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A discussion on the making of HABIT
with writer/director Larry Fessenden
cinematographer Frank DeMarco
producer Dayton Taylor
Interviewed by Michael Ellenbogen
Michael Ellenbogen: I'm interested in collaboration within the crew during the production of the film. Larry, as the writer and director of Habit, you lived with the story for a long time. How did you decide what type of people you wanted working with you?
Larry Fessenden: What I had to begin with was the script and a model of very low budget filmmaking ... I'd just come off another feature called River of Grass, and I had about fifty thousand dollars to get the film in the can. A person that I had kept in touch with was Dayton Taylor, who had worked on my previous feature, No Telling.
Dayton Taylor: I went to the reading of Habit and I really liked it, then I found out that Larry wanted me to produce it, so the reading was when I first got excited about being involved. I liked the script because it was about an alcoholic dealing, as alcoholics do, with issues of alcoholism, and I responded to the very realistic way Larry had treated that. That aspect of it, the alcoholism and the realism, made me feel like the story was a lot more interesting than just 'entertainment,' or a frivolous horror story. So Larry and I started talking about strategies for how to how to produce it. We knew that we had a really ambitious script, and quite frankly, there was an element of fear for me about it as well, as a result of the fact that bringing it in on budget would be my responsibility. I had to ask myself, 'How are we possibly going to do a shoot that has thirty or more different locations, and scenes like a pack of wolves in Central Park at night, and car accidents... for fifty thousand dollars!' I'm sure the first thing I told Larry was, 'You know, you're crazy!'
Fessenden: Actually, one thing I appreciated about Dayton was that he didn't challenge me on any particular thing. Conventional wisdom is that you write for a small ensemble...that you write with a few locations if you're gonna work with this low of a budget, but I really wanted to be audacious and fulfill the vision, so I said, 'These are these images that I need, and I think we can get them'. And Dayton never said, 'You have to cut this or that.' He just said, 'Okay, this is how I think we have to do it.'
Taylor: My solution was I began thinking about this model of having a crew that, although they weren't paid, they didn't have to commit to the whole shoot either. They could commit to a section of it, or, if they preferred, they could just come and go. If they enjoyed it, presumably, they might stay on. And if they didn't enjoy it, they would leave. So that was a strategy we agreed on that would force us to keep the crew happy, and which would thereby protect us from being surrounded by a burned-out or frustrated crew. We just said: 'You're free to leave at any time.'
Ellenbogen: What about the decision not to pay people?
Taylor: Yeah, as I recall we had this discussion about whether we should pay people like twenty five dollars a day, which was all we could have afforded. I think Larry felt that we should definitely pay people a small amount, but I said I had seen a lot of situations in low budget films where week two or three rolled around and the crew was getting frustrated with how tired they were and how much they were putting into the project and how little they were getting out of it. What would happen, inevitably, was they would start looking at what they were getting paid and they'd say to themselves, 'Hey! I'm worth more than twenty five dollars a day!' or fifty dollars a day, or whatever they were getting paid... so I suggested that if we didn't people anything, no one on the crew would ever think to themselves, 'Hey! I'm worth more than this amount of money!'
Ellenbogen: Who was the first person you brought on to the picture after you had outlined your plan?
Fessenden: Stephane Mitchell. Stephane was someone who had worked with Dayton on previous projects. We brought her on as production manager or assistant to Dayton at first. We were very unclear with the titles in the beginning.
Ellenbogen: What responsibilities did she take immediately?
Taylor: She helped us cast and start planning the shoot. She put out the word about what we were doing.
Ellenbogen: Did you put out an open call for cinematographers?
Taylor: No. I don't think Frank knew it but I knew that I wanted it to be Frank from the beginning. I knew Frank could and would do a great job...
DeMarco: You guys had a proposition, which I thought was like, appalling or somehow strange, because you said you wanted to do this movie and have like a free flow of crew and everything, including DPs, and I was like: why don't you get like free flowing directors and producers too!!! (laughter) I mean why would I want to work on this thing if I only did a week or a few days? I wanna do the whole thing, you know? If it's good I wanna do the whole thing.
Taylor: I think that Larry and I were sincere in the initial gesture of saying 'We think we can do this with different DP's,' but I also know that we were both excited to see that Frank's enthusiasm was such that he didn't want to have it go down that way.
Fessenden: I wanted people who were committed and felt that this was their own project. I wanted to see people really in there working out of dedication. I wanted to see if I could inspire people to be committed in that way.
Taylor: So I was producing, assistant directing, booming, and mixing the sound. Frank was DP-ing and gaffing, basically, because he knew where he wanted the lights, and he had John and Eric helping with the lighting but they weren't really trained as gaffers. And Larry absorbed a huge amount of organizational stuff that would normally be taken on by several different people. Aside from all his creative roles, we didn't have a script supervisor, we didn't have an on set wardrobe person, we didn't have a make-up person, we didn't have a hair person, so Larry did all of that stuff. And we didn't have a boom operator or sound person or an AD, because I did those things.
Fessenden: And we had no PA's in this. The PA's were...when John finished helping Frank with the lighting he would run out, or Eric would run out.
DeMarco: The AC would help with the lighting as well. Jay would help with lighting, or setting up the dolly or whatever. It was that sort of thing...
Fessenden: And everybody schlepped. There was no schlepping hierarchy. We were all in there together.
Taylor: I drove the truck with all our equipment in it which I drove home every night and got tickets on every other night.
DeMarco: When I came on, Larry and Dayton had all these photographs with very specific shots, very specific ideas and I was like, really shocked at how they had already been months on this thing and that they really just needed somebody who could photograph it for them. They already had the idea of having a plan but being flexible...
Fessenden: It's where there is one vision which is presiding over the others but a vision that allows for participation...where all ideas are digested and then there's a strong force which makes the final decisions.
DeMarco: And that happened pretty often. We already had the plan. We could always execute that, but oftentimes we'd take the plan and just sort of boil it up and sort of distill it and come up with, hopefully something much better than the original idea.
Fessenden: W had a very unusual lighting package as our regular kit, which was inky's and other things that Frank and I had in at our disposal, but also then we bought some flows...
Taylor: They're really just 4 foot fluorescent...
DeMarco: Ten dollars at Home Depot.
Fessenden: And that's where the money was saved. I was always fond of this sort of a green hue in the Battery Park sequence, and that's because we had these flows just off the edge of camera. And those were powered off the car battery.
DeMarco: Right. We plugged right into the cigarette lighter. There's a little adaptor we used to get 110 out of it and that was it.
Fessenden: And so once again, it's like Dayton and Frank's ingenuity and knowledge and love of these little unexpected, often home devices that we used to make our movie look better. Another example was a fabulous item... we needed to light an entire graveyard in Bridgehampton, and Dayton conceived of getting this highway maintenance light.
DeMarco: And the china, the paper lanterns we used a lot. Like, the whole party, we used Christmas lights...lights on a string thing, and then we held, oftentimes, hand-held big china lamps, which were 150 or 250 watt bulbs, just outside the frame, to give a soft glow, and a very soft bounce light kind of a thing. We used them a lot...
Fessenden: To me, what was fun is that there was a great awareness of color temperature and how that was gonna effect what we were shooting. Each one of these, um, hand-hewn lighting devices brought with it it's own sort of personality in terms of color, and then, you know, we compensated or enhanced those choices.
Ellenbogen: Was there anything that was especially challenging? Like, what were a couple of moments where you really personally felt challenged as a Director of Photography?
DeMarco: Uh, I think because Larry was the main actor as well - I think he was in almost every scene, and there was no video tap, there was no tape recorder to play back the pictures, it was up to me very often to decide if the take, technically speaking, was right, was good. But I felt like I had to have a certain amount of comment about how the whole read went. That's something I, it's usually not the role at all of the DP. Dayton too, I think got involved in the discussion of the quality of the take; the read, or the whole performance.
Taylor: I think we all took personal responsibility for beyond what our normal roles would be, and we didn't blame things on other people. Like, in a big film production, typically, the producer will delegate to the production manager who will delegate to the coordinator who will communicate to the key prop person who will delegate to the second prop who will delegate to a PA to go pick-up a piece of equipment, and then, if the piece of equipment isn't there the next day, then the PA will be blamed by the assistant prop who will be blamed by the key prop, who will be blamed by, you know, by the coordinator and so on and so forth... We were all too close together for that, our circles of communication were so tight that, you know, things weren't being passed around so much. We all knew what was going on and who was taking responsibility for what.
DeMarco: The first big shoot was to go and spend a few days down at that San Genaro festival, and the first night we were doing it I realized this is sort of harsh journey back to the days of the neo-realists, the Italians, when they had no money, they were borrowing film and cameras from the Americans who were outside of Rome, running around shooting their fictions in the streets of Rome during actual German occupation. They're shooting fictions during this reality and essentially that's what we did... To me a huge part of the nature of the movie is it's coexistence with reality; it's fiction coexisting with the reality.
Fessenden: The tone of the movie was quite real for everyone because of my commitment and a certain trust that I placed in the crew sort of drew everyone into this fantasy, and we'd have to do a scene like when my character's cutting his arms open and I'd just rush off in the corner and build the scars, and everybody else would be busily lighting or doing whatever they were doing, and then I would just appear and I would be naked, as usual, (laughter) and I'd have my scars and the very key chain that I use anyway, so there was always this weird blurring, it really was a strange sort of experiment.
Taylor: There was an absurdity to what he was doing as an actor and as a person. I remember specifically Larry running naked onto the boat into this dream sequence. We were blowing leaves on him as he ran across that gang plank. I was lost in the production of it, then, there was a moment of serenity where I just stood back from it and I realized, this is how dreams work.
photo captions from top: 1997: Taylor, Fessenden and DeMarco attempt the interview in a bar. 1994: Dayton Taylor, sound man and producer / Frank DeMarco films Fessenden / Meredith Snaider and Fessenden discuss a shot / half the crew of HABIT: John Arlotto, Jay Silver, DeMarco and Fessenden
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