P&P – DAY 6 & 7 – The Walls Close In

The shot above is a look into the on-set monitor, a dramatic glimpse into the filming of “The Walls” segment of “The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre”, where the protagonist of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story about the death traps of the Spanish Inquisition finds the walls of his prison cell glowing a searingly hot red and then closing in on him.

Remember the trash compactor scene from “Star Wars” (or any its many cinematic forerunners)? Well, it was Poe who first came up with that particularly imaginative death trap, in the same story that already features the bottomless “Pit” and slashing “Pendulum“.

Here you can get a view of some of the cell walls, as well as one version of the Pit hole (there were three built in total). In the photo below you can also see the platform – or the rack – from which the protagonist manages to free himself before this next set of horrors befalls him. (I suppose I should have earlier already said “spoiler alert” for those who haven’t read Poe’s story).

I can’t share photos of us actually shooting these particular scenes inside the cell, since all four sides of the cell’s walls had to be set up for most of those shots, and that meant only Jason Chua, the D. P. (director of photography), and I were inside the cell at those times. The rest of the crew had to watch from the monitors.

There were even shots where it was just me in the cell all alone, with the camera attached to the lighting grid in the ceiling, looking down. I’ll get to that later.

Below, one of the cell walls. Musical notes are etched into them, lit from behind with red lights.

Poe describes the views of red burning markings on the cell walls in this phrase, also quoted in the film: “Demon eyes, of a wild and ghastly vivacity, glared upon me in a thousand directions and gleamed with the lurid lustre of a fire that I could not force my imagination to regard as unreal.” In my version, with the protagonist already established as a composer early on in the film, these “demon eyes” become musical notes. And the score is the composer’s own music, literally scalding and closing in on him.

The cell walls were filmed from many angles.

An endless string of red lights were taped to the back of the cell walls to make the notes gleam red within.

While on one side of the studio we were filming the walls closing in, on another side the second unit was still busy meticulously filming the pendulum miniature. A full three days was needed to make all those shots. In this photo we see them use a green screen in the background of a shot that will later be combined to show the pendulum scythe crossing in bird’s eye view in front of the protagonist.

A selfie I took of my hand touching the “scorching” wall.

1st Assistant Cameraperson Han Jang Houston imitating that shot, which we also saw in the monitor in the top of this post.

Not sure if it was Han or someone else who so cleverly annotated this photo…

Below, the actual spot in the score where the composer burns his hand. These just happen to be the very notes of the music the audience is hearing at that moment of the film. In fact whenever a musical score is clearly shown in the film, that depicted excerpt of the music is actually being played in soundtrack. It’s not something I necessarily expect audiences to catch on first viewing, but one of those easter eggs I hope the musicians among them at least will pick up on eventually.

That said, the aghast expression on the protagonist’s face before he touches the “scored” walls is probably enough of a suggestion that these are not just some random notes etched in burning red in the cell. But there’s a difference between catching on to that and actually reading the score on the screen and recognizing how directly those notes correspond to the music we are hearing at that very moment.

My folder with the script and story boards rests on the “rack” between takes.

Not every cell wall was covered by a complete score. Some were only partially carved out to create more abstract designs. Jason and I would shoot stills of many of these evocative details that I would later ask my editor Stolis Hadjicharalambous to edit in millisecond bursts into the scene as quick disorienting flashes.

Below, production designer Mariana Soares da Silva hard at work on the cell walls. We had an A wall and a B wall that together encompassed the two pages of the score the three cellos play during the part of the scene the walls are most prominently featured (the piano and vocal parts were redacted for this purpose). 4 more copies of each score page were overlaid on the other wall segments to complete all 10. We realized that it would take too long for Mariana to fully carve the complete scores into all 10 styrofoam walls; that is when we decided to make only a few “hero walls” with the full scores, and have the rest be more mysteriously abstract walls with only partial scores, an idea derived out of practical necessity that ended up positively enhancing the visuals of the film.

I have no pictures of Mariana’s face from these two set days; for that I direct you to this diary entry.

Ja’rel Ivory, assisted by Keisuke Koijima, attaching the camera to the overhead grid. For the overhead shots of the protagonists trapped in the cell. Once the camera was turned on it stayed on until someone climbed the ladder again. Which means we ended up with one two hour long uninterrupted take of me alone in the cell being put through my horrific paces.

The monitor showing the overhead camera’s view of the cell. The ladder will still need to be removed before we can get started.

Assistant director Charlotte Purser with Jason.

This video gives a glimpse of what was required behind the scenes as we shot the walls closing in on the protagonist. This is surely an early take. My note, later called out from behind the walls where Jason and I were filming, is likely to have been that the wall will need to move in much slower in subsequent attempts.

About dannyashkenasi

I'm a composer with over 40 years experience creating music theater. I'm also an actor, writer, director, producer, teacher and general enthusiast for the arts.
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