AICN HORROR talks with director/writer/actor Larry Fessenden about his latest creature feature BENEATH! Plus a review of the film!
Greetings, all. Ambush Bug here with another AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS column. I had a chance to catch up with Larry Fessenden who is a jack of all trades it seems. Larry’s directed films such as HABIT, A LONG WINTER, NO TELLING, and a segment in the upcoming ABC’S OF DEATH sequel. He’s also quite the actor having made appearances in < YOU’RE NEXT (reviewed here) and JUG FACE (reviewed here). Mr. Fessenden is also the madman behind the fantastic short radio plays TALES FROM BEYOND THE PALE which harkens back to the age of spooky radio shows like INNER SANCTUM and LIGHT’S OUT. Mr. Fessenden has a new film out that he directed called BENEATH and it’s a hell of a great monster in the lake tale. I was able to catch up with Larry a few weeks ago to talk with him about giant fish, practical effects, and everything else BENEATH. After the interview, check out my review of BENEATH, but first here’s what Mr. Fessenden had to say…
AMBUSH BUG (BUG): Hey Larry how’s it going?
LARRY FESSENDEN (LF): Yeah, man I appreciate, your hanging in there.
BUG: Well I just saw BENEATH this past Saturday and man, that was a really great film. How long have you been working on this film?
LF: Well it was all fairly quick once we got the green light. I had gone through Chiller which is obviously a cable channel and they were interested in making original content and they invited me over as a producer and I pitched some films and they said, well they had this script flying around for some time and I read it and I just loved the simplicity of the story and the premise and the idea of making a creature feature so I volunteered to direct and we pretty quickly put it all together.
BUG: Yeah, well it came together really well, I loved it. And I have a lot of questions to ask you about the monster itself, but first, what was it like bringing the cast together for this? It seemed like you had a lot of really young talented actors to work with.
LF: Yeah man I appreciate that question because I just love the cast, and as you can tell, the script is pretty cliché to characters. It’s part of the charm of this kind of movie. You’ve got the jock and the chick who’s sleeping around and the misfit and the film guy, so it ends up a pretty cliché-laden script and I really wanted to bring a sort of humanity to the acting. At first, Chiller, as all companies do, wanted name actors but we quickly found that a low budget horror movie wasn’t going to attract up and coming talent. So we chose instead to audition in New York and we just lucked out with some real talent in almost every one of these kids we brought on to either TV or horror movies or the stage in the case of Jonny Orsini. So we just auditioned them and I would have sometimes two of them come in and work with a third person, it was really quite a great experience just seeing new talent and ready to work. Bonnie Dennison had been in STAKE LAND. I’ve always had a thing for her and it was great to have her come in to me so I used her and then Mackenzie Rosman of course is she’s a known entity and we left enough to find her and see if she would be willing to come out east and do this part.
BUG: And let’s not forget Mark Margolis who did a fantastic job in there and, coming off of BREAKING BAD, I’m sure he’s a pretty hot commodity these days, but what was it like to bring him into the role?
LF: Well, you know, I know Mark from way back, but I don’t watch much TV so that wasn’t what excited me. I think of him as an Aronofsky guy, I’ve known Aronofsky for years, and I even talked to Mark about another project because we’re all New Yorkers. So I was just thrilled to come up with the idea, you know of having him as the old dude because I really like that role and it’s a classic role, you know, to have the guy to warn the children not to go out in the boat. Mark’s voice just gets so much mileage. And it was ironic because of course he doesn’t speak in BREAKING BAD, so we all laughed about that. But he is just a great presence and it was fun to have a fellow New Yorker show up on set and do that bit.
BUG: I wanted to commend you on just the way you soaked in the scenery in the film. There are some scenes that I was just,…it really just kind of made my jaw drop; the scenes of the tall trees, looking up from under them towards the top of the tall trees and then just across that lake. It seemed like you had like a really beautiful place to film all of the stuff.
LF: Well, again, I appreciate your response because I always want to involve the location when I make the movie. To me it’s one of the characters, and I like the idea of a movie sitting in your mind in terms of a location. I’ve made movies in many locations and each time I think the feeling you get of the sense of place is very essential to my filmmaking. That was a lake out in Connecticut. There was no swimming allowed or boating, so we had to pretty much do ourselves although, quite honestly, the sound guys would say different because there was a gun range nearby and at five o’clock every day they would start shooting and people seemed to be mowing their lawns obsessively in our midst. So it’s kind of a nightmare but the lake was pretty remote. People would walk their dogs around the perimeter but we pretty much had it to ourselves.
BUG: So let’s talk about the monster itself. Was it ever going to be CG?
LF: No, I pitched it very early on because, well, I said you know, guys, let’s do this as a puppet. It’s going to be much cooler. And honestly I don’t think at our budget we could probably have gotten a very good CG monster. Remember that this is a monster that’s in the water. Doing water and digital effects, I’ve had experience failing at that in the past. But I couldn’t think of anything more delightful than making a giant puppet.
And that I have, of course, always loved the film JAWS and JURASSIC PARK. I mean we think of JURASSIC PARK as being CGI but it’s really those puppets, they just are enhanced, which is what we also did, put the eyeball in, stuff like that.
BUG: Who designed the creature?
LF: Well it’s become this joint effort, I mean I made the initial sketch with some of my Photoshop tinkering I chose a lot of different fish that I liked and chose the color and the black and the stripes and all this and put the clear one on the back and then I sent it to these fellows in LA, called Fractured FX and they built this gorgeous, huge clay puppet, or clay model. And then there was a lot of back and forth I think the gills should be fit this way, you should make head a little flatter here, and all this stuff, so it was a process. I was in the room with them because you can get so much more out of the CG experience, but they made a gorgeous clay model and then that gets molded and then it gets taken over to the puppeteers who have to put the fiberglass interior. I insisted that it be as mobile as possible so that we can just drag it to the water and not depend on mechanical things. I wanted it to be literally just strapped on the back of a diver. We kind of, they didn’t quite go with my concept. They were probably too ambitious and as a result we did have a large big prop but it moved essentially just by these divers pulling it on strings and then they had a huge fulcrum to move them out so it was awesome. Great, great fun.
BUG: And just the way it moved, or the way the head moved and the body just kind of followed and the tail swished back and forth and everything. I don’t have time to watch a lot of the behind the scenes featurettes as much as I should because I watch so many films for review, but I definitely checked out the behind the scenes bit here because I just wanted to know how you made that fish. It did look really real. I mean, it looked like it was alive under there. So congratulations on that, it was very successful.
LF: Thanks, man. Eric Fiedler was our lead puppeteer and he worked on THE ABYSS and he had great war stories from that film. And there are all these great guys probably that are in on some of your favorite movie sets and to see how much skill there is out there just waiting to be mined in practical effects is amazing.
BUG: Definitely, definitely. Is that they type of films you like? I mean, do you prefer practical effects. I always just prefer them. It feels more tactile. It feels like they’re in the scene and more real, I guess.
LF: I would almost have to go case by case. For example, you know JURASSIC PARK; the T-Rex is just an absolutely amazing creature and that is obviously this massive puppet. But to me, ALIEN3 is just this disaster because they went CGI, so I would admit that however there are some spectacular CG movies - I mean look at GRAVITY, the whole damn movie is CGI.
It mainly has to do with the talent, as it is with anything. It’s how this technology is used. And I think we are really past being able to say I simply hate CGI because honestly half the scenes you are looking at are CG especially in big budget films. But, you know, at my budget, I don’t think I could have conceived something as awesome. I’m not saying my movie was awesome, I’m saying I don’t believe it would have gotten even the level of reality that we achieved if we went digital. Also, you know, there’s something very charming about special effect still. Don’t let me see a werewolf movie with a fucking CG monster, that’s just unacceptable. There are some lines we can draw, but when you’re working with giant creatures like KING KONG, you just can’t argue with some of that stuff. It’s so beautifully done.
BUG: Definitely. Well you do leave it open for a sequel. Is there any chance for one or any chance for you to return for BENEATH 2?
LF: I don’t know if anybody needs to see this story told again. It would just be another boat full of kids in a lake story. But hey man, I got the fish in my barn and I’m happy to trot it out anytime.
BUG: That’s so cool! So they let you keep it, that’s yours now, huh?
Larry: Yeah, I actually shouldn’t be talking about that because they might just wake up one day and say “Wait, what the hell happened to that really expensive prop, why does the director have it?”
BUG: Very cool. Well it really was very realistic the way the kids kind of turned on each other once they were trapped in the middle of this lake. How did you direct those guys to manage the subtle shifts along the way in terms of their relationships? It’s not just a drastic shift, but one that develops slowly throughout the whole film.
LF: Right. Well I really appreciate that you’re seeing that because the script had a lot of backstory and I wanted to see if we could cram that backstory right into the boat and slowly reveal who is sleeping with who and what event to recall while on the boat. So that was all derived from the story that the original script told. And then, and you know, the characters are fairly clichéd on the one hand, and I directed them with a seriousness, trying to find the humanity in all of that in the performances. And it felt like every actor brought something very unique. I really love the performances and just how these kids succumb to their weakness and turn on each other.
BUG: What do you have coming up next, Larry?
LF: Well I’ve got a lot of things that I’m involved in like Adrián García Bogliano’s LATE PHASES is coming out. I’m not sure when but we’re excited to unleash that on the world, speaking of werewolves and practical effect. And then I have a documentary called AMERICAN JESUS, that’s outside of the genre, but there’s some striking quality there. And then, you know, I’ve got some producing gigs coming up. I usually don’t talk about stuff that isn’t real until it really happens.
BUG: Sure. And you’ve been in front of the screen quite a bit lately too with JUG FACE and with YOU’RE NEXT. Do you like acting?
LF: Yeah. In fact I’ve done a series of movies in the last month so there’s a whole bunch of stuff that will be coming up. I was in THE STRAIN which is Guillermo Del Toro’s new TV show and a couple of things like that.
BUG: Very nice. And I have to ask, I really loved your TALES FROM BEYOND THE PALE radio plays that you guys did. Is there any chance of you revisiting that stuff or doing more shows?
LF: Absolutely man, we can’t resist. Glenn McQuaid and I are heading back into the studio. We have some announcements cooked up and some new trinkets for the fans, so definitely keep an eye out for an announcement about new TALES FROM BEYOND THE PALE.
BUG: Great, great. Yeah. Well congratulations on a great film and it’s always a pleasure talking with you. So best of luck with it and thanks a lot for talking to me today.
LF: Hey man, thanks for watching. Have a good one.
BUG: Thank you so much Larry. BENEATH is available now on DVD, BluRay, & digital download. Check out my review of the film below!
New on On Demand, digital download and BluRay/DVD from The Shout Factory!
BENEATH (2013)Directed by Larry Fessenden
Written by Tony Daniel, Brian D. Smith
Starring Daniel Zovatto, Bonnie Dennison, Chris Conroy, Jonny Orsini, Griffin Newman, Mackenzie Rosman, Mark Margolis
Find out more about this film here and on Facebook here
Reviewed by Ambush Bug
The creature feature is an age old staple of the horror genre. Looking back, some have been done amazingly well (JAWS) and some not so good (CREATURE). BENEATH is more of the former rather than the latter because director Larry Fessenden seemed to make all the right decisions in setting up this flick about a bunch of kids trapped in the middle of a lake with no oars and a giant prehistoric fish circling their boat just waiting for them to get within range of its fish lips.
It would be so easy to laugh this film off. Who’s afraid of a big fish and how can you make an entire film out of just a bunch of kids in a boat fighting it? But Fessenden makes some smart moves making this one of the most successful creature features in recent memory.
First and foremost, he’s filled this cast with really talented actors. It wouldn’t surprise me if the entire cast doesn’t show up in much bigger films in the future as all of them deliver top tier performances throughout. Though this is a simple, kids trapped on a boat story, I think if you give this film a chance you’re going to be surprised at the twists and turns this film goes through. There is a lot of drama between this group of kids and once they are put to the coals and find their lives at stake, the true horror happens when the kids begin to turn on one another in order to survive.
Talking about the complex relationships between the group of kids sounds like a bad CW show, but with the strong performances they all work. Daniel Zovatto plays Johnny who has a strong resemblance to Johnny Depp circa 21 JUMP STREET. If there’s ever a need for Depp to have a stand in for a teenage version of himself, he should be knocking on Zovatto’s door. Zovatto’s Johnny is in love with Kitty (STAKE LAND’s Bonnie Dennison) who is in turn dating jock Matt (Chris Conroy), but might be having a bit of a fling with Matt’s brother Simon (Jonny Orsini). Toss in nervous film geek Zeke (Griffin Newman)who films everything and girl next door Deb (Mackenzie Rosman) and you’ve got the recipe for disaster if they are ever stuck together and forced to work on a similar goal. Add wizened BREAKING BAD actor Mark Margolis as the old guy warning folks to not go out into the lake makes the cast all the more impressive.
But because of the strength of these young actors, things get really tense out there in the water. With a giant monstrous fish circling, there’s nowhere to go and without oars, they must begin sacrificing one for the team in order for them to lean over and hand-row themselves out of there. Playing with both the stereo types the characters play and our own expectations in terms of the way these “and then there were none” stories play out, I think you’ll be surprised as to who lives and who dies in this little fright fest. Fessenden heightens the danger by taking some cues from JAWS by really amplifying the fact that in a lake, you really can’t see very far under water. Tons of frightening scenes that’ll make you pull your feet up to your chin occur as the kids set out for this trip not knowing that there’s a monster below.
And what a monster it is. Fessenden’s design crew came up with a realistic, yet monstrous beast with practical effects. Having the monster in the scene makes it all the more effective as it splashes out and take bites out of the boat and people and vultures around them underwater just waiting for the next chance to chomp. Keeping the beast in the scene really does make it more dangerous as real water splashes around it and the actors and the danger feels all the more closer. Those shitty ScyFy films should take note that nothing beats practical effects. BENEATH is a testament to this.
As I said, this film shouldn’t work and it probably wouldn’t work in the hands of any other filmmaker, but Fessenden not only gets the drama right from his performers, but he makes a goofy concept like a killer lake fish pants-shittingly scary. While those ScyFy films have given the creature feature a bad name through the years, Fessenden has taken it back into the realm of scary in BENEATH. It’s a film that deserves to be seen by more people since it really does deliver the goods in terms of scares and thrills.
Ambush Bug is Mark L. Miller, original @$$Hole/wordslinger/writer of wrongs/reviewer/interviewer/editor of AICN COMICS for over 13 years & AICN HORROR for 4. Mark’s written THE TINGLERS & WITCHFINDER GENERAL, DEATHSPORT GAMES, NANNY & HANK (soon to be an Uptown 6 Films feature film), Zenescope’s GRIMM FAIRY TALES Vol.13, UNLEASHED: WEREWOLVES, and the critically acclaimed THE JUNGLE BOOK and its follow up THE JUNGLE BOOK: LAST OF THE SPECIES. FAMOUS MONSTERS’ LUNA: ORDER OF THE WEREWOLF (co-written with Martin Fisher) will be available soon in trade. Mark wrote/provided art for a chapter in Black Mask Studios’ OCCUPY COMICS. Follow Ambush Bug on the Twitters @Mark_L_Miller.
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