One of the gems of the first LCIFF was a touching story with an emotional wallop; An American Piano is based on the true story of a young Japanese girl who played the piano for POWs during WWII and how it affected their lives. Paul Leeming, a filmmaker based out of Japan and Germany, directed the film. We conducted an interview over email with Mr. Leeming about An American Piano, one of the short films playing March 4th at our “Night of International Film” event at the historic Strand Theatre.
LCIFF: What attracted you to tell this particular story?
PL: I was attracted to direct the story of An American Piano by my friend Hamish Downie (who wrote the film and produced it). He told me how he had met Mrs. Youko Koshida through the executive producer, Taeko Sato, and first heard the story of the piano's history. He felt compelled to tell the story and told me about it. The film version really crystallized for me in my head once I heard about how Youko met the soldiers at the conclusion of the war. Here was an incredible moment of history, and I felt I had to tell the world about it in a beautiful and emotional way. It's a cathartic experience to realize that without people telling us whom to hate, we have no reason to hate anyone. That's when I decided I had to direct the film and share with the world this moment. Really, the entire film is a slow burn designed to take you to that one moment of human connection, and I think that audiences the world over have responded tremendously well to it, which makes me very happy.
LCIFF: A lot of the films featured in our "A Night of International Film" focuses on children. Your film is no different. What does An American Piano have to say about childhood?
PL: Childhood is, for me, the period of innocence before we learn about the crueler parts of the human experience. It is also the period when we accept others without prejudice, and when we love unconditionally. With An American Piano I wanted to remind the audience what it was like to view the world through that lens of innocence, that they might once again feel connected to other human beings without any prejudice or acquired hatred. To see others as simply friends you haven't met yet. Youko treated those around her completely equally. She shared her music not to convince, but simply because it gave her pleasure, and she wanted to share that pleasure with others. That's how we should all see the world - not as rivals or enemies, but as friends we can share wonderful experiences with, if only we can see beyond the names and flags assigned to people without their choice, simply because they were born elsewhere on the planet.
LCIFF: Music features heavily in the film, cutting across cultures. How did you approach this aspect of the film?
PL: With a title like An American Piano, we naturally wanted to feature music prominently throughout the film! Youko Koshida was a huge fan of Chopin from a very early age, and was something of a child prodigy on the piano. In fact, the Mason & Hamlin piano was gifted to her by her piano teacher because the teacher felt Youko could easily rise to the world-class level by the time she became an adult. The war unfortunately stopped that rise, as the piano had to be dismantled and hidden at the conclusion of the war to prevent it being confiscated by the Allies. Music was everything to Youko, so we wanted to have it be almost a constant in the background of the film, to help put the audience into the headspace of Youko as she saw the world. It's also the reason we kept the camera angles low and steady, with only slight movements—we wanted to give the audience Youko's point of view as much as possible. What could she see and hear of the war? Mostly, she didn't see much beyond her window and local surroundings in Tokyo, and mostly she only heard bombs in the distance thanks to her close proximity to the POW camp, which the Allies knew the location of and thus spared from bombing. The piano was effectively the soundtrack to her life, so the entire film was scored and cut around those beats as opposed to the more traditional way of scoring a film after the completion of editing. It gives the film a serenity and deliberate pacing that I feel suits the material very well, and lets the music become its own character to remind us that music holds no grudges and picks no side. It simply is.
LCIFF: What was the production of the film like?
PL: Production of the film was hectic to say the least! The location of the film was a small restaurant nestled inside a Japanese temple called Sankou-in, where the nuns serve organic food grown in their own gardens. Because they were only closed for the weekend, and because the nuns' daily routine consisted of getting up at 3am and going to bed at 3pm, we effectively only had two half days in which to shoot the entire film, more so because we had no way to get the cast and crew to the set each day before about 7am! We also had to remove all the restaurant furniture and move the grand piano across the room, which was quite a difficult feat in itself due to the floor construction and weight of the piano. Aside from those logistical challenges, the shoot itself went smoothly. I mostly chose crew I had worked with before due to the tight timing nature of the shoot, so I knew I could rely on my team to work fast and efficiently within the time we had. The cast was a mix of new members and ones I had worked with before on other films. Once the shoot itself was finished, I flew back to San Francisco (where I was living at the time). It was on the flight back that I knew we had the film, as I edited together the last scene to some temp music (the first and last scenes in the film were eventually re-scored with original music by Masaaki Enatsu). The emotion I felt on watching the first rough edit on the plane was exactly that I was hoping to elicit from the audience, so I knew I had the film in the can, as it were.
LCIFF: What are you working on next?
PL: I am currently working on a trilogy of feature films in the science fiction genre! An American Piano was supposed to be my last short film (that's what I told myself anyway!), however I ended up doing a short horror film for a YouTube competition called Pieces of 8 that ended up taking that title. I feel I'm ready to make the leap to features as a director (I've worked on several feature films in other capacities), so I have crafted a low, low-medium and medium budgeted feature film trilogy that I can make in any order, which are connected together through a common theme, yet which will all stand alone if need be. The first, low budget one, I am writing with the self-imposed limitation of no visual effects (CGI), only practical, in-camera effects. Primarily this is due to budget reasons, but that forced limitation helped to create the story concept itself, so I'm quite happy with the result! I'm intending to film that first film in two countries - Japan because I know so many amazing locations I can use and write for, and because it is where the main story takes place, and Scotland for its incredible scenery in the remote northern Highlands (which will represent a character's state of mind). My aim is to have finished production by the end of this year, but that depends on how quickly I can get the budget together!