Brendan Prost’s short film Heavy Petting is an eerie bifurcated character drama about a queer encounter between two lonely cat enthusiasts. Whilst this may sound whimsical on paper, Prost’s film is anything but as he uses this conceit as a means of playing with the tone and structure of his short to create something strange and unique. To achieve such a looseness in genre is impressive and that’s down to the cohesion of each of the film’s elements; the consistent yet slyly evolving cinematography, the intimate performances by Haley Midgette and Sam Calleja, as Marina and Jordan respectively, and the shifting sonic palette which underpins as it unfolds. DN is proud to premiere Heavy Petting on our pages today and are joined by Prost who unpacks the craft behind the compelling emotional journey he wanted to take the audience on.
What motivated you to make a queer character drama?
I wasn’t motivated to make a queer character drama at the outset, that’s just what the film became through the development process. I was compelled initially to make a film that compared two different experiences of loneliness I’d had at separate points in my life, how they were similar, how they were different, and how one might lead to another. I wrote two characters that embodied these experiences and then imagined how they might intersect in a way that illuminated their commonalities and contrasts. Part of that intersection was around their different relationships to queerness. For some, sex can be an opportunity to play, experiment, and escape. And, for others, especially bisexual people, sex can be a source of alienation, fetishization, and invisibility. So, that covers the ‘queer character’ part, and as for the drama… the film is a bit slippery genre-wise. There’s a horror influence, but I didn’t think about it much during the writing. I was mostly just following what seemed emotionally organic, which I suppose grounds it in drama.
I was compelled initially to make a film that compared two different experiences of loneliness.
Could you talk about that key tonal switch in Heavy Petting? What inspired that and how did you look to execute it?
I was interested in comparing two different experiences which I came to define as “loneliness and desolation”. I wanted to contrast them, but I also wanted to illuminate how easily you could slip from one to the other, so it seemed intuitive to “pass the baton” from one character to another and shift the narrative perspective midway. I was also excited by the idea of lulling an audience into the expectation of a certain kind of film and then confronting them with something they didn’t expect or even want. Taking them on that emotional journey involved quickly establishing one emotional world, beginning to problematize that in subtle ways, and then thrusting things forcefully into bleaker territory at the midpoint. It was very tricky to balance what elements of the film should remain consistent throughout and what elements should change, and how and when they should change. Ultimately pulling it off was about effective collaboration and the coordination of efforts between our cinematographer, production designer, composer, and post-sound team.
How long were you shooting for? And how challenging a shoot was it?
We shot four very long days in the first summer of the pandemic, including an overnight on the last day, and it was a completely draining experience. We were worried about people getting sick, and the film was creatively quite demanding; intimacy scenes, lots of locations, visual effects, weird props, background actors, traveling vehicles, lighting effects, and live animals, among other things. At one point the car I borrowed from my ex broke down at 2am filled with gear. Another time the police showed up while we were shooting a corpse in the middle of a street without a permit. I had to break into my apartment to sleep because the AD had my keys. My cat bit the 2nd AD’s finger. Fortunately no one got sick, but we were all exhausted at the end of the shoot. As a producer I was ashamed of the length of our shooting days and will not replicate the experience again.
The performances are so intimate and nuanced, how did you work with Haley and Sam to develop that?
This was actually the first time in a long time I didn’t do any improvisation or rehearsal work in advance. I went through a more elaborate casting process than usual to find actors that innately embodied the roles, and then really just embraced what Haley and Sam brought to it. Part of it was how they wear their emotions as people, part of it was their unique physicality, and the rest of it was the visual story they tell onscreen as a duo. We did script work together and obviously had to plan the intimacy scenes methodically in advance. But, I think we mostly just focused on building trust, because they were going to have to be so vulnerable during the shoot. They ultimately were both so courageous, and I’m very grateful for it.
It’s also a film that looks gorgeous, what conversations did you have with your cinematographer in creating the visual aesthetic of Heavy Petting?
Cinematographer Gayle Ye is a formidable talent with bold creative impulses and the skills to follow them through. Our first challenge was figuring out what things would visually change throughout the film, and what things would stay the same. We realized there was potential for a gradual shift in the source, colour, and amount of wrap to the lighting. The first half of the film would feature a lot of natural sunlight, and to the degree we would use artificial light, we would keep it warm and complimentary. As the film went along, we would start to infuse the drab blues of morning shadows, and then introduce more artificial light with harsh shades of green and orange.
Chiefly, we saw the skin tones being a major signifier of how the look of the film would change. Marina’s flesh would appear mostly rosy and vibrant, while Jordan’s would seem mostly pallid and eventually lifeless. The amount of wrap to the lighting would also diminish over time. At the beginning, Marina would be lit fairly even, while later in the film Jordan would be almost entirely concealed in shadow. In pursuit of some consistency, Gayle and I identified several opportunities for extreme close-ups of evocative visual details throughout the film, mostly fur, flesh, and dead things. We thought that the persistence of this probing perspective would offer the audience a familiar guiding hand and convey an image system with lingering symbolic value. We also committed to a certain level of compositional rigour by photo boarding the entire movie in advance.
It was very tricky to balance what elements of the film should remain consistent throughout and what elements should change, and how and when they should change.
I read that Heavy Petting was made as your thesis film at British Columbia, how did that affect its development? Were you consulting with your tutors and other students during its making?
Its status as my thesis film is a bit complicated by the pandemic because principal photography actually occurred before the grad program began. When case counts dropped in the summer of 2020, I saw an opportunity to shoot the film and was concerned that another window might not arise for a long time. So, I shot the film in Toronto before I moved to Vancouver to start the MFA. My mentors and peers at UBC were enormously influential in the post-production and release process, but they unfortunately didn’t have much of an opportunity to shape the script or guide the production.
It’s a film which has deservedly played festivals across the globe, what have you made of the reaction from audiences so far?
It’s a polarizing film, which I’m proud of. A lot of my previous work was formally indistinct and too emotionally generalized to have a strong impact on anyone. I felt like I was being greeted with “meh”s everywhere I went. So, it’s a relief to take this film into the world and hear that it leaves a lingering impression, for better and for worse. But, when people ‘get it’ they really seem to ‘get it’. I’ve read some things about the film that make me feel really seen as a person, which is scary but gratifying at the same time.
And lastly, what can we expect from you next?
For the last six years I’ve been focused on making short work, and I am now very excited to be pivoting to features and television. I have four projects very close to being ready for production, including two genre films, a personal documentary/fiction hybrid, and a character-drama I’ve been writing with an actor. I’ll be introducing my psychological horror film Stifle during the Power Pitch Competition at the Whistler Film Festival in December.