Sometimes a small mistake isn’t just a small mistake. Instead, it’s like a single piece being removed from a carefully constructed house of cards that results in the whole stack coming tumbling down. Such is the case with James Arden’s short Sitter, which he made in collaboration with Brother Film. The story follows Aurora (played by Iona Champain) who, whilst cat sitting for her friend, ends up losing said cat and venturing down a paranoid journey of self-loathing. It’s a tense short to watch for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because of the way Arden and his team render Aurora’s journey with cleverly constructed anxious cinematography that perfectly captures the spiralling emotive state she’s experiencing. And secondly, because of how relatable the situation is, and how painful it is to see someone go through a scenario or thought pattern that is just too familiar. It really is a wonderful piece of work and after premiering his previous short Leopard we’re delighted to be premiering Sitter too alongside a chat with Arden where he talks us through how the process of making the short pushed him out of his creative safe space.

How did Sitter and your collaboration with the Brother Film team kick off?

When the Brother Film team approached me about making a short film, we decided we wanted to throw our combined energy into a brand new idea. I’d been stuck in development purgatory for a more ambitious project, so it came at a perfect time in a way. I told them to give me the weekend, and I sat down and wrote something completely fresh, based on my real-life experiences with old housemates, people you love, but whose self-destructive nature means they can’t quite be trusted to do anything… even looking after a cat! I’d also come off the back of several commercial projects dealing with quite heavy subject matters, so to do something chaotic and entertaining was honestly such a creative release, I’m so grateful for this project.

How quickly did the film come to life after that writing session?

I usually like to tweak for months and months on the page, but this one was script to screen within a month. The pressure behind the scenes added something, I think, to the stressful nature of the film, production was fast-paced and hectic in a good way, and so is Aurora’s journey as everything starts to go wrong. Iona Champain really rolled with the energy on set, we blocked fast and turned over. I like having a plan but deviate quickly if something else feels better or more natural. I’m a very performance-led director, and love working with actors.

To do something chaotic and entertaining was honestly such a creative release, I’m so grateful for this project.

What do you think it was that drew you to write about someone inherently flawed?

I’m obsessed with flawed protagonists, I love exploring characters who are real and messy and learn things the hard way, but you still root for them. Aurora hopefully fits into that category. She’s a mess, but relatable and likeable.

Given that it was a fast turnaround from concept to production, did you face any challenges on set? You were working with a cat, for example, how was that?

We broke two of the cardinal rules of filmmaking while shooting this film; don’t work with animals, and don’t shoot in your own flat. Luckily, we got away with both. My cat, Merce, features in the film, a star in the making. She was going from point A to B on cue, getting eye-lines correct and more… she’s a better actor than some humans. We shot over two days. The exteriors are around my local area, Peckham, and the nightclub exterior was filmed in an underground car park beneath Brother Film’s office. We made a lot out of a little. I’m really proud of how full the film feels.

You mentioned earlier that you’re a performance-led director, what do you mean by that? How does that approach materialise during production?

I mean that I’ve come to learn my brain prioritises performance and believing an actor during a take above everything else. Composition, camera and lighting are all still important, but if I’m looking at the monitor and I don’t believe the emotion in the moment, we’ll go again. Finding the emotional truth of a scene, building that together with an actor, tweaking until it works… then combining that with all the other elements – that’s what it’s all about for me. Doesn’t get any better.

What would you say were the specific elements in post-production that brought the film together as a whole piece?

When it came to post-production, the incredible sound design and score by Hugo Ellingham at Brother Music really brought everything to another level. It’s an incredibly sound heavy film, something I’ve never done before, so it was a really fun challenge pushing the envelope with Hugo. I made a Spotify playlist of 2000s Electro-Pop and that was our starting point. We wanted a coherent feeling throughout to match Aurora’s chaotic energy, both in the sound, and the sparse music choices. Hugo rolled with it and we spent days experimenting and tweaking together, and he smashed it, basically.

We wanted the film to feel claustrophobic, and any camera movement to feel bigger. Heightened social realism was the goal.

There’s an intensity to the way Sitter looks and feels, how did you approach the visual language to translate those feelings over to the audience?

Sitter was a chance to step out of my comfort zone. I wanted to push my own visual and tonal sensibilities. We shot anamorphic, which is new for me, and we aimed to make bolder decisions on every shot if it worked narratively. “Go longer” became the catchphrase on set, a typically 35mm shot became 50mm or more. We wanted the film to feel claustrophobic, and any camera movement to feel bigger. Heightened social realism was the goal. We shot digitally, but Dan Moran’s filmic grade breathed new life into the story.

What motivated you to add the textured digital film grain?

Sitter felt like a grimy film to me, building out from Aurora in last night’s messy make-up to set the tone. Dan Moran, our amazing colourist, created a dark, messy, textured feeling that really brought it all to life.

This is only your second short film, which is mighty impressive, how do you feel you’ve developed as a filmmaker over your first two films?

Making films is mad when you think about it. You’re trying things out, often for the first time, with so many logistical variables at play, and all you can do is hope the end result is half-decent and connects with your audience. So, I’ve learned to not try and have everything figured out at every stage because you never will, and to just focus on my intention for a project, or a scene, or a moment, and let that guide me. I think I’m more confident in what I want a film to be, and how to get there, but you still have to leave room for the unpredictable problems on the way – that’s part of the magic!

What’s next for you?

I have one more short film I’ve been trying to make for two years. It’s been quite a journey, but I don’t give up easily, so I’m convinced we’ll get it made – nothing fun comes easy! Beyond that, I want to step into long-form film and TV. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be, I think. We’re all just looking for that chance, aren’t we?

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