BENEATH is a satirical horror-thriller directed by established filmmaker Larry Fessenden (The Last Winter, Habit, Wendigo) and produced by Fessenden and Peter Phok for Glass Eye Pix. The film tells the story of a group of six bratty teens who celebrate the end of high school by taking a trip to an isolated lake. Things get perilous with the appearance of a deadly monster piranha like fish lurking in the water. Stuck in their bloodied, oarless, leaking boat, the kids face the ultimate tests of friendship and sacrifice as they each try to make it ashore.
The film has a largely unknown cast: Johnny Orsini, Chris Conroy, Daniel Zovatto, Griffin Newman, Bonnie Dennison and Mackenzie Rosman, who come across as selfish, self-absorbed and lacking in integrity, especially as the big fish starts claiming lives. Darren Aronofsky favorite Mark Margolis (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, Black Swan) has a supporting role to up the creep level. With dark humor, a claustrophobic boat setting and a cast who are their own worst enemies, audiences begin to realize the point of the film.
Regardless of production value, I am always amazed that horror consistently peaks the interest of buyers and distributors worldwide. IFQ chatted briefly with Fessenden to learn more about his film.
Independent Film Quarterly (IFQ): Larry, you are obviously no stranger to horror and creepy flicks, most notably The Last Winter. Why are you drawn to this genre?
Larry Fessenden (LF): It’s the way I see the world. Life seems arbitrary and scary, consciousness seems subjective and tenuous. I like the horror genre because it invites the audience to see the world the way I see it: populated by demons, real and imagined.
IFQ: Tell us more about the concept for this monster killer fish movie that has dark comedic elements?
LF: In BENEATH, we tell the story of six high school graduates, their whole lives ahead of them, heading out for a day on the lake. When misfortune strikes in the form of a massive strange looking creature, the kids turn on each other, their insecurities and resentments become lethal: High school is never over. The comedy in BENEATH is dark because there is no punch-line, no wink to the audience, and so there is no relief. It is a satire about selfishness.
IFQ: How was the translation from script-to-screen for you?
LF: Every film project faces the challenge of moving from script to screen. A creature film is difficult because a monster in the mind is more powerful than one in a movie. Then there is the difficulty of shooting on water. They say it takes twice as long as shooting on terra firma. On the up-side, you have the actors, who bring a realism and vitality to the lines on the page that can be better than anything you’d imagined.
IFQ: You are considered a unique and modern horror indie filmmaker? What do you think about that?
LF: I am grateful for the notoriety I have because it helps me get work made, either my own work or the projects I support. Showbiz is a massive status game, and the best you can do is take your place in the pecking order and make the most of it.
IFQ: How was it working with the Chiller production team and how did they manage to snag you for this project?
LF: I took a meeting at Chiller to pitch them some low-budget projects. That’s what we do at my production company Glass Eye Pix, we make cheap high-brow scary movies. After all my pitches, they pulled the script for BENEATH out of a drawer and asked me to read it. Soon as I finished, I said “I’ll direct it. I’m the man for the job.” I loved the setting, simplicity, and the monster.
IFQ: The ensemble acting was good. The characters are not very likable especially as the plot unfolds and it’s everyman for himself. Was there high interest level for the college kid roles?
LF: We briefly went to name actors in the age range. But it is hard to get established talent to be in a TV horror movie with a limited budget. As soon as it became clear we weren’t going to get stars in the roles, we went for the best New York talent. These are good roles for an actor because they unfold in real time in a singular location, like a play. I felt I got the best in the business.
IFQ: Apart from acting skills were you looking for actors with a specific look especially for the more intense characters such as Johnny and the nerd Zeke?
LF: The script called for certain “types” and I cast the actors that I felt brought the most humanity to the clichés that are built into the story.
IFQ: What is challenging about making a horror film as compared to another genre?
LF: Well, once you’ve taken on the mantle of making horror films, then you are saying, “I will scare you”. At which point the audience member will judge your success by the degree to which you do indeed arouse fear. But this presumes that a horror film is like a rollercoaster, designed to frighten you. The type of films I make, I am more interested in defying expectations, to put an audience member off kilter and to undermine their assumptions. This can arouse less predictable reactions and sometimes there’s a backlash.
IFQ: Tell us more about the Oxford setting and deciding to keep the film largely confined to a boat on the lake. They seem to have a lot of trouble actually getting it ashore!
LF: The lake we chose was actually a former reservoir in Oxford, CT. It was a good-sized body of water and we put a large platform in the middle and filmed from a crane. I wanted the story to be claustrophobic and tell the whole thing from the kids’ point-of-view, no flashbacks to the prom, and no fish point-of-view either. Just stay stuck on the boat almost in real-time, and let the kids’ back-stories come out in the dialogue. The whole point of the movie is the kids are getting nowhere fast, they can’t agree on what direction to go and close as they are to shore, they can’t work together to save themselves. That’s how I see humanity right now.
As for the boat not being that far from shore, it’s further than you think and I know I wouldn’t want to swim that distance with a big fish after me no matter how silly it looked.