Growing up in North London, Jim Longden was well on his way to becoming a professional footballer, but due to a crippling lack of self-confidence he fell at the final hurdle: the trials. Several years later, by this point in his early 20s, Longden would arrive at dawn on the set of his debut feature film, determined he wouldn't fail again. ‘I don’t really have much to live for, except for film', he tells me over the phone.
The self-funded 20-minute short film To Erase A Cloud (2021) follows a young man, John Little, as he chases after a sliver of hope in his own bleakly perceived everyday existence following the death of his mother. Longden's friend, the poet Sonny Hall, takes on the role of the protagonist. The actor was mourning his own personal loss during filming; his mother died as a result of addiction, something Hall openly reflected on when reciting a poem for SHOWstudio in 2019. Walking a fine line between reality and fiction by putting the newly-sober Hall in the shoes of a character riddled by his own drink and alcohol woes, director and screenwriter Longden was determined to make something unapologetic, and real. ‘Sonny knew how much it meant to me', Longden explains. 'I wanted to be able to have the freedom to cross this limit, so people were seeing something that was truly happening.'
Leaving school at 16, Longden made what he self-humorously describes as 'the ultra generic run away from home with a duffle bag' move, finally landing in Copenhagen. Here he bumped into his friend, the photographer Dexter Navy, who gave him his first roll of film. A point and shoot camera became Longden's guide as he found his way across the city, and he's carried one with him ever since. Longden landed on his feet as a street photographer, later shooting an editorial story for Vogue Poland starring his friend Hall, and has recently collated his portfolio for a book which is set to be published next year, titled Where You Are When You Don't Know Where You Are. ‘I have the tendency to get lost', he tells me. Upon watching To Erase A Cloud, it's clear that his photography was simply the warm up act for film, which proves to be Longden's true guiding light.
To Erase A Cloud is the first time Longden has ever directed moving image, having nurtured an obsession with film over his childhood and teenage years. A devoted film watcher, amassing a collection of hundreds of DVDs from charity shops, by the age of 12 Longden was obsessively writing his own stories in a notebook. He reminisces that at one point he entered a rivalry of sorts with a fellow movie connoisseur at school, competitively watching up to three films a night. 'The good old days!', he chuckles. The films which stuck include gangster epics The Godfather trilogy and Scarface; the latter left him 'mind blown' and resulted in being gifted an 18 inch Tony Montana action figure for Christmas, religiously included as part of childhood bath times.
The power of film enamoured but also overwhelmed Longden, who became lost within the frames. ‘There were times where I would look at the screen and feel this sort of emptiness as if, "What am I doing with my existence and my will to live a real life?" This concept scared me.' A desire to break the boundary between realism and fiction quickly emerged, and soon, Longden would cement his ambition to be a director.
After an immense amount of research, also seeking advice from filmmaker friends, a twenty-year-old Longden finally stepped onto the first of a three day shoot for To Erase A Cloud in 2020. He'd managed to get Curly Films on board, who had previously only produced commercials and music videos but saw the potential in Longden's ambition for a short-form narrative. The dream team was completed with cinematographer Harry Wheeler and producer Ryan Kevin Doyle. The vitality of camaraderie and friendship underpins To Erase A Cloud; in fact it was Wheeler who, on that first day of filming, shook Longden by the shoulders and told him ‘You have to do this, because it’s what you want to do.’
To Erase a Cloud opens with Little seated in his deceased mother's high-rise flat looking out over London; the scene is scattered with fag butts and empty beer cans. We then join Little on a nomadic traipse around his locale and down the canal, we watch as Little steals a porno mag from a newsagents and plucks flowers from a street side memorial for his mother's grave. ‘He’s trying to erase this cloud from above him’, Longden says, as Little seeks distraction from the workings of his mind and a perceived cloud of depression. It's about 'this constant search that one can go through to try and find an answer, not necessarily to the meaning of whatever life they're living, but just to find something more comforting and to ease them through their day to day. He [John Little] just wanted to get rid of whatever is lurking and looming above him just to help him survive in this world.'
Shot on 16mm film, the saturated, hazy aesthetic lulls the viewer into the film's melancholic state of mind. Having messed up the development of that first roll of film he got from Dexter Navy in Copenhagen, Longden has since been enamoured by the effect of light leaks, of the imperfection. Indeed, an ad hoc approach results in some of the most chilling and magical moments in To Erase A Cloud, such as Hall humming while hunched up in a hallway cupboard. ‘I did put a lot of pressure on Sonny…there was a thin line between what was me going too far and asking too much of him, at one point I saw a look in his face where I was pretty sure he was going to beat the shit out of me', Longden tells me. Humming a song together proved to be their moment of resolve, and made it into the final cut as an extra scene.
Scattered through mundane scenes of the everyday, are glimpses of that happiness we all desperately seek. An old man struggling to walk is a striking contrast to Little's youth as he races down a street, eventually slamming into a car door. A poster which reads Donne Moi La Lumiere 'Give Me The Light' is another visual reminder. 'He does not see the realistic values of happiness within his life', Longden explains. I wonder if the film was cathartic, given Longden told me that in his late teens he 'was bathing in pessimism. I just thought this is what existence was based around and that life was nothing but suffering. There was this sort of shadow just constantly lurking, trying to make sure that I knew that this process of existing isn't going to be fun.' In seeking out moments of joy for John Little, the director seeks out his, and the viewer's, own. ‘It was an emotional film, we were trying to hit the biggest point of realistic concepts as we could.'
In one striking scene, when Little races into said car door resulting in a bump-in with an old acquaintance he fails to recognise, we see the workings of his inner mind. 'You're not looking too well', the acquaintance remarks, before asking how Little is doing. The scene cuts to actor Hall slumped inside a dark room as a golden light trickles in to illuminate a cloud on a string, akin to a balloon and a child. Those words, 'Give Me The Light', echo once more in Hall's voice, as he poetically recites his inner turmoil. Flashback to reality, and his friend too easily accepts Hall's answer of 'I'm ok, just another day'. The lesson here is that people don't really want to know about the darkness in your mind, we'd rather something more palatable.
Maybe then, To Erase A Cloud is about getting out of our own heads, lifting our own metaphorical clouds. Can we find our own moments of closure, as the film ends with Little sleeping by his mother's grave? For Longden, he admits that ‘After we finished production, I was very emotional…I did feel that I'd found some sense of meaning.' In the lead up to making To Erase A Cloud, when he was struggling to get it together, he had driven himself to the brink of insanity; the need to get this film made was his only life force. ‘I was very much overwhelmed by this concept of not being able to make a film which was all I was living for at the time.'
It's all been worth it though, with Longden's second film Don't Look At Me set to be released in the near future. Switching gears, the 12-minute-short takes the route of dark humour, with musician Jackson da Silva in the lead role walking down Portobello Market in his underwear, holding a sign which reads 'Don't Look At Me'. It's a 'set of scenarios', rather than one narrative as in Longden's debut, but still speaks to our need to be loved and heard, highlighting the social barricades we have up against us despite the modern mental health movement. It's a ‘short comedic way of saying something', with something deeper underneath, Longden explains. He plans to keep his audience on their toes; this devoted filmmaker is one to watch.