Cult Filmmaker Larry Fessenden Talks ‘The Ranger,’ ‘Depraved’ And More
Ever since catching the film, Jug Face, back in 2013, I’ve been a huge fan of Larry Fessenden. I immediately went through his IMDb page, looking for more films to watch. I had no idea how far his influence reached… he’s been directing shorts and indie films since 1978, but it wasn’t until 1995’s Habit that his true passion seemed to leak out onto the screen. With a talent for showcasing members of the dirty, unloved fringes of society, Fessenden can take a character already living in their own kind of atrocity and up the ante by dropping them into a whole new pit of dismay.
Between acting, directing and producing, this humble and passionate filmmaker has been involved in some of my very favorite horror films, including Stake Land (2010) and its sequel, The Stakelander(2016), The House of the Devil (2009), We Are Still Here (2015), Darling (2015), Jug Face (2013), Most Beautiful Island (2017), The Strain TV series, Bringing Out the Dead (1999), Fear Itself TV series, ABCs of Death 2 (the short “N for Nexus”) (2014), Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009), The Transfiguration(2016), Session 9 (2001), I Sell the Dead (2008), The Innkeepers (2011), The Off Season (2004), Psychopaths(2017), The Battery (2012), We Are What We Are (2013), Birth of the Living Dead documentary (2013), Late Phases (2014), Pod (2015), Southbound (2015), Wendigo (2001), Dig Two Graves (2014), Mulberry St(2006), Beneath (2013), The Ranger (2018) and the upcoming film, Depraved.
So when I found out I would have the chance to pick the mind of the man himself, I was beyond excited.
PopHorror: Thank you so much for chatting with me!
Larry Fessenden: It’s my pleasure!
PopHorror: You have a very interesting and unique way of filming, with the filmmaker and their camera becoming almost another character in the film. What is your reason behind choosing this kind of filming style?
Larry Fessenden: Look, I’m the producer on The Ranger, and every director that we work with has a different approach, but I do feel like a lot of our movies have a consistent feeling of trying to get personal and having a singular point of view that goes all the way back to Hitchcock and Polanski. It’s a strong way to film, especially horror. That way, the audience really feels one with the character because they’re following them and experiencing their story through one person’s eyes.
PopHorror: Is it true that you let your actors ad lib their lines?
Larry Fessenden: Well, no. Not really. Actually, most of the movies that we’ve done are scripted. Obviously, when you’re on set, you encourage people to feel as natural as possible. But most of our films, which feel naturalistic, are scripted.
PopHorror: That’s amazing, because in so many instances, it seems like the actors are just saying what comes to them rather than trying to force out lines that someone else wrote.
Larry Fessenden: Cool! It’s fun to hear that. I have a couple of movies that I made where I was the actor and the director, and people assume that it is improv. But I think it’s that idea that you want everyone to be comfortable. And, you know, one approach is to show horror through a very natural setting, and that makes it all the more shocking.
PopHorror: And relatable.
Larry Fessenden: Yeah, exactly! You can really relate to what it would be like to have an actual serial killer after you or a vampire or whatever the story is.
PopHorror: Do you prefer creating independent films over bigger, Hollywood-funded movies?
Larry Fessenden: (laughs) Well, I don’t really have a choice! I’ve tried to make some big movies, and I’ve had some brushes with that. But, in the end, what I think is important, if you want to be a filmmaker, is to actually do the work. Sometimes, your budget goes down, and at my company, Glass Eye Pix, we say, “Let’s make it anyway!”
PopHorror: When it comes to your projects, you’ve always had many fingers in the filmmaking pie. Which part of filmmaking do you prefer?
Larry Fessenden: I ultimately like to direct. By directing, you have this overview where you can meddle with the art department and the colors and the look of the film and the way the camera moves. But, as far as which part of the process I like… I really love editing, because, no matter what’s happening on set, whether you fell off from the script or you got the wrong actors… all of that doesn’t matter. Now you have this footage and what you can make with it. It’s a really thrilling part of the process, and that’s really where the film gets made.
PopHorror: That’s so true. You could film 100 hours of something, but it’s the editor who cuts and chops it into a cohesive story.
Larry Fessenden: Exactly! In editing, you can really depart from what you originally wanted or rediscover something new and achieve that. It’s a really exciting process. And when you’re editing, you know you’re done. When you’re writing, you struggle and you try to get the best ideas down and create the best thing possible, but it could all change once you’re on set.
PopHorror: You can even do that a bit with directing, like if you realize that you can’t shoot a certain scene or an actor drops out, you have to juggle everything constantly.
Larry Fessenden: Directing is such a managerial role. You have to try and keep morale high, and you’re trying to make decisions. Sometimes you have to cut a shot, because you have to think of the whole and not just of the shot you love, and that’s all very heartbreaking. So, you’re trying to manage a team, and you’re trying to manage your own expectations. It can be, well… stressful.
PopHorror: You really need to learn to balance between the two.
Larry Fessenden: Yeah!
…we’re masters of our own world. We see the world through a dark filter. The horror is going to come through.
PopHorror: We were talking about The Ranger earlier. Can you tell me how you got involved in it?
Larry Fessenden: Jenn Wexler, the writer and director, she works for me and she’s produced a lot of movies for my company. She came to us out of love for the kind of movies that we were making, and she made her way up the chain very quickly by producing a number of low budget films. Then she came to me and she said, “I really want to do this film as my directorial debut.” I’d already seen her short films and even acted in one, so I had a real sense of her seriousness. Also, she always gave really good notes and was always supportive of the kind of actors that we like to work with, so I was very happy to support her in this endeavor. And, you know, she really took to it. I don’t think she’ll look back. In fact, I might have lost a producer! (laughs) But I’ve gained a director. She’s really reliable. You know, I’m kidding, because she produced my own film, which we made after The Ranger, that’s still in post-production.
PopHorror: Depraved, right? Your Frankenstein movie?
Larry Fessenden: Yes! Depraved…
PopHorror: I am so pumped to see Depraved, man. I notice that you seem to work with a lot of the same people, like Lauren Ashley Carter, Nick Damici… Do you purposefully surround yourself with the same people? Or is it just by chance that you’re always working together?
Larry Fessenden: Well, it’s a little of both. We also do audio play, Tales From Beyond the Pale, and all kinds of side projects that keep us calling each other up and saying, “Hey, what are you doing next Wednesday? We’ve got a show.” I really like the idea of a community of people working together to build a canon of projects. I do the same thing with the sound people that I work with and the musicians. You just develop a Rolodex of reliable people who want to be involved in this kind of storytelling. That’s the idea. Lauren is fantastic. We started on a movie called Jug Face (2013), and then we brought her in to Darling(2015) and she was also a producer on that. It’s really about a bunch of people who all see each other at horror conventions and events. It’s a community of people, and we love to work together.
PopHorror: As far as Jug Face, which is one of my favorite horror movies of the last decade…
Larry Fessenden: Thank you!
PopHorror: You’re welcome! (laughs) In Jug Face, you never see the monster. The horror of that mud pit is so up to your imagination that it could be anything in there, and I think that’s why I love it so much. What do you think is in there?
Larry Fessenden: Oh, I’m not gonna tell you! (laughs)
PopHorror: Come on! (laughs)
Larry Fessenden: (laughs) Well, to me, it’s the fever of the community that creates this dire situation, and they’re all so afraid of the monster. Their tradition, I think, has weighed them down. They’re killing each other and beheading each other. So I think that’s what’s beautiful about that film is that you see how that group thinks. That community has created its own misery and tension. And certainly that’s true in the real world. We’re masters of our own world. We see the world through a dark filter. The horror is going to come through. My films have that suggested message. Of course, I didn’t write Jug Face. But that’s what I take away from the script that was actually written by Chad Crawford Krinkle.
PopHorror: Lucky McKee was involved in Jug Face, wasn’t he?
Larry Fessenden: Yeah, as a producer. Of course, so was Andrew van den Houten, who was also on The Ranger. I have worked with Andrew ever since he called me to act in his very own film, which was… Oh, my God. I’m having a…
PopHorror: A brain fart?
Larry Fessenden: Yes, a brain fart. Oh! It was Headspace. I was an actor in that.
PopHorror: In The Ranger, your character, Uncle Pete, was an important part of Chelsea’s story. It’s implied that young Chelsea was responsible for his death. Do you feel that Pete’s death was a pure accident or that the little girl had some help pulling the trigger by the Ranger?
Larry Fessenden: Well, of course, it’s the beauty of the arts is that it’s the audience’s choice to decide. But, you know, we filmed it pretty carefully. I’m not saying that there even is an exact answer. I think the whole story was about this girl that really had a kind of a grit and a ferocity that plays out through to the end. Did she do that on purpose? Was it an accident that changed her? Also, what does the Ranger see in her? I don’t think it’s lusty. I think it’s something else. I think that she’s fierce. And that’s what I think is so interesting, the chemistry between those two, and sure, he’s a nutcase, but all of the elements play. I think that’s why it’s a good ride, because it’s not all made incredibly clear – who’s good, who’s bad, and what the history is.
PopHorror: Right, exactly. And he even says to her that she’s just like him, a cold-blooded killer. After watching the film’s climax, I wonder if he’s right. What do you think? Was this confrontation only another step in Chelsea’s path to becoming a killer? When she’s whaling on him, it makes you start to think…
Larry Fessenden: Exactly!
PopHorror: He even has this smile on his face like, “See, I told you!”
Larry Fessenden: True! You see it in that action scene… You know, look. We play with genre. We mess with things. Most of the movies that my company makes are horror films. But I always encourage the directors and the writers to push themselves to get something unique and original and even personal out of the material, and that’s what I think Jenn did. She created an interesting character with Chloe Levine, and that’s why the movie stands out. Any number of people can make an ’80s throwback. There’s plenty of style in The Ranger. But there’s also this other thing that makes you wonder about the characters. And that’s what I find exciting to be a part of.
PopHorror: That’s really awesome, honestly. Let’s switch gears for a minute. You’re not only involved in filmmaking. You also wrote the video game, Until Dawn, with Graham Reznick. What is the difference between writing a script for a game compared to writing one for a film?
Larry Fessenden: About 9,000 pages. (laughs) We figured out that we wrote about 10,000 pages for Until Dawn. And the reason is that you’re writing a branching narrative. The difference is, when you write a screenplay, you write about 110 pages, and as you go along, you think, “Oh, I wonder what would happen if they went down that alley? Or, what if he robbed that bank?” And if you want the story to go that way, you decide to go that way and that’s it. But in a video game, you actually have to write out every one of those possibilities (laughs) because the gamer might choose to go down that alley. That’s, honestly, the main difference. Also, the technology is so advanced now. You can be more subtle. You can actually expect to see pretty cool acting depicted with the motion capture and stuff.
PopHorror: I agree. You get a real good sense of emotion in their faces that you never could portray before.
Larry Fessenden: Yup. We had a lot of fun with that. We worked with a really great company that put it together, and they were really ambitious to do something special. It was a perfect time for all of us. Me and Graham coming together to do that work was really fun.
PopHorror: That sounds like a ton of work! So, do you want to talk about Depraved at all?
Larry Fessenden: Well, sure! What I can say about it is that I made an adaptation of Frankenstein. I’ve read the book, and I know it well. I’ve seen all of the movies. It was just something that came out of me. It’s really a coming-of-age story. It’s not going to be dripping with gore, but it’s more about a deeper horror and how things can go wrong slowly in the consciousness of an individual combined with the weird parenting of the mad scientist. It’s a contemporary telling. It takes place in a Brooklyn loft. I have a great affection for the ken in the Frankenstein movies, and I just wanted to throw my hat in the ring. As I say, it’s not a scary movie. It’s a contemplative film. Not everyone will like it, but it’s quite heartfelt.
PopHorror: I was reminded of the Frankenstein story when I read a book by Neal Shusterman called Unwind. There’s a character in there who was built out of other living people’s parts. They took a piece of brain from this guy and an arm or a leg from that guy. So now they built this guy, and society and the government say he’s not a real person. He was never born, he has no parents, so he has no soul.
Larry Fessenden: That’s the thing about the Frankenstein story. You’ve got nature and nurture… whose brain is it? Are these your memories? What makes somebody who they are? What’s your identity? I think it’s just an endlessly intriguing mythology to deal with. I really hope that some people will respond to my take. It’s just like you said. It’s like being in the world but not really being a part of it. What does that do to your psyche? Who do you turn to for support and guidance? If they’re fucked up, just think of how things can go wrong. You know, I do think our society is fraying at the edges. I thought this was the right time to think about that. And there’s morality and philosophy and human history. It’s all in there. And I actually try to suggest all of those things in my film. It’s sort of my ambition. I want to make a movie about the whole world. (laughs)
PopHorror: (laughs) You sure are ambitious!
Larry Fessenden: It won’t be for everyone, believe me.
Horror movies remind you to cherish the light, because it can turn off at any moment.
PopHorror: Like you mentioned, you tend to make films with a horror slant. What draws you toward horror?
Larry Fessenden: I’ve answered that question the same way for years.
PopHorror: Oh, I’m sorry. You must be so sick of answering it.
Larry Fessenden: No! I’ll say it again. I say it proudly. I think I’m just wired that way. I feel like people see the world in different ways. I mean, I had a perfectly nice upbringing. But whenever I think about things, I see their dark side. I see the disappointment and all the hopes dashed and how things can go wrong. Part of it is the sentimentality. I wish the world was the beautiful place that it could be. But all I see is pain and suffering, especially in our modern world, meaning contemporary stuff. There’s so much anger and hatred and nobody behaving well. I think it’s horrific, and it’s so sad. Also, there’s something cool about a spooky lightning storm. I just love monsters. I love the whole idea of fantasy creatures. I also relate to animals and dark places. So it’s really, you know, a personality thing, quite honestly. I mean, some people like sports! (laughs)
PopHorror: True! There are even people who like rom-coms.
Larry Fessenden: Well, I do, too. I had to once list all of my favorite guilty pleasures, and one of my movies was Love, Actually. I knew it would make people insane and say that that doesn’t make sense. But that’s the point. I love Fred Astaire. I like musicals. But, I think, if I end up telling a story, it’s always going to have a darkness. That’s just what happens.
PopHorror: In life, there is no light all the time. If there was, we wouldn’t appreciate it, because it would always be there. We can’t be grateful for the light without the darkness that reminds us that it’s there, whether we want to believe it or not.
Larry Fessenden: I agree. Horror movies remind you to cherish the light, because it could turn off at any moment. That’s what I also like… the cautionary tale aspect of the horror trope.
PopHorror: Plus, it’s just so fun to be scared.
Larry Fessenden: It is so fun to be scared!
[The phone call broke up for a minute here, and for some reason, all we could hear were my dogs barking upstairs]
Larry Fessenden: Are you there?
PopHorror: I’m sorry. I think I lost you for a minute.
Larry Fessenden: I’m so sorry! I like all of your doggies. How many do you have?
PopHorror: Oh, my goodness. I’m in my basement right now, trying to avoid this very thing. The dogs, barking like mad, at some random person walking by my house. (sighs)
Larry Fessenden: (laughs)
PopHorror: I only have two dogs up there, believe it or not. Two not very big dogs named Benson and Rigby. They are as loud as all get out.
Larry Fessenden: (laughs)
PopHorror: Okay, enough about them! (laughs) Do you have any passions outside of filmmaking?
Larry Fessenden: Yeah. I really like to cook. I make furniture. I’m not really a naturalist. I don’t go on hikes. That’s too much effort. But I do love to putter around the house and build things and work with my hands. I make rough-hewn furniture and things like that.
PopHorror: That’s really interesting and unexpected, honestly. Last but not least, what is your favorite Halloween candy?
Larry Fessenden: It’s funny you say that. I have to say, I don’t care about candy that much, so my answer is actually candy corn (laughs) because it is so aesthetically Halloween-y. That’s fantastic.
PopHorror: It’s kind of funny that so many people give me this answer. I thought people hated candy corn.
Larry Fessenden: Maybe it’s what comes to mind? I mean, I like Fireballs.
PopHorror: Well, when you went trick or treating as a kid, what was the first you dug out of your Halloween bag?
Larry Fessenden: The poison apple!
Larry Fessenden: Well, honestly, I have no sweet tooth. But I do love the whole aesthetic of candy corn. That’s without a doubt, my answer. What would Halloween be without it?
PopHorror: You’re right. Candy corn is so aesthetically pleasing, with the yellow, the orange and the white…
Larry Fessenden: And you can make them into weird little teeth. They look like little teeth.
I want to thank Larry Fessenden for taking the time to chat with us and give us some insight into what makes him tick. I encourage all of the PopHorror readers to check out Jug Face, The Ranger, Darling and his upcoming Frankenstein adaptation, Depraved. I know I can’t wait to see it!