Ellery Ngiam, 27, made his first film Crammed (image at left) in 2003 after winning $2,000 at a lottery. This short film won him the Asian New Force IFVA Critics Award at the 2003 Hong Kong Independent Short Film & Video Festival.
Since then, this NYU film graduate been on a roll, making another short film Jia Fu (Family Portrait) in 2004, which picked up two more awards, including Best Film at the WorldFest Houston International Film Festival. He was also Objectifs Filmmaker-In-Residence in July-September 2006.
Tell us more about your work.
I am a hyphenate — people usually hire me as a writer-director. I love both these job scopes, but I usually write scripts with the intention of directing them. I’m a control freak so I really do enjoy directing. While I love writing a lot, I could never just do scriptwriting because the pay is crap. Authorship is not regarded highly in Singapore.
Why do you think the pay is low for scriptwriters here?
People don’t realise that there is a lot of research and legwork involved to produce a script. You need to go out and talk to people. It’s not just research over the Internet. But most people think it’s just about churning out words on the computer.
Why did you choose to build your filmmaking career in Singapore after you graduated from NYU in 2000?
I wanted to gain as much experience as possible. Since the film industry here is less competitive, it would increase my chances of being able to work my way up as a director. When I first came back, I was a set dresser in Jack Neo’s Best Bet and worked in the art department of the Hong Kong film, Rice Rhapsody. I also learned a lot as 2nd AD in Djinn’s Perth. If I had gone to LA after school, I’d still be mopping the floors of some restaurant.
Well, for the movie Crammed (about an overworked boy who overdoses on Panadol), the lines his mother says are exactly what were being said to me as a student. For Jia Fu (about a family who loses all their possessions on the eve of Chinese New Year, image at right), I wanted to reflect this certain loss of confidence that Singapore has never really recovered from since the ’97 recession — we are no longer as frivolous and decadent.
Despite winning so many accolades abroad, you’re not exactly a household name here. Why do you think this is so?
I guess I’m not so good at being a media whore. Don’t get me wrong, I think publicity is great, but it’s not my personality to source for press coverage. I believe that journalists will approach me themselves if they find me interesting enough. I’ve been interviewed by a Spanish radio station and taken part in an Albanian talk show while participating in foreign film festivals. Those were fun.
What other projects are you working on now?
I’m in the midst of postproduction for 2 short films — Dance of a Modern Marriage and 3 for a Dollar. I am also hoping to turn my script Forgotten Tears (which won a Gold Award at the MDA National Scriptwriting Competition in 2004 and Best Screenplay at the Asian American International Film Festival in 2005) into a feature film, so I’m currently trying to raise money for it. Personal projects aside, I’m also directing 2 documentaries — one on online gaming in Vietnam and another about expatriates in India.
Any tips for aspiring filmmakers here?
- Have something you want to say, don’t just take up space, which is what a lot of movies are like these days.
- Experience as many things as possible. For me, I love to travel and visit museums. I also try and find out more about art and architecture since these are my interests.
- Discipline — that’s what gets you hired at the end of the day. Passion is overrated.
Ellery’s films are available for purchase from Objectifs Films.