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LARRY FESSENDEN AND THE BUSINESS OF INDIE FILMMAKING PDF Print E-mail
Written by By Phil Hall   
Aug 04, 2004 at 02:00 AM
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LARRY FESSENDEN AND THE BUSINESS OF INDIE FILMMAKING
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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 and imagination who has yet to be deified by the critics and cinephiles due to the inanities of the indie film scene.
Fessenden has helmed two of the most disturbing yet hypnotic features of the decade: "No Telling," a 1991 chiller about a vivisectionist who experiments go awry, and "Habit," 1997 drama about an alcoholic bar manager whose new mysterious girlfriend may be a vampire. Fessenden wore a quintuple crown for "Habit" as its director-writer-producer-editor-star; for "No Telling," he was not on camera but masterminded the key behind-the-lens procedures. However, neither film enjoyed a healthy theatrical release. "No Telling" barely went beyond the festival circuit 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 last year 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, Fessenden's films are now getting a second chance via home video. "No Telling" is being released via World Artists Home Video on September 29 while "Habit" is coming to video courtesy of Fox Lorber on Halloween. Both films have already chalked up enthusiastic reviews from the video trade publications, praising Fessenden and his films with undiluted enthusiasm.
Dark Gallery caught up with Larry Fessenden to discuss the curious world of indie filmmaking and his love-hate relationship with its intricacies and anguishes.
Q: When "Habit" opened in New York, the reviews were incredibly mixed: John Anderson of Newsday gave the film three-and-a-half stars and praised 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?
LARRY FESSENDEN: 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 because 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.
Q: What were the joys and the anguishes of self-distributing "Habit"?
LARRY FESSENDEN: 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 Michael 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.
Q: What was the critical and audience reception outside of New York?
LARRY FESSENDEN: 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!
Q: How did winning the Independent Film Spirit Award help your reputation as an indie filmmaker?
LARRY FESSENDEN: I have said in the past that the award had mostly personal significance, and that no calls came in after, but I had the incredible good fortune of being nominated as best director the following year along with luminaries Wim Venders, Paul Schrader, Robert Duvall, etc., so I think by now they must know my name in some circles. I still don't get calls.
Q: Why did it take seven years for "No Telling" to get a home video release?
LARRY FESSENDEN: "No Telling" is a passionate, serious and competently made film with a distinct independently minded point of view, and it is a genre film. But I guess it isn't hip. I have never forgiven the indie film world for rejecting it so completely. However, we signed a foreign deal very quickly, for which I was grateful. It's seen on TV and possibly video in dozens of countries as "The Frankenstein Complex."
As for my efforts, I shopped it consistently during the seven years and no one was ever interested. It was handled by many competent people off and on who couldn't give it away. Talk about feeling like a pariah.
Q: What was the theatrical playdate history of "No Telling"?
LARRY FESSENDEN: "No Telling" played in fewer than a dozen festivals when it was first finished, most notably Boston, Avoriaz, and Montreal. More recently it's been brought back to the big screen at the Long Island Film Festival, IndieQueens in Queens, and last fall it played in L.A. at The American Cinematheque.
Q: What are the greatest challenges facing an indie filmmaker trying to get a film onto a screen or into the video stores?
LARRY FESSENDEN: The most difficult thing facing an independent filmmaker is the imagination. If you have one, it's quite possible no one will give you a chance to exhibit or distribute your picture--let alone compensate you. I want to thank my distributors (World Artists for "No Telling" and Fox Lorber for "Habit") for taking a chance with my movies, because the decks are stacked against them, with video stores like Blockbusters squeezing out small titles so they can guarantee that the highest grossing films that have finally left the theaters are now in your face all over again to rent. How pandering and insulting. It's embarrassing to be treated like children by the mega-vendors.
Q: What is your next film?
LARRY FESSENDEN: My next project is called "Hector Dodges." It is a movie about the end of one world, and the possibilities of another. It's a bitter-sweet satire.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers who want to be the next Larry Fessenden?
LARRY FESSENDEN: Question Authority. Try to be decent. Try to get in touch with the things that matter. Revere art. It is our best elixir. Anyway that would be my message. But don't try to be "the next Larry Fessenden", because the current Larry Fessenden is just hanging by a thread.
Net surfers can visit Larry Fessenden online at http://www.glasseyepix.com

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