It was already quite intimidating to talk to the legendary Larry Fessenden, whose talent for acutely capturing true evil on screen in directorial efforts such as “Habit,” “Wendigo” and “The Last Winter” has been equaled if not exceeded by the benevolence he’s shown to up-and-coming filmmakers through his production company Glass Eye Pix, introducing the world to the likes of Ti West and Jenn Wexler. So it was both terrifying – and disarming – when the horror director who has never trafficked in cheap thrills couldn’t leave a compliment about his latest film well enough alone after the usual introductory pleasantries were exchanged.
“But why did you like it? I’m going to interview you, buddy,” Fessenden pressed me, with a hearty laugh and a genuine curiosity.
It would hardly be the first time the filmmaker turned the tables on his audience, particularly when it comes to “Depraved,” a fiendishly clever update on Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” set in present-day Brooklyn where a young man named Alex (Owen Campbell) has just moved in with his girlfriend Lucy (Chloe Levine), which is about as much of a commitment as he’s ready to make at this point in his life. However, any further decisions about his future are all but taken away from him when he’s attacked and abducted, waking up in the care of Henry (David Call), an army vet whose medical training was previously put to use in Fallujah and offers his services now to the shadowy head of a prescription drug manufacturer Polidori (Joshua Leonard). Rechristened Adam (and taking the form of Alex Breaux in a brilliant turn), the man once known as Alex bears the scars of a monster and the intellect of a child, relying on Henry’s guidance to bring him back up to speed, though pangs of past memories of his past life continue to pierce his cerebellum, giving him a faculty for critical thought that Pollidori would like nothing more than to erase, as the drug kingpin would also like to do with Henry, who still struggles with PTSD.
Even with heady ideas about free will in a time when prescription pain meds can dictate the lives of so many – and if ineffective, simply how controlling the past can be that necessitated them in the first place – “Depraved” is first and foremost a visceral experience, slipping effortlessly into Adam’s skin when he himself isn’t comfortable inside of it and bringing you into his mind where the exhilarating feeling of every sensation that is new to him is passed along to the viewer. At once, it is the no-nonsense, immaculately crafted work of a skilled veteran who trusts himself enough to constantly shift perspective between a number of characters who wonder what they’ve wrought without ever losing the audience while experimenting with the same bleeding edge ideas regarding storytelling and technique that have made all of Fessenden’s films such as “Habit,” “Wendigo” and “The Last Winter” jaw dropping in both the shocks they have and how they’re executed.
Fittingly, the writer/director decided to premiere “Depraved” at the What the Fest!? Festival in New York this week where such audacity is appreciated, and just before making the film’s triumphant bow, Fessenden spoke about the real cerebral science that inspired the film, his determination to make it even when he couldn’t find proper financing and making the most out of a limited budget and small crew.
I was really intrigued to hear you cite Jill Bolte Taylor’s “My Stroke of Insight “ and the work of neurologist Oliver Sacks as inspiration. How did brain science spark what “Depraved” could be?
You’re presented with this premise of a brain going into another body, at least that was how it was presented in the 1931 film by James Whale and they’ve been using that trope ever since, so you already are talking about identity and how the mind has such a huge influence on who you are. I was reminded of Oliver Sacks, who’s amazing because via a single brain injury, you can have an entirely alternative reality. Perhaps you don’t remember something that happened one minute ago or you think your wife is a hat and so on, and with “My Stroke of Insight,” it’s ironically a brain doctor who has a stroke and part of her brain dies and she has to relearn everything, so I thought wouldn’t that be fascinating to really go through the steps that it would take if you did transplant a brain into a dead body to bring it to life. You would have to teach the monster how to think and it would be like raising a child. You’d start with simple games and you’d keep going. So I love the idea that it’s based on something quite real and tactile and also draws attention to the truth that the brain is the center of who we are. Our memories are triggered by neurons and that’s how we have a sense of a life. All those things seemed really interesting to me and they’re right there in the basic story.
Was the idea of PTSD and prescription pain medications foundational as well?
Absolutely foundational. I wanted to think about what kind of person would be motivated to make a monster in the tradition of the story, but how would that happen in real life? And I thought about these soldiers who really are extremely capable and motivated to help their comrades in the field. In this one book I read, the guy had created these mobile triage devices that I had [David Call’s character] Henry do in the story, where you’d actually bring the hospital to the wounded vet and save them. I imagined that’s the kind of guy who would put this all together and he might even have some equipment in a box that he had out in the field, but then I thought, “But rather than have the doctor just be this maniac, why don’t I have someone influencing him, just the way in real life there’s always a corporation lurking behind our greatest inventions.” And they’re either a good corporation or perhaps evil, so then I came up with the Pollidori character [played by Joshua Leonard], which of course is the name of a fellow in the house when Mary Shelley wrote her book. And it’s funny, in all my movies, I have the good guy and the bad guy and I try to blur their motivations, so you can’t always say for sure. It’s like the environmentalist and the capitalist in “The Last Winter,” so [in “Depraved”] I have the really smart surgeon and maybe his opportunist friend who wants to make money out of the pharmaceutical industry to impress his father-in-law and they’re father figures themselves [to Adam]. [laughs]
I wanted to bring in “Habit” too because there’s kineticism to the camera work and how it relates to the characters – is that exciting to do with the tools you have now?
Always. I love the language of cinema and the way that every camera angle, every lens, every color and every sound design all contribute to the audience’s experience. You’re basically trying to manipulate the audience in a way that you’re using this language to tell your story and to draw their attention to things they might not have otherwise been thinking about, and it’s funny because I’ve heard people say I don’t have a style, but I think I have a very distinct approach. Maybe I don’t use signature camera moves, but the agenda is to connect the audience both to the psychology, which is an internal thing and then also to craft something that has almost an objective reality. I’m always working with the balance between those two.
How did you figure out what the brain activity would look like?
I worked with an artist named James Siewert, who was also one of my [cinematographers]. I made this movie with as few people as possible because I never did raise the money, but I’m lucky that these are all artisans working at Glass Eye Pix for some years. So I would give [James] examples I would see on the internet that struck me and we had different layers. There was one that represented the distant brain, almost the atmosphere of the brain, and then we had neurons very literally that looked like an ad on TV, but we built them ourselves. I wanted to keep insisting that in life, it’s a very subjective experience and what’s really happening is our brain is being stimulated by memories or music or smells or violent input or mean comments and all these things are imprinting. Why is that an important thing to point out? Maybe just to say that we’re physical creatures dealing with this [universal] experience and maybe if we acknowledged that to each other, we could lighten up a little. I think people forget certain fundamental truths, so I think in my filmmaking, I’m always trying to bring that up and say, “Everyone, just chill out. Just check it out. We’re alive. We’re having all this stimulation.” And it’s like “Can’t we just all get along?” [laughs] And of course, we can’t.
I was struck immediately with the color palette and wondered how you struck a balance between those vibrant colors and the darkness.
Well, I built this wall [as part of the set] that was going to be in this loft and my first thing is to say I built my wall before Trump built his. [laughs] We built this fake brick wall and we had the lights behind it, so it was like a Hitchcock movie where you go to set and tell them, “I want it to be four in the afternoon,” and they put the golden light coming in and dust particles. It was great fun, and very much what I wanted to do [because] look, it’s Frankenstein, so you have to have a little bit of an artificial set vibe. And then I wanted to populate it with all the things of the world so that the whole movie is as if we’re basking in the glow of western civilization, so there’s just crap everywhere. That’s the burden that we all have – memories of every war and every bad decision just stuffed in a room. Then we had cooler colors for the laboratory, being cold [with] blue and silver. I’m schematic in my approach and [for] everything to make sense. You’re creating a world – and I do it with the sound as well where things repeat – and it takes the audience to a certain place for two hours that they live in and it has a psychological effect on the viewer that’s beyond the specifics of the story.
Was it always obvious to cast two actors to play Adam?
I wanted a specific type to play the monster himself. It’s funny when [Alex Breaux] first read the script, he thought he would also play the kid in the beginning of the movie [which is played by Owen Campbell] and I said, “No, the whole point is you’re going to look completely different and that’s what’s bewildering.” And only through the language of cinema when he looks in the mirror, when his eyes open to we understand it’s his brain, but not his body, so those are fun things to play with in a “Frankenstein” story. And I had a great experience with Alex. He was wonderful to work with very committed.
How long did he have to be in makeup to pull that off?
When we did nude scenes, it’d be three or four hours – every scar, everything down his leg, on his butt, all of that. So we had a chart and we’d try to get all the nude stuff out of the way [early in the shoot] because then eventually, he’d just have a couple of dollops on his face. His ear, of course, was complicated and that was a beautiful job by Brian Spears and Peter Gerner, putting that makeup together. But at its worst, it was four hours of makeup and on an indie film, that’s brutal because you still have to honor the actor’s schedule and he still had two hours to take it off, so you get a lot less time to shoot. Luckily, there’s only a couple scenes where that was the case and later on, he looked quite normal.
And I understand this was almost all shot a single location, which you’d never guess. Was it difficult to find a place that could accommodate all the different looks you wind up getting in this film?
Well, it was amazing. It was literally just an office space in an unused second floor of an equipment house, and the guy who started it had worked on my film “Wendigo” — that was his first movie — and he’s grown up to run a huge company called Eastern FX. This was an old loft they had right next to their shop and there isn’t even an elevator, so everything you see in the movie, we had to carry up the stairs and that’s why we could get it so cheap – including the windows and the wall. Once I committed to do it — and I did ask my crew, are you willing to do this without an elevator? and everyone was game — that’s how we did it.
There’s all sorts of nods to Glass Eye Pix’s illustrious history in the film, most evident in the cast and crew that worked on it. Is it nice to have all that under one roof?
Of course, and my producers Jenn Wexler and Chadd Harbold, these are all folks who worked tirelessly on a lot of our movies. The bottom line is that I started out with this film with a very big head, thinking that all the world would want to throw money at the project and I’d get the best actors in America, but it didn’t work out. Then I ended up making it the way I make all my films [as a producer] with a first-time director. I say it’s important to start small and to be modest so that you can build your career slowly, and I felt at a certain point I had to take my own medicine and make the film for very little money. Luckily I have a great team of people who are willing to work that way, and so we made the film with a tiny crew – just one G & E, which means the gaffer and the lighting person. But I fed them well and we had fun.