Production house Piano Factory Films talk through their latest heart-capturing short film

I had a king still movie
I had a king still movie

While new films have been postponed and premieres cancelled, one indie film production company has been prevailing. Piano Factory Films are presenting their latest short film I Had A King. Set in 1971, the film follows the story of young folk singer Lisa, who is visited by former partner Dan, years after a painful separation.

The duo uncovers their years of deep personal trauma and unresolved issues in the beautifully-produced film. Directed and composed by Clemente Lohr, and produced and shot by Toby Elwes, the stunning film touches upon a lot of emotions and the former couple unpack their a painful humiliation with a shocking surprise revelation. We caught up with the cast and crew of the film talking through challenges faced in filming, the early days of production and how COVID-19 has affected the film industry.

Check out the interview below…

I had a king still bedroom scene
I had a king sill
I had a king still bedroom scene
I had a king sill

Why is the film called I had a king?
Clemente (director/composer): I Had A King is originally a Joni Mitchell song about a partner who has changed to the point in which she doesn’t know him anymore. Eduardo Arcelus’s script was born out of a fascination with an era of music often idolised by people who were born too late to witness it first-hand. Dan, our protagonist, is a musician in the early 1970s desperate to ride the success of the 1960s counterculture movement. The name, I Had A King, whilst a reference to Joni Mitchell, developed as we workshopped the characters to reference the loss of an idol. For Lisa, her ex-boyfriend Dan, who she believed in creatively and romantically, is a figment of the past.

Where did the inspiration and concept come from?
Clemente: The idea for I Had A King originally came to Eduardo, the writer and actor who plays Dan, in a fever dream. In the dream, he had arrived home after a long time to find Joni Mitchell (inexplicably his wife) shouting at him, in song, for reasons he couldn’t quite fathom. Although the film isn’t like the original dream he had, the idea of incorporating an element of surrealism into a project’s foundation can often help our creative process. This has been a key method to a lot of Piano Factory Films’ projects. Our previous short Reoccurring, which combined the work of three independent crews in London, Rome and Mexico City, drifts between cities as the same narrative plays out around the world.
Toby (cinematographer/producer/editor): We wanted to carry a dreamlike quality from the script into the production. These characters live in laurel canyon in the 1970s, an environment fraught with nostalgia. Both protagonists long to reverse the clock in one way or another, and as we bring them together in this home space the trauma of their past can no longer be repressed. Clemente and I wanted to take the simple structure provided in this two-character script and dig into the tensions present.

What were the influences behind the staging/ style?
Clemente: The second scene in Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies was a big influence on the way in which we moved through the house, and watched Dan run around it. We wanted to keep the style and staging of the film as isolated as possible. The house in a way represents Lisa subsequently making the film all about what Lisa is going through. We built tension through the fact that Dan, unwanted and seemingly ignorant to the trauma he’s induced in Lisa’s life, intrudes into a world on the verge of collapse. This is why the camera never leaves the house; we almost feel what Lisa is going through. We watch him come, we feel him uncomfortably ruining the peace, we experience Lisa finally saying what she needed to say, and then we watch him go. I love the idea that a short film can be as simple as that, the deciding instance in which a character or characters change. Another influence was Bergman’s Autumn Sonata and some other of his films which predominantly take place in one place. Don’t get me wrong I love films that jump from place to place, but this script felt far more about the characters and the way in which they interacted with such heavy subtext.

Why did you pick 1971 in particular?
Clemente: The end of the 60s was the end of an era, especially for music. It’s considered that the ‘magic’ or the “innocence” of music and flower power etc ended in 1969 with the Manson family murders and the tragedy of the Altamont Free Concert. A year later Jimi, Jim, Janis all overdosed at the age of 27. Dan decided to go touring and live that life towards the end of this era, so when it collapsed he tried to keep it up – quickly realising it was over and that it was time to go come home. He says, “touring was fun, but it wasn’t gonna last forever”. Echoed in the film’s name, nostalgia for a lost past and innocence is a central theme within the project.

At one point we see two separate vintages into two separate rooms, what was this symbolic of?
Toby: This shot, framed through two doors, comes when the tension between Lisa and Dan reaches its height as passive aggression turns into unreserved vocal outpouring. By framing Dan through one door, and Lisa through the other, I hoped to construct a barrier between the characters, which is visually broken as their emotional walls fall. Just as Dan invades Lisa’s home, he invades her half of the screen here, not only boxing her into the room but boxing her out of the camera frame. These portals also position the viewer as a hidden observer, catching glimpses of action as a child might observe fighting parents. This single take accounts for around 40% of the film. We hoped by starting this roaming take with the characters separated, and ending it with them face to face, —intimate and fully vulnerable for the first time—we could carry the viewer along on this journey. Through discussion with Clemente and analysis of Eduardo’s script, we highlighted these methods to stress the dynamic in a script with minimal dialogue.
Clemente: I mean, the obvious symbol is that it shows their separation, that although they may have had a beautiful history they are now like competing strangers. The house which once brought them together is now what is physically separating them. Other symbolism within this shot is that it can be the perspective of their lost child. The audience at this point becomes like a kid witnessing their parents arguing from the other room, something most if not everyone can relate to as a hugely uncomfortable experience.

Love the idea of the architecture, and the trapped camera view mirroring the character’s emotions – how did you find the location?
Toby: The location is my Grandad’s house, which was partly the inspiration for the project. On our limited budget, we were immediately excited at the opportunity to use this space. Not a ton has changed within the house since the 1970s and the colour palette of browns, beiges and off-whites combined with the windows on all sides was a great inspiration for Clemente, Teodora Kosanović (our production designer) and myself. It was very generous of him to let us take over. Although our crew was as small as they come, packing our shoot into two short winter days was an all-consuming task. The house has many interior doors and windows. I used these architectural features so when action occurs outside, the camera never leaves the interior, trapped within like our protagonist. We mapped out the floor plan in rehearsal, so we could judge the speed of camera and action as we wanted the inescapable quality of longer takes. When the compositional barriers—such as windows, mirrors and doorways—fall away, so do the emotional walls the characters have erected as they, in turn, share a single frame.
Clemente: I just want to quickly add onto Toby’s point on our limited budget. We funded this film by throwing a 70s themed party, which at some point involved me singing “She is a model” by Kraftwerk. Finding a budget has always been a reason/excuse not to make things, so what I think we have achieved with this film on a small budget affirms that with the right people and enthusiasm, you’re golden.

COVID 19 – What problems did it cause.
Clemente: Luckily, we finished filming before all the shit hit the fan, but post-production was made tricky with everything attached to COVID. Originally the plan was to have this film be one in which we hired various roles such as a colourist and a composer for the soundtrack. Because of the pandemic, we were forced to take the roles into our own hands and the film ended up being edited and coloured by Toby and the soundtrack was composed by myself; tasks we respectively really enjoyed in the end. Sound designer Henry Sims helped us massively by not only managing to do a mix and sound design whilst out of the country, but organising friends of his to record us foley.
Toby: One of the joys of this project was the way that we were able to collaborate with our creative friends. There was an energy on set as we were able to work with people who we bounce well off. Whilst COVID 19 limited our ability to meet up and work with others easily during post-production, the willingness of our community to help each other out has made such a difference.

As actors, what important qualities did you need Dan and Lisa to have?
Clemente: When working with the actors, it was clear from the start that I wanted the characters to contrast each other heavily. I wanted two opposing energies that would fight each other under the surface until exploding in an argument. Lisa, played by Ariana Brophy (a folk singer herself and new to screen acting), is a character who pushes their pain so far away that it builds up to an uncontainable pressure. Dan, played by Eduardo Arcelus, on the other hand, uses his arrogance and charm to brush past any issue with ease, or so it seems. One of the ways to get them into this state was a fun little improv (it was quite horrible) the night before our first take, in which I provoked an argument between the characters and ordered them to read horrible things to each other. When it got unbearable and they were in a full argumentative state I sent one out and announced that they wouldn’t speak or look at each other until we began shooting. Made for an awkward evening!

What’s the best feedback you’ve had on the film so far?
Clemente: The film isn’t out yet so not many people have seen it, but one thing that has been mentioned is that it convincingly puts the viewer into a world without a need for excess expensive production costs and flashy equipment. We appreciate that greatly as many short films being produced today fail to prioritise the story, often hurt by the overuse of superficial effects and shots. We really wanted to use our time and budget to enhance the script and avoid the trap with modern digital filmmaking of losing sight of the narrative.

The film starts as it ends with a view of Dan arriving/leaving in the mirror – was it important to come full circle?
Toby: My intention with returning to this initial composition was to re-establish Lisa’s barriers which Dan transgressed during this encounter. Lisa has closed her front door. Dan is reassigned to the outside space, and the empty house which fills the frame regains its tranquillity and safety.
Clemente: As I mentioned earlier, I love the idea that a short film can, simply put, be a specific moment in which a person’s life is changed but continues where it left off. The shot at the end is the same as at the beginning but this time there is no tension, there aren’t eight years of built-up anger, Dan is leaving, and Lisa is no longer sitting, watching him. She is free. A symbol of resolution, a new leaf growing on the same branch.

Piano Factory films specialise in emotive stories that inspire change – what change do you hope I Had A King will effect?
Toby: Each script we’ve produced as Piano Factory Films has developed through a desire to experiment during each stage of the filmmaking process. Whilst I Had A King highlights the consequences of repressing anger and burying trauma, our previous film, Reoccurring centred on the universality of love and optimism. We have a couple of exciting projects in the works, including an ambitious film developed by Clemente called ‘At Least We Tried.’ It will be set in the near future and interrogate the guilt of a population who’ve passed the point of reversing the effects of climate change. With our dramas, we seek to tell stories which resonate with universal human emotions.

What does the future hold for Piano Factory Films?
Toby: With each project we make, we strive to build on the last. Our ability to make this film and those before it is a credit to the energy and enthusiasm of our group of creative friends. By starting Piano Factory Films, we’re excited to combine the abilities of our collaborators, from cinematographers, directors, writers, producers, editors, composers and more. Under the umbrella of Piano Factory Films, we want to grow a collective of filmmakers and facilitate their creative ideas across a range of visual disciplines. Outside of drama, we have been producing documentaries and concentrating heavily on music videos. We are proud to have worked with a range of talented musicians and want to offer an affordable solution to upcoming musicians, whose industry has been disproportionately affected by the global pandemic.

For more information on the film visit PianoFilmFactory.com