was no boating encouraged, so we were pretty much able to own the lake. We shot for 18 days, which is pretty fast when you consider water slows you down by about half.
Movies.com: We wondered if you happened to know someone who owned this property and decided to make a movie around it.
Fessenden: No, it wasn’t like that. I’m actually a big fan of making movies that way, of realizing you have a location when someone’s parents go away for a month and you quickly write a script to just take advantage of that. But that’s not what this was. This was actually more traditional. We had to work from the script and find a location and the boat, and I was quite specific about what I wanted. And we had to make a fish!
Movies.com: Was the design of the fish inspired by any sort of real species of fish?
Fessenden: I wanted it to look fairly mundane, like a giant fish and not some beautifully designed creature that would clearly come from the imagination of an artist trying to make a fantasy creature. I wanted it to feel like this could really happen, like some crazy trout-catfish thing. In my mind, what’s scary is that there’s nothing particularly evil about this thing, it just exists in this water and the kids have to deal with it, and it’s clearly a story of how they deal with it. And as you see quickly, they don’t deal with it very well, and it becomes a story about how you respond to adversity and whether we’re all equipped to make moral decisions once we’ve lost our compass.
Movies.com: One of the famous stories about Jaws is how the shark rarely working influenced the shoot. Was there a similar effect here? Did the prop disable or enable various parts of the shoot?
Fessenden: I felt the fish was gorgeous looking. Ironically it looked the coolest from the side, which is an angle we couldn’t really get very often. The detail work by Fractured FX was gorgeous. It was a beautiful puppet they would fill with ping pong balls wrapped in ladies’ stockings. That was the ballast. You put in a great many ping pong balls if you needed it to shoot out of the water, and you took them out if you needed it to dive. I had one version that was an even more versatile prop that you could strap to a diver, but the heavier version ended up being the favorite to shoot.
The main difficulty was making these Sophie’s choices where you could either run the jaw or make it turn, but you couldn’t do both. That’s what’s funny about action movies. You have to break everything down to individual frames to get what works. But no, we didn’t have any of the chronic problems Jaws had. The prop did whatever we forced it to do, and it was a beautiful thing when you got it in the water.
Movies.com: There’s a pretty minimal amount of CGI in the film. Was that a creative choice up front?
Fessenden: I really wanted a practical puppet. I pitched that to Chiller and at first they were nervous. They wanted it done in the relative security of a computer, but I thought if you were going to make a killer-fish movie, why not? If you had endless resources, CGI would be a great tool, but I feel like CGI has no charm whatsoever while a giant rubber puppet has a ton of charm. We only used CGI to do things like remove a pipe you could see under water or to augment the eyeballs to the fish.
Movies.com: Were there any direct influences on the film? “The Raft” from Creepshow 2 certainly seemed like it was.
Fessenden: Oh, well, I love “The Raft.” Of all the movies that do get referenced, I would say that’s the one I actually have the most affection for. There’s also Piranha and Shark Night 3D, but while they’re referenced, none of those movies actually influenced me, because I was thinking more about Lifeboat by Hitchcock and other morality plays like Lord of the Flies. I don’t get too deep on referencing stuff. I want to see if my own visions play out well. Sometimes they don’t. For example, I never went underwater after that early tribute to Jaws. I felt this was from the point of view of the kids, and they didn’t have the fish-eye view of things. Those are the decisions I think about more than just influences.
You want to make decisions that are true to the intention of the script and that elevate the film. For example, we could have made a movie with a shaky camera in the boat and it may have been more visceral, but I wanted to shoot with a crane on a barge to get these sort of dreamy shots, to have the camera indifferent and just floating around these kids, because in a way I’m judging them for being f***ing assholes. [Laughs]
Movies.com: What’s the story behind the creepy mask prop with the skeleton hands over its eyes in the beginning of the film?
Fessenden: I love that you asked that, man. That’s really groovy. I wanted to set up that character, Johnny, to set up some suspicion among certain audience members. I wanted to set him up as a bit of a goth kid inspired by the dark arts with all his weird models and sketches so maybe people would seem him like a sort of Colombine kid. Then people would have this nagging feeling that maybe he brought his friends out there knowing that they would be eaten so that he could try to rescue Kitty. It was just a little backstory for him. I feel like he was an outsider who lives with his grandad now, and I wanted to lay out these little suspicions about him, about the tooth he was wearing, and use all these little tropes from horror movies. I just plant them.
Movies.com: How is making a movie today different than it was when Glass Eye Pix started?
Fessenden: I started out just making my own movies. I went from producer to producer in an effort to find money and get stuff financed and I made this weird brand of horror that was very personal and tried to draw on bigger themes to show an audience how potent fear is in our lives and so on, and in so doing I developed my philosophy about filmmaking and doing them cheaply.
Eventually Ti West came to intern for me. I said I like your short films, if you ever come up with a feature, let’s make it. Ti came up with The Roost, because he knew I liked monsters. He also had this voodoo story, which I rejected. [Laughs] So I financed that, and it did well, and gave money to the kitty. So then I financed an awesome robot movie called Automatons. The idea was to just make movies that were true to themselves and truly unique and took the genre in new directions to surprise audiences that had become complacent. I love Graham Reznick’s first movie, I Can See You, it’s just bats**t crazy and that’s what’s glorious about it. It’s made with tremendous skill and care, and that was always the mantra: good sound, good music, real artistry behind these films. That’s what I tried to do and I wanted to spread it outward with all these great talents I found. Glenn McQuaid, we made I Sell the Deadtogether. I do work outside the horror genre, but the idea is to form a community that can stand up to corporate monotony, at least as far as entertainment is concerned.
As far as how it’s going… Ti West has a career going, Jim Mickle has a career going, Graham’s getting some stuff made. It’s hard to find the money still. You’re never safe. I always think of how even Scorsese had trouble getting movies made in the ’80s. It’s tough when you’re making movies that aren’t franchises or superheroes. It sucks. It always has, probably always will.
Movies.com: Do you think people like Jason Blum and the Blumhouse model are disruptive to the indie-horror scene?
Fessenden: No, I feel what Blum is doing is kind of awesome. The only issue is that if it gets redundant. If every movie ends up being the same formula, just like anything, it’ll get tired. But Blum has proven that horror is a moneymaking enterprise, and that low-budget movies can get you great returns. As long as he’s not creatively trapping people in a little box, then I welcome Jason Blum and his brand.
I’ve always preferred this period of horror, which are weird ghost movies. Paranormal Activity? Those are locked off cameras, I mean that’s some old school s**t if they’re really using sound to scare you. I think it’s a great trend compared to Saw and Hostel. Those are not my favorite movies because they’re just fetishizing the gore. I’d rather movies be about atmosphere, so bring on Mr. Blum. If he gives me some money, that’d be nice.
Movies.com: Will there be a third season of Tales from Beyond the Pale?
Fessenden: Absolutely. Actually, we have a release coming up with an accompanying film. There’s a lot of fun activities that will wind up season two. It’s a wonderful ongoing project where filmmakers, novelists and other types we encounter can lend their talents to good old-fashioned storytelling. We did them live, and that was tremendous fun, but they’re also cool when they’re built in a studio with total control. The idea is to take the old radio play format and really push the envelope of what you can do with sound and just be completely engrossing. A lot of people are doing audio dramas, but our agenda is to really make it about sound and environment.
It’s fun to work with Simon Rumley and Simon Barrett and J.T. Petty and all these guys whose work I love. Maybe you can’t finance a movie together, but we can all have fun and do a radio play. We’ve had Ron Perlman, Vincent D’Onofrio and Mark Margolis, and everyone enjoys it because it’s a small time commitment
Movies.com: What is next for you?
Fessenden: I recently acted in several movies, so we’ll see how those all come out. I have a couple scripts. Getting your financial ducks in a row takes the most time, I’m sad to say. I have Adrian Bogliano’s Late Phases coming out, which we did with our old friends at MPI. I’m really excited to work with Adrian on that. There’s always something going on, but the real agenda is to get that financing, and that’s a world of mystery even beyond a giant fish. [Laughs] That’s the fish I really want to land.
BENEATH is out now on Bluray and DVD!