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Rick McGrath [Film Festival 10.28.08] movie news interview



It was high fives and drool buckets all 'round when Quiet Earth discovered Larry Fessenden would be in Toronto for the final days of TAD 08 to be in attendance at the World Premiere of I Sell The Dead. Would he do an interview? Yes? Bloody good. Dr. Nathan strangled the opportunity to meet and share a couple pints of Guinness with Larry the day before the premiere (which explains the lack of questions), and we cheerfully babbled away until director Glenn McQuaid and some of the Glass EyePix posse showed and it was time to pull the coffin cover closed...


QE: The guys at Quiet Earth consider The Last Winter to be your magnum opus. We are wondering what you think of the film two years later. Have you changed your mind or do you still like it?

LF: I am very loyal to my films. You know what they are part of my life and I do put a lot of passion into the making of them. But also it is important to me that they have themes that will outlast even the craftsmanship, so I believe it's an important movie, meaning, ahh, thematically.


QE: I agree with you. Global warming. You don’t think of the movie being two years old, that you were onto this two years ago.

LF: Well, of course the reality is that we wrote this in 2001. But I have been on this topic for a long time. I've always sort of been an environmentalist. And with the global warming, I wrote a book about this in 1991 about how to make films environmentally. It is actually online now: lowimpactfilmingmaking.com -- it's funny to read that -- I'm complaining about global warming then. So it really is a sad reality that this issue’s been out there, the information's been out there, and we continue not to do anything about it.


QE: And you still feel bad about it now?

LF: I feel worse than ever. In fact, the news is that it is going faster than people originally thought. And it’s just unbearable to see that the conversation is at the very beginning right now, in the public sector. In fact, in America we are having these elections and because of the economic crisis and a bunch of crap that they focus on, because there is so much noise in the news, no one is really addressing this as a major topic. And I believe, not to get too political here, but the way out is also positive for the economy for jobs, which is to say, the shift to a green economy -- there is a lot of opportunity there, and it's sort of what's going on in the movie, in The Last Winter, in the argument between the two guys. One guy is essentially wanting to drill our way out…


QE: I thought one guy is Palin the other guy is Obama…

LF: The prescient thing I think is that Abby, the character played by Connie Britten, is really quite like Sarah Palin – she’s very attractive and she’s rather cutthroat as she handles the two men…


QE: …that’s right -- and she’s still pragmatic at the same time

LF: I think she’s oddly the central character, even though perhaps the film doesn’t take full advantage of that. But the idea is that she sees both sides and she’s just hedging her bets.


QE: I think that’s a good move. I don’t think you want to get too complicated – you have a major thrust for the plot, anyway. I’ve seen a lot of movies where guys toss so much stuff in after awhile you don’t know what they’re talking about.

LF: Well, that’s interesting, and I have been accused of that…


QE: I like the single-minded stuff, personally… in The Last Winter you’re allowed to do the slow build, which is one of my favorites.

LF: Yeah, I love that…


QE: Like, there’s no stuff at the beginning to set us up… for a long time you have really no idea what’s going on…

LF: Yes, that’s interesting… There’s the Jaws approach to movies, which we all love, where there’s the attack at the beginning and you know what you’re getting into, but there’s that other approach which I’ve tried in a couple of films, where you think… well, am I in a drama? What am I up to here? And then the slow, creeping decay sets in… and my thought is that this is the way life truly unravels. And then suddenly you notice out there – hey, that’s weird – what’s that guy doing walking around, he just got hit by a car and then slowly you build up from there.


QE: That’s true – we do ignore a lot of foreshadowing, a lot of stuff…

LF: And that’s why global warming is such an interesting topic – it is the stuff of horror because you can basically go day-to-day and you don’t experience it. And yet it’s slowly creeping up on us, and one day we’ll realize, shit, the oceans are dead. (Laughs maniacally)


QE: If they’re not dead already.

LF: Well, exactly… I mean that’s the problem… we could all stop driving tomorrow and there’s a lot of stuff already underway.


QE: One of the things that crossed my mind, in terms of a horror scenario, is that stupendous bundle of little bits of plastic that’s floating in the ocean between Japan and Alaska. That’s really scary to me – plankton are eating it and plastic is getting into the seafood chain.

LF: That’s so intriguing, and it just shows there’s so much opportunity for horror in the things that have happened, and people always say, you know, am I preaching, am I trying to change minds?, well, no, it’s just what I think to be quite horrific right now, and it’s all about self-betrayal. Like, I made a film called Habit which is about a delusional alcoholic who thinks his girlfriend’s a vampire, and there’s a more direct example of a theme that I love, which is the theme of self-betrayal. But, society-wise, that’s where we are. We literally live in denial.


QE: Yes. The ending of The Last Winter I found… interesting. To a certain degree it looks like either a setup for…

LF: (laughs) the sequel?


QE: Yeah… the Really Really Last Winter – it’s tough to do a sequel when you’ve used the word “Last” – but I was interested in the last shot, where Abby comes out of the clinic. The doctor has hung himself, and she walks outside and she’s standing in some water… and I really thought there would be some kind of pullback there, so we can get to see that everything is under water.

LF: Well, the idea is just that – it’s amazing… that location is just a place in Iceland where we were filming anyway, but it looks exactly like the little hospital in Prodou Bay, which is what would have happened… someone would have rescued her and brought her to this little clinic. But, as you say on the news there’s a guy giving a roundup of how bad things are everywhere, and of course, he’s talking in a very jovial fashion, the way they do.


QE: That’s odd, too.

LF: But that’s what happens – it’s on there now – oh, there’s been another hurricane here and there, and it’s like don’t you understand: if you put that all together, there’s something sinister going on.


QE: That’s interesting, because don’t you think to a certain degree that the News has been almost completely fictionalized by the mass media? I watch the news like people watch sitcoms.

LF: Funny, I’m the same way. I’m quite addicted to the news – I watch it on the internet – but basically, it’s just so interesting, because what you’re really watching is the way information is conveyed… you can call it entertainment, you can call it a horror film, it’s just amazing how little substance there is, and how much opinion, and so on. I mean, it’s really where we are. But to finish, you know, the idea of the ending… well, she steps out and instead of the snow landscape we’re accustomed to it’s all turned to water and of course you want that pull-up, but when I was editing I realized just to hold on – it’s so stressful – and then you go to black… it’s sorta like: you all know what’s out there, or, if you don’t, you better think about it.


QE: Our imaginations are better…

LF: Exactly, and you know, all you do is pan up to a CGI shot… of what? You know?


QE: Right… you’d be right back to Planet of the Apes with the Statue of Liberty…

LF: (laughs) If you had that, that would be cool… but, ya know it was done well before…


QE: No kidding… OK, here’s another question. Was there any issues bringing Dominic Monaghan onboard for I Sell The Dead, considering he’s coming from such a hugely-popular TV program?

LF: It was a great experience. My co-producer, Peter Phok, he really had this notion we should try for Dom, and we sent the script to Dom’s representation and they got it to Dom over the course of several months. He really gained an enthusiasm for the script, and he was just finishing up Lost… we ended up waiting for several months just to work with his schedule, and as it turns out, our first night shooting was the night that his last episode broadcast, so he was in a great sort of mood – a chapter had ended in his career, and moving on to our little film. So we were very honored to get him. They were really generous to us, and really stuck with it, and Peter and Glenn, once they realized it was possible, were very enthused.


QE: Is that really part of the challenge you face, as an indie filmmaker… how the heck do you approach and convince people? Is it all script-based?

LF: It really is. It’s very much script-based. We’re lucky that Glass Eye Pix has a bit of a rogue reputation, so I think people become aware of our previous work. In the case of Ron Perlman, of course, he and I worked together on The Last Winter, and we just had a blast, and I was able to convince him to show up for what was a three-day shoot for him. Ron was finished with Hellboy 2, and that was a grueling experience under the maestro, Guillermo Del Toro, and I think he was ready to have a little palate cleaner, and so he just popped in and did our shoot. We had been waiting for him for six more months after our original shoot with Dom, so our shoot was spread out over a year. The beauty is that Dom was dedicated enough to the project that he came back – these are very busy people. So it’s all about having good relations.


QE: No kidding. I haven’t seen Ron in I Sell The Dead yet, but he is great in The Last Winter, which you shot in Iceland. That must have been pretty crazy.

LF: It was a great experience. Iceland is a very cool place and we all walked away after having a really good time… except a little hard on the liver, actually.


QE: I’ve heard good things about Icelandic women…

LF: They’re awesome.. it’s quite a soup over there: a lot of alcohol, beautiful, gorgeous women who either fit into the Broom Hilda blonde category, or the Bjork category, so everything you could hope for… and then the guys are very robust... Vikings… and we were out in the dead of winter in a very remote area filming half the thing, and it was just my style, very Werner Herzog, we were really out there, you know – film or death – with blizzards and blistering sun – it was very good. Wonderful.


QE: Just as an aside, I gotta tell you that I had trouble suspending my disbelief on one funny thing – everyone is talking about the tundra melting, but everything is still under three feet of snow!

LF: But that’s part of my point. You can’t just look at the facts in front of you – there’s actually a greater reality.


QE: But the snow does diminish as the movie progresses, so it does work out…

LF: Which, incidentally, was true up there. I had pictured a pure white film and in fact there were occasions where it was melting. And the day that it rains in the movie. That was scripted, and was supposed to be this appalling weather event – and it rained! That was so freaky, which is why you have such beautiful clouds in that scene. Of course, we had our rain machine – we were prepared – and then it rained, so it really was freaky and that is really happening, and the warming effects the colder areas first, oddly enough. At the equator it’s essentially the same temperature, but in the arctic things start changing faster and more erratically. But that’s a good point and it’s part of the paradox of the film that everyone is basically in fear of freezing to death, but the problem is the warming. This is what makes for a complex film, whether you like it or not.


QE: OK, let’s change direction again – what’s it like working with Angus Scrimm?

LF: Ahh… a dream! Angus came into our world thru James McKenney, who is one of my henchmen, and he’s also a director…I’ve made like, three of his films now, The Off Season, Automatons, and Satan Hates You, and when we were preparing to make The Off Season I was traveling in Alaska to scout for The Last Winter, and I had told Jim, please, if you have imagined Angus Scrimm when you wrote the script, then why not reach out to him, we can make it happen, and Jim had figured out that Angus was going to be on the East Coast to do a Fangoria convention, and so we literally scheduled ourt whole shoot around Angus’s trip to the East Coast and we got him the script and Angus loved it – for one thing, I think it wasn’t the usual cliché horror, it was a much spookier ghost story…. So, he joined our camp and I think he enjoyed the experience. Then Jim hired him for Automatons, which we shot in LA, and some time later we invited him to come east and do two films at once: Satan Hates You and I Sell The Dead. So, he’s just a great team player, and I think he’s had fun with our group, because it’s all about The Love… (laughs) And Angus is joining us tonight… he’s here in Toronto… the great Angus Scrimm will be at our World Premiere.


QE: World Premiere? Hasn’t this been shown?

LF: Absolutely not. This is our World Premiere. This is for us, the big screening. Well, that’s not true, we played at Sitges, but with Angus coming, and Glenn’s Mom, this feels like a World Premiere. That was just a sneak preview.


QE: Great! Can’t wait. I’ve heard you’re going to be producing Jim Kivkles and Nick Damici’s Stakeland, and we’ve heard that it is going to do for bloodsuckers what Mulberry Street did for zombies. Considering we love Mulberry Street we were wondering what was in store for us?

LF: I can honestly tell you were had the scripts in my bag, intending to reads it on the plane – of course, we spent too much time enjoying our in-flight beverages to actually get to it – but the point is, having read the previous draft, look, I just love Mulberry Street and I’ve been trying to work with Jim for quite awhile, even before that, I really admire his approach and I think he shares my interest in the different textures in horror, beyond just the bloodletting and scary bits, there’s an awful lot of heart in Mulberry Street and I think he’s going to bring that to this one. I can only tell you its kind of a kung fu style thing, where there’s a vampire hunter, and this kid he’s mentoring, and they’re traveling the country in kind of a post-apocalyptic scenario. It’s really going to be great – very spare…


QE: Set in the future?

LF: A little bit in the future, but not very far in the future, probably a couple months, when things are really going to shit. But we’re very excited. It’s going to be one of our very low-budget pictures so we’re going to take advantage of Jim’s talents to put a lot of that whatever money we can find on the screen, and we’re also going to have a web component so people can see some stuff on the internet. We’ll be getting underway quite soon with that.


QE: Will you start shooting in November?

LF: Yes, we want to capture some of the seasons before we head right into winter, but the majority of the shoot will be January, and then we’ll be posting in the spring. And, as I say, we may have some web presence as we bring it out.


QE: Do you have a timetable for release?

LF: Not a present, but you can see if we get it finished in the spring… you know, all these films that we’re coming out with, none of them have distribution at first, but each movie has its own life path, and we’ll see what happens.


QE: Just as an aside on that, have you noticed it getting any tougher to raise dough with what’s going on in the economy right now?

LF: Oh, absolutely. It hurts every business. Everybody’s hurting. I will say there is the cliché which so far seems true: that showbiz does OK in a recession, because going to a movie is cheaper than a vacation – it’s cheaper than a lot of things. We’ll see what happens – it’s not pretty. The only good thing about all of this is that the planet may get a little, tiny break when human activity slows down.


QE: That may just be prolonging the inevitable, because sooner later, we’re going to run out…

LF: That’s the truth and that’s why we need to move off of it… there’s a great book called The Long Emergency, which is about the end of oil, the absurdity of suburbs… basically the entire plan that was laid out makes no sense…


QE: It was all based on cheap oil…

LF: Exactly, so we need to re-assess. And the politicians who are dragging their feet are going to become unpopular and go the way of the dinosaurs. And second of all, they’re only harming us. We need to get on with his, and the more pro-active we are as a society, the sooner we’ll be at the head of the game. Canada and America need to wake up to this fact.


QE: Ok, another question. You said you take your inspiration from no-fiction. Was that the inspiration behind I Sell The Dead?

LF: No, that was pure fiction. That’s Glenn. Glenn is a very inspiring character. He has a very wonderful Irish sense of humor and sense of writing and he’s very inspired by everything from Joyce’s Dubliners – that sensibility of the small town – but in actuality there are these things called “gallows speeches”, where people would give confessions and either proclaim their innocence or explain themselves before being sent off to the gallows… and Glenn was very inspired by those, and they’re chronicled in whatever books and so on, and that’s when you say, you know, “humble me, I did indeed rob Mrs. Jones’ corpse, and I did it for this reason”, so there’s some historical truth, but let’s be honest, the fact is I love the genre in many ways and it’s not all seriousness. My own films tend to come from a somber place of the collapse of society, and as I said, of the betraying of the individual, but I also love the artifice of it, and I love the old Hammer films, and I love the Universal films in particular. So when Glenn came up with this – it’s like a warm cozy blanket – it’s why I loved the movies when I was little – you just want to be in that world.


QE: Yes, but you’re a storyteller, as well.

LF: Exactly.


QE: Storyteller is a wonderful occupation…

LF: And I Sell The Dead is also a buddy movie, which I think is essential, because with all this despair and horror that I’m interested in, there’s also the redemptive quality of the human experience which is why we love and work together…

QE: But you point that out in The Last Winter. Things would have been completely different if the drillers and non-drillers had both taken a step back and said there’s something going on here… but then, you wouldn’t have the same story.

LF: I wish we didn’t. I wish I didn’t have to tell that story. It’s our problem in America. It’s so partisan, we’ve lost this sense of coming together. I have a great yearning for that… in fact, my horror is based on why can’t we literally get along. Because there’s a yearning for things to be better. Look, we have a short and brutish life and you wish that you could find camaraderie and that’s really the desire. In fact, I have another script that is a non-horror movie and it’s a much sweeter telling of that same sort of theme.


QE: I agree completely. Our uniqueness as individuals is both our blessing and burden. If you look at our society, you note right away how much energy we use simply communicating with each other.

LF: Well, habit is based on that idea. “We live as we dream alone” is from Heart of Darkness, and I’m interested in that theme because, as you know, you can really never know the other person’s experiences and we’re all locked into our own self-perception, and from there you have the idea of delusional perception and it gets very scary if you start seeing demons and so on. Well, it may not be true objectively but it’s absolutely true to you, so I find that very interesting, and that’s one entry into the horror genre. But the other thing you said reflects more on my approach to making movies, which is the sense of community, and I really believe in building… well, we have a little group of filmmakers and I produce some of their films, and a lot of people work on each other’s things. Glenn, who directed I Sell The Dead is also an effects guy and he’s done a lot of work on the other movies, and it’s the sense of camaraderie that is important. And I believe in putting that out there and building movies that way.


QE: Fantastic. It seems part of that team is Ron Perlman. Is he the DeNiro to your Scorsese? He’s actually damn good. He seems to understand his roles in ways different from the other actors.

LF: He brings so much… but he’s like an old vaudeville guy, he’s an old school dude and I really enjoy that about him. He’s a lotta heart, a lot of crusty, a little bit of bitterness in there… and I can relate to all of it. Look, it has to be said, Ron Perlman is Guillermo’s guy, really. I’m just a side product of my affection for Guillermo Del Toro’s movies with Perlman in them, and Guillermo discovered Ron and brought him to this certain level in his career, although Ron was doing fine without either of us, but anyway I’ve enjoyed my associations. When I asked Ron to do The Last Winter my conceit was, Ron, you’ll get to play a real character – you won’t have a lot of make-up – you’ll bring whatever monster elements, your understanding of those kinds of characters, to a fully normal person, but you’ll show the vulnerability and how there’s a kind of bitterness to the character of Perlman. Sometimes the psychology of these kinds of characters – you reveal that they’re kind of like children, that they’re stubborn and they’re not behaving expansively, and I thought Ron would be able to capture that. It was fun to work with him, you know because you realize there’s one scene after he almost gets killed in the ice water… the vulnerability…


QE: Yes, but I thought it was his relationship with Abby is the telling point, that’s where his vulnerability comes out. He is jealous.

LF: He’s smitten, yeah, and he’s so pissed that this smarmy little prick, Hoffman…


QE: Right. And it’s great that you have him and Hoffman together at the end…

LF: Yes, exactly…


QE: And I’m correct in assuming these guys are killed…

LF: Thank you. You know the movie is totally misunderstood, which is a funny thing to go through life – talk about feeling alone. You know there’s no monster in that film. It’s in Hoffman’s mind. Everybody’s obsessed that I have said global warming is caused by caribou monsters – well, that’s absurd. All I’m saying is that we all live in our own perceptions. Hoffman pictures these monsters, and he’s carried away by one, but he’s really dying. He’s fallen off a cliff and Ron and him die together, and its really how each one interprets death – one guy returns to his childhood memories, and in his way dies peacefully, the other guy is torn to ribbons because he has spent his whole life resisting nature and death. If you fight against the realities of the world, they will crush you. Nature will win out. If you, on the other hand, are attuned to it, you will see demons but you may, in fact, be delivered to the bosom of your own sweet memories. End of story. And I gotta say, people who snark my movie say all that nonsense about monsters and ghosts and bad CGI… it’s like, f*** you, baby, I lost you long ago.


QE: Well, I though it was great because it was so understated. For me the whole thing became crystal clear when the first guy dies and they retrieve the video. That sequence is very revealing because you see that he sees nothing.

LF: Exactly. Thank you. Exactly.


QE: After that it became obvious this was a mind disease and not a physical thing.

LF: Well, I must say it’s incredibly refreshing when people do get it…


QE: It’s always about the storytelling…

LF: Then I think you’ll appreciate the structure of I Sell The Dead, because it’s all about storytelling, which is what comes from Glenn’s Irish traditions – sitting around in a pub. It’s really stories within stories, so I think you’ll get a real kick out of it.


QE: I’m looking forward to it. But in Sell The Dead you act, not direct. Which do you prefer, acting or directing?

LF: That’s a good question. I love acting, but I didn’t pursue it… I found it nerve-wracking and I realized also that I had too many ideas beyond just acting… like I think it’s very important where the camera goes, how the thing is edited…


QE: Why would you find acting nerve-wracking? It seems to me if you know your lines…

LF: You just said it… I don’t trust my brain… once you know your lines…


QE: Do you ever use cue cards?

LF: No, I don’t use cue cards.


QE: No cheating?

LF: I actually believe very strongly – you have to know your lines, backwards. Literally – the Kubrick tradition, you know, he used to torture his actors…


QE: So there’s no ad-libbing when you’re directing… no one is messing around

LF: Not really. No, I write it out.


QE: When someone directs you, do you mess around with them?

LF: No, in fact the funniest thing is, my greatest acting experience was in Habit, where I knew the lines intuitively because I’d written it, and in fact written it in the past, and I sort of knew the character because I’ve lived it, and then to be able to be in the scene with the other actor, and to loosen him up and almost move the… you know, I was the director so I could sorta throw in stuff, and it made for a very organic and loose experience – I think for everyone, and that was fun. But, you know, when you’re on someone else’s set you don’t have quite that kind of liberty. But I do love acting, but I also love art direction and all the other details so I honestly, in the end, I feel like I’m more of a director, because I like to oversee it all.


QE: Can we extrapolate that to saying you basically like the control aspect of it?

LF: It is the control. I really enjoyed my experience with I Sell The Dead. I was actually a producer and an actor, so as a producer I had not so much control, but a lot of influence in how to make Glenn find his way, and that was very rewarding, and then as the actor doing whatever.


QE: And you were both actor and director in Habit.

LF: That’s why I keep referencing it… it’s relatively obscure, I suppose... but it is what got me my initial attention.


QE: Do you spend a lot of your life wandering around film festivals like this?

LF: Actually, I don’t enjoy… flying. So I’m just as happy not going to festivals. It’s always fun, and you meet other filmmakers… speaking of directing, I love the idea of putting together a festival – the curatorship of it, so I very much appreciate how these things unfold, but honestly, it’s just night after night of drinking and wagging the tongue… I can do without it; I’m very happy at home, writing in New York. I have a place in upstate New York where I retreat to and that’s my favorite, just to be out in the country.


QE: Sounds great. Have you ever sat out there and asked yourself about the psychological basis of the appeal of these kinds of stories?

LF: Oh, there’s no question about it. Horror is one of the more enduring genres – compared to what? Well, romance will always be in the stories – but the fact is horror…


QE: as in Freud’s work on the uncanny?

LF: … yes, the uncanny. That’s my favorite word, and that’s what kind of horror I’m interested in…

QE: … where the confusion causes the fear…

LF: … he actually speaks about not being able to orient yourself back home, which is one of my themes – you can never go home. That’s what the uncanny means – that you’re basically disoriented from your home and yourself. All of those are my favorite themes, much more so than an axe through the head…


QE: … the gore…

LF: … the gore is almost a burden. It’s as if you wanted to tell romantic stories of people falling in love and people were like, saying, “where’s the cum shot?” You say, yes, I understand the cum shot, but I want to talk about people’s yearnings…


QE: It ceases to be a story and becomes special effects…

LF: Precisely. Spectacle over other stuff. I’m a theme and atmosphere guy... I can’t understand mysteries, you know. I can never figure out who is the murderer. My brother used to love those things, and I could never figure them out. My wife leans over to me at movies and says it’s obviously the butler and I say what, was I supposed to be figuring that out, cause I was watching how the actor was holding the glass, or, you know, how the fog looked in that scene… I was just enjoying the atmosphere..


QE: that’s uncanny…

LF: Oh yeah, (laughs) look, I think fear is the ruling emotion. It’s all well and good to imagine that people conquer with love, but the real truth is that we’re still the reptile brain, which is guiding our thinking, and there’s much to be afraid of…


QE: Fear… and perhaps greed?

LF: I agree, but I think that is fear. I had this Russian literature teacher and he made the correlation between greed and fear and I loved it. If you’re sitting at the table and you’re just consumptively eating all the lamb chops and whatever, it’s because you feel like you’ll be wanting, or you’ll be without, and so I think greed in its own way, the sense that you must have this, and I think it’s almost fear displaced if you think you need stuff to protect you from the inevitable. That’s why the opposite is this beautiful place of acceptance and all the Zen teachings are about letting go, and accepting and that, to me, is the journey – to see how much you can dispel fear and dispel greed and become a generous person. The truth is, I believe all of that is in us, or can be… that’s what it’s about – you‘re trying to show the appalling things in order to, in a sense, be released from them.

QE: Thanks, Larry… we appreciate your time. And now I release you! Well, after you autograph my Last Winter dvd…


Left to Right: Larry Fessenden, Larry signs my copy of Last Winter, Larry and director Glenn McQuaid




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Kurt (8 years ago) Reply

Great interview from the good Dr. here. I managed to have a brief chat with Larry before the I SELL THE DEAD screening. Of course I also had to express my love for THE LAST WINTER, and got a kick out of his response: "You are part of a rare breed"

Ha.


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