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Interview with the Producer and Director of A Month of Hungry Ghosts

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Shot in 2005, the film A Month of Hungry Ghost was released earlier this month to coincide with the Chinese lunar calendar of the seventh month or ghost month.

Flying in all the way from the United States, director Tony Kern documents the dying rituals during this festival and the people who are involved in this spooky industry. Together with Genevieve Woo – producer of the film and Tony Kern, find out what made them venture into ‘uncharted territories’.

Together with Genevieve Woo – producer of the film and Tony Kern, find out what made them venture into ‘uncharted territories’.

TK3.jpgTN (Tiffany Ng): Mythopolis is a relatively new company. Share with us what Mythopolis does and how it came about.

GW (Genevieve Woo): Mythopolis Pictures is a production house that Tony and myself started in 2006.

TN: Is this your first stint as a Producer or film making? How do you find it so far?

GW: Yes, “A Month of Hungry Ghosts” is my first try as a movie producer. After graduation, I started as a copywriter in advertising before moving onto journalism in magazines and newspapers. The role of a movie producer leverages on a lot of the experience that I’ve had in these roles, for example, concept of stories, research, finding contacts, persuading reluctant interviewees, verifying facts, calling on people near and far for help and advice etc. It has been a wonderful journey as producer of the movie because I’m new to this.

I asked questions all the time and if I was told that some things can’t be done, or we don’t do it “this way or that way”, I will always ask “why not?”. Not because I was challenging anybody or wanted to prove a point. I genuinely wanted to understand a process of which I had no clue of! I probably drove some people in the business mad with my incessant questions. But I think most people that I’ve met have been wonderfully patient and open with me. I’ve been lucky.

TN: How long did it take to film A Month of Hungry Ghosts, from pre- to production and post-production?

GW: Filming was the entire one month in 2005 during the seventh lunar month. Full-time post production began in December 2007 right up to July 2008.

TK2.jpgTN: Do you believe in Spirits? If yes, were you or perhaps your crew have fears about making the film? If no, did you encounter any supernatural moments during the making of this film?

GW: I’m personally Roman Catholic by faith. And we believe in the Holy Spirit. So if there’s a holy spirit, I’m sure there are unholy spirits too. I didn’t have any supernatural encounters in the making-of but Tony definitely did.

TN: How was the preparation for the film like? That is, did you have to consult many religious people and have them conduct certain rituals?

GW: Strangely enough, the preparation of the film almost came together by itself. As if it was led by an unseen force. I started with only three contacts – Master Lee Zhiwang of the Taoist Mission, the paranormal investigators and my personal beautician (she’s great with her facials) who observes the seventh lunar month practices. From these three contacts, more referrals came our way and the multiplier effect just kicked in, until our production schedule was chock-a-block every single day and night that month. When we started, we were looking for the story. But it soon became very apparent that the story is looking for us. It wants to be told.

TN: What other difficulties did you face?

GW: We met many nay-sayers – doubting friends and so-called experienced producers – who said this topic cannot be done. It seems that there have been a few attempts by different people but somehow, the production can never complete. Many others said, “Oh, this has been done before, nothing new.” The attitude was quite disappointing. And at one point, the movie was almost NOT made, despite the 60 hours of footage that we have. My point is haunted houses, serial killers, super heroes or gangster movies, all these have been done before too. Does it mean film-makers stop making such movies? Of course not!

TN: Is Mythopolis planning to move away form the Horror/ Supernatural genre and venture in to another?

GW: We have ideas for a few movies and we’re working on them simultaneously (talk about multi-tasking), talking to different people. There’s a children’s animation, a sci-fi romance and yes, more than one horror movie. “Mythopolis” means “city of myths” (“polis” = city); Tony came up with the name and he’s always been interested in creating ideas, myths, a system of belief. At this point, I think the horror/supernatural genre appeals to us and I think we have a lot to offer along these lines.

TN: What are your plans for the future? Are there any films in the making?

GW: I’ve been bitten by the bug! For myself, I will definitely continue to produce movies. We are finalising the script for a horror/supernatural movie based in Singapore and we’re already talking to investors and distributors. Pre-production will follow soon too. And we’re open to anyone out there who wants to help or work with us. With more hands on deck, I think we can up the ante, keep pushing the creative envelope and take Singapore movies to new levels.

TK1.jpg TN: Could you share with us a brief history about yourself? Have you been making films all along or was there something else you were doing before that?

TK (Tony Kern):I started making Super8 short films in college and soon had a collection of mainly short horror spoofs and one gruesome twisted film that I screened on campus and played in various small public venues. These shorts were usually made no-budget with family and friends – guerilla-style with a skeletal outline rather than a script. After graduation, reality set in and I held various dead end jobs while making more experimental films and montages. Years passed, got a TV gig shooting and editing. The digital production age hit and I got a job back at the bottom to learn all of the required skills at Northwestern University.

Meanwhile, various attempts at a feature film proved unfruitful for various reasons. Made a 30-minute film The Spooky Incident which had a brief run at a Chicago cinema. Moved out to Los Angeles – mainly for the weather. Quickly got a job with AOL Time-Warner and worked as editor, motion graphics and camera as well. Started experimenting with time-lapse and while my collection of clips grew, so did interest from various producers and networks.

Not getting any younger, I decide to save enough money to jump the corporate ship and work on my own projects. Having talked to Genevieve (Producer of A Month of Hungry Ghosts) about hungry ghosts month, I decided the time had come and bought a cheap HDV cam and headed to Singapore to shoot the seventh month. Needing money, I started TK Time-Lapse stock footage company with my time-lapse collection in order to generate a meager income to get by. I took too long to do that… but then I finally got around to edit A Month of Hungry Ghosts. Here I am.

TN: You started making films in the US, with a more established industry there, what drew you to Singapore?

TK: Well, ‘established’ meaning corporate gigs with established companies, but not exactly what I wanted to do when I set out on this little filmmaking adventure idea… so… Singapore just sort of happened at the time in my life when I decided to move ahead with my dream and do what I want. I’m not going to fight it. I love Singapore! But sure, I’ve got some scripts I’m working on and I hope to head back to Los Angeles and all that at some point. But likely to bounce back and forth and definitely have some ideas in mind for more Singapore films… as long as you’ll have me.

TK4.jpgTN: I’ve noticed that many of your films have a supernatural theme to them. Is there a reason why you are working on this genre?

TK: I think a good supernatural film can say things that may not be otherwise easily digested by the public. All the great monster movies are really saying something about society. There’s the subtext as well as the surface entertainment. I dig that.

I’ve always had a soft spot for ghosts, monsters and the supernatural, growing up on old black and white horror movies playing on TV Saturday afternoons. Eventually, I graduated to the modern classics (The Exorcist, The Thing, Halloween, Legend of Hell House, Evil Dead)… but now ‘horror’ movies are, well, different and not too much to my liking, with the good being few and far between. For the good recently, check out the original Thai, Shutter, and completely ignored Session 9. I really like atmosphere and I think I’d really like to do a creepy, atmospheric scary movie… Unfortunately, for the modern ‘torture’ horror crowd, that probably translates to boredom.

TN: Your film, A Month of Hungry Ghosts, is opening in theatres come August 7. What inspired you to make this film?

TK: Well, I once asked Genevieve to tell me about some supernatural concepts in Singaporean culture over coffee and she brought up Hungry Ghost Month. I was instantly fascinated by the idea that the wandering spirits would be gracing the island with their presence for an entire month… and people kept them well fed and entertained in the process. I know, I know, to the local Singaporean… borrrrring. But I think just having been recently enlightened about the seventh month practices and jumping into the project objectively with an open mind, we were able to capture and present the activities and ideas of the Hungry Ghost Month in a way, that perhaps, Singaporeans haven’t seen. Believe it or not.

TN: The film was shot in 2005. Do you have any fond or even ‚spooky memories during the production?

TK: Oh yes… many… on both accounts. Of course, for me… all the spooky memories were also fond! During the Invitation of the Spirits, I became momentarily entranced by something in the woods. Luckily the Lama turned back and saw me standing alone in the dark (completely ignoring my camera!) and helped snap me out of it. That’s the short version of the story. Enough to make me a believer. And that was only on the Eve of the seventh month. I still had 30 days to go.

However, I think maybe one of the spookiest things about the whole experience was how Gen and I were able to capture so much on film without much preparation. It seemed like we were simply directed along a path and one thing lead to another, beyond our control. When I look back, I don’t think we could capture everything we did, even if we sat down and planned it all.

As for fond memories… that’s easy… all the people we met along the way. The Singapore heartlanders and everyone who allowed us to film. Seriously, you do not get this sort of cooperation and enthusiasm in the states. I was not only completely welcomed by the heartlanders, I was shoved closer and closer to everything that was happening. Aunties and uncles were directing me on the shooting of the film. I was very afraid I would be shunned and turned away from shooting, but everything just worked out beautifully and each connection lead to another.

hg.jpgTN: Why did you decide to package it as a documentary rather than a fictional feature ‚ based on a true story?

TK: Initially, this footage was just for research for a film I wanted to make involving the Hungry Ghost Month. I simply couldn’t believe someone hadn’t made such a film. So after quitting my job and coming here to do the research, I discovered Kelvin Tong’s The Maid was about to be released. So we decided to just keep shooting ‘the research’, including an interview with Kelvin, and just go with the flow. Having compiled 60 hours of footage, I thought it would be a heartbreaking waste to not share the footage with the public, so I had to make a final choice in December 2007… drop everything and do it or not. So I just did it. This is basically our home movie of the Hungry Ghost Month in 2005. As for the fictional feature… could still happen at some point… but I need some help.

TN: Also, why did you choose the Hungry Ghost Festival out of all the other festivals in Singapore?

TK: Hungry Ghosts Festival was the first I knew about for one. The supernatural, ghosts, cemeteries, Demon King… come on what more did I need? But seriously, I have actually shot some footage for Thaipusam, but it’s piled up with all of my other unused footage in the closet. When you realise that for a project like A Month of Hungry Ghosts, I had to work on it full-time for a year and half without pay or grants or any other production help beside Genevieve, I think you can understand why I can’t crank out films about all the festivals in Singapore! And honestly, I don’t think I’m interested to do another feature documentary anytime soon. I want to do a fantastical narrative with a script.

TN: When you first decided to come to Singapore to do your film, what was your first impression of Singapore’s Film Industry?

TK: Well, when I first arrived I knew very little about Singapore’s film industry to be honest. I knew only that Raintree had helped produced the original The Eye, which I really liked, so I just figured there would be good stuff being produced. I started reading about Eric Khoo, Royston Tan, Jack Neo and Martyn See in the papers and online and sought out their movies and was not disappointed. Then Kelvin Tong released The Maid, which was great fun and recently Li Lin Wee’s Gone Shopping captured my heart. I’ve been thinking that the Singapore film scene is very much making me think of the Austin film scene in the 1990s. Actually, truth be told, having no mentor, I’ve been trying to learn from the films and filmmakers in Singapore more than anything lately. It just seems so much more real and attainable than the Hollywood scene, and more fertile than any of the indie scenes in the states right now. I get the feeling that there are a lot of talented young filmmakers here that are going to start making some amazing films and the scene here is really going to take off. I just hope I can be a part of it and not let it all pass me by!

TN: Share with us your filming experience in Singapore so far, perhaps in relation to filming in the US.

TK: Well, for too many months it’s just mainly been in a dark editing room. With A Month of Hungry Ghosts and The Mitre Spell short documentary it’s just been coincidence that Singapore has collided with a brief documentary phase in my career. Somehow, I have managed to bump into a lot of other filmmakers here and what I find striking is that they have mostly been very friendly and open and helpful. And the same goes for the cinema distributors here as well. Would I be able to get a cinema chain in the states to look at my incomplete feature documentary for potential screening in a few months? Not likely. Would I be able to get distribution with a theater like Sinema in the states with the painless effort of submitting a digital file made on my home computer? Don’t think so. Sure, I think most filmmakers would love to have the Hollywood budget and get a crack at the big show, but I think that is unfortunately the sole focus of a lot of independent producers in the states and that doesn’t necessarily equate to good films. That mentality and focus also breeds a lot of exploitive producers and so far I see no signs of that here. In Singapore the focus is about making the film you want to make… and there are good potential outlets to get it seen. If nothing else, that is a great launching pad to the rest of the world.

The other great thing about the film community here in Singapore is where else can you meet Royston at a small seminar and rave about 881, or go up and ask Li Lin about her scriptwriting process, interview Kelvin on the fly for your documentary, and get Jack Neo to make a cameo appearance in your next film? Okay, that last one didn’t really happen… yet.

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