Natural Selection

Larry Fessenden (2015 30 minutes, USB)

On the path to find a new species in the storied Galapogos Islands, a TV Naturalist and his cameraman encounter terrors in the night.


Eric Kohn 12/11/15

Exclusive: Listen to Dominic Monaghan in Larry Fessenden’s Ecological Thriller ‘Natural Selection’

For the next several weeks, Indiewire is exclusively premiering new episodes from the third season of “Tales From Beyond the Pale,” the audio play series produced by Glass Eye Pix. Episodes will be available for two-day windows.

The season continues with filmmaker Larry Fessenden’s “Natural Selection,” starring Dominic Monaghan. Listen to the episode above, and read interviews with Fessenden and Monaghan conducted by Indiewire’s Eric Kohn about the inspiration for the episode below.

The episode is inspired by the show “Wild Things with Dominic Monaghan.” When did you discover the show and how did you get Dominic onboard to play the lead role?
I worked with Dom on Glenn McQuaid’s movie “I Sell the Dead” and we’ve always stayed in touch, so naturally when his show came on, I tuned in. The show has a really fun travel-type vibe, lively editing and exotic locations that become increasingly remote as each episode progresses toward the discovery of some rare creature that Dom is ultimately going to commune with on camera. But what is most meaningful to me is the ethos at work; Dom is fearless but not foolish in the way of daredevil personalities stalking alligators. He is incredibly respectful of the creatures in a trans-species sort of way that is so rare in popular entertainment.

Anyway, whenever I watch a show like that, any reality TV stuff or documentaries, I always think of the cameraman who is entirely invisible to the viewer but presumably doing everything the host is, only with a camera on his shoulders. Like they used to say, Ginger Rogers was doing all Fred Astair’s moves, only backwards and in heels. So I wanted to bring that idea into a story. In all the tales we’ve done, there are very few if any that would be considered “found footage,” so I was inspired to try something with that aspect to it.

“My mind clouds over with frustration at human arrogance…so I write a horror story.”

Next, I thought of how to tell the story personally and of course my trip to the Galapagos came to mind. I don’t travel often but the remote places I’ve been are my favorite and most memorable: Iceland, Alaska, the Redwoods — the places that are about the land and the animals more than the people. You can’t really visit or think about the Galapagos Islands without thinking about evolution and the power of observation and insight that a naturalist like Darwin brought to the world. Of course, all this wonderment leads me to think about the idiotic controversies that we have in our public and political diatribes, and my mind clouds over with frustration at human arrogance and the way religious doctrine is wielded like a blunt club. So I tip over into the dark side and write a horror story.

What were the challenges of representing this setting only through audio?

I wanted to represent the remoteness of the islands by depicting the travel it takes to get there, and to take the listener from bustling Ecuador to this remote island in the sea populated only by birds. At the very end, it’s just one man and the birds. I used the motif of the chattering birds — boobies, to be precise — which are a species specific to these islands. I also have flamingos in there, which have a very unusual call. The idea was to have the vocalizations of the birds rise and fall with their excitement level and use that as a storytelling device: when they grow silent, the monster is near.

Ever since your first feature “No Telling,” you’ve dealt with ecological themes in your work. How does “Natural Selection” fit into that focus?

Spoiler alert!

“What is scariest in life is not violence and death but loneliness.” –Larry Fessenden

I think of “Natural Selection” as the story of a man who transforms into another species without fear and horror, showing his true openness to the world. In a way, the story is told from the point of view of the cameraman, who witnesses the horror and then has to confront the same fate himself. In the end, it is a story about how we confront death and change and deal with the unknown. Ross Geary, Dom’s character, undergoes his fate without judgement. It is also, as I have said, about the cameraman. He’s left alone, repeating the same experience, but without the same perspective that eased Geary’s end, so his fate is more chilling. In setting up that ending, I contemplate that what is scariest in life is not violence and death but loneliness, the simple existential truth of existence. It’s a common theme in my work.

What has changed with respect to these issues since you started tackling them in your films?

The world has become more partisan and desperate since I began thinking about ecological things in the mid-eighties. I have seen public discourse go from civilized to irrational and vitriolic. In a sense, all my worst fears are coming true as humankind has become detached from the natural world and lost in a narcissistic death spiral exacerbated by the echo chamber of the internet. All the wars and unrest we are experiencing are resource wars and climate wars, brought on by a global eco-system under deep duress. This was all foreseen decades ago in books I was reading. So while I have always operated under a sense of urgency, there is also now a feeling of resignation and sadness as well.

In a broader sense, how do you avoid simply shilling for your message without losing something in the storytelling department?

In all my work I am trying to get at a philosophical perspective about an individual’s place in the world. In the final analysis, I am trying to question the mythologies under which we exist, the basic assumptions our society operates under that in my view is not sustainable. This viewpoint, which is very personal, can be alined with the environmental movement and the talking points of various eco-causes. But then again, movies about the devil and exorcisms are in fact assuming a religious context where a devil exists. It is essential to understand where our stories are rooted. My stories may seem preoccupied with “nature,” but that’s because it’s what we as sentient beings are dealing with, not gods and devils. Those things reside in ourselves.

When will we see your next movie?

After this interview I’m sure I’ll never get financed again!

Below, Dominic Monaghan shares some thoughts on how his decision to perform in “Natural Selection.”

What made you want to do this?

Well, I love Larry, Glenn McQuaid, working with Billy Boyd, and “Tales From Beyond the Pale.” All plus points.

How did the production experience differ from what you usually do?

Always the same. Who’s the character? How do I identify with him? How can I add more? How can I help? How can I have fun?

What do you make of the ecological themes in the show?

Larry very much hit upon something that has made us close friends over the years. We share the same worries and hopes for the future of this planet. We want the same things. We see the same warnings. It’s a cautionary tale — with a little fun!

How does your own program address these issues?

I attempt to inspire curiosity and eradicate fear from some classic situations that typically inspire fear: Travel. Planes. Heights. New things. Cultures. Ideas. Creeds. Unknown foods. And animals, of course.

Why would someone familiar with your show want to check out this episode?

I think they both exist as two separate things just fine, but if you have seen Larry and I in “I Sell the Dead,” or seen Billy and I in “The Lord of the Rings,” maybe you’ll want to check things out more. But it’s a great story full of exciting moments of suspense and intrigue. I had a lot of fun doing it and I hope that shows.

Episode 11 of TALES FROM BEYOND THE PALE The Podcast is written and directed by Larry Fessenden and stars Dominc Monaghan and Billy Boyd, know the world over as Merry and Pippin from Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS Trilogy. Monaghan went on to icon status as Charlie in JJ Abram’s LOST and is featured in this week’s STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER, also by Abrams. Monaghan also happens to be Fessenden’s co-star in Glenn McQuaid’s Glass Eye Pix production, I SELL THE DEAD. McQuaid and Fessenden decided to have a chat about Fessenden’s audio drama “Natural Selection” in which a naturalist and his cameraman get into a heap of trouble while exploring a remote Galapagos Island. Glenn gave Larry a ring from across the pond and here is their conversation: 

GLENN McQUAID: “Natural Selection”, if I remember correctly, was inspired by a trip to The Galápagos Islands, did the ideas flow while in the environment or in retrospect? 
LARRY FESSENDEN: I wrote the tale some years after I had been in the Galapagos Islands. But that trip was very vivid to me. And I was thinking about the Fukushima Nuclear disaster (March 2011) and the anxiety a lot of people had that the Pacific Ocean currents would bring nuclear waste to the shores of L.A. Well, the Galapagos Islands might also be affected in that scenario.  There is of course a tradition of making monsters out of nuclear disaster (GODZILLA, anyone?), so I was riffing on those tropes.
GM: And pollution in general. PROPHESY comes to mind And Have you see THE HOST by Bong Joon-ho? It has the most profound opening where an American  scientist orders his assistant to empty bottles of formaldehyde into the Han River. It’s surreal in its cause-and-effect simplicity. 
LF: Of course, love both those flicks! Nature revenge movies, a class all their own.
GM: I completely forgot that Natural Selection adheres to the found-footage format, what inspired you to take a stab at that style for an audio drama?
LF: I always find it funny when you see a character in a remote situation on these reality TV shows and they seem to be alone and suffering but I say, what about the cameraman? So I wanted to bring that into the story. And yes, try doing a “found-footage” piece for radio.
The piece came together very organically. I had been haunted by my trip to the Galapagos for some time, the sounds as well as the images; it was certainly a great setting for the sort of immersive audio tales we are interested in creating. You and I have both been intrigued by the sort of nature audio that is out there, sound of the seashore or birds that play for an hour…
GM: Dan Gibson‘s series of SOLITUDES records have always inspired me and I have had a mind to make a serious of nature records myself but each one should have a hidden little spot of peculiarity to them, a drowning or a rift in the space time fabric.
LF: My favorite of my Tales are the ones where I have collected my own ambiences. For “The Hole Digger” I got my sound from Cape Cod where the story takes place. There’s a drowning in that one!

GM: I have fond memories of Dom between takes on I SELL THE DEAD, rummaging through bushes and investigating the local insect life of the grave yards we shot in, and since then he went on to have his own nature show, he seems like the perfect lead for Natural Selection, was he on your mind when writing? What was his response to the material. 

LF: Dom has a TV show called WILD THINGS in which he travels to exotic locations and interacts with unusual creatures and tries to excite people about the natural wonders all around us. I knew that my story would make sense to him. While I don’t claim to be an adventurous sort, I have a deep simpatico with nature and other creatures and Dom’s attitude is a lovely and profound expression of my own sense of place in this world. Difference is, he actually goes out there…
The tale has another more existential aspect to it, and I try to contemplate the character Ross confronting death, and how he doesn’t fight it, he goes with the flow of his terrible fate without judgement and that eases his passage. But he leaves his cameraman behind to face a similar fate without the same perspective, a worse end for him.
GM: Ross is deeply enamored and respectful of the environment but through celebrating it he ends up in a bit of a bind, I’m reminded of Hoffman in THE LAST WINTER, even the good guys will suffer the consequences of mankind’s greed and willful ignorance, perhaps more so than most as they tried to do something about it. Is it fair to say this existential tragedy is made more bearable with the addition of monsters? 

LF: I always find that monsters sweeten the pot! The story here seems to be that the Ross character has too much comfort in his own relationship with nature and gets too close to the creature and it snaps at him, causing his demise. Doesn’t take away from the truth of Ross’s world view, but fate has its own plans. My stories are not about winning, but how to accept defeat. That is the place where we can all have control.  

GM: So fun to have Billy Boyd along side Dom again, they have such wonderful chemistry, how was it having them back together during  the production?
LF: The whole production was so appealing, having Billy and Dom together again, they were very endearing to be with. It was Dom’s idea to give Billy a call and I couldn’t have been more happy. I had been very immersed in the LORD OF THE RINGS movies when they came out and again as my kid grew up watching them. I love my other actors as well: Pat Healy from THE INNKEEPERS and James Ransone from IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE and more recently SINISTER and IT 2. And my pal Darroch Greer from early Glass Eye projects. It was a very congenial recording session.
But here is the thing about “Natural Selection” that is truly freaky: On Dom’s show he was in fact bitten by a giant lizard. His grace on camera after the violent shock is very telling of Dom’s philosophy and poise. To this day I don’t know which came first, my script or this strange incident. I don’t recall ever discussing it with him when we recorded the show.

Dominic Monaghan – (Natural Selection) An English actor who is best known for his role in the movie adaptations of “Lord of the Rings”. Before that, he became known in England for his role in the British television drama Hetty Wainthropp Investigates (1996) and eventually starring in the hit television series LOST. 

Billy Boyd – (Natural Selection) A Scottish actor best known for his role in the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. 

James Ransone – (Natural Selection) Is an actor known for his roles in SINISTER 1 & 2. He attended Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson, Maryland from 1993-1997. The school is a “magnet school” that allows students to specialize in subjects such as theater, dance, writing, fine arts, and film as well as all the required academic classes. Ransone specialized in theater, then changed majors to fine arts and graduated in 1997. he currently lives in NYC.

Pat Healy – (Natural Selection) A Chicago born actor and writer, known for MAGNOLIA, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER and RESCUE DAWN. He was also in a Glass Eye favorite, THE INNKEEPERS.