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Sundance 2023: Filmmaker Jakub Piatek Talks Pianoforte (The FH Interview)

6 min read

Still Courtesy - Sundance Institute

Returning after a relatively successful run at the 2021 Film Festival, Polish Newcomer Jakub Piątek returns with his feature entitled ‘Pianoforte'. An extensive document on the energy-draining bellicosity of the coveted Piano Competition based in Warsaw, Piątek's cinematic recollection captures the magic of live-music and the importance of competition conservation. In harmonious rhythm, the film's honest depiction of youthful ambition is echoed by its triumphant protaganists. The sounds of Preludes, Études, Concertos, and Sonatas merely provide the spark to Piątek's greater dramatic narrative. There's beauty and ugliness throughout Pianoforte's recount, as the film aims to provide a greater introspection to the anticipation, legacy and training behind the Quinquennial event. For its Sundance premiere, we sat down with director Jakub Piątek, to discuss his directorial methodology on the set of his unpredictable nonfiction venture.   

Still Courtesy – Sundance Institute

It's been around two years since ‘Prime Time' first premiered in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition. This time around, you're returning back to Sundance with a new non-fiction project. On paper, ‘Pianoforte' seems completely different from your prior feature. However, as I was watching the film, I found similar elements connecting both projects. Would you personally label your film as a genre film of sorts, as Pianoforte defies traditional labels of a conventional talking heads documentary? 

I think you can label Pianoforte as a film, because of the ages of the protagonists and the depicted moments in their lives. Because we had a strong engine for the story, we ended up choosing the right people to go down the path with. The same engine generates tension, an aspect which could be considered similar to my previous film Prime Time


More prevalently, the sound design offered another perspective to your film; rigorously depicting the International Chopin Competition with real-time pressure. There's a rich assortment of diegetic and non-diegetic sounds featured throughout your film. One of my favourite scenes is when Eva is situated in centre frame, slowly and surely distorting and reverberating out the dialogue of her mentors, as she dissociates in place. I was wondering if these distinct sound choices were coordinated on set in real time, or if the creative applications were prominently found in the post production process?

We knew that we really wanted to be close to our protagonists. All the sounds that your body generates are from a subjective perspective. With Eva, and even before with Michelle Candotti, we found the sounds in the editing room. We tried to be as close to them as we could, to somehow get into their heads or to at least have this impression for the audience. I developed a friendship & crew relationship with sound designer Michal Fojcik and editor Ula Klimek-Piatek; who both worked on Prime Time. At this point, we didn't need a lot of words to communicate. When Ula was editing the film, she didn't want to give away her control of the suite, so she also coordinated a sound design plan at the editing stage. With Eva's scene, what's incredible for me, is that the scene is even longer than what was in the film. The impromptu moment was during the finals. So, for around five minutes, the camera and the crew were almost invisible. Even in that intense moment, we were just half a meter away from her; from where the camera operator was standing. She didn't look into the lens. That's just one of the craziest moments in the film. 


Could you talk a little bit more about your intimate shooting method?

We used wider lenses. We had positive relationships with the contestants, which we built before the competition started. They allowed us to be close, even during intense moments. We used Opton Oberkochen lenses from the 1960's — almost the same lenses used to shoot The Godfather (1972)

Still Courtesy – Sundance Institute

There's also a great amount of rhythmic editing in the film; aptly and steadily finding different tempos as the subject's journeys are succumbed to scenes of momentary relief and stress through different cutting modes. I was curious about how you perfected the structure of the film without sacrificing any loose ends? What was the prominent motive to avoid communicating information in a strictly chronological sequence? 

On a script level (or even just thinking about this film), we thought it would be an even longer sequence if we simply focused on our protagonist's origins. But we knew that we wanted to achieve this specific synthetic cutting method. For example, when a character is using a kettle and turning it on, we cut to another character pouring water into a cup. That's how we shifted through time and place throughout Pianoforte. We knew that we were looking for cuts like this during the shooting stage. Music can transport the viewer. At the Chopin Piano Competition, the pieces are mainly monographic. We knew that some of the contestants would play the same pieces. That's how we could travel through time and space in the film. We discovered and utilised this technique mainly in the editing process, but we knew the structure of the pieces before we started cutting.

All the “back home” scenes were shot before the competition. That's how we started the whole process to begin with. We chose our protagonists before and during the preliminary. Using zoom, we talked to them. We had this strange bet against the competition itself, so we chose our protagonists not knowing if they would pass the first stage or even to the end of the competition. What we were always telling them was that it wasn't about who was winning, but rather the journey itself.


In the film, social media is used as almost a weapon of sorts; as the images and videos of other competitors are used as a stigmatised reference for the pianists to compare with one another. Has social media affected your overarching view on filmmaking outside of the world of over the last few years and during the production of Pianoforte? 

I'm not a social media ninja. For example, for our Sundance acceptance, I posted about our excitement for the project, while thanking the crew, the protagonists, and everyone involved. In the end however, I'm not just pressing the post-button. I'm mainly in the shadows. I'm looking at what other people are posting and what's happening with them in our virtual universe. However, I also remember that some of the participants I talked to would stop using Instagram, Facebook, and Tiktok for the competition. The goal was to avoid being distracted from the competition, and not to read the reviews or comments on Youtube. It was crazy, when they were performing live. There was a live chat. It was like a machine gun, there were even some bad comments. Of course, the competition is niche. It wasn't as wild as social media can often be. But the numbers on the stream were also incredible, with over forty million viewers around the world. The stream was free and easily available on Youtube, so there was easy access to the event. 


After sitting through over twenty days of consecutive piano pieces performed with grandiose ease, I was curious to know what is your personal favourite Chopin piece? 

I don't have one! I think from every stage of the competition, I could pick one. Although we didn't use the piece in the film, I really like his Preludes. If I had to choose one specific concerto, I would go with Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major.

Still Courtesy – Sundance Institute
Pianoforte premiered at this year's , as part of the World Cinema Documentary Competition. The film is currently seeking international distribution.