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Tuesday, September 18, 2007
By Damon Smith 

In 2005 indie director Larry Fessenden was troubled by the state of the world—specifically, by our leaders’ callow response to the threat of global warming. So he did what he does best: He made a horror movie. The Last Winter, about a skeleton crew of oil-dredge workers afflicted by madness and other disturbing phenomena in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, revisits some of the tropes in Fessenden’s spooky 2001 feature Wendigo, including a fearsome, shape-shifting deer-spirit. The film was overlooked when it premiered at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, later acquired by IFC First Take (releases September 19), and recently earned enthusiastic comparisons to John Carpenter’s The Thing as well as the socially conscious art-horror of George Romero and David Cronenberg.

Macabre and disquieting, Fessenden’s films have always had an existential bent, dealing with loneliness, spiritual isolation, and psychological affliction. Anyone familiar with his decade-in-the-making horror trilogy (No Telling, Habit, Wendigo) knows he’s handcrafted a tradition of chilling films more reliant on anomie and flesh-creeping atmosphere than bodily mutilation. Winner of a 1997 “Someone to Watch” Independent Spirit Award for Habit, his melancholic, AIDS-haunted twist on urban vampirism, Fessenden likes to work in the realm of myth and lore, updating creaky old stories (Frankenstein and Algernon Blackwood tales, for instance) to reflect contemporary anxieties about everything from rogue science to romantic disillusionment. So the impulse to grapple with climate change suits him, and given the film’s subtle, harrowing mix of eco-consciousness and claustrophobic dread, The Last Winter could bring Fessenden his widest audience yet.

As the film opens, bullheaded foreman Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman) arrives at a remote base station operated by North Industries ready to begin drilling. Almost immediately, he locks horns with James Hoffman (James LeGros), an activist hired by North to do the environmental impact assessment. He’s concerned that erratic temperatures are causing the permafrost to melt, making the ice roads unusable. Pollack is undaunted. As the camp is plagued by unseen forces Hoffman begins to suspect there may be something — sour gas? enraged fossil-fuel spirits? — emanating from the warming tundra. The excellent cast is rounded out by Connie Britton and Zach Gilford (of Friday Night Lights fame), Kevin Corrigan (Superbad), Jamie Harrold, Joanne Shenandoah and Pato Hoffman.

Apart from helming psychological horror movies, Fessenden is an actor (The Brave One, Broken Flowers), producer (Ilya Chaiken’s upcoming Liberty Kid), and passionate advocate for sustainable living. In 2006, he launched a Web site dedicated to educating the public about global warming, and has even written a how-to book on carbon-neutral film production. All the more reason to take seriously the green politics of The Last Winter, a shrewdly paced thriller whose Gore-y, apocalyptic finale makes An Inconvenient Truth look downright cheery.

Filmmaker spoke with Fessenden about monsters, the politics of global warming and the pleasures of filming in Iceland.


Filmmaker: When you began work on the script in 2001, did you know this film was going to have a strong environmentalist current?

Fessenden: It was designed to be about global warming, and the setting was the controversy over drilling in ANWR [Arctic National Wildlife Refuge] and our obsession with oil. So yes, in a way, that was the context in which the characters were going to act.

Filmmaker:Did you and co-writer Robert Leaver want it to have an Arctic setting, specifically?

Fessenden: Yeah. When Fargo came out I remember being jealous and delighted by how beautiful that was as a snow film. And I liked A Simple Plan, too. So for as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with making a snow film. With Wendigo, which was filmed in upstate New York, we had good snow coverage and to most eyes it’s a successfully snowy movie. But at the end of the shoot the snow melted and disappeared. So I wanted to make a movie where it was truly cold, and that brought to mind northern Alaska. I went there when I was a kid. The way I work is these elements all come together into some kind of strange soup: I wanted to make a snow movie, I was interested in the global-warming problem and the drilling in ANWR and so on.

Filmmaker: The Last Winter seems to synthesize a lot of themes — nature’s vengeance, for instance — that you first explored in Wendigo. Was that a conscious decision?

Fessenden: My deal with Ed Pressman at ContentFilm — they took on Wendigo for distribution — was that I would have a sequel. And I wanted to show up with something if they ever followed through on their contract. Of course, they didn’t, which was fine, because I was able to have more control over the project. Initially, I thought, well, what would a sequel look like? And of course I didn’t really sequelize it in terms of the family or anything — I just took the premise and the themes and expanded on them, took them elsewhere.

Filmmaker: One of the things I admire about your work is the subtle use of special effects, especially since these are genre movies.

Fessenden: It’s something I’m always fighting in myself. When I was a kid, I was very impatient with movies like mine. I’d have been driven mad by it because I wanted to see the monster as soon as possible. But I have conflicting agendas as I make films. My producer, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, was always encouraging me to think again about the monster, to make sure not to overstate it, so it was really a process. I showed the movie at the Toronto Film Festival. It was the first time I’d seen it with an audience and with the effects finished. And I actually pared down some of the creature effects. So it’s a combination of my love for the monster and the knowledge that the less you see of it, and the more elusive it is, the more you really convey how monsters exist in our lives — which is to say, on the periphery or in our troubled imagination.

Filmmaker: At the heart of the film is the conflict between Hoffman and Pollack, which is a swatch, I guess, of a larger political discussion we’ve been having in the U.S. Pollack is blustery, brutish, and determined to do things “North’s way,” to “stay the course” regardless of the consequences. He reminded me a bit of Dubya, of that mentality, of pushing ahead regardless of what the evidence coming back at you is.

Fessenden: In 2001 I was already infuriated with Bush. More to the point is the mindset of the people who want to drill in ANWR and who want to pursue oil at the expense of alternative fuels. I wanted to show the partisan impasse, and how the premises of your mindset really determine how you try to solve problems. I have a great affection for Pollack as well, and I think that’s important. He has this gung-ho spirit that we associate with America and he gets the job done. But there’s a point at which that mindset runs its course and maybe his solutions are no longer viable in the modern world. The best leaders are able to bring people together and see their common goals.

Filmmaker: Pollock is also quite a vulnerable figure, almost childlike at times.

Fessenden: I think Perlman does such a great job showing that with sympathy and humor. But then you realize people [like Pollack] are leading our country, our expeditions, and they’re really just like kids. They aren’t able to listen, they’re stubborn, and they’re going to contradict what the advice is just for the sake of being in charge. One of my favorite scenes is when they’re discussing how they have to leave the station after the plane crash. Everything that Hoffman suggests, Pollack is opposed to, just to be the guy who came up with the solution. I feel that’s very well drawn, and you see it everywhere, even in the schoolyard. We all have a little Pollack in us.

Filmmaker: Hoffman’s journals, which we’re privy to in LeGros’s voiceover, are an important element in the film. It’s where he surmises that these weather disturbances have a supernatural cause, yet he never voices that fear to others.

Fessenden: Maxwell proposes something Hoffman has thought of himself. He says, “What if they’re ghosts? Oil is ghosts.” There’s a great moment in LeGros’s performance where he twitches and goes, well no, and you realize he’s denying his own inkling. To me, it’s very subtle and it really works in that scene. [Gilford and LeGros] are both really good. I also like the theme in the film that when you start to see the beasts, you’re doomed. I’m not proposing that they’re there, but that you’re crossing into a frame of mind which leaves you vulnerable to madness and to this sense of dread which is everybody’s undoing.

Filmmaker: Pollack is the only one who never sees what everyone else sees.

Fessenden: Well, speaking of Bush [Laughs]. I think it’s a mindset. Ultimately my films are about the psychology of people, and the level of self-delusion is what interests me.

Filmmaker: At one point, both Abby and Pollack accuse Hoffman of wishy-washy alarmism, which seemed to encapsulate some of the broader attitudes people have typically had toward environmentalists over the years.

Fessenden: It’s a deep irony that we’re supposed to prove global warming beyond a shadow of a doubt, and yet we had absolutely no proof whatsoever that Saddam was up to anything. The argument is, you have to have proof before we’re going to pull up our tent. Proof of what? The future? I don’t have it. But I think we have some questions. And whatever happened to caution? Whereas, somehow, preemptively going into another country makes perfect sense to the same mindset. We’re in a pickle.

Filmmaker: Did anything unplanned happen during filming in Iceland, weatherwise?

Fessenden: We did have a terrible blizzard that shut us down for a day. We had one scene where it rains, which was supposed to be a complete anomaly. We had our rain trucks ready and everything—then it rained that day, and even the Icelandics were weirded out. Honestly, everyone talked about global warming. But some days it was blistering hot, in terms of a pitiless sun shining down on us. There was vigorous activity day to day out there. You put this beautiful 35mm camera up on a skimobile and off you go with six guys following on another skimobile, and that would be your shoot.

Filmmaker: You and cinematographer G. Magni Agustsson really utilized the arctic landscape, which added so much to the film’s visual and tonal environment.

Fessenden: The whole way the movie was produced by Jeffrey-Levy Hinte was really smart. It was fun to be solving problems and getting the most out of our budget. We built that set up there—it’s just a shell, there’s nothing inside. Jeff figured out that we’d have to do our aerial shots the first day, before we built our base camp where the actors and the food would be housed. Wonderfully simple solutions like that. We had this incredible helicopter pilot and his right-hand man who could do these amazing maneuvers. We were shooting helicopter to airplane [at one point]. It was all crazy and quite dangerous. But it was done intelligently and everyone knew what they were doing. I love the whole Icelandic vibe. Everyone did different jobs and pitched in. If a car got stuck in the snow, it wasn’t the end of the world, just something you deal with and move on. I found them to be robust, which I think is great. The spirit was very high.

Filmmaker: Was Werner Herzog aware that you used footage from Lessons of Darkness?

Fessenden: I was in Toronto and he must have been showing Rescue Dawn. It was a year ago, so I’m not that far behind the masters, taking a year to get my film out! Anyway, I saw him in the street and stopped him and was almost speechless. I just said, “I love your work.” But I like to say that me and Herzog collaborated. [Laughs] His documentary about the Kuwait fires is very powerful, so I was really excited to be able to snatch that footage, to even know that it was possible. We made the inquiry and they said [lapsing into full-blown Herzog imitation], ‘It’s available for a price, you know,’ and then you deal with Herzog’s brother, who’s also crazy.

Filmmaker: Do you find it hard writing for horror audiences considering that you’re not giving them the gory stuff most fans are clamoring for?

Fessenden: It’s terrible to admit, but I don’t really think about the audience in that regard. I want to convey my ideas because I’m convinced they’re interesting, or even fun. I’m actually a B-movie maker, I always say. If I wanted to explore these things in a more intellectual way, I’m sure I’d make dramas that would be all over The New York Times. I love monsters and the fun of that, and I have a deep relationship to dread and fear. If that isn’t the horror genre, I don’t know what is. I can’t worry about the gore guys. They’ve got plenty to entertain themselves with.

Filmmaker: Do you have any models for your brand of socially conscientious filmmaking?

Fessenden: No. [Laughs] Costa-Gavras maybe, but all that is political. By chance, I’ve made two movies about environmental issues and I can honestly say that is quite rare. There is a tradition in some horror movies of the revenge of the beasts — with frogs and God knows what — but my model is much more traditional. I’m influenced by Scorsese’s movies and Roman Polanski, who has that subtle sense of dread in his films.

Filmmaker: How do you think people will respond to The Last Winter?

Fessenden: I’ve really carved a very strange place for myself — the pursuit of the uncanny. I really think the uncanny is what we live every day, and to express that is so cool. The axe murder in an absolutely shocking and horrifying event, but it only happens to a few of us. We can obsess on it, and that’s fine, but what’s intriguing is the peculiarity you live with every day. The little nicks and cuts, as opposed to the huge axe murder—those are things that we do to ourselves and we’re doing right now. There is no more symbolic feature in our lives than the fact that we are ignoring this thing that is killing us. It’s just madness.


# posted by Jason Guerrasio @ 9/18/2007 05:11:00 PM Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 4, 2007
By Jason Guerrasio 

Jeff Garlin may be best known as Larry David’s right hand man on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, but there’s more to this Second City alum than his deadpan humor. Along with doing stand up and developing new TV shows when Curb isn’t taping, he’s also been trying to get his feature films made. His first is I Want Someone To Eat Cheese With, which premiered at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival to rave reviews and then suddenly lost its momentum and collected dust for over a year until finding distribution through IFC Film’s First Take banner and The Weinstein Company. The film begins its limited run this week.

Like most of Garlin’s material, the film -- which he wrote, directed and stars in -- revisits many of his life experiences, particularly his life-long struggle with his weight and his efforts to make it as a comic. Garlin plays James, who’s stuck at a life crossroads. He’s been at Second City too long, been fired by his agent, and can’t find a girl, particularly because he lives with his mother. A running joke through the film is James’s realization that teeny bopper Aaron Carter is getting the lead for the remake of Marty instead of him, which drives the comic to give up on his diet and troll ice cream parlors like an alcoholic to bars. There he meets Beth (Sarah Silverman), who seems like the girl-next-door, but James quickly learns that she only wanted a one-night stand with a fat guy.

At times mirroring a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode while other times resembling the style of a Woody Allen romantic comedy, there’s also a dark side to the film: a lonely guy who due to his physical attributes is shunned from not only the social scene but his profession as well. The most poignant moments are beautiful long shots of James lying on his car by Wrigley Field after scarfing down some sweets -- his only escape from the constant reminders of his unlucky life.

Shot in 19 days over two years in Chicago and L.A., the film also stars Bonnie Hunt, Amy Sedaris and David Pasquesi. Surprisingly, with all of these improv talents Garlin says there was very little improvisation, which makes this intimate portrait of one man’s vices even more enjoyable to watch.


Filmmaker: Is there any meaning behind the title?

Garlin: Well, I was living in New York at the time and John Cusack was filming the Woody Allen movie Shadows of Fog. He’s a friend of mine and he asked me if I would hang out with his girlfriend for the day. We spent the day together, we had lunch at the Museum of Natural History, we were talking about relationships and I said what do you want in a relationship and she goes, I just want someone to eat cheese with. And I went, that’s it, that’s so simple. I said, “I’m going to use that as a title someday.”

Filmmaker: How far back did you start writing the script for this?

Garlin: I started writing in 1997, and I didn’t seriously consider that I was going to be making it until, excuse the phrase, the turn of the century, and I just didn’t let anything stop me. You think with Curb Your Enthusiasm that it would, not be easy, but easier to get money. I was initially looking for $500,000 to make it and then I needed a little more so $700,000 is what I settled on. I got financing, I set up an office and hired a crew and we were in preproduction, we’re two weeks out of filming and I remember my lawyer calling me and telling me that we had to have a conference call from our financier from Spain. The guy from Spain said he didn’t feel like investing in the movie anymore, he thought it was a bad time because of the recent terrorist attacks in Spain. It was an excuse obviously, but I never let terrorism stop my movie so I just kept on fighting. I shot for like a week, and I made a DVD from the footage I shot and then showed that to more people to get more financing to finish the film.

Filmmaker: It took you about two years to get it finished, right?

Garlin: Yes.

Filmmaker: That’s got to be extremely difficult to keep everything together for that period of time.

Garlin: It’s really deflating. The most deflating thing is when you meet with people [to get more money]. I remember I met with a guy from Chicago, very excited about meeting me and doing my movie, I met him at a hotel in L.A. and he brought two hookers to our meeting and they had more interesting questions and were nicer than he was. On the way home I remember crying thinking this is just crazy.

Filmmaker: So do experiences like that dissuade you from wanting to make films in the future?

Garlin: No, because the actual moviemaking process itself is the most thrilling and enlightening thing that I’ve ever done in my life. Does it dissuade me from making movies the way I made this first one in terms of the way it was financed? Yes. I’ll write my movies, I’ll try to get small studios, even single investors, and if they don’t I don’t make it, that’s all I can say. Or I’ll lower the budget to where I can shoot it digitally for $300,000 if I can pull that off.

Filmmaker: Was there ever a point where you considered ditching the idea of shooting on film and instead shooting on video to lower your budget?

Garlin: No, because every movie is different. It’s not like I favor film over digital, but what it comes down to is this movie needed the warmth of film. There are other movies that you can shoot, especially action films, where digitally it works great. The next one I’m trying to get make a lot of it is improvised and I need to shoot it digitally.

Filmmaker: So there wasn’t that much improving in this film?

Garlin: No, I’d say it was 90 percent scripted. One was free to improvise, mind you.

Filmmaker: Like the role playing scene in the supermarket between you and Sarah Silverman?

Garlin: That was 100 percent scripted. There was nothing in that scene that was improvised. Like when I go to pick up the little girl at school and Bonnie Hunt goes on that rambling thing about fat men -- that was entirely improvised. I could have gone on and on with that scene. I have to also say it was written with that feeling that she did and the words were similar but all the actors, Sarah, Bonnie, it doesn’t matter, Paul Mazursky, everyone was encouraged to know the material and then say what they wanted to say.

Filmmaker: It was a wild ride just to get financing and then you premiere at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival -- what was the process like to find a distributor?

Garlin: The movie played [at Tribeca and the L.A. Film Festival], there was a nice amount of interest, and over the next couple of weeks the interest would taper off. What would happen, as usual, some lower end person at a company, lets say Sony Classics, would see my movie, love it, want it, and then the minute that they brought it up to their senior people or the higher ups they would pass. I remember Sony Classics in particular, they were really gung ho on the movie and then I got to the point where I had a meeting with one of the guys who ran it and in the meeting, A) he didn’t know who I was and B) he told me as he discovered who I was that the only reason that it sold out in Tribeca is because I was in Daddy Day Care. I can tell you that was B.S., but he believed that, mind you. He really believed that which blew my mind, and he was very mean to me. I couldn’t believe how mean he was to me. I went to all of these different people and I’d said, Sarah Silverman is great, she’s going to be big, and I said Curb Your Enthusiasm has a lot of diehard fans, this is the first film coming out, this was before Waitress, with anyone from Curb Your Enthusiasm, I said that alone makes it worthwhile. So I went around and really the people that got it the most was IFC. They really, really understood the movie, they loved the movie, it wasn’t the most money that was offered but it was like these are the people that get it and then they partnered up with the Weinsteins. Actually, the Weinsteins made a DVD offer prior to IFC making a film offer so now that’s what’s happening, IFC is releasing the film and the Weinsteins are doing the DVD.

Filmmaker: So a lot of the things that happen to you in the movie happened to you in real life, right?

Garlin: Yeah. Everything that I do, whether it be stand up, a television show I’m developing or writing for a movie, it doesn’t matter, it’s always based on my own experiences. Yes, I did have a woman abuse me the way Sarah Silverman does in the movie, yes, I did work at Second City and I was constantly quitting or getting fired.

Filmmaker: Was the idea always to shoot in Chicago?

Garlin: It was the idea from the get-go to shoot the whole thing in Chicago and believe it or not only half of it was shot in Chicago. The Second City stuff, all the interiors, where I live, was shot in Los Angeles and what made me feel better about that was Mean Streets -- all the interiors [in that film] were shot in L.A., and that’s one of the quintessential New York movies, So, I thought well I can do that too. It was harder than I thought because finding locations that really do look like Chicago, was very difficult. But I did it and many people from Chicago have already seen the movie. Nobody has ever said to me, “That’s not Chicago.”

Filmmaker: Do you find the process of using your personal experiences for your standup and for the movie therapeutic?

Garlin: I don’t use it for therapy. It’s what I know and it’s what I write. I do have an imagination and I do have some ideas that are not based on my life per se, but in general I have too much respect for the audience to ever use my comedy for therapy. I mean I’m sure to a degree it is therapeutic because it’s enjoyable, but my job is to always enlighten, entertain, get a feeling or a message across. I don’t see it as much in filmmaking as I do in live theater, but I really resent when people use an arts communication form for their own therapy.

Filmmaker: A major theme in the movie is your weight, and you address it almost as an addiction. Was that your intention?

Garlin: Yes, I am an addict. I actually had to make some cuts in the movie because I had myself eating when things went great for me and unless you’re an addict, especially when someone is a compulsive overeater, you don’t understand this. However, that being said, people were having these crazy reactions to the scenes, everyone commented on them and I thought this is just too distracting, See, people who compulsively overeat, the eat when they feel anything, good or bad. Most of the world thinks you only eat when you’re sad, which is not true.

Filmmaker: Seeing you’re in every single scene of the movie, is there someone behind the camera who you had full trust in to look at the scenes and give you feedback?

Garlin: That’s interesting that you say that because that’s my job on Curb Your Enthusiasm, I’m the guy behind the camera who talks with Larry about the scene, so I took that into my filmmaking. So yes there are -- my producers Steve Pink and Erin O’Malley serve that purpose. I welcome feedback from anyone on set, but Erin O’Malley and Steve Pink were a great help and also David Pasquesi, my co-star who played Luca, he was a great help.

Filmmaker: When you were acting could you realize if a scene wasn’t working or would you just act and figure it out afterwards?

Garlin: One thing I’ve learned from Curb Your Enthusiasm is that Larry David has trouble sometimes with getting out of his producer’s head while he’s acting. Sometimes he’s thinking about why the scene’s not working and I try while I’m acting to just be an actor. That being said, I know if the rhythms very early on are correct and if it’s working. I had one actress who I sort of fired because it wasn’t working, we’d go into a scene that was like two minutes long and one minute in I’m like, “We have to go back,” and she had to reset everything. She couldn’t just go with the flow. Most of the actors in the movie are improvisational actors, they could really go with the flow. I like to be able to in the middle of a scene say, “Lets go back a few beats.” My job as an actor and as an improviser is to make the person next to me look good. Now it’s my attitude and belief that’s their job, too. To make me look good, and if both people are trying to make the other person look good everybody looks amazing and the scene flies and it’s great. So I’m not thinking as much as a director as I am thinking about trying to make the other person look good.

Filmmaker: What are you working on next?

Garlin: I just directed John Water’s one-man show, This Filthy World. There’s going to be another Curb season -- it debuts September 9. I’m working on a few TV shows, one for HBO, one for the networks and I just wrote a movie about Little League parents.

Filmmaker: That is a scary subject to cover.

Garlin: It is, I don’t understand the behavior of these people but there will be elements of comedy and drama. It will focus completely on the parents and not so much the kids. I’m trying to get financing for that.


# posted by Jason Guerrasio @ 9/04/2007 03:36:00 PM Comments (0)

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