Jack Fessenden, son of filmmaker Larry Fessenden (who runs indie fright factory Glass Eye Pix and helmed the likes of HABIT, WENDIGO and THE LAST WINTER), didn’t wait long to follow in his father’s footsteps. The teen auteur’s “first serious” production, a short zombie thriller called RIDING SHOTGUN that he made when he was just 13, is commercially available for the first time this week, and we’ve got exclusive words with Fessenden about it.
RIDING SHOTGUN will be visible exclusively via iTunes tomorrow, February 10, in conjunction with Screen Media Films’ theatrical/VOD release of Fessenden’s feature debut, the violent actioner STRAY BULLETS. (SHOTGUN will be included with an iTunes purchase of the latter.) Fessenden and his friend Alex Hoffman wrote the short together, and also star as two friends bickering their way through a postapocalyptic wasteland infested with the living dead. “We developed the story in one day,” the now-17-year-old Fessenden (who discussed STRAY BULLETS in RUE MORGUE #173) tells us. “We were really sort of playing extreme versions of ourselves. The movie depends on our chemistry, and I think it works nicely.”
None of which diminishes Jack’s achievement, Yes, his home was a supportive, immersive film school and he grew up watching young filmmakers ranging from Kelly Reichert to Ti West benefit from his father’s mentoring. But he also saw others spend years on movies they never finished, and the takeaway was a hard lesson he was fortunate enough not to have had to learn firsthand: Pre-production isproduction and winging it is a luxury for which low budgets do not allow. Jack went into Stray Bullets knowing that if you’re going to shoot a theatrical feature in 16 days, every minute on set/location has to count.
“Every scene was storyboarded by my dad and myself in the weeks leading up to the shoot,” he explains. “That’s not to say that we didn’t change things on set—we were very flexible—but we allowed ourselves to be flexible because we had that framework in place, which also made to very easy to edit the film.
Fewer and fewer films are made and released with striking and distinctive voices all their own, and Jim Mickle’s vivid post-apocalyptic road film Stake Land from 2010 is such a picture. Written by its lead actor Nick Damici, who plays a tough vampire slayer of few words named Mister, the film is as American as they come with a stark vision of an apocalyptic future where vicious vampires have decimated the population. Damici’s Mister is a surrogate father and teacher of sorts to a young man named Martin (Conor Paulo), and together they form a special bond as they pick up more allies in a world gone wild. The sequel – Stake Land II (a.k.a. The Stakelander) – picks up years after the events of the original, but Damici is back as a rougher, harder version of Mister, and in this interview he discusses his inspirations for his apocalyptic vision, and where he’s coming from as the creator of these two vivid forays into the post-apocalyptic genre.
For a magical period during the summer of 2009, 10-year-old Jack Fessenden slept in the closet of his parents’ bedroom in New York’s Catskill Mountains. His own room had been transformed into hair and makeup. Outside his family’s rambling farmhouse, the 11-person crew for the indie horror parody Bitter Feast slept in tents and bunked in the old chicken coop. Jack’s father, Larry, a veteran, was producing and acting. Beck Underwood, aka Mom, was production designer. This was not the first film shot at the old farm, but it was the first the boy saw in a new way: as a seductive experience. The house where the Fessendens spent weekends and summers now seemed bewitched to Jack, the familiar made wonderfully strange.
“I always thought what my dad does is so cool,” Jack, now 17, reflects. “The way he talks about film is so inspirational.” Discussion of every aspect of cinema was routine as toothbrushing in the Fessenden home, but seeing it put into action galvanized Jack. By the end of the Bitter Feast shoot, he had learned what differentiated director of photography from director and had gone Rollerblading with the boom operator. He stood in the still eye of independent filmmaking’s controlled whirlwind, watching everything. And he realized he wanted to do this when he grew up.
While Old People Were Complaining About Millennials,
a 16-Year-Old Made the Pretty Good Crime Thriller ‘Stray Bullets’
“She’s a beauty,” sixteen-year-old Connor says to his friend Ash as they gaze upon the glory that is their newly purchased paintball gun.
In his feature-length debut as a writer-director, actual sixteen-year-old Jack Fessenden (who also stars as Connor) captures that feeling, so familiar to kids but forgotten by adults, of mundane tasks being drawn out to the point of adventure — a feeling that fades once Stray Bullets takes a dark turn. The two friends quote Scarface and Apocalypse Now as they head to the trailer they’ve been tasked with cleaning out, distancing themselves from the reality of their situation.
In these early scenes the film seems on the verge of making cogent points about how young minds process violence, whether real or fictional, but then the necessities of plot intervene: An initially separate narrative thread finds three criminals on the lam after a job gone wrong. The film doesn’t fare as well once this trio (including Fessenden’s father, Larry, a longtime character actor) takes over, as the young filmmaker almost does too good a job of making the thugs seem two-bit and inept. (Watching one slowly bleed out in the back of a getaway vehicle, Reservoir Dogs–style, is somehow more reminiscent of the Wet Bandits from Home Alone, which is oddly appropriate.)
If we’re grading on a curve, though — and seriously, it bears repeating: Fessenden is literally sixteen years old — it’s impossible not to give the film kudos for being a not-bad genre exercise that shows promise for its precocious director.