We sat down with Fessenden to talk about his long-ranging career, the state of indie horror, whatever happened to a planned collaboration with Guillermo del Toro and much much more.
What can you tell us about Glass Eye Pix?
Glass Eye Pix is a company I started very casually in 1985. It used to be just for my own films, but very quickly, I put it on other movies I made as an editor in association with other artists and eventually started producing films in one capacity or another, often just lending equipment. It’s a community of filmmakers. When I feel I’ve made a significant contribution, I usually try to get Glass Eye on the masthead.
And Glass Eye’s output is mostly horror?
Yeah, we do mostly horror, mostly the type of films I’m making. I’ve made films with filmmaker Kelly Reichardt. She makes quiet, really well-observed indie films. I’ve made documentaries about religion. In the end I feel horror is a great genre to talk about the human condition. Which in my opinion is horrific.
Reichardt has received a lot of praise for her work outside of genre circles, but she seems to maintain that horrific element in her work.
Absolutely. I think we have something in common. She’s interested in hard-hitting stories about mythologies that don’t work out. You know, "River of Grass" is about two sorta loser kids who kinda hit the road and imagine their villains, but in the end, they’re really outlaws. “Wendy and Lucy” is about the devastating poverty and loneliness of many within the American experience. I think what we have in common with these movies is an interest in social realism and even approaching horror with a level of realism. It’s hard to put your finger on it. Glass Eye really represents films that are auteur-driven and coming from a real, honest place.
Most of the film being shown during the retrospective are from the last couple of years. Has it been a business decision to expand so quickly, or was interest in working with the label gotten so much stronger?
It’s really been a snowballing. I was originally just making my own films - “No Telling,” “Habit,” “Wendigo” - and somewhere in there, raising money for “The Last Winter.” And one of my guys who worked for me, an assistant, he proposed making a low budget film. He knew I was interested in that, I had helped others make low budget films, so we sort of got on this path of making low budget movies, and because they were horror movies, they would sell. And that was a very encouraging situation. This was back in the early 2000‘s, there was still a DVD market where you could make money off this. So I made Ti West’s film, I made a film with Jim McKenney. Then I made a deal with a company called MPI, they’re in Chicago, we made five more movies, including “House of the Devil,” “Hypothermia,” “Bitter Feast,” “Stakeland” and now “The Inkeepers,” so that’s been a strong run. Meanwhile, we have branched out and done some other things on the side, so it has been a busy decade.
As a director, each of your films has featured an expanding canvas. Are your films going to continue to expand?
What happened to me was that after “The Last Winter,” which was my biggest film with a four million dollar budget, I hooked up with Guillermo Del Toro. He was interested in remaking a Spanish ghost story that he had produced, “The Orphanage.” We wrote the script, I was going to direct, it went on for two years, and then Warner Bros. decided to look for another director. It took me out of the ring for awhile for my own films. Even though I had that little dance with Hollywood, I feel that I’m back to looking for money like an independent filmmaker.
I have two projects and I’m trying to figure out which to do first. I’ve never cared about the budgets going up to assure my stature. The idea is to get the right budget for each project. Unfortunately, the market has changed, so you really have to be able to make a movie on a cheap budget with the right cast in mind, so I’m used to that model. I feel a little disappointed, you feel like you’ve done your time, you should get a little money, but I’m not going to let it get in the way of making a film.
Regarding “The Orphanage,” did del Toro and the studio seek you out? Or did you pursue the project on your own?
No, I would not have sought out that particular project. I had met Guillermo in Toronto, when I had “The Last Winter” and he had “Pan’s Labyrinth,” his great film. We had Ron Perlman as a mutual friend. Ron introduced us, and he said, I’ve always loved your work, I want to do something with you. A year later, I got this call that he had handpicked me to do the remake. We had a lot of wonderful conversation. I eventually went to LA, we sat down and hashed out the script, then I went off and wrote it.
I took his notes, Warner Bros. notes, New Line’s notes. It was a really good script. I was very excited about it. I was going to do it as a New England gothic, truly shot in New England, but it didn’t pan out. WB wanted to shoot it in South Africa or something nutty. I mean, why do you remake a foreign film in another foreign land? I don’t understand the logic sometimes.
But that’s not why we parted ways. Basically, they felt that they couldn’t cast the kind of A-List star they were looking for with my indie reputation. But it was great, Guillermo has always been supportive, he reaches out to me, we might do something else possibly.
Can you share a little more about the changing independent atmosphere between the early aughts and today?
Couldn’t be more different. Nowadays, unless you have a runaway hit, you can’t necessarily make the money back in advance, so you kind of wait for the VOD numbers. We’re pretty hopeful that once the movie is sold to every territory we’ll be fine. But it’s a longer process. In 2003, we would make a movie for $35k and sell it for $65k, and that doesn’t happen anymore, so it’s a different atmosphere. People are more cautious with their money these days.
And it’s such a savvy public, they want something dazzling. You can’t just make a humble indie movie about some guy wandering the streets. Kelly Reichardt is a wonderful exception, in the sense that she’s holding her own as an independent filmmaker, and even her movies have risen in scope and ambition, so it’s a difficult market. You can still make product, it’s just about distribution. My other pet peeve is that the download world is very brutal. I hate to sound like a studio head, but that’s my bread and butter. If you download “Stakeland” or “I Sell The Dead,” you just took the only hope I ever had of making a dime off that movie. The “Stakeland” guys are so paranoid they won’t even give a disk to festivals. They’re really on lockdown.
What are your thoughts on the studios’ movement towards micro budgeted horror films like “Paranormal Activity”?
I think it’s great. I’ve always had a fantasy regarding some of our favorite filmmakers. Sometimes you wish you could just rattle their cage. Can you just make a pure movie like one of your earlier films, just without the bells and whistles? I won’t name names, but we all know some of those guys. In principle I love that. The only problem is stuff like Paramount trying to recreate the success of “Paranormal Activity,” you can’t help thinking they’re going about it for the wrong reason. Whatever gives people the opportunity to make something good, whatever nurtures the element of surprise in entertainment is good. I don’t wanna have a negative opinion on it, it just seems like someone’s trying to get something for nothing. These movies come out of 'nowhere,' not designed to be mega-hits. So we’ll see. “Paranormal Activity 2” looks kind of amusing, in at least the minute and a half that’s in the trailer.
Can you talk about your next project?
I’m literally trying to raise the money now. I have all the designs and locations, I’m working on that. My problem is, I always make movies based on the season, and I want it to be fall or winter, and you need a ramp-up time of about three months, so I kinda need another month to see if it goes or not. If not that, I have something set up for the spring. The strategy becomes difficult if you don’t have a support system in place. I have Glass Eye Pix, but what I really need is money. I have two horror films down the pike, and a musical, a very sweet, sentimental story which I’d love to make, it would be a blast.
Your earlier films are slightly harder to find. Is that something Glass Eye, or perhaps another company, will try to rectify?
“Wendigo” is almost buried. Had a terrible cover from Artisan. Back then, they was a big deal with “Blair Witch” money. Then they were sold to Lionsgate, which is just a massive machine. There’s nothing you can blame on the cover art, a lot of people just don’t like the film, but in general I don’t think it was well-taken care of. I’d love to see that released properly. “No Telling” and “Habit” are both being bought and getting new releases. It hasn’t been announced, but they’re getting a nice treatment. They’re not important films, but I think they are unique films, very personal. And I think “Habit” foreshadowed the new way of vampire storytelling with “Twilight” and “True Blood,” which is to say, a kind of relationship story. And I still stand by “No Telling,” like you would any retarded child.
Your next big project is producing “The Innkeepers.“ What can you tell us about that?
It’s the new film from Ti [West]. We went back to the well and asked MPI to finance it, they had success with “House of the Devil.” Ti knew if he could present the project in a doable way, so he proposed we shoot in the same hotel we stayed in when we made “House of the Devil.” So he knew the location well. Ti wrote this very sweet script - Sara Paxton and Pat Healy are these two inkeepers for this hotel on the last weekend before it closes. He was gonna call it The Last Weekend, and I was like, I don’t think so Ti! It’s gonna be fun, I think people are going to enjoy it. It starts out as almost teen comedy, and then it gets darker and darker, and I think that’s a trope Ti and I enjoy.
You had a cameo in “Cabin Fever 2,” which was directed by Ti West, but there was a lot of turmoil behind the scenes. What was the story behind that shoot?
We wouldn’t have treated Ti that way at Glass Eye. I think it was a great shoot, he had a great time, met a lot of future collaborators, and I think he liked his actors. Quite honestly, the studio didn’t like his cut, they didn’t get it. And I don’t think there was a lot of back and forth, they just kinda took it away from him. I just think it was a mistake on the part of the studio, they didn’t understand what they were dealing with, and I think they ran out of money. Ti has a very singular vision, he’s not good at working with people when his trust is broken. Though I stand by his side of the story always, I know he’s not the easiest artist to deal with. He’s very determined, and not interested in compromise, which is admirable, but can lead to trouble.
You’ve done several bit roles as an actor, and you tend to get killed onscreen a lot. Why?
I dunno. It seems to me as people think of me as in the death throes. I just got hired by Brad Anderson, who made “Session 9,” where I died. He wanted me to die in “Vanishing on 7th Street,” so I’m always ready to get the call. I think I have ten or eleven onscreen deaths. I always joke with James LeGros about this, he has more deaths. The difference is, he’s actually in those movies when he dies. I just walk on, get killed, and that’s it.
If you were to pick the ideal project to die in, what would it be?
I guess the “Saw” franchise is over, so... I don’t know where to begin. It’s an interesting thing., It’s stressful to do a death scene. I had a big one in “The Last Winter,” but my producer thought it was over-the-top. One of those gasp-gasp-sputter deals and then the eyes just go dead.
Are there any modern horror films you’ve enjoyed lately?
Well, I always find it awkward because I don’t care about gore and violence, which is a motivating factor for a lot of fans. I’ve always felt violence, when done well, in “Irreversible,” “Man Bites Dog,” “Funny Games,” “Henry [Portrait of a] Serial Killer,” these movies I revere, and they’re gory, but there’s something else doing on. The one I liked recently was “The Mist.” I loved the location, the monsters, the sense of real dread. I love the existential horror, that he makes a huge mistake at the end. I liked “The Host,” “Let The Right One In.”
I like monsters, too. I wanted so hard to like “The Wolfman,” and that took the wind out of my sails. Just a major fuck-up. I have it on my computer, and I watch little pieces to find the love, and it never blossoms. I still love the original, but its obviously dated, you wanted to see how it would feel modern. No there’s a monster movie I’ve tried to make. I tried to get the property “Werewolf By Night.” I actually fought with Miramax for it, I’m ready to go hand-to-hand with Marvel. But on the other hand, I don’t need them to make a good werewolf movie. So that’s one of the things on my docket. The guy that they chose, it was like, you’ve gotta be kidding, you’re not taking this seriously!