In 2005 indie director Larry Fessenden was troubled by the state of the world—specifically, by our leaders’ callow response to the threat of global warming. So he did what he does best: He made a horror movie. The Last Winter, about a skeleton crew of oil-dredge workers afflicted by madness and other disturbing phenomena in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, revisits some of the tropes in Fessenden’s spooky 2001 feature Wendigo, including a fearsome, shape-shifting deer-spirit. The film was overlooked when it premiered at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, later acquired by IFC First Take (releases September 19), and recently earned enthusiastic comparisons to John Carpenter’s The Thing as well as the socially conscious art-horror of George Romero and David Cronenberg.
Macabre and disquieting, Fessenden’s films have always had an existential bent, dealing with loneliness, spiritual isolation, and psychological affliction. Anyone familiar with his decade-in-the-making horror trilogy (No Telling, Habit, Wendigo) knows he’s handcrafted a tradition of chilling films more reliant on anomie and flesh-creeping atmosphere than bodily mutilation. Winner of a 1997 “Someone to Watch” Independent Spirit Award for Habit, his melancholic, AIDS-haunted twist on urban vampirism, Fessenden likes to work in the realm of myth and lore, updating creaky old stories (Frankenstein and Algernon Blackwood tales, for instance) to reflect contemporary anxieties about everything from rogue science to romantic disillusionment. So the impulse to grapple with climate change suits him, and given the film’s subtle, harrowing mix of eco-consciousness and claustrophobic dread, The Last Winter could bring Fessenden his widest audience yet.
As the film opens, bullheaded foreman Ed Pollack (Ron Perlman) arrives at a remote base station operated by North Industries ready to begin drilling. Almost immediately, he locks horns with James Hoffman (James LeGros), an activist hired by North to do the environmental impact assessment. He’s concerned that erratic temperatures are causing the permafrost to melt, making the ice roads unusable. Pollack is undaunted. As the camp is plagued by unseen forces Hoffman begins to suspect there may be something — sour gas? enraged fossil-fuel spirits? — emanating from the warming tundra. The excellent cast is rounded out by Connie Britton and Zach Gilford (of Friday Night Lights fame), Kevin Corrigan (Superbad), Jamie Harrold, Joanne Shenandoah and Pato Hoffman.
Apart from helming psychological horror movies, Fessenden is an actor (The Brave One, Broken Flowers), producer (Ilya Chaiken’s upcoming Liberty Kid), and passionate advocate for sustainable living. In 2006, he launched a Web site dedicated to educating the public about global warming, and has even written a how-to book on carbon-neutral film production. All the more reason to take seriously the green politics of The Last Winter, a shrewdly paced thriller whose Gore-y, apocalyptic finale makes An Inconvenient Truth look downright cheery.
Filmmaker spoke with Fessenden about monsters, the politics of global warming and the pleasures of filming in Iceland.
Filmmaker: When you began work on the script in 2001, did you know this film was going to have a strong environmentalist current?
Fessenden: It was designed to be about global warming, and the setting was the controversy over drilling in ANWR [Arctic National Wildlife Refuge] and our obsession with oil. So yes, in a way, that was the context in which the characters were going to act.
Filmmaker:Did you and co-writer Robert Leaver want it to have an Arctic setting, specifically?
Fessenden: Yeah. When Fargo came out I remember being jealous and delighted by how beautiful that was as a snow film. And I liked A Simple Plan, too. So for as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with making a snow film. With Wendigo, which was filmed in upstate New York, we had good snow coverage and to most eyes it’s a successfully snowy movie. But at the end of the shoot the snow melted and disappeared. So I wanted to make a movie where it was truly cold, and that brought to mind northern Alaska. I went there when I was a kid. The way I work is these elements all come together into some kind of strange soup: I wanted to make a snow movie, I was interested in the global-warming problem and the drilling in ANWR and so on.
Filmmaker: The Last Winter seems to synthesize a lot of themes — nature’s vengeance, for instance — that you first explored in Wendigo. Was that a conscious decision?
Fessenden: My deal with Ed Pressman at ContentFilm — they took on Wendigo for distribution — was that I would have a sequel. And I wanted to show up with something if they ever followed through on their contract. Of course, they didn’t, which was fine, because I was able to have more control over the project. Initially, I thought, well, what would a sequel look like? And of course I didn’t really sequelize it in terms of the family or anything — I just took the premise and the themes and expanded on them, took them elsewhere.
Filmmaker: One of the things I admire about your work is the subtle use of special effects, especially since these are genre movies.
Fessenden: It’s something I’m always fighting in myself. When I was a kid, I was very impatient with movies like mine. I’d have been driven mad by it because I wanted to see the monster as soon as possible. But I have conflicting agendas as I make films. My producer, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, was always encouraging me to think again about the monster, to make sure not to overstate it, so it was really a process. I showed the movie at the Toronto Film Festival. It was the first time I’d seen it with an audience and with the effects finished. And I actually pared down some of the creature effects. So it’s a combination of my love for the monster and the knowledge that the less you see of it, and the more elusive it is, the more you really convey how monsters exist in our lives — which is to say, on the periphery or in our troubled imagination.
Filmmaker: At the heart of the film is the conflict between Hoffman and Pollack, which is a swatch, I guess, of a larger political discussion we’ve been having in the U.S. Pollack is blustery, brutish, and determined to do things “North’s way,” to “stay the course” regardless of the consequences. He reminded me a bit of Dubya, of that mentality, of pushing ahead regardless of what the evidence coming back at you is.
Fessenden: In 2001 I was already infuriated with Bush. More to the point is the mindset of the people who want to drill in ANWR and who want to pursue oil at the expense of alternative fuels. I wanted to show the partisan impasse, and how the premises of your mindset really determine how you try to solve problems. I have a great affection for Pollack as well, and I think that’s important. He has this gung-ho spirit that we associate with America and he gets the job done. But there’s a point at which that mindset runs its course and maybe his solutions are no longer viable in the modern world. The best leaders are able to bring people together and see their common goals.
Filmmaker: Pollock is also quite a vulnerable figure, almost childlike at times.
Fessenden: I think Perlman does such a great job showing that with sympathy and humor. But then you realize people [like Pollack] are leading our country, our expeditions, and they’re really just like kids. They aren’t able to listen, they’re stubborn, and they’re going to contradict what the advice is just for the sake of being in charge. One of my favorite scenes is when they’re discussing how they have to leave the station after the plane crash. Everything that Hoffman suggests, Pollack is opposed to, just to be the guy who came up with the solution. I feel that’s very well drawn, and you see it everywhere, even in the schoolyard. We all have a little Pollack in us.
Filmmaker: Hoffman’s journals, which we’re privy to in LeGros’s voiceover, are an important element in the film. It’s where he surmises that these weather disturbances have a supernatural cause, yet he never voices that fear to others.
Fessenden: Maxwell proposes something Hoffman has thought of himself. He says, “What if they’re ghosts? Oil is ghosts.” There’s a great moment in LeGros’s performance where he twitches and goes, well no, and you realize he’s denying his own inkling. To me, it’s very subtle and it really works in that scene. [Gilford and LeGros] are both really good. I also like the theme in the film that when you start to see the beasts, you’re doomed. I’m not proposing that they’re there, but that you’re crossing into a frame of mind which leaves you vulnerable to madness and to this sense of dread which is everybody’s undoing.
Filmmaker: Pollack is the only one who never sees what everyone else sees.
Fessenden: Well, speaking of Bush [Laughs]. I think it’s a mindset. Ultimately my films are about the psychology of people, and the level of self-delusion is what interests me.
Filmmaker: At one point, both Abby and Pollack accuse Hoffman of wishy-washy alarmism, which seemed to encapsulate some of the broader attitudes people have typically had toward environmentalists over the years.
Fessenden: It’s a deep irony that we’re supposed to prove global warming beyond a shadow of a doubt, and yet we had absolutely no proof whatsoever that Saddam was up to anything. The argument is, you have to have proof before we’re going to pull up our tent. Proof of what? The future? I don’t have it. But I think we have some questions. And whatever happened to caution? Whereas, somehow, preemptively going into another country makes perfect sense to the same mindset. We’re in a pickle.
Filmmaker: Did anything unplanned happen during filming in Iceland, weatherwise?
Fessenden: We did have a terrible blizzard that shut us down for a day. We had one scene where it rains, which was supposed to be a complete anomaly. We had our rain trucks ready and everything—then it rained that day, and even the Icelandics were weirded out. Honestly, everyone talked about global warming. But some days it was blistering hot, in terms of a pitiless sun shining down on us. There was vigorous activity day to day out there. You put this beautiful 35mm camera up on a skimobile and off you go with six guys following on another skimobile, and that would be your shoot.
Filmmaker: You and cinematographer G. Magni Agustsson really utilized the arctic landscape, which added so much to the film’s visual and tonal environment.
Fessenden: The whole way the movie was produced by Jeffrey-Levy Hinte was really smart. It was fun to be solving problems and getting the most out of our budget. We built that set up there—it’s just a shell, there’s nothing inside. Jeff figured out that we’d have to do our aerial shots the first day, before we built our base camp where the actors and the food would be housed. Wonderfully simple solutions like that. We had this incredible helicopter pilot and his right-hand man who could do these amazing maneuvers. We were shooting helicopter to airplane [at one point]. It was all crazy and quite dangerous. But it was done intelligently and everyone knew what they were doing. I love the whole Icelandic vibe. Everyone did different jobs and pitched in. If a car got stuck in the snow, it wasn’t the end of the world, just something you deal with and move on. I found them to be robust, which I think is great. The spirit was very high.
Filmmaker: Was Werner Herzog aware that you used footage from Lessons of Darkness?
Fessenden: I was in Toronto and he must have been showing Rescue Dawn. It was a year ago, so I’m not that far behind the masters, taking a year to get my film out! Anyway, I saw him in the street and stopped him and was almost speechless. I just said, “I love your work.” But I like to say that me and Herzog collaborated. [Laughs] His documentary about the Kuwait fires is very powerful, so I was really excited to be able to snatch that footage, to even know that it was possible. We made the inquiry and they said [lapsing into full-blown Herzog imitation], ‘It’s available for a price, you know,’ and then you deal with Herzog’s brother, who’s also crazy.
Filmmaker: Do you find it hard writing for horror audiences considering that you’re not giving them the gory stuff most fans are clamoring for?
Fessenden: It’s terrible to admit, but I don’t really think about the audience in that regard. I want to convey my ideas because I’m convinced they’re interesting, or even fun. I’m actually a B-movie maker, I always say. If I wanted to explore these things in a more intellectual way, I’m sure I’d make dramas that would be all over The New York Times. I love monsters and the fun of that, and I have a deep relationship to dread and fear. If that isn’t the horror genre, I don’t know what is. I can’t worry about the gore guys. They’ve got plenty to entertain themselves with.
Filmmaker: Do you have any models for your brand of socially conscientious filmmaking?
Fessenden: No. [Laughs] Costa-Gavras maybe, but all that is political. By chance, I’ve made two movies about environmental issues and I can honestly say that is quite rare. There is a tradition in some horror movies of the revenge of the beasts — with frogs and God knows what — but my model is much more traditional. I’m influenced by Scorsese’s movies and Roman Polanski, who has that subtle sense of dread in his films.
Filmmaker: How do you think people will respond to The Last Winter?
Fessenden: I’ve really carved a very strange place for myself — the pursuit of the uncanny. I really think the uncanny is what we live every day, and to express that is so cool. The axe murder in an absolutely shocking and horrifying event, but it only happens to a few of us. We can obsess on it, and that’s fine, but what’s intriguing is the peculiarity you live with every day. The little nicks and cuts, as opposed to the huge axe murder—those are things that we do to ourselves and we’re doing right now. There is no more symbolic feature in our lives than the fact that we are ignoring this thing that is killing us. It’s just madness.