Kevin Sluder on Adapting Poe To Short Film
Heartless, the directorial debut film from the award-winning production company Sunshine Boy Productions; had it’s premiere at Oxford Film Festival on Friday, Feb 9th, 2018. The directorial debut from the award-winning Sunshine Boy Productions tells the tale of an overlooked executive struggling with a horrific secret.
Despite the ongoing popularity of Poe’s work, not since the Corman-Price era have we seen widespread adaptation. Scenes, references, and more can be found in a number of films, but adapting the stories themselves is surprisingly rare.
We asked director Kevin Sluder a few questions about the film, and bringing Poe’s stories to modern horror fans.
Can you tell us about the film in a couple of sentences?
Sure thing. Heartless is a contemporary take on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart”. It follows an overlooked associate trying to deliver a corporate presentation as a sinister secret gnaws at her conscience.
How closely can we expect the film to follow the original Poe story?
Well, I set the film in a glassy corporate office so, at first, one might feel it’s a departure from the original. Poe’s story took place in the darkest parts of his narrator’s mind as well as its claustrophobic, shadowy apartment setting. But, once the viewer settles in for the ride, I feel the film covers the macabre notes of the story in gory fashion and the universal themes of the original – the curse of guilt, the incapability of nefarious deeds, even the demented hubris of the narrator – are shown in ample supply.
The Tell Tale Heart has a long history of adaptation, which ones do you think stand out?
Unfortunately, I’m going to have to plead my ignorance on this one. I’ve never seen a full-length adaptation of the story on film. I’ve seen the story quite a few times as an influence on the narratives of different pieces but never a full version. Which may be why I chose to adapt it the way I did. I do think that the fact it’s been adapted so many times, and in so many different ways, speaks to its incredible hold on our collective psyches. What can I say? “Guilt kills” and storytellers keep returning to that universal truth because it’s such an awesome, rich well for any writer. I was just at my short film’s world premiere at the Oxford Film Festival and it was truly incredible how everyone’s eyes would light up when I said Heartless was based on “The Tell-Tale Heart”. Everyone loves it because it speaks to such human emotion in such graphic detail.
How do you feel Poe has translated to screen in general?
I think his influence is felt in just about every horror film. I can’t speak to the classic “by the book” adaptations of his work – The Fall of the House of Usher, the Pit and the Pendulum, etc – since I haven’t seen them, so I’ll comment on the shear breadth of his influence on modern horror and that, I feel, is the true tribute to his greatness. He’s kind of the Beatles of horror. Everyone is doing what they’re doing because he paved the way whether they know it or not. I feel like he was able to shine a light on the dark side of the human psyche like no one else. He delved into the hidden sinister traits and was unafraid to put us in the mind of the killer. So you can reference any number of horror films fromManiac to The Silence of the Lambs or even the TV series Dexter that show his influence. You can even say the Saw series is a more elaborate, modern version of the Pit and the Pendulum. I think his impact is in the overall esthetic of horror rather than individual film adaptations. I mean, we had a TV series, The Following, where people dressed like Poe were killing people in subways, etc. It’s rather extreme but he was an extreme writer who was unafraid to plunge into the darkness. We’ve had so many different reflections of his work in so many different adaptations. I feel that’s an amazing tribute to an artist when he can be interpreted and re-interpreted in so many different ways.
Is it difficult to translate work written in the 1800s to a modern film?
That’s a really interesting question because when I first thought up the idea for the short, I immediately googled “corporate adaptations of Poe” and came up empty. I couldn’t believe it. Really? I immediately started writing so I didn’t lose my chance. Haha. As far as difficulty in the translation, if you do a word for word rewrite, I think that would be tough. So I decided to hit the high spots. There were certain aspects of the story that I felt HAD to be covered – the most important being the central conflict in the narrator’s mind in the original story. Here you have an obviously deranged person laying out the details of a grisly murder in an amazingly confident, even boastful fashion while simultaneously being destroyed by the guilt he (or she) feels having done such a thing. To me, that is not difficult in the least. That’s a gold mine. The rest is just laying out the environment to bring the story to light.
Why do you think Poe’s work remains relevant to filmmakers?
Ha. I think I kind of jumped the gun and kind of answered this question earlier but I’ll expand on it some more. The thing that drew me to “The Tell-Tale Heart” is just how human it is. Yes, it’s bloody. Yes, it’s macabre and deals with darkness that none of wants to experience. But, it does it in a uniquely human fashion. Guilt and pride are such complex and natural human emotions and Poe puts them at war with each other in brilliant fashion in his story. That kind of psychological drama is hard to come by, which is why I think this story, in particular, has stood the test of time. It’s completely human. It’s completely tragic. And it’s completely open to interpretation. So, I would say Poe is relevant to filmmakers not for the gore and darkness, but for the way he humanizes the dark sides of everyone.
How does your film present women in a way that is relevant for modern audiences?
When I initially thought of adapting the story, the first image I had in my mind was of this rising female exec (Shelby) staring into a mirror before a corporate presentation, having done some extremely shady stuff the night before. I thought it would be really cool to bounce the classic Tell-Tale Heart narrative between this shiny, contemporary office space and Shelby’s memories of the darker events of the previous night. I felt that setting it in this American Psycho-esque, aggressive corporate environment would make it relevant for modern audiences, seeing as that seems to be the current climate these days. It seems like accounts of misogyny and the overall mistreatment of people in business settings has been 24/7 on social media feeds for a while now. So, I wanted to tap into that a bit with the harassment that Shelby battles in the scenes with her male and female colleagues. So, hopefully, Heartless will resonate with anyone who’s been demeaned by a boss or co-worker. Which is, well, probably just about everyone. While Shelby’s character does go to some dark and twisted places, I wanted audiences to empathize with her situation, so they would go along for this over the top, blood-soaked ride. Or hey — maybe the film can simply serve as a helpful reminder for bosses on the job tomorrow…
Be nice to your employees because you really, really, really have no idea what they were into the night before.
Find out more about the film at Sunshine Boy Productions’ website.