Keyed Alike: A New Kind of Immersive Love Story

There aren’t too many love stories told in VR and 360 so when Keyed Alike came to us, we jumped at the chance to have the story of Coley (played by Gemma Whelan) and Eve (played by Natacha Karam) play out on Jaunt. To get more on the film we spoke with writer and producer Alex Rühl and director Chloe Thomas about their female crew, the rom-com meet cute, and their next project — a period piece in VR.

People never meet-cute on the street anymore so this story was especially charming to us. Alex, where did you get the inspiration for this short love story?

A cold December shoot day — From Left: Natacha Karam (Eve) and Gemma Whelan (Coley)

Alex Rühl (writer and producer of Keyed Alike): Tell me about it, I love to make quippy remarks to strangers in public and it’s never met with an ensuing love story! So let me set the scene, the inspiration will become apparent pretty quickly. Back in 2015 I was working abroad in Canada. At the time I was going through a bit of a ‘quarter life crisis’ — I was considering a huge career change, had recently broken up from a 5-year relationship and just generally felt very lost. Every day I would go read a book by this love-lock gate just outside of Vancouver. This gate was nothing like those packed ones in Paris, overflowing with metal. This one only had about 40 or so locks (43 to be exact, I counted!). But every day I’d see new ones appear. I’d think about all of the different love stories they represented. Stories of new love, first love, old love, rekindled love, lost love. Some days I’d think about how naive these people were to lock up their hearts and throw away the key. Some days I’d think about how beautiful the gesture was. The idea that love can last forever — even if it’s just in the form of a graffitied lock.

Then I thought about how many of the locks belonged to couples who had broken up and whether anyone had ever tried to break theirs off as a defiant metaphor — erasing the existence of the love it once represented. And so, I started to write my inner dialogue about this as a bit of therapy I guess and naturally it was like two people having a debate on the subject. So, I started to flesh out these two opposing characters; one desperate to move on from love (Eve, played by Natacha Karam) and the other stuck in the past unwilling to let go (Coley, played by Gemma Whelan). I loved the idea of them being strangers because for years, their love stories had been connected by the same few inches of steel, but they were only just meeting. And as with real life, timing is everything. How poetic is it that these two people end up being the antidote to each other’s broken hearts? In a way don’t we all wish someone would just turn up and inadvertently save us when we’re feeling stuck and lost? So, by the time I left Vancouver, two months after I discovered my reading spot, there were 154 new love stories (I counted again) littering the love-lock gate and I was leaving with number 155 in my notebook.

Alex Rühl produced the film under her company, CATS are not PEAS.

You have talked widely about this film being helmed by a mostly female crew which doesn’t happen often in 360 filmmaking. Can you talk a bit about your decision to hire with the focus on inclusion?

Alex Rühl (writer and producer of Keyed Alike): I started making 360 films in early 2016 and I was really frustrated with the lack of content that appealed to me. All of the content being promoted was (and still largely is) documentaries, thrill seeking action, high-art spectacle pieces or jump-scare horror. Call me basic, but I love a more light-hearted emotional scripted drama. I wanted characters that I could feel connected to, situations I could relate to, familiar settings that would make the experience more visceral rather than conceptual. And it kind of dawned on me that in order to see more content like that, I would need to be the one to make it and also bring more people like me into the medium so there could be more of it. People with a unique perspective who were story driven not tech driven.

From left: Casting Director Coralie Rose, Writer Alex Rühl, and Director Chloe Thomas.

It’s a funny story of happenstance how I met my main collaborators. I reached out to Coralie, our phenomenal casting director, to discuss the project and shortly after she introduced me to Chloe, our fearless director. Once the ball got rolling we just kept bringing on board amazing female talent until we ended up with a bit of a powerhouse of XX chromosomes. Don’t get me wrong — this project wouldn’t have been possible without the unimaginable talents of Phil Ballaam, our post-production extraordinaire, and Luke Harris, our spatial sound designer. But it’s a sort of magic that happens when female energy gets focused onto a project like this — I think it’s a totally different vibe to a lot of 360 films. I have ambitions to be the Shonda Rhimes of 360 one day — someone that empowers, encourages and nurtures diverse voices to tell their stories in this exciting new format. The traditional Hollywood system is now finally going through mass disruption to correct 100+ years of systemic bias against women, people of color and the queer community. The beauty of the immersive entertainment industry is it’s a fresh start — there’s no rules because it’s so new, there’s no gatekeepers, it’s an even playing ground for everyone to be discovering the storytelling language. Now is the time to bolster the voices that have been ignored for so long by traditional media and make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.

Chloe, this is your first 360 film. After doing lots of work in television, how did the two experiences compare?

Keyed Alike director Chloe Thomas has won a BAFTA Award for her television work.

Chloe Thomas (director of Keyed Alike): Obviously as a director I’m a power crazed despot, so embarking on a film where the audience chooses where they look was a challenge — make that — nightmare. How do you direct people to actually watch what you want them to watch — the story — when they can look wherever they want? Won’t they just look at the sky or that funny looking bird until something they think is exciting happens?

Seriously, the 360-storytelling challenge was very exciting and a massive experiment for me. I thought about documentary (I’ve directed a lot) and theatre, more than TV techniques.

I was a VR/360 virgin when I met Alex. When I first experienced VR, it seemed to either: deliver real documentary experiences or if it was fiction the experiences were loud, shocky first person experiences, mainly in a horror genre. Keyed Alike is an emotional two hander. It’s subtle, with intriguing dialogue and builds quietly. Would that work in 360? Conventional TV is ‘show and tell’ maybe VR is ‘be here and feel’.

An early decision I made was to shoot Keyed Alike in one take with no cuts. I have watched VR films with cuts — or fade to blacks — and it can be very abrupt visually. I wanted Keyed Alike to have a very ‘present’ sense, so that Coley and Eve’s relationship starts up and progresses in real time and space. I want viewers to feel like they are right there — breathing the same air almost — but unseen. That last bit is important. I didn’t want the characters to address the watcher. People kept telling me to decide ‘who’ is the viewer — what is their POV? I created a POV for a while then went back to what I really wanted — a third person experience, a strange sense of observing while unobserved. (Although there is a moment that purposefully breaks this…) No cuts also meant no close ups, which is pretty perverse seeing as potentially there’s love locks to look at in detail. (I thought Alex might kill me, as she made minor miracles happen on no budget to get that many locks on set.) In the end, I love the one spot, one take simplicity.

Sound is crucial in 360 storytelling. In Keyed Alike we directed attention with audio, not just dialogue. We used overheard conversations, bike bells, phone chats. The spatial audio is magical and what really creates the 360 feeling. I love it all: the clinking of the boats, a loud airplane and the way the characters’ dialogue moves when they do.

In headset, Gemma Whelan (Coley in Keyed Alike) tried VR on set for the fist time.

When it came to the actual location shoot. It was the weirdest. I’m sitting scrunched up in the smallest ball that my legs can manage underneath the smallest camera set up I have every worked with. (Next time I will do some yoga prep). Everyone — everyone — in the crew is hidden behind hedges. It’s just me and the actors: Gemma and Natacha. No monitors, no assistant directors, no grips, no sparks, and not even a boom pole in sight. I shouted ‘Action’ then 6 minutes later I shouted ‘Cut’. I couldn’t monitor the action live. I felt strangely like I was shooting a 1930’s Hollywood celluloid film before video assist. There was a purity about it. 6 minutes in my own private theatre played out in public. I watched the two women become the characters and then we stopped.

Tell us about the music composition and how that added to the mood of the film?

Camera tech, Sam Weston, preps the iZugar Z4X for the film. Keyed Alike was shot in one take.

Chloe Thomas (director of Keyed Alike): Alex had written a busker in the script. I was inspired by the ‘here and now’ feeling of 360 and came up with the idea of actually having the busker sing live at the end of the film — creating a live credits music track. We asked around for a songwriter to sing live on the shoot and my talented music supervisor friend Amy Ashworth suggested an amazing artist; Alessi Laurent Marke from Alessi’s Ark. Alessi loved the script and suggested ‘Portal’ which was such a left field choice that it was perfect. “…sound/is a portal/to the immortal/underground’ Just writing it gives me goosebumps — it’s one of my favorite moments in Keyed Like, as Coley walks past Alessi busking, and Eve follows, buzzes flirtily around her on a bike. Earlier you can hear Alessi’s guitar case being unzipped, then you can turn to see her get her guitar out. We are very lucky to have Alessi in the film singing her own song to create this feeling of spark and beginnings. It works perfectly for the sunset too!

Do you see the two of you doing more 360 projects together in the future? Narrative 360 filmmaking needs more storytellers like you!

Alex Rühl (writer and producer of Keyed Alike): Definitely. The thing I love about working with Chloe is she brings years of professional directing experience to a project, but she’s a pure artist at heart who is format-agnostic. So her open-mindedness allowed us to collaborate in a really unique way on Keyed Alike. We are underway with developing our next project together which will be very different in tone, a period drama actually, so that will be very exciting to tackle.

I also run an immersive storytelling studio CATS are not PEAS ( which develops original IP for immersive tech so we’ve got several new original 360 projects and a couple of interactive VR projects about to go into production. I’m just really keen to keep innovating and getting more people involved so we can grow this medium with an eclectic mix of stories being told.

Chloe Thomas (director of Keyed Alike): I want our 360 adventure to continue. Alex is a maker, technically brilliant and has a great inspiring spirit. I love making stories and 360 has made more different things possible in my head. The narrative period drama that we are starting to think about together is something 360 could make happen for the first time. It’s a story I’ve always wanted to bring alive and now the technology has finally caught up with the writer’s vision, even though the writer created it in 1896. I think ‘atmosphere’ is not given enough credit in films, people concentrate on narrative and shots, yet it’s the atmosphere, the feeling of a film that often stays with me the most. 360 films deliver incredible atmosphere, especially with spatial audio — so you can create your own world. Narratively speaking, for our next 360 projects, we want to play with POV and who’s helming the story character-wise. Also, I love directing comedy and I’m determined to deliver more 360 laughs!

Keyed Alike is now available on Jaunt.