When I think of Larry Fessenden, I am reminded of the song from the musical “Funny Girl” which contains the lyrics: “I’m the greatest star…I am by far, but no one knows it.” Indeed, Larry Fessenden presents a curious paradox in current cinema: a filmmaker of extraordinary talent (he is a director, producer, writer, editor and actor) and imagination who has yet to be deified by the critics and cinephiles due to the inanities of the indie film scene.
During the past decade, Fessenden has helmed three disturbing yet hypnotic features: “No Telling,” a 1991 chiller about a vivisectionist who experiments go awry; Habit, 1997 drama about an alcoholic bar manager (played by Fessenden) whose new mysterious girlfriend may be a vampire, and Wendigo, a recently-completed psychological thriller about a city family whose holiday at an isolated rural farmhouse becomes a nightmare through the interventions of local miscreants and an unearthed Native American spirit.
Sadly, neither “No Telling” nor Habit enjoyed a healthy theatrical release. “No Telling” barely went beyond the festival circuit and took seven years to snag a home video release while Habit (despite winning an Independent Film Spirit Award in early 1997 as “Someone to Watch” and a Best Director nomination in the same competition in early 1998) opened in 1997 to a rocky critical reaction in New York and then went on to a limited art house release which Fessenden coordinated as a self-distributor when the major studios passed on the film.
However, change might be in the air. Wendigo is currently generating strong buzz on the festival circuit and has already been snagged for theatrical distribution next February from Cowboy Booking International. Perhaps at long last Larry Fessenden may receive the level of deep respect and instant recognition he is truly deserving from the indie cinema world.
Film Threat caught up with Larry Fessenden at the New York office of his production company Glass Eye Pix to discuss his place in the curious world of indie filmmaking and his love-hate relationship with its intricacies and anguishes.
When Habit opened in New York in the fall of 1997, the reviews were incredibly mixed. John Anderson of Newsday gave the film three-and-a-half stars and cheered the production to the skies and Amy Taubin of the Village Voice sang its praises with no hesitation, yet Lawrence Van Gelder of the New York Times eviscerated the film and called it “amateurish” while other critics were unusually nasty in their reviews. How do you reconcile such wildly different critical reactions? ^ Bad reviews make me feel vulnerable: there’s someone out there who doesn’t see things my way, and they have the power to print their put-downs and prejudice people against me. If the review is well-written or thoughtful, it’s easier to take. But a stupid diss in print curdles my blood. ^ When you have an unknown film, and you’re putting it out yourself, all reviews are financially significant, and the bad review from Van Gelder cost me a great deal of money since it caused my exhibitor to share Habit in its second week with another film. I cursed Van Gelder and I cursed the other bad reviews from critics who had supported other projects I’d been involved in. And I cursed my publicist: “How could he let these people do this?” ^ I think anyone with two eyes and some grey matter can tell Habit is a thoughtful film, and a critic who doesn’t even notice that I end up dismissing. This is all part of the rationalization process called survival.
What were the joys and the anguishes of self-distributing Habit? ^ The joys: Knowing that every booking, every ad, every poster, every review, every promotional item, was a result of our own decision-making and hard work by me and my colleague Michæl Ellenbogen. And so any success we had we earned. The anguish is knowing that in the end, only money, real studio backing, and the complex publicity machine gives you the muscle to stay in theaters.
What was the critical and audience reception outside of New York? ^ The film is generally reviewed well: we got 80% good reviews, some very strong, but just when you feel safe, someone calls it dull and amateurish, and it can ruin a whole run. Over time the reviews get better as a universal buzz is established. Incredibly, many major papers in the U.S. are just re-running existing reviews from other newspapers!
Read the complete interview in part two of LARRY FEssENDEN: APOTHEOSIS IN WAITING>>>