Extensive Interview on [re]Search My Trash
Mike Haberfelner, who already posted a very nice review of my musical short film Edgar Allan poe adaptation “The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre” on his website [re]Search My Trash, has now posted an extensive interview with me about not just “The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre” but also its musical sibling and my first short film “The Tell-Tale Heart – a musicabre“. You can go read it here – or follow the transcipt of the full interview copied below:
INTERVIEW – Q: Michael Haberfelner – A: Danny Ashkenasi
Your new movie The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre – in a few words, what is it about?
“The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre” is a musical adaptation of the classic horror story by Edgar Allan Poe. In my version, a modern day composer imagines himself both the victim and the judges of the Inquisition in Poe’s story. Fantasy and reality converge with frightening consequences.
Why did you pick of all of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story exactly The Pit and the Pendulum as source material for your movie?
My involvement with Poe goes way back when I started using the opening paragraphs of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” as an alternate audition monolog. Then the Metropolitan Playhouse, a theater in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, produced a literary theater festival focused on Poe for which I composed a one man (with three cellos) show “The Tell-Tale Heart – a musicabre”. I performed that theatrically there and at other venues, and always wanted to create a companion piece for it, a second act, adapting “The Pit and the Pendulum”, but never got around to that. Four years ago I decided to make a short film of “The Tell-Tale Heart – a musicabre”, which went on to play many festivals and win over 60 awards. While in post-production for it I finally came up with an idea of how to musically adapt “The Pit and the Pendulum” as a film. When the pandemic hit, and I found myself housebound with plenty extra time, I adapted/composed “The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre”. I see both musicabres, both short films, as companion pieces that have not only Poe but also certain musical and visual elements in common, as well as distinct differences. “The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre” also pushed me toward more sophisticated and complex musical and cinematic language.
Other sources of inspiration when writing The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre?
There were no direct influences I was consciously thinking of at the time; but upon reflection in the writing of the adaptation, any story that uses a framing device to illuminate or explain a central fantastical conceit is a model – the first example that comes to mind might be the movie “Jacob’s Ladder”; and visually for the mirror masks, which are arguably the most striking and idiosyncratic visual conceit in the film, I was inspired by cubism and any film that dealt with funhouse mirror imagery (perhaps most famously “The Lady from Shanghai”, like one audience member enthusiastically brought up in one Q&A) to want to explore what images one could discover when mirror pieces are contoured to apply directly perpendicularly to the face; and musically when it comes to composing for the cellos, most any 20th century score that features only string instruments, especially for unsettling effect – which would of course be Bernard Herrmann’s score for “Psycho” as well as a several scores by Bela Bartok or Arnold Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night”; and when it comes to the copious use of vocal overlap, I had explored that technique in previous work like “The Song of Job 9:11”, but the most likely prior inspiration for that technique might be Arnold Schoenberg’s opera “Moses and Aaron”, which impressed me mightily when I saw it performed years ago in New York City Opera.
You have also written the score for The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre – so what can you tell us about your movie’s music, and what actually came first, the script or the score? And do talk about your composition process as such?
As “The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre” is a companion piece to my first Poe musicabre “The Tell-Tale Heart – a musicabre”, there were conscious choices about what they would have in common and how the second film would differ/build upon what was done in the first. So I knew it would be mostly a “one-man” show vocally, but this time unlike in its stage-originating forerunner, I could layer vocal lines to create harmonies and counterpoints with myself. I would use three cellos again, but I would add a piano and would be able to “add a third hand” for the piano or “double” the three cellos in the soundtrack – something you could not do on stage without hiring extra musicians (or using playback).
Poe’s story came first, but for the longest time (after staging Tell-Tale and considering Pit and Pendulum as a likely second act for a full evening of Poe musicabres) I couldn’t figure out how I wanted to adapt it. Once I recognized that the set up in Poe’s story could be seen as a metaphor or allegory for depression and self harm, and I conceived of the modern day framing device, the adaptation of Poe’s text into a script, the composing of the score, and the creation of the visual ideas all happened hand in hand in hand. There was no one thing, music or script or visual ideas, coming first. They each influenced the other and the third. It was a very interconnected creative process.
As to my composing process, sometimes I have musical ideas that I’ve been carrying with me for years or even decades that finally find a place and get developed and fleshed out for a particular project, and that is how some of the score for Pit and Pendulum evolved. But there are also musical ideas that were directly inspired by Poe’s text or the situations described within – most notably the sound the cellos make describing the swing of the pendulum and marking its step by step (or pitch by pitch) approach towards the protagonist, as well as the sound the cellos make when the blade starts cutting into fabric and skin. Those particular ideas were with me from the moment I first considered adapting this story, many years ago when I was first performing Tell-Tale on stage, and long before I thought about making short films.
What can you tell us about The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre‘s approach to horror?
I am a big fan of horror, but not of the “torture porn” genre. And arguably Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” is the granddaddy of the torture porn genre, in that its main focus is putting the protagonist – and by inference the reader – in several horrific and imaginative death traps. Where “The Tell-Tale Heart” is all about empathizing with the mental state of a lunatic murderer, “The Pit and the Pendulum” invites you to imagine oneself facing outlandish physical dooms. One problem for me – and a big reason in why it took me so long before I finally adapted this story – is that I was more interested in depicting the political machinations of the Inquisition, or exploring the personal psychology of the protagonist, but Poe’s story barely focuses on these things. And the horrors he does describe – so audacious and original for his time – have since been picked up in popular culture in numerous iterations – so why repeat them again? Nonetheless, I had very faithfully adapted “The Tell-Tale Heart” and strived to do the same with “The Pit and the Pendulum”, even though I found myself initially not as drawn into the narrative. However, once I took the narrative less literally, but discovered it could be viewed as a metaphor for depression, psychological torment and self-harm, the story became creatively exciting for me, and gave me leave to explore musical and visual dimensions that allowed for a more expressionistic and playful rather than a mere literal, straight forward interpretation of Poe’s horrors.
Do talk about your directorial approach to your story at hand!
I knew it would be a complex production, which would require being prepared with a detailed game plan for every step of the way, for what was needed to be done during pre-production, for what we would be doing on set, and for what was required in post-production. I made sure we did that prep work, and that helped us execute on time and also be able to change plans successfully when the unexpected intervened: like when a metal helmet, worn by an actor playing one of the soldiers of the Inquisition, fell off him and on me in the middle of a take and busted open my forehead – I had to go to urgent care and left my D.P. to shoot what scenes with the soldiers he could without me until I returned to set with bandage strips on my forehead which we had to find ways to conceal with my hair for most of the rest of the shoot. Or the moment a prop candle set fire to one of the main mirror mask pieces, forcing me to improvise new shot set ups with other mask pieces for the climactic shots of the mirror mask segment.
You also play the lead in The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre – so what can you tell us about your character(s), what did you draw upon to bring him to life, and have you written him with yourself in mind from the get-go?
The plan for the musicabres always was to showcase my work as a composer and actor in one project, so there would be a role (or roles) written for me to play.
I did not think of the character in “The Pit and the Pendulum” as close to me, but as written in Poe’s story he is not a well defined character but more a blank page for the reader to put him/herself into, to imagine themselves in the horrific circumstances Poe focuses on describing in grotesque detail. Therefore my director’s “brief” to myself as writer/adapter of the story and performer of the role was to lean into drawing parallels to myself, identifying with the character as closely as possible, in the belief that it would add extra resonance to the storytelling and performance. So the protagonist in my version is a composer like me, the modern day section in the film’s framing device was filmed in my own home, the protagonist’s modern day partner is played by my real life husband, to give three examples of how I followed that “brief”. However I named the character “Alan”, not “Danny”, as a nod to Poe. And the home address given in the modern day framing section is not my own but of the actual Poe house in the Bronx. The horrific fate of the protagonist is all fiction, not autobiography.
A few words about the rest of your cast, and why exactly these people?
I already mentioned one reason why I cast my husband Edward Elder in the role of the rescuer. I’d also cast him as the murder victim in “The Tell-Tale Heart – a musicabre”. So I kill him in my first film, and he saves me in the second, which is a nice kind of symmetry. My plan is to cast him in some role in every film I get to make going forwards. The rest of the cast was found through a regular casting process, except for Mathew Gnagy, who I invited to join P&P after he had also performed in “The Tell-Tale Heart – a musicabre” and was a delight to work with on both films.
What can you tell us about the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere?
We shot for 10 days. It was hard work, and there were difficulties (one of which sent me to urgent care, as I already described), but we managed to stay on schedule and get all our shots. It helped that we had a detailed game plan (story boards, shot lists, playback tracks pre-edited for every planned shot etc.) and that we were able to make adjustments to the plan when called for. Everybody worked hard and with good humor. My producer Henry, who has far more on set experience than I, tells me it was one of the most harmonious sets he’s ever worked on, which makes me feel good. Because it was probably also one of the more demanding shoots – from a technical difficulty standpoint – that most crew members are likely to have been on as well.
The $64-question of course, where can The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre be seen?
For the time being, at film festivals, some of which have on-line components. Go to my website Notes from a Composer (www.dannyashkenasi.com) for the latest updates.
Anything you can tell us about audience and critical reception of The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre?
It’s been very positive. You can read Mike Heberfelner’s My Trash review here: https://dannyashkenasi.com/2023/02/21/an-enjoyably-disturbing-piece-of-cinema/
I like how he calls it “an enjoyably disturbing piece of cinema”.
And here are just a few of the quotes from audience members who wrote me after seeing it:
“What a monumental, multi-dimensional, creative accomplishment!!! As always, your musical composition is extremely compelling and evocative……and this time so exquisitely stressful……while always beautifully expressive of the text.”
“Bravo! What an imaginative, surprising film, visually and musically. I loved the pendulum-as-bow accompanied by the ominous violin and cello strokes, the grotesque effect of the mirror masks, and the substitution of musical score for demonic eyes in the glowing walls. The doubling of protagonist and antagonists is very Poe. And the music is beautiful.””
“The music was perfect – very haunting and surprisingly catchy! It felt like a character in its own right.”
“The special effect with the mirrors was elegant in its simplicity and its effect of increasing tension.”
“Your performances are mesmerizing, the cinematography, art department, geometry, music, editing and color correction are so rich.”
“Thank you for making me enjoy a musical, in a special way.”
“You’ve undoubtedly created a genre for yourself, a genre that is clearly and exclusively your own, people won’t be able to copy it.”
“P.S. Did you really need to destroy a cello? ”
The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre isn’t your first Poe-themed musicabre – so do talk about The Tell-Tale Heart – a musicabre for a bit, and what does Edgar Allan Poe’s body of work mean to you personally?
I had read one or two of Poe’s short stories when I was in high school, and seen one or two movie adaptations, but not “The Tell-Tale Heart”.
When I was just out of college I had a roommate, a classically trained actor who specialized in portraying literary masters and characters in one-man shows designed for high school audiences. He was quite a character himself, and assessed me – type wise – as being half angel, half demon, urging me to read “The Tell-Tale Heart” because he thought I’d be perfect for that story’s protagonist. I did love the story, and would use the first page as an alternate monolog for acting auditions. Years later when the Metropolitan Playhouse inaugurated their literary festival with Poe as its theme, it made sense that I adapt “The Tell-Tale Heart’ as a musical piece for me to compose and perform. Up until then I was working on projects either as an actor or as a composer, and I was eager to combine both pursuits in one project. By that point I felt so comfortable with the story’s narrative that composing the music for it felt almost instinctive.
After that I read most of Poe’s stories, for my own enjoyment, as well as assessing which might lend itself to be musicalized, or musicabrized. “The Pit and the Pendulum” from the start was the main candidate for my next adaptation, but like I stated before, how to go about it didn’t come as easily to me as it had for Tell-Tale. Whereas Tell-Tale in its original form just flowed naturally for me, I needed to find a creative key to unlock the adaptation process on Pit and Pendulum for it to work for me, and that didn’t happen until many years later: we’d hit a technical snag in post-production of “The Tell-Tale Heart – a musicabre”, one that put the completion of the film in limbo for several months. This was very frustration and I felt terribly stuck. In that state of mind I reread “The Pit and the Pendulum”, and perhaps because I was feeling somewhat depressed and stuck at that moment, at this reread I imagined how the story might be read as an allegory, and that became the key that unlocked the adaptation process for me creatively.
Will you make any more musicabres, Poe-themed or not? And/or any other future projects you’d like to share?
There are several Poe stories I could imagine giving the “musicabre” treatment. If someone stepped up with funding to make some more for a musicabre anthology series, I’d be so on board!
What got you into the filmworld to begin with, and did you receive any formal training on the subject?
I’ve been movie mad from earliest childhood, as well as always wanting to perform and engage with music in all forms. When I was deciding what to study in college, a major question was how I would be able to accommodate all of my artistic interests. I ended up majoring in Drama –studying at the Playwrights Horizons Theater School at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. At Playwrights I could major in acting as well as directing and take other theater classes like design, and then also take film and cinema studies courses in Tisch. I ended up taking animation courses at the film school and making animated films while simultaneously acting on stage and directing original music theater pieces for Playwrights.
After school however I did very little work in film – I spent most of my career up until recently acting and creating musical theater works on stage in New York and Germany, with only the occasional foray in television or film – nothing to write home about. When I decided to make “The Tell-Tale Heart – a musicabre” in 2019, it became very much a learning on the job kind of process, starting with turning a stage libretto into a detailed movie script, drawing storyboards and creating a video of those storyboards using a live recording of an earlier performance. Which meant that by the time we went on set to shoot “The Tell-Tale Heart – a musicabre” I had already made a pencil drawing storyboarded video version of the whole film as preparation.
You seem to be as comfortable in front of the camera as behind it and have worn many hats when it comes to filmmaking – so what are some of the jobs on film sets you especially enjoy, which could you do without?
I used to think of myself not as a director first but as a director by default, because I wanted to see my own work staged and producing and directing it myself was often just the best way to make that happen. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised now that I’m making films just how creatively nurtured and fulfilled I feel by every aspect of the filmmaking process. Even the more daunting or tedious aspects – things I may dread ahead of time – ultimately have made me feel incredibly fulfilled in the doing of them. I thought, going into “The Tell-Tale Heart – a musicabre” that I was doing that to showcase my work as an actor and composer first and foremost. But instead I have now discovered that I may be a filmmaker first and foremost who also happens to act and compose.
What can you tell us about your filmwork prior to The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre, in whatever position?
I said there isn’t much to write home about in my adult film life before the two Poe musicabres. But when I was 14, I did play a lead role in the German miniseries “Rote Erde”, at the time the most expensive German TV production in history. You can find all episodes on YouTube. Young Danny is in episodes 6 and 7.
How would you describe yourself as a director, how as an actor, and how as a composer?
The first thought I have is not the differences but what I have in common in all these disciplines, what kind of artist I am generally. And that is that at my best I start with my instinct, with ideas or choices that are emerging from my unconscious. And then I apply examination, understanding, structure and craft to ensure each idea or choice is supported intellectually and artistically. Sometimes when inspiration doesn’t spark naturally, I will rely on my extensive tool kit of craft, and I can’t say that work ends up being any lesser; but I am happiest and believe I do my most fulfilling work when it is rooted in instinct.
Filmmakers, actors, musicians who inspire you?
So not simply who I think are great, but also artists with whom I also one way or another I feel a special, personal connection of inspiration (this list is not exhaustive):
Bob Fosse. Alfred Hitchcock. Alan Parker. Steven Spielberg.
Meryl Streep. Lily Tomlin. Madeline Khan. Robin Williams.
Ludwig van Beethoven. Kurt Weill. Bela Bartok. Kate Bush. Billy Joel. Stephen Sondheim. Franz Schubert. Cyndi Lauper.
Your favourite movies?
My absolute favorite is “Cabaret”. The greatest film musical of all time. Also love and am heavily influenced by “Jesus Christ Superstar”, “Amadeus”, “All That Jazz”, “Hair”, “Singin’ in the Rain”, “The Boyfriend” and “Bugsy Malone” – more musical films that grabbed me in my youth and never let go.
It’s not just musical movies that I count among my favorites. There’s also the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “Some Like it Hot”, “Halloween”, “Cloud Atlas”, “Stage Door”, “Brokeback Mountain”, “A.I.” and and and…
… and of course, films you really deplore?
I’ve seen films that disappointed me or I thought were bad, but I tend to avoid films I have a good idea I will likely find wholly deplorable, so by not having seen them, I can’t actually honestly critique them. …Trying to remember the last time I really so loathed something I did watch… and I’m sure it must have happened, but nothing specific comes to mind; and for me to deplore a film, I would have to have been offended enough to still remember it, I think.
Oh, I do remember something – yes, the last time a film offended me, it was an animated film that so betrayed its classic source material with the loud obnoxious storytelling style it was applying that I literally willed myself to fall asleep while I was in the theater, so I could avoid being assaulted any further by the film. But that also means I didn’t actually see the whole film, and thus am in no position to fairly critique it – which is why I am not naming it.
Your/your movie’s website, social media, whatever else?
So, my website is Notes from a Composer: www.dannyashkenasi.com
The homepage for “The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre”: https://dannyashkenasi.com/pit-pendulum/
The homepage for “The Tell-Tale Heart – a musicabre”: https://dannyashkenasi.com/tell-tale-heart/
There you can find links to plenty blog posts about both films – on-set diaries etc. – and lots more on cinema, musicals, travel photography, and much more.
Also Twitter: https://twitter.com/DannyAshkenasi
Anything else you’re dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?
Gawd, have I not gone on and on enough already?! 😉
Thanks for the interview!