Larry Fessenden: “My despair at humanity’s vast hubris and short-sightedness is the subject of all my films”

Depraved, like most of Larry Fessenden’s films, starts out as a story that you definitely know: a tormented man named Henry (David Call) assembles a pile of dead bodies and — with a jolt of electricity — brings the mess of flesh to life.

So yes, this is Fessenden’s Frankenstein picture, and like James Whale before him, the New York-based auteur has a lot on his mind about the nature of mortality, art, and the existential terror that comes when you’ve replaced gods with scientists.

But unlike Whale, Fessenden doesn’t have to worry about rushing to his big final setpiece. Fessenden gets to the burning mill eventually, of course — or at least, his version of it — and one of the great pleasures of the film is guessing when it will click into the grooves of Mary Shelley’s story. Yet, for the most part, the film is remarkably bloodless. It’s almost painterly, as Adam (Alex Breaux), the reanimated monster at the heart of the film, visits art galleries, discovers drugs, and is slowly introduced to the pleasures and pains of life. Which of course, is the other Fessenden trademark: a constant sense of surprise.

Depraved has enough to say about the nature of art — and the people who fund it — that it can’t help feeling autobiographical, at least in an oblique sense. But this is no navel-gazing work of self-obsession. Instead, it’s a remarkably open-minded film, one fascinated with people, and ultimately convinced, despite everything else, that they can be good.

The resulting film isn’t just one of Fessenden’s most astounding projects. It’s one of the most unexpectedly extraordinary American movies of the last ten years. That sounds faintly ridiculous to say of a film that opens with a brutal murder and closes with a ten minute climax of pure, fiery destruction. But hasn’t that always been the magic trick of Larry Fessenden? Stripping the recognisable of its parts, until suddenly everything is new, and fresh, and wonderful.

It’s a masterpiece, basically. I talked to Fesenden about it.

Joseph Earp: I know you’ve said in an interview before that America is having “a crisis of masculinity.” Do you think that notion informed Depraved, which is a film that deals a lot with what ‘masculinity’ might actually mean?

Larry Fessenden: I might have said “America,” but maybe it’s a lot of cultures. What I mean to say is that in order to survive in a precarious future, I believe humanity is going to have to adopt a stance of humility and cooperation, qualities that are considered weak and even feminine — but qualities which I think embody real courage. Run-away capitalism and narcissism have infected human interaction and left us vulnerable to environmental and social collapse.  Anyway, whether I’m right or not, that perspective informs the themes I have drawn in Depraved.

JE: Henry is, I think, one of the most sensitive and sympathetic creator characters in the history of Frankenstein cinema. Was it important to you that he lose the arrogance and assuredness that other iterations of the creator role can sometimes have?

LF: I chose to portray Henry as broken by the system that sends men and women into unjust wars and expects them to return to society undamaged. I wanted to try a different angle on the Frankenstein creator character where he was motivated by a desire to right wrongs he couldn’t control. It doesn’t mean he is justified, it simply explains his behavior somewhat. I conceived of a separate character, Polidori, who is motivated by greed and selfishness, to suggest that much of creative inspiration is high-jacked and exploited by lesser figures in society’s endless pursuit of profit.

JE: The shots that depict Adam’s synpases firing are so beautiful and effective – they reminded me almost a little of the work of Stan Brakhage. What point in production did you seize upon that idea?

LF: I am delighted you mention that. There are many layers in the creature’s mindscapes and one layer was directly influenced by Brakhage’s work. In fact the imagery was created by James Siewert, who animated meticulously sliced blocks of melted crayons. Our process was extremely tactile and I feel Brakhage would have approved.

JE: Would you ever return to shooting on videotape?

LF: Absolutely. I love the power of format, be it film, video, low res, hi-res. In fact while we finished Depraved in 4K, I introduced grain and even film scratches as a nod to the cinematic texture in which Frankenstein films reside. And the film is about art and memory and I was not shy about reminding the viewer of the medium that carries these stories.

JE: There is a sometimes underdiscussed political element to your films, I think; a critique of humanity’s exploitation of the environment and the blindness to climate change that’s implicit in Beneath and The Last Winter. Do you ever approach writing a script out of a political concern first and foremost, or does the critique come about as a sort of byproduct?

LF: My despair at humanity’s vast hubris and short-sightedness is the subject of all my films. These are self-critiques as well, so I do not see myself as preaching. My stories are usually personal. I do not set out to make a political statement, but if a viewer can’t help but extrapolate a political message from my portrayal of people behaving badly, I say bring it on. The personal is the political.

JE: Do you think that environmental collapse is inevitable?

LF: Environmental collapse is already happening. And make no mistake the earth doesn’t care. It is humanity and all the cool animals and trees that will suffer. The world doesn’t care if it’s a hot rock over-run with roaches and plastic. But what fools humans have been. Environmentalists are humanists, they want a livable planet. It is preposterous how the debate is framed in so-called modern societies, jobs vs. environment. Who is believing this shit? It is corporations and profit for the few vs. dignity for the many. There has been a struggle for hearts and minds going on since the 60’s. Read Silent Spring or Small Is Beautiful. Guess who lost?

JE: What’s the last great book that you read and the last great film that you saw?

LF: I read a lot of non-fiction; hard to highlight a single book. I guess I will say Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s a best-seller so maybe not an insightful choice, but it gives a bird’s eye view of the history of humanity that I enjoy, creating an objective, existential view of our progress and making some unexpected observations about things like the power of narrative and that wheat is the most successful species on the planet because humanity is dedicated to its cultivation, we are its slaves… Fun stuff.

Last great movie? That feels like a trick question. I recently watched M by Fritz Lang, Paths of Glory by Kubrick and Django Unchained by Tarantino. Those qualify.

As for good movies, last year I loved Mid90s by Mr. Hill and I saw Godzilla: King of the Monsters in 3D yesterday. That was fun.

I liked the movie At Eternity’s Gate with Willem Dafoe and the new Jarmusch movie ‘cause I’m in it. And I liked Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot and the TV series Fosse/Verndon. Movies are to be enjoyed but a truly enduring film? Rare. Also, I like monster movies so I can watch Jurassic Park movies any time. Doesn’t mean I would advocate for them. Just like watching monsters.  

JE: Tell me something you’ve never told an interviewer before.

LF: I don’t know if I like show biz any more.

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