Hollywood on the Hudson with Film Director, Jack Fessenden
Writer-director-actor-composer Jack Fessenden was born into the film industry, frequently visiting the indie-horror sets of his father, Larry Fessenden. He made his first feature film, Stray Bullets when he was just 15 years old and still in high school, causing Indiewire to name him one of “11 Filmmakers 30 or Under You Need to Know.” He most recently produced and directed Foxhole which will have its U.S. Premiere at the Woodstock Film Festival. He is currently a student at Wesleyan University.
As part of our Hollywood on the Hudson series, we sat down with Jack Fessenden and Woodstock Film Festival Co-Founder and Artistic Director, Meira Blaustein, to discuss the draw of, and rebellion against, filmmaking in the digital age, what it was like to grow up surrounded by the film industry, and the real-life family story that inspired Foxhole, which was shot here in Woodstock, NY.
Read the Full Interview below
HOLLYWOOD ON THE HUDSON
With Jack Fessenden, Film Director
Hosted by Meira Blaustein, Co-Founder, Executive & Artistic Director Woodstock Film Festival
Meira Blaustein: I know that you grew up in a film family. Your father is a filmmaker, your mother is a stop motion animator. Can you talk a little bit about growing into the film world? And when did you move from watching films to wanting to make movies?
Jack Fessenden: I started making movies when I was seven or eight years old. My dad and I, and my friends would run around with a point-and-shoot handy cam.
Meira Blaustein: Can you tell me a little bit about what made you interested in filmmaking rather than film watching?
Jack Fessenden: Well, I grew up visiting the sets that my parents were working on– these were usually horror movies produced by my dad. And earlier on, my mom was working as a production designer, art director, and always, you know, serving the movie in some way or other. My dad was running the show from behind the camera or acting, so I grew up visiting these movie sets like Stake Land, which was shot here in the Hudson Valley, and I grew accustomed to being on set. I remember learning what a DP was, and why the director wasn’t the one pushing record on the camera. That interested me because I always loved shooting or playing around with cameras. And so, spending time on those sets was very influential, because they really felt like a family affair with small crews and intimate sets. And they were lots of fun for me. I was just a little kid that got to run around because I was the producer’s kid.
Around age seven or eight, I started to make my own little movies with a point-and-shoot still camera. I’d go out with my friends. And we had Nerf guns or foam swords that we would play with, running around in the woods. And I made lots of shorts that way. When I was 12, or 13, it occurred to me that I really cared about this more than just a form of play. It started to become a passion and I got more into scripting the stories instead of just running out and doing it on a whim. I made my first short film, Riding Shotgun, with my friend Alex Hoffman. That showed at the Woodstock Film Festival, but it was a very long short. It’s a zombie-buddy movie, you probably remember it. A 32-minute short film, which is very bloated for a short, and I remember you told me you didn’t think it will be able to play at the festival, it’s just too long. I was crestfallen. But nonetheless, you came to my screening and said, “Well, we have to find a way to play this! So, you put it before a feature, Birth of the Living Dead, a documentary about Night of the Living Dead. That was 2013, and my first taste of having a real audience sitting in the theater. Luckily it was packed, and while the seats were filled for another film, they were all-genre lovers. And once I got the taste of showing the movie that I’d made to an audience, I wanted more. So, I kept making shorts all throughout my middle school and high school years. In my first year of high school, I shot Stray Bullets. So that was the trajectory. It really turned from a form of play when I was a kid with my parents helping, into a real working passion. At age 13, I knew this is what I do.
Meira Blaustein: Jack, as a young person who has been working in film now for quite some time, you now go to college, where I’m sure your friends and colleagues are making films. You must have your own point of view of not only where filmmaking stands now, but where it’s going. Talk a little bit about this.
Jack Fessenden: Well, I certainly feel like I grew up in a time when digital filmmaking made everything so much more accessible. I mean, I was able, when I was 12 and 13, to be shooting on DSLRs that looked fantastic. And with the advent of digital cameras that were cheap, and looked great in low light, you could make anything. Movies started to look really good that was made for very little money, on digital. That’s the world I grew up in, and most of my peers grew up making movies like that.
I go to Wesleyan University in Connecticut. The film studies program there is primarily a studies program with theory and lots of watching. But towards the end, you get to shoot on black and white 16, and then you shoot a thesis in color, which is what I’m about to do this Fall. I think there’s actually an aura among the filmmakers there, that is more rebellious against the digital age. We all edit on these old Steenbeck machines, which is, of course, how it was done until the 80s or 90s. A lot of us react against some of the trends in digital filmmaking–or streaming where everything goes straight to streaming. We grew up in love with going to the movies! I feel like the people that are making the decisions of day and date releases; like Dune, the biggest action epic of the year, is going to be on our phones the same day it’s in the theater–I think that’s appalling. People in my generation are upset that this is the direction cinema is going. To me, it seems the people making these choices are older people who think this is what people want, everything at their fingertips. Whereas really, the people who like watching movies my age, I mean everyone I know, would rather go to the theater. That’s the feeling I get from being at Wesleyan surrounded by “film kids” as they’re called. Of course, things being accessible all over the place is a positive thing. I always try to go to the movie theater whenever I can, but it’s also nice to be able to go on my TV. As far as the future of the movie industry? There are always going to be good movies. People are always going to be making their art no matter when they were born or where. So, I think that the state of the movie industry is okay.
Meira Blaustein: Can you talk a little bit about Foxhole which is going to have its U.S. premiere at the Woodstock Film Festival. It’s a very interesting and ambitious film that was shot in one place, but the span of it is huge. Can you talk a little bit about where the idea come from and the whole production aspect?
Jack Fessenden: The seed of that movie was a story that I heard from my grandfather’s friend who he served with in World War II. This guy named Morton was sheltering from artillery fire in a small foxhole in the Battle of the Bulge. And in jumps a German soldier, looking to also shelter from artillery fire in this hole. They draw their weapons but end up spending the entire night together because they’re just trying to survive. And of course, the German can speak English, so they talk and find they have a lot in common. This is all they have at that moment, so they form this bond. And then as the story goes; at dawn, they part ways. I think the American might have turned him in as a prisoner but I’m not sure. Years later in America, Morton, is in a convenience store in upstate New York and he’s feeling like this guy in a suit is following him. And he finally turns around and asks, “Who are you”? And they have this moment of recognition. It’s the German soldier. He tracked him down because he remembered him from that night. Turns out the soldier immigrated to the United States to be a professor or something. The two remained friends for the rest of their life. I heard that story around the time my grandpa passed away when I was like, 14, and I knew that I had to make that into a movie. But of course, that seemed like a short film, two guys in a hole with a little epilogue of their meeting, and I was going to make it with my friend who spoke German. It was just going to be one of my short films. And then Stray Bullets came along. When I was finishing that movie, around age 16, I turned to Foxholeand I thought, well, I want to make another feature, this seems like the track I’m on now. I’m feeling ambitious, I’m ready.
I love war history, but I didn’t want to focus on one period. What if I told a similar story three different times, in different time periods using the same actors, the same characters, but just transplanted them from one time in place to the next. That was the structure I came up with — a three-act anthology that has since become more of a continuous film. I started writing the scripts for Foxhole when I was in high school and shot it the summer after my first year in college 2019 and finished it in January this year. So, it’s been a long process for me. I see many different versions of myself reflected in the film.
Foxhole, we shot it up here, right in that field in Woodstock in the Hudson Valley. The original seed of the film, the soul of the movie, has remained the same for these five years. I had an amazing cast; they really brought the film to life. I mean, it’s a lot of sitting in a hole. That’s the whole movie, so I needed good actors and they were fantastic, found by our casting director, Lois Drabkin. We dug a hole out in that field. We put up a big tent because I was determined to create a controlled environment where we can have lights and atmosphere fog. One of the wars is set in a thick fog which turned out to be a real ordeal both production and post-production, rotoscoping and all this kind of thing. But we shot all three periods in that tent. And then I edited the film on my laptop in my dorm room at Wesleyan and I started to compose the music. I have always composed the scores to my films because my dad used to tell me you can’t use copyrighted music, that’s a bad habit to get into, so I just did it myself. This one proved to be a lot harder because I wanted something more traditionally orchestral. Usually, my scores have been ambient moody stuff but this one warranted a bit more of a traditional orchestral approach. It was a lot to undertake for me, you know, doing string arrangements and a whole feature’s worth of music. And luckily for me, COVID hit, and I had all this time. I was editing it on my laptop at Wesleyan when we heard that we’re all going home for COVID. The whole post-production process sort of exploded and we had no idea when this was going to be finished. There were no deadlines anymore. It was a mixed blessing. I had a lot more time to write the music and to work on the sound, and everyone was kind of like we need work, and, you know, the whole crew is local. Finally, in January, almost a year after I thought it would have been done, I finished it. And I think the movie ultimately benefited from that extra time. So now I’m excited to be showing it at the Woodstock Film Festival, coming back to Woodstock, which is always very fun. And yeah, looking forward to having the whole crew and cast there.