Tribeca '09 Preview! Mr. Beaks Gets To The Heart Of TELL-TALE With Director Michael Cuesta!
Published at: April 14, 2009, 2:51 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
TRUE! There have been many attempts to bring Edgar Allen Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" to the screen, but, to date, the only completely successful adaptations of the 2,148-word short story have, appropriately enough, keptitbrief. It's not like there's a great deal to the narrative: basically, a nut-job kills an old man because he doesn't like his "vulture eye", hides the hacked-up remains under the floorboards of his house, and is driven to confession after being tortured by what he believes to be the cacophonous throbbing of the old man's heart.
But what if, rather than beating from the floorboards, the heart of the victim was transplanted into another body and drove its new host crazy with thoughts of revenge? That's the premise of Michael Cuesta's TELL-TALE, a "psychological paranoid thriller" set to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 24th. Written by THE HORSEMEN's Dave Callaham, the film stars Josh Lucas as a struggling single father who inexplicably becomes consumed with vengeance after receiving his new heart. Lena Headey also appears as a doctor who's been treating his daughter for a "rare degenerative disorder" (must be some rotten genes in that family). Rounding out the cast is the great Brian Cox as a somewhat devilish detective who encourages Lucas's bizarre pursuit of justice.
Shot in Providence, Rhode Island, and produced by Ridley and Tony Scott, the film promises to be a stylish variation on Poe's blood-curdling yarn. With the premiere a little over a week away, I got on the phone with Cuesta to find out what prompted the indie director of L.I.E. and TWELVE AND HOLDING to take on his first commercial feature. In the following interview, we discuss the influence of Cronenberg on TELL-TALE, the Poe-ness of Providence, the difficulty of editing a film with a strong-willed producer (Ridley Scott), and much more.
Mr. Beaks: Your first two films [L.I.E. and TWELVE AND HOLDING], were small, personal movies. TELL-TALE seems an attempt at something more commercial.
Michael Cuesta: Yeah, I think so. Between making those two smaller movies, I did a couple of TV shows that introduced me to a more commercial world. I did the pilot and also produced and directed the first season of DEXTER, and that kind of reminded me how much I love genre films. And in the midst of trying to get a third film made, of a book I adapted that was more in the vein of TWELVE AND HOLDING, that ignited the urge to make a genre movie - mainly horror, which has always been my favorite. Funny enough, when I did L.I.E. and even TWELVE AND HOLDING, I approached those as if they were social horror movies.
But the filmmakers we love who do [horror] well, guys like Cronenberg and Kubrick... they're the kinds of filmmakers that try to make them almost into art movies. Cronenberg is really the guy. I discovered him when I was in the eighth grade and went to see THE BROOD. I snuck into it, and I was like, "What is this?" Then after that, SCANNERS came out and... I had a whole group of friends who were just completely taken by his movies. They weren't just horror movies; they went much deeper.
Beaks: I think that's an interesting way into TELL-TALE. Cronenberg was a master of body horror, and it seems like TELL-TALE is something of a body horror film, too.
Cuesta: Exactly. Look, dude, this was a very hard movie to make. There were a lot of producers, so there were many, many opinions. This was the first film where I had more money at stake and more people nervous and several people not knowing what the hell they were doing. That gets in the way of interpretation, if you know what I mean, especially when you're dealing with Edgar Allen Poe and the deep ideas he puts out in his writing - and which David [Callaham] put in his script. I did a rewrite with David on the script.
But I think the Cronenberg that's in TELL-TALE... in hindsight, I wish there was more. I wish there was more silence, I wish there was more sex - and when I say "sex", I mean "sexual". (Laughs) I think it's sensual in the way it looks, and the relationship that's at the core of the movie. But, yes, it definitely involves the body, and the mind-body connection. "Is it my body? Is it my mind?" It's exploring those connections. When you see the film, one of the better parts is that his daughter has a very rare disease; she's a physical anomaly like himself. That's an interesting relationship.
Beaks: To give people a sense of what the movie is, it sounds like the narrative is basically "The Tell-Tale Heart", but with the heart up out of the floorboards and embedded in Josh Lucas's character. And it's actively trying to find the murderer rather than lying there and driving the culprit crazy? Is that accurate?
Cuesta: It's doing both. The floorboards are his body, his chest. And it is driving him crazy. The similarity with Poe is that it has that madness and insanity. "Is it me, or is it my mind?" "Is it my own prejudice?" - as it is in "The Tell-Tale Heart" with him accusing the old man. And "Am I in control, or not in control?" It being in his own chest, it keeps beating in his own head; therefore, his conscience is telling him "I need to do this." And he ends up believing and following it.
Beaks: You mentioned that you rewrote the script with Dave Callaham. How was that process? Were you both bringing different things to the table?
Cuesta: One relationship was changed drastically, and one character was changed. There's a relationship at the core of the film; it was originally a friendship between a man and a woman, and I made it into a romance. I wanted to explore more of the affairs of the heart, I guess you could say. And I did that by creating a romance, as well as developing another character in the film - who I think came out great. Brian Cox plays a detective who's investigating the crime Josh Lucas's character is avenging. He kind of uses Josh ultimately as an instrument of revenge. He plays it kind of like Mephistopheles; he helps him make the Faustian deal in a way. His character is great. He was originally in the script, but it wasn't fully developed, so Dave and I developed it. Then I called Brian, and told him "Look, I have this character. Would you be interested in playing him?" And Brian was like, "Yeah, I'll do anything. Just send me the script." Once I knew Brian was on board, it was very easy to write because you know what Brian can do. (Laughs) That helps a lot.
Beaks: If you're thinking of Mephistopheles, why not start with Brian Cox?
Cuesta: Exactly. You can't get better than that for the devil. He could read the phone book and be scary.
Beaks: So you've had a great relationship with Brian since L.I.E.?
Cuesta: Yeah. Brian is tough, but he's tough in that he wants you to know what the fuck you're doing on set. You know how it is: you can write a script all you want, but when you make it it's a completely different animal. Brian's a pro. He understood what we were doing with the character, and he brought a lot to the table. There's this one scene where Brian's character wants a sort of confirmation about what really happened to this man and what's driving him. If you do the research, there's this thing called "cell memory", and it translates into having certain cravings of their donors. So he goes to get confirmation at the hospital, but I played it that he gets it and, at the same time, acts sort of like the devil. "This is what you need to do. Go and finish the job." He's the devil on [Lucas's] shoulder. "Kill! Kill!" (Laughs)
Beaks: That's an interesting way of going about it.
Cuesta: My hope is that people who love genre movies take to it, but also people who are looking for something different. I'm hoping L.I.E. and DEXTER fans take to it.
Beaks: Two of your producers, Ridley and Tony Scott, are known for taking genre scripts and imbuing them with a distinctive style.
Cuesta: That's right. Tony wasn't very involved, but Ridley was very involved in the postproduction. Nothing in the developing of the script - some of his producers were; he has several who worked on it through his company [Scott Free]. But Ridley was very much involved in post. At times it was good, and at times it was a wrestle. I mean, it's two filmmakers in a room, and you're never going to see eye-to-eye on everything. That was a very interesting experience, wrestling with him a little bit at times.
Beaks: TELL-TALE was done outside of a studio. Do you have U.S. distribution yet?
Cuesta: No, no. It was independently made. I didn't produce this film. It was financed by a company called Social Capital, which also sold the foreign sales rights. We're basically using Tribeca as a launching pad for the U.S. It's a tough market. I'm sure my sales agent has his hands full.
Beaks: But it's a horror film, and those movies often perform strongly. You've also got Josh Lucas, Lena Headey and Brian Cox. Those are very attractive pieces, if you want to think about the film that way.
Cuesta: And Lena's super sexy. She surprised me. We cast her a week before we started shooting, and I kept her British accent. I wouldn't let her do that generic American accent that she does on [TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES] or stuff like that. She's kind of an interesting character; she's enigmatic in the movie. She's a doctor, and she's taking care of the main character's daughter, and she's very restrained. Lena's just like that: she's always not giving it away.
As far as the movie goes, I'd call it a psychological paranoid thriller. It looks like a horror movie at times because I do bring in baroque and gothic elements, but when I think of horror today I think of THE RING and I think of SAW. This is much more psychological and paranoid, but... it tries to make the grotesque beautiful. There are a few scenes where I try to do that.
Beaks: When you say "grotesque", I suppose there's an expectation that a heart is going to be ripped out of a chest at some point.
Cuesta: There are a few moments where you'll have to turn away, but... I pull back on them so maybe they'll be more effective. I show a little less than what you typically see, but I think it really gets under your skin.
We shot it in twenty-nine days in Providence - which happens to be a great Poe city, by the way. We lucked out. Not only was it a tax break; it's also a salty, seafaring, turn-of-the-century Poe type of town. It really worked quite well. It has all of the demonically gothic textures of Poe. And the whole Brown University element was perfect for the film.
Beaks: I'm trying to think if anyone's exploited Providence for that.
Cuesta: I think that we might be the first film that has done that - just the way I made it look. I shot it last year in the early spring, right when the trees were budding. It was cold and it looked like you were very much in the Poe world that he writes. You know, there's this building that has this plaque saying [Poe stayed there] with his mistress as he traveled up the Eastern seaboard writing all of his stories.
As we wrapped up the interview, Cuesta informed me that he's working on a screenplay with his brother for a "shoestring" independent feature. He'll also be directing the finale for the second season of Alan Ball's TRUE BLOOD (he hasn't seen a script yet, so no details for you!).
For those of you hitting up the Tribeca Film Festival next week, here's the screening schedule for TELL-TALE.
Premiere – Friday, April 24th at 9:30pm – BMCC Tribeca PAC
Press & Industry Screening 1 – Saturday, April 25th at 11:30am - AMC Village 7, Theater 2
Public Screening 2 - Monday, April 27th at 4:45pm – AMC Village 7, Theater 1
Public Screening 3 - Friday, May 1st at 9:45pm – AMC Village 7, Theater 3
Check it out and let us know how it is!