Despite a long resumé as a producer, director, and actor, Larry Fessenden isn’t exactly a household name, outside of diehard horror circles. Fessenden, however, always has the larger world in mind. His mostly low-budget movies all incorporate larger themes alongside the scares. Fessenden acts in and produces Like Me, in which a young woman named Kiya (Addison Timlin) causes a firestorm of controversy via line-crossing prank videos. It’s the first feature from writer/director Robert Mockler, and Fessenden took on the project via his company, Glass Eye Pix. We spoke with Fessenden about bringing new filmmakers under his wing, the role social media plays in our lives, and how this year’s Academy Awards is part of a changing perception of horror movies on a whole.
Given your history working with up-and-coming filmmakers, how did Like Me first cross your path?
Well, I’ve grown up with a lot of movies with first- and second-time filmmakers, and I have a producing partner named Jenn Wexler who became aware of the project. It was sort of looking for a way to get made, and that’s something that we like to try to do. We had a much bigger budget at first, and as time went on, it seemed harder and harder to raise the kind of money we thought we needed. It was more of a road movie at the time, but our motto is to do it at all costs, and so we dropped the budget and reduced the footprint of the story to more like the Rockaways, and we made it for a lower budget.
It was a great experience working with Rob Mockler and [producer] Jessalyn Abbott, they’ve been with the project for many years, and to finally put it on screen was a great triumph because so many movies can die in this process of trying to achieve a bigger budget. If you alter the vision, you can do it efficiently with a great crew, and that’s how we did it.
Is that the kind of experience you’re used to working primarily in the horror genre?
Yeah, that’s really the vibe, and we fill that niche. Obviously, there are great films being made at bigger budgets, and that’s something to aspire to. A lot of the people who make work out of Glass Eye are able to move on and work with more money, but I like the petri dish that is low-budget. You really have to be resourceful and you can break out an artist and catch them when they’re finding their way. Of course, part of this is also helping the artist [and] giving them support. Obviously, Rob had a very unique vision and we were so thrilled to pair him up with James Siewert, his cinematographer, who has a very strong vision as well.
That’s part of it. Pairing people up and getting artists together to really do something unique. When there’s not a lot of money, then there’s not a lot of suits who are nervous who are worried about losing it, so you can be more creative in this sphere.
So you’re able to lend your specific kind of expertise as a producer under these circumstances?
You really go from A to Z [in] every aspect of a production you consider, and you try to find the best way, and the most efficient way, to express what he’s after. He really wanted a bold vision influenced by Kubrick and all the usual beloved artists. So it’s really about listening to what the director’s priorities are, telling them what they probably can’t do, but what’s another version of that. You’re always trying to hit the ambition and the vision and figuring out is there an alternative way to do it.
Also, he never made a feature, so [you] get what is most important on the screen. He had made a short that I really liked that was sort of a scene from the movie. I really liked how he could make a really interesting movie with that confidence you can suffer through some of that stumbling [with] first-time directors.
Was playing Marshall always part of the deal, or did that come along later?
One day he invited me out for a drink and I said, “Sure man, we’ll talk directing.” We’re getting closer and he said, “Actually I have you here for another reason. I want you to play Marshall.” I was very touched because I have an actor’s ego, you know. When you’re invited to be in the movie it’s always special and this is a slightly more substantial role that I usually play. But I told him I had to think about it and then you know agreed shortly thereafter.
And then that became another way that I was creatively engaged, the character changed a little from what he had originally written and as it does when you work with a director and you have specific actor, everything on the page alters slightly, that’s also the magic of making a movie.
It’s interesting because Marshall spends the bulk of the movie as a victim of Kiya, but he puts himself in that situation initially through revealing some kind of unpleasant aspects to his character.
Well, I really feel that whenever you play a character you have to find the sympathy, and of course the real fun thing, I always say this, if you play a villain, you have to humanize him and I try to direct that way as well. You know if I have a character that’s obviously the bad guy, you still try to find the humanity, because even bad people don’t think they’re bad. That always gives a dimension other than the classic mustache [twirling]. So that’s just my natural inclination, leading with empathy.
Clearly, this dude is coming up to see this young girl and it’s a little inappropriate, especially nowadays. But I come as a character through his obvious loneliness. Basically, his brain cells are shattered, [but] he does have a backstory where he basically fucked up and lost his daughter. So there’s a lot of loneliness to his character and the fact that he makes bad choices, I think, is driven by that fundamental sadness. And that’s always a way into a character.
Obviously social media has become a sort of weapon in the arsenal of the horror genre. But here it’s more than just the method, it’s the madness, too. All of Kiya’s actions are driven by the pageviews, the comments, the reaction videos, all the controversy she’s creating online.
Well, it’s Rob’s project first, and it’s his world. I think he’s one of those guys that’s on YouTube a lot. Instagram, Twitter, sort of tracking life in that way, that’s a medium I don’t have any engagement with. And I have a lot of questions about how social media is dividing us and confusing us, so I have a point of view which is why I get very excited when someone brings a project that fits that niche. I always say the reason I like producing is because I can’t make all these movies myself.
But to be able to produce the movies that address social media and loneliness is fantastic. It’s all Rob’s vision, but I’m very excited to be a part of getting that out into the world. And what I like about the way he uses social media is that he used it cinematically. You know there’s a lot of movies about our engagement with social media that show the screen all the time, and I think what he manages to do is instead show the fracturing of the mind, and that’s a much more cinematic depiction of what’s happening to us. We’re sort of becoming impatient, fractured, we’re incredibly lonely whilst feeling engaged.
So I like that it’s still a cinematic expression and that also has to do with James Siewert’s camera work and all the colors that Rob wanted to use, and this very fractured editing where you’re just being thrown from non-sequitur to non-sequitur and the animations and all of the editing style is jiggery. I think he’s sort of expressing how our brains are sort of fractured rather than the alternative, [which] is constantly showing someone on their computer. But that’s not interesting visually.
It all speaks to your larger body of work. It’s horror, but there’s always some kind of underlying philosophy to it. But there’s always been a kind of aversion to the genre, in terms of a mainstream acceptance. But this year, movies like Get Out, a comparably low-budget horror movie that also speaks to much larger social issues, is up for some Academy Awards. Whether or not it’s a longshot to win, do you see this as a larger acceptance of the genre?
Well, I think this is an exciting day to be talking about this because there’s Get Out, which is social commentary as well as horror, [and] horror has always done that. That’s what’s thrilling about it. That’s why it’s perennial. That’s why it always works. Westerns come and go, but horror, [has endured] since the 30s, since the 20s, from the very first movies people are engaged with fear and their anxieties. Horror movies express the natural anxieties and obviously [Jordan] Peele made a mega movie about racism that we get to see through the lens of horror. So it’s sort of a safe way to address that.
I mean we had Moonlight last year, also fantastic, but that was considered high art and drama, whereas to do it in a horror film is to have access to audiences [who] are more open. But also we have Shape of Water, which isn’t horror, but it’s a monster movie. And what could be more spectacular that [it’s] being recognized, because the thing about that movie is that it’s just about a creature that’s an other? I would argue that that’s also about race and using metaphor to express our anxiety is such a powerful thing and this is really the value of fantasy is to use metaphor. It’s actually a way to depict race, sexuality or [another] niche for the viewer.
It’s so important that these movies exist and Guillermo Del Toro is about the power of the monster. So it’s a great moment in cinema to have these so-called B-Movies recognized for the power [and] the catharsis they offer the audience.
Like Me opens in New York and LA on Friday, January 26th and will be available on VOD February 20th.