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“No other festival can replace SIFF!”

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Interview with Singapore Film Awards Winner, Royston Tan

Mathias Ortmann (MO): To be honest, I wanted to begin this interview by asking about your latest film. But there is none! Shockingly, you haven’t come up with a new feature yet. So, can you please tell us why is that? What have you been up to recently and what keeps you busy these days?

Royston Tan (RT): I stretched myself quite a lot the last 2 years doing my two commercial films. It was like that, I just work. So this year, I slow my pace and try to be not just driven to come up with another product. I use the time for self reflection. And I do some short film projects that I wanted to do. Going back to basic, I think. Next I will do something very close to my heart. It is racing against time; so, ya, there’s a little hint…

MO: To compensate, you have served on the SIFF shortlist panel for the Short Film Competition this year, evaluating over 90 entries. You have told me of your concern about what you call a drop in quality in short films from Singapore as compared to previous years. What do you observe, precisely?

RT: Just from the feedback that I get from people and programmers, there seems to be a slump in quality and in quantity in Singapore short films. Some programmers are disappointed by what they get. This is now the third batch of people, young filmmakers, who want to continue. I’m most concerned about the quality.

MO: We are currently going through this global recession and economic downturn; MDA have restructured, the policy might change; new funds and programmes have been put into place; a big scale new studio is currently under construction and will transform the local filmmaking landscape. In a word: conditions are changing. How are the challenges different today, particularly for a new-comer? What remains the same?

RT: In the past what the government did was about building an industry and to cultivate a film culture. And there was less distinction between the commercial viability and what there is in a film. I think they should continue with the travelling grant. Because what’s a film without the face of a director? It would be a pity if filmmakers couldn’t go to attend the festivals any more. Making films and short films is not a stock exchange. It takes time to mature. But generally, I think that currency comes in different forms.

MO: In the remote kingdom of Bhutan, the government is pledged to a philosophy of enhancing not just GDP, but also Gross National Happiness (GNH). How do you think the index stands in Singapore?

RT: I read that Singapore is the second most stressful city to live in. The most stressful one being Tokyo, I think. So we can’t be that happy.

MO: Then, what is there to hold on to? Personally, what keeps you going?

RT: Just going around and watching, you can see the emotions, many different sorts of emotions in people. To me unhappiness is like a perfect playground to be creative and come up with ideas for my films.

MO: Are you optimistic for the future of Singaporean film? If so, why?

RT: I am. Because people are willing to come out of their comfort zone to be honest in what they do. I can still see this in the young filmmakers now. They are still willing to really make their short film and give everything for their films.

MO: Why is SIFF important?

RT: SIFF is very important. It discovered Eric [Khoo], Kelvin [Tong], Jack [Neo], me and a lot of people. SIFF is an ideal place for learning about film and cinema for young people. And then, there is this huge respect that they have for the films and the filmmakers with their “No Cuts” policy. When there are cuts it just shows you how little respect the censors have for the people. There is really no other festival can replace SIFF! No other festival can bring the industry together like this. And it is only for SIFF that everybody, all the filmmakers come together and help out. The government should invest their money in SIFF and nothing else.

MO: You have been going through something of a dry spell recently, notably as regards winning awards. But this year’s SIFF you have been awarded Best Director at the newly established Singapore Film Awards – Congratulations! At what stage of your professional career do you see yourself at this point?

RT: I am buying ammunition. Because of my last two feature films, 881 and 12 Lotus have been very commercial; so I have been out of the circuit for a while. After that, for the end of last year and through February, I have been giving my body a rest. For three months I have not been doing anything, and I really enjoyed it. Actually, you are still doing something. It’s just not crystallized yet.

MO: Among the total of five nominations you got, there was the noteworthy feat of getting two of the cast placed on the bill for “Best Performance”. Apparently, you got it right, as far as the acting goes. Can you please give us your perspective on the general situation of professional screen actors here in Singapore? Is there a shortage of real talent?

RT: As a director for me it is about bringing the actors to not go into TV or theatre acting when I work with them for my films. It always takes a whole workshop to unlearn them. But no, there is not a shortage of good actors here. We are a people of 4 million and I refuse to believe that there is not 20 who can act.

MO: From the point of view of a director, what is it you are looking for in your cast?

RT: They need to be comfortable with themselves. They have to be comfortable when acting in the role for the camera; but first and foremost they really have to be comfortable with themselves. Then I must feel that we are friends. That’s how I work with my cast in my films, we become like close friends. And there can be no super star nonsense, you know what I mean? So, I am always looking for the chemistry. There must be a chemistry there, that’s how it is.

MO: When you cast for a specific role you have in your mind and probably already outlined in a script of yours, what catches your attention in an actor/actress?

RT: There is always some kind of magnetic charm that I believe everybody has. And there are many different kinds of it. The unspoken, this is what catches my attention. For my films in the past I mostly cast the not so perfect looking people. They tend to be pleasant looking, yes, but not perfect. There is always some kind of a flaw that I see, or a scar. And when I see people, usually, I have some sort of x-ray eyes. I will see right beyond the face and look into their mind and see a whole life story.

MO: How important is the “star factor”?

RT: Not very important. It can be important, but it definitely is not on top. If it was about stars and celebrities, I would go to Hong Kong or Taiwan or any other place and I would just import talent. But it is mostly their capability to deliver for their role what I am looking for.

MO: What is it that you can do, as a director, to improve the authenticity of a performance and get your cast to perform to the best of their ability?

RT: The first thing is they have to be hardworking. They have to be very hardworking and get to read into their role for themselves. Rather than me helping them, I let them do their part and work it out. Sometimes I only I trigger them by a word or something, and then they tell me who the character is.

MO: Has it ever happened that one actor surprised you with a delivery of their part that exceeded your expectations, even made you understand something about the character you didn’t really know before? Can you describe?

RT: Yes, definitely. Obviously I would know my characters very well and what their emotions are. But when you go into the details of the characters, then the actors can be even more sensitive. They spend so much more time with their role and reading the script. On shoot it is then in how they present their emotions and their part, yes.

MO: It has previously been announced that you are going to direct a stage musical, “Broadway Beng 4” (BB4), slated for a premiere at the Esplanade in December this year. What tempted you to do this project?

RT: Well, Selena Tan is the one who is going to produce it. And she wanted me to do it. And I had also wanted to do something else maybe, this year. Then I wanted to have something at the Esplanade, yeah! It is the different form to direct for the stage that attracts me.

MO: A musical without girls would obviously be dull. So, what about those Ah-Lians, then? Will you finally do them justice?

RT: We have eight of them inside and we have them in all shapes and sizes and colours. There will be an excessive number of Ah-lians in this one.

MO: How are you involved in the writing of the play for BB4?

RT: Yes I am involved in the writing. I have actually already started writing. But the soul of the musical is Sebastian Tan, the lead. He will be the lead Ah-beng on the stage, and a bit crazy, and he will laugh and cry, everything. You will see.

MO: Regarding Ah-Beng culture of the 90s and that of today, is there a difference?

RT: I am a retired Beng [laughs]! Obviously, the dress sense have changed and how they carry themselves. But the one thing that never change is their taste in car (and I shouldn’t mention any brand names not to get sued…)

MO: What about the language used in BB4, will it be in Singlish, or Hokkien?

RT: Hokkien. It will be in Hokkien and Singlish. This is like it was in the previous instalments; there will be no departure from the formula.

MO: You’ve made some moves before to become more outreaching in your work but at the same time immersed yourself to some extent in local culture, such as Wayang Opera and Getai. Which direction can we expect Royston’s BB4 to take?

RT: It is reaching out to new people. Theatre people has always been a group that I wanted to reach out to. For me, this is an opportunity to introduce them to my work and make myself known to them. They are mostly working class people that will go to the theatre to have an evening there and just enjoy. And it will be a new group. I am always up for new challenges.

MO: To round it off, here is one of my dreaded catalogues for you to complete:

How do you react to these statements:

That Royston Tan in his films grossly misrepresents the racial, social and cultural fabric of present day Singapore?

RT: Isn’t it wonderful? It makes you a bit less worried.

That Royston Tan today can no longer be rightfully considered an “independent filmmaker”?

RT: But I am still very dependent on funding for my films. I am as independent as one is independent in Singapore.

That Singapore cinema is so healthy already it no longer has a need for either Royston Tan or Eric Khoo to lead the way?

RT: Then it is time to close down the board of censors.

That there is only one local director, Jack Neo, whose films you watch; the rest all sucks?

RT: Amen!

That Singapore is one big happy nation under the sun?

RT: We would be happier if we would all bomb the ERPs.

That you are a role model?

RT: Amy Chua and the board of censors fits the role better.

That you have become very cautious to publicly speak your mind?

RT: I am just too tired to talk!

The question you keep asking yourself the most these days?

RT: Why am I still making films?

MO: Thank you Royston for taking the time!

SIFF Photo Credits: Deanna Ng

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