After completing a trilogy of independent horror films that used the archetypes of the vampire (Habit), the werewolf (Wendigo), and Frankenstein’s monster (No Telling), filmmaker Larry Fessenden widens his scope in the global warming parable The Last Winter. Set against the backdrop of wide open Alaskan snow country, an oil drilling expedition has been stalled by ecological scientist Hoffman (played by James Le Gros) in response to the erratic temperature shifts and melting permafrost. The bigwigs send in aggressive team leader Pollack (Ron Perlman) to resume production immediately. As tension grows between the environmentalist and the company man, an eerie paranormal force seems to monitor them. Soon, members of their party believe there’s “something out there” in the increasingly chaotic wind and storms, and it’s unclear whether it’s avenging phantoms rising up out of the ground or that their isolation has led to a maniacal cabin fever.
The mood of slow creeping dread builds to apocalyptic proportions. Hoffman and Pollack eventually form an uneasy alliance to work together to save themselves and their team from whatever force besieges them, and the film ultimately reveals itself as a grand scale tragedy where Hoffman, the sensitive man of philosophy and science, and Pollack, a bold and confident man of action, reach a terrible impasse as the world collapses around them. The specters Fessenden creates, which at the climax resemble powerful and impassive beasts, are ultimately stand-ins for the real-life nightmare of global warming. The hard-hitting resolution appeals to the conscience of the viewer, as does Fessenden’s lingering mood of introspective melancholy.
How did you conceive of The Last Winter?
I always say my films are mosaics of ideas, with a number of elements that come together. I originally imagined a Muslim and a white guy stuck out in the middle of nowhere with some forced interdependency between them, just to show the humanity beyond the labels. And then I had a long-standing preoccupation with global warming, and with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)—which is constantly being disputed in Congress as to whether they can drill oil there. In addition, I was disappointed the snow melted while I was making Wendigo, and wanted to go to somewhere far north where I would have guaranteed snow for the duration of the shoot. I had a lot of other ideas and was curious to see if I could develop them with someone else, so I invited Robert Leaver to be a co-writer on the project. I had known him for a couple of years, and found him to be a great dynamic spirit. We would meet and talk. He would take vigorous notes of the day’s work. I would critique them, there was a back and forth. This was right after 9/11, so we were in a specific mood: very tenuous, despairing, fraught with angst, and determined to make sense of the future.
What was your relationship to the landscape, which one of the characters describes as “pure white nothingness”?
Robbie and I imagined Alaskan pine forests being threatened by the oil companies—but when my producer Jeff Levy-Hinte and I did our location scouting up in Alaska, we saw this vast, barren white landscape. That’s what inspired my sense of claustrophobic horror, that oxymoron of feeling claustrophobia in great open spaces. I found it as frightening and desolate as any moonscape. When we flew in this tiny airplane over ANWR, it was just endless white. Mind you, in the summer it is beautiful, with a diverse ecosystem and subtle in its colors. That’s where the caribou roam, and fish are flowing in the streams. It is in fact a rich environment. “Pure white nothingness” is a direct quote from a senator with his own asinine criteria of what defines beauty, and therefore what is worth protecting. This is an essential place in that it is literally unaltered by humans.
We ultimately filmed in Iceland as opposed to Alaska or Canada, which were the logical places to look. Alaska has no film infrastructure to speak of, and Canada was not as flat or as snowy as I envisioned. The one great thing about our Canadian scout is we actually got onto an oil rig and were able to soak in the atmosphere. The workers were wonderful and welcoming and we got a lot of Super-8mm footage of the rigs that I wasn’t quite able to incorporate into the movie. But they were great people. This wouldn’t have happened in Prudhoe Bay in Alaska. The oil companies up there were paranoid and secretive like they know they’re doing something wrong. We were there two days into the Iraq war and they were all gung-ho in the hotel where we stayed. It was Fox news in the mess hall 24/7 there. I guess that’s why we chose Iceland.
Nature seems to be as important a character as Pollack and Hoffman.
Some filmmakers are intrigued by human interaction. I am interested in human activity against a larger context, against the backdrop of nature. I do feel in our current reality, where human arrogance has discounted nature and is perhaps only now waking up to the repercussions, this is becoming a more viable theme. Nature is making our lives more difficult with more erratic storms, more blistering heat and vicious cold, drought, flooding, and so on. Environmentalism has always been not about protecting the planet, but about protecting the circumstances in which people, plants and animals can flourish. We are talking about making a sustainable future for people. The Iraq war and the terrorist threat can come and go, but if we lose the hospitality of nature, we are lost as a species. If you think about in most films, from Lord of the Rings to Gone with the Wind, no matter how devastating the slaughter, there’s always some character who wanders off and looks at the sunrise as the new day begins. Renewal is possible. Nature is constant. Well, what if you didn’t have that assurance? When you don’t have that replenishing of spirit, you’ve lost all that humankind has shared throughout history.
One could assume you side with Hoffman’s arguments against Pollack. How do you go about giving dimension to the other side?
I understand Pollack’s psychology, and relate to certain things like his enthusiasm, his impatience. As a filmmaker, I am very impatient with union rules when you want to get the job done. You don’t want to hear about 12 hour days or meal penalties. Imagine translating that to some nudging environmentalist telling you not to do this and that. Pollack is a wonderful character. But in the end, we can see that he makes decisions that are not thought out; he is reactionary. He’s in a great American tradition that has run its course. We need to rethink how we approach problems. On the other hand there’s Hoffman, who seems to have the knowledge or the inkling but not the authority. Hoffman says in many scenes the same thing: “I think there’s something wrong. I’m not sure quite what.” We all laughed about these redundancies in the script. But that’s part of my point: Language doesn’t have much impact in real life. These are the problems with global warming, because nothing can be scientifically proven beyond a doubt. People aren’t feeling it day to day, though maybe that’s changing. But for Hoffman, this frustration leads to a melancholy, and his musings about monsters.
What did Ron Perlman and James Le Gros bring to their roles?
I saw Hellboy while I was thinking about casting The Last Winter, and Ron brought humanity, humor and gruffness to the red giant. These were qualities I wanted in Pollack. When he showed up for our movie, it was such smooth sailing. There was a great exchange of ideas. He challenged me on some things; not about the character but about the script and certain redundancies. I told him I wanted those waves of communication that don’t work, and you can’t just say something once because it never gets through. Ron is at a stage in his career now where he has played the beasts and the monsters—I think he was happy to just play a real character, without makeup. As for Hoffman, well, in every movie I make, there’s always a character that might have been played by myself, and the actor doing him becomes self-conscious. Le Gros kept teasing me: “I know you could do it better,” but of course I couldn’t—he brought great subtlety to the part that I wouldn’t have done. He’s also a smart collaborator when you’re actually talking about the script with him. After chatting recently, he told me that every role he does is based on another person. Hoffman was based on a friend of his. It’s a very specific performance. I like that because Hoffman is not Le Gros. He’s in a different zone.
Can you describe your use of monsters as metaphor in The Last Winter?
In all my films I am exploring the tension between reality and perception. It’s possible that I didn’t push the spectral qualities of the monster element far enough [in The Last Winter] because some people still take it all so literally. They look at the creature as an explanation, as though I were suggesting that global warming is perpetrated by mean looking deer creatures. Honestly, I can’t help these people. My hope is that audiences see these elusive phantoms as a manifestation within Hoffman’s mind. The world is collapsing because of CO2 pollution that has been created from years of industry, and characters perceive phantoms coming out of the ground. In my earlier film, Habit, the main character is a confused, despairing alcoholic who is losing his mind, and slowly comes to believe his girlfriend is a vampire. You could say my movies are ultimately about how we create an alternate storyline to the reality that is actually happening. It is like imagining there is a God by your side during your darkest moments. It’s that human desire to create myths to make sense of an arbitrary world.
Fessenden and I also briefly touched base on a few topics related to environmentally sound film and video production. His book, Low Impact Filmmaking, is a guide for filmmakers and producers to “have access to environmentally conscientious and money saving resources that offer a way to reverse the trend toward waste in the motion picture production business.”
Environmentally Sound Moviemaking
Environmentally Sound Filmmaking is feasible and necessary. In all walks of life there has got to be a change. Practically speaking on a film shoot, it requires a Production Assistant (PA) with the right personality to oversee that whole aspect of the production. In general, independent filmmaking is a stressful, rushed and imperfect enterprise and the first thing to go is the planning and protocol essential to low impact approach.
Print all scripts double sided. Recycle old schedules and scripts when printing “sides”. If people aren’t using their sides or call sheets, don’t print them.
Craft service and catering is where the most difference can be made. The greatest offense is bottled water. Ten years ago there was no such thing. Each production can come up with a solution. On a recent film I produced, I Sell the Dead, we had a water cooler on set and encouraged people to refill their bottles. Eventually we provided cast and crew with sports bottles to refill.
The wood for The Last Winter set was all purchased by a country club and every last splinter was reused. When you live on island and have to import every two by four, you come to treat it as a valuable commodity. Meanwhile in NY, you can find enough wood to build a whole set in any construction site dumpster.
Filmmaking is wasteful by definition because it is impermanent and systems take time to perfect. Plenty of people in the arts want to participate in helping the world but people are not informed. What is recyclable anyway? That’s why you need to designate a PA to oversee the environmental efforts.
Low Impact Filmmaking
I wrote a book on the topic in 1992. It’s dated now, but sadly, the topic is more urgent than ever.