Last year, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein celebrated its 200th anniversary, and this year, renowned independent filmmaker Larry Fessenden brings the timeless tale to life in modern-day Brooklyn with Depraved. A haunting and heartfelt look at the capabilities of science and the corruptive corners of the human soul, Depraved recently had its world premiere at What the Fest!?, and Daily Dead had the great pleasure of catching up with Fessenden to discuss the cinematic influences, real-life parallels, and standout performances of his bold new film.
Depraved is really going to stick with me. Last year was the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and it's so cool that you were able to do your modern-day reimagining of that story. Is Frankenstein one of your favorite stories? How long have you wanted to tell your own version of it?
Larry Fessenden: I remember when I was a kid, I had a retro poster over the bed, and I had a huge, plastic, six-foot-tall Frankenstein on my wall. My generation, we watched old horror movies on the television. That was the way you could watch stuff. It was before DVD and VHS. So these were very, very precious screenings. You'd be watching this stuff and then you'd fetishize it on the magazines, like Famous Monsters of Filmland. So it's a generational thing. I had models, little plastic models from Aurora. I just always loved the monster, and I could tell that he was an outsider. And then there's all the incredible makeup, all the different people who've played him. So I grew up with this mythology.
In this film, you're taking something that's timeless and you're finding your way to tell it in contemporary society. You bring in elements of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then you also bring in themes of masculinity and pharmaceuticals. How did you decide on your through line to telling the story as effectively as you could in modern-day Brooklyn?
Larry Fessenden: First of all, I do love these old horror movies, but I always have this slight aggravation that they feel a little cobwebby. So I'm always interested in how can I bring this into the modern world and make people see how great these stories are? So I came out with a vampire movie called Habit. I really wanted people to think about vampirism in a fresh way and realize it was part of everyday life, all the things that vampires are. And, in a way, that was the same with Frankenstein. Obviously, you have these great scenes that were laid out by Mary Shelley and then rifted on by a century of filmmakers. So you just have to go in there and think about what's relevant to this moment. And it was first conceived during the wars after 9/11, and we were in there. And you hear so much about the soldiers that come back with PTSD and brain injuries, and the brain thing seemed to figure into the Frankenstein thing.
So it was a real soup. I tend to read nonfiction, so a lot of my movies are infused with issues of the day or concerns about morality. Even the museum scene is just from a lifetime of living in New York. You would go to the museum and think about paintings. So it's really kind of a portrait of my own life. All the things that you're exposed to as you grow up. Either you're an artist or an accountant, but you have taken stock of the history of the world, and I wanted to see if I could put it all in a movie.
That's what's so cool about it, too, is that when you're writing Adam, the monster, we're seeing him see the world for the first time. He's a newborn at this accelerated rate. And then his world is shaped by these people that are influencing him. Adam is so innocent and that innocence is corrupted. It's like watching a baby learn to crawl and walk and run in the span of just a couple of weeks.
Larry Fessenden: Yeah, I love to say that's what's great about allegory. You can tell a coming-of-age story, but it would be slightly preposterous. How do you get that sort of first innocence in? In a weird way, Richard Linklater did it with Boyhood, but that took so long to film.
But that's what's cool about horror and fantasy films, is that you're able to take something that's kind of un-showable, and through the trick of the metaphor, a man made out of body parts, you get to tell that story and really think about what it's like to grow up innocent and then realize your parents are flawed and then realize the world is incredibly mean and unfair and unjust. And then you get caught in a trap and you do something bad and then you're an outcast. That's the whole story in a sentence. And then you get to have fun padding that out with the textures of whatever suits your filmmaking style.
In this story, there are certain key references to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, like the scene with Addison Timlin. It's almost like Frankenstein's monster and the girl by the pond. So, as you were writing the story, did you try to think of how you could convey elements of Shelley's story and put them in this modern-day telling of it?
Larry Fessenden: You know, I wrote it so long ago, I don't remember the process, but I feel that it wasn't as deliberate. But, of course, once the thing was on the page, you realize that's what it is. Because she's maybe the Bride of Frankenstein in terms of the movie versions where the monster wants to mate. But you're absolutely right—she's also like the little girl. And if you look at the movie again, you'll see that she's wearing a costume that has daisies on it, which of course is a reference to the little girl. So we had a lot of fun playing with all the details.
There are lots of Easter eggs that reference different versions of the story that we've seen on screen. The white eye is sort of a reference to Christopher Lee's version, where he had one blind eye or something. And the clothes that the monster wears have a cut from different types of versions. So, there was always an eye to the traditions—a great, respectful eye, and then also just trying to tell a drama that really gets underneath the hood of the story. Why does this even speak to us? Those are the obvious themes: life and death. Morality. All these good things.
What's interesting about Adam is that even though he's patched together, as he gets healthier, he looks more human, but you can still see the scars. Was there a really specific look that you wanted, where you toed the line between him still being able to go out in society, but then when people get a closer look at him, they realize something's really off about him?
Larry Fessenden: Yeah, exactly. Couldn't have said it better. That's the idea. And also I chose this actor, Alex Breaux, because he has a large brow and he has sort of these sculpted cheeks. He kind of evokes the classic vision of the monster.
And you also see many versions where the monster is bald because they're dealing with the idea of a brain transplant. So we did that, too. With [Francis Ford] Coppola's Dracula, one thing I loved about that movie is that he did so many versions of Dracula. And I kind of had that in the back of my mind. Like, we can have the Frankenstein that has the overcoat, we can have the Frankenstein that's bald and sort of nude that you see. Some of the Hammer movies have a bald Frankenstein, and on and on. It's fun. It's literally two centuries of references that you can draw from.
It's amazing how the story is even more relevant now as it was two centuries ago. It's literally timeless. Alex reminds me almost of Doug Jones, where he's very expressive without having to say much. He conveys so much just through his movements. It's such a subtle and difficult role to play, but he really nails it.
Larry Fessenden: Well, I love that you say that. And the truth is that Doug Jones was an inspiration for Alex, because I had worked with Doug. So I told Alex about him when Alex had to face four hours of makeup. In the early scenes when he has no clothes, we're doing everything down to the scar around the knee. So he was in there for a long time and it was very meditative, and he was thinking about these actors that get into the suit. And I think Guillermo [del Toro] was making The Shape of Water, and so Alex was reading interviews about Doug Jones and what it's like to basically be a character actor, a feature actor. It's a whole specific kind of vocation in showbiz.
It's like you and Guillermo were making your Universal Monster movie at the same time.
Larry Fessenden: Yeah, exactly. The sad truth is I had worked with Guillermo to do The Orphanage [remake] and it didn't come through. He says, "What do you want to do instead?" I said, "I have this script called Depraved." "What is it?" I said, "It's my Frankenstein." And he said, "I can't read that 'cause I've got my own to make." So it was a missed opportunity. I would've loved for Guillermo to be involved, and I can't wait for him to see it because we have a similar affection for feature films, where we have a deep love of the monster, the dilemma of feeling like an outsider.
Would you want to do a sequel to Depraved if you got the chance, or have you told everything you wanted to say with the Frankenstein story?
Larry Fessenden: Well, I know it sounds a bit much, but I love sequels and remakes. On the one hand, I always complain Hollywood should do original stuff. But we all like hearing cover songs. "Oh, I love that Dylan song, but it's actually fun hearing it done this way." And obviously monster movies, there's usually one of them and they sort of redo it. You wouldn't have The Howling without The Wolf Man.
So I like the idea of a good sequel. The reason it's annoying is when the intention seems to be to cash in on the name. And then you're like, "This is so boring, why don't they come up with something new?" But if you do it with great feeling and thought, then yeah, bring it on. I can't wait to see the new Godzilla movie.
I know you guys are always staying busy at Glass Eye Pix. Do you have anything coming up as far as acting, producing, or even what you want to direct next, or are you still enjoying the ride that Depraved's been having?
Larry Fessenden: We had a great premiere, but now I'm ready to move on. I have two movies I'm trying to produce this summer, and then I want to try to direct again. I'm sick of waiting around. So, we'll see what happens. I hope this fall I can shoot because I love the fall weather, and I have some ideas.
[Photo credit: Photo above by Nelson Bakerman.]