HOUSE OF THE DEVIL POSTER COURTESY OF GLASS EYE PIX.
"I've always felt like a lone wolf creatively. I've been forging this odd path of making thoughtful scary movies, more sentimental than they are gory," horror auteur Larry Fessenden told me recently when I met up with him at an appropriately dark and cavernous East Village bar. In fact, the way Fessenden tells it, the horror genre he is most associated with found him, not the other way around. From the beginning of his career Fessenden has telegraphed political, social and philosophical issues in his stories. While they may initially appear to be B movie-styled monster movies, his films invariably evolve into meditations on the role of fantasy and mythology as survival mechanisms and humanity's relationship to the Earth. Appropriately then, Fessenden seems to have more in common with foreign arthouse horror auteurs like Guillermo del Toro, a longtime supporter who is now producing Fessenden's planned Hollywood writing and directing debut (a remake of The Orphanage for New Line Cinema), than he does with the current wave of torture-porn directors like Eli Roth.
And yet Fessenden's "lone wolf" analogy doesn't apply to Glass Eye Pix, the production-company-as-utopian-socialist-collective behind such Fessenden features as Habit, Wendigo, and The Last Winter, as well as numerous other independent features, including Ti West's upcoming The House of the Devil and non-horror films from critically acclaimed auteurs Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy) and Ilya Chaiken (Liberty Kid). In a time of independent film "crisis," when so many filmmakers are having problems getting their films into production much less on screens, Fessenden's Glass Eye Pix has quietly become one of the indie scene's most productive and longest-running companies.
The company has produced or co-produced around 30 titles going back to the mid '80s, but let's just take a look at some of the most recent. Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy was released in the spring on DVD by Oscilloscope following a healthy theatrical run. Glenn McQuaid's period horror film I Sell the Dead was released in August by IFC following a Slamdance premiere where it won the Cinematography prize and an acting prize for Fessenden. This fall brings the Magnolia Pictures release of West's The House of the Devil, a period 1970s-styled shocker that plays as a cross between Rosemary's Baby and When a Stranger Calls. (West has been in the Glass Eye Pix fold for almost a decade, having directed The Roost and Trigger Man for the company. The high-six-figure budget of The House of the Devil was financed by home-video distributor MPI, with whom Glass Eye Pix subsequently signed a three-picture deal.) James Felix McKenny's Satan Hates You is heading out on the festival circuit while Glass Eye Pix preps his next film, Hypothermia. Jim Mickle's Stake Land is currently in production through the MPI deal while James LeGros and Joshua Leonard star in Bitter Feast, a thriller that marks director Joe Maggio's first foray into genre filmmaking. And these are just from 2009.
(LEFT TO RIGHT) GLASS EYE PIX’S BRENT KUNKLE, LARRY FESS ENDEN AND PETER PHOK. PHOTO BY: NELSON BAKERMAN.
Many of the above films are part of the Scareflix banner, a slate of ultra-low-budget (under 100 grand) films that started when James Felix McKenney was working at Glass Eye Pix as an office manager in 2004. He approached Fessenden with a challenge: "Why don't you give me some money and I'll make a no-budget horror film? I've already got a cast, a crew, a location and a script." Fessenden agreed and thus Glass Eye's Scareflix arm was born, spawning six feature films including West's debut, The Roost (killer bats), McKenney's Automatons, (killer robots — a kind of cross between Fritz Lang and David Lynch) and Graham Reznick's I Can See You (a killer campfire tale). Currently, three more Scareflix are being produced through the MPI deal.
The irony, then, is that in a time in which everyone is searching for a new business model, Fessenden's damn-the-system, freewheeling ethos seems to have yielded a more productive result than most of the bottom-line-oriented companies that have launched and shuttered in the last 25 years. "Our budgets have hovered between $30,000 and one million bucks," Fessenden explains. "There is no business model, because what we do flies in the face of any commercial instinct. Our films are built out of a love of the process and a commitment to each other as artists and as citizens."
Indeed, the loyalty Glass Eye Pix employees and directors demonstrate to one another and to each other's films is near cultlike. In the course of researching this article I often felt like I was in the middle of a Laurel and Hardy routine — "After you, Stan. No, after you, Ollie" — with Fessenden insisting Glass Eye Pix is a community and not just one man, and the community swearing that "Glass Eye Pix is Larry!" In fact, these filmmakers seemed to harken back to a more radical era when politics and change, actual process and building an artistic community trumped any individual film. Wondering if I'd somehow gotten slipped the Kool-Aid, I shared my thoughts with Fessenden. "There is something utopian in the mission, whether we achieve it or not, whether it's relevant in this nasty world," he agreed upon reflection. "I have always felt that in life, as with art, it is the journey and how that is handled more than the destination. Again, I don't know if this leads to great art, but it is a philosophy I hold dear."
I SELL THE DEAD. PHOTO COURTESY OF GLASS EYE PIX.
Fessenden founded Glass Eye Pix back in the 1980s when, after discovering the video department at NYU and the downtown performance art scene, he bought two three-quarter-inch decks and started his own editing house, opening his doors to whatever projects needed cutting and dubbing. Fessenden's eventual rise to become the scruffy, NYC Lower East Side's answer to Roger Corman — or the "Jack Warner of the 21st Century," if you ask producer Mike Ryan (Liberty Kid) — was a natural progression that began when his own filmmaking career didn't go according to plan. While considering remaking on film his 1981 video feature Habit as his first proper movie, Fessenden came across Rachel Carson's environmental tome Silent Spring. "My partner Beck Underwood and I became obsessed with animal rights and environmental ills so we made this movie No Telling — not what I'd recommend making your first film about," Fessenden added wryly as he sipped from a pint of beer. "An animal-rights horror film is not going to be popular. It didn't do well at festivals, and it didn't get bought until seven years afterwards."
Discouraged by the unenthusiastic reaction to his 1991 feature, Fessenden was plotting his next move when he met Kelly Reichardt, who invited him to act in and eventually to edit her debut feature, River of Grass. By no-budget necessity, Fessenden discovered another filmmaking hat to wear. "I basically turned into an associate producer on that film by accident," he laughed as he reminisced — "just by sticking with it so long." Not only was River of Grass accepted warmly into Sundance it received distribution to boot. "Maybe it comes from working with the performance artists, or maybe it's a personality defect, but I've always had as much enthusiasm for other people's work as for my own," Fessenden continued. "I've always felt like, 'Come on, let's do it! Let's put on a show!'"
Ti West, a fan of Habit, which Fessenden finally did remake in 1997, was a student of Reichardt's at the School of Visual Arts, and after she introduced him to Fessenden, he jumped at the opportunity to intern for the director's small but growing production company. "Larry says he believes in making B-movies with A-movie themes," West says. "He is that rare producer who places absolute trust in his filmmakers. Fessenden's 'notes' boil down to his opinion followed by, 'I don't really care. Do what you want to do.'" In other words, this was Fessenden's way of saying that he does indeed care passionately, enough to let his directors try and, yes, maybe even fail — a dirty word in Hollywood. Or as Glass Eye Pix office manager and Scareflix producer Brent Kunkle says, "He's excellent about knowing when to give advice and when to let you just drown in the muck."
WENDIGO. PHOTO COURTESY OF GLASS EYE PIX.
That doesn't mean Fessenden, currently casting The Orphanage, is removed from his productions. "The man gets into it up to his elbows," wrote Bitter Feast director Joe Maggio in an e-mail. "He loves production. The entire Glass Eye team" – producers Peter Phok, Kunkle and an array of repeat offenders in cast and crew positions — "is on set every day, fretting away alongside the director, busting their collective ass long after everyone else has gone to bed. Larry pulled out all the stops in making Bitter Feast, calling in favors, getting his friends, including James LeGros, to participate. The film is shot almost entirely in Larry's own home, which meant literally tearing the place apart and occupying it for several weeks. His son Jack helped with the props. Beck Underwood, Larry's wife, is responsible for the amazing production design. Larry acted in the film and often cooked for the entire cast and crew. He's a fabulous cook and takes as much pride in his breakfast eggs broiled in dill butter with smoked trout as he does in his film work. For reasons I cannot fully comprehend, Larry puts as much energy and passion into the films he's producing for other filmmakers as he does his own films, which in my opinion is the most remarkable thing about Glass Eye Pix."
Whereas other production companies move up the food chain, signing union or studio deals that force them into specific production models, Glass Eye has retained the freedom to allow each film to develop in its own organic way. "We try to keep an open mind about how to shoot a film," Fessenden says. "Habit shot over the course of 45 days. I Sell the Dead was shot over the course of eight months. Stake Land is being shot in 27 days over three months. Bitter Feast was shot in 14 days plus we owe one more." But try to pin him on financing and you'll get the weary, stream-of-consciousness response of, "Every film is different. Habit was self-financed. Jeffrey Levy-Hinte's Antidote Films financed Wendigo and The Last Winter. The original Scareflix were financed by me, and the first ones doubled their money, so there was more in the kitty to self-perpetuate. A film like Liberty Kid was financed with equity investors, raised by my co-producer Roger Kass. Wendy and Lucy also was financed by a group of equity investors. I was the primary investor in I Sell the Dead along with one other equity partner; our recent films are financed by MPI/Dark Sky. I've been the primary benefactor of Glass Eye Pix over the years, which makes it an unsustainable enterprise."
"There is no illusion that we should all carry on working this way," Fessenden continues. "Glass Eye Pix is a fertile starting point where a self-motivated filmmaker can learn about every aspect of making movies from script to promotion. I have always encouraged people to move on as soon as the Glass Eye approach becomes oppressive or limiting. My own career as a director has led me to bigger budgets, more mainstream opportunities. I would expect the same of the stable of directors, producers and crew members that pass through the Glass Eye boot camp."
Fessenden is clear-eyed about the challenges of sustaining an enterprise that has been founded on sweat equity, especially as marketplace demands begin to intrude. "MPI/Dark Sky Films has allowed us to keep the wolves from the door for another year," he says. "They have given us financial backing to make three films and cover our overhead, and have given us a remarkable amount of autonomy. At the same time, we are accountable to them, we have to consult with them on every major decision, and of course they own the movies. This is not the equity deal we have had on previous projects, but in this financial climate, we feel lucky to have it." Thinking ahead about Glass Eye Pix overall, Fessenden says, "We are making incredibly ambitious films at very low budgets, and are still dependent on low pay, favors and good will to accomplish that end. This reality, when butted up against the business side of filmmaking, causes a friction. The question then is whether we should take what we've built and try to expand it, grow the company, make bigger films with more appropriate budgets, and take a deliberate step towards a more traditional approach. My own answer to that question is that if it happens organically and we can maintain our basic principles, then we are up to the challenge. But as I always say to the filmmakers that pass through our company, be careful what you wish for, because with bigger budgets come a new set of problems that makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of."
"What can be learned from Glass Eye Pix is that filmmakers can band together to help each other," Fessenden concludes, echoing ideals that resonate with his interest in activism and the ecology movement. "They can make films with integrity, embrace new technologies and low budgets, pursue their singular point of view, be resourceful in all aspects of making movies from script to screen, be responsible to the greater culture they are a part of, and build a movement that respects talent and hard work."
Check out GlassEyePix.com, where in addition to handmade DIY filmmaking you can find a global warming site, political comic books, or buy Low Impact Filmmaking: A Practical Guide to Environmentally Sound Film and Video Production. In other words, salves for the nightmare fodder that make up a Fessenden scareflick.