The house of Eric Fonseca, the auteur behind the latest stop-motion-animation adaptation of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” is in no way gloomy or in ill-repair. It’s just another house on a typical Southwest San Antonio street. You’d no more suspect it of hosting ghosts than playing headquarters to a promising one-man film studio. The only trait that might mark it as a manor is the silver knocker, engraved with the family name. I don’t touch it.
“My house is in a weird state of limbo right now,” Fonseca apologizes after opening the door. He’s in between projects, he explains. Miniature sets, props, and puppets from the completed “Usher” — the story of an unnamed narrator who answers an urgent invitation from an old friend who claims to be dying from a family curse — occupy two tables, and some “preliminary, preliminary, preliminary sketches” for his next project — a reimagining of the Medusa myth — sit stacked on the coffee table. The Medusa drawings give the snake-headed monster an unexpectedly retro-futuristic Art Deco design.
Somewhere, a cuckoo clock loudly strikes the hour. This house formerly belonged to Fonseca’s parents, incidentally. It’s the house he grew up in.
Fonseca’s “Usher” film began life as a charcoal sketch he drew in 1998 after finding an illustrated Poe adaptation in the children’s section of Half Price Books.
“There was this strange conflict,” Fonseca says, “because you have this book for infants and toddlers that’s full of pictures of skulls and dying people. I wondered if these two could ever meet.”
His three-dimensional “Usher” models are a mesmerizing answer. The characters, pale and partially mobile, with hollowed eye sockets, look lifeless and creepy, but they’re scarier when they’re moving. The House itself (which Fonseca describes as a “fourth character”) looks intricately assembled and substantial (that Fonseca’s father is an architect isn’t surprising), but what’s most incredible are the details — the worn-out furniture, the dust-covered portraits, the shelves of countless, countless tiny books. “Usher” was a four-year project, and Fonseca estimates he spent more than two years just building the sets.
“Fortunately, I wasn’t on anyone else’s time with this project,” he says, “so I was able to come home and spend a whole five hours on the staircase, or on the stains on the carpet on the staircase. I could really just have a good time putting fringe on the lamps.
“I didn’t realize how much I was going to end up doing, I often wonder if I had known if I would’ve stopped early on.”
Fonseca says “Usher” originally won out over his other idea for a Poe project: a modern, minimalist adaptation of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which in retrospect might’ve been a hell of a lot easier to pull off.
“A white background, paper puppets, tabletop animation,” Fonseca says with only a tiny hint of regret. “Easy.”
Fonseca knew from the start, though, that he’d wanted to make a stop-motion animation film.
“They seem to have so much more texture and heart than other mediums,” he says. “Coraline, Nightmare Before Christmas, even watching Gumby and some of the early stuff, you can feel the artisan behind it, pushing these puppets, performing behind this mask of wire and clay.”
It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression …
Iintended to tell a Halloween story,” Fonseca said, “a story about ghosts and a real haunted house with haunted memories and haunted souls and dark velvet and dust and cobwebs.” First however, Fonseca — a graphic designer and primarily a painter before making his debut short film, “Funeral March for a Marionette” — would need to learn how to tell a story in film language. That meant writing a script, directing actors, and since he’d have no Charles Francois Gounod composition backing him, finding an appropriate soundtrack.
Eric Fonseca’s brother Ryan is a professional musician, employed full-time at Oak Hills Church, a self-taught guitar and piano player with his own recording studio. He’d never attempted to write a score for anything, however, and his chosen genre — contemporary Christian pop rock — made him an unlikely candidate to soundtrack Poe.
“I know that he would be the most obvious ‘duh’ choice to go to for a score,” Eric Fonseca says, “and not that he wasn’t, but he wasn’t.”
Ryan Fonseca’s soundtrack — brooding, ambient, and full of negative space, matches the film perfectly, and Ryan says the secret was staying out of the way.
“I just didn’t want to interfere too much with what was going on visually,” he says “to not get too busy, just really complement the mood of the film.”
Ryan played the piano along with the movie while Eric gave him cues for the character’s emotions.
“He’s sad,” Eric says he’d direct his brother. “Now he’s really, really sad. Now he’s dead.”
Directing the actors proved more complicated. The original script Eric wrote was full of expressive dialog “like a stage play,” but after running through it with a cast of voice actors, he realized it was all wrong for the characters he’d designed.
“The actors were too big,” Eric says, “the vocals were too big. If these people are dying in a house, I don’t know if they’re going to be speaking that much. A lot of this needs to be said with looks, with acting, which is funny, because their faces don’t really move.”
The characters’ limited expressions and the unnerving way they float from room to room, Eric says, are necessary products of his current technical limitations, but they fit the mood of the story. So Eric cut large chunks of script and brought in a new set of actors: Rick Carrillo as the narrator “E,” Erick Romero as the doomed Roderick Usher, and Current sales executive Dianah McGreehan as Madeline, Roderick’s sickly twin sister.
As a director, Carrillo said, Eric Fonseca was “very accepting of people putting their two cents in,” maybe to a fault. “I sensed a bit of caution in Eric,” Carrillo continues. “He didn’t want to seem too much of a dictator, and I kind of made him understand that the purpose of the director is to be that dictator. Actors can only go so far on their own.”
The one direction Eric Fonseca was sure of: internalize everything.
“A friend of mine jokes that feelings are like treasure,” Fonseca says. “So bury them.” Those unspoken emotions, the ambiguity of the intimacies hinted at among the story’s three characters, are key to Poe’s work. The question Poe prompts in “House of Usher,” Eric says, is, “At what point does that become dangerous?”
While the objects around me … were but matters to which, or to such as which, I had been accustomed from my infancy — while I hesitated not to acknowledge how familiar was all this — I still wondered to find how unfamiliar were the fancies which ordinary images were stirring up …
Though the amount of work the film required to complete turned Eric into a Roderick Usher-like recluse, he says he initially failed to see any similarities between the project and his real life.
“I didn’t realize how much of a mirror it was,” Eric says. “It was an uncanny coincidence that I chose a story about a guy who lives in his family house who felt trapped by walls, and the walls have to collapse.”
The connection between his art and his life grew so strong, it turns out, that even in retrospect, Eric says he can’t completely separate the two.
“I never painted flowers before,” Eric says, describing a similar situation, “but in 2003 I had this idea for a floral show. The next thing you know my backyard was blooming with tropical flowers and banana plants and all this stuff. The art dictated my life mode, and on another level I think that’s what happened a little bit here.”
Making the film, Eric says, was a way of escaping from what he calls an “emotional breakdown,” though he acknowledges that spending all his spare time adapting one of the bleakest stories in American literature, one with personal applications nonetheless, might’ve also fed his depression.
But while the creeping pace and fatalistic despair of Fonseca’s adaptation are extremely faithful to Poe’s sensibility, the film deviates from the text in one huge way: The House of Usher never, you know, falls.
Part of the reason is technical, like the character’s death-mask faces — Eric says the best effect he was capable of would’ve been collapsing a wire-frame model, a shot he feared would ruin the atmosphere and take the audience completely out of the story. The bigger reason, though, is a tearful conversation Eric says he had with a friend about the figurative walls he’d constructed around himself.
“I was holding onto a lot of things personally that I couldn’t get past,” he recalls, “but I’d finally realized you can love, you can move on to the next thing.
“I feel as if light has flooded the darkness of my heart now,” he told his friend.
And that’s why, at film’s end, “You don’t see the walls falling, you see the light coming in.”
Eric is quick to agree it’s an interpretation Poe probably wouldn’t have approved.
“‘I spent years of my life dedicated to melancholy and you just put an optimistic spin on it,’” he says, imitating the enraged author. “He’s probably turning in his grave, that poor man.” •