Jennifer Sheridan is an award-winning Filmmaker from London, born to Irish parents. She’s worked on Film and Television in Directorial, Editing and Acting roles. She is about to release short film ‘Acoustic Kitty’, a cold war black comedy, which garnered prestigious funding from Virgin Media and the BFI.
Acoustic Kitty is about a CIA plot from the 60’s to spy on the Russians via surgically ‘enhanced’ cat radios. Radio’s inside cats. I kid you not. Read on.
Acoustic Kitty has a bizarre premise, but a true one; can you tell me a little of how you came to hear about that? Did you initially think it would work on film?
I was sat on some grass in London’s Soho (Summer, 2011); when my friend Tim told me about project Acoustic Kitty. The first thing out of my mouth was ‘that’s a short film!’
It’s a perfect story for that length of film, but what is even better is that it’s a true story. Without it being true, people might think you’ve just got a dark mind (or something against cats.) Of course the second thing out of my mouth was ‘but it will cost a fortune to make a film set in the CIA in the sixties, so it will probably never happen.’ Little did I know.
How did you get taken on board?
I guess you could say I was the captain in this case, trying to get others on board. What I found is that it’s really hard to make anything happen without a good producer. That’s the person who you can really begin to build the rest of the crew with and shape your film. In my case I met Adam Shakinovsky, who luckily was also a very talented scriptwriter. I’d written the first version of the script, sent it out for others opinions and then tried to incorporate everyone’s different ideas. It had become too long and convoluted. Adam was able to help me get back to what the story really was in it’s simplest form. It was a relief.
How accurate are the events of the film to the events of real life?
Well as you can imagine I’ve done a lot of research on the subject. There’s a fair amount online and in books, but they all sort of say the same thing. The one conflicting account I found was from an American documentary. This CIA fellow claimed they took the equipment back out of the cat and that it went on to live a happy life.
I guess there’s no way to actually know the truth of it. The fact is they did do this to cats and it’s bizarre and dark enough on it’s own. I just chose the ending that I felt worked better for the film. I also built my own story and characters around the original idea, so there’s truth at it’s heart but the rest is storytelling.
I have to ask…were any animals harmed in the making of this film?
Only my own dogs feelings about not being in it. We did tried to cameo him in the park scene, but he wasn’t happy walking off with an actor. He kept trying to get back to me behind the camera so we gave up in the end.
You’ve got great backing, from Virgin Media and the BFI; how important was it to the Acoustic Kitty that you got that?
Without that there probably wouldn’t be an Acoustic Kitty film. I didn’t expect to win the prize money. I was up against some really great films. I remember when Julie Walters read out my name, my first thought was ‘I’m really going to get to make Acoustic Kitty?!’ I couldn’t believe how lucky I was.
What was your favourite part of working on this film?
Planning the montage. I love a good montage and blocking that out with my DOP (Dan Stafford-Clarke) was one of the best moments ever. I get very excited about montages as you might have now guessed. It was all amazing though, everyone and everything about it was great.
When is it set for release?
As soon as it gets to premier at a major festival. Other filmmakers will know about how painful this process can be. Any rejection feels like they tore out your heart and kicked it in front of a train. I can tell you that when it gets into it’s first festival, no matter where I am I will be breaking into a choreographed dance routine; just like in a Disney film.
What was the most important aspect you thought to emphasise in this film, or was there one?
This might sound silly but it’s just the story. Some short filmmakers really want to make you cry or laugh or just feel something, anything. I find you need more time to connect deeply with a character and it’s what great features can do. When making a short film, I just want to spin you a yarn and hope you think ‘That was a great story, well told.’
What sort of style or techniques, as a director, are you fond of?
Well I love a good monta… wait I’ve said that already! I guess I just like films that keep you in their world and don’t distract you with too many ‘devices.’ I love all types- horror, animation, comedy, western, you name it. There’s not much I won’t watch except maybe ‘The Human Centipede.’
Was directing Acoustic Kitty a different experience to what you might’ve had before? Did you have a large team for this film?
Yes completely different. I had to direct proper actors for one thing, that was pretty scary; but also incredible and I learnt so much. I’ve had some experience on huge sets being a utilities assistant on Pirates Of The Caribbean 4, but it’s a different ballgame when it’s your own film. Everyone was great and communicated with each other. It was a pretty relaxed set to be honest, I remember the runner asking me where the kettle was and thinking this is not like on other sets, but I didn’t mind that. Everyone felt equally important because they were.
You directed, edited and even Acted in your film Catch. Do you think being a part of a smaller film demands you to be more versatile?
Yes indeed, we also had to source our own locations/ props/ costumes/ sound equipment.
We wanted to shoot in this really remote part of Scotland because it was so beautiful. We couldn’t have afforded to get a whole cast & crew there. It forces you to think outside of the box on certain things. For example; I made a fish out of cardboard and glued individual tin foil scales to it.
Then we filmed it while flashing a torch at it to create movement in the scales. We borrowed an old fish tank, filled it with Thames water and shot the water line while creating small waves in it with a piece of cardboard. With those elements my friend Graham was able to create the split screen effect and the fish swimming under the water. It just takes a little bit of imagination (and a Graham.)
Catch omits all dialogue; did you set out in that film with something to prove? How important was doing that to improving your storytelling?
I guess it goes back to trying to tell a story in it’s simplest form. Catch was such an easy narrative that words would have just made it longer and got in the way. I think it’s a good exercise for filmmakers to try not to rely on dialogue. Audiences are pretty clever at sussing things out without having to be told. We’re trained as humans to pick up on really subtle eye movements and gestures. It’s so often what you don’t say that matters.
Would you prefer to work on a film with a big efficient team that you don’t have full reign on or a small tight knit project that needs more effort and time?
That is such a good question and a tough one. I would honestly be happiest in a small tight knit crew, where we each cared equally about achieving something special, but that’s not always possible or practical. All I know is I love telling stories and I’m going to continue doing so in whatever capacity I’m able.
As well as directing Acoustic Kitty, I see you’re assistant editor on a film called Dead Cat too. Do you have a pathological hatred for cats or am I misunderstanding you completely?
Ha! That was a favour for a friend. I helped out on their no-budget feature. It was a rom-com in fact, but no I promise I don’t hate cats. Cats are hilarious and cute, just check out YouTube.
You directed Rocket with Bowie the dog back in 2011 and edited a load of stuff with animals since then, like Paul O’Grady’s show. Do you just get along with animals by your nature?
I love animals. I trained my budgie when I was a kid to play a small plastic banjo while sitting on my head. My dog Bowie was so easy to train. You’d teach him something and he’d be all ‘nailed it, what’s next?’ The best trick he does is that you can shoot him with your fingers and he plays dead, he’s a natural actor. Thinking about it, I owe a lot of my career to that dog.
What made you want to get into film? Whats the draw?
I guess I started out wanting to work in Television, more specifically comedy. I managed to work my way up as an editor in that world and absolutely love it. I’ve realised I’m someone who needs something in my crosshairs, so once I’d achieved that I was looking for the next big challenge. I began seeking advice from feature film editors and taking on low-budget shorts and features that often took up all of my spare time.
In the end I thought why don’t I just make my own film? So that’s what ‘Rocket’ was. Since then I’ve wanted to do more and more and now I’m planning my first feature. I’m still editing comedy for TV and it’s great, but my ideal life would be directing in the summer and editing in winter- here’s hoping.
What are the worst habits to get into when making a film from your experience?
Overcomplicating the story and confusing your audience. Also not being open to criticism, especially at the script stage. The script should take just as long as everything else or even longer, try not to rush it.
Jennifer wrote, directed, edited and starred in ‘Catch’
Editor is kind of a role in films that is never spoken about and yet, I’d imagine it takes a lot of time and bears a lot on the end product, the film; is that the case?
Definitely, but the key to being a good editor is that your work isn’t noticeable. Your audience should be so engrossed that they don’t even see the cuts, it’s a good lesson in humility. It does take time to craft something well in the edit. A lot of it is in the pacing, there should never be a moment when the audience thinks ‘I’m bored of this shot now’ or ‘what was that? I missed it’.
I’d imagine it’s a time consuming job and torturous when looking at the same clips over and over or when computers misbehave – how do you relax if it gets too much?
It takes a lot of patience to be an editor. The trick is to not get too worked up about anything, take a deep breath and have a cup of tea. Also if you have a big ego or a stubborn streak it’s going to hurt you, ultimately you need to realise that the director/ producer have final say. No one’s going to want to work with you if you won’t back down, no matter how right you think you are.
When do you know you’ve cut something just right and it’s ready to go? Where is the point of no return?
When you’ve done your best and everyone seems happy with it. You could endlessly fiddle with cuts for years, but more often than not your first instinct to cut where you did was for a good reason.
Do you prefer Television or Film?
I love both and I think today more than ever they transcend each other all the time. More so in America but I like to think we are catching up.
What sort of thing do you see yourself doing in the future?
I’d love to direct my first feature in the next few years. I’d also love to write and direct a hit sitcom. If your gonna dream, might as well dream big!
If you were going to give an aspiring filmmaker any advice what would it be?
Be generous with your time and hone your skills. Try to work out where your skills are and then make something your proud of. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but you will get better with every new experience. Be open and nice and you’ll find people are more willing to offer you opportunities.
Also, your parent’s are Irish – Hooray, we can claim you! (or at least that’s what we tend to do in that situation) – Do you have much of a connection with Ireland?
I spent all of my summers in Ireland as a child and have a lot of very fond memories there. I get to come back for a lot of weddings as I have family all over Ireland. I absolutely love it especially Cork, Donegal and Dublin, beautiful places.
Here is the trailer for ‘Acoustic Kitty’. The full movie will be released after it premieres at a film festival. You can follow Jennifer Sheridan on Vimeo HERE, and on Twitter HERE. Her official website is http://www.jensheridan.com.