Sian is a northern-based producer and director. She works as Head of Production at Oxygen Films, a non-profit community-interest film production company. Oxygen Films creates provocative and thought-provoking content on such challenging topics as mental health, sexuality, and identity.
As a Leeds-based filmmaker and alumnus of the University of Salford, Sian recognises a disparity in opportunities available to creatives in the North and is currently working with fellow University of Salford alumni to create a new platform, Galactic Goldfish, a place for northern filmmakers to create unique, bold films that aren’t defined by the standard filmmaking conventions.
After producing the excellent short film A Very Bad Day for Leeds Young Film Festival, we invited her onto the blog to discuss not only the film but also her experiences as a female director.
If you want to read more about Sian’s film, then check out Charlotte’s blog article about the LYFF’s live-action short films. A clip from A Very Bad Day can be found at the end of this article.
What is the inspiration behind your LYFF short film A Very Bad Day?
My driving inspiration behind A Very Bad Day began with the concept of random acts of kindness. There was one particular moment that stands out to me where I was having an especially bad day and decided to cheer myself up by getting a cappuccino from a well-known coffee shop. I don’t know if the barista was just a very nice individual or if she clocked the look on my face and immediately pitied me, but she gave me the coffee on the house and it honestly made my day.
It occurred to me that, despite how grateful I was and how much I thanked her, that barista would never know how much of a difference she had made for me that day. So, I wanted to make a film that captured the essence of how much a single act of kindness can mean to someone when they’ve had a very bad day.
Ultimately, I was really interested in finding a physical and visual representation of receiving a random act of kindness – the surprise of the act itself, the overwhelming sense of happiness you take from it, and, in addition, the confusion of why a stranger is taking the time to be kind to someone they hardly know. This is what inspired me to create the whimsical world of A Very Bad Day, a place where people carry their hearts on their sleeves – in a very physical sense – in the form of balloons.
Why did you choose balloons as a metaphor for a person’s emotions?
I chose balloons because I find them fun! Unless you’re at a party you never expect to see them, but when you do, they bring out this child-like excitement and joy in you (or at least they do for me!) And that feeling is akin to the one I got when that barista unexpectedly made my day.
Of course, a more obvious reason to use balloons is because they pop. This is the key theme of the film: this simplistic idea that, when something you perceive to be bad happens, any joy you might be holding in your heart is chipped away at just a little bit. Through the film we see our character start with lots of balloons and, as each bad, sad, or annoying event happens, she pops a part of that inner joy.
In the final scene, we see our protagonist give away her last balloon to a stranger who has none of her own, resulting in a mass of balloons filling the screen. I think this final scene is a way of conveying the idea that, sometimes, to receive happiness, you have to share your last piece of happiness or joy with somebody else.
The film’s target audience is clearly children, but I think some grown-ups could take a lot away from its core message too. Obviously feelings and emotions are rarely as simple as balloons, but the crux of the film is about being kind to others, which is something I think we can all relate to in these strange times.
Your main protagonist (played by the incredibly expressive Nadhía Porcelli) appears to be dressed as a princess – what was the significance of that wardrobe choice?
For me, the wardrobe choice reflects a lack of representation of realistic female role-models for children. Without calling out Disney too much, it seems to me that their female characters either fall into the damsel in distress archetype or the female hero.
The thing is, while we all should aspire to be heroes, real life is rarely like a Disney film, and women are not given the same latitude as men when it comes to making mistakes.
Our protagonist is far from perfect; she can be petty, childish, and as one audience member quite rightly said – annoying! The significance of putting the character in that dress is to tell young audience members that it’s okay if we are not perfect all the time, that even princesses have bad days and can make mistakes, and that that’s fine, so long as we learn from those mistakes.
We see the character grow from the experiences she has throughout the day until the point when she sees somebody in distress and she is able to empathise and show kindness. In my eyes, a character that can do that can be a role model for young children any day of the week, and any flaws that she has outside of these attributes are just what make her human.
A Very Bad Day contains no dialogue at all. What challenges did you encounter in trying to put across a complex message about emotions without resorting to speech?
I think one of the main challenges was ensuring that the audience could understand what was motivating the character when there is no dialogue to convey the context of the scene.
In silent films, title cards are often used to convey what’s happening, but I wanted to move away from this and simply focus on the visuals of the piece. The reason behind this decision was to make a film that could be understood universally in any country regardless of what language you speak.
I really fell on my feet casting Nadhίa; she understood the themes of the film to a T and her performance came almost instinctively. From her facial expressions to her physicality, she was an absolute pleasure to direct. I think that was a key element in getting the film’s message across – ensuring the performances were melodramatic enough to convey all these emotions without slipping into the theatrical.
Of course, there are some benefits to directing a silent film too – mainly that I never have to worry about room tone! I think one thing that helped the message of the film come across was the fantastic score composed by the brilliant Becca Hooper. The music was almost like its own character accompanying our protagonist throughout the film and reflecting her mood, whether that be through stopping suddenly when she was caught off guard or playing a drilling, whimsical tune as our character attempts to clutch onto the last few parts of happiness in her heart!
I have to say that conveying the film’s message was very much a collaborative effort involving every member of the cast and crew. I feel so privileged to have been able to work with such talented people who believed in the core message of the film as much as I did.
On a much darker note, your short film Snuff speaks about the struggles of women to be taken seriously in the industry and how actors are often forced to take gigs on “for exposure.” This is something we see a lot of in the publishing industry. Although Snuff is clearly a tongue-in-cheek tale, just how prevalent are these issues in the film industry?
Oh, wildly prevalent! You only have to look at this year’s Oscar nominations for Best Director to see that women are still struggling to earn their place at the directors’ table.
Of the top 100 grossing films of last year, women represented only 12% of directors. It isn’t because there aren’t enough female directors or that men are better directors – it’s because the hiring of a female director is viewed by production studios as “risky” or perhaps, even worse, “woke.” I think it’s hard for women to be taken seriously in the industry if we attach political semantics to their jobs as opposed to just assuming that they were the best person to tell that story.
The protagonist in Snuff, Emily Finch (played by the fantastic Laoise McMillan), is sick of that too, so she embarks on a mission to become the most famous female director of all time – albeit by making snuff films!
We see the character play the independent film industry at its own game, hiring a hitman to kill her victims on camera but not paying him because, since she is providing him with great footage for his showreel, it counts as “exposure.” I can’t count the times I have seen directors request services for free with the promise that “this film will get your face out there and lead to paid opportunities.” In fact, I recently had to quit on a paying job as it was brought to my attention that only half of the cast and crew were being paid for their work!
It’s not that I have anything against unpaid work; there are genuine, talented creators out there who have to self-fund their films out of their own pockets. Film funding is hard to come by, particularly for creators who focus on narratives that are not deemed a “safe bet” by investors. This may be because of their focus on gender, race, sexuality, socio-economic status, and so on. Unfortunately, there is still a disparity in the industry over what constitutes a “risk-free” investment when it comes to supporting the ideas and talent of different people; this means narratives that don’t appeal to wider audiences often struggle to get funding. That doesn’t mean to say that the experience of working on an unpaid set is not worth anything. In fact, sometimes working in voluntary capacity can be the best place to try in a department of position you have never worked in.
Film sets can be a rich place for artistic and creative expression; some of the best film sets I’ve been on have simply been a group of like-minded friends throwing all their resources together to make something great. Though let me be clear: if somebody is getting paid on the crew, everyone should be getting paid. Every person in the cast and crew contributes something to creating a film, from the runners to the producers. No position should be deemed “unworthy” of payment on a film set that has the finance and means to pay its crew.
Of course, on the topic of “working for exposure,” there are also the terrifying few who claim to be “casting directors” that target young female actors in particular. I have seen so-called “casting calls” asking for self-tapes or audition pieces where the actress is asked to “improvise” a scene of a sexual nature in her underwear. These types of calls are clearly just a ploy for the person on the other end of the computer to have some fantasy played out to them for free by a group of unknowing hopeful actors. It’s terrifying that this sort of thing happens in the industry, and especially sickening that young aspiring actors who have little industry experience can be taken advantage of in this way.
The best advice I could possibly give is to be especially cautious; if something feels off it probably is – and it’s better to be safe than sorry. The biggest thing, though, is not to undermine yourself: if you are taking an unpaid job, make sure you are doing it for a very good reason, such as working with your friends or for an experience you may not be able to get in a paid capacity. And, of course, make sure you are not being taken for a ride!
Do not let anyone in the industry make you believe that your talent and time are worthless; believe me when I say that it’s worth more than you know.