Larry Fessenden is an underrated revolutionary of modern American independent cinema. As a producer, actor, editor, cinematographer, and distributor, Fessenden has influenced the careers of Kelly Reichardt, Joe Swanberg, Adam Wingard, Jim Mickle, Ti West, and many others, who’ve created films that’ve altered the landscape of indie and even mainstream pop films. Any given year sees dozens of Fessenden productions, usually at least partially distributed through his own company, Glass Eye Pix. And new collaborators appear to be coming of artistic age, including Fessenden’s teenage son, Jack, who wrote and directed the heist-gone-wrong bloodbath Stray Bullets, and Robert Mockler, whose filmmaking debut, Like Me, offers an unsettling take on the online culture that’s obliterating nuanced discourse.
While Fessenden is a vital and idiosyncratic director in his own right, best known for the environmentally themed horror films Wendigo and The Last Winter, the last decade of his career has been driven by his startling rise as a character actor, often in his protégés’ productions. In Swanberg’s underseen All the Light in the Sky, Fessenden offers a tender and sexy portrait of a woman’s rascal best friend, his livewire ferocity suggesting a somewhat cuddlier Jack Nicholson. On screen, Fessenden has become a poet of male vulnerability, which he informs with a weathered matter-of-factness that staunchly resists self-pity and aggrandizement. These qualities invigorate Fessenden’s performance in Like Me, in which he plays a pitiful loner of oddly considerable stature who forges a perversely poignant bond with his young and beautiful kidnapper, Kiya, played by the equally daring Addison Timlin.
On the phone with Fessenden earlier in the week, we riffed on Like Me, male anxiety, the lasting appeal of the horror genre, and the quest for patrons that sadly defines a large portion of art-making.
You’ve produced an astonishingly vast amount of work. I was wondering how you manage your time on a typical day.
[laughs] You know, it’s funny you put it that way. You have to prioritize, like “What is the fire that’s actually blazing right this moment?” and then you try to put it out. But in the bigger sense I see all the artistic endeavors as being somehow related, as there’s a thematic undercurrent that you’re trying to capture so that the work doesn’t feel so fractured. There’s a consistency to what you’re trying to do, whether you’re directing or acting or playing music. So, with that underlined, my schedule doesn’t feel quite as chaotic as maybe the results suggest. And stuff comes out that we finished, you know, a year ago. You just sorta work away. I’m a workaholic. I’m other –aholics. And I just enjoy it. I’m just happy to be in a zone, being as creative as I can be. I don’t like the business side. I don’t like trying to ask for money and trying to explain why you’re better than the next guy and why your movie’s gonna make money. That takes a whole other talent that I don’t really have.
When you’ve mentored other filmmakers, have you had to make those sorts of decisions as to who gets certain resources? Has that role put you on both the creative and business sides of cinema, so to speak?
I really try to lead with the artistry. I just have a faith that good work will rise to the top, and at least generate some money and buzz. If somebody’s handing us something that’s honest and aesthetically interesting, then that work is worth preserving. I’m not trying to bet on horses and figure out what’s the next best thing. I’m just trying to support people who I think have an authentic voice. You know it’s really a matter of taste. It Follows was on our desk at one point, and, first of all, I could never finance a major film, but I think they wanted finishing funds. And we just didn’t really read it, or if we did we didn’t know it’d be great, and it’s a movie I like. All kinds of things happen that you get wrong. [laughs]
There’s a consistency of vision and authenticity to your work, in all its various facets.
That’s good to hear. That’s really what I’m trying to put out there. And even my engagement with genre, with horror films, is to remind people that these kinds of stories are visceral, and not because of their shock value, but because of their potential for catharsis. The old vampire mythology and Frankenstein and werewolves—all of those things have authentic themes and textures that I like to revitalize for truth.
Speaking of vampires, I revisited Habit last night.
Oh, that’s very sweet.
It needs to be talked about again. The film has aged beautifully.
I like your attitude, soldier! [both laugh]
There are striking similarities between Habit and Like Me. Both films have you at the prolonged mercy of a woman, for instance.
Oh, that’s true, isn’t it? That’s funny. Addison Timlin would be a great vampire. I do believe actually that Robert Mockler, the director, had revisited Habit for his own reasons, because he was gearing up to make a low-budget film and he knew that he would be working with me. When he watched Habit, he thought it would be cool to have me back in a substantial role on screen. That’s when he invited me to be in the movie, as that was not the original plan at all. Robert must’ve connected to that film as well. Obviously, thematically Habit’s about loneliness, which is an overarching theme in a lot of our work. There’s a sense of alienation in people, which monsters reflect both metaphorically and existentially.
Habit and Like Me show how various addictions reflect loneliness. As a recovering alcoholic myself, the endless drinking in Habit makes me viscerally uncomfortable.
Congratulations. I’m very proud of a review by Roger Ebert, who was actually a recovered alcoholic, and he said that Habit was horribly authentic: that there’s a rawness to it. I always cherished that, because I’m trying to show how damaging the drinking is to that character. He suffers from self-pity and delusion, and you end up wondering if there was ever a vampire at all.
Habit is a great ’90s-era New York relationship film with or without the vampire. The vampire is obviously very important.
But the film works as a kind of double narrative.
I think the word “vampire” finally comes out at like minute 75 in that film, and that’s because it isn’t the point. On the other hand, I love the metaphors in horror films. You could make a drama that’s very similar, but to have that other layer…I just like the aesthetic of horror tales, and they’re still very vital thematically.
The horror genre takes you away from the literal-minded.
Dude, I agree. That’s what so powerful. I said this in another interview, so I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but this is a great time for fantasy. We have Guillermo del Toro’s film, The Shape of Water, and we have Jordan Peele’s Get Out. The movies address serious issues in packages that are fun and imaginative, and that’s very exciting.
Speaking of addictions and metaphors, Like Me offers a prolonged metaphor for a new addiction: to online culture.
Well, dude, this’s actually a crisis in our country. I feel sad for the kids that’ve grown up with cellphones. Of course, they feel connected and engaged with Instagram and everything, and that’s all fine, but the truth is that we’re going down this rabbit hole. It’s an addiction you can’t quite pinpoint because you don’t wake up with a hangover, but I think it’s distracting us and breaking down our discourse, tearing rifts in our social fabric. I think that’s something to make movies about and I loved Robert’s script and that’s why we wanted to get involved. To really look at this issue from a cinematic eye. Like Me has an essential commentary about where we are in the world.
How did you and Robert meet and how did this collaboration get started?
Jenn Wexler, my partner at Glass Eye, found a project through a mutual friend that was being made over at Dogfish Pictures. They had a little money and were talking to Addison, but they didn’t quite know how to make a low-budget narrative, and so they wanted a production company that did that kind of thing. We read the script, and Jenn brought Rob in, and we really liked the project and I loved his energy. Rob had made a short, and I thought he had a singular voice that we could help along. The budget ended up being a fraction of what everyone had hoped, though we were able to make it work.