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Interview with 'Beneath' director Larry Fessenden

Larry Fessenden has been making a name for himself both in front and behind the camera appearing in films such as Stake Land, Bitter Feast and leading the charge in the director’s chair in numerous films including Wendigo and The Last Winter. Now he is bringing a new fresh water terror to life with his latest film Beneath that is bringing some old school filmmaking back to where it belongs. I had the chance to sit down and discuss this fun film and how they brought this latest underwater creature to life.

Larry Fessenden
Larry Fessenden
Larry Fessenden

Bobby: How did you get involved with Beneath?

Larry: I heard Chiller was looking to do some original content features and went there and pitched told them we had some great movies we wanted to make and after the meeting they pulled a script out of a drawer and said they wanted to make this movie because they already paid for the script. I read it and thought this is the one for me because I just love boats and being in a specific location like the lake and of course who doesn’t love giant fish. So I offered to do it and took the existing script and made some tweaks with some other writers and some on my own and we came up with this very lean version of the original script. There was a lot more backstory and stuff going on in the high school, but I really wanted to keep it on the water.

Bobby: One of the things I loved about the movie was the practical effects of the creature. Was it always planned to go that route?

Larry: I’m an old school guy and love the guys in the monster suits and JAWS; even though everyone makes fun of the shark I think it’s awesome. You know it’s fake, but with my generation that was part of the charm. What’s the point of sitting there this looks fake, what you are doing is participating in the creation and mythology of the monster by suspending your disbelief. I wanted a practical creature and the price is about the same if you think about how many man hours it takes to create a digital picture, but I think seeing the water running off the rubber skin was just more exciting and that was the challenge. I pitched it to Chiller and they went for it.

Bobby: How long does it take to come up with the creature? Was it already described in the script or did you have to create it from scratch?

Larry: I designed the creature with sort of a Photoshop document where I put a number of elements together. The script describes mostly the size and the component of the story with the oar stuck in the back which was the writer’s contribution of the element of the fish. I came up with the quills on the back, which are actually porcupine quills; I wanted that to have an element of the dorsal fin without going that route. What happens then is you send the design out to LA in this case and they built the fish out there. In an ideal world, you would be able to go and push the clay a bit yourself. I might have made some changes, but I always knew pretty much how it would look. It has a spectacular profile that I wish you could see more in the movie. So it’s my fish is the answer.

Bobby: How hard was it to catch the shots as well as actually making it swim under water?

Larry: We had a great team. These two dudes, Eric Fiedler and Gary Grove got into wet suits every day and brought that fish out and you can’t imagine how primitive the design was. There was a little fan motor that would give it propulsion and we would put it on a line to guide it and the literally use ping pong balls in fish net stockings (laughs), I’m kidding, in regular stockings and that would be the ballast. So they would put a lot of them in if you want the fish to rise and a few to lower so you see it was very primitive, but the tail would move and you could do the mouth. Basically we would wait until like five o’clock when we had about two hours left in the day and then we would shoot what amounted to one shot. It was a huge drain on the schedule but I think it was worth it because it is fun to see a real puppet out there.

Bobby: I give you major props for that as you can have a really great horror film, but be ruined by bad CGI. There is just something great about the practical effect. I have to admit, I loved the movie, but think I enjoyed the making of even more.

Larry: I lovingly cut the behind the scenes feature together because I wanted to show people, that even if they didn’t like the movie the effort and to celebrate old school filmmaking. Just to have the fish jump out of the water is an enormous effort and is absurd, but it’s such a triumph when you get it. I love filmmaking when fate is a part of the process and you are dependent on the laws of physics and the elements to get a single moment that transports or in some way creates an illusion even for a moment. I think that is tremendous fun and what I think filmmaking is, catching lightning in a bottle. I feel like we are so used to CGI now and thank god because it is a wonderful tool, but there is an element of everything you are looking at has been created in the comfort of a studio. I want to return to a world where I can celebrate when you are really interacting with the world.

Bobby: So did you film everything on location of that lake or did you have to take some into a studio?

Larry: I cannot think of a single shot we didn’t film out on the lake. It was a completely practical movie, but it was my first digital film. We shot on the red camera and the only thing I did was you can go in and reframe when working with digital rather than film. One thing that I should make very clear is that we brought CGI into the mix for example the fish eye was just not particularly compelling as the prop, it was kind of dead. So I had my digital dude do many, many little tweaks and I think that is a really fun way of blending all of the technologies available.

Bobby: When doing these kinds of movies there is always that option of going into the back story or like here keeping it kind of vague. Was there ever a plan to dig deeper into that?

Larry: Absolutely not, I was opposed to that. I really think in life there is a lot of mystery and things we just can’t understand and your brain has to adapt. There is the vague reference of the mythology to the lake with Mark Margolis telling them at the beginning to not go in the water. Part of that was just having that kind of scene that is just classic, but what I didn’t want to do was go “Remember when that power plant leaked back in 55’?” and then get into all of that. I think in life there are earthquakes and storms and sometimes you just have to deal with the immediate situation and the movies is ultimately about the kids response to a natural phenomenon and the fact that they did not behave with dignity or grace is really their undoing. We all have to deal with the twists of fate whether they are explained or not and it’s how you react in life to these curveballs that is really the measure of a man. Of course there is this backstory that is revealed through their behavior that they have their resentments and their histories which is ultimately the focus as much as I love the giant fish swimming around, it was about these kids.

Bobby: One of the other things that were cool is that the fish (spoiler) survives as opposed to suddenly having these people become badasses and killing it. Does that mean there is a plan to return to the lake to get some more Beneath action, so to speak?

Larry: (Laughs) I will tell you this much, the fish is in my barn, so it’s ready for the sequel and I think I put that in the making of with a little nod that the fish is waiting in a cold barn. My point is more about nature will continue, it’s our existence that is finite and you are given this gift of life and you make your way with it, but fate and natural disasters will continue on. The fish is terrifying, I wouldn’t want to meet him, but it’s not about an evil fish, that’s a different type of story. Our movie is about this situation and how the kids were going to react. I don’t make movies where you destroy a natural enemy, which is why my films are a little weirder than most. (laughs)

Bobby: For some reason Hollywood always feels like they have to explain the reason behind everything and sometimes there is no reason.

Larry: Exactly, if you stop explaining the monster like they did in the 60s it is more chilling. In the Texas Chainsaw you’re not really sure why those people are so crazy. I mean they work in meat packing plant, but the unknown is the most frightening and mysterious thing, especially in the modern world where we can practically Google anything and find out the back story. I think to have that element of mystery it almost creates a frustration that is closer to real life.

Bobby: You are so right, some there are so many great horror movies that are ruined because they thrust in an explanation at the ending like he was picked on or something and just ruins the mystery.

Larry: For example look at the Halloween remakes. The first Halloween he is just a Spector, everything terrifying you could imagine and then in the remakes from Rob Zombie, they introduce a psychological profile as I understand it, because I haven’t seen it, but sort of diminishes the sense of menace. Horror movies in a sense are about the things that you cannot control, cannot define and the things that you are afraid of, and that is what the boogey man is. The boogey man doesn’t have a backstory, he is just the thing you fear and I think it is important to celebrate that aspect of horror. Yeah there are some ways that the whole point is the origin and that is fine too like The Crazies, that’s because of an accident and the government shouldn’t be making that kind of virus and is fine for that kind of movie, but not for every movie.

Bobby: I really enjoyed the film, but not only because it was just a lot of fun, but the creature was a great throwback to old school horror. As much as I am not always a fan of sequels, I do hope we see that fish again at some point.

Larry: (laughs) I really appreciate that. Some people take the movie very literally and think the kids are just so stupid and of course there are different ways to take it, but if you just go into the film with a big heart to enjoy the monster and realize these kids are just jackass’ it’s kind of a fun ride. You know I just saw a movie not long ago at a hotel and it was similar to Beneath about a creature in the water and everybody was good in it and it was going along swimmingly and then they added the creature and it was just freakin CGI and looked glued on top. Let’s be honest, if you don’t have a budget the CGI looks almost like a video game. I still liked the movie enough, but you can see the dilemma. I prefer to have a rubber looking fish that is really in the water than the CGI.

Bobby: Speaking of other movies, was there a purposeful nod that you added for Shark Night 3D?

Larry: (laughs) That was actually my line and the executives didn’t want it because they thought it was weird to reference another movie, but I thought it was hilarious. Honestly that is a dreadful movie and anyone that wants to criticize my film needs to go watch that again because it is just aggravating. Long before JAWS when I was little I loved sharks and read all about them and I can tell you one thing they do not live in fresh water. It was so absurd.

Bobby: I have seen that movie and came to somewhat enjoy it because it was so ridiculous and pissed me off that made it fun.

Larry: (laughs) And these are the mixed emotions of horror and that has always been some of its charm. Until recently when Hollywood finally figured out they could make money on them, it really was a bastard genre all the way through the 70s and 80s and when Halloween came out they realized they could actually make money on these movies and now are remakes and all of this crap. With CGI they can do more and make them a lot easier making it more mainstream, but in the end horror is still a bastard genre.

Bobby: Well here the line is almost like that movie in that at first it didn’t even make sense, because I didn’t remember anything about that movie, but it actually fit perfectly.

Larry: It’s also just a character trait for that character to be so authoritarian about something so preposterously silly that there is a true film geek speaking with tremendous authority on B movies, so I thought it was fun.

Bobby: Speaking of that character, this character gave you a chance to mix film styles using some of the found footage and traditional film styles, how hard was that to integrate together?

Larry: This was all in the script that he would have that little camera. I was grateful to have that little element and I have always mixed formats since the 80s when I was doing more arty stuff. For me it was very natural, the whole point of movies is that they are from a point of view so to be able build that into the story I love when a format reminds you of that. Every one of those kids is acting selfish and that is one of the themes of the movie and it sort of manifest having that format and actually becomes a plot point the fact that the old man can see want went on on the boat by watching is a reason to condemn the final character.

Bobby: I really enjoyed the film and hope to see more of the killer fish in action. I really appreciate you taking the time to do this.

Larry: Well thank you for enjoying it, you aren’t necessarily in the majority so it’s fun to hear your enthusiasm.

Bobby: Well, I plan to force it on as many people as I can find.

Larry: Awesome, thanks man.

Be sure to check out Beneath now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

For more information head over to www.shoutfactory.com