Jennifer Sheridan and Matthew Markham’s short film SET ADRIFT takes the simplest of ideas – a pet dog grieving the lost of one of his humans, and turns it into a poetic tale of loss and acceptance that makes it a challenge for anyone to last its 8-minute runtime without shedding multiple tears. The husband and wife directing team have a penchant for working with animals in the series of shorts they have made to date, especially their little star of SET ADRIFT, Bowie, and it is clearly a formula that is working for them. We took advantage of the fact that Jennifer made the trip from her houseboat on the Thames in London all the way to Oxford, Mississippi for the Oxford Film Festival to ask her about the film and her little furry star.
- What was the inspiration for the story and the approach with the symbolism for SET ADRIFT?
I wanted to explore the grieving process from the perspective of a loving pet dog. The challenges associated with doing that, are in trying to convey his feelings and emotions without the ability to use words. I decided to have water overflowing in household objects, as a physical expression of his anxiety. The water becomes this menacing presence that he associates with her loss and his own unexpressed grief.
- How does the division of responsibility work between you and co-director Matthew Markham?
Matthew is my creative partner and also my husband. Our pet dog Bowie stars in the film and so we had to switch roles between directing and dog wrangling. There were times I needed to instruct Bowie or cheat his eye line in a certain direction, which meant I couldn’t always be at the monitors. I wouldn’t have been able to make this film without his help. We also make music videos and promos together as a directors collective called AFLOAT in London. You can see our stuff at www.weareafloat.com. We’re called Afloat because we live on a houseboat on the River Thames, it’s a lovely way of life.
- SET ADRIFT stars Bowie, your dog. ACOUSTIC KITTY (2014) – cats. CATCH (2013) Fish, kind of.. And ROCKET (2011) Bowie again. You clearly have a thing about working with animals. What’s that all about?
When I was a kid I either wanted to be a film director or a veterinarian, so when I pursued the former I took inspiration from the things I love about the world. Working with animals is extremely challenging, but what makes it exciting is that you don’t always know what you’re going to get. They can surprise and delight you and it’s a great lesson in thinking on your feet as a filmmaker. The next short film I’m shooting, doesn’t actually have any animals in it, but it does have the actor who plays ‘Grey Worm’ in Game of Thrones so you could argue that he’s at least named after one!
- Since this film made me cry like a big baby, will you fess up and tell us the title of the last feature film that made you cry real tears?
Never get tired of hearing that John, so thank you! I cried at the end of ARRIVAL recently, it really got to me. What’s incredible about that film is that you think you are going to see a movie about aliens and you end up learning so much about about humanity and what it is to be living here on earth. It’s also about love and accepting the loss of a loved one, so that might also be what did it. Great film and visually stunning.
- Answer honestly: Was Bowie, who was starring in his second short film for you, following ROCKET (2011), a diva or a trooper on set this time around?
Well when we filmed ROCKET back in 2011, he was a young energetic pup and so we had to turn filming into a game to get the results. As he’s got older he’s grown more patient, and is much better at taking direction and repeating actions. However, there were moments when he was just not having it! The scene where he has to bark at the sea was particularly difficult as he’s not really a barky dog and he got bored quite quickly. You also have to know what the correct incentive to use to get the right emotion. For example, if you want to evoke a sense of longing/ pensiveness then use chicken or turkey, but if you need a more alert/ concentrated look- you should use a tennis ball. It’s all about how to get the best performance out of your actor and Bowie is no exception. I’ve yet to try the chicken technique with real actors though.
- What is comforting from a directing standpoint, knowing that you are also the editor? Is there an economy in how you shoot, since you know how you like to cut?
It’s definitely helpful to know what I need for the edit to work and it gives me confidence to move on without overshooting a scene. I also feel that the best results come from not editing what you’ve directed, mainly because it’s important to get a new perspective. With SET ADRIFT, I’d written the script as well as directing, so felt I was too close to it to be completely objective in the edit. A friend of mine offered to cut it for me, which was great and he did a wonderful job.
- Popcorn or Candy?
I don’t know if you have these here, but in London there’s a store called Marks and Spenser and they sell chocolate coated popcorn, with popping candy in it! They are AMAZING so I’m gonna have to say popcorn and chocolate… and popping candy.
SET ADRIFT screens at the 2017 Oxford Film Festival on Saturday, February 18.