Why you should care
Because we expect to see him on our big screens for years to come.
For a magical period during the summer of 2009, 10-year-old Jack Fessenden slept in the closet of his parents’ bedroom in New York’s Catskill Mountains. His own room had been transformed into hair and makeup. Outside his family’s rambling farmhouse, the 11-person crew for the indie horror parody Bitter Feast slept in tents and bunked in the old chicken coop. Jack’s father, Larry, a veteran, was producing and acting. Beck Underwood, aka Mom, was production designer. This was not the first film shot at the old farm, but it was the first the boy saw in a new way: as a seductive experience. The house where the Fessendens spent weekends and summers now seemed bewitched to Jack, the familiar made wonderfully strange.
“I always thought what my dad does is so cool,” Jack, now 17, reflects. “The way he talks about film is so inspirational.” Discussion of every aspect of cinema was routine as toothbrushing in the Fessenden home, but seeing it put into action galvanized Jack. By the end of the Bitter Feast shoot, he had learned what differentiated director of photography from director and had gone Rollerblading with the boom operator. He stood in the still eye of independent filmmaking’s controlled whirlwind, watching everything. And he realized he wanted to do this when he grew up.
Apparently, he was grown up enough by 12, when he began writing the 30-minute Riding Shotgun, which played at the Woodstock Film Festival. At 14, he started scripting a feature, a crime thriller flecked with bits of buddy flick and dark comedy. Stray Bullets premieres February 10 in select American cities and will stream on iTunes and Amazon; its cast includes Dad as well as veterans James Le Gros (Drugstore Cowboy and Living in Oblivion) and Kevin Corrigan (The Departed and such TV series as The Get Down).
This kid is going far.
—Meira Blaustein, co-founder of the Woodstock Film Festival
Erik Kraus, a family friend and actor drafted to play one of the film’s ill-fated heroes, says, “At Jack’s age, the best I could do was eat Cap’n Crunch out of a box while watching Gilligan’s Island. This kid is a natural filmmaker. He showed not a moment of hesitation on the set.” Indeed, Jack owns his film beginning to end: screenplay, directing, editing, composition of the score and the starring role as Connor, a teen whose innocence is shattered in the span of one day. Stray Bullets sets the lives of two friends, Connor and Ash (played by real-life pal Asa Spurlock), on a collision course with those of some crooks on the run.
The gangster film’s classic themes of regret and retribution conflate with a topic close to Jack’s heart. He has treated the idea of friendship in almost every film from his earliest shorts. (Jack is an only child, and his mother suggests this is its source.) The movie nods to Die Hard and Apocalypse Now — Jack’s knowledge of American cinema is catholic; favorites include Kubrick, the Coen brothers and Tarantino — but Jeff Nichols’ Mud is a prime influence.
To date, Jack has screened three films at Woodstock, considered one of the world’s top 50 festivals. Meira Blaustein, its co-founder and executive director, was not surprised to see Jack’s first feature turn out so assured. “I saw his command of film language from a young age, which can only come from 360-degree immersion in it,” she says. “This kid is going far.”
It helps, of course, that Jack was born into indie royalty. His mom, Underwood, has worked in theater, graphic design and art direction; her stop-motion animation imparts both a cheerful loopiness and a creepy aesthetic. Larry’s own work is cult-beloved in the modern horror genre — he’s best known for Wendigo and The Last Winter, moody art-horror flicks. “In horror you make a narrative out of our worst impulses and thereby control them. It’s a way to process the dark side of social anxieties,” he says. Jack’s father is by no means red-carpet famous, but his success helped Stray Bullets along; the film was financed through Larry’s production company, Glass Eye Pix. But those around Jack don’t take his parentage as an automatic sign that he’s the boss; he’s had to earn respect and authority. As Kraus puts it, “His parents may be in the film industry, but that doesn’t entitle him to be a good director, writer or editor. My father was a house painter and I am not fit to paint a closet.”
Jack and I sit in the kitchen in the house upstate where he filmed part of Stray Bullets. He is dark-haired, soft-spoken and unusually self-assured. As we talk, his parents go about their business, which is now also Jack’s business. “Instead of throwing a ball around when he was little,” Larry explains, “we’d grab a camera. I didn’t want to train my kid to be a filmmaker; it was just what we did for fun, to explore ideas of craft, deliberation, process.” Whoever was around got pulled in. (Sometimes this meant my son, a childhood friend whose post-sleepover reports often went something like, “Well, we made a movie. Then we had pasta. Then we watched movies.”) The year he was 10, Jack and his dad worked their way through Hitchcock’s oeuvre. Fessenden wanted his son to see that every shot has a purpose, that where you put the camera is the film. They started with Rear Window, which remains Jack’s favorite; he would later replicate the famously precise master’s lean method, proud his finished film was “almost exactly as shot-listed.”
We’re in something of a filmmaking boom, steeped in visual literacy as we are — we all carry movie cameras, as well as theaters, in our pockets now — and Jack’s generation leads the charge. Venues for young filmmakers burgeon; Seattle-based National Film Festival for Talented Youth, or NFFTY, “the world’s largest film festival for emerging directors” 24 and under, received 700 submissions in 2011. Five years later it was 1,000. Standards rise by the minute — great for audiences but a serious challenge for any filmmaker trying to make a mark. Stray Bullets will be judged not as a film by a teenager, but as a film, period.
The curtain opens soon.
A previous version of this article misstated the name of one of the actors in Stray Bullets — it is Kevin Corrigan, not Nick Corrigan. The previous version also misspelled the name of one of Larry Fessenden’s films. It is Wendigo, not Windigo.