Breathing new life into a classic idea can powerfully help advance people’s views on the improvement of culture. But those developments can also lead the innocent into learning about the harsh realities of the world around them. The new horror film, ‘Depraved,’ explores how what’s happening in the world is subtly shaping not only people as individuals, but also overall society. The thriller is a modern interpretation of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein,’ and how contemporary ideals about science and technology influence humanity’s development.
‘Depraved’ follows Alex (Owen Campbell) as he leaves his girlfriend, Lucy (Chloë Levine), after an emotional night, and walks the streets of Brooklyn alone to get home. From out of nowhere, he is stabbed in a frenzied attack, and the life is drained out of him. He awakes to find he is the brain in a body he does not recognize. This creature, Adam (Alex Breaux), has been brought into consciousness by Henry (David Call), a brilliant field surgeon suffering from PTSD after two tours in the Mideast, and his accomplice Polidori (‘The Blair Witch Project’s Joshua Leonard), a predator determined to cash in on the experiment that brought Adam to life.
While Henry becomes increasingly consumed with remorse over what he’s done, much to Polidori’s disdain, only Liz (Ana Kayne), Henry’s estranged girlfriend, reaches out to consider the creature’s loneliness. But that can’t save Adam, especially when he finally discovers a video documenting his own origin. Watching the video leads him to go on a rampage that reverberates through the group, and tragedy befalls them all.
‘Depraved’ was written and directed by Larry Fessenden, who also served as a producer through his production Company, Glass Eye Pix. One of the company’s fellow producers and genre filmmakers, Jenn Wexler, also worked on the feature.
Fessenden, Breaux, Call, Leonard, Kayne and composer Will Bates generously took the time to discuss ‘Depraved’ during an exclusive interview at New York City’s BBar & Grill. The group reunited last month to talk about the movie the day after it had its world premiere during the opening night lineup of the IFC Center’s What the Fest!? genre festival.
The conversation began with Fessenden explaining why he was driven to write the script for ‘Depraved.’ He explained that he has always loved the story of ‘Frankenstein,’ and “wanted to tell it from the point-of-view from the monster. Out of that grew the idea of telling the story from different points-of-view, so I switched over to Henry’s perspective. Being subjective in films really interests me.”
The scribe also revealed that he “tried to make it for many years through different avenues. I even went to HBO and tried to make it as a TV series, but nothing worked, so I ended up with these guys!,” which garnered a laugh from the group.
The cast then delved into what it was about their respective characters, as well as the overall story, that convinced them to sign on to star in the drama. Breaux divulged that he “was probably the first one who signed on. I auditioned for Larry about 18 months before we started production…I think I was the first person you saw,” he said as he turned to the filmmaker.
“I requested Alex, because I had read about him. It’s funny; we’re in my neighborhood (the East Village), and this is how I operate,” Fessenden admitted. “Alex had been in a play about two blocks away from here, and it was celebrated in the New York Times. I saw a pictured of him, and read about his process, and it was a very physical role. So I thought he would be interesting to have in the picture. So I asked the casting agents if they could bring him in, and he was available.” The director added that he loved Breaux’s audition.
Call then shared that he became attached to star in the film “about a month or two before we started. I knew Chadd Harbold, who’s one of our producers, and he put me in touch with Larry. I’ve known Larry’s work, as well as other people who have worked with him over the years. I then actually met him right here in this restaurant, in that booth right over there,” the actor said as he pointed to a table several feet away. “We then talked and hit it off, and I thought, this is going to be fun! So I signed on.”
Fessenden had also seen ‘Cole,’ “a short film that David had made that was about a form of PTSD, and it was so sensitive,” the director also noted. “He was so in tune with that element of the story, and it was fantastic overall.”
“Larry and I had worked together about 10 years ago on a film that he produced, and I had acted in, and that was fun,” Call also shared. “I remember even then that Larry would occasionally give me a couple of ideas about the character that were very exciting. So I was always interested in working with him as a director…He then called me about this film, and I thought, that sounds great…We then sat over there in that booth and talked about the part, and the rest is history!”
Kayne also explained why she was interested in starring in ‘Depraved,’ and specifically pointed to the fact that “there was a monster involved. I’m attracted to any character who has a need to take care of someone who’s marginalized. So when I read the script, I felt like Liz has this need to love this other worldly person, despite how dark the situation is around him.”
The actress added that her experience working on the thriller “was very fun, and we were in the trenches. I mainly do television, so as a performer, you can’t touch anything; you just walk in and say a line. But with this film was different, as we were able to contribute to our characters. I also performed my own stunts, which may or may not have gone well. But they look good!,” which garnered a laugh from Fessenden. “This is a great group of people.”
“The Liz and Adam relationship meant a lot to me,” Breaux chimed in. “Liz is one the one person in Adam’s life who’s looking out for him. We didn’t have much time to develop that, but Larry was able to really make the most of it during the edit. The film shows Adam’s affection for Liz, and there’s a tenderness between them.”
One of the most important aspects of the horror genre is the music, which drives the emotion of the story. Bates then shared what the process of creating the score for ‘Depraved’ was like during its production. The composer explained that he had first worked with Fessenden on the 2013 horror sci-fi thriller, ‘Beneath.’ “I think he told me about (‘Depraved’) back then, and I read and loved it. So I would constantly nudge him about it, and he finally made it.”
Bates added that “We often talked about the score being less conventional. It’s not about jump scares or traditional horror; it’s more about the tragic reality of the character.”
The process of working on the score began towards the end of the production. The composer shared that “Larry doesn’t lock the music until the end, which is great. Sometimes the music can inform the edit, which is quite an unusual way to do it.” He added that he and the filmmaker “spoke a lot about the movie’s tone, so I had a pretty good idea of what Larry was going for, in terms of the music. He also put some temp music of mine into the film while I was working on the score, which influenced where I tonally went.”
Bates also explained that he begins the scoring process by watching every scene, and then “sit behind the piano. I’ll then have this eureka moment, and find a melody that will connect with a character.”
“Will found a sad song for the first time we meet the monster. So he really finds the emotion in horror movies,” the helmer also contributed. “It’s really about accessing the emotions of the characters, and understanding how weird life can become. If you made a monster, it wouldn’t just be scary; it would also be existential. So that’s what we tried to tap into.”
“I was talking to Will after (the premiere), because I love the music. The only thing he said about you, Larry, is that you let him keep the saxophones in,” Breaux also chimed in. “He was like, ‘No one lets me keep the saxophones in, but Larry let me keep them in!'” Bates added with a humorous note, “That’s why I keep working with you!”
Fessenden then delved into what the process of also serving as the director on the feature, in addition to penning the screenplay, was like, and how working on developing the story influenced his helming style. “Well, it took a long time to make the movie, so it was fantastic to finally get in the room” during the principal photography process. The filmmaker and his crew built the room where Henry brought Adam to life. “It’s a singular location for about three-quarters of the film, so it was nice that we were able to control the lights.”
The cast and crew then further discussed what the process of shooting the movie on a single location in Gowanus, Brooklyn was like for them. Breaux revealed that he thinks it’s “nice when you have one stage. Having worked a lot, I think being on location is fun, too, but it can be a bit of a grind. You have to think about where you’re going every day, and how far you have to drive. But when you’re just showing up to the same place everyday with the same people, and you can control the environment, it does make it easier to just focus on the scene.”
The set “was intimate, because we had a very small crew. Even at a low budget, I try to direct with precision. I try to fully design the scenes in advance, so we all knew what the agenda was,” Fessenden also shared. “From there, we could loosen up, and everybody did that by bringing in ideas. It was a real collaboration, which is how I like to work.”
While collaborating together to develop the characters’ backstories, motivations and emotions, the cast didn’t rehearse “too much, but that’s the nature of indie filmmaking. You have to do your own homework, and then show up on the day and figure things out,” Leonard revealed.
“Larry afforded us some flexibility to do a couple of takes and talk about what we learned on the first take,” Breaux also expressed.
“There were some bigger scenes that we would work out the night before we shot them,” Call also shared. “That way, when we showed up the next day, we knew what we were doing.”
“With the Polidori field trip, there were a lot of things that were off the cuff and flexibility with the language,” Breaux also chimed in. “My character doesn’t talk that much, but there was a lot of fun improvisation. Josh was great at improvising!”
Fessenden then pointed out that “Josh is also a director, so he’d ask, ‘Can we can again, twice.’ The actors would start a nice rhythm in their work, so they sometimes didn’t want to stop in between takes to talk about what they were doing.”
“There were so many legit theater people, including Maria Dizzia, as well as Alex and David. So I think the whole production was very process-oriented in that way,” Leonard also shared. “We were all excited to continue to delve into the nature of these characters and the relationships between them. Even after cut was called, we figured out what we discovered in that take, and how we would apply it to the next scene. It was an exciting group of people to work with,” he admirably gushed about his castmates.
Creating the characters’ physicalities was also a vital element for the drama, particularly for Adam. Breaux explained that he was in “constant communication with Larry about the progression of my character, in terms of his age, maturity level and speech progression. We had to figure out how many scenes we had to show that from start to finish. In the beginning, my character was learning how to walk, and by the end, he was running.”
Fessenden also chimed in on the process, explaining that “Also, on a practical level, it was very cold when we shot; we filmed in February in Brooklyn. Due to the loft that we were able to afford, there wasn’t any heat! I also told Alex to loose as much weight as possible, so we could really see the muscle development of the character. But he was freezing, because he had no body fat.”
Overall, “I think the actors all knew my agenda was to remain true to the psychology of the characters, no matter what situation they were in. So it was about bringing out the authenticity of the story,” the filmmaker also noted.