OF A BLOOD HABIT
An independent filmmakers talks about the blood, sexual hunger, paranoia,
and the East Village hangover
actor/director/writer Larry Fessenden
Interviewed by Alexander Laurence
Larry Fessenden has been lurking in the independent and underground film scenes for many years. He is an actor, director, writer and editor. An early version of his new movie Habit was actually made as a video when Larry Fessenden was still at NYU film school in 1980. He formed Glass Eye Pix in 1985 and got involved with performance artist David Leslie. Together they made a few videos including The Impact Addict Video which documented the risk taking stunts of Leslie. Fessenden then moved on to documenting strippers in 1989 with Hollow Venus. This movie starred Heather Woodbury who was a dancer and wrote the script. She later turns up in the film Habit. After doing No Telling and River of Grass, Fessenden was still involved with editing, and soon decided to work on his first real feature as writer/director/actor in true Orson Welles fashion. He soon hooked up with Frank DeMarco, and started shooting in 1994. Fessenden plays an East Village loser who has a drinking problem. His girlfriend leaves him and he looks for some replacement but this only gets him in trouble.
Alexander Laurence: How did you get involved in film?
Larry Fessenden: My first movie I was the animator on a GI Joe caper film. Then when I was 11, I did a live action Dr. Jeckyl & Mr Hyde. I did mostly acting during high school. And I started making films and videos as an undergraduate at NYU. The video program was much looser. In the video department there were no limitation so you could make feature-length videos. I made the first version of Habit in 1980. It’s just me in a paired down version, but it’s the same basic story.
AL: How did you meet David Leslie and Heather Woodbury?
LF: I was editing for people at that time, actor’s reels and that sort of thing, and then I met David, and got involved in the performance art scene. I documented his crazy stunts. We started intercutting movies and all his childhood influences into these pop-myth collages. The videos were seen in performance spaces and some film festivals. While I was making those films and getting known in the performance world, I met Heather Woodbury, who was also a performance artist. She did one-woman solo acts. She was also a go-go dancer. She had a story to tell which was her life as a go-go dancer. It was one drunken evening where we decided to made a film about it, and that turned into a project that lasted from 1986 to 1989.
AL: When did you start thinking about doing a new version of Habit into a full length feature?
LF: Around the time that I was making No Telling, I had envisioned this trilogy of movies: Habit, No Telling, and Hector Dodges. I ended up doing No Telling first instead of Habit, but it has always been on my mind to re-do it. It’s a story that’s really close to me. Even at the time of its original conception, it hadn’t been done. Now we can say that there are other “Lower East Side-Vampire films.” At the time, when I thought of re-doing it, it was still a fresh idea. After doing No Telling I was hired on a movie River of Grass as an actor. That was a great experience and reminded me of doing low-budget film. So I was hungry to get started with Habit. I wasn’t going to play the lead in the beginning. We did a reading at Nuyorican Poets Cafe. I got inspired to put it together with a small crew.
AL: Who was involved in the beginning?
LF: I found my freind, Dayton Taylor, who’s a producer and production manager on everything from commercials to features. We devised a plan to work with this small crew of volunteers. He wasn’t intimidated by the more ambitious parts of the script like the wolf scene and that there were so many locations. I could see that Dayton was a man who I could work with. We went forward and made a general invitation to people to work on this project. That’s when we got involved with Frank DeMarco who had recently shot a documentary called Therimin. He became the Director of Photography. We shot the movie in our own apartments and on the sly all over the city.
AL: The main character of Habit is a drunk who breaks up with his girlfriend and then gets involved in this obsessive sexual relationship….
LF: This was a very intuitive story for me. It’s an obsessive affair about blood and cutting. Sam is obviously on a downward spiral and then he meets this woman who’s fabulous. She makes him feel important. I think you can tell a story about a more marginal character if you root it to a tradition, like the vampire story. You can look at this guy’s specific life and see what’s universal in it through the vampire story. We all have demons that cause us despair. Habit is a portrait of the little things that add up and lead to Sam’s undoing, and it’s about how this kind of self-destruction is in our myths, its quality in human nature, that’s the real moster. I’m interested in re-examining that nugget of truth at the core of a genre that I love. You know, the horror movie, the vampire mvie.
AL: What is Glass Eye Pix and who is involved?
LF: Glass Eye Pix is me, and some editing equipment. It’s a dwindling bank account. I work as an editor. I rent out equipment. Glass Eye Pix has its hands in various little projects. I made a book that went along with the film No Telling which was about environmental issues. Glass Eye Pix is the people I’m working with right at this moment, and the people I’ve worked with in the past. I’m working with Mike Ellenbogen right now to distribute Habit. I have helped other filmmakers through Glass Eye Pix. It’s an umbrella for indy filmmaking, mostly my own.
AL: What do you think about Independent filmmaking in New York now?
LF: It’s all over the place. New York still has museums and literary traditions as a base, but film has infiltrated everything. New York will always be resilient, but there’s moments when it feels like LA, and what I mean by that is that every waiter and bartender wants to be an actor or writer or director. It’s good that video is more accessible and makes people able to make their own films. My worry is what people really have to say. I think that really needs to be discussed. I think that there’s too much discussion of celebrity and people’s financial packaging and what have you. In Hollywood films it’s all about special effects and the celebrity’s machismo and how many vans they have shipped around the world. I think that in five or ten years, there will be a resurgeance of interest in authentic cinema or single-voice cinema, because the price will go down, so that people with a vision might be able to get their movies made. It’s really where they’re distributed and how they’re exhibited that becomes difficult. There’s a tendency now of being so hyper-aware of your place in the hierarchy of showbiz. I can’t believe that a guy like Cassavetes sat around and talked about the numbers he was getting. I think they were really interested in making dramas that reflected their lives.
AL: What about some of these kids who are cutting themselves and drinking blood? Do you think Goth kids are going to be attracted to Habit?
LF: It’s all part of a milieu of self-destruction, but it’s also a visceral world where one is living a little closer to the edge, and that’s the world I was trying to create in Habit, this bohemia which is sort of dying out now as everyone is so career-oriented and gets serious at age seventeen. In my day, you take a little time to deal with the bigger issues and if it lead you to despair, “Well, you pull out the old pocketknife and express yourself!” As far as the Goth culture, I hope that they would appreciate my film because I think that I’m talking about things that they’re concerned with and consumed with. I’m not in that world directly though I’ve been there.
AL: Who are some of your influences?
LF: In terms of movies, I’m one of the guys who’s really influenced by the 1970s when I was first being turned on to moviemaking. Well, Scorcese, who I always call Marty. It’s like knowing someone through their filmmaking. I love Roman Polanski. His early movies. Up to his American departure. I loved Cul de Sac and The Tenant. Rosemary’s Baby. Chinatown too of course. But in Rosemary’s Baby I think that he has this perfect blend of realism and something surreal. In that way I like Bunuel. I like Godard for his breaking the medium. Polanski has an incredible attention to detail and the story unfolds very realistically. Rosemary’s Baby for example, there’s not a lot of indicators during the film that are saying this is all very spooky. It’s really the unfolding of events. That’s what I really love about Polanski. Bunuel just had a nasty sense of humor, but even he would just throw in strange events in an overwise straight-forward narrative. I’m interested in breaking narrative. Having the accumulation of events form the narrative, rather than the signposts of drama which you expect and are now overused in Hollywood films. I’m interested in detail, and an accumulation of detail forming the narrative, and therefore character-driven.
AL: What is the link that connects all your films?
LF: All my films are about how you create your own truth in a crazy and chaotic world. And the truth that you make becomes your reality. Obviously Sam in Habit focuses on the dark side and it leads to his demise. In No Telling, it’s about what are we calling progress? Are we really entrusting oursleves to science and the market to determine our reality? Even in Hollow Venus, it’s about the way she rationalizes being a go-go dancer and how much is she kidding herself? David’s stuff is all about pop culture and how it drives you mad, which is a theme that is still relevant today.
AL: Why are you so interested in the truth?
LF: I just think when you’re educated you’re supposed to ask questions. You read all this stuff at fine schools as I did anyway. Then you have information, then you’re pursuing truth. Then when you grow up you realize that no one wants to hear the truth, and the media suppresses the truth. So there’s this total contradiction between the potential for growth and understanding and the way the world is run which is counter to that, because everyone has their agendas. Within that comes a feeling of alienation and horror. My films are about alienated horror.
AL: You won this award recently?
LF: It was the “Someone To Watch” award. Mostly for Habit but I think that they were excited to see that I had done a lot of movies, and I would probably go on making movies.