Despite my deep interest in horror films, especially low-budget independent and foreign horror films, somehow I hadn’t heard of writer and filmmaker Larry Fessenden until Exhumed Films showed a double-feature of No Telling and Wendigo. I was really surprised to see that No Telling was a horror film whose main topics were animal rights and organic farming—when you think of a “typical” horror film, these issues aren’t exactly the first to pop into your mind. I spoke with Fessenden briefly between movies after having spotted him looking through some Farm Sanctuary literature I had left out. Here was a humble, unassuming guy who made horror films with a message and was a strong advocate of “low-impact filmmaking.” In the months following the Exhumed Films show, I had a chance to speak with him about his view on animal rights, vegetarianism, and ecologically sound filmmaking.
Tell me a little about yourself and how you got started directing.
In high school I was primarily an actor, but I fell in love with the super 8mm camera and the way the camera was such an important part of storytelling. I had grown up watching movies on TV and had always liked horror.
How did the idea for No Telling come about?
I was interested in updating horror stories to the present day and in showing how horror themes from old movies were still relevant to current life. I was working on a vampire story when I read Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. I was very taken with her book, and continued on to read all the classic environmental and animal rights books. I shifted away from my vampire tale and decided to make a Frankenstein story dealing with vivisection and pesticides.
What was it about Silent Spring that intrigued you the most?
That she could sustain interest and suspense by these testimonials about pesticides and birds. But the book was very emotional for me, and that’s when I knew that these issues affected me on a personal and spiritual level.
What other books made an impact on you?
To name early influential books: Silent Spring (Carson), Animal Liberation (Singer), Small is Beautiful (Schoonmaker), Entropy (Rifkin), Animal Factories (Mason/Singer), The End of Nature (McKibben) etc. I have a reading list at Glasseyepix.com.
Did you go into No Telling with a strong belief in animal rights, or was it something that developed more from the actual making of the film?
By the time we actually made the film, I was well versed in all the animal rights issues. ever since I absorbed these issues, I have addressed them in all my films, however obscurely.
Can you give an example of how you addressed them in Habit and Wendigo?
In Habit, Sam says “I could be a Vegetarian, but I couldn’t commit.” It’s a throwaway comment, but it suggests something about his change. Vampire movies are naturally about devouring each other so there’s an awareness of issues there. And Sam eats raw liver as he descends into madness. Wendigo is about man and nature more overtly. In general, because of my sensibilities, my films stress different themes and details than other filmmakers. Those themes often have to do with hidden truths, degredation of the sacred, self delusion, addiction—all themes which are at play in our arrogant treatment of animals and the environment.
What type of vegetarian are you? How long have you been?
I’ve been some sort of vegetarian since 1987. I was a vegan for a year (no leather!), but ended up a lacto ovo veggie since then. For the last three years I’ve eaten fish, so I’m no vegetarian, I just refrain from eating mammals and birds.
What kind of challenges did you face when you first made the change?
My main challenge was that I loved meat of all sorts. I became vegetarian cold turkey, but I would allow myself table scraps, because food that was about to thrown out was better off enjoyed than tossed. My main agenda is not to perticipate in the economy of meat production. Anyway I remember being at a baseball game, behind the bleachers, feeding on the wasted fried chicken from a huge group picnic. Waste is a fetish of mine.
How do you see being a vegetarian now different versus when you started?
It is more accepted. In fact it is common comparatively: at work, restaurants, cover of Time Magazine—vegetarianism is out of the closet.
What reactions do people have when they find out that you, a director of horror movies, don’t eat meat?
I make horror movies because I have an acute awareness of the horrors of life. There is no more explicit an example of everyday horrors than in people’s treatment of animals, in the labs, the slaughterhouses.
You mentioned a couple stories at the Exhumed Films showings about the shooting of Habit (involving liver and a veggie burger, if Iremember correctly)… could you recount those stories?
Well one story is only that in a scene where I eat a hamburger and reject vegetarianism, I am of course eating a veggieburger. The other more distressing story is: in a climactic scene our vampire victim hero pulls out a store bought piece of liver and licks the packaging of blood. I hadn’t eaten meat for ten years, but I opened the cellophane and licked the package. If you look closely, you see me dry heave, and you see the camera jiggle because the cinematographer was laughing. One take, let me tell you.
What is “low-impact filmmaking?”
That’s a book I wrote after making No Telling. I guess I felt I still hadn’t done enough to explore the issues in the movie. The book, which was distributed independantly, gives a history of environmental concerns, and tells of the waste you can avoid on a film shoot.
If George Lucas were to read your book, how much waste do you think he’d save?
I suspect Lucas is fairly enlightened in his thinking, and my book is not that insightful, but the giants of the film industry and all influential people can affect the level of waste in a given system. Our whole American system of single-serve water bottles, over-wrapped junked foods, all is on display on a film set. The trailers and trucks run all day long, on and on. It is an enormous systemic problem that would require new thinking from the ground up. Filmmaking is just one contained part of a greater society gone haywire.
Glass Eye Pix
Fessenden’s movie production company.
Low Impact Filmmaking
Fessenden’s book about making movie in an ecologically and animal-friendly way.