Presently I heard a slight groan
And I knew
It was the groan of mortal terror
It was not a groan of pain or of grief
It was the low stifled sound
That arises from the bottom of the soul
When overcharged with awe
I knew the sound well
Many a night, just at midnight
When all the world slept
It had welled up from my own bosom
With its dreadful echo
The terrors that distracted me
I say I knew it well
I knew what the old man felt
And pitied him
Although I chuckled at heart
Those lines are from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”, adapted word for word into lyric form when set to be sung, accompanied by three cellos, for my theatrical adaptation “The Tell-Tale Heart – a musicabre“.
This is the moment the narrator recalls standing in the dark doorway of his soon-to-be murder victim’s bedroom, holding perfectly still after said victim cried out “Who’s there?!”.
It is part of a longer section in the short story, where Poe allows the narrator to ruminate on terrors in the dark before describing the murder to come. The narration eerily extends that breathless moment before the protagonist charges into the room and puts an end to the old man and his vulture eye. I call the musical piece I composed for this section “The Groan of Mortal Terror”.
“The Groan of Mortal Terror” on stage is an extended aria, a musical soliloquy in frozen time; the protagonist describing what is going on in the minds of two characters in the dark, in a silent stand off, keeping perfectly still. How to translate that cinematically?
I decided to plunge into the mind of the narrator, surrounded by darkness, seated on a stool like in an interrogation, but speaking to and seeing only the surrounding dark. The camera, or the viewing audience, slowly encircles him, constantly adjusting perspective in a slow orbit, the movement adding visual tension and lyricism while dramatically highlighting this singular moment in the story.
The camera travels a full circle and a quarter around the narrator, starting at his right profile and ending fully in front after a complete orbit. Thus not 360 but “450 degrees of Mortal Terror”.
Below are my story board pictures illustrating what I had in mind for this scene:
And here is a picture of the shot being executed on set. The crew had to construct a circular track on which a dolly with the camera could be carefully moved to encircle me on the stool. This took a fair amount of practice and trial and error to get the timing just as Jason Chua, the director of photography, and I wanted it:
Below is a video of us shooting one of the takes.
You can see key grip Austin Lepri pushing the dolly on which Jason, manning the camera, and gaffer Ja’rel Ivory are perched. You can hear the playback being piped in over the theater’s sound system, while I perform in sync to the pre-recorded soundtrack. After I call cut, you can also hear that this will not be the take that will eventually be used, as we discuss how to improve the timing of the dolly move.
You’ll have to wait until the film is out to see how the shot turned out. But I will share a few screen shots for you, which you can compare to the storyboards:
At this point I was required to do what I jokingly referred to as “back acting”.
Here I say “Although I chuckled at heart”.
You can compare my expression to my storyboard impression of the same moment:
Finally here are some more pictures from the set of us working on this particular shot. (All shots in this piece were taken by Austin Lepri, Edward Elder and me).
Above, set Designer Nicholas Callais is sitting in for me during one practice run.
Below, gaffer Ja’rel Ivory and assistant cameraman Harry Walker make adjustments.
Assistant Director Henry Borriello with the slate: