The new crime drama Stray Bullets (out Feb. 10) was written, directed, and edited by Jack Fessenden, who also stars in the film, composed its soundtrack, and is among the movie’s credited chefs. That’s an impressive array of contributions to this tale of two teenagers in upstate New York whose lives intersect with a trio of gun-toting hoodlums. But the amount of hats Fessenden sported on Stray Bullets is doubly noteworthy given he is only 17 years old and was just 15 when he directed the film.
“I’d been making little movies my entire childhood [but] I started taking movie-making more seriously when I was maybe 12 or 13,” says Fessenden. “When I was 13, I made my first real short film, called Riding Shotgun. We showed it at the Woodstock Film Festival and, ever since I’ve known that I wanted to make a movie like Stray Bullets. I always referred to it in my mind as ‘my epic.’ It wasn’t necessarily going to be a feature. It was just something that would incorporate a story [in] my comfort zone — of kids upstate — as I’d done before, and then also the story of these crooks. In the summer before I started high school, I started to write the story and realized that it was very dense for a short film. My mom, one day, said, ‘Well, why don’t you just make a feature?’”
It could be said that Fessenden was born to make films — certainly, he has been involved in their creation virtually since birth. His mother, Beck Underwood, is an animator and production designer while his father, Larry Fessenden, is the director of such influential indie-horror movies as Habit and Wendigo. Fessenden Sr. has also nurtured a long list of filmmakers through his Glass Eye Pix company, including Ti West (House of the Devil), Jim Mickle (Stake Land), Mickey Keating (Darling), and now his son, whose film was overseen by the production outfit in conjunction with Jack’s own Fessypix. Jack himself appeared in Wendigo when he was just a few months old and, down the years, helped out on a number of other GEP movies, including 2008’s Dominic Monaghan-starring I Sell the Dead. “I helped age some old boxes,” he laughs. “I got paid $50. That’s a pretty big payday for a 7-year-old.”
Larry Fessenden recalls that it was the time he spent goofing around with Jack and his friends which really inspired his son to become a director. “Instead of going out and playing with a ball, we’d go out with a video camera,” he says. “Jack would have three friends over, and we’d say, ‘Let’s pretend you’re running from something terrible!’ And I’d have the fun of designing the shots. I used to edit them, put the music in and so on, and [say], ‘Look, that fun thing we did this afternoon, this is the result.’ Eventually, Jack would take the camera and I’d see him off telling the kids what to do, and I think that’s how he became a filmmaker.”
Jack and his friend Asa Spurlock play the lead teenagers in Stray Bullets while the movie’s three criminals are portrayed by John Speredakos (Wendigo, The Mind’s Eye), James Le Gros (Living in Oblivion, Girls), and Larry, who also shot the film and produced it with Jack. Indeed, with Underwood overseeing the movie’s production design, Stray Bullets is very much a family affair, although Jack insists his father was careful not to offer too much input during the shoot. “He was always there to help, whenever I needed it,” he says. “But I mostly think he wanted to give me some space, so that I could feel that it was my project — and he did that very well.”
Stray Bullets premiered last September at Germany’s Oldenberg Film Festival and won a rave review from The Hollywood Reporter which described it as “an enjoyably bloodsoaked thriller with unexpectedly lyrical interludes.” Jack says he has plans to make another film, but has to first deal with some matters which aren’t usually an issue for first-time filmmakers. “I’m in junior year in high school, so I have to crack down a little bit more than I have been,” he says. “I have to keep my grades up!”
Stray Bullets is released Feb. 10.
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