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Her Heart Is in It

For Heidi Philipsen, making her short-film adaptation of a classic Edgar Allan Poe story was a labor of love, and a testament to upstate film talent

by Ann Morrow on January 19, 2012

Heidi Philipsen photographed by Leif Zurmuhlen

“I’m more excited than I’ve ever been in my life,” says Heidi Philipsen. The independent filmmaker is referring to this Saturday’s gala premiere (at the Fenimore Gallery at Proctors) of Her Telling Heart, a reinterpretation of Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic classic, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Philipsen, a resident ofSchenectady with film experience fromMichigan toBerlin, adapted, directed, produced, and starred in the film. “Every little step has been its own cornerstone,” she says, having just finished the film’s color correcting (a nicety usually only afforded to feature films). “It’s the first project where I can say, ‘I really believe in this.’ ” The short film—about 10 minutes—was more than two years in the making, and features the contributions of established talents with notable big-screen credentials, such as actor Grant Krause, who plays the doomed old man. And that’s not to downplay the local film community. “I don’t consider it mine anymore,” says Philipsen happily. “It was such a huge collaboration of upstate artists.” The twist that Philipsen applied to Poe’s terrifying plot is that the obsessed narrator driven to madness by a seemingly benign old man is actually . . . a woman. Taking a feminist perspective to Poe’s story (where the narrator’s gender isn’t defined) inspired Philipsen to layer in a disturbing psychological subtext created with flashbacks. Her own daughter, Sophie, plays the narrator as a child. “I was trying to find out about Poe, as in ‘Why did he write this?’ ” she says of the flashbacks. “What in his personal life made him write this? I learned about Poe and his women, the intense relationships he had, and how after his mother died he was always looking for her replacement.” While researching the author, Philipsen also discovered a fact about her own family: that “The Tell-Tale Heart” was first published by her ancestor, Robert Russell Lowell. The tale is told in voice-over narration by Andrea Cunliffe, an actress with extensive stage and film experience inLondon. “I was looking for women over 60 who could be the voice of Poe,” says Philipsen. “I auditioned 15 women, and I knew she was it—if Poe were a woman, he would be Andrea.” Philipsen adds that Cunliffe’s time inEnglandgives her voice an inflection that corresponds to the story’s mid-1800s settings. “You feel that the character is there,” she says. Cunliffe, like Philipsen, is a native of Michigan. Krause, who plays the man with the “vulture-like eye,” was a longtime Michiganresident, and previously starred in Philipsen’s award-winning short film, A Fork in the Road, an official selection of the 2010 Manhattan Film Festival. Krause’s feature-film credits include Kill the Irishman with Christopher Walken and Machine Gun Preacher with Gerard Butler. “Grant’s character is the beating heart that haunts [the narrator],” says Philipsen. “He adds a lot, as in ‘Is there something about him that would make her want to do that to him?’ He’s a consummate professional, and he’s a chameleon at doing different kinds of characters.” “There are people who become like family,” she continues, “and Grant is one of them. I would work with him again and again.” Filmed at nearby historic sites the Knickerbocker Mansion in Schaghticoke and Eastfield Village in Nassau [“Poe Nouveau,” Oct. 28, 2010], the film is chillingly atmospheric, as evidenced by a sneak peek at WAMC’s Linda last year. The screening was presented by Upstate Independents, of which Philipsen is a member. “Upstate was important because it gave me a great base to find people to be in the cast and crew. I got my film insurance through them. And they’re really big on getting the word out. That’s huge to have that outlet.” Philipsen adds, “There’s a real, grassroots independent film industry here, with artists who would rather live here than move toNew York CityorLos Angeles.” And sometimes the industry comes to upstate, as with the Hollywoodfilms Salt and The Other Guys. Philipsen worked as a precision driver on both films, and met another driver, Matthew Mann, an actor who happens to be an attorney. Mann became the executive producer for Her Telling Heart, in which he plays a policeman. While working on the production of Love Orchard with Bruce Dern, Philipsen was put in contact with orchestral and film composer Dan Lazarescou, who agreed to collaborate on a score. The composition, which is classically based to reflect the film’s 1840s time frame, is already drawing attention from indie-film insiders. “I am so blessed to have this incredible music,” Philipsen enthuses. “It’s haunting while at the same time it has hints of a lullaby, because it’s about this man who is sleeping; and it’s thrilling at points, because of the narrator crossing the line between obsession and madness.” “A lot of what has happened with this film was serendipity,” she adds. “It has things you only see in feature films.” She particularly enjoyed “the magic of editing,” which allowed the narrator to “stab” with a knife. The gala premiere screening will include a panel discussion and mix-and-mingle (with wine and hors d’oeuvres) with the film’s principals and other local-film notables, and an exhibit of costumes, props, and still photos. The gala’s emcee, News Channel 13 anchorwoman (and active member of the local theater community) Benita Zahn, will begin the evening with a reading of the original story. Raffle tickets for a custom-made necklace and earring set is included with tickets. In keeping with Philipsen’s commitment to socially conscious filmmaking, 20 percent of the proceeds from the gala will be donated to the Capital District Women’sEmployment & ResourceCenter. “When I first came here, I had to make my own work, and now I want to help other women to find their work,” she says. One last touch of serendipity Philipsen mentions is that Her Telling Heartis premiering during the week of Poe’s birthday (Jan. 19). “I think he’d love it,” she says. “There were times when we felt he was with us.”

Her Telling Heart gala premiere will be held Saturday (Jan 21) from7 to8:30 PM at the Fenimore Gallery at Proctors (432 State St., Schenectady.) Tickets are $20. For more information, visit hertellingheart.com.