In a horror film, it’s usually the audience that’s freaking out, but that wasn’t the case Saturday night at the Tribeca Film Festival, when Michael Cuesta’s “Tell Tale” made its world premiere. Right as the stylish retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” reached its climax, one audience member’s heart literally stopped, at least momentarily, as the film was suspended and an ambulance was called. (Though Cuesta initially suspected it might be a stunt on the part of Ridley Scott’s production company, Scott Free, the director was later told it was likely a fainting spell or a transient ischemic attack.) Apparently, it wasn’t the only breathtaking moment of the evening — though there were far less serious implications as Brian Cox gave a chilling rendition of Poe’s classic at the film’s afterparty.
Cuesta and Josh Lucas couldn’t stop talking about either of the two events when they sat down to chat about “Tell Tale,” which stars Lucas as a single father whose recent heart transplant has led to unfamiliar palpitations and an unexpected violent streak.
What’s as strange as what happened at the premiere is that I read you had to shoot a scene at an Amtrak station where a man is run over by a train only a week after someone had died there from exactly that. Did anyone feel like this film had an omen against it?
Josh Lucas: Someone said last night afterward that the ghost of Poe reared his head. [laughs] The production didn’t really have those issues. It’s one of those films I felt like there was an awareness enough to feel it around you to know that you needed to be protective of it. Last night, that was part of what was so uncomfortable too, that like something like that could go down, or something like the train incident as well.
Michael Cuesta: The production was very difficult in more of a logistical way, but [the train incident] happened and it was so upsetting and I remember thinking, shit, I hope the movie’s not cursed. Poor man, he was a train worker, he was killed [and] we all had to go to track school for a half a day and I lost a half-day shooting. Producers wouldn’t pony up another day — that’s a lot of money. So that was the first “oh shit.” [laugh]
JL: You are making an Edgar Allan Poe film. [MC laughs]
Since the horror genre in general has changed quite a bit since the days of Poe, I got a sense with this film that what’s old is new again since the storytelling is so nuanced — is it even appropriate to call “Tell Tale” a genre film?
JL: It’s alright to call it a genre film because in a sense, we all knew we were setting out to make one. The source material is Poe, so you automatically have an elegant literary depth. There’s a reason those stories can take hold of a society [so they can] still be told now.
MC: I approached it as a horror film. When I was making the film, I always referred to [the original story[ just for the inspiration. I co-write stuff — I’m not really a strong writer — and I looked at his prose and it’s so evocative that I would close my eyes and say “what would that look like?” That had a lot to do with the look of the film. And what do you feel when you read the “The Tell-Tale Heart”? It really does what I like to think happened last night a little bit. Josh’s performance is so intense, and it really hit me last night because it was the first time I saw it on a screen that big with an audience. He captured that Poe insanity — teetering on the brink from the get-go.
Josh, the characters you’ve been playing in recent years seem to have a quality of knowing all the answers — or at least they seem to think so — and here you’re playing a character where you have no answers for your actions or why you’re in this situation. Was there a different challenge for you with that kind of a role?
JL: I think I’m more interesting in playing a level of vulnerability, and what I really liked about this character is playing someone who’s intensely vulnerable, intensely out of control. The challenge of [playing] a man who’s doing monstrosities — violent, horrible acts — that are not of his [own making]. In watching some of those other movies [I’ve done recently], what I felt was lacking a bit was a vulnerability. That’s what attracted me to Michael’s filmmaking, and why I thought this was not going to be an obvious genre film. You have a director that deals in the abstracts, pieces that are not clear cut, and can take a movie like “L.I.E.” and have compassion for a monster.