Thursday, May 19, 2016

Larry Fessenden on Kelly Reichardt and the River of Grass restoration

I'm kinda glad Larry Fessenden - the one lying on the car, above - appears to have a good sense of humour, because when I suggested that we use his line about "flappin' gums" in the title for my Straight piece about River of Grass, I didn't really think they'd take me up on it!

In any event... friends and followers of my writing know that I love Reichardt's film Old Joy, opening tonight at the Cinematheque, as part of their Kelly Reichardt retrospective. A beautifully meditative, lovingly shot piece of Pacific Northwest cinema that I read as mourning the loss of the spirit of 1960's idealism - though it's more complex than that - it's a film I've been able to watch a dozen times, and was happy to be able to show my father shortly before he passed; he too found it moving. Will Oldham - known as Bonnie "Prince" Billy to music fans, but he's also the Baptist preacher kid in John Sayles' Matewan - is great in it, the Yo La Tengo soundtrack is transfixing, and there's lots of great "road movie" stuff - lots of shots out car windows, the original and best steadicam. Plus the dog from Wendy and Lucy gets her first starring role here, and there's a really nice shot of a slug crawling along the forest floor. It's a simple story: two old friends, grown apart, go to a hot spring in the woods, and try to find a way to communicate with each other. They don't succeed, exactly, but what is revealed runs as deep as you want to take it.
Old Joy is the big must-see in the retrospective, if you've somehow missed it, but I also gave a very positive review not too long ago to Reichardt's Night Moves; that's an underrated, under-seen film, which won my admiration - and probably alienated at least some of its presumed target audience - by taking an unexpectedly critical stance on the actions of idealistic eco-saboteurs. It's a "when things go wrong" movie, and I've always wondered if it was in any way inspired, Pacific Northwest-wise, by the story of the Squamish Five/ Direct Action (see my interview with Gerry Hannah immediately below this post). Certainly that group had things go very wrong. Those - Old Joy and Night Moves - are probably my two favourite Kelly Reichardt films, though I've found things to admire in all of her work.
It was somewhat of a surprise to talk to (long-time Reichardt associate) Larry Fessenden at all, and especially about someone else's cinema, but I've found attempts to interview Reichardt a little challenging (I've tried a couple of times to no avail), and I love Larry Fessenden's movies as well, though they're very different from Reichardt's. Probably my favourite of his films is the moving, low-key horror movie Wendigo, though all of the ones I've seen are well worth seeking out (I have yet to catch Beneath, or any of his very early films, like Experienced Movers, but I enjoyed No Telling, Habit, and The Last Winter, and recommend them all). I also have a fondness for things produced by Glass Eye Pix, his company, who have been behind some of the most entertaining low budget/ indy horror films of recent years; I even watched one last night, Ti West's lesser but still interesting The Innkeepers. So what the heck, sure, I'll talk to Larry Fessenden! Besides, Fessenden's performance in River of Grass is one of the most entertaining things about the film...

Be sure to read my Straight article, for more, because the following is more or less outtakes; some of the high points of our short chat are there, not here. 

Allan: Is it just an accident, or are you deliberately channelling a young Jack Nicholson in River of Grass?

Larry: No, that's just a trick of birth. I've been compared to Nicholson ever since I was born, and as I get older, I look like Nicholson growing older, so it's more of a curse. But I mean, I can't even get through an airport without people saying I look like Nicholson.

Oh jeez. This is the only film where I've actually thought that!

I'm surprised to hear that.

Maybe I'm just not that perceptive... So how did you meet Kelly Reichardt?

Well, all of this is going to be a little hard to dredge up, but - there's a local [ie. New York] restaurant and I knew the restaurateur was also a filmmaker, interested in film; and his brother was Kelly's compatriot at the time, and had written the story of River of Grass with Kelly. So we were all in that circle of friends. And I met Kelly. And she saw an early film of mine called Habit - not the one that has made its way into the world, but the one that I made when I was in college - and she liked it, and wondered if I would audition for the character of Lee Ray Harold. And so we struck up a friendship, slowly over time, and then I went down [to Florida] and made the film and stayed on as the editor and as her champion. We worked almost a year together, in a very un-traditional way, very low budget. We worked on 3/4 inch U-matic videotape...

It's an interesting first film. It seems like a neo-Godardian take on Badlands, but I don't know - was Badlands discussed, a conscious reference point, or...?

Certainly! Badlands was a major influence, particularly in the voiceover.  And I think it's fair to say that Godard was also an influence. I think the numbers that we use in the film come from a Godard movie, I can't remember which one, but I know it has an element of Breathless, and basically it's a deconstruction of American noir movies like Gun Crazy and The Honeymoon Killers. So there was a lot of influences that we spoke about. Some of them make it onto the screen and some were just in our conversations.

You had made a couple of features - Experienced Movers and No Telling, at least, before you acted in this film?

Yeah. I was always interested in acting, and then I drifted into directing. I made Experienced Movers in 1985, on video. It was an epic and somewhat preposterous, sprawling caper film; but I learned a lot about film, or about storytelling. And then some years later in the early 1990's I made a film called No Telling, which had a large crew, and it kind of turned me off the filmmaking process, because it got so big, and the role of the director got so managerial. And I felt I had, a little bit, lost my way. And as I was licking my wounds, that's when I met Kelly, and I was very excited to help someone else make a movie, because I have great passion for the medium. I just needed a break from carrying the whole show on my shoulders. So I supported her vision, and that was a nice way for me to regain my footing. And eventually I made Habit, with some of the things I had re-learned from her, like working with a small crew. And even some of the cinematic approaches, like shooting streets with a very flat lens, just straight on: some of that you can see in Habit, and that came from sort of seeing how she was framing stuff.

I'm curious about the process of making the film, because there's a lot of wonderful stuff that happens in the editing, where you're driving, say, and you glance to the side and there's a dog running, say, or she's looking at the album covers from the records Lee steals from his mother, and then we cut to the different album covers... so how much of the film was done in post-production? Did you start editing and then shoot new material, or was that all thought out beforehand?
 The only material we shot after the fact was some of the opening montage, some of the closeups of the postcards, the super 8 of the woman chopping up her husband... that's a direct lift from an old super 8 movie of mine that we used as a slug for a long time, but Kelly wanted to switch up the sexes, so she wrote that voice-over. All the voice-over was added in post. The film style was basically the way she shot it, but we had a lot of conversations as we editing about the point of view and cinema, and we worked together to find the rhythms of the movie. I tend to be the more flowery editor, so it was fun for her to sort of slow me down and find a groove. And of course, I also made a lot of hay about the editing of the sound. And we used a lot of car-bys (carbides?) and other sound design components, with a very crude system... but it became also the personality of the movie. And she had the drummer already as part of the story, so some of the rhythms of the drummer and those montages, all of that was very much in her mind, was all how she designed the film.

One of the challenges of the film is that the characters really aren't that appealing! 

Heh heh.

And I wonder if that was by design - did she want these characters to seem like losers you can't really like?

Clearly that was the agenda! I mean, she wanted them to be engaging, but they really are inept. They can't fall in love, they have no real passion for each other, and they sort of think they've committed a crime, but you're not really sure... then at some point you notice that Lee figures out they didn't, but he doesn't tell Cozy. And then they seem to imagine that they're on the lam... 

It's a little misanthropic, compared to her later films. Her distaste for these characters... I don't know, I want to like them more than it's possible to do...

Right. Oddly enough, I think some of the secondary characters are appealing. There's Stan - I think that's the characters name, but the heavier guy who is sort of a Rodney Dangerfield character, who always tells jokes, and then his partner, the African-American dude, they're sort of appealing, because they're sort of just going about their business, and I think that was some insight that Kelly had, because her father was a crime scene detective, so she knew characters like that growing up, and they have, of course, a very jaundiced view of their job. As you have to, if you're seeing murder scenes every day. So I think there's a sort of noir cynicism on top of the film. I think all of Kelly's films are about how we don't, sort of, live up to our view of ourselves: obviously, Old Joy, those two guys can't quite hit a friendship, that they're striving for. People aren't quite living up to their potential in Kelly's movies. This was the start of it, but she needed to find her voice and her confidence. This was a journey towards that, but maybe she didn't have it all sorted out yet.

Do you know anything about the restoration process? I'm looking at the old Wellspring DVD, and some of it is quite dark...

Well, I get a call in the middle of the night where they asked if the night scenes were supposed to be dark. I recall saying yes, because they were actually day-for-night, or dusk-for-night. But I haven't seen the transfer myself. I understood it was quite lovely. I don't know if some of the scenes went dark - we had a small crew and a small lighting package but I also think there was a realism Kelly wanted, and some of those scenes might have gone a little dark. But I think it was a transfer from a negative, so they had the best options. I'm not sure Kelly was involved; she was working on Certain Women. It's certainly director-approved in the sense that she was happy for them to put this all together, but I don't think she actually oversaw it.

Do you have a favourite scene in it?

That's interesting. Well, I love when my character tries to rob the store and fails miserably. (Laughs). That's actually the one that comes to mind.  The two dudes who run the store were really just last minute substitutes, and they were just so charming... we had a lot of fun doing that scene. But a lot of it was really seat-of-the-pants. And of course the scene when they try to go through the toll was very exciting. It's not like we had a lot of permits or anything, we had to shoot a lot of stuff on the fly... We did watch it together (Kelly and I) to do the commentary, which is really just a funny chronicle of two aging people saying, "what happened that day?"

Let me just ask about yourself, in closing - is there anything you or Glass Eye Pix are up to that I should mention? 

Glass Eye Pix has movies in almost every stage of production. We're about to shoot something now that I can't speak precisely about, but we're editing a few movies, and I'm looking for money for a film, so... we always have irons in the fire, but until they're ready for the public there's no point to go on about it, just to say "keep an eye on us,", there's all the news that's fit to print.

Note: people interested in exploring Larry Fessenden's work might want to check out the Larry Fessenden Collection, from Shout! Factory. And the Cinematheque's Kelly Reichardt retrospective, Nomadic Gestures, runs this weekend, to May 23rd.

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