A kitchen ravaged by egg shell strewn chaos all in the name of love opens up Dan Boaden’s tragi-comedy Pet Name which breaks down the very epitome of a toxic anxious-avoidant relationship cycle. Pet Name from Heretic Productions, chosen by DN as one of the Essential British Shorts from the 2022 edition of The Shortest Nights, follows a young couple celebrating a birthday, rife with rich palpable tension, as a beloved moniker is revealed to be nothing but a casual repeated nickname. Boaden wrote the script alongside regular collaborator Amille Jampa-Ngoen, who was already undertaking her own research on the subject matter, creating a narrative which bounces from a supposedly cute and loving relationship with plans for a wondrous nostalgic day out to a seaside-set series of hateful little jibes and jabbing microaggressions. Visually Pet Name was crafted to embody a timeless and vintage look which only further reflects the destructive cycle of behaviour, ending on a well hit note which brings the whole story together. As DN premieres Pet Name online we were able to dig into the short’s details with Boaden who reveals the unfortunate beginnings which inspired the film, working on his dreamlike timeless aesthetic and explains why audiences may be revealing more about themselves than they intend when they side with one character over the other.
So how did this awkward repeated nickname mishap become the film we see today?
The idea for Pet Name struck me when I heard a friend (who has since asked to be anonymous) call his new partner by the same nickname (“Pickles”, if you’re curious) as his ex. When questioned further, he admitted that this was something he repeatedly did as a shorthand for instant sentimentality. Adamant that this wasn’t weird, but actually a nice thing to do, it really sparked some quite heated chats amongst our friendship group about what other aspects of relationships we recycle and repeat – and the idea for the short film was conceived. So as not to feel like I’ve sold out my friend too much, he ultimately got the last laugh as seemingly most people have assumed it’s me, including my parents.
I brought the idea to my producer and co-writer for Pet Name, Amille Jampa-Ngoen, who had been delving into attachment theory at the time, and we decided on grounding the story within the context of an anxious-avoidant relationship. This toxic but surprisingly common relationship dynamic felt like ripe territory for a tragi-comedy and built on themes we explored in our previous short Saudade, which is about the words we often lack in English to describe how we’re really feeling (in this case – a post-breakup clear out of things from a flat).
The script references other patterns and cycles that happen with people who’ve had multiple relationships; from the repeated date venues, anecdotes and even trips away, to the way we feel and the roles we play when coupled up. I wanted to highlight these repetitive behaviours through the addictive habits of seaside arcades and day drinking in pubs and push this with the saturated grade and looping soundscapes. Also key to this was a pier, the perfect metaphor for relationships stretching out into the abyss, or maybe being stopping short too early. After a very detailed Excel sheet of all the piers in the UK, aided by a wealth of pandemic ‘staycations’, we finally found Llandudno in North Wales, which ticked pretty much all the boxes.
You clearly have a great working relationship with producer and fellow writer Amille Jampa-Ngoen. How did you two approach the writing process and decide upon all those delectable microaggressions which are peppered throughout to highlight the anxious-avoidant relationship cycle?
From the start, we had the story structure built around that vicious anxious-avoidant relationship cycle, so we knew the journey each character had to go on to reach the final story beat. We then spent a while bouncing around scene ideas and dialogue, unearthing microaggressions that either resonated with our own experiences or those we’d seen leave tiny scars on others. From there we looked for moments where we felt either wronged or very much on the ‘right’ side of the argument and tried to re-examine it (with enough time having passed) and think, “Did I paint that person as the villain because it was easier that way? Did they really say that thing in that tone?” When you imagine the other person’s recollection of that fight you start getting an entirely different story altogether.
It’s of course quite dark, but we wanted the humour to cut through that as much as possible.
Although I’ve watched it countless times (mainly in post, not because I’m a narcissist) I still laugh at Amille’s “nice girls” line. It’s a great example of an anxiously attached micro-aggression; the idea that you can turn anything into this destructive narrative that you’re fundamentally unlovable, that you’re almost just waiting for the avoidant person to screw up so you can say to yourself, “See I was right!”, pushing them further away and causing your relationship to self-destruct. It’s of course quite dark, but we wanted the humour to cut through that as much as possible.
I want to physically reach out and shake both Sophie and James at various points in the film and can’t decide who is more to blame. Bearing in mind the ending of the film, did you want the audience to side with either one of them?
I’m really glad you had that reaction! (Also, sorry). The intention was never to have someone completely at fault and we wanted to explore the grey areas of behaviour in relationships from both sides. James may seem like a bit of a prick at first, and Sophie certainly doesn’t help herself, but fundamentally, I don’t see either of them as bad people with bad intentions. There’s the, maybe slightly trite, phrase I often think of, “There is no such thing as bad people. We’re all just people who sometimes do bad things.” I think this is especially true of people in relationships in their 20s. I’m fascinated by the idea that had these characters met several years later, they could have made it work.
What I do find fascinating though, and at times quite funny, is how some people side quite strongly with one character over the other. It’s like holding up a mirror and in their vehement defence or condemnation of James or Sophie, they’re perhaps unwittingly divulging some of their own romantic patterns.
There is a palpable awkward chemistry between the couple which perfectly relates to their toxic relationship cycle. What did your casting process look like and how did you know when you had the right actors with that very natural bounce off each other?
Sydney Aldridge, our casting director, assisted us in reviewing nearly 100 audition tapes for the role of James. Many comedic actors interpreted the role in a way that was a tad too laddy, which wasn’t quite what we were looking for. Conor Joseph’s tape was one of the last few and when he delivered that final line, it sent chills through both of us. He brought this moody, aloof vibe to James, but laced it with just enough charm to make you think, “Yeah, he could probably get away with calling all his exes “Goose”.” He’s an incredibly versatile actor who’d mainly done stage stuff before. I feel like I should also say, in reality, Conor’s a far cry from that persona and is totally lovely.
Many comedic actors interpreted the role in a way that was a tad too laddy, which wasn’t quite what we were looking for.
Amille and Ambika Mod know each other from doing improv comedy together, and I knew Ambika from previously working with her on my last short Saudade. She’s phenomenally funny, and effortlessly flits between hitting emotional notes while still managing to elicit genuine belly laughs. She’s gone on to do very big TV shows and I couldn’t be prouder of her and her continued success. Amille and I knew she would be great, but it was after the rehearsal/chemistry read that we felt reassured we had the right pairing – sort of, awkward but magnetic.
I wanted that sort of slightly dreamy, romanticised look but with a bleaker undertone – this idea that we’re not certain, particularly with the ending, of where things slot in the timeline.
I love the timeless, almost vintage look. What references did you lean into for the cinematography to give it that feel?
It was shot on an Alexa Mini. All the story doesn’t necessarily sit in the present, and therefore we used vintage Cooke lenses, paired with the Americana-grade, to give a sense of dreamy timelessness that doesn’t anchor the events in any particular timeline, but more of a doom loop – which gives an inevitability to the end of the film. I worked closely with cinematographer Andrew Butler on the visual look. We drew references from films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Submarine and End of the F***ing World. I wanted that sort of slightly dreamy, romanticised look but with a bleaker undertone – this idea that we’re not certain, particularly with the ending, of where things slot in the timeline. When it came to the grade, we spent a long time with Alex Marshall at Axiom International to develop the particular Americana-style look, starting with a reference from Baby Driver and then building it from there.
The composition and the looping audio are so present but don’t take over. How did you work with your composers to create the right fit and be able to hit those beats within the script?
I worked with Aaron May previously on a whole range of jobs and had spoken to him about the script probably a good year before it went into production. We had a few reference tracks and a Spotify playlist, but we largely left it to Aaron and his composing partner David Ridley to work their magic. We spoke about having something that would help signal Sophie’s anxiety whilst reading the card, which later in the edit turned into an audio motif throughout. They really got the film and what we were trying to do very quickly, so from the early drafts it didn’t take too long to get to the final composition.
I knew that I wanted to play with the rhythm and intensity of those opening scenes.
There is a great snappy back and forth between our characters and the way you play with camera angles. How much was already planned out in your production and then how did you finesse that in the edit and post-process?
There’s a lot of snappy back and forth in the first half of the script and I knew that I wanted to play with the rhythm and intensity of those opening scenes. We got a lot of coverage, particularly in the diner and the pub, to allow our editor, Louise MacGregor, to really play with the perspective and pacing. After the photoboard scene, things open up, allowing longer and wider takes as the relationship builds back up. Also, having had the privilege of working with Ambika previously, I knew she would absolutely nail the unspoken emotions in her face. She’s so good at it and so much of her character’s humour is conveyed through her reactions to either what James says or does. At times, Sophie is effectively channelling the emotions of the audience and for that reason, I knew I would want some key close-ups of her for maximum impact.
Both Pet Name and Saudade examine relationships which is of course fertile ground for filmmaking, what are you looking to explore next in your work?
I definitely gravitate towards films centred around dysfunctional relationships both as a viewer and a filmmaker. Ruben Östlund’s work really resonates with me – I get so much joy from unspoken awkward dynamics and inappropriate behaviours that probe grey areas of relationships, both familial and romantic. I watched Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World recently and loved it – the tone, humour and themes are exactly what speak to me. I’m interested in how people grow and discover who they are through their relationships, for better or worse. I think it’s a sad and beautiful part of life. Intertwined with that are power dynamics and status games that people play, which is something I’ve also been reading a lot about recently – The Status Game by Will Storr is a fantastic read.
As for what’s next, I’ve written a short film about a mother negotiating with her son to sign an NDA and it touches on a lot of the themes mentioned above. The characters are occupying a lot of mental space at the moment so hopefully we can get some funding behind that to make it happen soon!