from Curve Magazine

The Filmmaker’s Dilemma: Jack Fessenden on Balancing Inspiration and Originality

July 7
By: Erin Kalejs

“It’s hard for me to be a consumer and creator at the same time, because the more I watch, it can feel like everything is being done already and where do I fit in? Even though I know when I make something it’s not going to be the same,” admits Jack Fessenden as we discuss his creative influences.

At just 23 the New Yorker and indie filmmaker talks like he’s been making movies his whole life, because he has. Growing up with director Larry Fessenden, a cult figure in the world of indie horror film for a father and mother; Beck Underwood, an animator and production designer, Jack has been going to film school ever since he took his first steps.

The fact that “art was play” for young Jack explains a lot, pretty soon messing around with a camera turned from playing games into a serious passion and it hasn’t changed since.

Making his debut feature film Stray Bullets (2016) during his sophomore year of high school, and shooting his next one at 19, Foxhole (2021) – a war drama inspired by the true story of his grandfather during World War Two. It’s not hard to understand why he believes making films is “the only thing I know how to do”.

In the latest episode of Small Talk we had an open discussion about auteur theory, the production of his latest film, and why sometimes influences can actually stifle creativity.

The Curve: It’s clear that both of your parents influence your work, but in general who are your other main creative influences? 

Jack Fessenden: That’s a great question! Every time someone asks me that I’m dumbfounded! I would say it’s the ones I’ve loved for a long time; the Coen brothers, Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock, Wes Anderson.

It’s never ‘I want to be like this director’, very rarely when I’m writing do I try to emulate something else. I think since I’ve seen so many movies all my tastes are filtered through based on everything I’ve already seen.

TC: So would you say your influences are just unconsciously ingrained?

JF: Yeah I think so. Sometimes I’ll watch a movie and I’ll go “oh that hits so close to home I almost don’t want to see that because that’s exactly what I want to do!” and then I get discouraged because I feel like it’s been done already.

There’s also the thing of, the people that I identify with the most, and watching their films can be challenging because you have to be careful not to be like “woah! I just want to do that! I wish I made that!” That’s how I sometimes feel about Robert Altman.

With Robert Altman films like “Shortcut” or “The Long Goodbye” I just love his style and the way he can weave a web with so many characters, that’s the kind of directing I find really cool, so he’s a big one for me right now.

TC: You’re currently in the middle of writing your next feature film, what’s it about?

JF: It’s about the drought in the American West, the water crisis. It follows a family in that setting and that’s kind of the source of the conflict. I’ve been immersing myself in research about that, like I did for Foxhole because of course that was set in three different time periods that I’ve never experienced.

For that project I needed to do so much research to feel like I could tell that story and I also knew that so much of the meat and believability of the film was going to come from the granular details, the small things because we couldn’t do big explosion scenes from a typical war movie since the plot was two people talking in a hole.

I needed to figure out what they would be talking about, the clothes they would be wearing, all that stuff was very important to me.

That’s what the research went into for Foxhole and then for this new project I’m researching a lot about the drought. Soon I’m going to be traveling out to this region of the US where there is no water to go around and that will really give me insight and give me first hand experience.

Jack Fessenden in his element, on set of Foxhole in West Shokan, New York, 2019
Credit: Bahram Foroughi

TC: Your father is an icon in the world of indie- horror films, how did you, especially at such an early age, find your own voice and style of filmmaking? 

JF: I think even with the same tastes and genes, each individual person is going to have their own themes. For me my themes have always remained the same and I see them now as I look back as centring around friendships and relationships.

In the case of my new film a family and what happens to those bonds when extreme, existential pressures from the outside come into place and how do we react? Do we rise to the occasion or turn against each other?

You can use these themes in any genre, and genre is such a cozy place to be because then you can use the tropes of the genre to exploit your own themes. My voice was always very different from my Dad’s who was always into monsters as outsider metaphors and feeling like an outcast.

We do share an environmentalist point of view, my new film definitely has that aspect to it. Growing up in a household that cared about the environment, that’s been instilled in me.

TC: How do you feel about auteur theory? Because you’re so hands on with all your movies; writing, editing, producing and most of the time creating the soundtrack as well. So what do you think of the ‘auteur’ label, do you identify with it? 

JF: I certainly believe that for me, filmmaking is writing, directing and editing. To relinquish control completely of any one of those parts, I’m not at a point where I can do that yet because I’m still learning so I want to get as good as I can and fully realize my vision and get to know myself as an artist before I say “I’m just going to watch while you edit this.”

So as far as the auteur theory goes, you want to carry your movie from conception to completion with you as the torch bearer.

Whether you’re literally the editor it’s not as important as if you’re there making those cuts with an editor. But I certainly like auteur cinema, I think you can always feel when someone is the writer and director because their style is spread out into the dialogue and structure.

I’m also excited by the idea of someone one day handing me a script and saying “we want you to direct this!” For now I’m still exploring my interests through film, it’s all I know how to do [laughs], so I want to do as much of it as I can, I don’t want to let someone else have all the fun.

TC: I was watching an interview with Martin Scorcese the other day and he said that “when it all comes together on set, especially in the cutting room, at a certain point you can actually feel it go through you, it’s a part of you, you become the film you’re making.” Can you relate to that? Does the film really become a part of you? 

JF: Yeah it’s kind of like a relationship almost, like it looms that large in my experience, well maybe not that large but it’s what I go to bed thinking about. With these features, they’re like four or five year projects so that becomes your closest friend.

I’m very private about it and don’t share it with many people if any, until it’s at a point where you have to start bringing other people in.

I totally identify with that quote, you really become so attached and fixated on the idea of realizing this thing. Sometimes I wonder why isn’t just writing a really beautiful short story or song or making a painting enough for me?

But instead I’m fixated on this idea of a movie and putting it up on a big screen, and it’s a very daunting thing to be faced with at an early stage but it’s also the most precious thing at the earliest stage.

Because before you’ve shot it, anything is possible still and the movie exists in your head exactly the way you want it, when you shoot it, your dreams are crushed and everything is not as you pictured it.

I think the more money and experience you have, yes it’s important because you can get closer and closer to the vision with the actual product, but more often than not I think the shoot is like a “womp womp” and then the edit is where you can try to reclaim that original vision, because it’s in there and the movie will be what you intended.

To hear more about Fessendem’s filmmaking process listen to the full episode below