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Going 'Beneath' horror storytelling with director Larry Fessenden

As much as the film industry is a business of dollars and cents, it is refreshing to know that there are some artists out there who are getting to work on material that truly engages them. I got the unique chance to sit down with director Larry Fessenden whose new film "Beneath" is now available from retailers everywhere. We talked about some of the classic elements of horror that keep audiences coming back, the technical challenges that come about when shoot a movie in the middle of a lake and how important it is for him to be truly engaged in any project that he is working on.

Talking horror with a low budget renaissance man

I obviously got a kick out of the movie but I'm curious, for you as a storyteller what is it about that "Creature Under The Water" story that keeps drawing audiences in?

Larry Fessenden: Well this was just an opportunity. Chiller films had the money and the script, and personally I am just a huge fan of "Jaws" as well as something like "Lifeboat" by Alfred Hitchcock which is a very contained story. I just loved the allegorical level that this story exists in, to just have such a contained set, almost like a play in many ways. Of course I made myself aware of things like "Lake Placid", the "Piranha" movies and "Shark Night" because it is a tradition but basically "Jaws" is your "Moby Dick" tale and there are certain archetypes there that I felt were really worth revisiting.

How conscience are you when making a film like this to make sure you are at least revisiting things in a fresh way rather than doing the same old thing?

LF: To me, "Beneath" really does veer away from a lot of the standard tropes. First and foremost, the fish actually ISN'T the most terrifying aspect of the story, it's clearly more of a "Lord of the Flies" type of scenario where we are examining how wretched these kids are to one another and the terrible choices that they are making to the point that it almost becomes a satire of human nature in the world of cell phones and the breakdown of a standard social system. And if you think about something like "Jaws", where these are these 3 working class guys who are fighting this truly malevolent force and that is an archetype that is much easier to embrace, whereas something like "Beneath" these kids are just obnoxious to each other, making terrible choices. The film never really positions the fish as 'evil' and you can see that the film has a different agenda because the kids don't triumph over this force of nature. We are using the same archetype, but really playing with it all at the same time.

Is that why the fish wasn't some freaky supernatural monster, but rather just a really big version of an actual fish?

LF: Well, exactly and there were some practical concerns as well, especially when the effects guys said that they couldn't make it longer than 8 feet. And I was like 'Gimmie a break!' we do need it to be just a little bigger than that. And the other thing is when were in that lake shooting, we would often try to swim back to shore for lunch and believe me when I say that it is exhausting no matter how small it may appear and if there was a big 10 foot fish after you it would be a MAJOR drag. Ultimately I wanted to diminish, especially in this age of CGI where everything is just so exaggerated and I wanted to bring it all back to more of a manageable scale without some of the standard exaggerations that we see these days.

You were quite literally shooting this film in a rowboat and on a barge, how difficult was this to pull off from a technical standpoint?

LF: It really was quite difficult, as I always say that it really is a privilege to make films so I am hardly complaining but the reality is that when you shoot on the water you might as well schedule twice as much time to get everything done. Not only do you have to deal with the elements, but you are on unstable ground. We actually had an enormous crane out on that barge, and as I'm sure you can imagine, on the water really isn't the best place for something like that exists on this teeny little fulcrum that gets strained and actually did break half way through the shooting. Even just getting people around was laborious because even if you just had to go to the bathroom that whole process took 10-15 minutes as we shuttled back and forth.

We shot the whole thing in 18 days, but I really like to joke that it was actually a 9 day shoot to account for the water element. It also gives you a really acute awareness of the weather. I mean I never used to think about it before and I have made movies in Iceland, but here if there is a storm coming you've just got to get off the water. So even the slightest hint of bad weather or a dark cloud and we would have to book it back to shore.

You've been fortunate enough to work with a lot of different types of people over your career and I was wondering from your perspective, what is about horror that truly keeps audiences coming back again and again and makes it so accessible?

LF: Well I always loved horror as a kid and I really think that they are two sides to it all. On the one hand, I really love monsters, because in a way I feel like I related to their outsider status and like the sentimental romantic plight of the monster especially in the old Universal Horrors, so I related to it emotionally as well. More importantly though I feel like people are completely motivated by fear, especially with our political system here in America which is just degenerating into more and more fear mongering and it gets in the way of real discourse so you have to be very aware of the role of fear in our society today, plus it's just something I'm obsessive about and have always been a little bit of a paranoid guy and unfortunately in my films quite often, paranoia usually leads to the truth so it is kind of a psychological state of mind to think that what you fear may come true, and those are the types of stories that I like to tell. When I get to work with other artists we really get to find a common ground as we look for the truth in these horror archetypes and that is what truly interests me?

Do you think that's why some of these archetypes are even coming back around in the films of a Ti West or a Jim Mickle that are these simple, basic stories but exceptionally executed to get some genuine scares out of people?

LF: I feel very strongly that a film isn't just a story, but the WAY that a story is told. It's why I am such a great fan of Hitchcock because it really is all in the filmmaking. Same with someone like Ti West, because I mean who wants to just see a babysitter in a haunted house for 2 hours? But it is in the telling that someone like Ti really gets to ramp up the dread. I've gotten to work on several films with Ti and I've always felt that he just such a strong filmmaker and then you have a guy like Jim Mickle who can take the typical zombie apocalypse type story and really bring so much humanity to it and we get to know these intricate characters. These are beautiful dramatic tropes, but let's face it because horror is fun! I mean it's about engaging the imagination with fantasy creatures and you can also get political and make observations about life. If you want to tell a story about a woman losing her child, why not make it like "The Orphanage" rather than some maudlin story about a woman losing her child? (Laughs)

For you throughout your career has it been important to have a certain variety to the projects you've worked on if only at the very least to inform those projects that you decide to make yourself?

LF: Yeah, I mean have to admit that sometimes I am more interested in the richness of the material with all the stuff we've done which all tell a story to me rather than any single film career I could have, because I really do find myself interested in other people's ideas. Make no mistake, to what is excited when everything I do is related in some way. For example I got to work with Glen Mcquade and he isn't as somber a filmmaker as West or Mickle, because there is an element of humor and Irish wit in his work but that somehow makes sense to me as well. I just want to be responsible with an array of things that engage me and feel vital, opposed to the corporate media out there that is just about making the loudest noises possible.

"Beneath" is now available on DVD & Blu-Ray from all major retailers.

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