Jack Fessenden (2016 83 min, color, 2.35 : 1)
Asa Spurlock, Jack Fessenden, James Le Gros, John Speredakos, Larry Fessenden, Kevin Corrigan
In upstate New York, two teenage boys are tasked with cleaning out their father’s old mobile home on an abandoned property, but the boys are in for a surprise when they discover three crooks on the run have taken refuge in the trailer.
A blazingly confident feature debut…
An enjoyably blood-soaked thriller with unexpectedly lyrical interludes
… strikingly impressive
What distinguishes Stray Bullets from so many other
low-budget crime films is Fessenden’s sense of quietness…
reduces a stock scenario to its primal essence,
informing genre blood sport with pulp transcendentalism.
While Old People Were Complaining About Millennials,
a 16-Year-Old Made the Pretty Good Crime Thriller ‘Stray Bullets’
a pungent, tactile sense of place…
de-emphasizes the crime drama for the sake of character development
written, directed, and edited by Jack Fessenden,
who also stars in the film, composed its soundtrack,
and is among the movie’s credited chefs.
That’s an impressive array of contributions
The film has echoes of Cop Car and Mean Streets,
mixing comic juvenilia with earthy violence…
There’s a confidence and energy to Stray Bullets.
“clearly not just some kid screwing around with a camera.
Putting his pedigree aside, he makes the case that he is a director
worth keeping an eye on”
“One of the most intense films thus far to be released in 2017…
a methodical character study… utilizes dread and suspense
the way most other crime thrillers would use shootouts and car chases…”
“One thing that is particularly impressive
is the world that Jack has created
and the collection of fascinating bad guys that inhabit it.
They are people that demand more screen time
and easily could be featured in additional movies in the future”
in a film which foregrounds character and dialog ahead of slam-bang pyrotechnics.
…the director really hits his stride in these latter stages,
deploying slow-motion in a mature, sparing fashion,
and making particularly effective use of his own haunting, guitar-heavy score
It’s what some people might call “elevated genre”,
|something in the vein of Blue Ruin, and to be able to pull that off
at age 16 is quite simply remarkable.
I now eagerly await what Jack has got up his sleeve next!
Kudos to Jack Fessenden who receives praise for
delivering an impressive debut with an equally impressive score.
I’ll be watching this young man’s progress.
Show us what you’ve got Jack
High School Auteur: Teenager Jack Fessenden
makes an auspicious genre feature debut with ‘Stray Bullets’
Teenage multi-hyphenate Jack Fessenden delivers a low-budget US indie thriller, world-premiering at the edgy German fest.
In most instances a filmmaker’s age is irrelevant when discussing the merits of their work, but it’s impossible to view Jack Fessenden’s Stray Bullets with detached objectivity when aware he was 15 during the shooting and 16 when the film bowed to ticket-buyers. An enjoyably blood-soaked thriller with unexpectedly lyrical interludes — made very much in the shadow of classic genre forebears and on what was clearly a constrained budget — this is a strikingly impressive calling-card.
It’s a mark of Fessenden’s freakish precocity that the picture would doubtless secure numerous midnight-slot festival bookings and additional small-screen exposure even if programmers and buyers knew nothing of his extreme youth. As it is, the film has a unique marketing hook which will doubtless be exploited to the max by Fessenden’s dad Larry, a very shrewd operator with decades of indie-biz experience under his belt. North American premiere is scheduled for the Woodstock Film Festival next month in upstate New York, close to where most of the shooting took place.
Guinness World Records lists Nepalese 7-year-old Saugat Bista as the globe’s youngest feature-director, but Fessenden Jr appears to be unchallenged in terms of the English-speaking world. Starting early is clearly in the genes: Fessenden Sr. was also 16 when he made his first film, four-minute Super 8 road-movie The Eliminator (1979). Barely seen until released on a compilation DVD decades later, this was a shaky first step on a busily prolific career that has included acting jobs for Martin Scorsese, Kelly Reichardt, Joe Swanberg and many others, plus numerous outings as director and/or producer.
He plays an eyecatching supporting role and serves as DoP here, with his wife Beck Underwood overseeing production-design and costumes. Their offspring, however, receives sole credit for directing, writing, editing and for composing and arranging the atmospheric score (performing keyboards, guitar and percussion) and is even listed among the production’s five chefs. Yes, he cooks too.
Fessenden Jr, who has been honing his craft on shorts for several years and appeared in his dad’s Wendigo (2001) and The Last Winter (2006) as a tot, is clearly more than capable on all creative fronts — even if his acting chops currently fall a little short of his behind-the-camera talents. But that isn’t much distraction, as his connections have landed him a slew of hugely experienced character-actors including top-billed James Le Gros and the more fleetingly-glimpsed Kevin Corrigan.
Among the fresher faces, Asa Spurlock — who bears a striking resemblance to Ezra Miller — is the standout as Ash, a soft-spoken and sensitive sort who spends most of his free time with his brasher best pal Connor (Jack Fessenden). After larking around in the woods near their home in an unspecified corner of rural New York State, the duo stumble into the clutches of three desperate gangsters. The criminals (Le Gros, Larry Fessenden and John Speredakos) have fled the City in the messy wake of a shootout, with an implacable hitman (Corrigan) close on their heels.
Fessenden switches smoothly back and forth between Ash and Connor’s bucolic escapades with a stolen paintball gun and the gangsters’ profanity-laced exchanges in their speeding car as Fessenden Sr.’s Charlie bleeds out on the back seat. Innocence and experience duly collide in the second half, but the screenplay delivers a few nicely unexpected developments — including one seriously shattering leftfield jolt — in a film which foregrounds character and dialog ahead of slam-bang pyrotechnics. When push comes to shove in the final reel, however, Fessenden stages the inevitable gunplay with persuasive brio — aided by special makeup effects by seasoned maestro Brian Spears.
Leaping far beyond the occasional rough edges of his opening scenes, the director really hits his stride in these latter stages, deploying slow-motion in a mature, sparing fashion, and making particularly effective use of his own haunting, guitar-heavy score. Indeed, on this evidence Fessenden could probably pursue a career in music if the challenge of film-making palls. Anyone invested in the art-form’s future, however, will firmly hope he can go on to emulate the likes of Don Coscarelli and Xavier Dolan, for whom teenage kicks augured accurately for achievements to come.
Chuck Bowen 2/5/17
By Chuck Bowen
February 5, 2017
While shooting Stray Bullets, Jack Fessenden—the film’s writer, director, composer, and co-star—was 16 years old. Filmmaking at any age or level of confidence is remarkable, but Fessenden’s accomplishment is particularly impressive, as he sidesteps many of the clichés and uncertainties that mark the efforts of neophytes, especially when working in the crime genre. Crime films have a tendency to encourage young filmmakers to insecurely posture themselves as too cool for school—to take refuge in references to other films while staging violence callously for cheap and shrill shock effects. Fessenden astutely recognizes his limitation of experience and tailors a film specifically to reflect and accommodate it, often incorporating ellipses that reflect the unformed point of view of young protagonists.
The film follows a classic crime-movie structure, setting up a few disparate narratives that will unite, of course, in a violent climax. In the primary thread, we follow Ash (Asa Spurlock) and Connor (Fessenden) as they screw around one morning, stealing a paintball gun, wandering the woods, flirting with girls, and putting off the work that Ash’s father, JT (Robert Burke Warren), has assigned them, which involves cleaning out a dilapidated trailer. In the secondary story, a gang executes a robbery that goes awry. Cody (James Le Gros), Dutch (John Speredakos), and Charlie (Larry Fessenden) steal a suitcase from a gangster, and head off into the woods, as Charlie gradually dies in the backseat of their getaway car from a gunshot to the gut, in a series of sequences that somehow never quite quote Reservoir Dogs.
It doesn’t take an astute viewer to figure out where Cody, Dutch, and Charlie are heading. What distinguishes Stray Bullets from so many other low-budget crime films is Fessenden’s sense of quietness. The filmmaker lingers on images, informing them with inchoate dread as well as a talismanic sense of wrongness. When JT runs into another father in a country store, they exchange pleasantries with curt, pleading facial expressions that fill in a wealth of implicated backstory within a matter of seconds. Ash and Connor’s frequent fondling of the paintball gun in the early scenes is contrasted heavy-handedly yet effectively against the adult gunplay of the other story, clearly foreshadowing later events. As a filmmaker, Jack owes a significant debt to the beautifully, evocatively scruffy films of his father, Larry, who also serves as cinematographer here, bathing Stray Bullets in autumnal light that connotes loss of innocence, as Ash and Connor amble toward a trap.
Fessenden displays a sense of parred authority that would be impressive for older, more experienced artists. The robbery that sets the second narrative in motion is framed through an alleyway that runs toward us almost three-dimensionally. We hear gunshots in the background, near the back of the alley, and the crooks gradually rush toward us to the front of the street. There’s a brief, strikingly horizontal gun battle, and the robbers are off in their car—a potentially intricate set piece reduced to a few evocative gestures.
The dialogue is similarly efficient, most notably the conversations between the bad guys, who don’t speak Tarantinoese but talk simply of the action behind and ahead of them with escalating desperation and panic. Cody has particularly memorable agency, with a clipped vocal delivery and pregnant physicality that simultaneously communicate suspicion and strange compassion. At one point, a criminal tells a compatriot not to fire his gun because the other guy’s just going to shoot back anyway. This display of common sense is remarkable in a macho genre that often prizes aggression as sensory stimulation above all, and it indicates a refreshing respect for human life that resounds throughout the film. (When innocent bystanders are killed in the haunting climax, their deaths are allowed to matter as violations against an ideal order.) Stray Bullets reduces a stock scenario to its primal essence, informing genre blood sport with pulp transcendentalism.
The Village Voice
Michael Nordine 2/7/2017
While Old People Were Complaining About Millennials, a 16-Year-Old Made the Pretty Good Crime Thriller ‘Stray Bullets’
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.
Stray Bullets: Jack Fessenden Follows in his Father’s Footsteps
Some things are just a rite of passage for teenage boys, like their first hostage crisis. Frankly, sixteen-year-old (at the time of production) Jack Fessenden looks far too young to have experienced his first standoff with desperate fugitives, but as the son of fan favorite horror actor-director Larry Fessenden, he has probably spent so much time on film shoots, his directorial debut was almost overdue. Of course, he got a few assists from his father, who served as cinematographer and co-star of his son’s Stray Bullets (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
It is summer, so Ash and Connor would like to just fart around with a paintball gun and flirt (awkwardly) with girls. Connor would be entitled to the day off, since he works for real at the local garage. Yet, he has agreed to help Ash (a stranger to productive employment) clean out the family’s camper in the woods, at his father’s request.
Meanwhile, in the nearest crime-ridden big city, a trio of low-life crooks are biting off more than they can chew. They intended to rob a gangster they had previously done business with, but they did not expect him to be so ornery and well-armed. Needless to say, it is not a clean getaway. In fact, it will not be a getaway at all for the slowly expiring Charlie (played by Fessenden père), unless he gets medical treatment soon. Naturally, they will hole up in the very camper the lads are supposed to clean.
Sixteen is disgustingly young, even by the standards of the silent era, but J. Fessenden’s instincts are right on target. Rather than trying to be hipper than hip, he dials the film down to a level of earthy honesty. In fact, Fessenden’s hand only gets heavy in the closing moments, when he feels it necessary to beat us over the head with the title’s meaning. Presumably, he has seen most if not all of the thirty-seven thousand films his dad has appeared in, but we might hazard a guess that Kelly Reichardt’s recently restored River of Grass held the greatest influential sway over Stray. Both films have a pungent, tactile sense of place and to varying degrees, they de-emphasize the crime drama (presented almost tangentially in River) for the sake of character development.
Young Fessenden is also pretty solid as responsible Connor and his father is terrific as bleeding-out Charlie. Granted, most of his screen time is spent in the backseat of the getaway car, but that still afforded him greater range of movement than what he had in Dan Berk & Robert Olsen’s Body. Asa Spurlock us a bit cringy as Ash, but it is always a kick to watch seasoned pros like James Le Gros and Kevin Corrigan do their thing as the unstable getaway driver and the hitman chasing after them.
Stray Bullets should absolutely not get dismissed as a vanity production or a manifestation of misplaced parental enthusiasm. Even if you see a lot of genre films over the course of a month it still holds up quite well. Recommended for those who appreciate crime drama with coming-of-age resonance, Stray Bullets opens this Friday (2/10) in New York, at the Village East.
Dennis Harvey 2/10/2017
Film Review: ‘Stray Bullets’
Clark Collis 12/29/2016
Watch the trailer for Stray Bullets, from 17-year-old director Jack Fessenden
Watch the trailer for Stray Bullets, from 17-year-old director Jack Fessenden
The new crime drama Stray Bullets (out Feb. 10) was written, directed, and edited by Jack Fessenden, who also stars in the film, composed its soundtrack, and is among the movie’s credited chefs. That’s an impressive array of contributions to this tale of two teenagers in upstate New York whose lives intersect with a trio of gun-toting hoodlums. But the amount of hats Fessenden sported on Stray Bullets is doubly noteworthy given he is only 17 years old and was just 15 when he directed the film.
“I’d been making little movies my entire childhood [but] I started taking movie-making more seriously when I was maybe 12 or 13,” says Fessenden. “When I was 13, I made my first real short film, called Riding Shotgun. We showed it at the Woodstock Film Festival and, ever since I’ve known that I wanted to make a movie like Stray Bullets. I always referred to it in my mind as ‘my epic.’ It wasn’t necessarily going to be a feature. It was just something that would incorporate a story [in] my comfort zone — of kids upstate — as I’d done before, and then also the story of these crooks. In the summer before I started high school, I started to write the story and realized that it was very dense for a short film. My mom, one day, said, ‘Well, why don’t you just make a feature?’”
It could be said that Fessenden was born to make films — certainly, he has been involved in their creation virtually since birth. His mother, Beck Underwood, is an animator and production designer while his father, Larry Fessenden, is the director of such influential indie-horror movies as Habit and Wendigo. Fessenden Sr. has also nurtured a long list of filmmakers through his Glass Eye Pix company, including Ti West (House of the Devil), Jim Mickle (Stake Land), Mickey Keating (Darling), and now his son, whose film was overseen by the production outfit in conjunction with Jack’s own Fessypix. Jack himself appeared in Wendigo when he was just a few months old and, down the years, helped out on a number of other GEP movies, including 2008’s Dominic Monaghan-starring I Sell the Dead. “I helped age some old boxes,” he laughs. “I got paid $50. That’s a pretty big payday for a 7-year-old.”
Larry Fessenden recalls that it was the time he spent goofing around with Jack and his friends which really inspired his son to become a director. “Instead of going out and playing with a ball, we’d go out with a video camera,” he says. “Jack would have three friends over, and we’d say, ‘Let’s pretend you’re running from something terrible!’ And I’d have the fun of designing the shots. I used to edit them, put the music in and so on, and [say], ‘Look, that fun thing we did this afternoon, this is the result.’ Eventually, Jack would take the camera and I’d see him off telling the kids what to do, and I think that’s how he became a filmmaker.”
Jack and his friend Asa Spurlock play the lead teenagers in Stray Bullets while the movie’s three criminals are portrayed by John Speredakos (Wendigo, The Mind’s Eye), James Le Gros (Living in Oblivion, Girls), and Larry, who also shot the film and produced it with Jack. Indeed, with Underwood overseeing the movie’s production design, Stray Bullets is very much a family affair, although Jack insists his father was careful not to offer too much input during the shoot. “He was always there to help, whenever I needed it,” he says. “But I mostly think he wanted to give me some space, so that I could feel that it was my project — and he did that very well.”
Stray Bullets premiered last September at Germany’s Oldenberg Film Festival and won a rave review from The Hollywood Reporter which described it as “an enjoyably bloodsoaked thriller with unexpectedly lyrical interludes.” Jack says he has plans to make another film, but has to first deal with some matters which aren’t usually an issue for first-time filmmakers. “I’m in junior year in high school, so I have to crack down a little bit more than I have been,” he says. “I have to keep my grades up!”
The New York Times
Ken Jaworowski 2/9/2017
Review: Juggling ‘Stray Bullets’ and Homework
“Stray Bullets” feels as if it were made by a capable high schooler, and that’s not a slight. Indeed, the director, Jack Fessenden, had to juggle “trigonometry homework or my ‘Canterbury Tales’ reading” with his moviemaking responsibilities, he says in his production notes. He was all of 16 when he finished this crime tale.
In the plot, Ash (Asa Spurlock) and Connor (Mr. Fessenden) are held captive after stumbling upon three crooks hiding out in a somewhat secluded trailer. One of those bad guys, Charlie (Larry Fessenden, the director’s father, who is also the cinematographer), has been shot, and a maniacal hit man is determined to fill him and his accomplices (James Le Gros and John Speredakos) with more lead.
The project’s back story is often more interesting than what plays out onscreen. The young Mr. Fessenden is credited as writer, director, actor, editor and composer; he put the movie together with the help of friends, props found on Craigslist and his father’s small production company. His script features a hint of tension and some dry humor.
Those qualities aside, there’s no getting around an ending that unspools in cheesy slow-motion, or several illogical scenes that meander. It’s unsurprising to learn that “Stray Bullets” was first planned as a 30-minute film; conversations seem drawn out, names are constantly repeated, and plot threads lead nowhere, as if to fill time.
Still, Mr. Fessenden’s ambition is admirable, and there’s more than a little raw skill on display. If this, his first feature, isn’t always worth recommending, his talents are certainly worth encouraging.
The Los Angeles Times
Noel Murray 2/9/2017
Teen auteur Jack Fessenden propels crime drama ‘Stray Bullets’
rue family project, the low-budget crime picture “Stray Bullets” was co-produced by indie cinema hero Larry Fessenden with his wife, Beck Underwood, and their son, Jack. The elder Fessenden also handles the cinematography while Underwood is the costumer and production designer.
And Jack? He directs his own screenplay and stars. He’s also the editor, and wrote and performed the score. And by the way … he’s 16 years old.
The auteur’s age, precociousness and pedigree automatically make “Stray Bullets” an item of interest, although fans of the Fessenden clan will be pleased to know that the movie’s also pretty entertaining and only a little bit amateurish.
The younger Fessenden and Asa Spurlock play bored teens who are planning to spend the day in the New York countryside goofing off with a paintball gun, when they find themselves pinned between three mob fugitives (Larry Fessenden, James Le Gros and John Speredakos) and a hit man (Kevin Corrigan). The film has echoes of “Cop Car” and “Mean Streets,” mixing comic juvenilia with earthy violence.
Plenty of first-time feature filmmakers have combined grubby genre kicks with more personal concerns; but there’s a confidence and energy to “Stray Bullets” that compensates for the rather rudimentary, over-familiar story.
Fessenden actually seems to have a point here too, about how a steady bombardment of R-rated media has numbed adolescents like himself. It’ll be fun to see what what he has to say about his generation when he reaches the ripe old age of 20.
Joel Wicklund 2/10/2017
Not Just Kid Stuff: “Stray Bullets” Shows Younger Fessenden Has Some Chops
Blair Hoyle 2/9/2017
“Stray Bullets” Review
17-year-old filmmaker Jack Fessenden’s directorial debut isn’t just significantly better than what you’d expect from a 17-year-old’s directorial debut, it’s also one of the most intense films to be released thus far in 2017. Mixing familial drama with grim thrills, Stray Bullets finds teenagers Connor (Fessenden) and Ash (Asa Spurlock) head into the woods to clean out a mobile home belonging to Ash’s father, only to discover that it has been taken over by three criminals (James Le Gros, John Speredakos, and Fessenden’s real-life father, Larry).
But instead of a fast-paced shoot-’em-up, Stray Bullets is a methodical character study about the relationships between adolescents and adults, between children and their parents, between employers and employees, and between citizens and their community. Much of the running time is dedicated to watching Connor and Ash stroll around town, taking their sweet time to get to their destination. They stop to flirt with some girls, fire some paintball guns, and other forms of relatively harmless fun. Meanwhile, the trio of crooks anxiously travels toward the mobile home in sheer desperation. The juxtaposition is obvious but intriguing nonetheless, especially due to where the film eventually ends up.
Though his filmmaking style is a far cry from that of his father, the subtly moral nature of Jack Fessenden’s debut is wholly reminiscent of Wendigo and No Telling. If there’s one thing that Stray Bullets has in spades, it’s a strong voice — and the film isn’t afraid to die by its own sword. Thankfully, the film actually works quite well. Fessenden takes his time building tension and allowing the characters to develop, but it’s not a boring film by any means. Punchy dialogue and a few moments of levity keep the pacing relatively tight.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Stray Bullets, though, is the fact that it feels extremely violent without ever becoming all that violent. Utilizing dread and suspense the way most other crime thrillers would use shootouts and car chases, the film comes across as being extremely graphic, but it actually isn’t. While there’s a decent-sized body count for such a small cast, the onscreen deaths appear intentionally tame.
It’s possible that this is the case in order to market the film to a wider audience, but that seems unlikely. It feels much more like a creative decision in order to help shape the film’s peculiar tone. See, much like his charming protagonists, Fessenden approaches increasingly harsh subject matters with wide-eyed optimism. As intense and dangerous as the situations in Stray Bullets become for both Connor and Ash, there’s an overwhelming sense of hope present in the film that you rarely see in gritty, independent cinema, and it miraculously never comes across as being tacky.
Falling somewhere between arthouse drama and genre cinema, Stray Bullets is a deceptively bold film and as good a directorial debut as I’ve seen lately. It’s now evident that ambitiousness runs in the Fessenden family, and it’s going to be very interesting to see where Jack goes from here.
San Francisco Weekly
Sherilyn Connelly 2/9/2017
A 16-year-old director makes a pretty great crime film.
Kids these days, amirite? One of today’s kids who seems all right is Jack Fessenden, whose first feature film Stray Bullets is far better than a feature film written, produced, and directed by a 16-year-old has any right to be. Granted, he’s the son of legendary Z-movie director Larry Fessenden — who also co-produced and served as the cinematographer — so he had a leg up that most teenagers (and adults) lack. But the final product is a tight little genre picture by any standard.
But the young Fessender has his own voice, and develops a strong enough sense of place and tone that even the many walking scenes don’t feel like padding. This youngster might well make some terrific movies once he’s old enough to vote.
The Movie Sleuth
Raul Vantassle 2/9/2017
Cinematic Releases: Stray Bullets (2017) – Reviewed
Stray Bullets is the feature directorial debut of sixteen year old Jack Fessenden, whose father is the well known veteran actor Larry Fessenden. At initial glance, one might suggest that this is a form of nepotism and that the young director is simply having things handed to him. It’s tough to make that argument after watching Stray Bullets, which was written, directed, edited, scored, and co-starred the young Jack Fessenden. It is a dialed down character driven crime drama that is a solid debut for a director of any age, let alone one that is only sixteen.
The story involves a pair of teens tasked with cleaning up an old trailer, only to run into a trio of criminals on the run after a botched job leaves one of them critically injured. The narrative parallels well known crime genre films such asReservoir Dogs, but is able to sidestep them with its youthful coming of age tale and a realistic approach to the dialogue and situations. While most astute viewers will have a pretty good idea of what will happen at the end, it’s the character building and relationship dynamics created along the way that make this an interesting piece of work, especially for a teenage filmmaker. It helps that he has his father’s vast selection of motion pictures to use as a reference, along with his assistance as an actor and cinematographer on this. One thing that is particularly impressive is the world that Jack has created and the collection of fascinating bad guys that inhabit it. They are people that demand more screen time and easily could be featured in additional movies in the future.
The acting is exceptional and that should be expected from a host of career actors, most notably James Le Gros, John Speredakos, and Larry Fessenden. Their performances as the trio of criminals have a great deal of depth to them, bringing us characters that are more than just bad guys and ones that you can gain an emotional attachment to. Kevin Corrigan has a small role as a crazy hitman, yet it’s memorable and impactful. Asa Spurlock is commendable as the teenage counterpart to co-star Jack Fessenden, who takes on more of the dialogue and interactions for the duo.
The directing is outstanding and there should be no doubt that the young filmmaker is more than qualified to handle the immense tasks that were before him. It is most reminiscent of the cinema verite style, focusing on more realistic camera shots and editing in specific scenes. There are still plenty of sequences that feature extensive camera movement and staging, delivering some truly excellent and unforgettable scenes. The cinematography and locations add to the more grounded and realistic look of the picture, with the scenic and lush greens of upstate New York, the rundown buildings of a small old town, the 1974 Dodge Dart, an old mobile home, and the auto repair shop with old parts piled up. The score takes a minimalist approach and ends up opting for the natural sounds of the environment more often than not. When it is present, it is mostly a simple blend of acoustic and electric guitars, piano, and bass that subtly adds to the tone and doesn’t completely overshadow anything.
While there is some violence, it is not a movie that is driven by that violence. So don’t go expecting the next John Wick, because you will be sorely disappointed. Instead, this is a devoted character study that most fans of the crime genre should enjoy. Either way, there is no doubt that Jack Fessenden is a directorial name that we should we be tracking for years to come. Stray Bullets will have a limited theatrical release and will also be available on VOD beginning on February 10th.
Film Journal International
Neil Young 2/8/2017
In most instances, a filmmaker’s age is irrelevant when discussing the merits of their work, but it’s impossible to view Jack Fessenden’s Stray Bullets with detached objectivity when aware he was 15 years old during the shooting and 16 when the film bowed to ticket buyers. An enjoyably blood-soaked thriller with unexpectedly lyrical interludes—made very much in the shadow of classic genre forebears and on what was clearly a constrained budget—this is a strikingly impressive calling card.
It’s a mark of Fessenden’s freakish precocity that the picture would doubtless secure numerous midnight-slot festival bookings and additional small-screen exposure even if programmers and buyers knew nothing of his extreme youth. As it is, the film has a unique marketing hook that will doubtless be exploited to the max by Fessenden’s dad Larry, a very shrewd operator with decades of indie-biz experience under his belt.
Guinness World Records lists Nepalese seven-year-old Saugat Bista as the globe’s youngest feature director, but Fessenden appears to be unchallenged in terms of the English-speaking world. Starting early is clearly in the genes: The elder Fessenden also was 16 when he made his first film, the four-minute Super-8 road-movie The Eliminator (1979). Barely seen until released on a compilation DVD decades later, this was a shaky first step on a busily prolific career that has included acting jobs for Martin Scorsese, Kelly Reichardt, Joe Swanberg and many others, plus numerous outings as director and/or producer.
He plays an eye-catching supporting role and serves as DP here, with his wife Beck Underwood overseeing production design and costumes. Their offspring, however, receives sole credit for directing, writing, editing and for composing and arranging the atmospheric score (performing keyboards, guitar and percussion) and is even listed among the production’s five chefs. Yes, Jack cooks, too.
Fessenden, who has been honing his craft on shorts for several years and appeared in his dad’s Wendigo (2001) and The Last Winter (2006) as a tot, is clearly more than capable on all creative fronts—even if his acting chops currently fall a little short of his behind-the-camera talents. But that isn’t much distraction, as his connections have landed him a slew of hugely experienced character actors, including top-billed James Le Gros and the more fleetingly glimpsed Kevin Corrigan.
Among the fresher faces, Asa Spurlock—who bears a striking resemblance to Ezra Miller—is the standout as Ash, a soft-spoken and sensitive sort who spends most of his free time with his brasher best pal Connor (Jack Fessenden). After larking around in the woods near their home in an unspecified corner of rural upstate New York, the duo stumble into the clutches of three desperate gangsters. The criminals (Le Gros, Larry Fessenden and John Speredakos) have fled New York City in the messy wake of a shootout, with an implacable hit man (Corrigan) close on their heels.
Fessenden switches smoothly back and forth between Ash and Connor’s bucolic escapades with a stolen paintball gun and the gangsters’ profanity-laced exchanges in their speeding car as the elder Fessenden’s Charlie bleeds out on the back seat. Innocence and experience duly collide in the second half, but the screenplay delivers a few nicely unexpected developments—including one seriously shattering left-field jolt—in a film which foregrounds character and dialogue ahead of slam-bang pyrotechnics. When push comes to shove in the final reel, however, the helmer stages the inevitable gunplay with persuasive brio—aided by special makeup effects by seasoned maestro Brian Spears.
Leaping far beyond the occasional rough edges of his opening scenes, the filmmaker really hits his stride in these latter stages, deploying slow-motion in a mature, sparing fashion and making particularly effective use of his own haunting, guitar-heavy score. Indeed, on this evidence, Fessenden could probably pursue a career in music if the challenge of filmmaking palls. Anyone invested in the art form’s future, however, will firmly hope he can go on to emulate the likes of Don Coscarelli and Xavier Dolan, for whom teenage kicks augured accurately for achievements to come.
The Maylaymail Online
Aidil Rusli 2/18/17
Three very promising new talents from the land of horror
I wanted to see this movie just because I saw the name Jack Fessenden on its poster as I had a hunch that this Jack might be the son of Larry Fessenden, one of US indie horror’s most important figures since the 1990s.
It was only after I watched the film (and being totally impressed by it) that I searched the Internet for more information about its director, and I can’t even begin to tell you how shocked I was when I found out that Jack was only 16 years old when he made this movie!
Not only did he write and direct it, but he also starred in it (in a pretty important secondary role), edited it, wrote the score, and even played some of the instruments himself.
Clearly a homemade passion project, with dad Larry acting as cinematographer, there’s a lyrical and poetic quality to this crime film, about two kids stuck with a group of professional thieves who are being hunted after a robbery gone wrong, that gives you a different sensory experience, despite its archetypal ingredients.
It’s what some people might call “elevated genre”, something in the vein of Blue Ruin, and to be able to pull that off at age 16 is quite simply remarkable. I now eagerly await what Jack has got up his sleeve next!
Joseph Friar 2/18/17
STRAY BULLETS (2017) ‘the crime thriller marks an impressive debut for its 16-year old filmmaker’
STRAY BULLETS (2017)
Jack Fessenden, Asa Spurlock, James Le Gros, John Speredakos, Kevin Corrigan, Robert Burke Warren, Larry Fessenden.
Directed by Jack Fessenden
Upon first impression “Stray Bullets” may lead you to believe that this is a coming-of-age drama focused on two teenage boys. Then it suddenly takes a dark turn towards “Reservoir Dogs” territory while utilizing various techniques reminiscent of those great crime films from the 70’s. The low-budget indie features a cast of bang-up character actors like James LeGros and Kevin Corrigan and while it may be a little rough around the edges it’s still an impressive debut from writer-director and star Jack Fessenden who is only 16-years old.
Inspired by Jeff Nichols’ “Mud” starring Matthew McConaughey, the film takes place in a rural part of the country (here it’s upstate New York) where Ash (Asa Spurlock) and best friend Connor (Jack Fessenden) spend their days performing odd jobs for money and killing time by shooting paintballs. Their lives are about to change when they intersect with three inept criminals (James Le Gros, John Speredakos, Larry Fessenden) on the run after a botched robbery. To complicate matters worse a hitman played by Kevin Corrigan is hot on the criminals’ trail which means the boys will eventually cross paths with the psychotic assassin.
Fessenden displays all the signs of a mature and budding filmmaker to watch. It’s hard to point out the film’s flaws when you consider the director was only 14 when he started working on the project. That being said, I’m not giving Jack a hall pass. The film deserves to be judged on its merits not on the age of its creator and I can truly say this is a first-rate debut worthy of your viewing.
After producing three short films and at the advice of his mother Beck Underwood, a stop-motion animator who also provided the costumes for the movie, Jack decided to shift “Stray Bullets” from another short into his first feature film. I should also point out that Jack’s father, Larry Fessenden, who bleeds out in the backseat of ’74 Dodge Dart through most of the film, is the iconic horror filmmaker behind Wendigo, The Last Winter, Beneath and a handful of indie titles. He also serves as the Director of Photography under his son Jack giving “Stray Bullets” a professional visage, as the experienced filmmaker captures the beauty of upstate New York.
If it wasn’t for modern devices like cell phones that are used by characters in the film, it would be hard to pinpoint the era. The pristine Dodge the thieves travel in and the dilapidated mobile home where most of the action takes place during the second half are two of the many props that give the impression that “Stray Bullets” takes place in the 70’s. Think of this film as the action equivalent of 2009’s “The House of the Devil” which took a similar approach with its visual style. Both films were backed by Larry’s Glass Eye Pix production company.
I like the way the film is cut to show how the laid-back lifestyle of Ash and Connor is about to clash with the violent and bloody criminals who are headed towards the teenage boys. The audience feels like a bunch of amateur meteorologists tracking a storm about to hit a tiny community. Jack does a superior job of building tension especially when the so called “storm” makes landfall and the teenagers find themselves held hostage by the thugs.
There is a slow-motion death scene that takes place in the film reminiscent of Willem Dafoe’s demise in “Platoon.” It will appear over the top to the novice moviegoer but cinephiles will recognize the influence behind such a bold move.
Kudos to Jack Fessenden who receives praise for delivering an impressive debut with an equally impressive score. I’ll be watching this young man’s progress. Show us what you’ve got Jack.
Stray Bullets opens tonight Saturday February 18 and runs through Wednesday February 22 at Alamo Drafthouse Mason Park in Houston.
Maitland McDonagh 2/8/2017
High School Auteur: Teenager Jack Fessenden makes an auspicious genre feature debut with ‘Stray Bullets’
Sure, there are lots of high-school kids making movies—they’re shooting on their phones and posting to YouTube, doing mini-projects for class, or even borrowing a DV camera and making little scripted vignettes. And anyone who cares knows that Steven Spielberg started out making 8mm pictures in his backyard—look where he is now.
But Jack Fessenden, son of independent writer/director/producer/actor Larry Fessenden and art director/production designer/animator/artist Beck Underwood, wrote and directed the theatrical feature Stray Bullets—a lean, character-driven thriller about the aftermath of a robbery gone wrong—when he was only 15. Scheduling a time to interview him involves working around his academic schedule because he’s a high-school junior. And to all appearances, a strikingly grounded, sensible one as well.
Stray Bullets stars Jack and longtime friend Asa Spurlock as young adults who get caught up in a dangerous situation when they arrive at the trailer they’re supposed to be sprucing up for sale and find it occupied by three armed fugitives—James Le Gros, John Speredakos and Fessenden Sr.—whose getaway is compromised by the fact that one of them is badly wounded. The Screen Media release is an ambitious undertaking, a genre story with a strong focus on a tangle of relationships, but, Jack acknowledges matter-of-factly, filmmaking is the family business. “Growing up, it was customary, rather than go out and kick the ball around, to go and shoot some stuff with a camera. Of course, we had nice digital cameras—I was lucky to have that access when I was a kid.”
And while Stray Bulletsis his first feature, it’s not his first movie; he began to “take filmmaking seriously” in 2013, when co-wrote and directed a half-hour horror picture called Riding Shotgun, inspired by Jim Mickle’s post-apocalyptic vampire feature Stake Land, one of dozens of films produced and/or distributed wholly or in part by his father’s prolific Glass Eye Pix (which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2015), including his own Wendigo (2001) and The Last Winter (2006), in which Jack appeared.
“I shot [Riding Shotgun] in March,” he continues, “and in October it premiered at the Woodstock Film Festival. After that I made The Adults and Pranks, also short films. Both of them showed at Woodstock as well, but they didn’t go any further… Unfortunately, short films are sort of destined for YouTube and Vimeo rather than any sort of theatrical experience.
“The whole time I was making these shorts, I knew that I wanted to make a movie like Stray Bullets. I always sort of referred to it as ‘my epic’ that I would one day finally get to make. I knew I wanted to incorporate some aspects of a kind of story I was familiar with—two kids on an adventure upstate—but add a new element I hadn’t explored yet…those three criminals on the run.”
Once he seriously started work on the screenplay, Jack came to a sobering realization: “Either it was going to be a 45-minute short with all this plot crammed in—to think the story could fit into 45 minutes was naïve of me—or it could be a feature that took its time and allowed for some moments of breath and contemplation.” His parents were onboard with the idea “because they knew that features go further than short films and they thought I was ready for it.”
And they pitched in with advice and support born of their own experience as working artists. Jack’s father told him that since he was a musician—Jack began studying piano at six and went on to guitar, drums and bass—he needed to compose his own score “because real music costs money; you have to get the rights and if you don’t have the rights, you can’t sell your movie.
“I think it was my mom’s idea to go over and check out the trailer,” Fessenden says of the vehicle where most of the film’s violent last act unfolds. “When I wrote the scene originally, it took place in an old shack. The trailer is our friend Annie’s and I’ve grown up going there, but it completely didn’t occur to me that it was the perfect place to shoot—it has all the elements, including the park next door… You can hear all the innocent kids and the music and the moderator of whatever event is going on. My mom also gets credit for the Dodge Dart the crooks are driving. She found it on Craig’s List for $1,100.”
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.
“That’s how I was able to do it while being in tenth grade—you know, school and everything that a kid’s life consists of. I think the reason Stray Bullets was completed in under seven months after we finished shooting was that it was all planned out meticulously beforehand.”
Meticulous preparation also allowed Jack to juggle acting while directing—”even if I’m not a great actor, I know I can get the beats I want”—and deadline pressures that could easily rattle someone old enough to take the edge off by having a couple of drinks after wrap…like having just one day to shoot a complicated scene—the last full day of production—with quirky indie-legend Kevin Corrigan.
“That was the most difficult day,” he admits. “All the scenes with [Corrigan] in the trailer, him outside chasing the kids, him running in the park and dying [were shot on] the same day, the last day of the shoot and the hottest day of the summer. We started at 5 a.m.; a massive rainstorm swept through for about half an hour—we managed to get two shots after the clouds parted. We had to wrangle all those extras [playing parents and kids at an outdoor party] and shoot everything from the moment the actors burst out of the trailer. We finished as the sun was setting.”
Unsurprisingly, having completed three short movies and a feature before the age of 18, Fessenden is pretty sure he knows what he wants to be when he grows up. But he still intends to go to college, which some impatient young people might dismiss as a waste—four years is a long time when it’s a quarter of your life to date.
“First,” he says, “there’s an expectation that someone who’s grown up the way I have would go to a good college and get an education. And on top of that, I want to go to college. I want to take art history, history of film, English classes—I like learning and I have to learn stuff to make movies about. I think school is fun and if I were to not go to school and just keep making films, I might feel that my youth was sort of lost. I can keep making films as well—I’ve managed so far—but I’m excited to spend four years in college.”
So yes, he has an idea for another movie he’s like to make between now and then—”it’s sort of anthology in a genre you wouldn’t expect; that’s all I have to say about it”—but he also needs to sit down and write an essay about Herman Melville. “School is my life. Promoting Stray Bullet sis what I need to do—and love doing—on the side.”
Melissa Pierson 2/6/2017
IS THIS 17-YEAR-OLD THE NEXT HITCHCOCK?
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.
Apparently, he was grown up enough by 12, when he began writing the 30-minute Riding Shotgun, which played at the Woodstock Film Festival. At 14, he started scripting a feature, a crime thriller flecked with bits of buddy flick and dark comedy. Stray Bullets premieres February 10 in select American cities and will stream on iTunes and Amazon; its cast includes Dad as well as veterans James Le Gros (Drugstore Cowboy and Living in Oblivion) and Kevin Corrigan (The Departed and such TV series as The Get Down).
Erik Kraus, a family friend and actor drafted to play one of the film’s ill-fated heroes, says, “At Jack’s age, the best I could do was eat Cap’n Crunch out of a box while watching Gilligan’s Island. This kid is a natural filmmaker. He showed not a moment of hesitation on the set.” Indeed, Jack owns his film beginning to end: screenplay, directing, editing, composition of the score and the starring role as Connor, a teen whose innocence is shattered in the span of one day. Stray Bullets sets the lives of two friends, Connor and Ash (played by real-life pal Asa Spurlock), on a collision course with those of some crooks on the run.
The gangster film’s classic themes of regret and retribution conflate with a topic close to Jack’s heart. He has treated the idea of friendship in almost every film from his earliest shorts. (Jack is an only child, and his mother suggests this is its source.) The movie nods to Die Hard and Apocalypse Now — Jack’s knowledge of American cinema is catholic; favorites include Kubrick, the Coen brothers and Tarantino — but Jeff Nichols’ Mud is a prime influence.
To date, Jack has screened three films at Woodstock, considered one of the world’s top 50 festivals. Meira Blaustein, its co-founder and executive director, was not surprised to see Jack’s first feature turn out so assured. “I saw his command of film language from a young age, which can only come from 360-degree immersion in it,” she says. “This kid is going far.”
It helps, of course, that Jack was born into indie royalty. His mom, Underwood, has worked in theater, graphic design and art direction; her stop-motion animation imparts both a cheerful loopiness and a creepy aesthetic. Larry’s own work is cult-beloved in the modern horror genre — he’s best known for Wendigo and The Last Winter, moody art-horror flicks. “In horror you make a narrative out of our worst impulses and thereby control them. It’s a way to process the dark side of social anxieties,” he says. Jack’s father is by no means red-carpet famous, but his success helped Stray Bullets along; the film was financed through Larry’s production company, Glass Eye Pix. But those around Jack don’t take his parentage as an automatic sign that he’s the boss; he’s had to earn respect and authority. As Kraus puts it, “His parents may be in the film industry, but that doesn’t entitle him to be a good director, writer or editor. My father was a house painter and I am not fit to paint a closet.”
Jack and I sit in the kitchen in the house upstate where he filmed part of Stray Bullets. He is dark-haired, soft-spoken and unusually self-assured. As we talk, his parents go about their business, which is now also Jack’s business. “Instead of throwing a ball around when he was little,” Larry explains, “we’d grab a camera. I didn’t want to train my kid to be a filmmaker; it was just what we did for fun, to explore ideas of craft, deliberation, process.” Whoever was around got pulled in. (Sometimes this meant my son, a childhood friend whose post-sleepover reports often went something like, “Well, we made a movie. Then we had pasta. Then we watched movies.”) The year he was 10, Jack and his dad worked their way through Hitchcock’s oeuvre. Fessenden wanted his son to see that every shot has a purpose, that where you put the camera is the film. They started with Rear Window, which remains Jack’s favorite; he would later replicate the famously precise master’s lean method, proud his finished film was “almost exactly as shot-listed.”
The curtain opens soon.
A previous version of this article misstated the name of one of the actors in Stray Bullets — it is Kevin Corrigan, not Nick Corrigan. The previous version also misspelled the name of one of Larry Fessenden’s films. It isWendigo, not Windigo.
Sextuple threat (director, writer, actor, editor, co-producer, composer–and that doesn’t include poster designer, soundtrack musician and co-chef for his cast and crew) Jack Fessenden shot his very assured debut feature, the clever and bloody thriller, “Stray Bullets,” in July 2015, when he was 15.
Long-time friends, upstate New York high school students Ash (Asa Spurlock, who also plays cello on the film’s score, and could be Ezra Miller’s younger brother), a talented golfer, and Connor (Fessenden), a mechanical whiz, meet up early at Richie’s Repair. They’re picking up a package containing a paint gun and ammo that Connor had bought and surreptitiously had delivered to his part-time workplace.
Their plan for the day is to help Ash’s father, JT (Robert Burke Warren), with a long-neglected job, cleaning out his old (but appealing) trailer in the woods. But it’s sunny and summer and the boys find time to talk to girls and blast paint at trees.
The same morning in New York City, three over-the-hill petty criminals’ current caper goes seriously awry and they head for the hills (the Catskills) in a green/gold and white 1974 Dodge Dart. Charlie (horror maestro Larry Fessenden, who also served as the film’s cinematographer and co-producer), is seriously wounded, bleeding profusely on his perfect sleazy suit (wardrobe/production designer and co-producer, Beck Underwood, Jack’s mother) and onto the backseat’s perfect vintage upholstery. The trio’s enraged victim, Kaufman, dispatches Nick (Kevin Corrigan), a flinty hitman, to recover his oversized gold Rolex and briefcase.
Safely out of New York but short of their destination, the gang breaks down on a rural road, across from Marbletown Park and its pavilion. Hiding the car, Cody (James Le Gros, behind black sunglasses and sporting extravagant facial hair), Dutch (John Speredakos) and Charlie also fade from sight.
A feeling of uneasiness hits Ash as he enters JT’s trailer and sees a gun on a chair, but before he and Connor can flee, Dutch emerges from the rear, Cody from outside, and waving weapons, force the frightened teens onto the small sofa.
To reveal more of the story would destroy the suspense and gory entertainment (fun until it isn’t). Suffice it to say that bullets and bodies fly, and Connor and Ash’s carefree summer/lives are over.
“Stray Bullets” will open today at Village East Cinema and a Q&A with Jack Fessenden and friends will follow the 9:00 pm screening. There will also be a Q&A on Saturday, February 11 after the 7:00 pm show. From Friday, February 10, “Stray Bullets” can be watched on Amazon and iTunes (where the soundtrack will also be available).
Stephen Schaefer 2/5/2017
Teen takes shot at feature filmmaking with ‘Stray Bullets’
When most 16-year-olds might be focused on school, sports and dating, Jack Fessenden was writing and directing Friday’s “Stray Bullets,” his feature film debut.
If that wasn’t enough, he also composed the score, edited and stars in the thriller as one of two teenage boys who crosses paths with a trio of gun-wielding thieves.
“Actually, I was 15 when I shot and edited the film and 16 when I finished it,” said Fessenden, now 17 and a high school junior.
Growing up with both parents in the business made this almost inevitable.
His father is Larry Fessenden, a veteran indie filmmaker, actor and producer known for such horror hits as 2006’s “The Last Winter.” Mom is Beck Underwood, an animator and art director who was production designer on “Stray Bullets.”
It wasn’t odd, Jack said, of giving orders to a bunch of adults, including his parents.
“It sounds funny — me bossing my dad around. But our crew wasn’t like a professional union crew. Maybe 12 people, including me and my parents. I helped my mom find the costumes. She found the Dart Dodge we needed on Craigslist.”
With his dad celebrated for his horror outings as actor and filmmaker, Jack’s decision to make a mobster movie is surprising.
“Yes, my dad makes horror movies,” he said, “but his company makes all kinds of movies. It’s where young filmmakers can make whatever movie they want without the pressures of the industry.”
He began “Stray Bullets” where he always starts: “With images in my head — locations, characters — before I have a story.
“That trio of crooks” — played by his dad, James Le Gros and John Speredakos (the latter two actors frequently act in Larry Fessenden’s movies) — “was one of the original things I wanted, alongside a story about kids going on an adventure in the woods.”
Jack Fessenden always knew he would be a filmmaker. In 2013, he had his first exposure, screening his shorts at the Woodstock Film Festival.
Of the three-week shoot for “Stray Bullets,” “I was influenced by the Hitchcockian style of planning every single shot beforehand. I did that with my dad, who was the cinematographer.”
How I Made My First Feature at 16
All of this is to say that, in ruminating over my “epic” in those years of anticipation, I was inspired by places and people with which I was familiar, and always thought in terms of what I knew I would be able to achieve both creatively and practically. I suppose this is how I’ve been able to get away with all that I have at such a young age; I worked with what I knew was within reach when coming up with a story because, no matter how big you dream, the movie does ultimately need to get made, and for cheap. Not once did I let the fact that I was just a middle-schooler diminish my vision.
In 2013, I finished Riding Shotgun, a tale of two teenagers and the struggles of their friendship in the face of a cold and desolate zombie apocalypse. I wrote, directed, edited, produced, scored and acted in the film, and that has been my model ever since. The film was 32 minutes long, so I was warned by the Woodstock Film Festival’s Meira Blaustein that it would be difficult to program into festivals. When she saw the film, though, she insisted on programming it in the festival somehow. After that, I collaborated with teenage friends on three more shorts: All for One, The Adults and Pranks. Two of these three shorts premiered at the Woodstock Film Festival. All the while, however, my “epic” permeated my subconscious … latent … lying in wait. It was exciting and mysterious when I gave myself the space to let it surface, but I knew I had to wait until I could do justice to a story of that caliber before I really started the work.
In Summer 2014, I began outlining the story of Stray Bullets. At this point, I was planning for it it be not a feature, but rather a lengthy “short film” of roughly 45 minutes. As the story began to emerge on the page, however, it became clear to me that this movie had to be a feature. There was only one thing I needed to do before it was truly decided: break the news to my parents. Funnily enough, before I had the chance to do so, my mother said off-handedly, “Why don’t you just make it a feature?” So, that was that.
I’ve known both James Le Gros and John Speredakos since I was a boy, having grown up visiting and helping on the set of my parents’ films. From John playing a tormented and murderous hunter in Wendigo, directed by my dad in 2000, to James stabbing a prosthetic hand that squirted blood into my eye in Bitter Feast, the memories have always been fond. I’d hoped that whatever film manifested from the various images floating in my head, John and James would be in it. Luckily enough, I got my wish. When I finished the first draft of a script in the spring of 2015, I sent it along to both of them and promptly received praise, encouragement and, most importantly, an agreement to participate.
Feeling even more energized about the project, I assembled a rag-tag crew – from seasoned professionals to childhood friends of mine – while simultaneously beginning intensive pre-production just as my 10th grade final exams were wrapping up. My dad and I meticulously shot-listed every setup of the film to the tone of Brian Eno’s ambient soundscapes, breaking the script down to the emotional and cinematic intention of each scene. Meanwhile, my mom and I drove through Kingston, stopping at Goodwill, Salvation Army and every other place we could think of in search of costumes for the players and tchotchkes for the set. However, the most exciting moment of those fleeting weeks before the shoot was my mom’s discovery of a 1974 two-tone Dodge Dart Custom listed on Craigslist for $1,100. My dad and I were discussing scheduling when we received an on-the-go email from my mom. It read “omg, not for your flick, but check out this car …”
We shot for 16 days in July of 2015, though my memory blurs all sense of that time into one continuous state of activity – I remember the moments, but not where they began and ended. Morale was high throughout the shoot. Each night we would return to our house upstate where the crew stayed, and watch what became known amongst us as “The Daily Show.” It was during those evenings, as we sat huddled in front of the TV watching the rushes, that my movie came to life before my eyes. At the time, I think I was just thrilled at the quality of the material we were getting, but thinking back, it was quite emotional seeing everything come together so quickly after so much preparation.
When I made Stray Bullets I did not make just one film, but three. The first was the one made up of the images that had been living in my head for all those years; the second, the film I saw unfolding before me as the footage from shooting poured in; and the third, the one that came into its own in the editing room – the only one anyone else will ever see. I can only hope that flawed manifestation of the original Stray Bullets will hold up as a film, as I know the memory and experience of Stray Bullets certainly will. New images are already beginning to percolate for another epic, but the rigors of junior year in high school may keep me from realizing them for a little while yet.
Adam Schartoff 2/3/2017
Jack Fessenden, 17 years old, has been making short films for years now. Making them is an understatement. He writes, directs, acts, edits, and scores them. Stray Bullets is Jack’s feature debut and stars himself, his Dad Larry Fesssenden, James LeGros, and Kevin Corrigan. Beginning on Friday, February 10th, Stray Bullets, a crime caper, will enjoy a theatrical engagement in about 10 cities around the US including at the Village East in NYC and at the Laemmle in LA. It will also be available on various digital platforms.
From the director:
Stray Bullets is my fourth film and my first feature. My previous short films, the first of which I made at 13, all deal with the theme of the strength of friendship in the face of adversity. The idea of a film like Stray Bullets had lived in my mind for years – I referred to it as my “epic” because I knew it would transcend all of my previous works and have a sense of scale which they lacked – but I waited to start writing until I felt I had the chops to do it justice. Originally, Stray Bullets was to be a fifth in my cannon of shorts, one that would take me out of my comfort zone and challenge my writing and direction. The movie was slated to have a runtime of about 30 minutes, but still with roughly the same dense plot of the final feature, minus a few additional elements. However, in what seemed to be a much-anticipated conversation, my mother advised me that it seemed to make more sense to write it as a shorter feature rather than a longer short, a medium shunned by many festivals. From that moment on, I was starting to make a feature film at age 14.
Knowing I’d have my work cut out for me, I began the writing process with an outline in summer 2014 and had completed a draft by April 2015. I sent the script to actors James Le Gros and John Speredakos, both of whom I had grown up watching and had had in mind for the leads in Stray Bullets, and they quickly responded with words of encouragement as well as their commitment to the project.
By the end of June, we had assembled an essentials-only crew comprised of my own friends as well as interns and other collaborators from my father’s indie production company. We had purchased a 1974 Dodge Dart from craigslist, spent a week decorating our key set piece, and rented a Red Dragon camera for a sum so handsome it made us all the more eager to get our money’s worth, and shoot a movie!
A particular film that stayed with me throughout the writing and preparatory process was Jeff Nichols’ 2012 drama “Mud”. The relationship of two adolescent boys with a threatening, mysterious, but also enticing older male figure with a dark past fascinated me, particularly within its isolated setting of the Arkansas wetlands. My film borrows from many of the characteristics of Mud, which first inspired me years ago to make my second short “All For One”. That being said, I believe the real purpose Mud has served has been to help me find my voice in film, at least at this point in my career. I never actively thought about the scenes in Mud while writing Stray Bullets because the film, in my mind, had become more of a collection of ideas and images to draw upon rather than a story to plagiarize. Stray Bullets also has heightened, gritty action and tension inspired by my love for 70s crime thrillers – represented most obviously in my film by its true star, a 1974 Dodge Dart Custom. Working with what I know has always allowed me to picture my own film in my mind before shooting, rather than referencing others.
We shot for 16 days, the first half of July. We began the shoot with the opening scenes to the film featuring my co-star Asa Spurlock and myself, which afforded the crew, and me most of all, to get warmed up before we brought in “the real actors”, a highly anticipated event. Our second week began with intense days that took us from the streets of Brooklyn to the George Washington Bridge and palisades parkway, all the way back to our main location of upstate New York – a harrowing first two days with James Le Gros and John Speredakos, but also immensely successful. Days moved quickly and efficiently because we had carefully shotlisted and storyboarded every setup of the movie, allowing us to feel comfortable to make new choices on the spot when we wanted. Our dailies were transcoded every night for the cast and crew to watch in the comfort of our upstate house, home to the entire crew for the duration of the shoot. We labeled the tradition “the daily show”. The footage was looking good – moral was high, and would remain high. We were having a blast.
As production came to a close and the cast and crew went their separate ways, I was struck by how alone I felt in the task that lay before me. Still, I remained diligent, and edited dozens of hours of footage down to a 90 minute cut within a few weeks. Then something that most filmmakers don’t have to put up with reentered my life: high school. I began my sophomore year of high school in September and had to learn to manage my time spent on the movie and my time spent on my Trigonometry homework or my Canterbury Tales reading.
Against all odds, I was able to edit the entire film while still applying myself in school and playing in my band, with my fathers help, of course. However, my biggest creative challenge still lay ahead: composing the score. I had used pieces, film score and otherwise, by Cliff Martinez, Brian Eno, and Philip Glass (to name a few) as temporary music in my edit to help myself understand what mood I was hoping to evoke with the score. I worked with a fellow musician and friend from school to help get started with developing chord progressions and sounds for the music. I soon felt confident enough to continue on my own and compose an entire feature film’s worth of music. We recorded in only 4 days, inviting friends of ours from upstate to come down to play bass, cello, and violin. I played most of the other instruments, expanding upon previous ideas and coming up with totally new ones in the moment.
With a finished score and picture-locked film, we worked with James Siewert to design our visual effects and title sequence, a very specific vision I had held in my mind for months. I did my best to articulate what I envisioned , and he did a fantastic job of interpreting my efforts. The rest of our post-production process took place at DigIt Audio in downtown NYC. I spent many weekdays after school in the color timing studio and ADR recording sessions while totally ignoring homework assignments expected of me the next morning. The end felt very near. Last on the list was the sound mix, a looming 5-day event with the boss at DigIt, Tom Efinger. During that Final week, we worked with Tom to shape the sonic arc of the film while John Moros, our unrelenting sound designer, worked simultaneously in the next room over. I always say that the film improved most dramatically in those five days, and at the end of the fifth, we called a wrap on Stray Bullets.
– Jack Fessenden
Ash … ASA SPURLOCK
Connor … JACK FESSENDEN
Cody … JAMES LE GROS
Dutch … JOHN SPEREDAKOS
Charlie … LARRY FESSENDEN
JT … ROBERT BURKE WARREN
Paul … ERIK KRAUS
Kauffman … ROGER PELTZMAN
Nick … KEVIN CORRIGAN
Emma … CALLY MANSFIELD
Sam … FENNER MICHELINE
Richie … STEVE HELLER
Laurent … LAURENT REJTO
Ben … SASHA BERNSTEIN
Ginger … GINGER KRAUS
Boy with Cellphone … HENDRIX BRUNO
SUV Driver … KARIN BRUNO
Park Barker … NICK DAMICI
ASA SPURLOCK, “Ash” – Asa Spurlock actively pursues an extensive range of interests, with art always at the core of his life. Asa serves as the Vice President for Onteora’s Student Government and is a co-representative to the District Board of Education. He is part of Harvard Model Congress and a founding member of Onteora’s Mock Trial team and Philosophy Club. Asa is an apprentice to David Wiebe, a concert violin maker, helping to make stringed instruments for clients around the world. At the same time, he built his own concert-quality violin and is currently building his own cello. Asa is part of New Genesis Productions, a Shakespearean theatre company with which he has performed in over 13 plays. This spring, he played the lead role in Richard III for his final production with the company. Asa has also performed in a number of movies produced by an independent film company—FessyPix, including ALL FOR ONE (2014), and RIDING SHOTGUN (2013). Asa will continue his education at Wesleyan University.
JACK FESSENDEN, “Connor” – Jack Fessenden grew up on the sets of Glass Eye Pix productions, his father’s indie-horror production company, and helping his mom in her stop-motion animation studio. He appeared at three months old in father Fessenden’s WENDIGO, and also appears in the Glass Eye Pix films THE LAST WINTER, STAKE LAND and I SELL THE DEAD. Inspired by the creativity that surrounded him, Jack began to make little shorts with his friends at age seven, often acting in the productions. He appears in his own films RIDING SHOTGUN which premiered at the 2013 Woodstock Film Festival, ALL FOR ONE, and THE ADULTS which also premiered at Woodstock.
JAMES LE GROS, “Cody” – A Minnesota native, he has appeared in some of the most celebrated American independent films of the last two decades, including DRUGSTORE COWBOY, LIVING IN OBLIVION, SAFE, and THE MYTH OF FINGERPRINTS; he has appeared in such genre fare as NEAR DARK, PHANTASM II, THE LAST WINTER, and ZODIAK. Le Gros appeared on Showtime’s Sleeper Cell and on Law & Order. He was also a cast member on the television show Ally McBeal and guest starred on ER, Roseanne, Punky Brewster, The Outer Limits (new series), Friends and the NBC series Mercy.
JOHN SPEREDAKOS, “Dutch” – John has done numerous collaborations with Larry Fessenden and Glass Eye Pix, having appeared in DARLING, BITTER FEAST, I SELL THE DEAD, WENDIGO, Ti West’s HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, THE ROOST, THE INNKEEPERS, briefly in Larry’s THE LAST WINTER, and has been casted for his voice talents on all 3 seasons of TALES FROM BEYOND THE PALE. Other film work includes INSIDE MAN (dir. Spike Lee), CAYMAN WENT, FANTASTIC FOUR, RULES OF ENGAGEMENT (dir. William Friedkin), SCHOOL TIES, JERSEY GIRL, TOWN DIARY, and THE TRADE. John plays a starring role in the indie film UNCONSCIOUS, directed by Brad Wigor.
LARRY FESSENDEN, “Charlie” – has appeared in dozens of films including RIVER OF GRASS, I SELL THE DEAD, WENDY AND LUCY, BROKEN FLOWERS, THE BRAVE ONE, BRINGING OUT THE DEAD, STAKE LAND, IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE, WE ARE STILL HERE, YOU’RE NEXT and TV shows including LOUIE and THE STRAIN. He appears in his son’s films RIDING SHOTGUN and THE ADULTS. Fessenden is a director and producer and has operated Glass Eye Pix since 1985 with the mission of supporting individual voices in the arts.
ROBERT BURKE WARREN, “J.T.” – Raised in Atlanta, Robert first tasted the performer’s life as a teenaged bassist for RuPaul, simultaneously studying acting at Northside School of the Performing Arts. After a brief sojourn in Athens, Ga., he moved to New York City, where he soon found work as bassman in globetrotting garage rockers The Fleshtones. He returned to acting in the early 90s, landing the role of Buddy Holly in the London West End and UK Tour of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story. Returning to NYC, he recorded and self-released his debut CD, …to this day, which won raves in Billboard, The NY Times, and Mojo, and a spotlight on The World Cafe. He co-wrote a song with Rosanne Cash which appeared on her Grammy-nominated CD “Rules Of Travel,” and performed with and wrote songs for Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Wanda Jackson. In 2002, he moved to the Catskills to raise his son, gradually returning to performing, first as children’s entertainer Uncle Rock, then as an actor. He is also a writer. His first novel will be published by The Story Plant in February, 2016.
KEVIN CORRIGAN, “Nick” – A native of the Bronx, New York, Kevin Corrigan has been acting and writing since the age of 15. He made his film debut in Lost Angels (1989) and around that time, when he was just 17, his original play “The Boiler Room” was produced by the Young Playwrights Festival of New York. He has gone on to star in countless independent films and has made quite an impression. Corrigan is also an experienced guitarist and has played in several New York City bands.
ROGER PELTZMAN – is an actor on Stray Bullets, a pianist and teacher in New York City. He has performed six solo concerts at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall during the last 12 years. Roger has also played chamber music and solo repertoire at The Third Street Music School where he is a member of the faculty.
Director of Photography
Sound Re-Recording Mixer
First Assistant Camera / Gaffer
Gaffer / Grip / Goat Wrangler
2nd Assistant Camera
Grip / BTS
IT / RED Camera
JACK FESSENDEN, Writer/Directer/Actor/Composer – Jack Fessenden grew up on the sets of Glass Eye Pix productions, his father’s indie-horror production company, and helping his mom in her stop-motion animation studio. Inspired by the creativity that surrounded him, Jack began to make little shorts with his friends at age seven. It was not until he was 13, however, that he started taking film more seriously as he began to write his first script, “Riding Shotgun”. Less than a year later, the film premiered at the 2013 Woodstock Film Festival. ‘Riding Shotgun’ was followed by “All For One”, “The Adults”, and “Pranks”, the latter two premiering at Woodstock as well. Jack’s films have used different genres to explore the complications of friendship in the face of adversity. Jack spends a lot of his time in Upstate New York, the setting of many of his films, and where many of his collaborators reside. He finished his first feature “Stray Bullets” in April 2016 at age 16.
Jack firmly believes it is essential to understand all aspects of the filmmaking process, which is why he writes, directs, edits, produces, composes, and acts in almost all of his movies. That being said, he looks forward to alleviating some of those responsibilities when he is older so he can focus on directing, his true passion. Most of all, Jack is very grateful to have been afforded the opportunity to make films at such a young age, and can only hope he is making the most of his good fortune.
LARRY FESSENDEN, Producer/Cinematography – Is the director of the art-horror films NO TELLING, HABIT, WENDIGO, THE LAST WINTER and BENEATH. He is a producer on dozens of projects in and out of the horror genre including STAKE LAND, THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, I SELL THE DEAD, THE COMEDY, and WENDY AND LUCY as well as the audio series TALES FROM BEYOND THE PALE, created with the mad Irishman Glenn McQuaid. Fessenden has operated Glass Eye Pix since 1985 with the mission of supporting individual voices in the arts.