How I Made My First Feature at 16

Jack Fessenden, son of director Larry Fessenden, on the story behind his thriller Stray Bullets, which he finished while still in high school.

Ever since I started taking filmmaking more seriously at the age of 13, I hoped to make a movie like Stray Bullets. “It’s going to be my epic,” I thought to myself, picturing a grizzled Nick Damici leaning on a ’70s Cadillac, lighting a cigarette and squinting as he exhales into the sun-streaked sky of a warm summer evening, the only sound the tall grass whispering in the calm breeze. Nick Damici is, of course, the star and writer of Stake Land, a film produced by Glass Eye Pix, my dad’s production company. When I was 9 years old, I spent a substantial amount of time on the set of Stake Land, and since then Nick has been an overwhelmingly generous and kind advocate for my future as a filmmaker. Another image that frequented my consciousness was that of the Woodstock, New York-based writer-actor-musician Robert Burke Warren as an upstate cop at the wheel of his rickety patrol car driving two boys through country greenery. I also liked the idea of these same boys being held hostage somehow, so I fashioned a very spare narrative based around their capture in the basement of our house in upstate New York.

All of this is to say that, in ruminating over my “epic” in those years of anticipation, I was inspired by places and people with which I was familiar, and always thought in terms of what I knew I would be able to achieve both creatively and practically. I suppose this is how I’ve been able to get away with all that I have at such a young age; I worked with what I knew was within reach when coming up with a story because, no matter how big you dream, the movie does ultimately need to get made, and for cheap. Not once did I let the fact that I was just a middle-schooler diminish my vision.

In 2013, I finished Riding Shotgun, a tale of two teenagers and the struggles of their friendship in the face of a cold and desolate zombie apocalypse. I wrote, directed, edited, produced, scored and acted in the film, and that has been my model ever since. The film was 32 minutes long, so I was warned by the Woodstock Film Festival’s Meira Blaustein that it would be difficult to program into festivals. When she saw the film, though, she insisted on programming it in the festival somehow. After that, I collaborated with teenage friends on three more shorts: All for One, The Adults and Pranks. Two of these three shorts premiered at the Woodstock Film Festival. All the while, however, my “epic” permeated my subconscious … latent … lying in wait. It was exciting and mysterious when I gave myself the space to let it surface, but I knew I had to wait until I could do justice to a story of that caliber before I really started the work.

In Summer 2014, I began outlining the story of Stray Bullets. At this point, I was planning for it it be not a feature, but rather a lengthy “short film” of roughly 45 minutes. As the story began to emerge on the page, however, it became clear to me that this movie had to be a feature. There was only one thing I needed to do before it was truly decided: break the news to my parents. Funnily enough, before I had the chance to do so, my mother said off-handedly, “Why don’t you just make it a feature?” So, that was that.

I’ve known both James Le Gros and John Speredakos since I was a boy, having grown up visiting and helping on the set of my parents’ films. From John playing a tormented and murderous hunter in Wendigo, directed by my dad in 2000, to James stabbing a prosthetic hand that squirted blood into my eye in Bitter Feast, the memories have always been fond. I’d hoped that whatever film manifested from the various images floating in my head, John and James would be in it. Luckily enough, I got my wish. When I finished the first draft of a script in the spring of 2015, I sent it along to both of them and promptly received praise, encouragement and, most importantly, an agreement to participate.

Feeling even more energized about the project, I assembled a rag-tag crew – from seasoned professionals to childhood friends of mine – while simultaneously beginning intensive pre-production just as my 10th grade final exams were wrapping up. My dad and I meticulously shot-listed every setup of the film to the tone of Brian Eno’s ambient soundscapes, breaking the script down to the emotional and cinematic intention of each scene. Meanwhile, my mom and I drove through Kingston, stopping at Goodwill, Salvation Army and every other place we could think of in search of costumes for the players and tchotchkes for the set. However, the most exciting moment of those fleeting weeks before the shoot was my mom’s discovery of a 1974 two-tone Dodge Dart Custom listed on Craigslist for $1,100. My dad and I were discussing scheduling when we received an on-the-go email from my mom. It read “omg, not for your flick, but check out this car …”

We shot for 16 days in July of 2015, though my memory blurs all sense of that time into one continuous state of activity – I remember the moments, but not where they began and ended. Morale was high throughout the shoot. Each night we would return to our house upstate where the crew stayed, and watch what became known amongst us as “The Daily Show.” It was during those evenings, as we sat huddled in front of the TV watching the rushes, that my movie came to life before my eyes. At the time, I think I was just thrilled at the quality of the material we were getting, but thinking back, it was quite emotional seeing everything come together so quickly after so much preparation.

When I made Stray Bullets I did not make just one film, but three. The first was the one made up of the images that had been living in my head for all those years; the second, the film I saw unfolding before me as the footage from shooting poured in; and the third, the one that came into its own in the editing room – the only one anyone else will ever see. I can only hope that flawed manifestation of the original Stray Bullets will hold up as a film, as I know the memory and experience of Stray Bullets certainly will. New images are already beginning to percolate for another epic, but the rigors of junior year in high school may keep me from realizing them for a little while yet.

Writer-director-actor-composer Jack Fessenden grew up on the sets of Glass Eye Pix productions, his father’s indie-horror production company, and helping his mom in her stop-motion animation studio. Inspired by the creativity that surrounded him, Jack began to make little shorts with his friends at age 7. At 13, he started taking film more seriously and began to write his first film, Riding Shotgun, which premiered at the 2013 Woodstock Film Festival and was followed by All for One, The Adults, and Pranks, the latter two premiering at Woodstock as well. Jack spends a lot of his time in Upstate New York, the setting of many of his films, and where many of his collaborators reside. He finished his first feature, Stray Bullets, in April 2016 at age 16; the film is now on release through Screen Media Films.