Larry Fessenden on Depraved, Frankenstein and why Hollywood doesn’t like saying “horror”

We talk to genre legend Larry Fessenden about bringing his personal take on Frankenstein to the big screen

There can be few people working in horror more prolific than the great Larry Fessenden. As a producer he’s worked with the likes of Ti West, Jim Mickle, Ana Asensio, Micky Keating and arthouse trailblazer Kelly Reichardt, and you’ll have seen him in everything from You’re Next to The Strain (and far too many awesome indie horrors to list here), but we think you’d all agree that it’s high time we saw the writer-director of Habit, Wendigo and The Last Winter step behind the camera again.

Thankfully, that time has come with Depraved, a fantastic modern-day meditative take on the Frankenstein story. In a New York loft, a scientist named Henry brings a man back from the dead and calls him Adam. The process of turning a walking corpse into a walking, talking, thinking human being is painstaking but the two work together to achieve an incredible feat. However, as Adam’s consciousness grows, he begins to see flashes of his past, while outside influences threaten his delicate equilibrium…

We caught up with Fessenden ahead of Depraved‘s world premiere at What The Fest?! in New York to talk about finding his own personal take on a classic story and why studio execs are afraid of the word “horror.”

So, you’ve been thinking about a new take on Frankenstein since 2003?

Maybe longer. After all, I grew up watching Boris Karloff in Frankenstein and it’s really one of my favourite pop images ever created, the flat head and the bolts and the whole demeanour that he brought to the character and I’ve always wanted to reflect that back in my own version. Of course, there was part of me that felt disappointed that I wasn’t going to recreate that make-up in full because it just didn’t seem to be the point, but I do evoke it with little details and I reference some of the other monster designs, Christopher Lee and so on.

My movie is a riff on all of that without being a direct version of the old style. I wanted to take the story that is so robust and has so many implications and try to apply it in a new way.

 

The film really foregrounds issues like trauma and nature vs nurture, was that your way in?

Well I think so, and implied in the film is actually the trauma of being raised by a bad parent. Polidori, the character who goads  Henry to make the monster, he says “Well, fathers aren’t always there for you.” They’re all talking about fathers and I think that’s a major theme in the movie. How do you raise a good citizen? The monster starts out fairly innocent and there are just these little corrupting things that bring him to a sense of disorientation and despair and then he resorts to murder.

It’s sort of how society forms us. I just wanted to talk about how the brain absorbs things and reacts, and it’s sort of a very fundamental thing to think about but in a way I love bringing stories back to very fundamental elements of what is existence all about, you know?

The film is very much told from Adam’s point of view. We don’t see the creation, we see him waking up. Did you always know you’d start with him?

Always. That was the real conceit of the film: what would it be like to wake up as the Frankenstein’s monster? Your eyes would open and you’d say “I don’t know who I am!” So it actually made a certain aspect of the movie very exciting because I was always locked into the structure, and you know the thing about movies is that they’re always rather predictable and god knows a Frankenstein movie is even more predictable because you already know how it’s going to go.

So, what I felt I could do was use the structure to talk about identity. You start out as one guy and you get murdered and then you’re thrust into the body of the monster, but that doesn’t stop. That continues on through the film, I won’t give it all away but then you end up shifting into another perspective and it just goes to show I’m also obsessed with the simple idea of subjectivity. That’s what causes so many problems in the world, is that we’re all having our own subjective experience based on the things that we’ve had happen to us. People assume that’s the truth or that’s the reality whereas in fact you have to be aware that someone else is going through a different experience, so it’s sort of a philosophical point being made through structure which is so fun, I think.

There are lots of nods to the movies, as you mentioned, as well as the novel. Was it important not to move too far away from the source?

You know, I wasn’t too preoccupied with the idea of the adaptation because the story is so intuitive to me that I really didn’t for example have to check anything. Maybe for the names, I do have the name Carvel on the license plate, but those are the little things you look up. Aside from that, the basic structure and the thrust of the story is very intuitive. And it’s both the book, which I think I’ve read twice, and then the movie which I’ve seen 20 times.

I do love the first movie, the Karloff Frankenstein, and many people like Bride Of Frankenstein but I felt the tone shifted and it was a little more comedic which delights people but I love the baroque nature of the first one and it’s so spare, it must be 70 minutes, and it’s so shocking. When I was little I was obsessed; I thought the monster was going to come in my room!

On the one hand, when I finished the movie I had a sadness because I realised I didn’t really fulfil the fantasy of bringing that creature to life that I loved as a child, with the big boots and the bolts that walked like a zombie, but of course that really wasn’t the movie I set out to make. I was making this other thing, this more melancholy meditation. But it’s just funny, you can’t be someone you’re not. I would love to make a straight Frankenstein movie but I always say that after I make a film. Why didn’t I just do the normal version?

The grounded setting works beautifully. Was it always intended as this New York loft story?

Yes, I think so. I made a film called Habit which is a vampire story and it also takes place in New York with the same kind of colours and atmosphere. I love making these baroque stories in a much more naturalistic environment and it seems to me that if you were going to make a Frankenstein’s monster and be carting bodies in and out of the apartment you’d do that somewhere obscure like Brooklyn!  Remember, I wrote this in 2003 when Brooklyn was obscure!

So, it made sense and of course the fun thing about the movie is I really did track all the backstory, how these bodies got here, who had connections to what hospital and how it all would have gone down. And it’s in there, if you were to watch the movie again and have your pause button, you can hear little references to how they created this scam, getting body parts and so on, so I just always had in mind what it would be like to do this. I researched the field doctors and the kind of medicine they’re applying in our current wars, it’s amazing. They really can, in essence, bring people back from the dead.

And then you get into the philosophical question of: what is the quality of the life when you bring them back? And that’s where the movie starts to ask these very tough questions about quality of life and spirituality versus just physical life, and that is really asking what sort of society do we want, what are our priorities and all these other questions which are technically in the book. It’s why it’s so rich.

You don’t have great flashes of literal lightning but there are beautiful animations illustrating the storm of brain activity…

Yes, I do! [laughs] The whole idea is “Oh, Fessenden uses drugs and not electricity to life” and yet all the imagery of the brain has that electrical component and you realise yes of course, electricity is coursing through the movie and coursing through the imagery because that’s what the brain is, it’s literal electrical neurons that fire when you look at a Picasso or a Van Gogh.

I just wanted to say that the brain is where all this activity and knowledge and learning and emotions and everything is a very physical thing and yet it has a very physical dimension in our life because we’re little creatures, mammals that are carrying on. So I like to think that I do have electricity in the movie.

You’ve worked with several of the actors before. Did you have a clear idea of who you wanted from the get-go?

Yes, I’ve worked with Chloe Levine who opens the film and Owen Campbell, so I saw them as a wonderful couple. And Chloe who keeps reoccurring in dream imagery, she has one moment where she actually looks like Elsa Lanchester, the Bride of Frankenstein, so she just has a great face, very timeless, and I knew I could hang the yearning for the girlfriend on someone who has such a great presence. I’d worked with Addison Timlin before and she has an essential role, just an absolutely commanding sequence, very brief but wonderful.

Then Alex Breaux who plays The Monster is a theatre actor who I became aware of through a New York Times article and I auditioned him and we kept in touch for over a year while I tried to put the film together and I really admired his dedication and I thought he would be perfect. So we stuck together through large and low budgets, right to the bitter end. And then I met David Call, Ana Kayne and Maria Dizzia sort of at the very end of the process and they were all New York actors. I love my cast, you always have to love your cast, they’re the real heartbeat of the movie, no matter how many electrical animations you put in!

You mentioned paying homage to other incarnations but how did you settle on the look of the Monster?

That’s a great question and a lot of it had to do with the audition. I felt determined to evoke the Monster as I imagined him. Alex has both a handsomeness and a strangeness to his face, which I love. And then from there it was my old pals Brian Spears and Pete Gerner, they’ve done make-up for at least a dozen of my movies. We went through what scars could really exist. There’s this idea in some make-ups of the Monster where there’s just a preposterous patchwork of scars over the face and you’re like “What, was the dude drinking? Why did he make a monster like this, it’s completely absurd!”

So I had to unfortunately because I was guided by logic I had to not enjoy all of that, and then I was heartbroken when Brian said, “You know the way you put the brain in,  you actually put the incision in the back,” and I said “Oh, we can’t even have scars across the front!” But this was what we did and it felt more natural and maybe an update to say “This is what you would do.”

Was there a pressure from knowing that you were adapting such iconic source material?

Oh, without a doubt. It’s quite a burden, I don’t know what it compares to. I guess remaking King Kong or Jaws, and of course Frankenstein is a little broader because there’s many interpretations, but there’s still a lot of pressure to do any of this right. Imagine making a ghost story, you’ve got to make that feel special.

I mean, honestly with the crowded environment of the media you’ve got to stand out somehow, I’m not sure it’s wise to be preoccupied with why is this special or better or different. What you really have to do is get as close as you can to something that is only inside you. Not to be sentimental, but in fact that’s what an artist can offer, just their very singular visions. So I did let my instincts control a lot of what was happening, rather than trying to second guess how are we going to be special and different. It’s a tough balancing act.

Is there another iconic horror monster that you’d like to adapt?

Well, I absolutely have to make a werewolf movie. Some people say that Wendigo was a werewolf movie but it isn’t, there’s a bit of shapeshifting but it’s not the same. I have a script that is technically a zombie movie but they’re not actually zombies.

I do love the challenge of bringing something fresh to these old tropes and I think the problem with Hollywood is when they make a horror film or rather something like this, they are too preoccupied with what’s come before and they’re not really looking inside themselves about what is horror, what does that mean? In fact they try to call it a thriller. What was that Tom Cruise Mummy movie? My goodness, could that have been more of a misfire. And they didn’t want to call it horror and they don’t understand, horror is a very beautiful luscious field to be explored, it’s part of the human psyche.

So I don’t know. Anyway, no one will give me money to do these things but I would make an excellent werewolf movie because I feel like a werewolf, Jekyll And Hyde, oh don’t get me started! The one thing they are doing right, I love the Godzilla movies so I’m very excited about the next one. Somehow those movies work. They seem to have found the spiritual centre of that big giant creature, not everyone agrees but I loved the last Godzilla.

How do you feel about the tendency to call horror movies something else, like elevated horror or a thriller?

Oh, I think it just shows how depraved humans are. They can’t even call something what it is and there’s no respect for what really horror is about, which is to address the dark side of humanity. And there’s a deep spiritual dimension and there’s also a naturalistic dimension in which you see the potential in environments and the darkness and animal spirits, all of those things are present in the genre of horror. A thriller, my good friend, is nothing but somebody on top of a train trying not to fall off, and that’s wonderful and I’m all for it but that is not horror!

It’s just silly and it just shows in a way that horror is an enduring, threatening genre. People cannot quite face the darkness and in a way that’s its resilience, that’s its strength, and it’s just so typical that mainstream commercial entertainment can’t really face that darkness because they may lose a ticket sale! [laughs]

It is incredibly frustrating!

Yes, but really do you want everybody at your party! [laughs] You have to take solace in that!

WHAT THE FEST !? OPENING NIGHT (WORLD PREMIERE) : IFC Center, 323 6th Avenue, NYC. Wednesday, March 20 at 7:00PM