“Literally Filmed Within Two Miles of My House”: Larry Fessenden on Blackout, Streaming and His Role in Killers of the Flower Moon
Reviewing a boxset of writer-director Larry Fessenden’s work in 2015 for Filmmaker, I began by noting that “Fessenden can frequently be found on the outskirts of the New York filmmaking community, using his production company Glass Eye Pix as an outlet of support for fellow filmmakers.” While my summation of the celebrated horror auteur’s altruism remains accurate (the company turns 40 in 2026), Fessenden’s own films have grown tougher to get off the ground. A new film by him is therefore a major event, albeit one that happens quietly.
Having made its world premiere at the 27th Fantasia International Film Festival this summer (and having screened earlier this week at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival), Blackout is Fessenden’s “werewolf movie,” at least in the sense that it’s a movie that features a character (played by Alex Hurt) who turns into a werewolf when the moon gets full. But like many of the director’s scripts, it’s a movie about societal issues, presented not in a blunt metaphorical manner but in conversation with its more genre-heavy narrative skeleton. The impending threat of greedy politicians who bypass city regulations to build resorts by preying on voters’ xenophobic fear of “the Other” is just as prominent in Blackout as bloody werewolf attacks, and it’s always disorienting to be confronted with long, granular dialogue sequences in a Fessenden horror movie, conversations that don’t merely exist to space out the gore.
A few days after Blackout screened publicly for the first time, I caught up with Fessenden over Zoom, the director having recently returned from Montréal to his home in upstate New York. Below we discuss the leanness with which the film was made, some “Big Picture questions” about the dire future of the film industry and Martin Scorsese’s highly anticipated Killers of the Flower Moon, releasing in theaters this week via Apple Original Films.
Filmmaker: I read in the press notes that there were many different entry points for initiating work on Blackout, but I was curious if the form it took as a radio play in 2019 eventually lead to you adapting the idea into a feature. Was it an easy transition, adapting the material from your radio play into something much longer and visual?
Fessenden: It’s funny you bring that up because when you write your press notes, you jump around and try to find something genuine and authentic to include, but the truth is that I had pitched this [film] as a segment of V/H/S [the popular horror anthology film franchise], if you can believe it. I don’t know when that was, but the section that turned into the radio play was this one seqeunce that’s carried into Blackout, which is where the guy turns into a werewolf while he’s doing something you definitely shouldn’t be doing when you’re a werewolf. It was just an old idea I had, and it seemed like a great one for the V/H/S episode, which is to say, good for 10 or 12 minutes. But then with our radio series, Tales from Beyond the Pale, you have to write a script and I thought there’d be something wonderfully perverse about doing a werewolf movie as an audio play. A lot of my audio plays are [in the form of] monster movies, because then I can afford them [laughs]. That’s why this werewolf idea of mine has been kicking around a long time. I’ve also said in the press that I’ve always wanted to do a werewolf story that evoked Werewolf By Night, which was this comic book I loved as a kid. I even pitched it to Miramax in the ’90s. So, this has been, like many things, a long time coming.
I’m already eager to revisit this werewolf story again. I feel like [with this film] I’ve told the sympathetic side, where the character is suffering from a curse and and we see [how he] deals with it. But I’d find it interesting to continue to contemplate [the question] if you decided “I’m going to be a werewolf.” Your attitude might change [with it]. People become perverse, right? In other words, the journey isn’t always to redemption—unfortunately, some of us journey to the dark side. There’s a lot of potential there, and it all comes down to storytelling and musing on characters that continue to be stuck in your craw.
Filmmaker: You’ve spoken about working with your son [Jack Fessenden], who is also a film director, and in that context it was interesting seeing Alex Hurt [son of the late William Hurt] cast as the lead in Blackout, primarily due to the father/son relationship at the center of the film, as well as the real Hurt family photos you feature. I was curious about the connections between fathers and sons in your work, in following in your father’s footsteps (or in his shadow) which is a theme that is [explictly stated] in Blackout. Are you making those real life connections at the outset [of production]? Maybe, maybe not?
Fessenden: Maybe, maybe not, but while I’m interested in the patriarchy and the assumptions that have built Western society, capitalism and all that heady stuff, it also comes down to very personal matters of your influence over your kid, of a father-son relationship that can be very damaged, in some cases. In other words, I think there has to be a source to someone having a rotten personality. It could be the resentments they hold from growing up or the perversions the parent figure has passed down onto them. I always like to make the correlation between the private and the societal because I’m interested in that context. I love monsters and monster stories, but there’s also a real world application to those stories just as any good mythology has truisms in them. I think it often comes off in the press as me being some sort of pretentious person or that I’m trying to tell people to be aware of things like global warming, etc. All of that is true, but the real reason I make these stories is because I take them very personally. I think personal responsibility is part of the agenda, yes, and I think it’s fun to try to contextualize old tropes.
Filmmaker: Had you worked with Alex Hurt before?
Fessenden: Well, the other correlation is between my son, Jack, and Alex. Alex was discovered, in my opinion, by Jack for for a film he was making called Foxhole (2021), which we filmed a couple of summers ago. Jack has very good taste and I liked that he chose Alex to be in it. I mean, of course you’re aware that Alex is the son of a famous actor, but that’s not why you cast someone. He just had a great quality about him. When I met Alex (while I was producing Jack’s film), Alex revealed that he loved old monster movies, that they were why he decided to become an actor in the first place. He then revealed that he had had a volatile relationship with his dad, and it just triggered something in my mind. That’s something very much a part of the original Wolf Man story, the [contentious] father-son relationship. Claude Rains’s character [Sir John Talbot] in the 1941 movie is very disapproving of his son and the [narrative] really does come down to, “I got problems, pop.” Each of these dynamics are heartbreaking and, I thought, worth mining further.
Filmmaker: You’ve spoken very candidly about returning to private investors whom you’ve gone to several times in the past to seek funding for your next film. When you’re coming up with a concept for what might be your next production, are you trying to pare it down to such a limited budget with strict time constraints so that you’ll be able to obtain the bare minimum of what you need to get greenlit?
Fessenden: Yes and no. The irony is that as I ran Glass Eye Pix over the decades, I always encouraged filmmakers to come up with any idea that we’d then we’d figure out how to make at a particular budget. It’s not that I said, “We’re going to raise a lot of money for your sci-fi movie.” No, I said, “We’re going to figure out how to make your sci-fi movie at our budget level,” which is always very contained. No matter how much money I would ever have, I’m a thrifty person who enjoys the limitations. I’m also very impatient, and one of the reasons I made Blackout at the price point that I did was because I couldn’t really figure out how to get more money. I had sent the script around for about a year, and I was getting the familiar response of “Well, our financing isn’t set up for another six months,” and I just had flashbacks of raising the money for my Frankenstein movie, Depraved (2019). It took nine years [to get going], and I had amazing people working with me. I had Steve Buscemi’s company, I had agents and managers, I had everybody fighting for me, but it just wasn’t happening. I had a Game of Thrones actor [attached] and all of these silly things, but it didn’t lead to anything. Here I am, running out of time and getting old, and then finally an opportunity came along, one chunk of change, then I went out to another guy and sort of gap-filled it.
What was great for Blackout was that the tax incentive for Depraved actually kicked in [three years after Depraved was released] and that was magical, at least in the sense that I felt like this is how I could finally make [Blackout]. But also, without outing people, I didn’t pay for a lot of stuff [on this film]. I paid my crew and I paid [my cast] their SAG wages, but I didn’t really pay for any of the cars or locations. It was a matter of, “Let’s do this instead.” I had to pay the werewolf guys, as those guys are now in the union, but we just kept it very thrifty and everybody knew that was our agenda.
Filmmaker: When you say “werewolf guys,” are you referring to stuntmen? People who worked in the hair and makeup department?
Fessenden: The makeup team, Brian Spears and Peter Gerner, whom I’ve worked with forever. Whenever they get a call from me, they’re like, “Oh God, here we go…” But I think they also enjoy the control they have [on my films]. They were given a lot of control over the image of the monster and we worked together very closely. Hopefully everyone is like, “Alright, well, we’ll give Larry three weeks…”
Filmmaker: Did you choose to film upstate (near Woodstock) by virtue of your familiarity and proximity to some of the locations? Do you find yourself clocking potential filming locations as you go about your day?
Fessenden: You’re being too gentle. I literally filmed within two miles of my house. It was so insane that I would think, “OK, I got the main locations at the hardware store and the local farm stand, but those were secured through six months of handshakes, and now six months later we are really going to show up with a crew. Do they realize that? We really are going to show up.” They were like “Sure, sure. I doubt it, but sure,” and then you really do show up six months later [ready to shoot]. There were so many scenes that were like, “the character walks down a road,” etc., and I’m like, “God, I didn’t really think about this at all,” so then I’d have to go out and just steal [locations] while always being very respectful of the community. I know the one person [in town] who has ducks in their front yard, so I asked, “We’re going to be parked here for four hours, would that be okay?” Keep in mind that a lot of those [locations] in the film, we had filmed other movies there as well. It’s a very local affair, but you can only do that if your team is also light on their feet and they know i.e, “no, we can’t park four more cars here.” It’s amazing how film crews can balloon [in size], where suddenly even the sound guy has his own car and you’re parking up to seven cars on a small country road. It’s so intrusive, and I’m very modest about all of that. I know it can be very aggravating [for the locals], so I try to keep things small. It’s not just because of budgetary [concerns]. Herzog used to make films that way and it’s that old tradition I’m responding to. I didn’t come up with this myself.
I find film production to be a little wacky, and it’s hard to be truly independent because very quickly you realize, “Oh shoot, the SAG rule states that every actor has to have a green room [and have places to stay],” so then you build little tents and do all sorts of fake things. We worked with different Airbnbs and had people rotating through them and would put the actors [in them for a few days]. I didn’t have an assistant director [on this film], but they’re usually the people who are actually running the set. I’m just too cheap! I thought, “That’s a whole other salary to [take care of] and I kind of know this already and I’d just be telling them as much as I already know, so why don’t I [do it myself]?” I’d tell the hardware store [that’s used as a filming location] that if we get there at two o’clock, we’d need to be out by five, and you know what, I ended up feeling like I was probably the best person to make that clear. I’d just tell my DP, “Dude, we can’t do another shot.” I’m the director who is working against their own interests, because I’m also producing these films and know that I’ve got to get in and out. That [approach] also feeds into an aesthetic I have of, “Let’s show up and see if we can capture lightning in a bottle.” It’s an aesthetic and everybody knows that, as I make sure to prep everyone beforehand. It’s not like I’m being unreasonable. It’s the whole conceit—you don’t sign up for my movies without that.
Filmmaker: Speaking of the look of your werewolf, I know this ties into the character’s occupation of being a painter/artist, but when Charley is describing the effects of a silver bullet late in the film, we cut to this sequence that displays a shot of the actor overlaid with what appears to be hand-drawn animation or a kind of rotoscoping effect. We then cut to freeze-frames where the werewolf’s head is rapidly moving and it becomes, through his quick, vioilent head turns, a frightening blurry image. This is all just my long-winded way of wanting to ask if the character’s painterly characteristics were established at the start of your writing process and if you saw them seeping into the look of the film as well.
Fessenden: I appreciate you saying that, but I have a secret, which is that I’m not finished with the movie. I’m going to continue to massage that sequence out, but everything you mentioned is what I want audiences to take away. A lot of people say that I’m biting off more that I can chew, but no, I’m just trying to make connections between a lot of different things. One idea is that of an artist who is already an outsider in their community. Even as a filmmaker, one can feel that way, and that’s fine as that’s your burden if you’re gifted or are essentially trying to understand the existential reality of life that maybe a Starbucks barista isn’t (having said that, many of them probably are artists too). The point is that if you think differently about the world, to the point that you want to really express yourself, then you’re connecting to some other aspects of daily life. I like to believe you’re already halfway to being a werewolf [laughs]. You’re already out there responding [to] nature and, in the case of this film, it’s a rural story. All of this is connected.
The whole idea of the blur, which I appreciate you noticing, is that, first of all, picture a Francis Bacon painting, which is blurred and very psychological. When you take a look, Bacon is expressing something about horror and split personalities, the transition itself being the reality. As I thought about that, I thought how if you freeze a frame of a film in which action [is rapidly occurring], it looks blurry. My including that is then part of an interlocking conceit, as I like to build movies with imagery that interrelates to itself.
We also have the preacher [in the film] saying that “a house divided cannot stand,” and on one hand, a viewer can say, “well, this is yet another preachy movie from Fessenden,” but I say no. The whole point is that if you’re a werewolf at night and a person during the day, you yourself are dividing and your psyche is going to split. That’s what’s happening in our nation too. We don’t have a common language anymore, and therefore all of this is detrimental. I’m trying to connect these [points], not lecture people by squeezing it into a werewolf movie. I’m saying, it’s an insanity that we’re all enduring.
You see, our [lead] character isn’t saying, “Look at those other people.” He’s going, “This is hopeless. How are we ever going to get out of this?” Part of the question of the movie is, is it even worth going on [in life]? I mean, some of this stuff seems insurmountable. He’s doing it as an act of conscience presumably, but he can’t figure it out. It’s the whole Buddhist thing, where you say you’re a vegetarian and [then] someone says you can’t eat vegetables. Well yeah, the reality is that you should kill yourself! You want to do good in the world, but it’s absurd. I don’t know. I’m also playing with death and suicide [in the film], which is a very delicate topic.
Filmmaker: That feeling of despair made me think back to the films of Paul Schrader and something like First Reformed, where the character essentially has to ask “What is the only act I can take? Either engage in terrorism or I end myself.” It’s horrible that it comes to either of those two options, but that’s a film where despair seeps in in a very similar way.
Fessenden: I love that you mentioned First Reformed. I mean, it was hardly an influence, but those are some of the movies that we cherish now. Schrader is having a great run (he’s addressing all of this stuff) and when I grew up, that’s what movies were. That’s what Schrader and Martin Scorsese were dealing with, “God’s lonely man.” Look at Taxi Driver—that guy’s a maniac and yet he’s perceived as a hero. These are very slippery thematic movies, yet because there’s violence in them, they become iconic, and yet it’s their artistry that is profound. I grew up thinking that movies were about existential questions, you know? I don’t know what movies are about now, but that’s what I’m still doing and that’s what interests me.
Filmmaker: Speaking of Scorsese, you’re briefly featured in Killers of the Flower Moon, is that correct?
Fessenden: I am, yeah. It’s really exciting.
Filmmaker: Didn’t you also have a small role in Bringing Out the Dead?
Fessenden: Yeah, I did.
Filmmaker: What was the experience like on Killers of the Flower Moon?
Fessenden: It was a seminal and wonderful experience. I wanted to be so respectful of Scorsese’s demeanor on set. He’s so inclusive and speaks to you and all of the other people. I mean, we were only in a small part of the film (shot after the [inital] Oklahoma shoot) and it was only about five days of us showing up. Sometimes Scorsese might not be there, because he was rehearsing and preparing [another scene], but then he would arrive and be so present and generous in knowing who each of us was. When I say “each of us,” the other guy was [lead singer of the White Stripes] Jack White. Of course, Jack has his reputation and he and Scorsese had previously worked together on Shine A Light, the Rolling Stones film [about the band’s 2006 performances at the Beacon Theatre in New York]. Marty loves musicians and was having a blast on the Killers set with Jack there. And then I was there, and Marty knows that I’m a filmmaker and knows [my work] with Kelly Reichardt’s films and Ti West’s films, and that I’ve been involved in those guys’ careers for a long time. Marty is a cinephile and then he’s also the greatest living director we have. On set, we got to see that and got to see his process, which is very generous and inclusive and light. I mean, you know there’s a seriousness [to the material] and you’re expected to do your work well, but it’s always a conversation of how to get it better.
Filmmaker: Your previous feature, Depraved, was released by IFC Midnight, a distribution label that is a part of the very large AMC Networks family that also oversees Shudder [a popular streaming platform for horror movies]. I was curious about your views on the proliferation of streaming services, especially as we’re at a very contentious time regarding their [marketplace] dominance.
Fessenden: Eerybody who knows me knows I bitch and moan about [how] I dislike streaming and how I don’t like not knowing how our movies do. When we distributed Ti West’s film, The House of the Devil, it was the first real streaming thing, and we never found out how well we did. We were always wondering and thought “Well, that’s weird.” I mean, we got residuals, but it’s really through the good graces of MPI Media Group, which is a Chicago-based mom-and-pop company that we work with a great deal, that we get sent a check every month for some of our movies and accounting for some of the others. This is the way to do show business.
The idea of streaming, of algorithms and secrets, is just so cancerous, and it’s capitalism run amuck. I cannot disparage it enough. I really dislike what it’s done to [the industry]. I also have aesthetic issues with the death of cinema itself and, of course, COVID didn’t help matters, but I like a standalone movie. Even if I make a series of movies that are related, that’s all very charming, but I don’t really like TV shows. Mind you, if I was doing one, I’d like it [laughs] and every form is worth exploring, but I just feel like there’s too much going on and I don’t trust why they’re making all of this stuff.
I don’t know if I answered your question, but it’s just a shitshow. Yes, we should be striking, because it’s all capitalism and we don’t know how to get a handle on it. Every industry is like this! Everybody’s getting screwed, and it’s ridiculous. You can’t run a society without a middle class, or at least you can’t have pride in America without the middle class. I wish there were more spaces [to make this kind of work]. I feel like there used to be. I mean, post-production is still a good place [to find work], although even foley artists are now being replaced by electronic [equipment]. A foley artist is the person who creates things like the [sound of] footsteps and it’s one of the great art forms of all fucking time! Their work is essential, especially for horror films where atmosphere is so important, but now you have to outsource those sounds from Latvia or wherever. I mean, bless those guys, I’m sure they need a job too, but down the line it’s all going to be automated. I just don’t understand why humanity is rushing towards its own demise. You should keep people busy and have pride! That’s the other thing about my films. I mean, people may talk behind my back, but at least the intention is that we’re all making art together and crafting it with our own hands. That’s still the agenda.