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SIFF: Interview with Kan Lume, director of Dreams From the Third World

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This year’s Singapore International Film Festival was a great showcase of local films, and presents also the great opportunity to catch one of Singapore’s most prolific filmmaker, Kan Lume, director of “Dreams from the Third World”, who shares with us how he developed his scripts, worked with actors and his take on the state of the local film industry.

kl.jpgLeon Lim (LL): Could you tell us more about how you develop your feature scripts? If I recall correctly, The Art of Flirting relied mostly on workshopping with the actors, so did you pursue a similar process for Solos and Dreams From the Third World?

Kan Lume (KL): I like working without scripts as the starting point of a film because it allows actors to be free to fail. In fact, there are no mistakes because there is no script to tell them that they are doing things wrongly. This method is born out of desperation and necessity. Firstly, I was never formally trained in scriptwriting. Secondly, many of the actors I used at the beginning had no formal training in acting.

I still wanted to make films, so I made things up as we went along and found ways – other ways to develop story and structure. Instead of being a mess, it was fun, lively, spontaneous and felt powerful and instant. I honed my instincts to know where to push my actors and what scenes to develop.

I never took a directing lesson in my life, so I do not know how to translate a page of script into something life-like for the screen. To me the entire process is so artificial and forced. Right now, if I re-learned directing and scriptwriting, my process might be completely different.

Particularly with Dreams From The Third World, I tried to combine my instincts with some “classical-style” direction, blocking, two-shot, 180 degree rule, etc (see 5 Cs of Cinematography), and the results have been mixed. There are instances where I had to sacrifice spontaneity for formalism. Also, Wayne Wang’s wife Cora was telling me that whether I made art-styled films or studio pictures – as long as I was making films, I should be happy. Tan Pin Pin also said that she desired to make films, and whether she made documentaries or narrative films, they need not be mutually exclusive.

My own repeated distinguishing between different types of films is drawn from reading numerous film books that often distinguished between commercial and art-signature films. It also is derived from my observation about the difference in process between different types of films. It is this awareness that allowed me to succeed in making films with almost no resources. I am aware I am making an art-signature film and I know therefore to apply a different method to achieve distinct results. For example, as described above, I do not use a script as a starting point.

Now that I have made three features this way, I am keen to explore other methods of filmmaking. I am always interested in new challenges, but my only concern this time is: do I have what it takes to make the jump to commercial filmmaking? Scriptwriting is the heart of internationally distributed, studio-funded films. Everything else in the film can take a backseat, but the script has to be perceived as brilliant for everything else to fall into place. For me to learn this new method, I might need to leave the country for a while. Or maybe I will abandon this idea and go back to making simple “Art Of Flirting” type films for the rest of my life. But that would mean giving up the idea that my films will entertain the masses. If I stay on this path, it just won’t happen.

LL: As someone who’s made a feature every year – all with distinctly non-mainstream narratives – what experiences did you have sourcing for funds and for producers?

KL: I am a terrible producer because I don’t ask for sponsorships. I pay my actors above market rates and I hate raising funds. Apart from SOLOS, my two other films were self-funded and financed. That is also why I had to work with a relatively low budget. With SOLOS, a producer approached me after the success of The Art Of Flirting at SIFF. I mentioned the idea to her and she took care of the financing and produced the film. That is an ideal circumstance for me as it allows me to concentrate on the creative aspects. However, since everyone involved in SOLOS was inexperienced, it was a rough time for all of us. The main problem was that the roles were not clearly defined and our team was too small. I also suffered because I had no one to negotiate on my behalf. Even though parties had verbally agreed that the directors would have the final cut, it was not honored in the end and was eventually overturned contractually. Professionalism is essential, which means each person on the production/creative team has clearly defined roles and is a specialist in their own area. Many other roles need to exist in order for the creative team to co-exist harmoniously with the production team. For example, an agent negotiates terms on behalf of the director or actor to ensure they get the best possible deal. Right now directors are pretty much left on their own and have to fight for themselves. That is not a healthy state for creative people to be in. I hope this is one of the things that will change in time to come.

If I had made my films in America for example, I’d have an agent by now. And because my second film ended up in competition for Best International Feature at AFI Los Angeles, I wouldn’t have had a problem finding an actress to go nude for me for the entire film and work in an improvisational method, and my vision for my third film would have been more fully realized than it is now.

LL: I sense from your replies that you think that there could be more professionalism in the film industry here. The local film industry here is still fledgling, and there are gaps to fill e.g. the absence of agents. Which roles or positions in the filmmaking process need more professionalism, in your opinion?

KL: It is rapidly changing. Presently there are more professional film production companies in Singapore than ever before. It will keep growing so long as there is a buzz in the local film scene. We are coming out of a situation where, as I described in my previous answer, one person is wearing too many hats.

When I worked in a production house 7 years ago, we went out with a two-man crew to shoot an entire TV series. We almost got into an accident on the road and nearly died as a result. That is an example of a lack of professionalism. Remember, we were not out on a project of passion. We were filming a major television series for the local network.

Many Singaporeans are generalists and this tends to spill over into our work. It is worse in a fairly infant industry like ours. I had a friend who grew up in Australia and worked in the film industry there and later transferred to Singapore. She kept telling me that it was unprofessional here and I had no idea what she meant at first. Subsequently, I realised she was talking about people not knowing how to function in a team environment and what roles make up the team. This results in less productivity.

For example in a producing team alone, there are many specialised positions – the common ones are: Executive Producer, Associate Producer, Line Producer, Assistant Producer, Production Manager, Production Superviser, Administrative Producer.

While I do not think we can function exactly as Hollywood does due to limited manpower and resources, I do think we can arrive mid-way with smaller but nevertheless specialised teams – somewhat similar to Hong Kong in the 80s but with an identity of our own.

To reiterate my point about Agents – Creative people or Artistes are a difficult group to manage. These people tend to be sensitive and temperamental and need coaxing. Directors are no different. We need to know that our work is appreciated and we need to be financially rewarded. But egos also need to be managed and that is something that cannot be left up to producers or lawyers, who have their own interests to protect (that may be in opposition to those of the director’s). Agents and unions function as the middlemen to soothe and broker deals. Crudely put, the agents’ or unions’ main goal is to make the Creatives/Artistes happy. When their client is happy, they are happy – because they get paid a commission.

LL: This is partly due to our small pool of talents, but we keep seeing the same actors in local films (a bit like local theatre). Your films largely feature amateurs who do not have prior acting experience. Where do you find your actors? e.g. Edgealle S in “Dreams From the Third World”?

KL: I like actors a lot. The idea of performance is a very “Peter Pan” concept that appeals to me – the idea of play, of remaining sensitive and being unwilling to become calloused from the hardships of growing up. Actors are a passionate, interesting group of people who have chosen to utilise their entire being as a vessel for performance.

Of course not every actor sees it that way and out of so many actors available, only a handful are concerned with growth and improving their craft. Some actors are in the job because they are convinced their looks are great for the screen. Those actors may add a certain celebrity value to a production, but are difficult when you want to make original work. Good actors are those willing to push themselves past their personal boundaries. Many experienced actors, due to working in TV, have picked up bad habits and shortcuts and have lost sensitivity to new direction or new processes.

I was very disappointed when an established actress I was in talks with was unwilling to work without a script. In her case, she was in need of a break from many years of continuous work. Generally speaking though, in our pursuit of entertainment films, we may find ourselves afraid to take the plunge into the unknown. The danger for actors is always that they get into a safe zone, are unwilling to explore new ground and end up doing uninspired work. That is when an actor ceases to produce innovative work and goes into repeat mode.

I like working with people who are willing and do not have preconceived notions about acting. My main prerequisite is that they are comfortable in front of the camera.

So far, most of my actors have found their way to me serendipitously. Edgealle was someone I met on youtube. She saw my short films and was willing to trust me. That meant a lot to me. I do not actively go in search of actors, because I hate having to tell an actor I do not use a script and they should just trust me. I went after Rodney Olivero that way, for one of my short films and we had a great time on that shoot. The results were wonderful too. But for the most part, it would be hard to find actors willing to take the plunge. So far, every time someone does, a film results.

LL: If you could change something about our film industry here, what would it be?

I can only answer that effectively with the benefit of hindsight. But as a Zen master would say (and in deep voice), “let us not try to change the world, but let us change ourselves to make the world a better place”.

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