The impressiveness of AJ Prager’s short Seeing Other People comes through in its sheer ambition. By taking the trauma of being inside a toxic relationship and translating it into a visually compelling piece of short form filmmaking Prager is able to utilise the tools of cinema to create something both affecting and exciting. The story follows a young woman who ventures into a bar with her boyfriend, who just so happens to be an all-seeing hivemind in control of the other patrons of the bar. It’s a thrilling and thought-provoking short that portrays the emotional blackmailing and coercion of a controlling relationship through the guise of a neon-hued haunted house ride. DN is proud to premiere Seeing Other People on our pages today in conjunction with a conversation with Prager where she reveals the long gestation the project went through and her techniques for developing on-screen chemistry after a last-minute casting dropout.

How did the idea form for Seeing Other People?

Seeing Other People was inspired by a toxic relationship I was in when I was in college. At the time, everyone told us how great we looked together; meanwhile, I was miserable and afraid. I wanted to metaphorize the paranoia I felt during this time period. It did seem like my significant other was everywhere and was connected to everyone, whether I was grabbing a bite to eat at a taco stand and found myself wondering if the strangers around me could tell what was going on, or I was walking in a park at night and fabricating what she’d say if she found me. The inescapable desperation I felt during that time made me think about doing dark, crazy things to escape the prospect of spending another day with her. I was struck with this idea when I was in the darkest pit of it all. When I got the strength to leave, I left quickly. I never spoke to her again.

I wanted to metaphorize the paranoia I felt during this time period.

After I went through that experience, I was a shell of myself. I had spent so long bending to someone else’s will, I had no will of my own. Even when it was over, I found myself terrified I would run into her constantly. I ended up hiding in my apartment throughout that spring and summer, but that drainage of power lingered for years to come. For seven months, my life was not mine. I had to work to find myself again. It felt like stumbling through a dark room, occasionally tripping on a new piece of myself, holding it up and remembering, “Ah! Yes! I forgot I love video games!”. It sounds absurd, but one person can erode your entire sense of self. With time and healing, I was restored. I never thought I would be afraid to leave somebody who abused my trust. If this could happen to me, it could happen to anyone. And it happened not through violence but through casual, prolonged routine suppression, the slow crippling of hope.

How challenging was it to get something so personal financed and produced?

I recently found a note from 2016 where I wrote that I wanted to do this “over the summer”. Oh, the naïveté. Little did I know that I would spend years financing this short myself; my first job was working as a PA and scraping up bird poop off the couches outside. Throughout these odd jobs, and as I grew, I always had this film in mind. I was constantly revising drafts and even creating full storyboards filled with color. I was always thinking about how to improve a line or capitalize on the metaphor.

And then one day, in 2020, the ball got rolling when I met Matt Marder and Halyna Hutchins, two essential members of my team who helped bring the creative vision to life in practical terms. Halyna Hutchins passed away in a tragic accident, but her creative contributions are a huge reason why this film got made. She will always be remembered as a force in the field of cinematography.

You were shooting this during part of the pandemic too, right?

As we neared shooting dates, Omicron came into town and swept LA. At the time, we were super concerned that we’d have to cancel the shoot, or that a critical team member would fall ill. You know how presidents come into office glowing and smiling in their portraits, and then by the end they have wrinkles and gray hair? Making this film felt a bit like that. It felt like giving birth.

What other hurdles did you come across during the making of the film?

It was very emotionally laborious, but with the help of my amazing crew, it was elevated beyond my wildest dreams. I had originally cast a couple to play Anne and Jesse, figuring their natural chemistry as boyfriend/girlfriend would do wonders. But last minute, our lead dropped out due to illness, and I was totally panicking. But 36 hours before shooting, my Producer Matt Marder ended up finding Sabina Friedman-Seitz, the perfect actress to showcase the range of emotions Anne had to go through as she tolerated Jesse’s deranged behavior.

It was very emotionally laborious, but with the help of my amazing crew, it was elevated beyond my wildest dreams.

With such little time before the shoot, did you do anything with your actors to help them bond or develop an on-screen chemistry?

I remember Sabina landing at LAX and coming straight to my apartment. Now how was I going to create a deep relationship between these actors in under a day? I had her hold hands with Nick Marini, who plays Jesse, a total stranger to her, and I had them ask the 36 Questions to Fall in Love from The New York Times to one another. If you know anything about those questions, they are very deep, very vulnerable questions, and by the end of the session, they were crying. They were friends. And I had a believable relationship on my hands. Together, they were absolutely pitch-perfect.

Could you talk about the use of colour in Seeing Other People? The blues and reds are so brilliantly intense.

Thank you. The colors that light up our main characters are motivated by the emotions of Jesse himself. While we started with standard lighting for a bar scene, the light quickly changes as Jesse comes to realize Anne’s real purpose meeting him tonight. As Jesse’s powers increase, that ‘normal’ look changes to a darker, malevolent blue. Additionally, the green of Jesse’s finger and our bartender’s/patrons’ glowing eyes represent Jesse’s (alien) homeland. Jesse is from some place not on Earth, but when Jesse and Anne met, Anne was instantly wooed. The two began dating. As Jesse began to get more comfortable around her, Anne discovered Jesse’s powers, and, uncomfortable with how they were being used to, say, get the best tables in fancy restaurants or skip to the front of the line, convinced Jesse to stop using them for personal gain.

When they break up, which is when this short takes place, Jesse goes back on his word to Anne – and he begins to use them again, and to even use them against her, despite this being Anne’s cardinal rule. The goal with any green tones throughout the piece was to equate them with Jesse’s superpowers and alien homeland. For example, as the dance begins, the green and purple light turns the dancer’s skin tones an alien bluish-green, and brings us further into the warped world of Jesse’s mind, and how he views the relationship as one to control as the puppet master.

The colors within Seeing Other People were all a reflection of Jesse’s shifting emotions. As he is able to control everything in the space, it only makes sense that he’s the one to make it red and strobing when he wants to terrify her, and back again to a romantic deep blue when he is back to wooing her again. Jesse rules every color space, except for one. At the end, when Anne has run out of the bar and is making her escape down the street, she ends up bathed in a green light. This is because, despite escaping from the massacre in the bar, despite thwarting his powers, she is still impacted by what happened. She may have escaped physically, but what happened to her and what she had to do to escape will continue to haunt her down the line. This experience will follow her, and I used the green light and the anniversary card’s confetti still in her hair to represent that idea of trauma’s continued ‘haunting’.

She may have escaped physically, but what happened to her and what she had to do to escape will continue to haunt her down the line.

I want to shout out my DP Will Turner, who did incredible. He and Eli Tahan, our Gaffer, did a lot of difficult practical lighting tricks like the red flashing to spotlight lighting all in real time. Will also made an extensive 3D model of each individual shot before we got into the location, which was extremely helpful in allowing the team to work efficiently.

You mentioned earlier about how tricky this film was to get made. How do you feel about the project now that it’s completed and being shown to audiences?

It was truly an unforgettable experience that brought me immense joy and satisfaction as a filmmaker. It couldn’t have been made without the tremendous support of all of my amazing cast, crew, and friends. Everyone helped this film make it to this screen, whether it was giving notes on the first cut, connecting me to new actors, or collecting glass bottles for us to use inside the bar.

What have you been working on since the completion of Seeing Other People?

I’ve been working on my first feature, a new horror project that’s like It Follows if it was a coming out story. I plan to shoot in my hometown in 2025. I’ve also worked on several music videos, including the upcoming That’s Why She’s Hot for KingQueen featuring Manila Luzon, which drops next week! Really excited about that one so be sure to check it out on KingQueen’s YouTube page.

2 Responses to A Toxic Relationship Becomes an All-Encompassing Nightmare in AJ Prager’s Short ‘Seeing Other People’

  1. Frank Poynton says:

    This is a terrifically well done film. It moves well and hits all the marks. AJ Prager shows her talent and know how as a writer, director and overall film maker. With such a skillset I sense there are bigger projects ahead for AJ Prager.

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