Dir. Larry Fessenden (1995 112 mins, 16mm, 1.33)
Larry Fessenden, Meredith Snaider, Aaron Beall, Patricia Coleman, Heather Woodbury, Jesse Hartman
Autumn in New York. Sam has broken up with his girlfriend and his father has recently died. World-weary and sloppy drunk, he finds temporary solace in the arms of Anna, a mysterious woman who draws him away from his friends and into a web of addiction and madness.
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ONE OF THE 13 BEST HORROR FILMS OF THE 90s!
ONE OF THE BEST FILMS OF THE YEAR!
NOMINATED! for 2 1998 Spirit Awards
1999 Williamsburg Film Festival: 3 time winner!! Audience Award, Best Actor, Best Editing
1998 Lone Tentacle Award for Fantastic Film, Boulder CO
1997 IFP WEST Someone to Watch Award
1996 Long Island Film Festival “Best of the Festival”
Literate, Funny, and creepier than anything you’ll find at the multiplex, HABIT leaves you exhilarated
Startling … A truly unique vision!
NEWSDAY, (***1/2 stars of 4)
John Anderson, Friday, Nov 14, 1997
(***1/2 stars) ALL HIS LOVE’S IN VEIN
If it had been made in Hollywood for $25 million, pundits would be touting the urbanely macabre HABIT as the Wellesian tour de force of the ’90s. Given that it was made in New York for a little less than $200,000, in little more than a month, we’ll just have to call it amazing.
Erotically charged and infused with dread, HABIT is set in New York’s version if Transylvania (the East Village), where Sam (Larry Fessenden), a part-time bar manager and full-time alcoholic, is on the express train to oblivion. His father has recently died and it pains him; his romance with Liza (Heather Woodbury) has deteriorated. Although she loves him she’s leaving Sam anyway.
These relationships aren’t particularly clear-cut, neither is Sam’s battle with himself – not at first, anyway. Over the course of the film history asserts itself, but Fessenden refuses to dump his characters’ stories in our laps. He lets them leech out, the way they would naturally. He startles us with visual asides, odd angles and eerie visages – his intermittent cutaways to a ship in New York harbor evoke the vampires’ journey in “Dracula”; the sound of a Ferris wheel in Little Italy, whose joint-creaking clamor sounds like cracking bone, augments the Manhattan Gothic texture that HABIT creates.
It’s at a Halloween party thrown by his friends Nick (Aaron Beall) and Rae (Patricia Coleman) that Sam, drunk and vaguely destructive, meets Anna (Meredith Snaider). Sly and physically suggestive, she makes an unqualified sexual overture and they hit the streets, where she promptly disappears. But she’ll be back, with increasing frequency. And appetite.
In linking Sam and Anna’s furious sexual coupling with Anna’s need to tap Sam’s corpuscles, Fessenden is following a bloody tradition, running from Bram Stoker to Federico Garcia Lorca to Tod Browning to Francis Ford Coppola, that draws out of the vampire legend not just its metaphorical content but its vein of profoundly predatory sexuality. But Sam is also draining off his own life through alcohol. And never does it strike him that a drink-sodden bar manager with fewer teeth than possibilities might not have a lot to offer a woman as sophisticated as Anna. Unless it was a high platelet count.
Ego is always one part of the vampire story how else would one justify living forever? Force of personality is another; in any relationship, the legend implies, one partner feeds while the other drains. It’s a very modern myth that suggests drugs and AIDS and has been explored in recent years by Abel Ferrara in THE ADDICTION and Michael Almareyda in NADJA. Fessenden’s version, in which the monster intrudes upon a thoroughly convincing contemporary world, is the most convincing of all.
And this makes HABIT, which Fessenden wrote, directed and edited, a scary film. HABIT was selected Best Film at the ’96 Long Island Film Festival. Good choice, because filmmaking, clearly is in his blood.
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Kenneth Turan, Wednesday, October 29, 1997
Calendar Highlights: ‘HABIT’ TAKES NEW BITE OUT OF AN OLD TALE
If an attractive member of the opposite sex with “kind of a timeless quality” came on to you at a hip New York party, would you wonder if this was one of the undead or just be pleasantly surprised? If the best sex of your life resulted, how much would it matter if you started feeling weaker and began noticing what look suspiciously like bite marks on your body? Would you assume the worst or just think your tired mind was playing odd little tricks on you?
Larry Fessenden’s impressive “Habit” takes a great deal of pleasure in ambiguously playing around with the vampire tradition. It allows viewers to experience these dilemmas in the same way the protagonist does, gradually but surely imprisoning us and him in an obsessive situation from which escape may not be possible or even desired.
An adroit arty/spooky example of what’s come to be known as no-budget filmmaking (projects under $200,000), “Habit” helped win Fessenden – who wrote and edited the film along with starring and directing – last year’s Someone to Watch Award from Swatch and the Independent Feature Project.
Though his work has rarely surfaced in theaters, Fessenden has been making films for more than a decade, and his experience shows in how confidently he and cinematographer Frank DeMarco create an air of haunted and unsettling menace out of the rather pedestrian streets of Lower Manhattan.
Sam (Fessenden) is a heavy drinking restaurant manager, a guy known among his friends for getting wasted early and often. A shambling and feckless wastrel who’s never bothered to replace a front tooth lost in a mugging, Sam thinks he’s hipness personified, but in fact he’s just another lonely boy in the big city, more of a psychological soft touch than he can imagine.
Having just lost his father and opted for a trial separation from his artist girlfriend Liza (Heather Woodbury), Sam in at greater loose ends than usual when Anna (Meredith Snaider) seems to materialize in front of him at a Halloween party. There’s an immediate connection between them, but Sam is too drunk to effectively capitalize on it, and as hard as he tries once he sobers up, he can’t find her.
Then, just when he’s given up hope, Anna finds him at a Little Italy street fair, holding out two Ferris wheel tickets and offering “the ride of your life.” They have an intense sexual encounter that very night, and when Sam wakes up alone in Battery Park the next morning, there is a prominent wound on his lower lip.
The pattern of that voraciously physical first encounter becomes the norm for this relationship. Appearing unexpectedly Anna teases Sam into having sex in unlikely public places, even in a hospital morgue, while steadfastly refusing to reveal anything about herself. “The less you know about me, the longer you’ll be interested,” she tells him. “Men like to fall in love, not stay in love.”
While his friends ineffectually worry about how strung out he’s looking and how physically wrecked he’s become, Sam, completely intoxicated with Anna, doesn’t care to hear it. The question “Habit” asks is not so much can he escape Anna’s influence, but does he even want to.
Though many of the performances in “Habit” mark time at best, Snaider makes a powerful impression in her film debut as the direct, soft-spoken, preternaturally composed Anna. Her assured, attractive characterization is the critical element in the film’s success, and she manages to be so genuinely otherworldy you start to wonder if she only worked after dark.
Part of the spooky fun of “Habit” is noticing how Fessenden has discreetly sprinkled traditional vampire film paraphernalia throughout his story. We catch glimpses of a derelict ship and a pack of wolves, a Van Helsing-type character makes a brief appearance, and Anna is troubled by the smell of garlic.
Some of these elements pay off in expected ways, some do not, but all fit with a satisfying smoothness into a 90s urban environment. Imagining you’re seeing the undead all around once you leave the theater is a hazard of watching “Habit.” You might even be right.
Amy Taubin, Wednesday, November 12, 1997
Even if you’ve had it with vampires, you might be unmoored by HABIT, a Dostoyevskian East Village romance between an alcoholic restaurant manager with a penchant for slicing up his arms at parties and a mysterious woman who may or may not be drinking his blood.
Written by, directed by, and starring Larry Fessenden (winner of the 1997 Independent Feature Project;s “Someone to Watch” award), Habit is a quintessentially New York film – as paranoid a portrait of the city as ROSEMARY’S BABY or TAXI DRIVER. Not particularly scary while you’re sitting there, it packs its power punch after it’s over, altering your perception of familiar streets and seemingly ordinary people, alerting you to the vampire within and without.
It’s Halloween, and Sam (Fessenden) is on the street chatting up an intense woman he’s just met at a party. Sam is compelling, though a bit too burn out to be attractive. A runty Jack Nicholson look-alike with stringy hair and tired skin, he’s wearing a papier mache Pinocchio nose and a white ostrich plume pinned rakishly to the back of his head. The defiantly phallic effect is midway between comic and creepy (one could say the same thing about the film as a whole). As Sam sways drunkenly, the handheld camera is forced to make tiny adjustments to keep him in the frame. The movements are small enough to pass unnoticed, but there’s no doubt that they have a cumulative kinetic effect. It’s this camera strategy, as much the narrative, that leaves you feeling at the end of Habit as if the rug has been pulled out from under you. Which is to say that Fessenden is a real filmmaker, not just a guy with a personal story to tell about alcoholism, abandonment, castration anxiety and other such nifty things.
Having recently lost his father and broken up with his girlfriend, and with his drinking habit out of control, Sam is in bad shape. Vulnerable and adrift, he plunges into an affair with Anna (Meredith Snaider), the mystery woman whose sexual aggression balances his extreme passivity. But soon he begins to feel as if she’s draining the life out of him. “I think you’ve been having very unsafe sex,” answers a practical-minded friend when Sam wonders whether Anna’s biting habit, not to mention her abstinence from food and drink, might be evidence of vampirism. But whether Anna’s powers are supernatural or merely projections of Sam’s alcohol-damaged psyche, the effect is the same. Sam is desperate to escape from Anna, even if they both have to die in the process.
Shot and edited with great sophistication, Habit (which cost a mere $190,000) has a caught-on-the-fly, over-saturated look that’s perfectly suited to its unkempt, boho milieu.
Fessenden (who was the best thing in Kelly Reichardt’s RIVER OF GRASS) is at least as talented an actor as he is a filmmaker. His Sam is a mix of gallows humor and raw emotion, driven by guilt and a perverse exhibitionism, the goal of which is to look as repellent as possible. Whatever you make of Habit, a film that begs for interpretation, it’s anything but a vanity production.
The talented Fessenden, who’s garnered lots of attention at recent film festivals, performs writer, director, editor, and star duties with equal mastery. Literate, funny, and creepier than anything you’ll find at the multiplex, HABIT leaves you exhilarated by its bare-bones ingenuity and eager for Fessenden’s next work.
(*** stars of 4) RogerEbert.com - CHICAGO SUN TIMES
Roger Ebert, March 21, 1997
Are we all agreed–all of us except for Anne Rice–that there is no such thing as a vampire? Yes? And yet the children of the darkness prey on our imaginations, and there is something inexplicably erotic about vampirism. “Habit,” a sad and haunting film by Larry Fessenden, is a modern vampire story, or maybe it’s not. Maybe in a way the hero is drinking his own blood.
Fessenden stars as Sam, an alcoholic whose life is in disrepair. He spends every waking moment drinking, suggesting a drink or recovering from a drink. His life reflects the discontinuous reality of the advanced alcoholic, for whom life is like being in a room where the lights go on and off unexpectedly. He more or less lives in a bar in Greenwich Village, although he has an explanation: “I’m the manager four days a week.” Sam’s girlfriend, Liza (Heather Woodbury), has moved out. She’s still friendly, but has grown tired of waiting for him to decide to do something about his drinking. His best friend is Nick (Aaron Beall), who wanders around town in a long overcoat, clutching a bottle inside a paper bag and affecting theatrical speech.
One night at a party, very drunk, Sam finds himself talking to an attractive brunet named Anna (Meredith Snaider). She’s one of those women who looks at you so attentively you feel self-conscious. Anna looks too attractive for Sam, who is missing some front teeth, needs a shave, and is slurring his words. But one thing leads to another, and eventually he finds himself having sex at her hands, and waking up in a park in the morning with a bloody lip.
He keeps losing track of Anna, but no matter: She has a way of turning up. Sex with her is great (“It’s like having hot milk run through your veins”), but he keeps finding little bites and cuts here and there on his body. And he keeps on drinking. “I’m just not feeling right,” he complains. Nick blithely explains that Sam’s poor health may be because of “a change in the weather.” Now, then. Is Anna a vampire? Or not? Fessenden’s movie is a sly exercise in ambiguity. More than one explanation fits all of the events in the film, even those we see with our own eyes. Of all the recent vampire movies (“Interview with the Vampire,” “The Addiction,” “Nadja”), this is the only one to suggest that the powerful symbolism of vampirism could create results even in the absence of causes. You could be killed by vampires even if they do not exist.
The movie is done in a flat, realistic tone that is perfectly suited to the material. Fessenden, Snaider, Beall and Patricia Coleman (as Nick’s girlfriend) are all naturalistic actors who find a convincing everyday tone; Snaider is particularly good at controlling a role that was almost doomed to be overacted. And Woodbury, as the ex-girlfriend, supplies the right note of cool, detached sanity.
I have been receiving a lot of mail lately from those who feel I need to have David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” explained to me. Their explanations are invariably detailed and serenely confident, even though none of them agree. One correspondent, who has obviously never read a single one of my reviews except for “Lost Highway,” lectured me that I should be more open to the experimental and not limit myself to praising formula films. I wrote to him privately in colorful detail; publicly, to him and his kind, I recommend “Habit,” which in the subtlety of its ambiguity reveals “Lost Highway” as an exercise in search of a purpose.
Fessenden, who wrote, directed, acted, and edited this film, is a talent to watch. That he is able to see himself with such objectivity is almost frightening; there is not a shred of ego in his performance. Wandering about the streets, coat flapping open, aimless, sad, drinking without even remembering why, his Sam is an ideal vampire’s victim, because he takes so long to catch on. But then of course perhaps that’s because there is no such thing as a vampire.
Michael Wilmington, Friday, March 21, 1997
EROTIC ‘HABIT’ CHILLINGLY REVAMPS VAMPIRE GENRE
*** (three stars)
His eyes haunted, speech slurred and hair and clothes askew, filmmaker-star Larry Fessenden presents a terrifically tense and unguarded portrait of a Lower Manhattan guy on the edge in the modern-day horror movie “Habit.”
What possesses Fessenden’s raffishly dissolute East Village restaurant manager, Sam? Alcoholism and madness? Or the raging blood lust of a vampire lover who has him in thrall?
Against a background that often seems paralyzingly real, Fessenden and a fine cast take us on a voyage into the terrors of the subjective: a nightmare that, until the final seconds (and perhaps not even then), we can never be sure is a dream or not.
The film begins deceptively, suggesting either a Cassavetes-style naturalistic drama or even a budding romantic comedy. When we first see Sam, he’s on his way (dressed as a minimalist Cyrano de Bergerac) to a Halloween party. There he hooks up with old friends Nick (Aaron Beall) and Rae (Patricia Coleman) and meets Anna (Meredith Snaider), an intense, brainy, been-around New York girl with close-cropped black hair and piercing dark eyes. No-nonsense Anna picks him up fast, but disappears into the night before their assignation.
From then on, Fessenden and Snaider keep us on a knife-edge of erotic uncertainty. Sam and Anna keep reconnecting and indulging in wild lovemaking sessions, where despite his enthusiasm, he’s troubled by her habit of deep bites (“really unsafe sex” as a friend remarks), her avoidance of garlic and mimirrorsnd her nights-only appearances.
Another incident haunts him. Hell-raising co-worker Lenny (Jesse Hartman) vanishes after describing a nighttime orgy on a pleasure boat. Sam’s sensible ex-girlfriend Liza (Heather Woodbury) is upset, jealous. The older friends of his recently deceased dad show concern. Ebullient Nick and Rae try to keep him on keel. But, vampire or not, Anna is someone who can overwhelm all barriers.
Fessenden also wrote, directed and edited this chillingly smart low-budget shocker, and he cannily suggests throughout two possible interpretations. As Sam pursues and is chased by the enigmatic Anna; we could be watching the phantasms of his addiction insanity. Or something else: a night of the sexy undead.
As in the cult gem “Vampire’s Kiss,” “Habit” evokes true horror: the fear that you can trust nothing around you, especially the evidence of your own senses.
To heighten the uncertainty, Fessenden makes Sam’s world as real as possible. (That’s why the scenes shot outside Sam’s viewpoint are probably a mistake.” Fessenden portrays an alcoholic’s world with wounding veracity: the distortions, blackouts, eruptions and swooning ecstasies. Among the movie’s most sheerly frightening moments are the ones that visualize a drunk’s porous, jolted consciousness; the shock cuts when Sam suddenly awakens curled up on park grass or on a subway train far past his stop (with his pant leg slit and his wallet gone).
Fessenden is a filmmaker-actor of real talent and resourcefulness and “Habit,” made for a paltry $190,000, puts to shame many studio movies with budgets a hundred times as big. The writing is sharp, the entire cast is good and the atmosphere of the East Village caught to perfection.
“Habit” also shows once again the resilience of the vampire legend, so universally known by now that we can understand why anyone – especially a guy as susceptible as Sam – could get sucked into this nightmare. Whether it’s metaphor or reality, the film’s naturalistic portrait of seeming vampire love can make hearts race and blood freeze.
Joe Leydon, April 1996
“It may be late in the day for yet another hip vampire drama set in New York’s East Village, but HABIT manages to impress with plausible scripting, first-rate performances and an unsettling mood of mounting dread.
“Larry Fessenden performs as a multi-hyphenate, doing quadruple duties as writer, director, editor and leading man. He is effectively cast as Sam, an alcoholic restaurant manager who’d drinking even more after the death of his father and a break-up with his girlfriend. Early on, it’s established that Sam is experiencing frequent blackouts an occasional delusions, so that he doesn’t trust his own perceptions when he starts to suspect that his new lover, a mysterious beauty named Anna (Meredith Snaider), may be a vampire.
“Fessenden eschews the campiness of NADJA and the pretentiousness of THE ADDICTION, preferring a style best described as only slightly heightened realism. HABIT is wickedly amusing as it focuses on the perverse eroticism that is intrinsic to the vampire myth–Sam is obviously having the best sex he’s ever had–but the pic wisely refrains from pushing the humor too far.
“Unfortunately, HABIT tries to have it both ways in a finale that fails to resolve the mysteries and lacks emotional punch. Even so, Fessenden does manage some suitably creepy sequences, along with a couple of erotically charged frissons.
“As Ann, Snaider gives a self-assured performance that is aptly enigmatic and provocatively sensuous. Standouts in the supporting cast include Heather Woodbury as Sam’s jealous ex-girlfriend, and Aaron Beall as Sam’s cynical, but concerned, best friend.
“On a tech level, HABIT makes the most of an obviously limited budget. Frank DeMarco’s evocative cinematography is particularly noteworthy.”
Joshua Katzman, March 21, 1997
“Written directed an edited and starring Larry Fessenden, this tour de force low budget indie makes intelligent use of vampirism as an allegory for myriad compulsive tendencies: self-mutiliation, alcoholism, sexual obsession, alienation and the madness of living in New York. There’s been a run of recent film dealing with modern vampires in the big Apple- including Michael Almereyda’s NADJA and Abel Ferrrar’s THE ADDICTION – but what makes Fessenden’s effort stand out is its complete lack of camp.
Set in Soho, it tells the story of Sam, an alcholic restaurant manager whose girlfriend has decided to move out on him. Just barely keeping things together, a drunken Sam is smitten by the mysterious Anna at a friend’s Halloween party. They begin a torrid affair, and Sam quickly realizes there are a couple of strange things about Anna: she never seems to eat, has a propensity for biting Sam while they’re making out, and refuses to tell him what she does for a living. To Fessenden’s credit, the line is blurred between what is really happening and what represents Sam’s descent into madness. A thought provoking modern-day fable of life in the big city.”
CHICAGO NEW CITY
Ray Pride, March 20, 1997
A gritty tale of East Village haplessness that turns into addictive hopelessness. Shooting on a very low budget over a three-month period by a crew of seven in Manhattan’s East Village, the Upper West Side, Harlem, Central Park, Little Italy and Wall Street, writer-director-editor-actor Larry Fessenden works in geography both external and internal in telling the story of a restaurant manager, who after the death of his father and a breakup with his girlfriend, starts to drink to excess, which leads him deeper into despair and delusion. “Habit” almost seems like a documentary by Dostoevsky at moments, such is the conviction in Fessenden’s conception of and performance of this lonely, wounded man whose meeting with a seductive woman (Meredith Snaider) furthers his downward spiral. Is she a vampire? Does blood kill? Is the East Village this hateful and deadly? Dark yet haunting, bleak yet ferociously plausible, “Habit” answers a definite “maybe” to all those questions.
By Ray Pride, CHICAGO NEW CITY, 3/27/97
She’s Gotta Habit:
While the Oscars recognized the cream of the established indiefilm crop this year, Saturday night’s Independent Spirit Awards (most of which went to “Fargo”) also gave an award that should be the fantasy of any struggling filmmaker-$20,000 cash. The “Someone to Watch Award,” sponsored, punningly, by Swatch, is given to “an independent filmmaker who has demonstrated unique vision and talent and has not yet received recognition,” and selected by the likes of Vogue film critic John Powers and former Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks executive Michele Forman. The choice this year? Longtime Manhattan writer-actor-editor-director Larry Fessenden, whose gritty, slippery East Village vampire fever dream, “Habit,” is playing for a second week at Facets. Fessenden will discuss “Habit”-and his award, if you ask-after the 7pm show on Friday, March 28.
“SEE IT NOW, WORTH FULL PRICE!”
“What is this current obsession with vampirism anyway? Sometimes I think it’s just an acceptable way to talk about sex in repressive times. At other times I wonder if we’re experiencing a communal feeling of being sucked dry by someone or something in this era of fin de siecle malaise. At any rate, the vampire movies keep coming and I always run out to see them, although I fainted about 15 minutes into INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE (actually I think I just fell asleep.)
“Fortunately, Larry Fessenden’s Habit is not another movie for the Anne Rice set. It starts out as a film about urban alienation and self destructive behavior, but borrows heavily from the vampire/horror genre as its story progresses. Fessenden lets us laugh at the whole vampire concept periodically, but he never resorts to Lugosi-saluting camp like another recent vampire opus, NADJA
“It’s Halloween, and Fessenden’s character is a New York Bohemian struggling with grief over his acedemic father’s death. His girlfriend is reluctantly moving out of their apartment, but Sam is so imprisoned by his own ambivalence that he barely notices. At his married friend’s Halloween party he staggers about drunkenly, wearing a fake nose and pretending to be Cyrano de Bergerac, until he runs into a mysterious party crasher named Anna (MEREDITH SNAIDER). Obviously a rich, gorgeous, “together” person, Anna seems out of Sam’s League, but she has an otherworldly understanding and acceptance of his morbid tendencies. She makes a straightforward play for him, and though she disappears before anything serious happens. am is immediately hooked. Later Anna and Sam cross paths at a street festival and they end up in battery Park, where Anna pushes Sam up against a statue, bites his lip and, shall we say, has her way with him…
“My biggest problem with femme fatale films is that the female characters tend to be flattened into the opposing icons of earth mother and castrating demon. Habit certainly follows this pattern, and I had to laugh at some of the really obvious male fantasies exhibited herein. (I mean honestly–isn’t it every man’s fantasy to be simultaneously bled and raped by Vampira?) Still, the actresses playing female characters give strong performances, and their characters are more three-dimensionalthan those in 99% of the movies I’ve seen this year.
“Although Habit is ostensibly about vampires, it ultimately seems to say more about living in New York City. And that’s what I liked best about it. The New York of Habit is spooky, dissipated, dark, noisy, filthy and dangerous as hell–and after I saw it, I wanted to get on a plane and go there right away. I guess some of us just can’t get enough of a bad thing.”
” *** (three stars) A depressed, self-mutilating alcoholic, who has recently lost his father and broken up with his girlfriend, is easy prey for a seductive young vampire named Anna. Not as slick as INTERVIEW, as stylish as NADJA or as moody as NOSTFERATU, but in many ways this low budget erotic thriller could be the most believable vampire flick I’ve ever seen. Both lead actors are solid.”
Shot with a crew of seven over the course of three months in Manhattan’s East Village, the Upper West Side, Harlem, Central Park, Little Italy, Battery Park and long Island, HABIT is a love song to the city and the lives of quiet desperation that play out underneath its grand architecture.
The festival print of HABIT was completed two days before its world premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival in October 1995. Since then the film has been screened at New York’s Walter Reade Theater Independents Night; and U.S. festivals including L.A., Long Island, (winner, best of the festival), Ft. Lauderdale, and Slumdance at Park City. International screenings include Berlin Market and festivals in Oldenburg, Troia, Barcelona, Frankfurt, Copenhagen, Latvia, Sarejevo, Cairo, Thessaloniki in Greece, and Fant-Asia 98 in Montreal and Toronto.
NOTES FROM THE DIRECTOR
Habit is an allegorical tale about loneliness and the subjectivity of life’s experience. The movie is constructed to support various interpretations of what happens to the character Sam, because you can never know the truth about someone else’s demons, and the interpretation you come up with says something about you yourself. I wanted this lack of resolve to exist for the film, to draw attention to the metaphors intrinsic to the horror genre.
I approached Dayton Taylor to produce because he had worked hard as production manager on my movie NO TELLING and I knew he’d gained a lot of experience since then. I told him I wanted to put the script in the can for under $100,000. I put up the initial money and the crew put up their time and their connections, and we shot for 45 days over a period of three months.
Our cast and locations we drew from resources and acquaintances in the downtown art community as well as film people with whom Dayton and I had worked before–except Meredith the lead, who we found through an open casting call.
For night shoots in the city streets, we used a low-light film stock (500 ASA) and chose locations that had preexisting light sources. Or we powered D.P. Frank DeMarco’s strange array of light fixtures with a car battery. We used extra crew on big shoots, which at times involved city permits and police escorts. For certain surrealistic sequences, we devised in-camera special effects: double exposure and speed changes, and various custom lenses and hand-rigged cranes invited a little of the unexpected into our dailies.
I try to set a mood of collaboration on the set, blending solid preparation with a come-what-may attitude. Frank DeMarco had worked on documentaries before HABIT, so he was used to working spontaneously and with limited resources. And Dayton had internalized a lot of my ideas during pre-production, so the three of us were able to riff on the opportunities presented by fate while maintaining a single vision for the film. I am most able to open up to collaboration during production when I know I’m going to edit the movie, because I know I’ll have the last word. HABIT was edited on an Avid in about five months, and mixed in Protools at GLC, a post production house in New York.
I wanted to build a musical soundtrack with source music from different genres, but music licensing is prohibitively expensive, so I ended up assigning genres to different musicians with whom I’d played music before. In designing the sound, I was going for a rhythm of sounds that might be rich enough to listen to without the picture. When I was young, before video, I would record movies on audio-cassette and listen to them over and over. I gained an appreciation for sound design and sound’s effect on perception.
Ultimately, the experience of making the film was about getting something grandiose through very limited means, mirroring my theme of finding the mythic in the everyday: the struggle of the common man over fear, loneliness and desire is everyone’s mythic journey.
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 pay 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.
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.
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
LARRY FESSENDEN, “Sam” grew up in New York city. He performed in numerous plays throughout high school and in summer stock until he started directing and shooting films and videos in 1980. He played Lee Ray Harold in Kelly Reichardt’s acclaimed 1993 feature RIVER OF GRASS. He recently did a stint on the soap “As the World Turns” and annually performs the lead role in a puppet show of Dickens’ Scrooge.
See Fessenden’s current bio here.
MEREDITH SNAIDER, “Anna” — This is/was Meredith’s only film role.
AARON BEALL, “Nick” — is executive director of Nada, Inc. the notorious off-off Broadway Theater in New York that showcases emerging talent. He is is Artistic director of the MicroCosmic Theater company where he has created “Easy Pieces: Found Text Theater” with Emily Morse, and Solo Folio, a solo production of Shakespeare’s first folio HAMLET. As an actor, he has appeared off Broadway regionally and internationally in countless productions. HABIT is his first film.
PATRICIA COLEMAN, “Rae” — Writes and directs plays in New York City, currently adapting Herman Melville’s “Confidence Man” for the stage. She teaches English at Lehman College and is a candidate for the doctoral Program of Theater at CUNY grad school and University Center. HABIT marks her film debut.
HEATHER WOODBURY, “Liza” – Wrote and starred in the Fessenden directed HOLLOW VENUS: DIARY OF A GO-GO DANCER (1989) based on her own experiences as a dancer. Film roles: Amir Naderi’s MANHATTAN: AVENUE A, B, C and Joel Schlemovitz’s VENUS IN FURS. She has been a writer and performer in New York’s downtown scene for ten years, presenting solo shows including WHITE GILT, ANTAGONY, and DELUGIANS OF GRANDEUR at venues including LaMama, The Kitchen, Franklin Furnace, and P.S. 122. She established the Lower East Side performance club Cafe Bustello which flowered 1987-1990. Currently she is touring her own solo epic performance piece, HEATHER WOODBURY’S “WHAT EVER”.
JESSE HARTMAN, “Lenny” — directed the short film HAPPY HOUR which won awards at the Berlin and Montreal film festivals, and produced Kelly Reichardt’s RIVER OF GRASS (1993, Strand Releasing). He is the song-writer and lead vocalist for the band Sammy (Geffen).
Segundo MARCUS A. MIRANDA
Slimma HERB ROGERS
Sam’s Dad HART FESSENDEN
Mr Lyons LON WATERFORD
Norman in Bridgehampton ALAN BANDIT
Sandy in Bridgehampton DALE CAMERON
kid in Bridgehampton WHITNEY ALEXANDRA McGANN
Liza’s nosy neighbor HELENE WEINTRAUB
Liza’s friend Dave MICHAEL BUSCEMI
Liza’s friend Susan Rebecca Moore
Harry at the party Jack Dingas
partygirl on phone Kelly Reichardt
carrot man Cain Berlinger
sound check guitaristJ eff Sass
sound check singer Harley Hendrix
second sound check guitarist John Margolis
salad dressing patron Philip Hartman
what’s with that guy? patron Ginny Hack
record executive on cellular phone TOM HALE
kid hurt in accident Derek Davis
Halloween delivery man Eric Vesbit
devil boy DANILO RANDJIC COLEMAN
Segundo’s wife Beverly Washington
Segundo’s son Christopher Reyes
Segundo’s daughter Jain V. Alonso
departing tenant at Liza’s John Gaddy
producer, assistant director, location sound DAYTON TAYLOR
director of photography FRANK DeMARCO
production manager, extras casting STEPHANE MITCHELL
associate producer SUSAN A. STOVER
camera assistant JAY SILVER
grip & electric ERIC OGDEN
art JOHN ARLOTTO
costumes LOREN BEVANS
still photography WHITNEY BLAKE
musical score GEOFFREY KIDDE
sound mixer, additional sound design BILL CHESLEY
additional mixing TED GANNON
FLAMIN’ AMY AND SWEET POTATA
DAYTON TAYLOR (producer, assistant director, location sound) was production manager on Fessenden’s 1991 feature NO TELLING, and has produced several multimedia pieces for New York based theater artist John Jesurun. He has assistant directed and production managed many independent features, documentaries, TV commercials, and music videos. His own short film, LOVE’S CHOICE, is in the permanent film collection at the Museum of Modern Art. He is the President of Digital Air Inc, and the inventor of a patent-pending camera system which has been featured in American Cinematographer and Scientific American magazines.
FRANK DeMARCO (director of photography) was the principal director of photography and associate producer on Steven M. Martin’s documentary feature entitled THEREMIN: AN ELECTRONIC ODYSSEY (1995-Orion Classics; Sundance Film Festival’s 1994 Filmmaker’s Trophy Award), about the world’s strangest musical instrument; was a D.P. on director Charles Guggenheim’s THE JOHNSTOWN FLOOD (1990, Academy Award for best short documentary); The President’s House (1988) directed by Academy Award winner Paul Wagner; and was D.P. and associate producer on the forthcoming feature RED LIPSTICK by producer/director Alex King. He has shot second Unit on features for directors including Henry Jaglom, Ang Lee, and Bob Balaban. DeMarco has numerous television, commercial, and music video credits. He is the inventor of the Frank-o-Slate and the Logo-Scope, patented motion picture apparatuses.
SUSAN A STOVER (associate producer) After practicing as a litigator for five years in New York City, Susan left the law to pursue producing independent projects. She was associate producer of Kelly Reichardt’s RIVER OF GRASS; associate producer of Tod Solondz’s WELCOME TO THE DOLL HOUSE and co-produced Rachel Reichman’s WORK. She produced the short FLEX, and line produced Bill Oliver’s short THE DEBUTANTES and the Good Machine feature LOVE GOD.
STEPHANE MITCHELL (production manager, extras casting) graduated with a BFA from NYU and was camera assistant on several independent films before working on HABIT.
ERIC OGDEN (grip/electric) Before working on HABIT, Ogden worked as a storyboard artist, still photographer, art department and production assistant on films including the feature FOUR CORNERS OF NOWHERE which played Sundance in 94. He directed the 16mm short THE TOWER, and most recently finished production on a second short, THESE HILLS. He graduated with a BFA from University of Michigan’s School of Art.
JOHN ARLOTTO (art) has worked on independent films since HABIT, including the feature POPA by Richard Mancuso and Jake Paltrow’s THREE: AN EVICTION NOTICE. He Graduated with a BFA from Cornell University. He directed the 16mm short A WOMAN’S SONG.
JAY SILVER (art) comes from Chicago where he worked as second camera assistant on The TV series THE UNTOUCHABLES. He continues to work in New York as camera assistant on studio and independent features. He has worked as director of photography on several short films, including Eric Ogden’s THESE HILLS.
LOREN BEVANS (costume design) works at St Ann’s school, and has sewn costumes for Broadway and movies, including Coppola’s DRACULA.
BILL CHESLEY (mixer, aditional sound design) is the New York sound designer for the award-winning commercial post production house, Machinehead. He was sound editor on Kelly Reichardt’s feature RIVER OF GRASS and has mixed several award-winning shorts and TV shows.
TED GANNON (additional soundwork and mixes) was sound editor on Jim McKay’s GIRLSTOWN, Loch Phillips’ USE YOUR HEAD, and various feature and short projects. He has worked on Television and Music projects for Nickolodeon, MTV, and MCA records.
GEOFFREY KIDDE (music score) received his doctorate in Musical Arts from Columbia University and his Master’s degree from the New England Conservatory of music. His composition for Symphony Orchestra, “Quest” is available on MMC New Century CDs. He has worked with Fessenden on two other films, THE FIELD (1980), NO TELLING (1991); HABIT is his first feature film score.
TOM LAVERACK (original songs) plays music with Fessenden under the band name Just Desserts. They have two albums out, including 1998’s “Glive Up the Ghost” which includes music from HABIT; and a 1987 album, “Sentimental War”, and a 1991 single released on Bar None records. He composed the score for Fessenden’s 1992 feature NO TELLING, and wrote songs for two other Fessenden films: HOLLOW VENUS, STUNT
MICHAEL ROHATYN (original songs) scored Rebecca Miller’s feature ANGELA, and Miller’s short film FLORENCE. He recently composed music for Ira Sachs’ feature THE DELTA. He co-produced with Julie Cafritz the LP “Hard for Meazy for You” by the band Guv’ner.
REBECCA MOORE (original song) is a singer-songwriter and New York City stage and film actress. Her CD “Admiral Charcoal’s Song” is out on the Knitting Factory Label. She also appears in HABIT as “Susan.”
SAMMY (original song) – is Jesse Hartman and Luke Wood. Their second album “Tales of Great Neck Glory” is out on Geffen Records.
FLAMIN AMY & SWEAT POTATA (original song) – plays regularly at Dan Lynch’s Blues bar in New York.
SAD SONGS FROM SCARY MOVIES BY LARRY FESSENDEN
(2002, CD Kidde & Lakerack)
Two songs by Tom Laverack, performed by JUST DESSERTS, Includes “Mystery” and the remix of “Save You From yourself”.
September, 1994. After shooting under the eagle in Battery Park all night, we wait for the sun to come up to film Sam waking up with the early morning commuters. I hand Frank my storyboard, and he frames the shots as drawn. Before we leave, he says he sees a shot from the side, so we try that. It’s so nice that when I’m cutting, I decide to end on it, and so I build the scene a different way. This dynamic between preparation and spontaneity is my ideal way to work.
The original storyboard and final final cut structure.
This was early in the shoot, maybe our fifth day out of 45. That day we were a crew of three: FRANK DeMARCO, cinematographer; STEPHANE MITCHEL, production manager and a.c.; DAYTON TAYLOR, producer, boom and mixer. Fessenden behind still camera was director, actor and make up. (First day of blood.) Also, first day using the “pole-cam.”