Enjoy the Monster: Larry Fessenden on the Art of Horror

The director of “Blackout” talks werewolves, practical effects, and his “Killers of the Flower Moon” cameo.
Scout Tafoya

Blackout (Larry Fessenden, 2023).

I had saved my question about Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) until the last possible minute. Larry Fessenden, a disarmingly amiable man with an edge to his self-deprecating humor I recognized only too well, has a new werewolf movie out. If you know Larry’s movies—No Telling (1991), Habit (1995), Wendigo (2001), The Last Winter (2006), Beneath (2013), Depraved (2019), and now Blackout (2023)—you know it’s never just a matter of a monster. As we dug into its story of a lycanthropic curse doubling as a metaphor for an artist’s alcoholism and a town’s despair at a recent solar eclipse, I could see Larry the filmmaker turn into Larry the eager, devoted student and fan under the half-light of the black sun.

Fessenden appears in the final minutes of Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon (2023), like a harbinger of the future’s unforgiving gaze, as an actor on the mid-century radio broadcast before Scorsese himself comes on screen and delivers the haunting final lines. (He has worked with the director once before, on Bringing Out the Dead [1999].) “Did you get to see Scorsese give his line reading?”  

“I did…” he says, the smile evaporating almost as soon as it appeared.

They invited the audience to leave. And we got to watch, and I cried. I’m gonna cry now. It was so beautiful. I love Martin Scorsese… He’s a very practical person, very fun, always teasing everybody. He’d come over and talk to me about indie film. He loved Ti West [Fessenden produced his first films] and Kelly Reichardt [he’s acted in and produced hers]. Just fully engaged, but then back to the business of making a movie. “Larry, let’s do it again, you don’t have to lean in so much.” Just wonderful. And then done. The same as he treated himself. He did it six times. You could tell he was just trying to get it right. The pauses and this and that. It was just beautiful to watch. I texted the casting agent Ellen Lewis, she put me in the movie: “I knew this was your idea, to have Marty do it, and it’s a stroke of genius, and you’ve elevated the film.” He knew a good idea when he heard it. He took on that role, and as you say, it’s a mea culpa for his career, not just as the white man, but the way he’s fetishized violence, trying to explore that and understand it. Just a beautiful little cherry on top of my favorite movie of last year. Truly a horror movie, truly a portrait of how depraved our culture is: Look at this, we’re fucking thieves, we’re brutes, we’re all brutal. I think Marty has that same sense of despair about humanity that I appreciate. But always searching, always hoping for redemption.

I tell him it completed the film for me, his part in the finale, as much as Scorsese’s. After all, by producing Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016), he helped introduce the world to Lily Gladstone, the actress who so memorably plays the part of doomed Mollie Burkhart, the heart and soul of Killers. With all of its queasy violence, free technique, and aching dramatic heft, Killers is exactly the kind of all-too-human study of frailty and evil that Larry and his disciples at Glass Eye Pix, his storied production shingle, have been making since 1985, just after he graduated from New York University’s film school. In playing a radio actor he drew upon his own career making radio plays with his longtime friend, sound designer Graham Reznick, in a series titled Tales Beyond the Pale,an episode of which this latest movie, Blackout, is based upon. Blackout, too, is about a murderer who decides, too late, to take down the corrupt men who have plunged his town into darkness. 

Fessenden spent nine years trying to make Depraved, his Frankenstein story. In that time, money was promised and then rescinded; Adam Driver agreed to star and then dropped out. In the end, he made the film largely in a loft, on a vanishingly small budget. After all that, the critical response was muted. “But it all just fell apart, always does, always does for me,“ he says, laughing just a little. In too many appraisals of genre film, story and content trump methodology. The responses thus far to Blackout—whether raves in the Los Angeles Times and Bloody Disgusting, thoughtful passing grades at InSession Film and RogerEbert.com, or an unsurprising pan at Screen Rant—all focus on how “messy” the plot is and there is no talk of what Fessenden’s camera does and why. For a film commonly referred to as “threadbare” or “independent,” curiously little attention is devoted to craft, something that ought to be even more visible when the bells and whistles of production value are stripped away. 

Killers of the Flower Moon (Martin Scorsese, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: You acknowledge in the film’s closing credits the comic-book artist Mike Ploog  [Werewolf by Night], but you didn’t literally adapt his work. Certainly the picturesquely depressive Hudson Valley setting looks like our world, even if our svelte wolfman [Alex Hurt] does not. How did you work out your shooting strategy: the Ploog-inspired, razor-sharp, and lightning-fast comic tableaux during wolf attacks; the animation of the paintings; and the fixed-lens photography or lingering, swaying Steadicam for longer conversations?

LARRY FESSENDEN: I was raised on Hitchcock. Every single choice, from the lens to each color, everything matters. Blue is not my favorite color, but it’s in the movie because wolves don’t see red. Can you believe it?! So the whole movie has blue shirts, blue this, blue that. I wouldn’t allow red until there was a spot of blood or something. I don’t care if the wolf can’t see that. All this matters. 

The way Hitchcock talks about film is so rewarding because he’s like a teacher of the craft. Everything matters, so there’s nothing random in my films. And they’re all scripted. People think I just go out there with a camera and hire random people. The subjectivity is designed. We spent $10,000 on a crane shot! One shot. It’s a long scene, but it’s in a place in the movie where I wanted something grand and epic. There’s a car upside down, the whole thing. I believe you should spend your money very wisely, but that cost more than the other days. It was important. I believe in the design of the movie. The movie is from the point of view of an artist, so he sees the world through those eyes. He invites you to imagine what else we can learn about this character. Maybe he’s a werewolf, but he’s definitely got these problems and this eccentricity: [when] he looks up at trees he sees paintings of trees, and so on. And the way he tells the story of his transformation is through the paintings. Depraved has animation, too, but those are synapses, so I’m thinking about the brain, that’s a movie about the brain. That’s the entrée, that’s who the monster is. I also thought, I’m not gonna have him plugged in and brought back to life through electricity, but there is electricity in the brain. You sort of riff on the existing material and draw from it and give it fresh life and make connections.

Depraved (Larry Fessenden, 2019).

NOTEBOOK: Depraved is also a film about observing and being observed. It’s a film that tries to show a character, and thus the audience, what the world is like. To show it to us like we’ve never seen it before, and this includes the history of art and the beauty of life, as well as the worst violence of life. I was enormously moved by the way we’re invited to see the world in Depraved. It felt very you, and anomalous in horror in this moment. In Blackout you have a more traditional approach, with two-shot conversations, your players equal in the frame, the visible light sources. It feels like you’ve approached this film from a painter’s perspective, and the Hudson River School of artists seems to loom large in its construction. 

FESSENDEN: Well, this is the great art of cinema. We always say cinema is dying and this and that, but the reason is the audience’s engagement with the work. You find the meaning with the framing and the choice of lenses, and that’s the thing I hope we don’t lose. The conversation about movies is so snarky: “It’s not good! I was bored!” And I’m not even talking about reviews. I worry… When Marty talks about the death of cinema, these are people who grew up at a time when it was incredibly special to go to a theater. And now we have endless streaming, and there are many advantages to that—I’m not an old fucking idiot, but [I grew] up with a keen sense of reverence for the work. I’m saying an interpretation like your own is so valuable to the greater conversation, and I’ll keep doing my work of putting the work together in my own way. You know, do you start with close-up or do you start with the wide? 

Hitchcock speaks about [how] the way you reveal information—that is the movie. He’d say he doesn’t care what the story is; it’s how he’s going to tell it that interested him. I’m coming from a slightly different place, but my movies are a riff on something we already know. The werewolf myth, the Frankenstein story… By the time he wakes up, in Depraved, you can piece together [that] this is a Frankenstein story. And then you’re always in this dialogue with, What are my expectations and what is the movie doing? And my point is: that’s what life is. You have expectations, we have religious constructs we’ve built, right and wrong, we have money and laws. These are all constructs. My movie is in dialogue with the world as it is, which is a fucking mess, and then there are the constructs, and the yearning for the meaning of life that’s making us all miserable. But also it’s delivering us from misery, so that’s what I’m interested in: I don’t wanna just tell the story, I wanna remind people what stories are to us.

Blackout (Larry Fessenden, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: The paintings in the movie are by an artist named John Mitchell. Where did you find him? What kind of conversations did you have with him about the look of the film and the way he was representing it? 

FESSENDEN: I met John Mitchell because he emailed me. He said, “I love your movies. Do you wanna come and sit?” So he did a portrait of me. I’m so impatient, though. He has people who will sit for a year. I said, “You’ve got three hours, buddy.” So we did it and chatted, and I became aware he loved horror. He always had a video on—The Thing [1982] or whatever. He had stacks and stacks of VHS [cassettes] everywhere. So he’s a kindred spirit, a real fine arts painter in Brooklyn. So I came to him when I decided to make the [werewolf] a painter… He painted for a year. And I said, “I want a progression.” We’ve been talking about the structure of things, the whole idea [that] he’s a painter responding to the real world. He’s painting trees and so on. Then as he darkens his mood, he starts doing self-portraits, and he starts smearing the paint, like Francis Bacon, into these mutations as he tries to grapple with the darkness. And to me, it’s like human history. We used to have God and used to do paintings of nature and as time went on… It’s the same thing I do in Depraved, which is [to] take us through the history of art. But I wanted to do it with one painter. 

I don’t know if it’s perfectly articulated, but I wanted to show the progression of self-absorption and narcissism, which is where we land now in the 21st century. Our politics and our tweeting and all that shit. Nobody’s looking at nature, so he’s not painting nature. He’s going, “I’m so fucked up, everything is terrible.” I’m saying this is the disease of man, to become self-obsessed, and I tried to track that in the paintings. John would do the nature paintings I requested, but he was very opinionated about art, and we had a great dialogue. He cares more about fucking werewolves than I do! It was a beautiful thing we did. It is worth saying that the color animation is a whole other guy, a crazy dude that I love named James Siewert. He was the DP on Depraved. I think he did 280 paintings for me over seven months. Every one of those frames is a beautiful little painting. I love that the movie is really tactile. There are some things you can’t do on the computer. It has to do with man hours and commitment and the love of the muse. I hope you can feel it.

Blackout (Larry Fessenden, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: The approach to the werewolf as a visual object is best summed up by the end-credit thank-you to Hollywood legend Jack Pierce, himself a fall-down drunk, like [the film’s] hero. He was the monster makeup expert behind the original werewolf played by Lon Chaney Jr. in the 1941 movie The Wolfman, to say nothing of his uncredited work on the original Universal monsters: Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy, and the Invisible Man. You have a movie monster that really looks like a movie monster. You’re not tricking the audience’s eye, you are bringing them into your reality. How do you begin constructing that reality, knowing you have a very old-fashioned creature on screen, and when did you make that decision? 

FESSENDEN: I appreciate your articulation there because I pushed the idea even further by putting the monster on the poster. [Laughs.] The point isn’t [William Castle impression, complete with fake cigar] “Twenty minutes in you’re going to seeeee what I’ve created.” I’m gonna show you the monster because I love how he looks, and because you have to look beyond the monster. Pleaseenjoy the monster, but what are we saying here? It’s what I always say: I don’t think in terms of plot. I don’t care about story. That’s for other people to care about. I go to a detective movie and my wife leans over and says, “I think the butler did it.” I go, “Oh shit, was I supposed to be trying to figure that out?” I was looking at the wallpaper. You know, that’s just my nature. I’m interested in the texture and the details and the “themes.” I wanted the monster to look like that. I worked with Brian Spears and Peter Gerner, and they’d already made me a Frankenstein, which was a great adventure. You’re not gonna top Boris Karloff, but you can pay gentle tribute. I wasn’t trying to fetishize pictures of Lon Chaney—though I admit, this is my phone [the case is emblazoned with Lon Chaney’s Wolfman]—but that was in our mind. But yeah, you mentioned Mike Ploog, he did Werewolf By Night, and that was the best werewolf ever created! Better than Lon Chaney. Young and virile and buff like a superhero. He was so cool, the way he moved. [He demonstrates, hands up, tearing at his face.] I wouldn’t have had a snout monster even if I had had a billion dollars. It’s not my jam. It’s cool, I love Dog Soldiers [2002], I love the ’80s ones, but it’s not the only way to present this story.

Blackout (Larry Fessenden, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: You’ve said for as long as you’ve been doing interviews how important the Universal horror movies are to you. Dave Kehr once wrote that you reminded him of John Cassavetes, if he’d worked for the studios in the 1930s. What are the difficulties of taking the sensibilities of antique ideas and transposing them to the modern world, or is it just intuitive at this point? 

FESSENDEN: It’s totally intuitive because I took those stories seriously. I felt the sadness of Boris Karloff, so that’s all I’m doing. I’m showing you the monster is sad and alone. I do the modern setting because I’m not inclined toward period pieces. They’re done better by others. I produced [and starred in] a wonderful movie called I Sell The Dead [2008], and that was a period piece, and we had a blast. I love doing the British accent, and I love the BBC, but for my own stuff I want to say this stuff is absolutely relevant right now. Being a Frankenstein is like coming back from the war and having PTSD, building a monster because you can’t deal with all the people you lost on the battlefield. This is right now! Being a werewolf, he’s divided. We’re in a divided fucking nation. The towns are divided. We’re blaming people for things they didn’t do. It’s totally intuitive and delightful to say, These stories are still vital. Let’s just look at it a little differently and we’re gonna bring the magic back. That’s just been my approach. You asked about difficulties; the difficulty is in interpretation. Not every horror fan wants to watch Cassavetes, and then I’m in a bit of a pickle, and you’ve just lost your audience by half.

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