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Interview with Joshua Lim, director of “The Olive Depression”

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Mathias Ortmann (MO): To begin, my congratulations on your small but intense film “The Olive Depression”!

Joshua Lim (JL): Thank you very much.

odm1.jpgMO: I understand that The Olive Depression (OD) has been entirely self-financed which – without going into the numbers here – certainly is no small feat. What gave you the confidence to do it?

JL: I remembered talking to my DP, Lawson Deming, in LA. He had shot at least five of my student films. I told him that I wanted to make a film about the weeks before conscription in Singapore. I told him I had no money and no equipment but I will finish the project even if it meant that we needed to shoot on miniDV. I asked him if he would be interested. He said, “let’s do it.” So it started from there.

MO: You didn’t enlist the help of the army for your film. But did you try to? How then (and where) did you manage to shoot the final scenes in camp and the barracks?

JL: I did. In fact, they were extremely cooperative and even offered to provide personnel so that the movie looked more authentic. This was the scene in CMPB. The army camp we shot in had closed already so I believe we got permission from the URA.

MO: The project as a whole from first idea to the final edit – how long did it take?

JL: 4 years.

MO: Did you consult with anybody about your script, the first stages of drafting, possibly?

JL: No.

MO: How personal an account is your film? The conflict explored – was it your own struggle as well?

JL: It is personal but it is also fiction.

MO: There is a remarkable absence of music throughout most of the picture, underscoring the leanness of the movie. Did you at any point consider using a proper score or even “experiment” during editing?

JL: I do have a proper score! It was composed and conducted by Nathan Matthew David. As for the sparseness of the odm2.jpgscore, it was a decision that was arrived by both of us.

MO: What about the conversations which make up the bulk of OD: Did you work on their lines with your actors? How much of it was already in the script, word by word, and how did you direct their dialogues?

JL: I instructed the actors not to memorise any lines and only to read the script at most, twice. Learning of the lines was done during rehearsals on set through a series of improvisations. Sometimes lines were changed according to what seemed more authentic. During the takes, I leave it up to my Script Supervisors to direct the text while I was focusing on the subtext.

MO: One of the qualities of the film, I think, is its very real and credible cast, notwithstanding the fact that not all performances are exactly stellar. Can you please tell us a bit about casting the roles for OD

JL: I held auditions and chose the best ones. I wanted authentic performances and not ‘look-at-me’ acting.  Yes, ‘look-at-me’ acting can also be nice to watch but I hate it. If anything, I would err on the side of the actors being empty vessels (à la Bresson) than being dramatic.

MO: Very specifically, where did you “find” Ooi Jian Yuan and what made you choose him for your lead?

JL: He turned up for the audition. I am not sure how he knew about it. I chose him because he had the ability to affect whomever he was performing with. This is very important for a good performance.

odm3.jpgMO: If you compare Trevor and Johnny, it will seem that Trevor is having an even harder time of it. Would you expect your character Johnny to be more adaptable after all?Â

JL: Yes, Johnny is the more adaptable of the two.

MO: You are no longer 18 yourself but much matured from the mindset you tried to depict in OD. How difficult was it for you to not get ahead of your fictional characters and how did you do it?

JL: I don’t know to be honest. I just write and put myself in the shoes of my characters the best I can like any other writer.

MO: Quite a number of films from Singapore address issues of National Service or stories to revolve around the army as of late, if only loosely. Royston Tan has done “After The Rain”, Brian Gothong Tan has an army strand run through his debut “Invisible Children”, and then there are “Keluar Baris” by Boo Junfeng and your own film, of course. Do you want to try an explanation, and do you think that there is more to explore about the topic, still?

JL: There are so many stories that can be told with regards to NS, I don’t ever think it will be exhausted.

MO: How much of a politically aware (or driven) filmmaker are you? Generally speaking, what is it film can achieve?

JL: I am weary of the ability of film to achieve anything. I have never watched a film that single-handedly changed my views or opinions so I do not expect my film or any film to do that. However, I do know that I have seen movies which I know my life would be much less if I had not seen them.

MO: In retrospect, has it been worth it? Is there a way you can sum up the experience into one condensed piece of effectual wisdom? Any advice you might want to share with fellow filmmakers who are keen on embarking on making their first feature?

JL: It is. Every film I have ever made from film school to this has given me a reason to live. Perhaps one thing I can share is that the director is the loneliest person on the set so it helps to have one person (on the set) you can confide in and share your creative dreams with.

MO: What is your favourite Singaporean film? Do you have one?

JL: I have not seen many to be honest. But of those I have seen, my favourite one is ‘I Not Stupid.’

MO: What is a “Singaporean film” anyway by your definition?odm4.jpg

JL: I don’t have one. It would be great if Singaporean cinema can grow and mark its own movement. Then, a Singaporean film will have both content and form that is worth studying for an outsider.

MO: You are currently studying in Pasadena, California; how long will it be before you’re finished? Do you plan to go back to Singapore, and do you personally foresee a future in its local film scene?

JL: One more year. I definitely want to make another “Singaporean film.”

MO: Finally, the obvious question: What are your next projects, in filmmaking and/or beyond?

JL: I am in pre-production for a film that I will shoot here in LA.

The Olive Depression is now showing in Sinema OldSchool.Â

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