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Larry Fessenden on “The Last Winter”

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By Aaron Hillis

IFC News

[Photos: Left, “The Last Winter”; below, director Larry Fessenden, IFC Films, 2007]

The future of modern American horror can look mighty grim when considering how little originality there is to all the remakes of far-better films (listen up, Rob Zombie) and how little suspense there’s been in the hopefully waning trend of torture porn. So thank goodness we have actor-producer-director Larry Fessenden (“Habit,” “Wendigo”), whose smart and unconventional take on indie horror tackles larger human issues in ways that draw easy comparisons to George Romero, John Carpenter and Larry Cohen. His latest is “The Last Winter,” an arctic frightmare set in Northern Alaska in which an oil company advance team (including Ron Perlman, James LeGros and Kevin Corrigan) find themselves slowly being offed by an ambiguous creature that could just be the environment itself. Think “The Thing” meets “The 11th Hour” and you’ll realize that Fessenden may have found the best way to address the global warming issue in a film — by scaring the crap out of us. I sat down with Fessenden to talk about the film, climates both environmental and political, and other terrifying topics. [WARNING: Minor spoilers follow!]

I’ve been waiting for a new Fessenden film for a few years now. Where have you been?

No one wants to make my movies, so it just takes forever. It’s tough. I wrote this in 2001 when “Wendigo” was coming out. It took a year to really get it going, to get Jeff [Levy-Hinte] enthused and willing to produce again. Then we traveled to Alaska and made more adjustments to the script while we looked for money. It took a year to look for money, [another] year to realize we weren’t getting it from the mini-majors, and then we had to wait for the season. Once you’re between $3-5 million, you have to get it from somewhere. [Execs] sort of liked my script, they thought it was admirable, but it’s a “tweenie”: in between genres, nobody knows what it is. The whole business model of making a horror film is that it’s going to deliver the kind of gore and extremism the fans are expecting. It’s funny, there’s a cliché in Hollywood: We all want to make the next “Rosemary’s Baby,” but they don’t, really. They want to make the next “Saw”; that’s what they’re looking for. And global warming, does it get any more dreary than that? [laughs]

Why do you feel the need to include social or more universal issues in the form of a horror film?

I can’t help myself. I love the horror genre so I’m inclined to write scary films filled with dread, and the things I find dreadful are where we find ourselves as a society and as individuals. You know, “Habit” isn’t really a critique of anything but addiction and self-deception, so I don’t know if that’s considered social commentary; that’s just what comes out. As for global warming, I consider it an extremely potent symbol of our failings as an entire species, that we’ve come to the point where we’re destroying ourselves and unwilling to do anything about it. I find that fascinating — that is horror. So it’s really the same theme as “Habit,” [which] was once going to be called “Denial,” and denial is what’s certainly in play with global warming. To me, it’s all really the same theory, and it’s all very personal. Self-destruction is something I’ve been experimenting with my whole life. [laughs]

Besides scaring your audience shitless, are you hoping that your genre approach to environmental issues will transcend the preaching to the choir of “An Inconvenient Truth” or “The 11th Hour”?

Basically, my films are about conveying an emotion. In this case, it’s dread and deep, deep sadness coming from the feeling of not being able to go home. That’s a theme in the movie; it’s even visually tagged in the end when Hoffman is being dragged away to his doom. His last memory is as a kid, almost making it to [his front] door. The centerpiece of the movie is that sadness: if we change the planet irrevocably, we can’t go home. We can’t return to the fall leaves in New England if they’re now palm trees. So, there’s something emotional about it, and that’s what interests me. I mean, I would like people to change their light bulbs to compact fluorescents, but I’m just trying to express my feelings of fear and sadness about a train wreck that seems to be happening in slow motion.

Do you live green?

I’m extremely aware of green, and I’m a complete hypocrite like so many people. I drive to the country on the weekends, end of story. However, I drive a hybrid. I don’t buy water bottles. I try to avoid that. The irony is that I’ve been using compact fluorescents for 15 years, so I’ve probably contributed something to my carbon footprint. I’m a vegetarian — or [at least] I eat fish, I’m a pescetarian — and I think it’s a huge contribution because I love meat. I used to suck the marrow out of bones, but factory farming is atrocious, and I’m going to take a stand. That was a personal sacrifice of some merit to me. I could still sit down to a T-bone right now. [laughs] Whatever, I do my best. There are things you can do, and I have a whole website about it: I make the effort. But I don’t want to be a propagandist in my films.

How did you come up with how “The Last Winter”‘s entity would look? Did you ever attempt to make the creature more ambiguous, or had you always intended it to be wendigo-like?

In the writing, if you read the script, it’s constantly saying you can’t quite see it. It’s just a blur. It was fun to work with CGI this time because I’d have the ability to deliberately make it transparent. Maybe I lost my focus, but it became more corporeal than I had written it to be. But that’s because there’s a part of me that loves to see the monster. The more blurry it got, I was like, “C’mon guys, let’s make it a little clearer.” It’s a shortcoming, but at the same time, to me, the monster is in the mind of [LeGros’ character] Hoffman and each character as they cross the line into this sense of dread about what they’ve done to the planet. They anthropomorphize this dread and it looks like this weird caribou thing.

I don’t mind seeing it. It’s brief enough, and it grew out of the original wendigo creature, which you’ll see in mythologies and comic books and so on. I’m particularly drawn to the wendigo with antlers, which is sometimes how it’s depicted. Oddly enough, it’s also depicted as an abominable snowman. He fights Spider-Man in a comic, and he looks like a goofy, white ape. I love it because there’s this sort of side mythology that is in the public imagination, but not completely. And it’s by no means owned; there’s no one depiction that’s definitive, which is part of its charm. It’s very elusive in body. Mine always has antlers, and we basically varied it from the one in [“Wendigo”] to something more caribou-like because now we’re in the North. It’s just nutty.

How do you think the film will go over when most American horror films today have been going in a direction of envelope-pushing gore?

Well, as you know, there are a lot of articles saying that that movement has come and gone. I think historically it will be relevant that, in an age of torture, that’s what our horror movies were about. So I don’t condemn the “movement,” so to speak. But it’s not what interests me. I’m interested in another type of horror, which is the idea of self-betrayal, all the issues of reality and imagination and how they interact. Mythology, if you will; the more metaphysical elements of horrors. As far as how I’ll do with it, people pay a lot of lip service, that they wish that horror had other textures besides extreme gore. We’ll see if it’s true. I have a different kind of a gore — an Al Gore vibe. Hopefully, it’ll go over. I don’t calculate what my movies will be in terms of the marketplace, because then I’d just pack it up and become a plumber, which might be more fun anyway. [laughs]

I’m just jaded by the genre today. For every “The Last Winter,” there’s a half-dozen subpar efforts.

Listen, it’s because the studios are involved, it’s about the bottom line, and if they’re taking risks, it’s in other genres. Look at this slew of remakes. It’s almost boring to complain about it, but it’s stupefying, the amount of unique, original films that come out compared to the staggering quantity of remakes. That doesn’t mean you can’t do well with a remake — I thought “Dawn of the Dead” was very cool, and forgive me if I can’t list all the others that were successful. But in general, I get this feeling of deep cynicism in the marketplace. What the fuck, do we really need the sequel of a remake? It’s also devastating because you get great film directors who have made some strange nugget, and then they’re immediately brought to Hollywood and forced to make a remake, instead of “We like you because your movie was a smash hit coming out of nowhere, and now what else do you have to offer?” No, no, there’s none of that. It’s right back to the cookie cutter.

Is that the main reason you’re supporting some of these up-and-comers by producing their smaller films through your production company, Glass Eye Pix?

Absolutely. I believe in the original voice, the unique voice in the movies. I believe you can do stuff cheaply and make a good show of it. Now, look at my guys: Ti West, he made two movies with me, and the first thing that happens is he makes a sequel to “Cabin Fever.” Mind you, that came organically out of meeting Eli Roth, so be it. Still, that’s not what Hollywood wanted him to do. They didn’t want him to write an original script, which he had done, and he was trying to find the money and eventually came to me, and made a second small feature for me. Douglas Buck, another auteur if you will, his lot in life was to make the “Sisters” remake. It’s a unique film, and thereby it’s fine that it exists and so on, but why not his own original movie, you know?

There’s one particularly dazzling scene in “The Last Winter” — a single, unedited take with four characters, two snowmobiles and a measured, Antonioni-like choreography against a snowy backdrop so edgeless that it looks like a soundstage — which made me think: Why isn’t there more artfulness in horror films today? Why aren’t even the slasher flicks looking to Argento and Bava for inspiration?

It’s such a cliché to even say it, but it’s the MTV-inspired style of filmmaking, where you have the 45-degree shutter, or what we might call the “Private Ryan” look. It’s used in “300” as well. Anyway, it sort of stylizes everything, but to me, it fetishizes the horror. It makes it an object. You can’t wait for the next kill. That’s why I think “torture porn” is an appropriate term because, in porn, you’re waiting for the next cumshot, and you’re going to get it in about 12 minutes. Or, in the movies I get, it’s every six minutes. [laughs] But that’s the point, you’re just waiting for that. To reduce horror to the body count and the next kill — Is the stake going to go through the heart, or maybe the eyes will be gouged out first? — it just becomes this sort of clinical, ADD-objectifying of the experience. So you’re never really in the moment, experiencing it, and so the agenda is [artless] by definition. Any number of us would think, why aren’t there really great sexy movies, where the sex is treated in this more erotic way? It’s weird, sex and violence are categorized in our culture so that they’re these things you peer in at. They’re not integrated into the story the way life is.

Could a change in the sociopolitical climate pave the way for more challenging, artful horror films?

It’s a really puritanical country. There’s something screwed up about the country, and I’ll tell you what. The country is a certain way which leads to our sociopolitical climate. The way we think as a culture is why we can have such bozos saying complete mistruths and have people buy it. “Support the troops!” Excuse me, “support the troops” means blindly following some clown in the White House who is sending our boys and girls into battle for no reason. How is that supporting the troops? And yet it works. You kind of think: “I guess I don’t support the troops because I’m not for the war.” This is madness. So what’s happened to our culture that we can do that? I think it has more to do with advertising, the pummeling of subtlety, the erasure of magic realism — which is a quality in films I admire, like a Buñuel film where things are literally absurd, where you’re not quite sure what the truth is. Americans don’t like that. They like it clear and simple, short and sweet, and so I believe this has happened through a culture that is all about immediate satisfaction, upheld because of the corporate agenda to advertise consumer goods. We’re just in a pickle, and I don’t know how we’re going to get out it. That’s why the movement that I prefer is the progressive movement, as opposed to the liberal movement, because “liberal” has been turned into a dirty word. I like the notion of progressiveness because we need to progress here into a mindset. Maybe we should all take a powder, slow down, ponder the lilies — that’s what Jesus the Lord said, and everyone thinks he’s the cat’s pajamas.

“The Last Winter” opens in limited release on September 19th (official site).

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