An Interview with Larry Fessenden

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Larry Fessenden

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.

Larry Fessenden’s Wendigo is now available on special edition DVD from Artisan Entertainment.


Links

Glass Eye Pix
Fessenden’s movie production company.

Low Impact Filmmaking
Fessenden’s book about making movie in an ecologically and animal-friendly way.

ADDmovies.com reviews of Fessenden’s films

An Interview with Nava Atlas

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An artist by training, a cookbook author by happenstance, Nava Atlas has become one of the more unlikely successes in vegetarian cooking. Because of her initial training as an artist, Nava has released some of the more unique vegetarian cookbooks on the market, including Vegetariana, her labor of love that features not only healthy and hearty recipes, but also a nice dose of history and quotes related to vegetarianism as well as a bookful of original illustrations done by the author herself.

Nava’s cookbooks aren’t all for the eye, though. Her focuses range from regional American cooking (Great American Vegetarian) to holiday cooking (Vegetarian Celebrations) to simple, quick dishes (the new Vegetarian 5-Ingredient Gourmet and Vegetarian Express) to soup-by-the-season (Vegetarian Soups for All Seasons). She’s received positive reviews from Shape magazine, the Burlington Free Press, and the New York Daily News, and rightfully so: her recipes provide great taste and texture in a healthy fashion that’s accessible to the amateur home cook.

When did you become vegetarian and for what reasons? Why type of vegetarian are you now (and did it come in stages?)?

I’ve been a vegetarian for nearly 30 years, though for about 5 or 6 of those, I occasionally ate fish, so my sons don’t think those “count.” I became a vegetarian primarily because meat just viscerally made me uncomfortable. All the other reasons came later. My two sons, ages 12 and 10, are already lifelong vegetarians. I can officially call myself a lacto vegetarian now. I gave up eggs not long ago. But I only use organic dairy products.

What are the differences and similarities in the vegetarian movement when you stopped eating meat versus today?

I became a vegetarian 30 years ago or so. It was still considered quite an oddity and novelty. It provoked a lot more questions, and though many people are still confused about what vegetarians eat, for the most part, people accept it as an alternative. Today there are more vegans, and there is greater availability of vegetarian proteins such as tofu, tempeh, and the various soy-based meat alternatives. Vegetarian cookbooks in the 60s (the few that there were) were the “sprouts and brown rice” variety, as were vegetarian restaurant menus.

In the early 70s, people like Mollie Katzen (Moosewood Cookbook) and Anna Thomas (The Vegetarian Epicure) made vegetarian meals very luscious and rich; perhaps more so than we do today, but it put across the point that vegetarian cuisine could be delicious and not look like a plateful of brown glop. From there, things gradually evolved to where they are today.

Today, I think the strongest movements are veganism, due to ethical concerns, and far more kids and teens are also deciding to become vegetarians on their own, again, mainly for ethical reasons, and from the e-mail I get from them (or their concerned parents), they don’t really know much about how to make the transition; the desire to do so is greater than the means to implement it.

What are the main obstacles for vegetarians today?

I honestly don’t think there are any! There are so many resources, books, web sites, and foods, that it’s more a matter of holding to one’s convictions than anything else.

What kind of issues have your children faced as life-long vegetarians? Have they ever come home and shown any doubt in their vegetarian lifestyle?

Luckily their path has been easy. They go to a progressive school whose lunch program is primarily vegetarian (though they still want Mom to pack their lunch every day). If anything, they are getting ever more militant, at ages 10 and 12. They curse fast-food commercials, and are even concerned that most of their food is organic. We’ve become more aware of the issues surrounding agribusiness, so as a family we have become more strict about limiting non-organic produce, etc. The boys still like milk and eggs but we always use organic versions.

Wow — concerns about organic foods at ages 10 and 12. That’s impressive. Have other parents in your community been supportive of your decision to raise your children vegetarian, or do you still encounter the stereotypical, “Are they getting enough protein?”-type response?

The Hudson Valley is a rural/progressive region and there is a lot of sophistication about food. So luckily, no, I don’t get that tired old protein question. What I get more of is people I know calling and telling me that their child wants to be a vegetarian, and asking how to create a more balanced diet for them.

What prompted you to write your first book?

I never intended to become known as a cookbook author! My background is in illustration, fine art, and graphic design. From the time I started to cook for myself, though, I always enjoyed it. Soon after I married, my husband, who gave up meat as soon as we became an item, urged me to write down the recipes for the meals I made for us. As a non-cook himself, he was amazed at my improvisations as well as my attempts to re-create the dishes we had in NYC’s ethnic restaurants.

After a couple of years, I found myself with a slew of recipes and thought it would be fun to try to combine them somehow with my illustration and design skills. The result was my first book, Vegetariana: A Rich harvest of Wit, Lore, and Recipes. It’s really an offbeat cookbook and still my favorite. It was published in 1984 (revised in 1993) and is still available.

With The 5-Ingredient Vegetarian Gourmet, was your target audience recent vegetarian converts or long-time vegetarians looking for a good collection of easier-to-prepare meals?

I actually think this book’s audience might be primarily non-vegetarians or those looking to add more vegetarian meals to their repertoire. A lot of people who I hear from who have bought this book are not necessarily vegetarians. Though one of my former editors said he thought it was wonderful for his lazy/busy vegetarian family. Experienced vegetarians may enjoy the simple approach, though there may be no great revelations for them. Maybe the core audience for this book would be busy people for who healthy meals would otherwise be daunting. I also think it’s good for families with kids, as I have observed that kids are more likely to eat things that are simply prepared.

What do you feel separates your books from, say, Moosewood books or VRG books?

Moosewood’s books, VRG’s books, Mollie Katzen’s books, etc. etc, are all excellent. It’s amazing and delightful that there are so many choices. My earlier books distinguished themselves through my use of my own illustrations and food-related quotations and anecdotes. I think that’s how I made my reputation. In V5IG my illustrations are very simple (like the recipes) and the design, which was done by the publisher, is appropriately minimalist.

After this, I’m working on some new books that are not cookbooks, and which go back to using my original, lush style of illustration, which I stopped doing for some years after my little vegetarians were born.

What types of books will these be?

These will be a fairly wide range of books, once I get the momentum. Most will be women’s interest-type books?gently humorous and inspirational?I hope! A few years ago, I wrote a parody of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” called “Expect the Unexpected When You’re Expecting!” It was published by HarperCollins, though under a pseudonym based on the original authors’ names. It was a fun experience, though I must admit the book didn’t take hold like my cookbooks seem to.

What do you see in vegetarianism’s future?

Quite honestly, I am surprised that there is not a stronger movement toward full-fledged vegetarianism. The numbers have been pretty flat for many years. It surprises me since there is so much more known now about the evils of fast food, the horrendous practices of the meat industry, the proliferation of food-borne illness such as e coli and salmonella, etc. It’s quite an uphill battle, as I see it.

I think it’s only a matter of time before there is a documented case of Mad Cow disease in this country. Unfortunately, and I hate to say it, but it may take such a calamity to make the mainstream rethink their eating habits.

There is certainly more acceptance of vegetarianism, and vegetarian meals are definitely seen as more appealing than ever before. Maybe the future of vegetarianism lies with the current generation of kids and teens who tie their eating habits with ethical and environmental beliefs.

Media events like World Vegetarian Day (Oct. 1) and Great American Meatout (First day of each spring) will continue to create awareness. And I hear a rumor that Oct. 1 to Oct. 7 is now Say No to Fast Food Week. How cool!


Links

In a Vegetarian Kitchen
Nava Atlas’ site, which features a nice selection of recipes and general vegetarian info.

Nava Atlas’ books
Amazon’s listing of Nava Atlas’ books.

Vegetarian Kitchen Newsletter
Subscribe to Nava’s e-mail list.