Becoming Royston – An Interview with Nicholas Chee and Randy Ang
Interview with director Nicholas Chee and producer Randy Ang from Singapore on occasion of the world premiere of â€œBecoming Roystonâ€ in Cologne, Germany.
mo: First of all: Congratulations to you both for the successful world premiere of your first ever feature length film here in Cologne! Thanks for bringing it to Germany to have it shown at the Cineasia Filmfestival, and yes, obviously, for granting me this interview on the occasion of course. Appreciate it.
Tell us how you have experienced this multiple premiere for you as film makers here in Cologne, please. What are the strongest, the most immediate impressions you will be taking home?
Randy Ang, producer and art director (R): Thank you! More KÃ¶lsch anyone?
Nicholas Chee, director (N): It was a surreal experience actually to actually have a premiere in Cologne, Germany. When we decide to make the film all we wanted was to tell a story and also to make a point that if you have enough belief in something, it can actually happen. Cineasia was a truly great experience, to see the audience laugh at the same jokes and especially the Q&A part was great.
mo: What is the significance of having had the first screening of â€œBR the featureâ€ not in Singapore but in Europe, in Germany in particular? Did you observe any differences in reactions to the film by a non-Asian audience?
R: To qualify: we did a festival screening at the Asian Festival of First Film in November 2006 but that version was not the one that premiered in Germany. The film in Germany is the ‘final’ version. So I am able to answer the second part of your question. As observed, Germany is very similar to our own country, our people share a lot of similar gripes about our society and the way of life, more similar than I could have imagined before coming over. There is always a core group of film lovers who would attend festivals, have things to say after, same everywhere. So the bases of my personal feel is on this group. I couldn’t say the same for the general audience. The audience seems much more receptive of works from Asia, especially independent productions. Perhaps it is because works from here may seem unique or even exotic; whereas back here independent works are usually (largely) ignored. One cannot help but argue about the population mass but the sense of acceptance (personally) was so much more. It is rather hilarious come to think of it when our film has so much cultural references. Perhaps, you guys try harder. And I thank you all for that.
N: It is important for us to have a foreign audience and especially with voting afterwards. It really helped us as filmmakers to know how to improve on what worked and what didn’t. Most of the audience laughed at the same points which meant the stories were pretty universal, which is good news!
mo: What makes BR a Singaporean film in essence, and what by contrast, makes it appeal to international audiences as well?
R: The theme of the film is universal. We dream. We try to live given a reason to live. We “try to” live to the fullest. We all have our dreams, fulfilled, unfulfilled or discharged. And our fates are often not shaped by our hands but by the people or society around us. Maybe we all relate to that.
N: The story speaks of very common characters and relationships in Singapore. Also because Singapore already has an international appeal, in fact by showing the non-conventions of Singapore, the film worked better.
mo: In some shots in Ah-girl’s room there is this â€œ2046â€ poster to be seen in the background, surely not by accident. To take it as a tip of the hat in the direction of Wong Kar Wei, what seems like a possible parallel is this recurring theme of escapism by the arts figuring prominently in his works, in Wong’s that is. Now, does Boon Huat try something similar? Does BR tell a tale in that same mold, of an escape of some sort?
R: It is by accident actually, haha. The poster matched the sheets we’ve got and I just happened to have WKW’s posters around. There is a “Pulp Fiction” poster too for the record. Since you have read it that way, let me try to answer this: I think, and I don’t know if Nic agrees. Boon Huat first escapes by choice. Later on, the choices he had to make were purely accidental. So perhaps the parallel is this: We wanted to make a film (by choice) but when making it, a lot of things were “accidental” in the way we try to shape the scenes based on the situation we were in at the time (budgets, lack of sleep…etc). Watching a movie is escapism in itself, don’t you agree?
N: WKW has been a great influence as many young filmmakers would tell you too. WKW is only one part of the equation, Christopher Doyle (Cinematography) is another major part and not to forget William Chang Suk Ping (Art Direction). We all want to escape the present to an ideal future. Perhaps the struggles and circumstance of the lower working-class of Hong Kong and Singapore are pretty similar in that visual sense, we definitely couldn’t have done it the Hollywood way. Kudos to Randy Ang and Ken Minehan for the great interpretation of the scenes.
mo: Boon Huat strikes one as an almost unnervingly naÃ¯ve kind of guy, so much so as to have you wonder if he will ever grow up. Then of course he learns some lessons, the hard way. Is this philosophy turned into practice or rather a natural, low-key trial-and-error approach to life? Does understanding come to him â€œthrough the deedâ€ or while being â€œasleepâ€, and would it match your own life’s experience?
R: Simply put: I think we all learnt through experiences. We learnt filmmaking while making a film and not in a classroom where we are taught “how” a film “should” be made. Boon Huat is a sponge but not a rather good sponge.
N: In some sense, it is rather autobiographical for me. I could only tell stories I knew, much like Boon Huat. Life is meant to be lived, not to be understood. You can’t learn about life in the classroom or a text book and even if you could learn the theories, you have to pretty much fuck up a few times to get it right. I think we are obsessed with doing everything right the first time that we forget about living at all.
mo: Advancement of self, that’s an issue on many levels, both in BR and in Singaporean society itself. While Europeans generally think Asians, especially of the younger generation, to be mostly materialistic in their approach to life, how do you feel about such a perception?
R: Sigh. Too much Japanese mobile phone commercials. I think in Singapore, we are taught to own things. Seriously. We seldom want to rent, we seldom want to borrow, we want to own. I think we are materialistic yes. But more importantly, the problem lies in that when we own more, we care less. I was looking at my beef steak last night and was wondering where the meat came from. Was it a good cow? What makes a good cow? How was the weather like when it was slaughtered? Did the person who killed the cow have any feelings for it, more likely not, it is a job? Maybe, as he was slaughtering the cow, he thought, damn, I want a better job so that I can afford to buy more stuff? Maybe I should slaughter more cows, but that would populate the market with more cows and I can charge less for this one. Sigh. I just want that new NOKIA phone.
N: Materialism is a multifaceted concept. We have a constant need to be fulfilled either materially or spiritually. Because Asia is only experiencing the cultural revolution 2 generations later than Western Europe, (think arts and culture) we could only fill ourselves with things we can have easy access to. Material goods seems to be the easy way out. I see the same trends with developing nations too but the main difference is that culture developed alongside economic development but that did not happen to much of South East Asia.
mo: Now the easy questions: What makes a good movie? Do you believe you’ve done reasonably well with BR by these measures?
R: You must be kidding. A good movie to me is one that you can watch a very bad (perhaps, copied) DVD, with poor syncing and bad picture quality but you totally enjoyed the movie. I think BR has gotten good responses.
N: A good movie is one that is relevant to the audience. It has to matter to those who watch it. We try to achieve that with BR, technicalities aside, I think the whole team has put their vision into this little project and that made a difference.
mo: What was the one most tested quality in yourselves when making this film, beginning to end? Speaking to the matter as a director/producer, what is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in the process?
R: Patience and believe in each other, not just the director but everyone who worked on the film. My most valuable lesson, sadly revolves around $, get enough (not too much) funding first before you proceed; less funding makes you work smarter, but please just start shooting.
N: I’ve learnt so much from the crew and cast, in fact I am the most inexperienced of the lot. I don’t watch a lot of movies, I know nothing about making a film. The most valuable lessons that I have learnt while making BR is that I have to trust the people I worked with and managing expectations.
mo: How do you keep everybody who’s been involved with this daring project motivated, despite the occasional setbacks and the absence of those handy millions?
R: The motivation firstly wasn’t money. We all deep down believed that it is a worthy story to be told. But I would like to think that everyone was moving because Nic and myself believed more than anyone that this is going to be great, plus, it was just 13 days. The harder part was during post-production, which was for Nic and later on me getting over the sleepless nights.
N: I have to thank a few people here. Randy is the pivotal point in the whole project, his project management skills are second to none. His dedication was the sole reason that kept the production moving forward. He’s truly a great friend and partner to work with. April Tong, who took the project management without even thinking twice, her experience and presence gave us so much confidence to move forward and Boi Kwong and Christina Choo helped me to manage the crew and took care of the entire production.
mo: Where do you go from here, both personally and professionally in this very special director-producer tandem of yours? What are your plans for the future? Any projects in film?
R: I have film projects in the works with other directors. Nic and I started Sinema.sg which we are expanding into a real media platform.
N: I’m working on my MA in Photography right now and I have a few stories in mind that I hope will come to light soon. The next step is to really push Singapore made films out to the world and I’d love to work with young talents and hopefully contribute to the growing industry.
mo: And finally, what if anything do you know “ymagon” to mean?
R: “Ymagon” is a very thoughtful dish best served between a beer and a good movie.
N: Ah, this one I have cheated a bit, from your blog! But if you ask me what it meant to me, I would say that it’s a philosophy well worth pursuing and the sharing and exchange of Visual Culture is the right way to move forward to promote understanding for the future generations. Believe and it will happen my friend!
mo: Again, a big thank you to you, Nic and Randy, for taking the time! Bye and good luck for your future! Hopefully be seeing you back here in Germany some day soon, I should add.
Original post can be found on proto-ymagon.
“Becoming Royston” opens 2 August in Singapore exclusively at The Picturehouse.