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Building empathy through film

Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive
Photo by Liane Brandon

As executive producer and founder of Spy Pond Productions, Eric Stange has produced, directed and written a dizzying array of work, mostly telling unique, often lost stories of American history. His work, which also covers science, has been broadcast on PBS, The Discovery Channel, and the BBC. Before becoming a filmmaker he wrote about art and culture for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Atlantic Monthly, and other publications. Eric has been the recipient of a Harvard University Charles Warren Fellowship in American History. He’s on the board of Common-Place, a website devoted to early American history, and writes a column about media and history for American Heritage magazine. “Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive” stars Denis O’Hare as Poe, and was shot on location in Boston. A screening will be held on Saturday, April 29, 1:30 p.m., at the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square as part of the Independent Film Festival of Boston (http://iffboston.org), and will be broadcast nationally next fall on the PBS series American Masters.

 What was it like working with Denis O’Hare?

Denis is one of the most talented actors in the business. Virtually everyone has seen him in his many TV or movie roles (“American Horror Story,” “The Good Wife,” “True Blood, Dallas Buyer’s Club”), but like a lot of great character actors he isn’t a household name. He should be.

What sold us on casting Denis was that he spent a whole season of “American Horror Story” playing a leading character who’s mute. Our film doesn’t have a lot of dialogue—Poe is often alone and silent, though very expressive. When we saw that Denis did an entire season of episodic TV without saying a word —we knew he could be our Poe.

In addition, it turns out Denis had studied a lot of poetry in college, so he did a wonderful job reciting Poe’s poems. And we didn’t even realize until we started with hair and make-up how much he actually looks like Poe!

Left: Actor Denis O’Hare Photo by Liane Brandon

 Edgar Allan Poe is already a well-known figure, is there new information about Poe revealed in the film?

One of the reasons I made the film is because I came to realize Poe is a hugely misunderstood figure. Most people think of him in a one-dimensional way —as a brooding, mad, perhaps opium-addled denizen of the dark. Until I started researching this project I didn’t know that Poe was an important literary critic, and an influential magazine editor. He was a powerful player in the literary scene of the 1830s and ’40s—a tastemaker—one of the glitterati of his time. He helped define what American literature would be in the early decades of our nation.

I knew Poe had written detective stories. What I didn’t realize is that Poe invented the detective story as we know it today, with all the conventions we’re used to. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, said he had modeled his stories on Poe. And virtually every detective writer since has followed suit.

 Poe is one of those iconic figures who appears in popular culture decade after decade. Even people who haven’t read his works know his face. Why?

Yes it’s amazing how often Poe pops up. He’s in “The Simpsons,” on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and on and on.

Poe himself is partly responsible for his enduring image in pop culture. He knew that to sell his stories in a competitive marketplace he needed more than just good writing—he needed a public persona that would give him an edge. He was a fan of the English bad-boy poet Lord Byron, and he saw how a reputation—even a dark one —could help sell literature.

So he had daguerreotypes made that portrayed him a certain way, and he wrote falsified biographical materials that made him seem a more adventurous and romantic figure than he really was.

But what really cemented his reputation—and in a bad way—was the first obituary after Poe’s untimely death at age 40 in 1849. His literary enemy, Rufus Griswold, wrote the obit, and he described Poe in all the negative ways people still think of him today. So Griswold’s negative portrayal, along with Poe’s own self-mythologizing, have played a big role in keeping Poe famous —or rather infamous.

Daguerrotype of Edgar Allan Poe

What’s the real story? Was Poe just a regular guy who was terribly misunderstood or is there some truth to the dark, Halloween-figure side of Poe?

Well, like any complicated person, it’s a bit of both. If Poe were my buddy, I’d think twice when I saw him come up on caller ID. He could be a terrible friend, and a worse enemy. He was dead broke and in debt most of his life. He had a terrible time with alcohol, though he could be sober for long periods. At the same time, he was brilliant, witty, had lots of friends and was a loving husband, most of the time. Though he married his 13-year-old cousin when he was 26!

One thing I discovered is that practically anything you say about Poe, the opposite is also true. That’s part of what made the film challenging, and fun!

Why the title: “Buried Alive”?

Poe was fascinated —maybe even obsessed—with stories of people who were buried alive by mistake, which happened fairly frequently in the early 19th century. Medicine hadn’t figured out how to determine death with certainty, and particularly during epidemics there was a lot of pressure to get corpses underground quickly. One of his most famous stories is “The Premature Burial.”

I also love the metaphorical meanings. Poe lived his life under a constant cloud of grief —virtually all the women he loved died young. He struggled with a mountain of debt, and even before he died his bad reputation had begun to overshadow the reality of his life. And then, of course, there’s the never-ending mystery of his death. For all those reasons, it feels like an appropriate title.

Mystery of his death?

You have to see the movie.

 

Published – 02/10/17 – 09:00 AM | 0 0 comments | 28 28 recommendations | email to a friend | print

Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman star in HBO's 'Big Little Lies.' PHOTO CONTRIBUTED

Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman star in HBO’s ‘Big Little Lies.’ PHOTO CONTRIBUTED
The San Diego International Film Festival partnered with HBO for the San Diego premiere of “Big Little Lies,” the cable giant’s limited series based on Liane Moriarty’s 2014 best-selling novel of the same name, which drew a packed house at The Lot in La Jolla on Wednesday night.

“We couldn’t be more pleased to partner with San Diego’s independent film festival and HBO to showcase this amazing venue,” said Lot General Manager Robert Smythe. “We have beautiful theaters, ample parking, and a fantastic restaurant to support what Hollywood and networks like HBO need to do. It’s a perfect marriage.”

Under a fine evening mist that blanketed the sky, the crowd of 300 film supporters and friends walked into the sophisticated and hip venue that combines entertainment with al fresco dining to preview the first two episodes of “Big Little Lies,” which stars Reese Witherspoon and was created by seven-time Emmy Award-winner David E. Kelley.

The opening night excitement was immediately replaced by a hush as festival director Tonya Mantooth took to the stage to introduce Tupper, who talked about the extraordinary experience shooting with director Jean-Marc Vallee.

Guests were treated to a lively red carpet followed by an after-party at the theater’s restaurant with actor James Tupper, who plays Nathan Carlson in the comedy-drama, and who, with his partner Anne Heche, enjoyed mingling with San Diego’s film lovers and cultural cosmopolites before and after the film.

“The director was the part of the puzzle that really was phenomenal for me,” said Tupper. “He kind of created a whole new way of filmmaking, where he hangs out with a camera and we shoot in one place for six hours—he just moves the handheld camera around and gets all these little nuances, little details—no lighting packages, no hair and makeup people around, just us.”

Based on the New York Times best-seller, “Big Little Lies” is a seven-episode “who done it” that deals with domestic violence and friendship in the seaside town of Monterey, CA. Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, who bought the rights to the book and are two of the executive producers, lead a stellar cast that includes Tupper, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz, and Alexander Skarsgård.

Described by HBO as a tale told through the eyes of three mothers, Madeline (Witherspoon), Celeste (Kidman), and Jane (Woodley), befriend each other in a town fueled by rumors and divided into the “haves” and “have-nots.” Conflicts, secrets, and betrayals compromise relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children and friends and neighbors.

On the red carpet, Tupper was effusive in his praise for HBO but was most impressed with his accommodations during the shoot. “Working with HBO was amazing, and everyone on that set felt the same way but I really knew I made it when I walked into my trailer-I had a big flat screen and I brought my kids over and said ‘Come on, you gotta see what Dad is doing!’”

The “Big Little Lies” screening kicks off the SDIFF’s Insider Series and is the first in a sequence of six private screenings that will be held once a month from February through July in La Jolla. The series is available to the public and can be purchased for a limited period of time, at the reasonable price of $150. Created by Tonya Mantooth, the executive and artistic director of the SDIFF, the package includes private screenings, a cocktail party, and a “Q and A” session with special guests and a post champagne reception with dessert.

“The Insider Series gives people a chance to come out and see exclusive premieres, meet the actors or filmmakers and socialize with fellow film-lovers,” says Mantooth. “It is exactly the experience I want to create for our members. In a time when things are so divisive, the film reminds us that our bond is through human connection. San Diego International Film Festival is a place where people can come together, experience cinema, create dialog and maybe take in a new perspective.”

The 2017 festival, which begins on Oct. 4 and will run through Oct. 8, comes on the heels of the most successful year the festival has ever seen in terms of attendees and star power. A few of the Oscar-nominated independent films screened at the 2016 San Diego festival include the Weinstein Company’s “Lion,” nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, and “Hell or High Water,” which garnered four Academy Award nominations including Best Actor for Jeff Bridges.

According to Mantooth, the goal of the festival this year is to grow the awareness and audiences that attend the October festival and to increase the audience of film lovers in the San Diego and north county communities that want to engage in independent films all year long.

For more information on the Insider Series, visit www.sdfilmfest.com/.

Terri Stanley is the creator and executive producer of the Emmy award-winning Boston lifestyle show “styleboston” and former executive editor of Boston Common magazine. Since moving to the San Diego area, she freelances as a lifestyle writer and short film producer. Reach her at terris@styleboston.tv.

San Diego Community News Group – HBO premieres Big Little Lies at SDIFF

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