He might be best known as a horror auteur, but Larry Fessenden has a long association with Kelly Reichardt, dating back to 1994’s River of Grass. Besides acting in and editing that film, Fessenden served as producer on Reichardt’s 2008 feature Wendy and Lucy—where he also plays a raving homeless man who terrifies Michelle Williams—and executive producer on both 2013’s Night Moves and 2016’s Certain Women.
How did he first get involved with Reichardt? Reached at his home base in New York, Fessenden explains that they were already connected by friends when Reichardt saw one of his early shot-on-video features. “And she liked it, and wondered if I would audition for the character of Lee Ray Harold,” he says. “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.”
A neo-Godardian “killer couple on the road” movie with conscious connections to Terrence Malick’s Badlands, River of Grass—the restored version screens as part of a Reichardt retrospective at the Cinematheque starting Thursday (May 19)—foreshadows many elements of her later cinema, including a concern with nature and the American landscape. It also, thinks Fessenden, relates to Reichardt’s work in that “all of her films are really about how we don’t quite live up to our view of ourselves.”
But River of Grass also subverts genre expectations at every turn. Reichardt has described it as a “road movie without the road, a love story without the love, and a crime story without the crime.” And its main characters “really are inept,” Fessenden admits, imagining themselves criminals on the lam when they aren’t.
“I think it was Kelly making an anti-noir,” he observes, “saying life isn’t like the movies, these characters aren’t even as interesting as the movie characters they’re standing in for; the Bonnie and Clydes who are obviously very dynamic characters. It’s a very funny movie, in that regard. It’s a satire, almost.”
One gathers Reichardt has a bit of a rep as being a difficult, or, at least, a reluctant interview. How did Fessenden find working with her?
“Kelly is very warm and very loyal with a select few people,” he answers. “She’s just a private person. She believes in the work first, and is a little wary of the pomp and circumstance of press, and even for that matter talking about her work and her motivations.”
Fessenden, for his own part, has “never been shy” when it comes to interviews, but thinks there’s room for more than one approach. “You have the Hitchcock model; I think he was incredibly articulate, and brought a great deal to cinema by talking about his process. But there’s also Kubrick, who stopped doing interviews right when he became most intriguing, and as a result, his films are deeply haunting.”
Reichardt might lean towards the latter extreme, but, Fessenden concludes, that’s “extremely charming in this day in age, where everybody is flappin’ their gums at every opportunity!”