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Wrapping up Carrot Cake [Part 1]

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It is a surreal feeling this: to find myself back in New York in the biting cold, reflecting on the last four and a half years since I begun work on The CCC. I’m thinking about the next chapter of my life, and where the story would unfold – whether it be back in Singapore or here. The debate rages on in my mind as I traverse the familiar streets that I love, and at times, I have to stop to remind myself that I am supposed to be on holiday.

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Everyone starts out in the arts with a naïveté: passion (I hate this word) is all it takes to have a fulfilling career in the arts. However, as the years tick by, and as your bank account runs dry, it dawns on you what a difficult proposition a life in the arts is. Passion doesn’t pay the bills, and rejection happens more often in a day than you had ever imagined it’d happen in a lifetime, and that the words ‘fulfilling’ and ‘career’ rarely come together.

We all know how difficult a life in the arts is, let alone one in Singapore, so rather than harp on the obvious, let us try to be constructive and figure out a way to make your journey in making a feature film simpler.

Rule Number #1: Make it for cheaper!

Even before you determine the budget of your film, you have to think about how much it will need to make at the box office before you begin to earn a profit. The general rule of thumb is that in order to turn a profit, the film has to earn three times its budget at the box office.

Making a high budget film in Singapore is as lucrative as setting up a shoe shop in the middle of the Sahara. You have to make your film for cheap, especially if you are making your first feature film, because you are bound to make mistakes that comes with inexperience, as I did.

I met Eric Khoo before I began pre-production on my film and I told him of my proposed budget of $350,000 and my 14-day shooting schedule and the first thing he told me was: “Do it for $200,000 and shoot it in 7 days.”
And although I did not think it was possible to do The CCC under those constraints, he was right, and I will never do another film in Singapore for more than $200,000. You have to give yourself a fighting chance of earning some kind of profits within Singapore and not bank on an international distribution to earn back your investment.

Artistic constraints breeds artistic creativity.

Singapore is yet to make a film that has as much resonance in the international market as Brazil’s City of God, Germany’s The Lives of Others, Korea’s Old Boy, and there are many reasons for this: our education system, our ability and professionalism as filmmakers, our anti-creative monopolistic studio system. But I feel that this great Singapore film is just around the corner and I dare make these predictions about it:

1. That it will not be an action/adventure film. Simply because, with our limited budgets, Hollywood is always going to make a car explode better than we can.

2. That it will not be an animation. Simply because anything we do will be compared to the animation of Pixar and as such will always come across as inferior, unless of course we create our own unique brand of animation similar to what France accomplished with Persepolis and The Triplets of Belleville, or Japan with Spirited Away. This may actually be an interesting alternative for filmmakers to explore given that there is quite a vibrant underground comic scene in Singapore.

3. That it will be an independent film somewhat similar to Juno, Lars and the Real Girl, Little Miss Sunshine.

In these couple of years, there has been a splinter in the kind of films that are made in the US. While there are more epic trilogies, there has also been an interesting resurgence in independent films. Look at the films that have been nominated in the last couple of years for Best Screenplay – other than the three mention above, they are The Savages, Away From Her, The Squid and The Whale. Singapore filmmakers are in the position to write stories like these; stories that are true to Singapore life and yet as pertinent to a Panamanian as it is to us. If Kevin Smith could shoot Clerks for $40,000, there is really no excuse why we cannot do something similar for less.

Rule Number #2: It’s more about who you know.

It is the way of the world that people who know people advance way quicker than people who don’t, and while it may seem to some a disadvantage, it can work to your favour, especially if you are a genuinely nice person. I served coffee to a lady who would eventually play a pivotal role in my career as a filmmaker, and one of the first thing she ever taught me was that “people don’t want to invest your films, they want to invest in you.”

Chance happens by chance and at the end of the day, you have to realise that the people that can help you most in your career are the people that you cannot recognize. But then again, if you are only nice because you want to have you career advanced, you’ve got another thing coming altogether.

Michael Wang is the director of the film The Carrot Cake Conversation, and is currently enjoying his time (or rather, holiday) in New York as he pens a 3-part wrap up to the year of 2008 (and yes, the photo is current). More to follow!

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