In “The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre”, my second short film musical adaptation of a classic gothic tale by Edgar Allan Poe, the protagonist is seen working at his desk in a garret apartment, while soldiers of the inquisition are entering a building and climbing up a series of flights of stairs before bursting into the garret to arrest him.
Which means we needed to find a building with staircases that could believably stand in for a building with staircases in 17th century Spain.
That turns out to be a rather tall order in New York City. Especially on an indie budget.
Introducing the Merchant’s House on 39 East 4th Street in the East Village of Manhattan. Built in 1832, it has been open to the public as a museum since 1936. The video on its website shows off the many lovely rooms authentically furnished to reproduce the living arrangements of an upper middle class New York City family of the mid 19th century. But it wan’t the lovely rooms that attracted my eye. It was the fleeting glimpses of the house’s staircases that encouraged me to book a reservations-required-limited-slots-due-to-Covid visit to the house last March, and take a lot of pictures acting as a location scout.
A 19th century Manhattan townhouse may not exactly match what one may have found in Toledo two hundred years earlier, but what we found was as ideal as we could hope for to create the cinematic illusion within our means. Another bonus: the Merchant’s House just happens to be an easy distance from the Theater for the New City, where we were shooting most of the film.
On the evening of our second day of shooting “The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre” we spent three hours in the Merchant’s House with a small crew, reduced to a minimum per request of the caretakers, to film several shots of the soldiers entering the building, ascending several flights of stairs, then descending these same flights with me under arrest as the protagonist. We also shot a little more, some bonus shots that I initially thought would be captured elsewhere, but for which the Merchant’s House provided a great setting too…
Below, the main entrance of the Merchant’s House, and a screen shot of the soldiers entering the building.
The first flight of stairs and a shot of the soldiers going up.
The second flight of stairs and the soldiers climbing them.
The top staircase up to the servant’s quarters is much less elegant than what we have seen up to now. For the purposes of our film this not only helped establish that our protagonist is in a garret apartment, but is also either a servant of the house or a poor border living in his one room in the attic.
We were planning to film on cobble stone streets in Red Hook near a brick building with multiple arched entryways to sell the idea that the soldiers are dragging the protagonist through the night streets of 17th Spain. But then I saw the terraced back yard of the Merchant’s House, and realized it could, with the right camera angles, stand for streets and courtyards the soldiers and their prisoner pass through on the way to the courthouse. One location could now provide the setting for two. A time and money saver. No cobble stones under my feet, but stone paving would do too, and it definitely is a more handsome setting than what the Red Hook brick building facade was going to provide.
Notice the hood over my head in the picture above? The soldiers put it over the protagonist before they leave the garret.
Several shots in the film are from the point of view of the prisoner as he peers down at his feet from under the hood.
These p.o.v shots required me to hold a small go-pro camera just under my nose under the hood, acting as a de facto cameraman, while I walked as best as I could down stairs, or across a foyer, or over backyard terrace stones. The arm holding the camera also needed to keep the hood positioned just so to both show my feet and show the hood; the other hand could help out but had to keep itself out of frame; all not terribly easy for me to do while trying not to trip barely seeing where I was going. I shakily climbed down three flights of stairs and walked all about the back terrace taking these under-the-hood go-pro shots, of which only three snatches lasting barely three seconds total would make it into the film. I also took these shots exiting the garret and entering the courtroom, but no part of those made the final cut.