Within the confines of his flat, Johnny Little is not alone. He resides amongst empty wine bottles, cigarettes, melancholy, and grief. A meditation on the fine line straddled between hope and despair, To Erase A Cloud is the poetic debut of director/screenwriter Jim Longden. The twenty-minute film follows young Johnny as he mourns the passing of his mother in isolation, held captive in a prison of self-inflicted destruction. “Sickness. Something I dance with day and night,” shares our tortured protagonist, vulnerably played by model-cum-poet Sonny Hall in his first acting gig. Johnny has lost himself in excess as we follow him through a day in his life from the shadowed light of his disarrayed flat to a surreal sequence that take us into the depths of his mind. Regarding his motivation for making the film, Longden shares, “As much as it was to explain this emotion and feeling I assume many younger people go through, I thought the rawness of it was important, and that maybe it could help even one person know that others have felt this way.”
21-year-old Longden has not followed a conventional path to filmmaking. Hailing from North London, he left school at sixteen and jumped into creative pursuits, including modelling and photography. However, he’s now found his calling as a filmmaker. Shot entirely on 16mm film and with a cast that had never acted before, the film’s production itself is a testament to perseverance. While inhabited by Hall, Johnny Little teeters between the hesitation to either grasp on to hope or continue down a dark and uncertain trajectory. To Erase A Cloud is a reminder that although we may all face a similar destiny in the end, peering into the light and honing in on its possibility is what can set us apart.
J.L. Sirisuk: What can you share about your early life?
Jim Longden: I was a chaotic child constantly looking for a rush. My mother was expelled from three schools in Beirut when she was young and would tell me and my friends, who would come over to our house, stories about what she got up to in school. My friends would then look at the two of us and add it all up… My mother studied for years after her mistakes in schools and is my biggest inspiration each day. I adore her more than anything.
I wasn’t good in school, at lunchtime I hustled to get money for food. I needed to make money, so every day I’d get given two pounds for lunch and would save it so I’d have ten pounds to spend on the weekend. From then, I started selling things in school from sweets to drinks, to fake designer belts and bags. I had a marketplace happening inside my friend’s lockers and my backpack. I guess I was just fuelling kids who fiended sugar and false luxury. Another way to use my energy was to play football.
JLS: You wanted to be a footballer?
JL: Most people my age at the time wanted to be one where I lived, but I found this trait of obsession within me when training to try and become one. I would research and watch videos of Adel Taarabt for days on end, and then practiced what he would do on the pitch. This quirk I had on the ball was a major way I ended up making many childhood friends when moving from area to area. Adel Taarabt I will always love you and RIP Peter Whittingham.
“I hope those who see a bit of Johnny within themselves can relate and see that everybody is human at the end of the day.”
JLS: What films were you drawn to?
JL: I got into films from a young age and watched up to four or five a day at one point. It stemmed from seeing a poster of De Palma’s Scarface in a charity shop I was looking through with my father. I must have been around eight years old at the time, and the basic illustration intrigued me. From that age, I’d watch The Godfather series every Christmas, and still do to this day. I became obsessed with Scarface and watched it every New Year. From a young age, after seeing it so often, I managed to learn more about ego, the pros and cons of success and power, and the rise and downfall of a man. In contrast to those darker films, I would watch films like Cinema Paradiso and Les Choristes with my mother.
JLS: Was there a specific moment in life that led you to start writing?
JL: I began writing short story ideas at around eleven or twelve. I recently found an old notebook from those times. I realized that the stories I wrote were very inspired by films like Donnie Brasco and A Bronx Tale, but looking back it seemed as if it was a good way to start. I can’t seem to remember what triggered this urge, but in school it developed and the only subject I was doing well at was English Literature.
“I was wearing a dressing gown like Tony Soprano, and in my back garden, stood there in sheer emptiness.”
JLS: In To Erase A Cloud, you take us on an intimate journey through a day in the life of Johnny Little – what lead to this story?
JL: This story birthed from a very dark phase I went through. It was during the times when I smoked a lot, was caught in a certain crowd, was in chaotic and torn situations, and was bathing in my own depression… I wrote a story at the end of 2018 titled The Bohemian. It was in the same realm as the film I ended up making. One day, a year or so after leaving school early at sixteen, I woke up at three o’clock in the afternoon as I was struggling with sleep. I ate a bag of crisps to partially replenish my empty stomach and drank some alcohol, accompanied by a cigarette. I was wearing a dressing gown like Tony Soprano, and in my back garden, stood there in sheer emptiness. This void within me needed to be filled somehow, so I thought that writing a story could help. And for a while it did. I was feeling the most complete I had felt for ages. Following this, I planned and researched what was necessary to create a screenplay and by the end of that year, I had written my debut short film To Erase A Cloud.
JLS: Going back to your love of films like Donnie Brasco and Scarface – are you mainly drawn to films that incorporate elements of crime and inner turbulence?
JL: I mean, as a child I adored films in that genre and style. I remember playing with a Tony Montana toy in the bath, wearing an ‘Il Padrino’ t-shirt before I could tie my laces, and even in primary school attempting to form my own ‘famiglia’ which got wild… I still love that genre, but now I am much more open, I love films that spark a flair within me. I love films like, Amélie, American Beauty, I Stand Alone, Eyes Wide Shut and Boogie Nights, to more comedic pictures like, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and High Fidelity, they’re priceless to me and can shape the way I feel. Filmmakers like Pedro Almodóvar, Todd Solondz, Jean-Pierre Jeunet keep me alert and inspired every time I watch one of their pictures…. But I still have a lot to discover.
“[Sonny] had to confront these facts as he played Johnny Little, who was mourning the loss of his mother. He had to falsely drink alcohol and I could tell this was a risk.”
JLS: What were some challenges in taking this story from the page to the screen?
JL: Very much a long story short but… I had this script for a while before finding any help. The fact that I had never directed anything before scared most people away. The first person I sent the story to bluntly responded, “I don’t like it.” But I still believed in it and knew that if I wasn’t going to make it, I wouldn’t know what else to do with myself. I was rejected or not responded to by many other producers, and then after a while of developing the script and slowly getting more people involved, it started to formulate and work out. I was twenty at the time, and after gathering funds from the money I had saved and from a series of my beloved friends who wanted to support, I was introduced to a newly founded production company called Curly Films in London who helped me connect the dots that needed to be connected. We hustled a lot as it was also my production, many people had to work for next to nothing, but it was all from hearts filled with passion and love for cinema.
JLS: Sonny Hall truly carries the story – there must have been a certain amount of trust in him. How did you know he was the right choice to inhabit Johnny Little?
JL: I’ve known Sonny since I was fifteen years old, we’ve had many crazy memories and experiences together. Sonny became a huge inspiration of mine after he changed his life around from becoming a damaged soul lost in the pit of drugs and alcohol to a published poet who inspired many other people similarly to how he inspired me. When Sonny, another friend of ours, and I would stay in this house in West London, I would go to sleep petrified every night that I would find Sonny dead the next morning. He held thrills no other person I knew held, and he is a true enigma. Sadly, a few years ago Sonny’s mother passed away, he had to confront these facts as he played Johnny Little, who was mourning the loss of his mother. He had to falsely drink alcohol and I could tell this was a risk. It felt almost selfish of me to make him do so, but I was ensured that he knew this was to be a fiction act and that this should be seen as him looking at this substance which nearly ruined him as a victory over it, as he was now playing with it, not the other way round.
“We hustled a lot as it was also my first production and many people had to work for next to nothing, but it was all from hearts filled with passion and love for cinema.”
JLS: Are there parts of yourself reflected in Johnny?
JL: Of course there are, but I am not the only person who must feel this way. I hope those who see a bit of Johnny within themselves can relate. Everybody is human at the end of the day.
JLS: After the process of making this film, and going through the journey, is there anything surprising that you discovered about yourself?
JL: One of the biggest things that held me back for years was just self-doubt, and after at least getting my foot in the door I can now have faith and a bit more confidence that this is what I should do with my life. Although there is a long way to go, and I emphasise to myself and others who liked this project, that I have a huge amount of work to do to improve… I learnt to appreciate those who really care and have pure love and good intentions for me. I thank them as they are the light for me and they are what truly matters and exist when the party is over.
To Erase A Cloud will be making the festival rounds in the spring.