Directors Stephen and Michael Riddell's fascination with the films and musicals of the 1940s and 50s provided the creative impetus for their self-funded musical film “Portrait of a Knight”. Shot in Wellington and featuring a local cast and crew, the film’s aesthetic is firmly retro (think 1940s) and cleverly combines a tale of modern day romance with the concept of time travel.
The brothers deliberately set out to create a film that is a 1940s-style B picture made in 2018, but Director Stephen cautions that it is not meant to be an empty pastiche.
”The intent behind this film was to present a movie musical in the most direct way possible with tight integration of story and song in the style of Rogers and Hammerstein of the 1940s”, he says.
The concept of romantic longing coming to life – as it does in Woody Allen’s "Purple Rose of Cairo" - was the starting point for the plot. The film’s protagonist is Rachel (Hannah Gaisford), a young archivist living and working in Wellington. Feeling alone and disconnected from life, Rachel projects her romantic fantasies onto the paintings she loves, until one day her song brings Reginald (Phillip Collins) – a knight of the realm - to life.
On the writing front, the Michael and Stephen collaborated with Michelle Kan, a Wellington-based novelist and filmmaker. Michelle is a veteran of the 48 hour film festival and director of the 2015 Parkour documentary MOVE (Flow like Water).
Director and composer Michael Riddell wrote the music and lyrics for the film. He says he was inspired by the scores of musicals and operas that he collectively describes as ‘lyric fantasies’, much like Ravel’s opera ‘L’enfant et les Sortileges’.
“The scores that guided the shape of "Portrait of a Knight" fall into the twilight zone where the lines between musical theatre and lyric opera begin to blur," he explains.
Lead actors Hannah Gaisford and Phillip Collins were discovered through an audition process and were cast as much for their singing as for their acting skills.
Stephen says the role of Rachel underpins the film, as the narrative is centered on her longing and decisions. “Initially we struggled to find someone who could sing and act the part convincingly. Luckily Hannah came along and in addition to being able to meet the technical demands of the role, she had some good chemistry with Phillip.”
In keeping with the distinct local flavour of the production it was decided that Hannah would retain her their Kiwi accent both for speaking and singing. Stephen says that the choice of accent helps to ground the film firmly in a New Zealand setting and brands it as a uniquely Kiwi musical.
“We think that a lot of the cultural cringe (on hearing NZ accents on screen) comes from a lack of familiarity with hearing NZ voices on in film, rather than by people being embarrassed by our occasionally inelegant accent.”
Conversely, Reginald the knight speaks in the Shakespearean language of his time so a more British accent was more suited to his character.
The pair are firm believers in the importance of creating cultural offerings that have a uniquely Kiwi vibe and reflect the varied perspectives that come from living in New Zealand. The film was shot entirely in Wellington and audiences familiar with the city will recognise a number of familiar landmarks.
“Although the film could have taken place in many English-speaking countries, we think the distinctive qualities of Wellington make it a different film than if we’d set it in Sydney or Toronto. We hope that it stands on its own as a different approach to the challenges of low-budget film-making.”
The brothers’ ultimate aim - funding permitting - is to roadshow the film around New Zealand for viewing. In the meantime "Portrait of a Knight" is available on Vimeo and will be rolled out to other streaming services in the near future. Meanwhile the Riddells are working on a new webseries called ‘Fresh Culture’, which explores the different faces of culture being created in Aotearoa, and the people behind it.