“Family Portrait is a short film about life, death, and duty. It's a gothic Victorian drama about death portrait photography, but it's also a family drama about taking responsibility.” Family Portrait focuses on a Victorian family that is preparing to pose for a photograph with their dead father, before the daughter is married off to an uncle.
The film is an oddly enticing film that drew us in and made us comfortable with the idea of taking a photo with a dead person. Back then, families would only have had their photo taken once in their lifetime if they were lucky. This was a time when the gruesome task of propping up your dead father for a photo was not a strange occurrence.
It got us thinking, if we could take a photo with a dead idol of ours, would we do it? If that was something we craved, we think a trip to Madame Tussauds would be in order. Oh, how times have changed. We spoke with Kelly Holmes, the Director about the film, written by Nils Gustenhofen, to find out how the story came about.
Holmes came across the idea after Gustenhofen pitched a shorter, five-page version of the script at a writers' event in Edinburgh. Having had an idea for something similar, she decided to work with Gustenhofen to develop his script into a longer short film. “We worked really closely. I would deliver research to him on the era, about Victorian marriage and property laws in the UK for example, because Nils is German, and that allowed him to start formulating a deeper story about what might have happened to lead the family to the point where our film takes place.”
The film never bogs you down with information; it tells you just what you need to know, in order to follow the story, and allows you to make your own assumptions. Throughout the film, you feel that Margaret (the mother) and Louise (the daughter) have some sort of hatred for the father, but it's never explicitly said why.
“We wanted there to be ambiguity about what had happened, about whether Margaret had killed her husband for example, and how that might influence Louise.” This ambiguity let us, as the audience, make up our own mind and we were drawn in with the family. It was as if we were listening to an argument on the street, and we were too late to know what started the argument, but through noticing details within the abuse, we could assume how it started.
These details are suitably spread throughout the film, all the way down the props and the set design. “The Uncle's pocket watch came into the script quite late, and because Nils and I didn't want him to speak very often, we just wanted him to be a menacing presence, Nils added in the pocket watch to give that sense of him being impatient.”
Shot for just £5000, the film was shot on location in Pollok House in Glasgow. This conservation site prevented Holmes from shooting the film how she originally wanted, due to not being permitted the use of candles and smoke. Despite this setback, Holmes adapted to the location. “A lot of the film is actually naturally shot with just a few lights positioned outside of the windows. I spent a long time screen-grabbing period drama films and TV shows that were influencing me.”
The film visually represents the oppression and trapped nature of women in the Victorian era through the framing of the characters. “That led me to want to create frames within frames, and so shots such as Margaret and the maid in the doorway, and the 3-person triangle in front of the window, came from that.”
With a cast of nine, Holmes steered away from the traditional way of planning shots, via a storyboard, and opted to map out the cast and crews' positions. “I spent a long time creating overhead drawings to work out the complex choreography of moving nine actors around one room. That allowed Alan and me to decide where the camera would be and the shot list came from there. It worked out really well for us, and allowed the script supervisor and 1st AD to always know where we were heading next.”
As one who rarely watches period dramas, we believe that this short film has made us take more notice of the weird practices in the Victorian era and how interesting they can be. Holmes is a clever director that is able to engage her audience and create an astounding world within the camera.
Her next film is a World War One supernatural thriller called Attrition (watch the teaser here), which Holmes has written and is directing. We also have it on good authority that this film has a bigger budget and pyrotechnics. We think that Holmes is making sure Attrition is covering every base when it comes to awesomeness and we can’t wait to see it!