By Bonnie Rosenstock
As if global warming werent already the worlds worst nightmare, East Village filmmaker Larry Fessenden has turned up the heat by making it the subject of his new fright film, replete with specters and gruesome deaths. In the long tradition of celluloid monsters as a consequence of atomic fallout and other man-made environmental disasters (think Godzilla), The Last Winter is a prescient tale of human rapaciousness. Unlike the other movies, however, this time there may be no turning back.
In the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a small advance team of oil company workers is awaiting the go-ahead to start drilling. They are headed by Ed Pollack (Hellboy star Ron Perlman), an unwavering believer in the march of progress, profits, and sacking the land. James Hoffman (James Le Gros), an environmentalist, has been hired by the company to provide a positive spin on the environmental impact. He is not being very cooperative, however, and to make matters worse, ghostly visitations surrounding the camp begin to haunt the minds of various crew members, signaling their demise.
I liked the idea of showing the conflict between two world views disagreeing vehemently and how it leads to so much trouble in the national dialogue, Fessenden explained. Also, I wanted to explore what would happen if these two people with different approaches to reality were stuck in a crisis.
Fessenden, 44, is dressed in East Village chic: black with metal accessories. His dark brown hair trickles down his neck while the shorter strands at top stand up in a haphazard salute. We are talking in the garden of the Yaffa Café on East 8th Street, four blocks north of the filmmakers home, where he resides with his wife, a graphic artist, and their 7-year-old son, Jack (who appears in the film as Hoffmans younger self). Fessendens bicycle stands at the ready to speed him along to his production studio, Glass Eye Pix, on Elizabeth and East Houston Streets. His film, he related, is above all about hopelessness, the sadness when you lose hope, and self-betrayal.
There are much bigger demons than this ghost caribou, he said. They are a manifestation of the characters guilt or their vision. Truthfully, I dont see it as a film in which there is a monster at the end. Im trying to create this dream world where reality is a slippery thing youre interacting with, and then you end up with the beasties, who treat each character differently.
He and co-writer Robert Leaver began writing The Last Winter in November 2001, when there was a very intense mood in the city, a feeling of doom and a questionable future, he recalled. It was interesting to be worried about global warming when we were going to war. But if we solved terrorism and didnt solve global warming, wed still be in hot water, as it were, he quipped.
The opening sequence pans a white box, a KIC Well, the only existing drilling marker in ANWR, placed there in 1986 through a partnership between a Native American corporation and Chevron, Texaco, and BP, which most people arent aware of. The production designer emulated the cube and changed its name to the KIK Well, so we wouldnt get sued, stated Fessenden. It stands there like the Monolith of [the film] 200l.
The film was shot over three weeks beginning in March 2005 in Northern Iceland, where the land was as flat as he could find, and when the light is evenly split between day and night. (Interiors were filmed in Reykjavik, Icelands capital.) The local Icelandic people, who live in this extreme environment, related to him many anecdotes of the effects of global warming. Fessenden experienced one himself in a scene that was supposed to be shocking when it rained in the middle of winter. He had the rain trucks set up, but rain started falling naturally. I met the Icelandic president, who was very learned about global warming, he said. He was very concerned about how to get the big guy [in Washington] to pay attention.
The Last Winter might be viewed as a companion piece to Fessendens Wendigo (2001), a monster movie about class struggles (city people vs. country people), which was shot in upstate New York. It was a snow film, but the snow melted halfway through and I was determined to make a snow film again and see what new horrors I could explore with global warming, he explained.
Fessenden has a cult following for his art-house award-winning horror flicks, No Telling (or the Frankenstein Complex) (1991), his first big super 16, about animal experimenting and chemical farming (not a popular subject, he noted wryly); Habit (1997), a vampire tale set in the East Village, in which he played the lead; and Wendigo. He confessed that he made these movies to see the monsters. Its just a trick of fate that Ive ended up making these so-called subtle moody horror films when my heart is into seeing the monsters as soon as possible, he said. Some would have me waiting longer, like my producers, he laughed.
Fessenden was born and raised on the Upper East Side, went to prep school in Andover (where he got kicked out) and moved to the East Village in 1981 to pursue his undergraduate film degree at New York University. He credits Habit with putting him on a very small map. When the festivals proved indifferent to it, he decided to self-distribute it. After the notoriety of Wendigo, he started producing other peoples movies, encouraging them to make films at this guerilla level, he said. Sometimes you carry the spear, sometimes you lead.
While Fessenden says that he is done with making snow movies and monster movies his next venture might take him to Mexico he admits that his movies are for a very specific taste. That this movie which started out realistically about global warming is going to have monsters coming along makes perfect sense to me. It might be for a small group of perverse people, but I stand by it.
Still, his latest creation is getting a lot of attention. There was a special screening at Walter Reade Theater (Film Comment Selects) and a premiere screening and party at Landmark Sunshine Cinema on September 17 and 18 respectively. The film will open in art houses in West Los Angeles, San Francisco and Berkeley this month, and in San Diego and Philadelphia in October. I feel theres a lot of good will towards it. It clearly has a heartfelt agenda. I am very lucky to have theatrical distribution and to get any attention at all, he said.
Fessenden also edits an environmental wesbite, www.runningoutofroad.com.