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Joe Ng on scoring for Rule #1

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I caught up once again with Joe Ng, the ‘godfather’ of Singapore film scores on his work on Kelvin Tong’s latest film Rule #1, a movie that I have nothing but praise for.
joe.jpegJunbin (JB): How did you land the job as music composer for Rule #1?

Joe Ng (JN): Alex Oh and I again worked on this. I set the music direction, compose and also did some additional sound design, while Alex worked as the music arranger and co-composer. Together we came out with the music for Rule #1. We are almost like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid now, haha!

The Hong Kong producers initially wanted to use their local composers but Kelvin convinced them otherwise. It is down to our many years of playing together in the same team, that we know instinctively when to pass. If you noticed the end credits, the music department is the only section where everyone is Singaporean, and I’m very proud of that.

JB: This is obviously not your first time writing score for a horror film, since you’ve worked with Kelvin Tong in his past few horror films, but how different was this experience? I mean for one there was quite a bit more than straight out haunting – there was quite a range of moods, from dancing to detecting…

JN: Every film is different. I always believe the music is inside the story. It is how you harness it. Rule #1 is part detective, part horror and all about the fantastic. So it requires a mix blend of genres, from tango to industrial noise to dark ambient. But it must make sense. The different genres should all have the same shadings, or else it will break the flow and energy of the film. Being a serious film, it’s a no-brainer that we went for grey and somber. Hence the guitar played out in the love theme is stark and mature. The tango pieces are delightful with just a dash of playfulness but still grey.

The only other big difference was the timeline I had to work with Hong Kong’s turnaround time for audio and music is absolutely madness.

JB: And what instruments did you use?

JN: For the none-horror sequences, we used as much real instruments as possible. These are scenes of human interaction that provides an emotional anchor for the audience to relate and feel for the characters living in the universe of RNO. It lends depth and realness. If we had relied totally on MIDI samples and not real musicians performing, that universe will collapse, and music would have failed.

For the horror sequences, my friend describes it as “dark ambient”. Particularly in the latter half of the film, scenes in the school, the struggle by roadside, Sgt Lee (Shawn Yue) running home, and the clerk’s death till their final showdown in the dance studio. We also used a lot of world music instruments- African harps, frame drums, etc- to give the music a sense of another place, and hopefully bring the audience somewhere unfamiliar and new.

One of my favorite scenes was when Lee returns to the swimming pool to see for himself whether ghost really exist. In there I used a lot of industrial noise and pulses. Underneath it is actually a techno dance beat somewhere! You can’t really hear it cos it’s been heavily processed.

JB: Who else did you work with on this project (anyone from Hong Kong)?

JN: Thankfully we had our musician friends all chipping in. I can’t thank them enough for helping us. It’s the same bunch we have always worked with. Guitarists were Alexius Cai and Teo Poh Heng who helped us previously on Do Not Disturb and Gone Shopping. Alberta lends her gorgeous voice again after Gone Shopping. Young bright Shi Hao was our assistant editor/arranger again. Joan Chew who plays with the UnXpected played all those wonderful violin lines. Yan Bing added her percussion magic. Hear her claps and footstomps in the scene where Insp Wong (Ekin Cheng) tangos with a dinosaur blowup doll.

In Hong Kong, our surround mixing was at Cinedigit. Ken Wong was our final audio mixer and he has incredible touches with the faders.

JB: How, who and what are your inspirations for scoring this film?

JN: My inspiration was…. sheer bloody mindedness. We only had 6.5 weeks under a tight budget. It was very super intense. So we have to be on our wits everyday. Trying to work smartly, trying to maximize the best result from our limited resources.

JB: Unrelated to this film – what are the bands/artistes/composers that you are listening to now?

JN: I’m preparing for Kallang Roar now, so I’ve been relistening a lot of local CDs recently. Aside from that I would occasionally hear RNO music again. It’s my proudest work so far!

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