I took the above selfie after the Q&A that followed the screening of my musical Poe adaptation “The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre” at the the New York Science Fiction Film Festival Saturday near Times Square.
And the screenshot below is from the on-line Q&A with Dan Abella, director of the NYSFFF, after the Sunday virtual screening of “The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre”.
Later that evening the award recipients of the festival were announced on Facebook Live. This clip is when “The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre” was awarded “Best Horror Featurette”.
Best Horror Featurette. Not bad… not bad at all ….
Group photo of some of the filmmakers represented by the NYSFFF Horror Shorts block:
From Left: Colin Francis Costello, director of STORAGE, Joe Leuben, director of FINGER, Kimberly David, director of CREEPERS, Arik Bariedl director of DILEMMA, and Lead Actor Elli Deja Bauriedl, Danny Ashkenasi director of THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM- A MUSICABRE, Dan Abella, director of The New York Sci-Fi Film Festival
On the first day of shooting “The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre”, we were not in the studio theater where sets were being built for the lion’s share of our 10 day shoot. On the first day we were in our own home, specifically shooting in our bathroom.
Most of that day required me sitting in the filled bathtub.
On the seventh day of shooting, late in the evening, we captured the underwater shots that were not possible in our own bathtub, mainly because it was just too narrow to get the camera underwater with enough distance to me to capture the shots we needed – like the one above.
So our production designer Mariana Soares da Silva ordered a kiddie pool and painted it white to approximate the underwater look of the bathtub.
And once again I had to peel off down to my swimming trunks for the art.
Major spoilers for the end of “The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre” follow. You’ve been warned!
There are several shots of me underwater. But the main one, which required the use of a long rubber tube, is a close up shot of my left arm and torso as blood pours into the bathwater. You see, while the protagonist of “The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre” imagines himself the victim of Poe’s version of the Spanish Inquisition, he is slicing his wrists in a bathtub. During the fiery, surreal climax of Poe’s story in the film, quick cuts to the blood in the bathwater clue in the audience as to what is really happening in the here and now.
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.
Danny Ashkenasi has remained fairly faithful to Poe’s story but put it into a narrative context via his framing story, as well as setting everything to music, so much so that some of Poe’s words are actually sung on screen.
And this works remarkably well, as not only does Ashkenasi hit the right note when it comes to the film’s mood, he also enriches the story with nightmarish and often surreal imagery, often goes for associative rather than linear storytelling, and ultimately delivering an enjoyably disturbing piece of cinema.
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 interview was conducted by Joe Mauceri. We actually spoke for 30 minutes, but it’s a 2 minute edit that has been posted. Still, even in that short bit, you can hear Joe say some very fine things about the film (never mind my ramblings):
Just the balance of the music, the dialog and some very interesting artistic chances that you take within the film, how did this all come about? I’m just mesmerized by what your creative process is and what it’s like to live in your mind. As an artistic piece it is very impressive, some of the visual stylings that you bring to the narrative.
“The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre” will screen on-line – in other words accessible from anywhere with internet connection – this Saturday Feb 4, 6:30pm EST, followed by a Q&A with yours truly, Edward Elder, Henry Borriello (co-producer) and Stolis Hadjicharalambous (editor), courtesy of Art is Alive Film Festival, which has nominated my short film musical Edgar Allan Poe adaptation for 4 awards: Best Action/Adventure Short Film, Best Male Actor Short Film, Best Director Action/Adventure Short Film, and Best Cinematography Action/Adventure Short Film.
If you happen to be in India… there will be an in person screening of “The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre” at the 3rd Alibag Short Film Festival 2023, scheduled for 5 February 2023 at the Hotel Sandys Alibag, Maharashtra, 9 AM to 6 PM (India time) with the award ceremony at 5 to 6 PM.
“The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre” is nominated for Best International Film. I will not manage to get myself physically to Alibag, India, but will be crossing my fingers from Brooklyn, NY.
I will be there as well as at three (!) more screenings of “The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre” in New York City during the following three weeks. The Art is Alive screening (and Q&A) Feb 4 and the Winter Film Awards screenings Feb 19 (incl. Q&A) and Feb 23. More info on those to be posted in due course.
I hope to see you Saturday in Queens!
UPDATE – 1/25/23 – “The Pit and the Pendulum – a musicabre”
has received 6 Nominations
from the Triborough Film Festival:
Best Short Film
Best Production Design
Best Sound Design
Plus it’s in the running for the People’s Choice Award!