High School Auteur: Teenager Jack Fessenden makes an auspicious genre feature debut with ‘Stray Bullets’
Sure, there are lots of high-school kids making movies—they're shooting on their phones and posting to YouTube, doing mini-projects for class, or even borrowing a DV camera and making little scripted vignettes. And anyone who cares knows that Steven Spielberg started out making 8mm pictures in his backyard—look where he is now.
But Jack Fessenden, son of independent writer/director/producer/actor Larry Fessenden and art director/production designer/animator/artist Beck Underwood, wrote and directed the theatrical feature Stray Bullets—a lean, character-driven thriller about the aftermath of a robbery gone wrong—when he was only 15. Scheduling a time to interview him involves working around his academic schedule because he's a high-school junior. And to all appearances, a strikingly grounded, sensible one as well.
Stray Bullets stars Jack and longtime friend Asa Spurlock as young adults who get caught up in a dangerous situation when they arrive at the trailer they're supposed to be sprucing up for sale and find it occupied by three armed fugitives—James Le Gros, John Speredakos and Fessenden Sr.—whose getaway is compromised by the fact that one of them is badly wounded. The Screen Media release is an ambitious undertaking, a genre story with a strong focus on a tangle of relationships, but, Jack acknowledges matter-of-factly, filmmaking is the family business. "Growing up, it was customary, rather than go out and kick the ball around, to go and shoot some stuff with a camera. Of course, we had nice digital cameras—I was lucky to have that access when I was a kid."
And while Stray Bulletsis his first feature, it's not his first movie; he began to "take filmmaking seriously" in 2013, when co-wrote and directed a half-hour horror picture called Riding Shotgun, inspired by Jim Mickle's post-apocalyptic vampire feature Stake Land, one of dozens of films produced and/or distributed wholly or in part by his father's prolific Glass Eye Pix (which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2015), including his own Wendigo (2001) and The Last Winter (2006), in which Jack appeared.
"I shot [Riding Shotgun] in March," he continues, "and in October it premiered at the Woodstock Film Festival. After that I made The Adults and Pranks, also short films. Both of them showed at Woodstock as well, but they didn't go any further… Unfortunately, short films are sort of destined for YouTube and Vimeo rather than any sort of theatrical experience.
"The whole time I was making these shorts, I knew that I wanted to make a movie like Stray Bullets. I always sort of referred to it as 'my epic' that I would one day finally get to make. I knew I wanted to incorporate some aspects of a kind of story I was familiar with—two kids on an adventure upstate—but add a new element I hadn't explored yet…those three criminals on the run."
Once he seriously started work on the screenplay, Jack came to a sobering realization: "Either it was going to be a 45-minute short with all this plot crammed in—to think the story could fit into 45 minutes was naïve of me—or it could be a feature that took its time and allowed for some moments of breath and contemplation." His parents were onboard with the idea "because they knew that features go further than short films and they thought I was ready for it."
And they pitched in with advice and support born of their own experience as working artists. Jack's father told him that since he was a musician—Jack began studying piano at six and went on to guitar, drums and bass—he needed to compose his own score "because real music costs money; you have to get the rights and if you don't have the rights, you can't sell your movie.
"I think it was my mom's idea to go over and check out the trailer,” Fessenden says of the vehicle where most of the film's violent last act unfolds. "When I wrote the scene originally, it took place in an old shack. The trailer is our friend Annie's and I've grown up going there, but it completely didn't occur to me that it was the perfect place to shoot—it has all the elements, including the park next door… You can hear all the innocent kids and the music and the moderator of whatever event is going on. My mom also gets credit for the Dodge Dart the crooks are driving. She found it on Craig's List for $1,100."
None of which diminishes Jack's achievement, Yes, his home was a supportive, immersive film school and he grew up watching young filmmakers ranging from Kelly Reichert to Ti West benefit from his father's mentoring. But he also saw others spend years on movies they never finished, and the takeaway was a hard lesson he was fortunate enough not to have had to learn firsthand: Pre-production isproduction and winging it is a luxury for which low budgets do not allow. Jack went into Stray Bullets knowing that if you're going to shoot a theatrical feature in 16 days, every minute on set/location has to count.
"Every scene was storyboarded by my dad and myself in the weeks leading up to the shoot," he explains. "That's not to say that we didn't change things on set—we were very flexible—but we allowed ourselves to be flexible because we had that framework in place, which also made to very easy to edit the film.
"That's how I was able to do it while being in tenth grade—you know, school and everything that a kid's life consists of. I think the reason Stray Bullets was completed in under seven months after we finished shooting was that it was all planned out meticulously beforehand."
Meticulous preparation also allowed Jack to juggle acting while directing—"even if I'm not a great actor, I know I can get the beats I want"—and deadline pressures that could easily rattle someone old enough to take the edge off by having a couple of drinks after wrap…like having just one day to shoot a complicated scene—the last full day of production—with quirky indie-legend Kevin Corrigan.
"That was the most difficult day," he admits. "All the scenes with [Corrigan] in the trailer, him outside chasing the kids, him running in the park and dying [were shot on] the same day, the last day of the shoot and the hottest day of the summer. We started at 5 a.m.; a massive rainstorm swept through for about half an hour—we managed to get two shots after the clouds parted. We had to wrangle all those extras [playing parents and kids at an outdoor party] and shoot everything from the moment the actors burst out of the trailer. We finished as the sun was setting."
Unsurprisingly, having completed three short movies and a feature before the age of 18, Fessenden is pretty sure he knows what he wants to be when he grows up. But he still intends to go to college, which some impatient young people might dismiss as a waste—four years is a long time when it's a quarter of your life to date.
"First," he says, "there's an expectation that someone who's grown up the way I have would go to a good college and get an education. And on top of that, I want to go to college. I want to take art history, history of film, English classes—I like learning and I have to learn stuff to make movies about. I think school is fun and if I were to not go to school and just keep making films, I might feel that my youth was sort of lost. I can keep making films as well—I've managed so far—but I'm excited to spend four years in college."
So yes, he has an idea for another movie he's like to make between now and then—"it's sort of anthology in a genre you wouldn't expect; that's all I have to say about it"—but he also needs to sit down and write an essay about Herman Melville. "School is my life. Promoting Stray Bullet sis what I need to do—and love doing—on the side."